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