I’ve admired the films of Laika for years, and now I’m pleased to say that I’ve been involved in one; THE BOXTROLLS. From 2008-2012 I worked on this film, and to make this an extra special experience for me, it was directed by my dear friend of many years, Tony Stacchi, and Graham Annabel, a new friend made during this production. I finally saw the finished film a few days ago, and absolutely loved it. Now you all get a chance to see it too, as it is released today in the USA.
When I first got into animation, over 30 years ago, working in the typical animation studio meant you were surrounded by people spattered with paint or smudged with graphite, and you toiled away to a soundtrack of buzzing electric pencil sharpeners and the flipping of paper. Next, I worked at studios that did commercials and special effects, back in the days when it was all done by hand, and required things to be built by carpenters, model makers, and tinkerers, and even the sci-fi glow of a lightsabre was analog; animated by hand with smudged pencil on paper. That gradually changed when computers entered the biz. As wonderful as the new computer studios are, and I’ve worked at many, I sometimes miss the tactile qualities of the industry I first fell in love with. If you squint your eyes and look around the typical animation studio of today, all the people at their computer workstations could be working at a bank, or an insurance brokerage.
But when I flew to Portland to work with Laika, I was immediately charmed by the fact that I was once again in a building full of people toiling with their hands. Their plaster spattered smocks, paint-smeared aprons and vests, and grimy fingers were the telltale signs that they were not merely pushing around ones and zeroes, but sewing tiny clothes, building armatures, and sculpting and animating puppets. They were tinkering, experimenting, problem solving and making things; real actual objects to be manipulated by nimble human hands. I took great delight in arriving at the studio very early in the morning and creeping about the vast warehouse downstairs, where the final shots were being made. I was mesmerised by the beautiful sets, props and puppets. I could have been in the Boxtroll cavern itself, surrounded by ingeniously designed, intricate handmade wonders. Crazy clockwork toys made by a demented Geppetto.
When you see THE BOXTROLLS, and I really encourage you to do so, remember that the ballroom full of people you see dancing on screen, or the cave chock-full of toothy beasties with their kooky gadgets, were not produced in a render-farm, but are real handmade objects. The elements of the film were all designed, sculpted and hand-built, then expertly manipulated in front of cameras by human hands, and you are watching something unlike anything else in animation today. Stop-motion animators work ‘straight ahead’ and there is a certain jazzy improv to each shot that other modern animated films do not have, because the constant iterations of CGI boil that magic ingredient of spontaneity away. Spontaneity is impossible in most animation, but a form of it is possible in stop-motion. When watching a Laika film, more than any film by other modern animation studios, you are watching a performance and not a process. Stop motion is an intricate ballet, a spatial guitar solo, and a unique sort of performance capture that does not involve someone in a blue jumpsuit covered in ping-pong balls.
I’ve worked in animation myself since 1982, and yet the special skills and thought processes required of stop-motion animators fill me with mystified awe. Laika films have a different rhythm, perhaps as a result of this process, and of course there is a quirkiness to all things handmade. Popular reaction to stop-motion has always been mixed; many people don’t appreciate the irregularity of handmade things, and prefer instead the machined smoothness of the mass produced. If other animation is thought of as a sculpture in clay; an additive process, with plenty of chances for revision, refinement and correction, then stop-motion is a statue chipped from solid rock, and there are limited opportunities to fix mistakes, but when done as well as the Laika artists do it, stop-motion is a rare form of beauty. A dance of toymakers and animators, caught on film.
I’ve been In animation for a long time, but it is only in the last few years that I have begun to see feature films directed by my friends. It is unbelievably exciting to see themes and ideas I have long associated with these pals now on the big screen. Knowing Tony as well as I do, I see so much of him in there; so many poses and face expressions that I know he didn’t actually make or animate himself, but I see him in the film everywhere. He is in its DNA, and it is immensely gratifying to see his quirky subversive masterpiece. It is very hard to say whether the general public will embrace it as I have. Who can say? One person’s ‘quirky subversive masterpiece’ is another person’s ‘boring directionless ramble’, which is quite funny when you think about it, but that is the subjective nature of such things.
THE BOXTROLLS presents a weirder, more lush, expansive world, and sweeter characters than Laika’s other films. While Laika again showcases the awkward and the misshapen, the subterranean heroes of this film are strangely appealing, like the cute/ugly of a pug dog. Where other studios are quick to pounce on the heart strings, Laika has always been admirably restrained, but at times that allergy to maudlin emotion created a coldness on screen, and characters did not connect. But in THE BOXTROLLS, while there are creepy villains aplenty (and the main villain is a wonderfully funny and disturbing creation, with some of the most astonishing animation I’ve ever seen, in any technique) there are also characters that have an undeniable warmth, despite their weirdness, and thus it doesn’t feel like weirdness for its own sake. This is not to say that longtime fans of Laika’s particular brand of darkness will be disappointed, because there are images and themes in THE BOXTROLLS that are weighty and grim. This film somehow manages to be both lighter and sweeter while darker and deeper.
It is tragic that even mediocre CGI films can have a 40 million dollar opening weekend, while Laika’s typical opening weekend is less than half that for utterly wonderful films. But Laika already knows that no matter how lovingly they craft their work, it is an uphill battle to get the general public to care as much as they do, yet they do it anyway. Like a tiny shoe shop that stubbornly makes hand made shoes in a machine-made age, the cobbler does things his own way, for the love of it, and the hope that the minority of the public that do care too, can keep him in business. So, if you are any kind of animation fan at all, I urge you to go see THE BOXTROLLS this weekend, and treat yourself to a lovingly handmade feast for your eyes, mind and heart.