From Concept to Completion: ‘Boxtrolls’ Directors Discuss Film with CalArts’ Animators

Anthony Stacchi and Graham Annable, directors of the 3D stop-motion animated feature The Boxtrolls, visited CalArts last week to discuss the film’s journey from concept to completion, before a packed house of CalArts animators as well as students from other Institute schools.

At the top of the presentation, held in the hallowed animation classroom, The Palace, CalArts alumnus Stacchi (Film/Video BFA 86) took the students on a quick stroll down memory lane and stressed to students that it was his CalArts classmates that helped him find work as an animator in both Taiwan and France. “The connections you make here will go with you wherever you go.” 

Stacchi and Annable then delved in to the origins of The Boxtrolls, a process which began seven years ago for Stacchi.

“We knew the movie needed to be about an oddball family,” said Annable, but they had to decide on which characters and plots to use from the expansive source material: Alan Snow’s 544-page illustrated novel Here Be Monsters! 

Throughout their lecture, they screened early sequences from the film and showed original illustrations for the class, which were markedly different from the released version. Stacchi talked about their extensive use of storyboarding and urged the students to trust the process because it’s where “you’ll discover what the story wants to be.” 

The directors also tapped several artists, including French graphic designer Nicolas de Crécy, Michel Breton (who worked on Coraline and Triplets de Belleville) and lead character designer Mike Smith to develop The Boxtroll characters and world. “The Boxtroll cavern had to be a character itself,” said Stacchi. “It’s this persecuted community.”

The cavern can be seen in this clip:

The Laika-produced film, which was released in September, focuses on the adventures of Eggs, a young boy raised by peaceful, cave-dwelling, trash collecting creatures. Eggs (Arthur in the book) must save his friends and surrogate family from an evil exterminator named Snatcher. 

Laika, which Annable described as a “predominantly stop-motion studio,” mixes all the animation mediums, from 2D to 3D to stop-motion. But in addition to the visual effects used in the film, other of the film’s components—models, puppets, sets—are still designed and built by hand. Stacchi added a more colorful description of the studio as a place where “futurists and Luddites share a parking lot.” 

Annable and Stacchi also expounded on the film’s most difficult scene—the ballroom dance—which follows Eggs as he dances, hides and runs through the crowd to confront Lord Portley-Rind.  “We may have overstepped the boundaries,” said Stacchi. “and maxed out every department in the studio.”  The two-minute sequence took a painstaking 18 months to complete. Here’s a clip at the beginning of the ballroom scene that illustrates its complexity, with all the characters and their movements:

At the end of their hour-long lecture, Stacchi and Annable stayed behind to talk with students who didn’t get their questions answered during the formal Q&A session and presented the character models used in the film. 

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