Interview: Star Ben Kingsley and Producer Travis Knight on ‘The Boxtrolls’
Stop-motion animation studio Laika has made a string of critically-acclaimed work since its founding in 2005. The relatively young company has made a name off of extraordinarily fluid animation, combined with remarkably detailed production design and more mature themes than are usually found in family fare. Their latest film, The Boxtrolls, opens in theaters this Friday. To learn about its production process, I sat down with Travis Knight, the head of Laika, producer on the film, and lead animator on the studio’s two previous features (Coraline and ParaNorman), as well as Ben Kingsley, who voices the main villain of the movie.
Kingsley, on why he joined the film:
“I haven’t done much [voice work] before, but I was sent the most beautiful script, and it just rang true as a very bold, very mature family film. I’m sorry to say that I feel like family films often wipe off the top two generations of the family, and say, ‘You know, anyone taller than this table won’t like this movie.’ And it’s stupid. Because that means it’s not a family film, but this is. I congratulate Laika for having the courage to say, ‘Look, boys and girls, it’s not a bowl of cherries.’ Because I’m not so sure about ‘feel-good movies.’ But this will have resonance for all the members of the family who see it.”
Knight, on telling stories for kids that have a darker edge to them:
“Look, we’re certainly not trying to traumatize any children… and we probably failed *laughs*. But when I think about my favorite films growing up and the kind of films that I loved, they all shared in common this really artful balance of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth. They were a little bit spooky in places where they needed to be, and fun and entertaining in other places, balancing heart and emotion with intensity. And for me, that’s just good storytelling. And I think that was something that defined filmmaking for families for generations. And it’s only been within like the past 25 years that a lot of that stuff has been muted, kinda tamped down.
“And it’s fine. I mean, those things are entertaining, but I think they also don’t mean much when you don’t have big ups or downs, but everything’s kind of in that drizzly little center. I don’t think it gives you much of an experience, it doesn’t give you much to think about or feel. We want to make films that are thought-provoking, that are emotionally resonant, that are challenging, that are enduring, that stand the test of time. We don’t make little babysitters. We don’t make something you can plop your kid in front of and just turn off their brain and just sit there. We want people to engage.”
Kingsley, on finding a voice for his character, “Snatcher”:
“I saw the drawing of the chap, and saw that he was physically very different from me. My portrayal involved finding a voice that was completely relaxed, not my own. I invited the recording studio to build a kind of airplane seat – it took them five minutes, everything in the studio took them five minutes, they were great. I moved the microphone, moved the script panel, and I did the whole thing reclining. Lying down. It also helped me to not make physical gestures. When we speak, we tend to augment our language with our mannerisms, if I did that it would perhaps lessen, it would shrink what I was giving the animators. If I had to push something with my physical gesture, it’d mean my voice isn’t doing enough. So I was completely still, which I found very, very freeing.
“Tony [Stacchi, the director] was mostly in the studio with me, and he helped me a great deal by letting me know that certain vocal mannerisms that I acquired as the character were great gifts to the animator. He said, ‘The animators will love that. When you do that, they can do all sorts of extraordinary things with it.’ So I played with elongating my vowel sounds, played with putting the letter ‘H’ in words where it shouldn’t be, so I’d sound posh. And then the rest of my performance, which is unprecedented for me, is to say, ‘And the other department will do my body language.’ So I delegated that whole lot (because I had to) to the animators, to the guys who work with these people. I saw this clip, and [his character is] walking down flights of stairs, and they accompanied one of my words with an amazingly narcissistic gesture of brushing back these awful threads of hair that are hanging down. And I thought, ‘I have nothing to worry about.’ Absolutely everything I’m trying to do is there in that portrait. Extraordinary exercise, really.”
Knight, on what it takes to work in stop-motion animation:
“It definitely takes a certain type of person. It’s funny, I don’t really see it as patience, although you kinda have to have that on some level. Because if you’re churning out maybe 4-5 seconds of footage a week, yeah, you have to be kinda patient. If it takes you nearly ten years to make a movie, you have to be pretty patient. But I don’t see that as the foundational, the most important thing of what we do. It’s less about patience than it is the ability to focus intensely for long periods of time.
“I never get bored when I’m animating. It’s a constant challenge in your head, almost like a mathematical formula or a chess game. You’re always trying to figure out how to get your puppet from Point A to Point B, and so there’s all these different little bits you gotta figure out, like how their arms and legs are moving, and the hair and the eyes. You gotta figure all this stuff out and hit your marks, but it can’t look mechanical. It has to feel alive and look like a living, breathing thing.
“And so it’s really mentally challenging to work through all that stuff, and it’s also physically demanding, because you’re contorting your body on these sets into all sorts of weird positions – you’re hurting yourself, you’re bleeding, everything else, and so there’s always something to keep you on your toes. But it’s deeply satisfying when all that stuff comes together and you see it come to life in a way that makes it feel like it’s not a doll, like it’s a living thing. And that’s what we all shoot for, is to make these things feel alive.”
Kingsley, on the kind of villain he plays:
“The wonderful thing about Richard III is that his first soliloquy is in front of the audience, and he explains exactly how he’s feeling, and he explains how he’s going to behave. Snatcher, he can’t take rejection, and there’s a reason for that. I don’t know what that reason is, but there’s a reason for his absolute inability to be rejected. It turns him into a maniac, into a fury. I saw a splendid production of Richard III ages ago – I’ve not played the man myself – where I could see what he was doing, but I couldn’t see why. I wasn’t allowed to join in to ‘why,’ and really I think the ‘why’ in Richard is that ‘it hurts to be me.’ And I think that there is always something about the villains that I’m able to play that isn’t villainous, it’s just vulnerable and wounded, and I use that with Snatcher.
“I totally embrace the tragic element of his destiny. His arc is doomed because of the way he’s been constructed, the way he has arrived, the way the gods have made him, fashioned him in that way. There is, in the script, hopefully in my portrait and in the bigger context of the movie, that thread of tragedy, of absurdity, danger, redemption, reunification, all the threads. I definitely warmed to the wound which will eventually consume him.”
Knight, on stop-motion’s place in the modern world:
“Stop-motion is one of the oldest forms of filmmaking. It’s been around since the dawn of cinema and film itself, and in some way the process hasn’t changed in 100 years, since Georges Méliès was sending rockets to the moon. You still have a puppet on a set, the lights, and a camera, and you have the animators moving it frame-by-frame to get a performance. What we’ve done is integrate technology into the mix. We’ve brought in rapid prototyping, and laser cutting, and digital stereoscopic photography, and all these other things and all these different departments to essentially embrace the author of our demise. In the 1980’s, stop-motion was falling out of favor because the computer could do anything and stop-motion could only do a few things. And so against that, we had to come up with a new way to justify even using this medium. There’s no reason to use it unless you can use it in an interesting way.
“So we thought that, like a Luddite embracing the loom, we could take the best aspects of technology and bring it into this handcrafted world, and have something that was really kind of unusual. And that felt unique in this world, where everything is done with a computer. You know when everything is artificial and nothing is real — I think audiences know, and have a different kind of feeling. So by being able to integrate those things together, I think we can take the medium to places it’s never been before to really enhance this 100 year-old art form, and do something interesting that audiences don’t typically see.”
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