LAIKA’s CEO discusses the Portland-based studio’s groundbreaking, Oscar-nominated stop-motion masterpiece.
With an Academy nod for their third film The Boxtrolls, LAIKA further assumes their rightful place in an increasingly crowded and brutally competitive animated feature film studio landscape. The Portland-based studio continues to push the creative and technological boundaries of stop-motion animation with each successive film they produce. Much has been written over the last few years about their extensive and intricate use of 3D printers to create literally thousands of facial replacement parts for their puppets. But as impressive as their production methodology and use of new technology have become, the studio’s most admirable accomplishment is the fact that they even exist at all – an independently financed feature film studio, setting up shop far from the “scene” in Hollywood, working in the increasingly rare medium of stop-motion animation. As far as recipes for success, studio CEO Travis Knight would be hard pressed to choose one with a more difficult to find list of ingredients.
But when you talk to Knight, you begin to realize he’s exactly where he wants to be. Passionate about his studio and articulate about the challenges they face, Knight exudes a humble confidence you can’t help but admire. And after seeing the sophisticated stop-motion film studio he’s built inside LAIKA’s giant warehouse-like studio space and the uniquely beautiful and engaging films they produce, that admiration quickly turns to amazement. When you see what these folks do with puppets, you’ll never look at a G.I. Joe or My Pretty Pony doll the same way again.
I recently had a chance to talk to Knight about LAIKA’s most recent film, the challenges of pushing rapid prototyping 3D printing technology to its limits, and the difficulties of finding theatrical success in an increasingly competitive feature film business.
Dan Sarto: Each of your studio’s three films has pushed the boundaries of state-of-the-art stop-motion filmmaking. From a story standpoint however, The Boxtrolls is very different from Coraline and ParaNorman. What is the genesis of this project?
Travis Knight: I’m very proud of the way this film came together. It was a long winding road to get here. We went through a long period of development trying to figure out the story, trying to distill Alan Snow’s great book, “Here Be Monsters!,” this massive tome with 550 some-odd pages, down to a 90-minute film. That was the thing that took the longest time and was the trickiest to figure out. And then once we moved into pre-production and production, that’s where you bring this army of people together to give life to this story in the most beautiful and evocative way you can. That of course is always a challenge. And in the process we continue to redefine the medium -- what you can do within the medium. That’s always a challenge as well. So when I see it all come together, I’m very proud. The work of this community of artists all came together in this beautiful package and tells a very sweet, evocative story.
DS: This story was derived from a huge book. I’m sure you went through countless iterations during the development process to get to the point where you were ready to begin production. Looking back now, is this the film that you envisioned making? Is the film you ended up with the film you set out to make?
TK: No, but I don’t know that you ever do. In the beginning, you have in your head the version of the film that you’re making. But it’s not just “your” film. It belongs to this artistic community of people. They all bring something of themselves to it. They all bring their own experiences, their own ideas, their own imagination. It’s an organic thing -- it evolves over the course of the production. When I look back to when we first started developing “Here Be Monsters!” it was a story rife with environments, different characters, trotting badgers, cabbage heads, rabbit women, sea cows and all these different things. Boxtrolls were just one small part. And in the early versions of the story draft, we tried to stay very faithful to the plot and different elements of the book. But it got to the point where it was just a big mess. It was like trying to distill, “What are we trying to say with this movie?” and we couldn’t. With all these things happening, it was just a bunch of noise. And so even though there were a lot of fun things happening, it didn’t mean anything. It was just hollow and frenetic.
Partway through that process, we said, “No, no, no, we’ve got to figure out what it is we’re trying to say here, what story we’re trying to tell. It has to connect with us. It has to be something that we’re willing to devote the next handful of years of our lives to making.” So getting that down to the core was a tricky thing. It had to do with parents and their children, families and absentee fathers and all that stuff that as people working in animation, we can understand. It’s about that balance between family and meaningful work -- that was getting to the core of the story. And then once you had that very simple idea, then you could start folding in layers of metaphor and meaning and develop ideas of society and everything else. One of the things I absolutely love about the way this film came together is that we were able to layer the film with all those different things but still maintaining that very beautiful core personal story.
DS: With your studio’s huge collaborative artistic effort, were there any happy accidents that were especially meaningful or helpful to the production?
TK: I don’t even know where to begin to tell you about all the different surprises that came along the way. They came from all the different areas of production, everything from the actors to the rapid prototyping department to the animators and the camera guys. All across the film, different ideas, different innovations would happen along the way. A very simple thing is when you cast for actors you have a very clear idea of who these characters are in your head. You bring in actors who obviously are tremendous artists and who have their own point of view on the world. You bring them into the recording studio and ask them to give life to a character. They’re not necessarily going to do that in the way you thought they would and that changes your understanding of who this character is. They give the character a different dimension, a different authenticity. Sometimes it changes their space within the film. You suddenly find a new, really interesting angle on this character. So then you need to adjust and modulate that role within the film. That happened all throughout.
Then there are things like what happened once by accident in the rapid prototyping department during production on ParaNorman. We did with this kind of squash and stretch Angry Aggie where her face is stretching all over the place. We accidentally sent multiple files to our 3D printer at the same time and it printed in this weird overlapped way. We saw it and went, “My god, this is just like an old smear that you would see with hand drawn animation.” And so by being able to use the technology in a different way, we created a key story point with the character of Allergy Snatcher. It’s a guy whose own body is fighting him, what he is doing and what he shouldn’t be doing. And we can visualize him starting to swell and deteriorate. We can dramatize that by seeing the effect of his dream on his body. That mistake on ParaNorman led to the understanding that we could push this technology to deform and get really gelatinous looking faces.
Our camera work was something we brought a kinetic quality to in a way that we hadn’t before. Too often stop-motion feels like it’s shot on a tabletop because in actuality, it is. But we wanted to bring some vitality to the camera work, to make it actually feel more like live action filming with more hand held moves, that kind of thing. Our director of photography, who used to be an animator years ago, was able to bring processes in that allowed the camera work to feel more organic. It didn’t feel like you were always locked into having the camera move like it did in the old days. So every single department came up with different little innovations that you couldn’t haven’t anticipated.
DS: It’s easy to focus attention on the “how” you make your films because the process is so incredibly complex and fascinating. You defined it in Coraline, you refined it in ParaNorman and now you’ve really expanded it into an industrial strength production pipeline for The Boxtrolls. Where do you go from here? What does the next “state-of-the-art” stop-motion pipeline look like?
TK: It’s difficult to say. We used rapid prototyping with 3D printers for the first time on Coraline and it was just an amazing tool. It had all kinds of hiccups, all kinds of problems because we hadn’t used a tool like that before. We were embracing technology in a way that stop-motion never had before. But we got our toes wet on that film before fully diving in on ParaNorman. We started to bring greater verisimilitude to our designs and textures to make them feel more like real skin. And once we knew we could do that, we went in a different direction on The Boxtrolls, which was to say, “OK, we know we can approximate reality, but we’re looking for a more theatrical look on this film, which means smashing these strange opposing colors into each other to feel more like an impressionist painting.” But then we found the volumes had to change. The heads had to shrink in scale because we went with more naturalistic proportions rather than the bobble-heads we had on Corlaine and ParaNorman. But they still had to be just as expressive even though you were dealing with much smaller surface area. So, how can you get these materials to behave the way you want them to on a repeated basis? This stuff [3D printing] was never designed to do this kind of work. Rapid prototype is the name for a reason. It’s supposed to be a prototype [laughs]. It’s a not a mass production device…
DS: …[laughs]Yeah…it’s for one-offs…
TK: …So we’ve really pushed what this technology can do. What I love is that on Coraline I felt like when we finished the film, we had reached this kind of stop-motion pinnacle. I didn’t know where we were going to go from there. I didn’t know. Well, we always push and we always try to take the medium beyond where it’s been before. With each successive film, we’ve built on every innovation we achieved on the previous film and taken it to a place I can’t imagine. That’s the exciting thing for me. As weird as it sounds, stop-motion is a century old technique and we’re just scratching the surface of what this medium can do.
I’m very proud of our last three films, but as I look at our next three films I’m both excited and terrified because I don’t know where we’re going to go in terms of process and technique. But I also know that our processes and techniques will be virtually unrecognizable at the end of our next three films from what they are right now.
DS: You wear so many hats at the studio, all at the same time. What are the main lessons you learned on this film? As the studio CEO? As the film’s lead animator?
TK: Every film is a challenge. Even making a horrible film is difficult [laughs]…
DS: …[laughs] And so many people are so good at that…
TK: …So the fact that any film ever gets made is a testament to the people who pour themselves into it. To aspire to make the kind of films we want to make, films which are thought provoking and emotionally resonating, have something meaningful to say and have a shelf-life, to actually execute on that, it’s a miracle! It’s a miracle any of these things ever come together. And so while Coraline had its own challenges, as did ParaNorman, this one had its own unique set of challenges as well. But by being able to see things clearly, we confront new problems we hadn’t anticipated and are able to work through them. We build up those muscles by solving problems successfully like we’ve done on this film. There were times when we were making The Boxtrolls when I felt, “My god, I don’t know how we’re going to get through this. I don’t how we can do this. This is a problem that’s insurmountable. I don’t know what we’re going to do!” But then we went and figured it out. For me, it’s the absolute faith that I have in our team of artists that they can get through anything. Even when none of us know how to do something, somebody comes up with something and we figure it out. That spirit, that belief, that camaraderie and that determination to work hard until we figure something out, that’s something that infuses every corner of that building [LAIKA’s Portland studio] and it’s what inspires me to continue to tell different kinds of stories. I know this group of people can do anything. That means as I look ahead at our upcoming films, I won’t be hampered by, “Well, the technique can’t do that” or, “The medium can’t bear that sort of thing.” It means we can tell any story. That’s really exciting.
DS: That must give you tremendous freedom with regards to developing the studio’s next slate of films.
TK: Yeah. I’m really proud of the three films that we’ve made at this point. I’m really proud how far we’ve taken the medium, from 2009 when Coraline came out to 2014 when The Boxtrolls came out. Think about how far we’ve pushed things in just a short amount of time. As I look into the future towards our next three films, it’s really exciting for me. We’re planning on doing things that have never been done before in this medium. I just can’t wait to share those stories with people because people won’t know what they’re looking at.
DS: You talked about this fantastic team you have. The work obviously showcases the talent you’ve put together under one roof. Talking to Tony [co-director Anthony Stacchi], he said the crazy people you have, their capabilities, it’s like a having a group of welders.
TK: He calls it Burning Man in the off-season.
DS: [Laughs] Right. I remember him mentioning that. Is there a prototypical artist who works best with you guys?
TK: We’re like the Island of Misfit Toys. This is a group of people that probably wouldn’t fit in anywhere else [laughs]. Yet somehow we magically found each other and with these odd skill sets and this kind of odd passion that very few people in the world share, together as a collective, this community, it all combines in a unique way that makes the studio what it is.
Portland is a strange place. It’s an odd town. It’s this weird little hipster Mecca and it draws a certain kind of human. The same kind of human that’s drawn to Portland is drawn to LAIKA. They’re the perfect kind of employee. We have people who make miniatures, who are seamstresses, or jewelry makers or clock makers or whatever. We have people who are inventing technologies. We have people who work with their hands and people you do nothing but use their brains, all together in this group. Any time you have those different philosophies at play you have tension. But you also have fertile ground for creativity. You have different points of view and problems arise, but new ideas arise as well and that’s what allowed us to take the medium where it hasn’t been ever before.
DS: The last two years have been fairly interesting in the feature film business. Some films have completely overachieved and some have achieved what by most standards would be considered fine but by animation studio standards is considered disappointing. Do you think we’ve reached a point where we may be over-saturated with big animated films? Have audience expectations changed? Or, are stories just not resonating as before with those audiences?
TK: It’s a combination of a lot of those things. The film industry is evolving. Audience tastes are shifting. Audience opportunities to enjoy different kinds of entertainment are vast. They don’t have to go to the multiplex any more. They can get great entertainment on their phone or iPad. They can easily find really interesting content in new ways. Keeping up the pace with interesting stuff that can really best be experienced in a multiplex is a challenge to the industry. It’s a challenge to filmmakers.
But I also believe that we as an industry are doing a disservice to ourselves and to the medium by telling the same kinds of stories in the same kind of ways. We live in an era where sequels and reboots, remakes and prequels are pretty much the only thing that anyone is doing of any note. We’re taking these old presents, rewrapping them and offering them up as new gifts. That can have a short term benefit, but ultimately at what cost? You start turning audiences off when they go to see films that are all the same stuff they’ve seen before, when you’re rebooting something that just had a reboot five years ago.
So where do we go from here? We need individual voices. We need individual films. It’s riskier. You don’t have built-in IP. It’s harder to justify spending any kind of money on something like that. But I also think that’s the only way you can draw people back into film -- offering them unique experiences. Film is a kind of modern mythology. It’s the best, most economical way to tell an emotional story that we can all experience as a community. By not taking advantage of that like we have historically, we’re in real danger as an industry of doing damage to the future of film. That’s one of the reasons why at LAIKA, we make the films we make because we feel like that’s what is necessary to succeed in this medium.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.