A few months ago I had the pleasure of going behind the scenes of the new movie Boxtrolls. Boxtrolls will be in theaters September 26th 2014. Boxtrolls is an adorable family event movie from the creators of “Coraline” and “ParaNorman” that introduces audiences to a new breed of family – The Boxtrolls, a community of quirky, mischievous creatures who have lovingly raised an orphaned human boy named Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright) in the amazing cavernous home they’ve built beneath the streets of Cheesebridge. When the town’s villain, Archibald Snatcher (Academy Award winner Ben Kingsley), comes up with a plot to get rid of the Boxtrolls, Eggs decides to venture above ground, “into the light,” where he meets and teams up with fabulously feisty Winnie (Elle Fanning). Together, they devise a daring plan to save Eggs’ family.
I was able to interview Travis Knight and we talked about the making of The Boxtrolls movie. When we were on the set Travis Knight was in the middle of filming one of the final segments. He is not only the CEO of Laika but he still loves to keep his hands in the game with the animation itself. Here are a few of the questions from our interview with him.
How long have you been on this particular set and sequence?
Knight: This is kind of a one-off. It’s a big shot. It’s towards the end of the film. I rehearsed it. We shoot every shot at least twice on twos and on fours. A second of film has 24 frames, so if you shoot something on twos, that means you’re taking 12 images. Essentially every other frame. And if you shoot something on fours, you do the math. So we rehearse these things as roughly as we can either on twos or on fours just to get the basic choreography of the shot, and then we go and sit with the directors in editorial and talk through the performance. Are we hitting the marks, are we getting the emotion of the shot, is there anything we need to change. If we’re wildly off the mark, we’ll rehearse it again, but if it’s basically right with some adjustments, we’ll go shoot it for real. We shoot the whole thing at once, so we shoot every image of that 24-frame cycle. Which essentially means you really only get one shot at one of these things. We really very rarely do reshoots. It’s one of the frustrating things about stop-motion, but I think it’s also one of the wonderful things about stop-motion, that when you’re watching a shot or a film, it really is a performance art. You start at one place and you end at another, time is warped and everything; while this will take 45 seconds for the audience to watch, it’ll take me three weeks to shoot, but from start to finish, I was bringing that thing to life. There’s no going back and tweaking and changing and modifying, it’s like what you’re seeing is something that came out of my hands over that period of time. I think that gives this thing is core humanity, which is really tough to see in other mediums.
Who do you see as the audience for your films?
Knight: I think that we target families, and of course that’s a fairly broad thing; that could mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. I certainly think that with Coraline and with ParaNorman, we say “families” with slightly older kids. Because of the intensity of those films, they were probably not appropriate for the youngest members of the family. Boxtrolls is not that. I think it’s broader. It doesn’t have some of the same level of intensity that Coraline and ParaNorman did, but it’s still got its moments where we go into places that most animated films don’t. But yeah, the films we make are intended for families and all members of the family, so that covers the whole gamut. But I think that we really try to bring a level of sophistication to our storytelling and the way we execute on these films, which I think is a little bit unusual in animation. What it means is that we are not calculatingly populist in our approach to these things. We are not trying to take a story and water it down so it hits all four quadrants, we’re just trying to tell a really wonderful story in a visually beautiful way that appeals to families, so oftentimes that means we’re making choices that we think is the strongest choice for the film that has the potential of alienating some members of the audience. But in the end, as artists, as filmmakers, what we have to do is make the strongest film possible, and we think we’ve done that in a way that does appeal to a wide group of people.
Since I do a lot of things with Disney, I was really excited when the discussion of how people are assigned their roles for stop animation occurs.
QUESTION: I’m curious about the distinction. Obviously, on a live-action feature, everyone knows what they’re doing. How do you portion out your responsibilities as far as lead animator versus, I believe you have co-directors on this film? What are their responsibilities? It seems like you and the other animators have individual scenes or sequences that they’re responsible for, so how does that all tie together?
Knight: Yeah, so the way we work on our films is, I think, a little bit different than most other animation houses. A lot of times with shots, because of the pressures of production, you just end up throwing warm bodies at shots; you’ve just got to crank through it. And we did that to a degree on Coraline. In those sequences where we, for whatever reason, we had a single animator handle an entire scene, we found that those scenes had a kind of spark that some of the other work didn’t, and it makes sense. When you allow an animator to focus on a portion of the film and really understand the arc of the scene, what’s happening with the characters, they can make choices all along the way that reinforce the main points of the scene. They really get to know what’s happening. Versus throwing an animator on a shot somewhere within a scene, they just have to crank through and do the best job they can, but really not having a sense of where it connects within the overall structure. Taking the best parts of that, on ParaNorman we basically divvied it up giving animators entire chunks of the film, and we’ve continued that on Boxtrolls. I really think it helps to give unique personalities to these sequences and these characters. You really feel like it came from one mind and one set of hands.
So that’s generally how we try to schedule and structure the framework of it. Tony and Graham are directing it, I’m producing the film with David Ichioka, and I’ve got my hands in everything, I’m sure to everyone’s annoyance. I’m meeting with those guys all the time trying to figure out the best way to bring these things to life. This film was very difficult to get off the ground, but once we got into it, all kinds of innovations and new ideas came out of it, and I’m really, really pleased with the way it all came out.