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Interview: Director Graham Annable talks The Boxtrolls

With the menagerie of weird creatures and peculiar characters, the third stop motion animated feature from Laika studios after Coraline and Paranormal, could have featured rabbit women, sea cows, and cabbage heads.

Nearly ten years ago, the idea to adapt Alan Snow’s illustrated novel Here Be Monsters! arose, but finding the right tone and selecting the right characters was especially tricky. After all, the story that takes place in the fictional English town of Rathbridge told about a boy and his adoptive grandfather living in the sewers, a nefarious Cheese Guild, a rat-run Laundromat, a person named Archibald Snatcher and another known as ‘The Great One.’

“As wonderful as Snow’s book is, it’s pretty tough thing to translate into an animated feature,” explained Graham Annabel. “Part of its charm and appeal is that every page, there is a brand new character and scenario, and just and endless cast of incredibly ideas and creatures. It works great as a children’s book, but more difficult to wrangle into an animated feature.”

The finished feature is called The Boxtrolls, a beautifully-animated and indeed strange and wonderful adventure that alters the original story to focus solely on these titular green sewer-dwellers and their relation with the human world. Co-director Anthony Stacchi had been developing the project many years back when Laika was first working on Coraline. Annable, a Sheridan College alum who worked 14 years at Lucas Arts before heading to Portland Oregon with Laika, and who had worked on both previous features, came on board initially as a Head of Story, a job that quickly morphed in co-director.

During a lull while working on Paranorman, Annable, a Sault Ste Marie native, got a chance to do storyboarding for the feature, a feature still without an exact tone and story. “I immediately gravitated to the Boxtrolls,” he explained during an interview back in April while in Toronto. “Here are these creatures that don’t use any discernible language, so everything had to be pantomime and expressions to have them emote and communicate ideas, which were exactly totally up my alley.”

“I loved that they were these quiet, timid, naïve little guys that didn’t really understand their place but knew they wanted to collect junk and make these crazy contraptions in their cavern,” he continued. “I like their shyness of how they deal with situations, hiding in the boxes. It’s always been about the Boxtrolls.”

With Stacchi getting access to a board artist, having previously just worked through scripts, the story got the visual medium it deserved, and proved why it should become a heartfelt, zany action adventure stop motion animated feature.

Bringing to life the Here Be Monsters! as The Boxtrolls was an exciting beginning for Annable, and while it’s to his credit that the feature found a look and feel, being a director was unchartered territory.

Once in production, Annable explained, there was no break. “Everyday is about maximizing time, someone has to keep everything rolling. The amount of decisions you have to make in that role gets mind-numbing; I was thinking ‘I’m not sure I’m going to last.’”

“I never felt that way in my career; I’ve always been able to draw my way through.” Annable continued. “Whatever the problem was, I would be able to draw my way through it. Here I was in a position where that wasn’t going to help.”

Annable gives Stacchi much thanks in talking him down from the ledge at times, as well as the advice he got when you signed on. “Everyone said just to remember it’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, so pace yourself through this thing. It takes so long to do a simple thing.”

The shot schedule for the animation took over two years, and even as Annable sat down to chat in April, he still had three months of post production left. What he did not mention, and was only learned after screening the film this September, is that a post credits scene in Boxtrolls offers a fascinating (and funny) look at just out meticulous the work done is.

“Stop motion…” Annable began, “it really combines the worst aspects of live action and animation with none of the benefits. It’s a bizarre medium.” As he explained, one can’t do reshoots or get coverage like in live action, and unlike 2D or CG animation, stop motion can’t really be tweaked and whittled after the fact. While work is done post-production, the pressure is on during the actual shoot.

“It’s like opening a present,” he explained. “You’re terrified and so excited to see what the results are going to be.”

That result is indeed a decidedly offbeat tale about box trolls, cheese, white hats, and paranoia.

“It’s a Dickensian steam punk adventure,” offered Annable, citing it doesn’t quite have the dark edge possessed by Coraline and Paranorman. “It has a crazy energy to it. There is a real strong emotional quality, there is a real sense of consequences to the film, that the heroes can truly be in real danger and bad things can happen. Tonally it’s a very different piece than the other two; it’s a much more action and adventure.”

The heart comes from a boy, named Eggs after the box he wears, being raised by the Boxtrolls in the cavern. The two main characters are known as Fish and Shoe, and they and their brethren scavenge while avoiding hunters above ground. And these hunters want respect so they can dine on fine cheese. Of course.

“It feels like a stop motion movie terry Gilliam might have made.” Indeed it does.

Anthony Marcusa

A pop-culture consumer, Anthony seeks out what is important in entertainment and mocks what is not. Inspired by history, Anthony writes with the hope that someone, somewhere, might be affected.