Stop-motion animation has been around almost as long as film itself, and independent studio Laika has been flying the flag for the craft ever since it emerged in 2005 as the successor to Will Vinton Studios. Owned by Nike founder Phil Knight, with his son Travis as CEO and lead animator, Laika produced the outstanding horror fantasy Coraline in 2009 and the equally dark but somewhat funnier ParaNorman in 2012. The studio’s latest feature is The Boxtrolls, based on sections of Alan Snow’s 2005 novel Here Be Monsters!, which keeps the studio in the fantasy realm but edges into more family-friendly fare.
The Boxtrolls takes place in the town of Cheesebridge, where the citizens are terrified by the presence of the title creatures, who live underground and allegedly steal children. The truth, of course, is altogether different: the Boxtrolls are charming, gentle, noble beings who have actually raised — with love — a human boy named Eggs (Isaac Hempstead Wright from Game of Thrones). But the dastardly Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley) plans to exploit the townspeople’s fears and destroy the Boxtrolls in a bid to elevate himself into the town’s highest echelons — the ruling council known as the White Hats.
Den of Geek sat down with Travis Knight recently in Los Angeles to talk about The Boxtrolls, what makes a story appealing to Laika and how the studio is taking stop-motion animation into the 21st century.
Den of Geek: Every project that you do is obviously a huge investment of years and time. So what are the elements that make something stand out to you and say this is the next one we’ve got to do?
Travis Knight: There are a couple of criteria that come into play. In the simplest terms we make family films. We make films geared toward family. Now I think that we have a more expansive definition of what a family is and what a family film is than probably most places. But that’s kind of a key threshold that something has to cross. This is not something that is so adult skewing that children can’t enjoy it or the other way around — if it’s so kiddie that, you know, adults couldn’t enjoy it. So that draws a certain shape around it all.
Then getting into it, it’s like, is this a story that has potential to be thought provoking, that can be emotionally resonant, that’s bold, that can be distinctive, that has a long lifespan, that can be enduring. It isn’t like a little pop culture confection, a little bit of ephemera. And then, you know, I think back to the kinds of films that I loved and that have kind of changed the way I looked at things when I was a kid. And all those films had an artful blend, a balance of darkness and light, intensity and warmth. And that is kind of the core approach. That is our philosophy in how we approach our films.
It’s really about dynamic storytelling. I don’t think you can have the elation and the joy that comes at the end of a film without having the pain that needs to accompany with it. It won’t mean anything. And so when I talk about dynamic storytelling that’s it. It’s the up and the downs. It’s making sure that you take the audience through all those experiences so that the meaning of the story lands or resonates.
And this one had all that for you.
It did. When I read Alan Snow’s book nearly ten years ago it was such an unusual story. It was so weird but it had whispers of some of the great children’s literature, things like Dickens and Dahl. It had a really kind of weird absurd point of view and a sense of humor, something you find in like a Monty Python sketch or something. And it was really interesting. But it was also 550 pages and that’s not a 90 minute film. You’ve got to find a way to distill the essence of that down to a film. So that was the trickiest bit, to try to figure out how to capture the magic of the book in an efficient and clear and simple film story. That was the trickiest bit.
The Boxtrolls are just one small part of the book, but you focused on that part.
There was always this boy who lived underground and the disconnect between the underground society and the above ground society but there were these creatures: Boxtrolls, Cabbage Heads and Trotting Badgers and Sea Cows and Rabbit Women. All these different weird creatures. We thought that the most interesting of all of Alan Snow’s inventions was the Boxtrolls. There was something that was really compelling about that group of characters.
In the first iterations of the script we hued very faithfully to the book. At that point it was a lot of fun, it was frenetic, it was entertaining but it ultimately was hollow. It didn’t really have anything underneath it. It didn’t really have anything to say. And there was definitely no personal connection on the part of the filmmakers. It wasn’t like, “This is something that matters to me.” It was just a fun little lark. I was like, “No, we have to put that on hold and figure out what really connects in this material and how can we say something that matters to us to devote our lives to this for the next couple of years.” So it got to that point that we finally had this trim vessel that we could layer on the metaphor and the meaning and everything else.
Would you say that this is a little bit more on the lighter end of what that definition of family that you were talking about, as opposed to Coraline?
I think that’s probably true. It’s just a different kind of a story for us. We want to tell different kinds of stories in different ways. I mean Coraline was a kind of a dark modern fairytale and there are things that come with that. There are ingredients that come along with a story like that. It’s probably our darkest film. ParaNorman was, you know, this kind of supernatural comedic thriller, but it was rooted and some of its inspiration came from the Hammer films and horror films in the ’70s and ’80s. So there was going to be a horror element to that regardless, and some kind of dark thematic elements there too.
Boxtrolls is not that. It’s more kind of an absurdist coming of age fable. Because of those ingredients it’s going to have some sociological elements that I think are fairly intense and there’s certain places in the film that we have some intensity but it’s not scary. I certainly don’t see it as scary. That’s not the kind of film that it is. But I do believe that there is a nice balance of intensity and lightness within the film.
There’s a theme running through it that nothing is what it appears to be on the surface. Was that in the original story or is that something that came out as you developed the movie?
It’s kind of a philosophical point of view of ours and it filters its way into every film we’ve done to varying degrees. I think it’s something that bears reminding and thinking about because we see it all the time in everyday life, with people prejudging and automatically coming to certain assumptions and having certain biases based on nothing, based on really no information or limited information or misinformation. And I just think that we can look at each other in a little bit different way if we don’t always come to those sorts of conclusions.
In The Boxtrolls, the people you think are set up as kind of the gold standard of what society should be, these aristocrats, they’re awful, awful human beings, while these creatures that are set up as monsters are completely harmless. They’re this warm community of tinkerers and they’re just a loving society and they’re not what we thought they were. You see that throughout the different characters and what you think they are is not really what they are.
Even our villain, Snatcher — it’s important for us that we don’t have two dimensional mustache-twirling villains, that they actually have dimension, that they have vulnerability, that they have shreds of humanity. And Snatcher does. I feel tremendous sympathy for Snatcher on some level even though he’s as awful as you can imagine. He has dimension, he has texture. He’s terrible but on some level you can understand as a human being why he’s doing what he’s doing. And I think that’s a necessary element to showcase. Even the worst villain has some humanity.
What did you do on this film in terms of moving the ball forward with stop-motion and maybe blending it more with CG, but without losing that stop-motion “feel”?
I’ve loved stop-motion my entire life. It’s just been a huge part of my whole life. Specifically I remember running home after school and turning on the TV to watch the Ray Harryhausen creature feature, you know. Or Jason and the Argonauts or The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, things like that. I absolutely loved those films. Stop-motion’s been around since the dawn of cinema. It’s as old as film itself. It’s been around for over a hundred years.
A lot of what we do is unchanged from what they were doing back when George Melies was sending rockets to the moon. It’s the same kind of stuff. You still have an animator on set with physical objects being bathed in real light and taking a picture frame by frame, coaxing a performance out of this thing on a frame by frame basis for a camera. That’s not changed. That’s still kind of the core of what we do.
What we do that’s different is that we integrate and embrace technology in a way that’s never been done in the medium before. We’re trying to take the medium into a new place, to not just say, “Oh yeah, stop-motion is that quaint little herky jerky crap.” No, no. Stop-motion can be so much more vital, so much more interesting, so much more sophisticated. We haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of what you can do within this medium. And as old as it is, 100 years old, I still feel like there’s so much more this thing can do than people can even think of. It’s not about just settling and being complacent. It’s about trying to actively push on the edges of what can be done within the medium.
And so we integrate technology in a way that’s never been done before. We bring in laser cutting and digital photography and stereoscopic photography and all these different things. In every single department we push on and innovate to try to come up with the best way to bring the thing to life. And I think that you can see that evolution dramatically when you look at Coraline and when you look at Boxtrolls. The kind of sophistication we’re able to achieve now versus what we were able to do five, six years ago.
You’re the CEO of Laika. There’s 22,000 props in this movie. Do you get to take any of them home?
At some point we’ll divvy up the spoils. With every film we kind of given little bits and bobs out to the crew and to the people who are involved in the making of the film. But I can’t even think about that now. We’re at the point where we’re about to release it and so once that’s all said and done then we’ll think about how to divide all the stuff that we made.
If you were a Boxtroll what would your box be?
Oh God. I don’t know. That’s a really good question. I wish I had a witty response but I don’t. I’m sorry.
We always have things that we’re working on. We have actually started production on our next film right now. We have about a minute of footage in the can. So, you know, we’re nearly done.
Right. Only 89 minutes of film to go.
Yeah, right. But one of the things I’m most excited about is where it’s taking us as a company. It’s a totally different kind of story and a totally different kind of genre. Visually it’s a different kind of thing than anything that we’ve done before. And, in fact, when I look at the next three films on our roadmap, as proud as I am of the last three films, the next three films take us in entirely different directions and I couldn’t be more excited about that.
Can you reveal the genre or title for the first of those?
I can’t. We’ll probably be announcing the film either at the end of this year or next year so we’re probably like three or four months away from announcing it. It’s great. It’s unbelievable.
The Boxtrolls is in theaters now.