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Laika Studio Site Visit: ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

Low-profile Portland studio houses unique collection of technophiles working alongside luddites, all eclectic artists who together produce beautifully idiosyncratic stop-motion feature films.

Portland Oregon’s unofficial motto is “Keep Portland Weird”—which may be why I feel so at home there. Another reason might be the city’s proximity to the unique stop-motion animation studio, Laika.

Last September the studio invited a handful of journalists to their low-profile production facility in Hillsboro, a few miles west of downtown Portland. There’s no sign in front of the anonymous-looking building indicating it’s the birthplace of Laika’s beautifully idiosyncratic stop-motion features Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.

We were there for a sneak peek at the studio’s then in-progress fourth film, Kubo and the Two Strings—a peek so sneaky we were forbidden to report on our visit until now, just a few weeks before the film’s August premiere. The cavernous building that once housed a plastics factory is now home to an eclectic crew of artists and artisans who have migrated from around the world to help take stop-motion animation places it’s never been before.

We’re given the grand tour of the studio, dropping in on the various departments taking part in Kubo’s creation: costuming, character design, 3D printing, set construction and so on. We learn about the care taken in adapting classical motifs from Japanese art and dress into the look of the film, the challenge of creating armatures and rigging for feathered, furred and elaborately costumed characters, and visit a set where a gigantic monster—18 feet tall with a 24-foot wingspan—is being constructed. Our penultimate stop is a screening room where we’re treated to 15 minutes of action-packed, in-progress footage.

The day finishes with an hour-long sit-down with Kubo director Travis Knight, who also happens to be Laika’s CEO, former lead animator and self-described grande fromage.

Walt Disney may have been his company’s big cheese, but he never drew a single frame of any of his animated classics. Knight on the other hand has been a hands-on participant in creating his studio’s movies, animating successively smaller chunks of each film as his CEO duties expanded along with Laika’s size. This time however, Knight has added on a particularly large task to his responsibilities: Kubo is his directorial debut.

“I’m animating on [Kubo] but it’s impossible to do the kind of footage that I was doing before. When I took on the helm of this thing, I tried to structure my day, ‘I have to make this work, I’ve still got to be CEO but I want to oversee the film, animate on it and do all these other things.’ I started planning out my day and figuring out how I can make it work,” Knight explains.

He muses, “I figured if Ben Affleck can act and direct, well surely I’m as good as Ben Affleck, so I can animate [and direct]. It turns out I’m not as good as Ben Affleck because I can only animate the bare minimum. We started having this thing, my ‘protected animation time’—just about an hour or two during the day where I can shut out the world and just go animate.” Unfortunately, Knight’s CEO duties kept getting in the way: “If there was any kind of scheduling thing, ‘we’ll just use Travis’s protected animation time.’”

“I actually have animated on this movie,” Knight mock-insists. His assertion is backed up by Arianne Sutner, Laika’s head of production and producer of Kubo alongside Knight, who lets us know, “Travis did some of the first animation, Kubo’s mom on the beach.” “On a typical day,” Knight remarks, “I’ll get here early, before anybody else, animate a bit in the morning and then at the end of the day when everyone’s gone home I’ll do a little bit more animation.” He goes onto declare, “I will absolutely animate on every single thing that comes out of this place, but the days I can animate fifteen minutes on a single movie are long gone; it’ll never happen again.”

Subject-wise, Laika’s trio of films to date have all taken place in unique settings: Coraline’s parallel universe, ParaNorman’s zombie-haunted town and the Boxtrolls’ underground lair. While they all deal with the fantastical, Knight notes, “One of the things we do for each movie is try to find the esthetic that reinforces its narrative. In Boxtrolls the world was intricate, heavily detailed, but in Kubo we have wide expanses, open areas where the eyes can rest.”

He continues, “One of the influences was Kiyoshi Saito who was a brilliant 20th century Japanese graphic artist. He was completely self-taught and created unusual woodblock prints using techniques he invented himself. He was inspired by tradition and his cultural heritage, but was also heavily influenced by modernist cubist abstract painters from western Europe. It was all those things co-mingling, a fusion of east and west. His images are very graphic, distilled down to their essence: big bold shapes using a simple palette and contrasting wood grains in the finished print.”

“Those were elements we tried to bring into the film. Each sequence has a very simple palette. The streets, the skies, the clothing, the sea all have elements of that woodblock grain within them that binds them together esthetically,” Knight adds.

Kubo is set in an imaginary ancient Japan. Its titular hero is a young boy who has the power to create living origami creatures—and a vengeful grandfather who happens to be the Moon King, along with twin aunts who are deadly assassins.

As Knight describes, “Going back a good number of years, I really wanted us to find a story evocative of the big epic fantasies I enjoyed growing up, the things by Spielberg and Lucas, Kurasowa and David Lean, movies that had big sweeping visions behind them. They’re virtually impossible to do in this medium but I wanted us to try. When we started developing this story I thought maybe it could have that big epic fantasy quality, but that’s all window dressing, the surface. What really got me excited about this film was its emotional core, and that’s something that evolved as we were developing it—the story of this boy and what ultimately becomes his surrogate family.”

“It resonated with me deeply, personally—there’s a lot of me in this movie. The more we developed it and the more of it I took on, the more you just use your own experiences. You put your own personality, your own soul into these things. Right off the bat I knew this was something really special. I felt like I was part of what it was, that I could do an adequate job of bringing it to the world,” he says.

Envelope-pushing and innovation have been part of Knight’s game plan for Laika since the studio was born out of the ashes of Will Vinton Productions a decade ago. He shares, “For me traditional stop-motion has always been something of a barrier; it can look cool and charming, but is it immersive? No. We try very, very hard to inject that level of refinement and nuance into performances so the characters feel like living breathing things you can connect with emotionally and have empathy for them.”

The director adds, “One of the reasons we always have a bit of a button that peels back the curtain at the end of every film is to show people they’ve been watching stop-motion puppets for the last hour and a half—but we don’t want them thinking about technique while they’re watching the film.”

While you can walk into any Toys R Us or department store and stumble over piles of Zootopia and Finding Dory products, merchandise based on Laika characters is notable by its absence. “It’s not by design on our part, it’s just the reality of where the world is,” Knight explains. “It’s very challenging for potential partners to shack up with original intellectual properties—it just doesn’t happen. People are totally on board with franchises or sequels, but you’re taking a chance anytime you’re going out with something completely original.”

And speaking about franchises and sequels, does Laika have any interest in going that route with a ParaNorman II or Coraline 2: Revenge of the Other Mother, reusing the hundreds of Norman Babcock and Coraline heads in its vaults?

“It’s not tempting at all,” Knight notes. “Even though you end up falling in love with these characters, they have backstories and further adventures that will never see the screen. For a story to be worth watching it has to be the most pivotal experience of the protagonist’s life. If you’re doing a sequel is it going to be the second most pivotal experience? It’s a diminishment of what the original story was; we don’t want to take a bunch of old presents and re-wrap them as new gifts.

Knight continues, “Sequels and certain long running series have a different model which can work. I loved Norman, I loved all those characters; I’m emotionally connected with them and I can imagine what their stories are beyond what we did…but we told that story and it’s done. What makes it so emotional for me is that I’m usually the last animator on the show. When I take that last frame, it’s over, I’m never gonna bring this character to life again. It’s sad; at the end of every show I get depressed because I’m saying goodbye to these people that are never going to be part of my life again.”

Laika is ramping up its production schedule to release a new film every year, a goal presenting an entirely new slew of problems, “a logistical nightmare with overlapping films shooting concurrently,” according to Knight. He estimates that “at any given time there are some ten things in development here. Some are emerging ideas, some are pretty well developed. Sometimes they don’t make it, we can’t crack the story for whatever reason.”

“We only take on things we love that have something really special, so it’s even more heartbreaking when you can’t make it work.  Right now we know what Kubo’s follow-up is and a pretty good idea of the next couple films beyond that. After that things get a little hazy, but we have a rough idea what those films might be,” he explains.

The in-production follow-up Knight mentions is Goblins, based on kids’ books author Philip Reeve’s novel. Laika optioned the novel before its 2013 publication; according to the studio’s press release, Goblins is “set in an extraordinary world of brilliantly original monsters and magical creatures,” in which “giants, cloudmaidens, swamp monsters, treewarriors, rampaging goblins and hapless humans will be swept into a fabulous magical conflict.”

Natural material for Laika and Knight, who would like to see the studio “hit a story in pretty much every genre there is before I shuffle off this mortal coil.”

Both the man and the studio are doing their part to live up to Portland’s motto. Says Knight, “Portland is really a perfect place for us to be. [Boxtrolls co-director] Tony Stacchi called this place ‘Burning Man in the off season’ and I think that sums us up pretty well. He’s a weirdo—but we all are. Every single person here is some sort of a misfit and we’ve somehow all miraculously found each other.”

Knight concludes, “The power of that group of people, you see it onscreen, it’s just extraordinary. You have technophiles and luddites working side by side, astronaut and caveman: ‘go have fun guys.’ Smashing people like that together creates fertile ground for innovation. We’re proud how we’ve taken a stodgy art form to place it’s never been before. With every film we’ve enhanced what we can do. In a medium that’s over 100 years old it feels like we’re just scratching the surface of what you can do with this stuff.”

Joe Strike's picture

Joe Strike has written about animation for numerous publications. He is the author of Furry Nation: The True Story of America's Most Misunderstood Subculture.

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