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