Contender Conversations, Animation: ‘Boxtrolls,’ ‘Dragon 2’ and ‘Lego Movie’

BOXTROLLS

Oregon-based Laika is heading into awards season with the stop-motion “The Boxtrolls.” Having earned Oscar nominations for its first two efforts, “Coraline” (2009) and “ParaNorman” (2012), the studio is aiming to remain on a roll. Producer (and Laika CEO) Travis Knight (in photo above center) was joined by directors Anthony Stacchi (left) and Graham Annable (right) in a talk with Variety’s Andrew Barker for a Q&A at the Variety Screening Series on September 18.

Boxtrolls” unfolds in an underground world with a large cast of eccentrics, including a grotesque character voiced by Ben Kingsley. The film required elaborate character choreography — a daunting challenge for animators engaged in the labor-intensive process of stop-motion. Stacchi admitted: “The most difficult sequence was one that Graham and I weren’t aware was going to be difficult. We believed that a big mecha-drill-attack at the end of the film would involve the most effects and require the most difficult animation. But the dance sequence was by far the most difficult to do. It took all of the 18 months of production that we had, and in the end it was probably less than two minutes long. Every single department had to stretch themselves.”

Annable, who was a story artist on “ParaNorman,” agreed. “We have what we call breakdown meetings. All the heads of departments are there and we take the sequences and we divvy up the workload and figure out what we’re going to do, shot by shot. Usually, everybody’s energy is up as we’re trying to figure things out. It’s an eager bunch of folks that want to make a stop-motion movie. But when we had the breakdown meeting for the dance sequence, Tony and I walked into the room to dead silence. Nobody would even make eye contact with us! I think we’d finally pushed a little too far.”

Knight, who was lead animator on “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” observed “Trying to make these things feel like breathing characters is very tricky. We see ourselves as actors, but instead of acting with our bodies and our voices, we’re acting through another object. We still have to hit our marks, and it’s almost like a chess game to figure out where these things need to be at any given time, and keep that in your head over a 300-frame shot. It can’t feel like you’re just moving objects around.”

Knight credited Laika’s success to enduring collaboration. “Fortunately, we’ve essentially kept the ‘band’ together for three films. Everybody has innovated in every department. We make the best puppets and we have the most incredible lighting and camera team. And we make the best costumes… It is all artificial — they’re just dolls. They’re like little vampires that suck the life out of anyone that touches them!”

HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON 2

At the Carmel Intl. Film Festival this month, Variety VP-exec editor Steven Gaydos talked with the the key creatives behind the DreamWorks Animation hit “How to Train Your Dragon 2.” This sequel presented a more mature lead character in Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) and his dragon Toothless. Producer Bonnie Arnold explained, “The idea of writer and director Dean DeBlois was that there would be three films that tell the story of Hiccup and Toothless and their coming of age. This second film would almost be the ‘second act’ in this story.”

Arnold, who produced the original “Dragon” and is producing “Dragon 3,” says the five-year gap between the first two films meant the filmmakers had to age up the characters.

This evolution presented challenges for production designer Pierre-Olivier Vincent, who won an Annie Award for the first “Dragon.” “It’s particularly challenging when you’re dealing with characters that are loved by the public,” Vincent said.
“There was a lot of design involved in changing their appearance. We completely redesigned their outfits to really sell the idea that they’re getting older.”

Asked what was the least understood aspect of voice acting, Arnold observed it’s challenging for actors to work in a recording booth and not interact with the crew on a daily basis. “Dean and I feel similarly that this is not the best way necessarily to get the best performance. I think we feel like we cast the best people in order to help inform who the characters are. Dean sits and reads the whole script with them to get their feedback about their characters, and lets them ad lib certain things.

“I spend time talking with them in between sessions in the recording booth to let them know what’s happening with the film,” Arnold added. She recalled that this was especially key for actors in major roles like Baruchel, Gerard Butler and Cate Blanchett. “The interesting thing about animation is that those readings are only part of the performance — the rest comes from the animators.”

The panel also featured composer John Powell, a score Oscar nominee for the original film. Powell said the music in “Dragon 2” also needed to evolve. “A whole bunch of new tunes were written. I definitely tried to give them an inherently more mature sound. We got every theme and motif that happened in the first film out of the way within the first six minutes. Once we meet our ‘aged’ characters, that’s when the new score starts.”

Powell explained his collaboration with DeBlois began when they went through the entire film, some of which was still in storyboard form. “I remember at the end of this spotting session that Bonnie and Dean were smiling. As they left, I remember thinking, ‘It’s easy to say what I’m going to do.’ Now I’ve got to do it!”

THE LEGO MOVIE

One of the more surprising things about the animated blockbuster “The Lego Movie” was that the writing and directing team of Phil Lord and Chris Miller turned down the job at first. When Variety’s Steve Chagollan interviewed Lord at the Mill Valley Film Festival earlier this month, he remembered, “We said ‘no’ for all the reasons that the movie might be a cynical way to sell toys. Then we went online and started looking at the (Lego) ‘brick shorts’ that people make, and we started to think that maybe this film could be a Trojan Horse where we could really surprise people with a democratic movie about creativity and grassroots filmmaking.”

Lord, who with Miller directed Sony Animation’s “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and the live-action “Jump Street” films, recalled seeing a unique opportunity. “We had something that on the surface would make the bosses really happy, and that would provide cover to make something really daring. We liked the fact that it was both things at once.”

Not that it was easy. “It took five years,” said Lord. “We made two ‘Jump Streets’ during this production.” After their “Lego Movie” script was storyboarded, they threw it out. “It exposed everything that was wrong with our script, so we started over. That’s expensive, but it made the work better.”

Lord and Miller cast their voice actors after a year into production and scored an unexpected A-team, including Morgan Freeman, Will Ferrell, Liam Neeson, Chris Pratt, Will Arnett, Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill. The actors contributed improvisations that sparked further rewrites. “Spontaneity in animation is really rare. You’ve got to cling to it when you get it!”

While Lord said they considered making “The Lego Movie” in stop-motion using actual toy bricks, ultimately it was animated in CGI at Australia’s Animal Logic (“Happy Feet”). After photographing Lego bricks for reference, Lord said, “We found a way to make the most authentic looking CGI stop-motion movie that we could. It was important that the movie felt tactile and home-made; that you felt the hand of an animator on these characters.”

That meant adding digital dust, scratches and even dandruff, noted Lord. “We put a lot of R&D into making things look like they weren’t perfect. We wanted to embrace the limitations of stop-motion. The animators couldn’t do anything that they couldn’t do in their basements with the real thing.”

Lord observed that Warner Bros. ownership of the movie’s franchise characters like Batman enabled the filmmakers to mix things up in interesting ways. But “The Lego Movie” team operated like an indie production. “We were basically like a garage band in a warehouse, far away from the Warner Bros. lot. It was very untraditional for a big studio animated film and we really benefited from that.”

When Chagollan noted that the film’s $470 million worldwide box office might guarantee Lord and Miller future employment, Lord laughed. “I think we get a mulligan after that!”

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