Members of the cast and creative team of the upcoming stop-motion animated feature film The Boxtrolls beat the Saturday afternoon heat last month at Comic-Con International in San Diego by engaging in a series of roundtable interviews inside the Hilton Bayfront hotel. The film marks the latest unbelievable cinematic achievement from Laika, the animation studio that previously dazzled audiences with Coraline and ParaNorman. This time around, the company’s classic-yet-revolutionary animation process has been applied to selections from Alan Snow’s illustrated novel Here Be Monsters!
The Boxtrolls tells the story of Eggs (Isaac Hempstead-Wright), a feral child raised underground by the hideous-yet-lovable Boxtrolls. Sharing the spotlight is Winnie Portley Rind, a feisty 9-year-old girl with wild red hair voiced by Elle Fanning. Unlike Eggs, who has a supportive family in the Boxtrolls, Winnie has a less than desirable home life.
“Winnie’s father is very much an absentee father,” co-director Anthony Stacchi said. “Consequently, she’s sort of has these daydreams. She’s obsessed with the gory details of what Boxtrolls do with the children they kidnap. She imagines the Boxtrolls doing it to her parents.”
The vicious lies about the Boxtrolls predilection for stealing children get started by Archibald Snatcher, a lowly pest exterminator that targets the innocent Boxtrolls for persecution for his own gain.
“He is a social climber,” said Ben Kingsley, who voices Snatcher. “It’s as if he spends a lot of his energy trying to join that club that doesn’t really want him to join. He wants to be a central part of the mayor of the town and the people surrounding the mayor of the town. It’s a small, exclusive clique that runs the community and he desperately wants to be part of it.”
The all-star cast has quite a diverse background; Hempstead-Wright comes from Game of Thrones, Fanning has a resume as long as an actor twice her age and rose to prominence this summer playing Sleeping Beauty in Maleficent, and Kingsley — well, he’s Sir Ben Kingsley. The actors all signed on to The Boxtrolls based purely on their affection for Laika’s work. “I love Laika,” Kingsley said. “I like Coraline immensely. They are quite fearless in family movies of putting light and shade together.”
Fanning might have had another reason for signing onto the picture, just based on Internet search results from her childhood. “I love miniature things,” Fanning revealed. “When I was little I used to go online and look up miniature dollhouse items. I was fascinated with stuff that was so small. I got some like, little Wonderbread when I was little and that was my prized possession because it had the Wonderbread [logo] on it with all the details.”
Casting animated pictures can be quite a tough job, as producer Travis Knight explained. “Because they’re just supplying their voice, you end up listening to these things like you would a band or an orchestra,” Knight said. “They each have their own instrument that should occupy their own oral space, so you end up just listening to voices through interviews and through different roles that they’ve done in TV and film. Does it have its own distinctive quality? Will it occupy it’s own space within the film? And then you look at that voice disconnected from anything they’ve done physically right next to a character design. Does that feel like that character?”
Designing the characters also came a little bit later in the game. To make the look of The Boxtrolls even more cohesive, the production design team decided to work in reverse. “Very early on we had the look that we wanted for the world, which is a little bit backwards,” said Stacchi. “You usually start with characters and then you design the world after the characters. We basically knew what [the characters’] shapes would be like by getting them stylistically to fit into the world. That took a longer time.”
When it came to designing characters to fit into the already created world, the Boxtrolls themselves proved to be toughest creatures to create. “There were points when we were designing them and I was showing designs to Travis and they were much more like pandas,” Stacchi said. “They had marking son their faces, they were cuter, they were adorable. We hadn’t found that awkward, ugly place.”
Co-director Graham Annable added to Stacchi’s statement, saying that making the Boxtrolls the exact right kind of ugly was integral to the plot. “Part of the story is that the town believes them to be horrible child-stealing monsters, so they needed to be in that range where you could believe the credibility of that story that Snatcher’s selling the town on.”
The lengthy design process that is typical for Laika’s productions came as a bit of a surprise to Fanning, who had to voice the majority of Winnie’s lines without having a firm visual for her character. “When I got the script it came with a big book of drawings and designs, kind of what they wanted,” Fanning said. “Each time you’d go in to do the voiceover they’d have a little bit more for you to take from. One of my last sessions I went in, they had my puppet, Winnie, the actual one right there.”
As Hempstead-Wright recalled, recording in a studio provided its own unique set of obstacles. “You’re in a studio with sort of sterile walls and you’re not on a set in a costume feeling as though you’re a part of the action,” he said. “And also the fact that you’re putting it all through your voice, and there isn’t the rest of your body to portray an emotion or whatever. That challenge was quite easily overcome because the directors were so excellent at being able to communicate exactly what was going through Eggs’ mind.”
Kingsley, tasked with playing a character possessing drastically different physical proportions from himself, had his own way of dealing with the studio — one that proved to be quite unconventional. “I worked in a studio that I know quite well, and they know me quite well, the technicians and the guys who run it,” Kingsley explained. “The Laika people came to the studio in England. In order to exactly get that voice to come from a different part of me, I did most of my recording reclining. So they rigged up the microphone so that I could completely [recline], not a tense bone in my body—completely relaxed. It did help a lot.”
“I’d never heard that before,” Stacchi said with a residual trace of disbelief. “The booth where he was recording was so small I didn’t even think it was possible.”
“That was unexpected, but equally unexpected was the actual performance that he gave,” Knight added. “When he showed up at the studio, in his head he completely knew who that character was and it was shocking to us because it wasn’t necessarily what we had expected, and yet as soon as we heard it we knew it was perfect.”
At the end of the roundtable, co-director Anthony Stacchi rattled off an impressive list of statistics breaking down The Boxtrolls production and putting into perspective just how much work went into the film:
- 200 puppets (including 28 Eggs puppets)
- 53,000 separate faces were printed
- Lead character Eggs had 1.4 million different expressions available, compared to Coraline’s 207,000
- 20,000 discreet objects
- 79 sets
- 26 locations
All of these items were manipulated and brought to life by a team of 30 animators whose work will be unboxed when The Boxtrolls hits theaters on Sept. 26.