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Q&A with Boxtrolls Co-Director Anthony Stacchi

This October’s ITU Presents presentations were highlighted by a very special guest lecture, by Boxtrolls Co-Director Anthony Stacchi. Interim Digital Arts Department Chair, and longtime friend, Wes Takahashi, joined Stacchi for the presentation. During the talk, Stacchi shared insights into the making on Boxtrolls and the journey he took to get into the film industry.

Prior to the event, Stacchi sat down to discuss how he got into filmmaking, working with the Boxtrolls cast, and what attracted him to the film.

How did your experience on Boxtrolls differ from your previous work, on films like Open Season?

Stop-motion is much more like an actual performance because the animators are moving the puppets – and you can’t go back and change something once they’ve done it. So, they only really get a rehearsal, and what they do when it’s done. But in CG [Computer Graphics], you can do it over, and over, again. In this process, it’s more akin to something like the theater.

IMG_3710 (1)For Boxtrolls, you used a combination between CG and stop-motion?

We call it a hybrid because the scale of the film – it was so much bigger than so many other stop-motion films. Literally, some of the views, the vistas in the background, the crowd shots, are so much more elaborate than most stop-motion films. So we call it a hybrid because almost every shot of the movie gets touched with some sort of CG element, to give it more depth. We really needed to go with a hybrid to get what we needed. However, the look and feel of the film was driven mostly by stop-motion.

What are your overall feelings towards CG in general?

Open Season was a full CG film; I’ve worked on a lot of CG films. I like them all. But I do hold a special place for traditional animation. I was trained as a 2D animator, and I like stop-motion. I like that that there’s interchangeable objects, I like that I get to work in a place where there is a woodshop, and things are actually built.

At the end of the day, we work in a world where everything is so ephemeral, whether it’s online, or on a green screen. So to see peoples’ attitude to something that they can actually touch – when you show them a puppet they want to reach out and grab it.

I read somewhere that you used to raise pigeons? 
[Laughs] Yeah, that’s on my resume. When I first went to ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) I was surround by these people with Academy Awards, and all these kinds of awards. I didn’t have any awards on my desk, so when I went back home I brought a trophy I won in junior high school for racing homing pigeons. I put it right in the middle of my desk right across from their Academy Awards because I had to have something.

Was there that moment in your career where you thought, ‘This is something I can really do?’

It was more of the case of: This is the only thing I can do. Prior to being an animator I was a laborer. I was digging ditches on construction sites. Then I went to school to become an animator. So, there was not a lot of wiggle room for me.

Luckily, I’ve been able to move from being an animator, to the story department, a little bit of character design, and a little bit of writing scripts and stuff. But it all came out of my first exposure to being an animator. It’s kind of been staying in that field I first went into, but maneuvering within that stuff, and trying to stay ahead of the curve a little bit.

When I went to CalArts (California Institute of the Arts) there were no computers there, and when I worked at Colossal, we did everything without computers for years. Then computers came in and I had these opportunities to work at places like Pixar, and I said, ‘Oh that’ll never work.’ So I haven’t always made the right decision, but for me it’s worked out, mostly because I was always interested in the stories. That hasn’t changed in 100 years. Movies still need stories.

IMG_3783How long did it take to break the story for Boxtrolls?

It took forever because that book [Boxtrolls is based on the children’s novel Here Be Monsters!] has so many characters and ideas. It took many years. We tried different iterations, we wrote many different drafts of the script, and we storyboarded it many different times.

It’s a big complicated book that we knew we’d have to simplify, and we thought we simplified it enough sometimes, but then someone would read it and say, “its so exhausting! I don’t know what going on! I don’t know what’s important.” So we’d simplify it some more.

Everyone knows that old adage: the slimmer the vessel, the more it can carry. Well, the better the story, the more opportunity you have for conflict and character to come out. But [as the writer] you’re a bad judge of how simple it needs to be. So the good thing about animation is you get to make the movie before you have to make the movie. You make that story real, and then you present it to everybody.

I read somewhere that you looked at YouTube interviews to get a better sense of who you might cast?

When you’re getting the cast together, you take clips from other movies they’ve made, but also just interviews they’ve done when they were just using their normal voice. Then you take those clips, and you play them over what you’ve designed. So you can say, ‘does that voice sound right for Eggs?’ ‘Does that voice sound like it’s coming out of Snatcher?’

So we would take the stuff we got from Sir Ben [Kingsley’s] interview, and we would intercut it with what we had for Ellie Fanning. And even though the dialogue makes no sense – it’d just be Sir Ben Kingsley from Sexy Beast yelling at Ellie Fanning from Super 8 –you get a feeling of, ‘do these two voices still sound good coming off each other?’

IMG_3710 (1)Have you ever had that situation where you had an idea of how a character would sound in your head, and then the actor does something differently?

When you first go in, you’re always prepared for that. Sometimes they come in and go, ‘what do you want?’ Other times they come in with an idea in their head and it’s not what you want. You just have to be really careful not to snuff out that enthusiasm. I mean if it’s really wrong, it’s really wrong, but if the person is comfortable doing it, and the person really likes doing it, then you have to take that into account.

Sir Ben came in with a real strong idea of how he thought Snatcher would talk. It was along the lines of what we talked about, but it was further then where we considered going. The way he elongated verbs, and vowels, and stuff. Luckily, he was so intimidating that I didn’t tell him what to do. It did take me a while, but it grew on me.

Then there are other people that you just love their take immediately. Richard Ayoade, I love his tone of voice. I was glad when I met him to find out that that is his real voice, that isn’t an IT Crowd character voice.

Nick Frost, he totally invented Trout’s voice. When we first met him, we asked, ‘what are you thinking?’ He said, ‘I look like I have a broken nose, [starts doing voice] and I look like this, but I’m really a very gentle guy.

He invented that character’s voice in the recording studio. Every time he would leave and comeback to the studio, I would play him that first recording so he could get that voice in his head again.

For Tracy Morgan, a member of our team said, ‘I like this cast, but you need to have someone crazy.’ And he kept saying that to us, and the whole time we knew he was talking about getting Tracy Morgan. He finally said to get Tracy Morgan and we thought he was so funny, that we went with it.

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