Laika, the studio behind Coraline and ParaNorman shared behind-the-scenes details of their upcoming film, “The Boxtrolls” from within Comic-Con International’s infamous Hall H on Saturday.
Moderated by Fandango’s Dave Karger, the panel featured Laika President and CEO and the film’s producer Travis Knight, directors Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable and voice actors Isaac Hempstead-Wright, Elle Fanning, and Sir Ben Kingsley. Based on the book “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow, The Boxtrolls is the story of an orphan boy raised by scavenging trolls and his attempt to reintegrate with the human world while protecting his adoptive family.
Karger began the panel by asking Knight what it was about the story that inspired Laika to adapt it into a film.
“We started working on Here Be Monsters! almost ten years ago,” said Knight. “It had these kind of whispers of this classic stuff that I grew up loving, like Roald Dahl and bits of Monty Python entwined in it with Charles Dickens, that sort of thing.”
Knight said they began work on the adaptation at the same time they started work on Coraline, and it has taken this long to get to the screen due to the abundance of material.
“It’s this 500-page book. It’s like a phone book. We somehow had to distill the essence of that down to a 90-minute movie,” said Knight. “It took us nearly ten years, but in the end we have something I think that’s really beautiful.”
Combining traditional stop-motion animation with modern CGI, Stacchi explained the process that went into determining the film’s aesthetic.
“This film is probably moreso a hybrid than any other film that Laika has made,” said Stacchi. “With each successive film they’ve incorporated more technology into the process. In this film there probably isn’t a single shot that doesn’t have some sort of CG accompaniment with it.”
About the film’s titular characters, Karger asked Annable what is was that made the Boxtrolls such lovable characters.
“For me, they don’t talk. I don’t like to talk a lot and they don’t talk a lot,” said Annable. “These guys just gurgle and emote with little sounds. Everything is through the acting and the composition.”
Moving on to the voice cast, Karger asked what made the producers choose Kingsley to play the villainous Snatcher.
“Snatcher is designed to be one of the greatest, all-time animated villains, so he’s got to have that sense of malevolence. He’s got to be very intimidating and at the same time there’s sort of degree of vulnerability there,” said Knight. “We needed somebody who could bring all those things to bare. Who could be intimidating. Who could have a bit of a soul underneath it all, and bring some comedy as well. We thought there was absolutely no chance that we would get Ben Kingsley, and when he said ‘yes’ we celebrated throughout the studio.”
“I loved it. It was very liberating just to depend upon my voice,” said Kingsley. “I did most of my recordings lying down, reclining on a kind of sofa bed, because I wanted his voice to come from his belly, not from where my voice normally comes from.”
Fanning, who is following in the footsteps of her older sister and star of Coraline, Dakota Fanning, commented on what it was like to grow up around the stop-motion studio only to get a leading role of her own.
“I went with her down to Portland and looked at all the Coraline stuff when I was really small. I looked at all the puppets and the worlds they created. They were all like little dollhouses,” said Fanning. “For them to ask me to do one and for me to go back down and look at the movie that I did — everything is so unbelievable. It’s the most unthinkable thing I’ve ever seen in my life.”
Hempstead-Wright, who has spent this last few years playing the paralyzed Bran Stark on HBO’s Game of Thrones, was asked about the challenge between using only his upper body on Game of Thrones and just his voice in The Boxtrolls.
“Bran is kind of limited in terms of his paralysis but it doesn’t limit how you express yourself,” said Hempstead-Wright. “It’s not like you’ve just got your face.”
Karger also asked about Hempstead-Wright’s resemblance to Eggs, his character in The Boxtrolls, Eggs, and if it was intentional or not.
“It was more of a coincidence,” said Stacchi. “There’s an old movie that had a little boy in it that I always thought had qualities that Eggs would have so we used him has a reference when we came up with the design of the character. And then we saw Isaac on Game of Thrones and we liked his voice, but it was also startling how much he resembled that character.”
But even if it’s just a voice, the body sometime still gets involved. Kingsley explained how he made the appropriate sounds for when his character has a violent reaction to eating a particular cheese.
“I got my stunt double to do it,” joked Kingsley. “I squished my cheeks up and made my mouth as tiny as possible and squeezed the words through.”
Karger noted the abundance of cheese that appears to be in the movie, and that the plot seems to revolve around it.
“That’s an obsession of Alan Snow’s,” said Stacchi. “It’s even a bigger element in the book. We toned it down. He had live cheeses running around in the wild.”
“Cheese is a symbol for anything that aristocracy values tremendously,” said Knight. “It’s an absurd thing that calls out how absurd that whole idea is.”
After showing a clip from the movie, Karger asked what happens to all of the meticulously crafted sets and props once the film is done shooting.
“Unfortunately a lot of it ends up getting destroyed in the making of the movie,” said Knight. “We build these massive sets that the animators have to animate on, and then as the camera pushes in on various parts of the sequence we actually have to carve the set away to get closer so that the animator can actually get in there and move the puppet around. And so, what starts out as this big massive set, by the end of the sequence a year later there’s very little that remains.”
Before moving on to the audience Q&A portion, Karger asked about Tracy Morgan’s role in the movie and how he was cast among so many English actors.
“His character was initially conceived as a quick guest appearance. He was only supposed to repeat, over and over, the words, ‘very nice, very nice,'” said Stacchi. “We recorded that, and it was very funny, but the stuff that he added to that, the ad-libs that he made, made us not want the character to just use those words.”
Concerning the length of time it takes to produce a stop-motion movie, one audience member asked how Laika stays operational making films that can take a decade to complete.
“When we say it took ten years, we’re talking about the actual development of a project,” said Knight. “I mean, the pace of production on a stop-motion film is glacial, it takes forever to make one of these things. We turn out maybe at our peak a minute to two minutes of footage [per week]. The actual time that we’re shooting is about a year and a half, but the development time at the beginning is probably just a couple of people figuring out how to make the story work.”
Considering everything the panel mentioned about the process of working with stop-motion animation, the next fan asked about any other challenges the team faced in making the movie.
“It’s horrible. It’s the worst way to make a movie. It makes no sense,” joked Knight.
“Look at my face, I’m only twenty years-old,” Stacchi joked.
“It’s painful. You’re contorting your body, you’re burning your fingers, you’re cutting your hands, it’s awful. There’s no reason why you should do this thing,” Knight continued. “And yet, on the other hand, it’s beautiful. To me it’s the most beautiful way to experience a film, because everything has intent. Everything comes from the mind and the hands of an artist. Every little thing is designed, built and manipulated by an artist’s hands.”
Taking a question from Twitter, Fanning was asked if her elder sister had given her any advice when it comes to voice work.
“With me and my sister, we are very kind of separate in our work ways,” said Fanning. “She was happy for me, but she let me do my own thing and create my character. She has Coraline and I have Winnie.”
Noting that The Boxtrolls, like Coraline and ParaNorman before it, features darker humor than is commonly found in animated films, the next audience member asked what draws Laika to that kind of storytelling.
“We’re drawn to the kind of stories that we love,” said Knight. “I think that the best kind of storytelling is dynamic storytelling and has a balance of intensity and warmth, and darkness and light. Unfortunately, not just in animation but in filmmaking generally these days, that is missing in large measure. It’s something we feel is important to telling a good story.”
For the voice actors, the next question was about whether they felt working with only their voice was limiting or liberating.
“I find it more freeing,” said Kingsley. “The beautiful puppetry takes the human form beyond its known limits and the great thrill is that one is allowed to take one’s voice beyond its usual limit, too, so I found it very exciting and very freeing.”
“You can really go all out with it, where as in live-action it’s not actually that big a part of the final performance” said Hempstead-Wright. “It’s great to be able to go 100 percent.”
“With your voice you can kind of get out of the box,” said Fanning, making an unintentional box pun. “You can really just do that line as many times as you like to perfect it.”
Another audience member, interested in the process of stop-motion animation, asked about the techniques and technology used in making The Boxtrolls.
“The technology nowadays is amazing,” said Knight. “You can make a movie with the same kind of tools that we use to make the film just by going to your camera shop. We use digital cameras to shoot the movie. A Canon 5D. You can go to the camera shop and get that right now. You can download the software that we use to shoot the film, Dragon, right from the Internet. It’s stuff that exists. Anybody that has the jones for making stop-motion, it’s all there.”
As far as set production goes, Stacchi explained how little difference there is between designing a set for live action and for stop-motion animation.
“It’s smaller,” said Stacchi. “In every way it’s very similar to production in live-action. It’s a real set that you light with the same kind of lights. It’s just all in miniature.”
After sharing one last clip with the audience, the panel ended with Knight asking the Hall H audience to send their best wishes to Tracy Morgan, who is recovering from a recent automobile accident. The audience thumped their chests like Boxtrolls while Stacchi recorded them for the video.
“And that is why we love you, Hall H,” said Karger.