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Travis and the Two Strings

AWN’s resident Miscweant questions LAIKA chief Travis Knight about his directorial debut, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ his approach to filmmaking, and his roots in stop-motion animation.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with LAIKA CEO and Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight, during his recent New York visit to promote the upcoming premiere of his studio’s fourth film. I started our chat by asking him if it’s a coincidence that all four of LAIKA’s films to date -- Coraline, Paranorman, The Boxtrolls and now Kubo center on kid protagonists…

Travis Knight: It is interesting that our first four films all have kids around the same age -- that’s not something you tend to see in modern animation; you did see it back in the old days but not so much anymore. It’s not by design, but you see these connections coming out, something that’s driving it. We’re always looking for those moments in our protagonist’s life that allow you to stylize them, to heighten them in a way that brings as much pathos out as possible.

There are few times in our lives more roiling with those feelings, those emotions than that period of adolescence where you’re making the transition from child to adult. We want to see the most meaningful moment of protagonist’s life. It doesn’t just speak to adolescents either; we’re going thru changes our entire lives.

That said, it’s not necessarily the case [that all LAIKA films will have kid protagonists].

Miscweant: But a kid as a film’s central character; it sounds like something you’re personally passionate about.

Travis Knight

Travis Knight: I remember in my own life going through that transition. That’s what this film is, it’s a maturation metaphor. You’re not necessarily equipped to become an adult yet, but you’re saddled with adult responsibilities, adult thoughts. Making that transition can be painful for us oftentimes. So many things happen to us at that point in our lives. You might not be psychologically equipped to deal with it, but you have to navigate those waters.

Miscweant: Why did you turn to replacement animation for your characters’ faces?

Travis Knight: When we started LAIKA ten years ago stop-motion was dying, it was on life support. Those of us who dedicated our lives to this medium had to figure out a way to reinvigorate stop-motion, bring it into a new era or resign ourselves to other ways of working, CG or whatever.

We did it by applying technology to something that’s an art. Right from beginning we integrated rapid prototyping -- 3D printing -- into our production. Historically, you would create facial expressions by carving something out of wood like the George Pal Puppetoons 70 years ago, or sculpt clay to make those transitions. The other way you would see it done was via a mechanical face using little wires, paddles or gears, like in a Tim Burton film to get better lip sync.

You can get some subtlety with that technique, but it’s not very expressive. You can achieve rich, expressive emotions sculpting clay, but it lacks subtlety: someone has to do that by hand every single time.

When we started exploring how to do it a different way we found this 3D printing technology, which was really in its infancy ten years ago. It seemed like we could bring an age old technique like replacement animation and bring it into new era with innovative technology.

Rapid prototyping is in the name -- it’s not meant to be a mass production tool, it’s to make a prototype of an industrial design or something. We were using this technology in a way it wasn’t intended to be used to get the best of both worlds: the flexibility, nuance and precision of CG, and the warmth and charm of stop-motion, by merging them together.

You can see over the last ten years how that technology has evolved. It became something of a model for everything we do at the studio: whatever tools can we use, no matter where they come from, to make the richest and most evocative images on the screen -- that’s what we have to embrace.

A lot of 3D printing companies are coming to us with questions. Some of the technology we used on Kubo was stuff we co-developed with the company making the technology, stuff that wasn’t even available on the market. We transitioned our facial painting from old to new technology with Paranorman. We hand-painted everything on Coraline; in Paranorman we baked the color into the [3D-printed characters].

There was a moment when we had to decide, are we going to do the thing we’ve always done, tried and true we know we can depend on, or are we going to take this artistic and technical leap? We didn’t know if it was going to work, but we leapt into the void and it worked out great.

Miscweant: All three Laika films to date have received “Best Animated Feature” Oscar nominations—that’s quite an impressive accomplishment.

Travis Knight: It’s a huge thrill and an incredible honor to get a nomination like that. We’re a small independent animation house, we’re not some big multi-national media conglomerate. Creatively we’re going toe to toe with people whose budgets are four times the size of ours. It’s pretty humbling when people appreciate your work, it’s why we do this stuff -- we’re storytellers, we want to share our stories with the world.

People realize what we’re doing is artistically meaningful; that puts us on a bigger stage where more people can be exposed to our work. We want people to see these films -- it means a great deal to us that people think we’re doing good work. We don’t take any of that for granted.

All we’re trying to do is tell the best stories we possibly can, in the most beautiful and evocative way we can. It’s heartening when people respond positively to that. Of course it’s every filmmaker’s dream to win one of those beautiful little statues, but you can’t operate [with that as your goal]. If your film ends up nominated, that’s a blessing.

Miscweant: What bought you into animation?

Travis Knight: I loved animation as a kid. That doesn’t make me unusual, most kids love animation. But I had an interest, a fascination with it that went beyond my peers. I wanted to know how it worked, how to do it myself. I loved the Disney classics, but there was something about stop-motion that I found particularly exciting. I loved the Rankin/Bass holiday specials but above all I loved the Ray Harryhausen creature features. If there’s one human responsible for me going down this path it’s got to be Ray Harryhausen.

When I saw those things on Saturday morning local TV when I was a kid, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad, Jason and the Argonauts, I would just be sitting there rapt, watching. I think there’s something…primal about stop-motion, in the sense that you’re looking at…it’s almost like a child’s plaything bought to life, like imaginative play being seen on the big screen.

I have three kids. When I see my three-year old with his superhero action figures and his dolls he’s doing the voices and noises and sending them on adventures and stuff. You recognize what he’s doing: he’s telling stories, he’s a storyteller. I think that’s an innate part of who we are. Seeing him play with his toys reminds me of the joy I would get watching a Harryhausen film, seeing incredible things you know are not real, but they have this beauty and charm. It feels evocative of that time in our lives when we’re engaging in imaginative play.

I’ve loved stop-motion forever. I tried to figure out how to do it my parents’ basement or their garage. I was terrible, I had no idea what I was doing. There were so few resources for people interested in stop-motion back then: no internet, very few books written about subject. Like so many animators of my generation, you just learned by doing. My first explorations in it were abysmal, they were just awful. As you try things you learn something. You have these little serendipitous moments where you figure things out and apply what you’ve just learned to the next thing.

It’s something I’ve been doing in one form or another for 30 years. I got a production assistant job on The PJs right out of college, moved up to production coordinator, then scheduler. One day I was on a set, we had the puppet and the camera and the set was all lit. We were waiting for the animator but everyone was busy. The guy I was working with was aware I loved animation and had dabbled when I was younger. He said ‘give it a shot.’

I went out there, completely wracked with nerves. You shot on film and watched dailies the following morning. You’re in the screening room with the entire crew, the slate comes on with the animator’s name so everyone knows if it’s a failure or a success. But I did it and it wasn’t terrible.

I started getting more work in stop-motion until that was basically all I was doing. To get to this point as a director has been interesting, because I’ve been in animation professionally for twenty years in a variety of roles. Early on I was a production assistant, a coordinator, a scheduler, a stop-motion animator. I produced films, took something from conception all the way through completion and ran a company then.

It really was by virtue of all those experiences I felt I was finally ready to take a task like this [directing Kubo] on because it was so monumental. I wanted to make sure I was experienced enough from a work perspective, that I had those leadership skills -- and that I had enough life experience to bring some degree of perspective and hopefully some wisdom to the process.

Directing this film was by far the hardest thing I’d ever done in my career, but it was also the most rewarding. It combined so many different aspects of what I’ve done. As an animator you have to fixate on minutiae, the tiniest little details. At the same time, you have to have a global view, you have to extricate yourself from those details and see the big picture, which is something you do as an executive. I really think I was only able to direct this movie because I had those two experiences and was able to blend them together.


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.