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