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Travis Knight Talks ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

LAIKA’s CEO slides into the director’s chair to helm the studio’s stunning new stop-motion/CG hybrid animated feature.

Anyone lucky enough to visit LAIKA’s remarkable studio, tucked away in a non-descript warehouse outside Portland, Oregon, can’t help but come away part awestruck and part dumbstruck at the sheer insanity of how the studio makes their films. The magnitude of the operation is hard to grasp, partly because it’s so difficult to make sense of the seemingly Monty Pythonesque mélange of high tech wizardry entangled with 1960s service station grease monkey chic. It’s so unlike any other creative space in existence that you can’t help but struggle to grasp exactly how it all works. If ever the phrase, “Yep, we cranked out another film” was appropriate, it most certainly will never be more aptly uttered than from any given workbench on LAIKA’s animation-production shop floor. 3D printers and pneumatic wrenches have never danced together so intimately and with such grace and tenderness. Or clatter.

Today marks the release of the studio’s fourth feature film, Kubo and the Two Strings, their biggest and broadest yet in many ways most intimate movie. An epic tale of a young boy’s quest to uncover the mystery of his father’s fate while racing to escape a terrifying family curse, Kubo is easily the studio’s most ambitious effort, filled with grand vistas and expansive sets as well as a series of uniquely designed environments, characters and mythical creatures that mix classic Japanese graphic design elements with state-of-the-art animation techniques. At times gentle, almost melodic in tone, at other times tense and exhilarating, with action and urgency that never seems too harried or forced, Kubo and the Two Strings, quite simply, is a beautiful, enjoyable and satisfying film.

At its heart, our hero, Kubo, is a storyteller who mesmerizes audiences by magically bringing ordinary paper to life to illustrate his grand tales. Who better to bring such a story to the screen than the talented folks at LAIKA, who magically fuse together the wondrous craft and artistry of stop-motion puppet animation with leading edge CG animation techniques. I recently spoke to the studio’s CEO Travis Knight, who slid over from lead animator to the director’s chair on Kubo, taking the reins of a feature film for the first time. He shared his thoughts on the film’s origin, the inherent difficulties of taking on such an epic story, as well as the passion that pushes him and the studio to make such films using some of the most inherently difficult techniques the medium has to offer.

Dan Sarto: What drew you to this story idea? What was behind the decision to move ahead with this film?

Travis Knight: Right from the beginning, when we started LAIKA, from my perspective, we’ve had a fairly simple mission, although it's been a hard one to pull off -- we've wanted to make movies that matter. We've wanted to take this art form that we love - animation - this incredible form of filmmaking, and push it to places it's never been before. We always want to challenge ourselves and tell new and interesting stories, which has been the driving force with everything that we've done. In terms of how we pull them off, we're just taking this unusual convergence of art and craft and science and technology to bring these ideas to life. So, that's always been the guiding force.

About five years ago, while we were in production on ParaNorman, our brilliant character designer, Shannon Tindle, pitched us a beautiful idea. He's extraordinary and incredibly talented. Even in its raw state, the idea of this beautiful, sweeping samurai epic told in stop-motion…it was just a cool idea. It was something that we've never seen before, and for us to tell a story in that genre, in this big, epic fantasy genre, was an exciting idea that spoke to me on a number of different levels.

When I think back to when I was a kid, I was a big nerd, which is probably no surprise. I was an enormously obsessive fan of epic fantasy. I think it was in my bones from the day I was born, because when I was born, my mom was reading Tolkien's “The Lord of the Rings.” It was in the air as I was taking my first breath.

DS: You soaked it up early…

TK: It was one of the many great gifts my mother has bestowed on me. I loved Tolkien, I loved Star Wars and Lone Wolf and Cub and the films of Ray Harryhausen and Akira Kurosawa. So this movie really was an opportunity for us to paint in those same colors, to aspire to that great pantheon of epic fantasy.

What's more, right around when I was eight, nine years old, I was really starting to get into animation. I was really starting to get into fantasy. I took my first trip to Japan at the time with my father. My father traveled all around the world, and on occasion, he'd take his son along, and I remember how excited I was to be able to go to Japan. He always talked about it, but I'd never been there.

When I went there, it was a revelation. I'd never seen anything like it. I grew up in Portland on the west coast of America, and to be in Japan that first time, the sights, the sounds, the architecture, the buildings, the culture, the music, the movies, the comic books, it was unlike anything that I'd ever seen before and I was completely enthralled.

I came home with this big bag of manga comics, and even though I couldn't understand the language, I poured over them because they had such beautiful visual storytelling. So from a very young age, this was something that I absolutely adored. I've been back to Japan many times since with my father, and myself as an adult, but this movie, it's an encapsulation of all those things I loved right at that time where I was getting interested in all these things -- fantasy and stop-motion and samurai stories and the beautiful art of Japan are all wrapped up in this story.

What's more, when I looked at my own experience, it was very much similar to Kubo's. Ultimately, there were different parallels between his experiences and the journey that he goes on. As the story started to evolve, it changed. You look for the sculpture inside the stone. But as you start to develop the project, you start to find these parallels, and that’s when I realized that basically the story we were telling was like a heightened fantastic version of my own life.

I felt like through the experience of the things that I love, which are reflected in the movie, as well as my own experiences, which are also reflected in the movie, along with 20 years of working in animation, I could finally do the story justice. I was ready for this challenge, and so I took it.

DS: This film is “big” in scope, on a much larger scale in many ways from your previous films. Can you talk a little bit about tackling those visual production challenges?

TK: It's funny because our crew loves challenges, but when you start talking about doing a stop-motion David Lean film, people start to blanch because it flies in the face of what we do. You've been up to our shop. You know what it's like. It's just a big warehouse, and we shoot these things on a tabletop that you gussy up trying to make it look like a real place. But to make a small scale movie shot on a tabletop look and feel like it's an epic shot on an endless vista, it's ridiculous. It's absurd. It's like, who would do that?

DS: Well…you guys would [laughs].

TK: [laughs] Yeah. We got excited about that idea. Kubo is way different from anything we've done before, particularly the last film. It was almost like it went completely the other direction from what we had just done, and every single artist at the studio was incredibly excited about challenging themselves to do this thing that they'd never tried before.

You want the style with each film to evolve naturally out of the narrative, and that's why aesthetically, each of our films has a different production design. With this film here, it was very much inspired by these incredible classic forms of Japanese art. So origami, which is obvious, you see it throughout the film. There's inkblot paintings, there's noh theater, there's Edo period doll making, which were influential on the designs of the characters.

The most prominent influence visually was ukiyo-e, which literally means pictures of the floating world. The most prominent form of ukiyo-e is the woodblock print. The masters, like Hiroshige and Hokusai, were big influences on us. In fact, you see that in the prologue of the movie, when you have this massive wave that was inspired by Hokusai's great wave.

The biggest visual influence artistically was Kiyoshi Saito, who was a 20th century graphic artist. I think he's incredibly interesting because he shrugged off centuries of tradition and started making his prints in a different way where he was essentially the one author of everything that he did. Previously those printmaking jobs were broken up under a number of different people. You'd have your designer and your painter and your carver and your publisher, and they all worked to make one of these prints. Saito did everything himself.

He was also heavily influenced by western painters, by European painters, people like Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse, and he took those influences, was inspired by them, internalized them, synthesized them, and then wove them into his own work to get something new out of the process. Not only was he doing incredible visual work, but his philosophy was completely consistent with the way we make films at the studio. It's a fusion of old and new. It's a fusion of the east and west. It's a fusion of the real and the imagined, and it was just such a perfect touchstone for us visually.

In the end, you take all these things, and just like Saito, you internalize them, you synthesize them, and you come up with something new on the other end. One of the things I'm most proud of is that though it really does feel epic in scope, it also feels in some way kind of like a moving painting, like it's a woodblock print brought to life. It looks unlike anything else. I'm very, very proud of it.

DS: Your studio is known for pushing the technology of stop-motion filmmaking to its limits, and then some. But I’d imagine with the struggles of each new film, you’re better able to harness and control more and more of a standard, or proven set of tools and production techniques. What was the bleeding edge on this film?

TK: It's funny. I think we've talked about this before, but the core creative team that we've had right from the beginning, from Coraline onward, has been essentially the same. We've basically kept the band together – it’s very unusual in this business for a creative team to stay together for ten years.

In that time, it's exactly what you said. We've grown as artists. We've grown as filmmakers. We've grown as people. In fact, we're almost like a family really at this point. In fact, we probably see each other more than we see our own families. That's really unusual, and from film to film, we're able to take all these things that we learn, all the technical and artistic innovations that we learn on a film, and apply them to the next film.

In a typical stop-motion production, you'll learn stuff, but then that stuff all gets scattered to the breeze because those people leave and go to all four corners of the world. That doesn't happen at LAIKA. We build on it, and something we figured out on Coraline that was really challenging, we do now as a matter of course. It's not even something we think about. I think you can see that progression, how the films get increasingly more cinematic, how increasingly the performances and characters get more nuanced and refined because we can build our puppets better and we think about animation in a slightly different way.

For this film, there were a lot of extensions on things that we learned in the past. For instance, the rapid prototyping, the 3D printing that we do on this film, was a combination of things we learned and the application of new technology and new techniques. We had probably the most sophisticated facial animation we've ever had on any film. They really make the characters come to life.

In terms of the cinematography, we did a lot of work on our last film, The Boxtrolls, to really liberate the camera, to really make it come alive, so it didn't feel like it was shot on a tripod. There were a lot of things that we learned in that process that we then applied to Kubo, and then took it even further.

Our director of photography, Frank Passingham, was completely up for the challenge of what we were trying to do here, to embrace these big martial arts battles, which is really hard to do in stop-motion, and then also tackle these incredible vistas that you see onscreen…how we were going to bring that to life, how we were going to light it, and just the movement, that ballet of light and camera and movement. It's just so beautiful, and that's a testament to Frank and his team.

Then there are things like monsters. We have a host of monsters, which really is a nod to Ray Harryhausen and the classic stop-motion monster. We have a number of them. The first one we see is a big skeleton, and you think about Jason and the Argonauts, where Jason is fighting that army of skeletons. This was both a nod to, and an attempt to one up the master.

That was an extension of something we learned on The Boxtrolls. At the end of the movie, we had this big Mecha-Drill, which was the bad guys’ weapon of mass destruction. When we make a film, there's typically a point where we try to figure out, "Okay, how are we going to do this?" We get the department heads together. "Should we do it as a miniature? Should we do it as a full scale model? Should we do it as a CG effect?" They have these debates back and forth.

There was a breakthrough on The Boxtrolls where we figured out that we could treat this machine effectively just like it was a big puppet. The same principles we apply to a normal puppet, we'll just scale up. And that's what we did on The Boxtrolls. This five feet tall Mecha-Drill was just a big puppet.

Knowing we could do that, for Kubo we said, "What's this monster but a sixteen-foot tall puppet?" You figured let’s just kind of scale it up, even though you have to invent technologies to make that work, because what we had didn't work.

Here’s what I love about this giant puppet. We had to develop this hexapod, which moves the character around. You control that with computers and different mechanized things that the animator will use. But then on that same set, you have a cable that's connected to an arm and some brakes from an automobile, and then over here you have a bucket that's holding it together with a sand bag in it. You have these newly invented technologies sitting right next to something that you’d find in your garage. I love that fusion of stuff. On Kubo, we had that all across the board.

Probably my favorite thing is we have this underwater garden of eyes with big stalks and a big ball, the eyeball. Our head of rigging came up with this ingenious solution where it's controlled with a bowling ball and a couple of mouse pads -- you just move the bowling ball and that's what moves the eyeball around. It's just an amazing convergence of technology and craft.

DS: Where did this film take you as an animator and a director that you've never been before?

TK: When I started this, I'm like, "Oh yes, I can animate a lot of this movie," because I always have on everything that we've done before. In fact, on ParaNorman, I animated somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 minutes of footage, which is absurd. It's just ridiculous. I'm like, "Oh yes, I can do that. I can do that on this movie. I can run the company, I can direct the movie, and I can animate."

Well, I bit off a little more than I could chew, because I couldn't do all that any more. I still was able to get my hands dirty, which is always an important part for me. I love to create. I love to make stuff, and I did on this movie as well, just not as much as I typically do.

For animation, I really wanted us to break through. I wanted us to have the most sensitive, nuanced and emotional performances that we've yet seen in a stop-motion film. I wanted these characters to fully come alive. I didn't want anyone to be thinking about, "Oh, that's a puppet. That's a moving doll." I wanted them to be engaged in the story and to connect with these characters with feelings and emotions that they had in their own lives.

That requires incredible subtlety. It requires well-observed human behavior that you then fuse into the puppet. It requires a lot more nuance and refinement in the facial animation, and so that was something I wanted to make sure we captured in the performances of the puppets. But, I also wanted to make sure that when we had these big animated sequences, those felt as exciting and action packed as a live-action film.         

We have one guy who was effectively a stop-motion stunt man. He actually used to be a stunt man, and he understood how to do all these stunts in real life. We figured out the choreography of the fights, and he was our go to guy any time we had some big, crazy stunt in the movie. We had a stop-motion stunt man, effectively. The animation really was a breakthrough. I think it's an incredible evolution from what we've done in the past.

For a director, it's being able to make peace with that fact that you have to reveal something about yourself, and Kubo really does that for me. I fuse aspects of my own life and my own observations with my family, with my children, and with my mother. When I was a kid, I was very much like Kubo. I was a lonely kid. I made friends slowly when I made them at all. I grew up on a mountainside that was 15 miles away from the closest town, and I spent a lot of time alone, and I would spend most of that time creating, drawing, making music, telling stories, just like Kubo does.

When I wasn't doing that, my whole life revolved around my mom. She was my closest friend in the entire world, and this film really does explore that time in our lives when those things begin to shift, when they begin to change irrevocably. There are things we learn along the way, this truth that to love is to hurt -- it makes us vulnerable, it opens us up, but it also is the thing that gives us strength, that heals us and makes our life worth living.

Those are hard truths you learn as you're growing up, as you lose things. But then there are things you gain and wisdom that you experience along the way, and those are things that we had to apply to this movie. It's a testament that all the artists who were drawn to the film understood those truths and brought their own experiences to the process, and hopefully that comes through in the film.

DS: So much of what you and I have talked about over the years regarding LAIKA’s productions centers around, "God, this work is so hard…this film couldn't be any harder…this process couldn't be any more crazy…our sets can’t really get much bigger…we can't stuff anymore gear into this building so I guess we need a bigger building…” At a certain point, can this get any more difficult? Can the sets get any bigger? Can the puppets get any bigger? Is there a practical limit to this way of producing animation?

TK: They're always going to be difficult, no matter what story we tell. They've always been difficult, and they'll never stop being difficult. That's part of the process. They can get bigger. They will get bigger. In fact, there's a story I've been aching to tell that I feel like we're not even ready for yet because I don't think we've advanced enough technologically. That's simmering on the back burner until I feel like we actually are ready to tell that story, and when we do, I hope it will be spectacular. But we're not ready for it.

All those choices are driven by the needs of the story we're trying to tell. With Kubo, it was big and expansive, this big, fantastic, sweeping thing. We tried to make a stop-motion David Lean movie, but that doesn't mean we're always going to do that. There are different stories we're developing that are far smaller in scope and scale, much more intimate, and I'm as excited to tell those as I am to tell the big sweeping epics because they will take the medium to places it hasn't really been before.

At some point, it's like, how much bigger can you get? You can go bigger, but is that really what we want to do? It's not about being big and expansive for its own sake. If that's what the story requires, then we’ll go there and if it doesn't, then we'll go a different direction.

DS: We've talked about this many times before because it's always relevant. LAIKA is tucked away in Portland, far from Hollywood, away from the big studio system. You make risky stop-motion animated films with no planned franchises or sequel. The feature animation space is a crowded space…

TK: …It is, and getting more crowded…

DS: …more crowded every day. There are a number of folks entering the fray in probably the $25 - $50 million U.S. budget range. What’s your strategy to stay competitive?

TK: You're absolutely right. It's getting more and more crowded every day. There are more and more players entering the fray, and that does make things more challenging, because you run the risk of these films cannibalizing each other. You only have so many windows in which you can release a film, and it getting more and more competitive.

You used to have a longer runway between these releases, which meant if there were only so many offerings for families, they would go to a film like this if they were interested in it. Now, if you have a new animated film coming out every two weeks, your playtime gets reduced dramatically

There will be a culling at some point because there can't help but be.

DS: There always is.

TK: There always is, yes. We've seen it historically. For us, all we really are interested in and all we really know how to do is to try to tell stories that speak to us in the best way we know how. We don't create a competitive analysis where we're looking at things that are similar and trying to put big spreadsheets together that tell us, “Okay, we can predict how this thing's going to perform.” We never would have made Coraline if we did that kind of thing, so that's been true right from the start.

The only thing we really know is what speaks to us, what spoke to us as when we were kids, what speaks to us now as parents of kids, what speaks to our own kids, and what we want to devote our lives to doing. You only have so much time on this planet, and if you're going to put all your energy and effort into making these movies, you want it to mean something. I'm not interested in making pop culture confections. I know what the formulas are. I know what the templates are, but I'm not interested in doing that.

We want to tell original stories, which means we take dramatic risk on every single one of these films. It’s nerve racking, but if these are the kind of stories we want to tell, that's what it means. That means every single time out, it's like we're at bat for the first time, and it's scary. But ultimately what excites us is telling new and original stories, and that's what we'll continue to do.

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.