Travis Knight Talks 'ParaNorman', LAIKA and the Art of Stop-Motion

LAIKA’s top gun discusses their latest stop-motion gem and the ground-breaking effort behind its production.

Producer, Head Animator and Company CEO Travis Knight at work with Norman on the graveyard set. All images courtesy of LAIKA, Inc.

It’s pretty hard to watch LAIKA’s new animated feature ParaNorman and not be impressed.  The stop-motion animation is visually stunning, funny, well acted and well paced, with just the right amount of silliness mixed with humility and charm. For those who know a bit about how these films get made, you realize right away that this is no ordinary movie.  The characters, they don’t move like puppets. They’re more fluid, more lifelike, more real than your average stop-motion picture inhabitants.  The elaborate sets, the facial expressions, the CG integration, the little details, they add up to a film that has completely redefined the medium. 

LAIKA’s CEO, Travis Knight, has quietly built an independent studio in Oregon, of all places, far from Hollywood, San Francisco, London or Paris.  ParaNorman proves his team is arguably the world’s top stop-motion crew.  Their development and use of sophisticated 3D rapid prototyping color printers provided unprecedented access to huge libraries of replacement faces, giving their characters a range of emotion and detail previously unavailable. The production’s sheer volume of facial parts, props, armatures, silicon and glue, is staggering.

Travis Knight, LAIKA CEO and

ParaNorman Producer and Lead
Animator.

I spoke to Travis earlier this week about the challenges of mixing art and business, the fear of constantly pushing a production into uncharted territory, and the reality of risking three years and countless resources making a film about zombies, ghosts and a special kid who doesn’t quite fit in. 

Dan Sarto: You have a number of different roles at LAIKA and on this film.  What is your most important or influential role on the film – company CEO, lead animator, producer?

Travis Knight: That’s a good question but it’s difficult for me to answer.  Ultimately, all these roles are so entwined that they’re kind of inextricable. It’s really difficult to disentangle or separate them from one another. I suppose it’s a function of having done this for some time. Initially, it was strange. It was odd as there is an inherent tension between the different roles within the company.

From a creative perspective, working in the trenches in stop-motion animation is really an exercise in messy physical exertion.  It’s characterized by manic bursts of imagination.  That’s creativity. It’s extraordinarily inefficient and can’t be systematized. From the other perspective, corporate governance is marked by organization and discipline, tidy and methodical, with emphasis on efficiency. Those two things can sometimes conflict. But when I can find a balance between those different aspects of my job, it actually makes me better at both. By being creative and actually making the art, the executive in me, if you will, doesn’t lose sight of what’s important. What it’s all about is making these films, making this art. I don’t lose contact with that.

From an artist point of view, sometimes the danger of focusing on the art is that you can lose sight of the big picture. You get caught up in minutia, the little details. I can’t do that as an executive. I have to be thinking about the big picture. It’s a skill that I’ve evolved over the years and from an artist perspective, it’s helpful to be able to pull myself away from the details and see that big picture. It’s a very strange job, there’s no doubt about it. But by balancing those things, it makes me stronger.

Animation Supervisor Brad Schiff and Creative Supervisor of Puppet Fabrication Georgina Hayns study the Neil puppet.

My critical contribution to ParaNorman was in establishing the animation style. That was very important to me, to make sure we got it right on this film.  To make sure we would get that connection with the audience. Stop-motion has a lot of charm, some really wonderful aspects. But it has serious challenges, serious limitations. There are things that are very difficult to do, and there are certain aspects of the medium that inherently get in the way of an audience forging an emotional connection with the characters within a stop-motion film. We see it time and time again, not just in stop-motion, but in motion-capture.  When things don’t move properly, the way we expect them to, people disconnect. In so many motion-capture driven films, people just don’t connect with those characters. They feel robotic.

DS: They don’t resonate with the audience.

TK: Right.  In stop-motion films, it’s a little different. If things don’t move properly, if they don’t move in a naturalistic way, it’s a constant reminder that we’re looking at something that has no inner life. It’s effectively a doll or a puppet. It was really important for the weight of this story that we got the animation style right. That came down to really subtle, really well observed, probably the most refined animation performances that we’ve ever seen in stop-motion. That was really critical for me to establish, so the audience could have a better emotional connection with these characters.

DS: The animation performance is indeed tremendous.  Let’s talk about the story. Why make this film? Why choose ParaNorman over any other project you had in development?

TK: A couple things.  When Chris Butler, our head of story on Coraline, approached me part way through that film with a story idea he had, the simplest form being a stop-motion zombie film for kids, I was instantly intrigued. I was the kind of kid who grew up on a pop culture diet of George Romero zombie films and Ray Harryhausen creature features. The combination of those two things was just perfect, with all the different visual opportunities. A really fun idea, but that’s not enough to want to devote three years of your life to.  There has to be a beating heart underneath and it turned out there was. It really was a beautiful, emotionally true story. A story about a boy who’s different, who didn’t fit in, who’s marginalized because of who he is, but is also blessed with extraordinary abilities. The very thing that sets him apart from his community is the thing that brings them all together.

(l to r) Storyboard artist Vera Brosgol maps out scenes with directors Sam Fell and Chris Butler.

I really saw in that story an analogous connection between not only Norman and myself, because that was certainly my experience growing up, and between Norman and Chris, which was also his experience growing up, but between Norman and everyone at LAIKA.  It’s basically autobiographical.  It’s our story.  The story of Norman is the story of the people who made it. It really felt like an important story that was something that would find resonance universally, that parents, teens and kids could all find something of themselves in this kind of story.  So it seemed like a perfect combination of an opportunity to do something beautiful visually but also beautiful emotionally. That was why it had to be our next movie.

DS: It’s very easy to focus on the technology, and while that’s certainly important and worth discussion, ultimately, it all needs to serve the creative vision. That doesn’t always come together in big animated features.

TK: Filmmaking and storytelling in general, it’s an emotional experience. It’s important to us, the march on progress that we’re doing visually.  But you’re right, in the end, if you’re not feeling anything, it’s all for naught.

In constantly trying to grow as artists and as a company, you evaluate what you’ve done and how you can move forward.  Obviously there have been some technological advances.  There are some things we’ve done with our techniques that have pushed the visualization forward. That’s always important.  But one of the things I’m most proud of is we really wanted to find a way to put sincere emotion into the story in a way that did not feel cloying or artificial, and I feel we’ve done that. I’m very proud of that.

Animator Justin Rausch helps put Norman in a dangerous situation.

DS: Do you think this film would have been as powerful had it been made in any other medium besides stop-motion?

TK: I’m obviously biased. Every form of filmmaking has its charms and its limitations.  Stop-motion is no exception. I found that the process behind the art’s creation is inextricable from the art itself. The process of stop-motion truly is brimming with the soul of its creators. You can’t separate those things. The fact is that stop-motion is physical work.  You see the hands and the attention of the artist behind every emotion.  That gives it its humanity. That’s just something that computer animation, for all its wonders, can’t emulate. We embrace the imperfections of stop-motion.  We know that every shot has mistakes. It’s raw and it’s imperfect. It’s also undeniably human. With every single shot we see the distillation of the personality and the spirit of the animator. That’s just something you don’t see in any other form of filmmaking. The humanity of it was what we were trying to tell in the story. In the imperfection. It could have been told very effectively as a live action film or as a hand drawn or CG animation film. But by doing it in stop-motion, doing it this way, you just get a different type of character that is resonant and fitting with the theme of the movie.

DS: What is it about stop-motion animation that resonates so tremendously with audiences? That palpable feeling you get directly from the heart of the animator.

TK: It’s not to denigrate any other form of animation.

DS: Of course not.

TK: I love animation. The computer can do pretty much anything. It’s an extraordinary tool. But I think it’s important to recognize that’s all it is, it’s a tool. It’s a piece of technology used in service of its operators. What really matters is how you use the tool.  At LAIKA, we view all these different things as tools. We use these technological tools in service to the art. It’s not like we’re a bunch of club swinging Troglodytes up here.  We actually do integrate technology into our process. That’s actually one of the things that makes LAIKA different from other animation houses. We fully embrace technology, as well as art and as well as craft.  It’s the fusion of those that allows us to do what we do. But at the core of what we do, is an age-old hand crafted art form. I think that’s what gives our films, ultimately, their spirit. While sometimes you can’t quite put your finger on what you’re looking at and why it has that kind of quality, I really think that does come down to the process.

(l to r) Directors Chris Butler and Sam Fell discuss a car sculpture with Director of Photography Tristan Oliver.

DS: This is the year for stop-motion features.  The Pirates! came out earlier this year, now we have ParaNorman, and Tim Burton’s Frankenweenie comes out later this year. I realize your film hasn’t yet been released, but anyone who has seen it would probably agree it’s quite unique and something very special that has pushed the medium of stop-motion quite significantly. Do you think your film raises the bar or otherwise changes the critical landscape for animated features with the other studios?  

TK: I certainly hope it does. It’s what we setup to do. You spend years of your life working on a film like this.  If you’re going to devote that type of time, it’s at great personal cost often times. These things demand a type of devotion that ends up taking away from your family.  These are hard things to endure.  Any film does that. If you’re going to do that, you want to make sure it’s something that matters. As just a fan of animation, it’s been frustrating for me to see how on some level animation has been ghettoized to a degree.  The creators working in animation have often done themselves and the art form a disservice by repeatedly telling the same kinds of stories in the same kinds of ways. It’s a fallacy to think there are only a handful of stories or types of stories that can be effectively told in animation. That’s something that is at the core of what LAIKA is about. We’re very interested in pushing on the edges of the form. We’re interested in developing creatively richer, more emotionally resonant, more thematically challenging movies.

We’ve all heard this rap before but it’s completely true. The conventional wisdom is that animation is a “genre.” Anyone who loves animation knows it’s not.  It’s a visual medium. “Genre” is a limiting term, hemming in the artistic possibilities. Our approach is that with a visual medium you can tell any kind of story, in virtually any genre.  Coraline was a modern fairy tale in the tradition of the classic Disney fairy tales like Pinocchio and Snow White. But, ParaNorman is a different kind of story. It has threads of the same DNA because it comes from the same place. But it’s a different kind of story.  A coming of age, supernatural comedic thriller, which is a strange hodge-podge of ideas.  It does take risks.  It’s certainly not safe.  But I also think it’s the kind of story that I would have loved when I was a kid. It is the kind of story I did love as a kid. And, it’s the kind of story I don’t see being available for my own kids when I see the options I have to take them to the cinema. There aren’t movies like this. These are the kind of movies I loved growing up and they just don’t make them anymore. Those are exactly the kind of movies we want to make. 

Director of Photography Tristan Oliver adjusts the lighting on one of the sets.

And we don’t flinch.  If there is an element of the story that needs to be dark or intense, that’s a place we will go. Not to traumatize our audience, quite to the contrary. It’s to recognize the intelligence and sophistication of our audience. In order to tell the most powerful story you can, sometimes you have to go into those darker places in order for the lighter moments to have the euphoric quality you want them to have.  To come out the other end richer for the experience.

I love animation so much and I believe in its potential to touch the world.  So, it’s frustrating for me to see when people don’t take advantage of its inherent power.  It’s something we don’t shirk.  We take it very seriously.

DS: Was there any time during the production that you sat back and thought, “Jeez, what did we get ourselves into?” and conversely, was there a point where you said to yourself, “We’re going to be OK, this is going to be good.”

TK: I think I thought both those things all the time. The feeling I had at the beginning, when I decided we were going to make ParaNorman, was the same type of feeling I had when I decided to do Coraline. Which was a belief in the material, confidence and belief in the filmmaker behind it, and fear.  Fear not in that we were making a mistake, that we were not making the right kind of movie. Fear of how people were going to respond.  This is not the easy path. It’s not the safe way to go. Any time you devote that type of time and resources to a project, you have to believe there’s an audience for it. And we certainly do. But it’s not like we have antecedents for it. It’s not like we have reams of data showing that if you make a movie like this it will become hugely successful. The data does not exist.

These sorts of movies are not being made in this medium. So, it always puts me in a state of discomfort. But I also know that if I’m not worrying, I should probably be worried. If I’m not worried, it means we’re doing the safe thing. We’re doing the conventional thing. We’re doing the thing that doesn’t define us as a community and as a company. I’m constantly worried. I’m constantly wondering, why the hell are we doing this, are we really going to do this?  I also know we have an exceptional group of artists here who fully throw themselves and their souls into these projects. We’re telling stories that have significance and resonance. And, we’re doing it in a groundbreaking and visually beautiful way.  All those things combined, I can’t imagine a better way to spend my day.

Liz Allen works at drying a zombie.

DS: Looking at the various roles you have at the studio, is there any one thing you do that gives you the most personal sense of satisfaction?

TK: There’s no shortage of things. By being able to guide this community and this company, to provide a platform for these artists to have their incredible work seen on a global stage, to find those special stories and create an opportunity for those stories to be told to the world, there are a lot of rewarding aspects to my job. In terms of what is deeply the most personally satisfying for me, it goes back to why I got into this business to begin with. It’s bringing something to life.  There is still no aspect of my job that is as satisfying as being on a set, with a puppet, a camera and lights, sweating over the details and actually bringing that puppet to life in a way that transcends the doll and becomes human. That people can connect with a 9 ½ inch tall assemblage of steel and silicon as if it were flesh and blood. It was at the beginning and it still remains to me the most rewarding aspect of my job.  It’s giving life to something.  It’s an extraordinary feeling.

--

Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.

randomness