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Travis Knight Takes Flight with ‘Bumblebee’ -- Part 1

In the first part of AWN’s two-part interview, the director of Paramount’s new ‘Transformers’ sci-fi action adventure shares how love, empathy and connecting with others lies at the heart of his new film.

Click here to read "Travis Knight Takes Flight with ‘Bumblebee’ -- Part 2."

On one hand, LAIKA CEO Travis Knight’s helming of Bumblebee, Paramount’s latest Transformers franchise film, may seem like a headscratcher to many. After all, the hand-crafted puppet-filled sets of stop-motion films like Kubo and the Two Strings and The Boxtrolls seem far removed from the frenzied and often overwhelming action-filled world of Optimus Prime, Megatron and the dozens of other marauding robots who have wreaked havoc on Earth over the course of five Michael Bay-directed films.

With the exception of the original Transformers (2007) and now Bumblebee, the other four films in the series have been drubbed by critics, loosely driven by stories that while wildly entertaining, leave audiences grasping for meaning. However, they’re proven box office gold -- the Transformer films have earned well over $4 billion worldwide. Few studio executives fail at grasping the meaning of such numbers.

On the other hand, it makes perfect sense that a stop-motion animation director like Knight, skilled in filmmaking that employs many of the same tools, techniques and technology, would be the perfect candidate to take on such a “big” live-action CG film. He brought with him a disciplined approach to telling a story frame by frame, scene by scene, something “new” and certainly different for the franchise -- Bumblebee is, at heart, an emotional story, built around a troubled girl who finds herself as she develops a relationship with a “lost” transforming alien robot that is also searching for a purpose to its existence.

Germany-based journalist Johannes Wolters recently spoke with Knight in Berlin about the film, his complete surprise at being approached to direct, the challenges of taking on such a big studio project and his drive to ensure “his take” on Bumblebee’s story touched audiences with the same emotional impact as did many of the films he’s admired since he was a kid.

Johannes Wolters: What would you consider to be the core of your movie?

Travis Knight: Fundamentally, to distill it down to its essence… Bumblebee is a movie about love and empathy. It’s a movie about connection. It is a movie about relationships and what the deprivation of relationships can do to us. That can hollow us out. And, when you find a meaningful relationship, how that can fundamentally change your life. That’s the core of what the story is about. That’s how Bumblebee, this stranger in a strange land, found his affinity for humans, his connection with that girl, that connection that gave him his purpose. It’s about how he regained his voice. Both metaphorically and literally. And it’s how this girl, this broken girl from a broken home, was made whole again by her relationship with this creature. They found each other, and they made each other whole. I think there is beauty and truth in that and that was the movie I wanted to make!

JW: To me, the Transformers movies have been these fantastic technical enterprises without a heart. Now, for the very first time, I really care for one of those guys. He has a heart and soul. It must have been very tricky to give this piece of metal a heart.

TK: Not even a piece of metal. It’s something that doesn´t even exist. It’s just ones and zeros that come out of a computer. It’s very tricky. It’s one of the things I think is the greatest magic trick. When I think about the history of cinema, its origins are dusted in magic. A lot of those early filmmakers were stage magicians like George Méliès. So, cinema came in a little bit dusted in magic.

If you can pull something like this off, you can effectively trick the audience into thinking that this thing is not only real, but alive! It has thoughts and feelings when in fact it never existed! It’s a virtual thing that exists in a computer. If you can make the audience think that thing is alive, and emotionally connect with it, that to me is magic.

As an animator, that’s what I have always tried to do. It’s like tapping into my own observations, experiences, thoughts and feelings to somehow breathe life into a character. When it works, it is the greatest feeling in the world, knowing other people are connecting with something that only possesses the life you imbued it with.

JW: As a former animator....

TK: Former nothing! You’re never a former animator. One is always an animator!

JW: Does that mean, from now on, you will always see yourself as an animator and not a big-time director or producer?

TK: Oh, yeah. First and foremost! That is how it began! It’s in my blood. I will always animate! Until my hands do not work anymore! Absolutely! [looking at his hands] They are still pretty nimble!

JW: There is not much spontaneity in making stop-motion films. I admire your patience making these types of movies. I would go mad with this process. But with Bumblebee, you had characters on set that actually walked and talked on their own. That must have been quite interesting and different for you.

TK: Yeah. It’s funny… the process is very different in a lot of ways, but there are a lot of analogs from one system to the next. The way we create a stop-motion film, many of the departments and processes are replicated in live-action. Of course, stop-motion is moving at a much slower pace and is done on a much smaller scale. And yes, actors talk back, they are not just samples of silicon and steel. But, there is actually a fair amount of spontaneity in stop-motion. It’s a bit misunderstood due to the process. Because you have to be incredibly disciplined and thoughtful on how you lay all this stuff out, you can’t just make stuff up as you go. So, an animator has to bring discipline to their work. But, as you create, as you make something, you always run into a problem where things are not going exactly as you’d like them to go. And, you have to be able to shift gears on the fly. In stop-motion specifically, there is a kind of improvisational quality to the work as you create it. But this is nothing compared to what we have in live-action because you’re dealing with different personalities and people’s moods....

JW: “Give me a close up, give me a close up!” [Daffy Duck, in Duck Amuck].

TK: [laughing] Nobody ever said that! I mean things like the weather or the sun! Things shifting around. You have to be nimble and able to shift gears depending on what happens, never mind if you have it all laid out. I approached Bumblebee like I would approach a stop-motion film. The planning was very disciplined. But... the best laid plans… things go wrong, things don’t go exactly as you like, so you have to shift gears.

JW: Do the 1980s represent paradise for us, the best place to have had a childhood?

TK: It’s funny, but I think it’s natural. You see people who grew up in that era and are now at a point in their careers where they can tell stories. Often, we go back to the things we loved and had an obsession for when we were growing up. We have a lot of filmmakers now who are making films that were inspired by things from the 80s, from their own childhood. In another decade, stuff will be set in the 90s. It’s a natural thing for filmmakers to go back where they first fell in love with different kinds of art, or were obsessed with specific kinds of music or stories. Those things we love deeply become a part of who we are.

JW: Until now you made stop-motion films heavily enhanced with CGI, a form of hybrid film which has no name. Now, you’ve made a so-called live-action movie heavily enhanced by CGI...

TK: It is a different kind of hybrid!

JW: Is it?

TK: It is! Stop-motion, which is effectively the animation equivalent to live-action, mixed with CG, is what I have previously done. 2D Animation as well. And on this film, it was live-action mixed with CG and a little bit of 2D as well. It’s kind of playing in this similar sandbox, with the big difference being the live-action part.

JW: But it does not have a name?

TK: It doesn´t. Which is funny, because people are talking about the new --

JW: The “live-action” Lion King!

TK: Exactly! A “live-action” Lion King? What? [laughing] What is live-action there? Our film is effectively a two hander about this girl Charlie and Bumblebee. One hand is flesh and bone, while the other is ones and zeros. Bumblebee is an animated creature that didn’t exist when we shot the movie. It was all theater of the mind. I employed different tricks that I used in stop-motion to get people to understand what they were looking at any given time. There was just Hailee and nothing! And she had to do a real, emotional performance and everybody had to know what the robots were doing at that point.

So, I storyboarded all that out. It was all in my brain. We didn’t even see a robot until well into post-production. It’s a credit to both the cast and crew that they were able to “see” what I was going for…as well as for the animators at ILM, who had never really done this kind of performance before. They had done a lot of great spectacle. But, at the beginning, I said, “Look, this movie is about character, so we need to treat this robot as a real living, breathing thing, that feels and has thoughts and hopes.” When you can make people feel an emotional connection to a character that doesn’t really exist, that is magic. And I think we did it.

JW: Coming from stop-motion, was it difficult to adapt to the world of CG?

TK: No. I’ve animated in CG before. I’ve done stop-motion as well as hand-drawn animation. So, I’m familiar with all these processes. I worked for years in commercials doing both stop-motion and CG. I’ve done visual effects in CG and worked with CG teams for the better part of 15 years. So, there was no learning curve at all.

JW: But it’s hard, physical work to animate in stop-motion, compared to sitting in front of a computer screen manipulating CG characters.

TK: Oh certainly! There is an immediacy to stop-motion that you don’t really get in CG. When you are on set, playing with your puppet, playing back your scene, how you manipulated the object, how it’s playing, and everything is lit and “rendered,” everything is beautiful in that moment when you’ve captured the frame that is going into the movie. With CG, there are so many iterations, moving from the very first pass, when it’s very clunky looking, stuff is floating around and there are splines all over the place, to a refinement pass, when you start to hone the performance.

The CG process is completely iterative, whereas in stop-motion, it’s progressive: you start one way, at one place and end at another. And that´s it. With CG, you go through a cycle, then you go through another cycle where you give notes, and then another... so it is a very different process. Even then, once you’ve locked down the animation performance, you have to light it, apply textures, then composite everything all together. You don’t really know how it’s going to look until the very, very end. But, you still arrive at a great place. In stop-motion as soon as you capture the frame and the shot is done, you know exactly how it’s going to look. They’re just different ways of approaching animation. Fundamentally, it’s really the same -- it’s all about the performance.

JW: Could you have made Bumblebee using stop-motion?

TK: That would never have been possible! I’d still be making the film now! It’s such a slow process. But, it would have been super cool....

JW: How was working with your executive producer, Steven Spielberg?

TK: It was really a dream come true on a lot of levels He was so inspirational to me! The first film that ever moved me to tears as a kid was E.T. I saw it with my mom in the theater when I was eight years old. I remember being this blubbering, weeping mess by the end of the movie. I’d never experienced anything like that before. And it made me realize, at a pretty young age, the power of film, how it can tap into something that we might not even know was in there. That’s the best part of what art does, that connectivity with empathy. Binding us together over shared experiences. So, he was the guy that first made me think about that. I’ve loved and admired Spielberg’s as an auteur my entire life.

When I first met him, he mentioned how he’d watched Kubo with his grandkids, and when they came to the end of the movie, he said he wanted to give the movie a great big hug. I remember how, in that moment, my spine liquified hearing how he had enjoyed my movie!

In terms of the spirit of Bumblebee, I was trying to evoke the same feelings of those great classic coming-of-age Amblin films from the 80s, which to me, always evoked wonder, laughter and tears! That was at the heart of what I wanted to capture in this movie.

JW: Any idea why they reached out to you to direct the movie?

TK: It’s an interesting question. On some level, you would have to ask the powers at Paramount why they wanted to work with me. Because to me, that’s a Skinner box -- I have absolutely no idea what is happening in that universe. All I know is that at some point, they reached out to me and said they wanted to talk with me about a new Transformers film. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding! Me? That’s not going to happen!” Why do they want me to direct a Transformers film?

Michael Bay is a very, very different filmmaker then I am. He is an incredible cinematic stylist. But, I made a very different kind of Transformers movie. In the end, you get the gig based on what they are buying and what you are selling. I thought, I have no shot at it. So, when I sat down with them, I was kind of like, “Whatever… this is the movie I would make.” I was expecting to meet some nice people and then go on my own merry way. When they called me up a day or two later and told they wanted me to do it, I was absolutely, completely shocked. I was stunned that they wanted to make a movie like this.

JW: What do you think they saw in you and your ideas that made them choose you?

TK: That’s a great question which I’ll probably never be able to answer. The short answer is probably that the producers at Paramount saw something in Kubo that they felt was interesting, that showed a certain familiarity with visual effects, complicated visuals and action as well as emotion. I think they saw something in it that they wanted to try and tap into for the Transformers franchise. So, when we started talking, for me, it was like, “OK, if you want to make a movie in the Transformers world, this is the kind of movie I’d make.” I explained very clearly my philosophy. But, I think having made Kubo, and my experience at LAIKA, those things gave them confidence that I could pull it off.

JW: What did you tell them regarding how the film “should” be made?

TK: For me, it was going back to the beginning. When I was a kid growing up in the 80s and experienced the Transformers for the first time, I thought they were magical, I thought they were wondrous, I thought they were cool. They invented the idea that every object around you had an inner life. That is such a cool, kind of “kidlike” idea. So, I wanted to tap into the films and stories of that era, technically, emotionally, like the Amblin stuff. But, what it really came down to was I wanted to give the audience a reason to care. I wanted to give the audience an emotional story. When I think about all the films I have ever done, the kind of films that stuck to my ribs as a kid, the kind of things that meant something to me when I was growing up, those were movies that made me think…that made me feel.

We’ve all experienced plenty of beautiful spectacle, something that you watch in awe. It washes over you. Then, you go away and forget about it within a hand full of moments. Those are not the kind of experiences I want to bring to audiences.

I want to bring a cinematic experience that is resonant, that is emotional. And so, that kind of philosophy was what drove me to create my studio LAIKA, to create films that are kind of this artful balance between darkness and light, with intensity, warmth, humor and heart, with real emotion and human-ness at their core. They speak to us about what it is to be alive, to connect with people. That is what art does -- it allows to us to connect!

JW: The most crucial part of any film is the first 15 minutes. You pull that off brilliantly. You give us the first minutes on Cybertron, which have everything about the Transformers any kid ever dreamt about: scenery, fighting, unbelievable stereoscopic depth. Then, you cut to trees and forests! You go in the opposite direction, which I thought was such a clever idea! How did you come up with that?

TK: Thank you! That was the idea! This is my version of what would be a great and perfect distillation of a Transformers movie, starting in Cybertron, seeing those characters in their iconic shapes, having really cool kinetic action that is easy to follow because the silhouettes are simplified… but then we pivot. It’s a gear shift.

That’s what sets things in motion, though it’s not fundamentally what the story is about. That is our way of easing into it. This is what Transformers has been, and this is where it’s going now. It’s a shift that we see. That incredibly kinetic world that we see filled with action and explosions, cool transformations and fighting - with a different prism. Ultimately, we’re telling Bumblebee’s origin story and his relationship with this girl. So, we give the audience that little taste and then go in a different direction.

JW: Was there a lot of pressure making this film?

TK: Yes, of course. These are big films. There were a lot of stakeholders, a lot of people who had different perspectives on what they wanted out of this movie. I don’t know if I would use the word “fight,” but definitely [as the director], you have to have a point of view and you have to be forceful about what that is. One of the great little bits of advice I got from Michael Bay early on, that really stuck with me to this day - we sat down, we chatted, I tried to pick his brain on his philosophy and how he approached these things, which was very interesting and informative -- was, “Look, there are a lot of players involved in a project like this so you have to protect the movie.” Those three words: “Protect the movie!”

There are all kinds of noises, all kinds of chaos, all kinds of pressures, all kinds of things that are pulling you in all kinds of directions. You’ve got to be the one person who is guiding this thing through all these stormy waters. There were lot of dark times, where I was challenged by a million different things. And that’s really what it’s about: creating the best movie possible. I had to protect that: the original idea that I took into this movie, my original pitch, the original idea, the emotional core of the movie. It was something I had to preserve. And I feel like I did it!

JW: How did the pressure manifest itself?

TK: In every way you would expect. I mean, these films cost millions upon millions of dollars. And people… bean counters… are running their analyses. You have to appeal to every demographic and there are formulas for these sorts of things. And then of course, every different group has their own ideas about what that is. So, there are a lot of different ideas at play and a lot of them are contradictory. You could absolutely follow every one of these directives and you would have this hodgepodge mess that would not make any sense, that would appeal to nobody! I have always operated under the belief that a movie fundamentally needs one set of eyes and one pair of hands to guide it forward. Films are a beautiful collaboration of a lot of incredible artistic souls -- that’s how these things come to life. But in the end, it has to have a point of view! And that has to come from the director. In this case, that was me.

So, you listen to everyone, to all these different ideas, feel all those different pressures. But, ultimately, you have to do what you feel is right for the film. Obviously, there are compromises you make along the way, but that’s part of the process. There is something good about the push and pull of sincere opinions, which is different than some of the noise that sometimes happens on a big movie like this. It can be a political minefield on some levels. That is also part of it. But running a company the last fifteen years, I kind of know what that is like: dealing with different types of personalities and trying to find the best solution for these different problems. You encounter so many problems in the course of making a film that you just have to find the best way of solving them while, as Michael said, protecting the movie. Make sure that the thing you set out to do, you have done to the best of your ability. 

Johannes Wolters's picture
Johannes Wolters is a Cologne, Germany based freelance journalist who specializes in Animation and VFX. He has established a platform called for all people in German animation, VFX and games.