Travis Knight tells Bill Desowitz what it's like making the transition from artist to studio head at Laika.
With this week's release of Coraline on Blu-ray and DVD (Universal Studios Home Ent.), we thought it would be a great opportunity to catch up with Travis Knight, the talented animator who was recently promoted to president/CEO of Laika, the Portland-based studio. Knight was one of the Coraline animation leads and got to work with his idol, Henry Selick. Coraline has grossed $75.2 million (second in history after Chicken Run). Knight sits on the Laika board and had been the studio's animation head since 2007. He is the son of Laika owner and Nike founder Phi Knight. Additionally, Coraline producer Claire Jennings (Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Were-Rabbit) was appointed to the newly-created position of president, entertainment.
Bill Desowitz: So what's it been like taking over Laika? It must be like your own toy factory now.
Travis Knight: That's exactly what it's like. No, it's an interesting transition as I've gone over the different permutations and roles at the studio over the years. At first it was very unusual for me to be in this role…
BD: Well, you've been an artist all these years.
TK: Yeah, right. But I think when you get to the bottom of what it is we actually do I think it makes perfect sense to have an artist at the head of the company. And who better than me, Bill? Don't answer that.
BD: Well, you could flip a coin with Henry, but I'm sure he doesn't want that job. So, first of all, tell me what the success of Coraline has meant to Laika and impacted any decision making?
TK: Well, frankly, one thing has nothing to do with the other: I think there was some misperception that everything was riding on the success of Coraline, and that actually is not even remotely true. Of course, were thrilled at the critical and box office success of Coraline. I mean it really is great vindication for the people who believed in the promise of the film and people who took a chance on the film and actually got it, including our partners at Universal and Focus. It's a very unconventional film, particularly going back years ago when we were getting started on it. The flavor of the day as far as what was acceptable for mainstream animation was all fuzzy creatures and pop gags. And this was certainly not anything like that: it was this kind of weird, creepy, anachronistic, stop-motion horror movie for kids. But we saw the potential there and, fortunately, like-minded people at Universal and Focus saw the potential there.
So I'm really pleased that on a world stage all the work of these incredible artists can be seen. You work in this insular bubble on these films for years and it all rides on this opening weekend -- and it's completely nerve wracking. But to have people respond in such positive ways really helps. But whether Coraline was a tremendous success or huge, devastating, emotionally crippling failure, we were going to move on. We're in this for the long haul. We have a number of projects in development and are in the process of winnowing it down. And I wish I could give you the world exclusive on that… but by the end of the summer we'll choose which film we're moving forward with and we hope to be in production by some point next year.
BD: And it will be stop-motion?
TK: I think it's safe to say that it will be a stop-motion film with CG elements. One of the things that distinguishes us from other studios is that we do stop-motion: it's a rare art form and something we do exceedingly well. But with Coraline, we were able to so some interesting hybridized things…
BD: I take it that the slate still includes Here Be Monsters (based on Alan Snow's book), The Wall and the Wing (based on Laura Ruby's book) and Paranorman (based on an original idea by Chris Butler, head of story on Coraline)?
TK: Yeah, we have a number of things. I'm really proud of the terrific range of the projects in terms of subject matter and concept source. It's one of the things that really becomes a defining quality of what a Laika film is. We're known for our variety and our range. But they're all unified by a singular vision. I think we really have a wonderful opportunity to continue that. I certainly don't want to have a house style. The projects we have in development have a wide range from broad comedies to tales of unspeakable horror.
BD: Let's discuss Claire's role and her impact on what we might expect?
TK: I think Claire's a really incredible woman and, quite frankly, I think she classes up the joint with her sophistication and wide ranging experience and impeccable taste. Everything she's worked on has been terrific and it's due in no small way to her involvement. And what we've been focusing on almost exclusively since we wrapped the release of Coraline has been the development of other projects. That is the essential constituent of any animated company. We have taken the position at the studio to be an artist and creator and director-driven place. The onus, the burden and the creative freedom go to the director, so we really are looking for distinctive voices and visions for our films. We're really fortunate to have Henry as one of our directors because he is one of the truest auteurs working in animation today. And one of the things I'm proudest of Coraline was that we were able to provide the environment where, in a very pure way, he was able to tell the story he wanted to tell.
BD: What are your plans for proceeding with the proposed campus construction?
TK: Right now we occupy three buildings in two different cities and clearly that's not ideal. Obviously the allure of a campus is you're able to integrate everybody into one place. Unfortunately, when you have multiple buildings in different areas is that it's difficult to maintain one common culture between every aspect of the company, and so we're trying to find ways to bring everyone together. We don't want to build this massive campus before we're ready, before we've earned it, essentially. So that remains a long-term goal of ours. But in the interim we're actively exploring a way to bring everyone else together into one facility.
BD: What's it going to be like not being as hands on as an artist once you're in production again?
TK: It's one of those things for people who are in stop-motion that it's in the blood, really. Guys like Eric Leighton, who started in stop-motion and moved to CG and was incredibly successful in that area, working on Dinosaur and doing supervision on King Kong, and yet he turned his back to all of that to be an animator on Coraline. I think that says something about the people who do it. I made a pact with myself when I moved into this area, that I never wanted to lose a direct connection with the work, so I'll never be able to devote the time that I did to Coraline in terms of hands on animation, but my plan is to work in some fashion on every single film that we do and to actually doing some animation on the floor. It's something that attracted me to this art form to begin with; it's something that I love; and I don't want to miss out on it.
BD: What's it like running your father's company?
TK: It's a funny thing: you grow up in a household where you see sort of the trial that my father went through as a child, and I certainly have a great deal of appreciation for it now. It's one of those things where there are parallels. My grandfather was a real distinguished member of his community -- he was a very accomplished lawyer and the publisher of the second largest Oregon newspaper at the time. And you can imagine what his reaction might've been when his son told him that he wanted to be a cobbler and make shoes for a living. He was completely devastated and I don't know if it's completely dissimilar when I broke the news to my dad that I had a deep and abiding love to play with dolls for a living. But we all follow our muse and it's what makes us who we are. The great thing about it is that personally I now have a different sort of connection to my father, so it's another thing that we can discuss strategy for the business. And, quite frankly, I can't imagine a better, smarter, more experienced advisor than my father.
BD: And what's it going to be like being Henry's boss on his next movie?
TK: There's no doubt about it that it will be weird. But that's been my life. I've never been comfortable; I'm completely neurotic and feel like crawling under my desk right now.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.