Unfolding Fantasy: How Laika’s Travis Knight Reinvigorates Stop-Motion in Kubo and the Two Strings

Tangible magic paired with tales of offbeat heroes is animation company Laika’s expertise.

During its first 10 outstanding years, the revolutionary Portland-based dream factory has built entire physical realms and their inhabitants to advance the art of stop-motion animation and disrupt the conventions that for so long have defined family-friendly storytelling. Laika’s stories deconstruct the emotions that shape the human condition through fantastical quests that favor thoughtful life lessons over simplistic resolutions.

Under CEO Travis Knight’s stewardship, Laika has earned three Academy Award nominations for Best Animated Feature and won a Scientific and Technical Award from the Academy honoring its groundbreaking 3D printing technique. Knight has been a defining force in every widely successful (yet artisanal) undertaking his team has achieved.

For their latest project, Kubo and the Two Strings, Knight decided to diversify his influence in the role of director for the first time. The result: a jaw-dropping masterpiece that defies expectations of what stop-motion can be. Laika has set the craftsmanship bar so astonishingly high with Kubo that one must simply watch in awe and rejoice at the artistry on display. Inspired moviemaking like that practiced by Knight and Co. is a rarity to be cherished.

Filtered through a myriad of personal memories and beloved works, Knight’s directorial debut follows young Kubo (Art Parkinson), a brave boy who tells enchanting stories with origami figures in a Japanese-inspired universe in which, helped by charming allies Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), he must confront otherworldly forces to understand his past and future fate. Experiencing loss, camaraderie, and even tragedy throughout the colorful journey, Kubo discovers that compassion is often the most powerful weapon.

MovieMaker sat down with Travis Knight to discuss what happens in a day in the life of a stop-motion animation director, making a film of this magnitude, and the trip to Japan that changed his life.

Monkey, Kubo and Beetle in Kubo and the Two Strings

Carlos Aguilar, MovieMaker Magazine (MM): Kubo and the Two Strings is Laika’s fourth feature, and though you have been deeply involved in the production of all its other projects as CEO, you had not taken on directorial duties until now. What was it about this story and its artistic influences that compelled you to move from an overseer role to becoming the creative driving force behind it?

Travis Knight (TK): It’s part of a natural progression for me as a filmmaker, and for us as a studio. We started developing the project five years ago, when we were knee-deep in production on ParaNorman. The original idea sprang from the fertile mind of our character designer Shannon Tindle. It was this sweeping stop-motion samurai epic, which resonated with me because when I was a kid I was an obsessive fan of epic fantasy. I devoured the books, I watched the movies, I was a huge fan of Tolkien. In fact, when I was born, my mom was reading Lord of the Rings, so it was in the air when I took my first breath. That was one of the great gifts that my mom bestowed to me, the love of epic fantasy. I loved Star Wars, which was the first film I remember seeing in the theatre; the films of Ray Harryhausen and Akira Kurosawa; manga like Lone Wolf and Cub; L. Frank Baum; Greek and Norse mythology.

With Kubo, we had a canvas with which we could paint in those same colors. When I was around 8 years old I was immersed in stop-motion. At that same time, I took my first trip to Japan with my dad. I grew up in the pacific northwest of America, in Oregon, and going to Japan was unlike anything I had seen before, almost otherworldly. It was so unlike anything I had seen: the art, the architecture, the style of dress, the food, the music, the comic books. It was a revelation for me, so that began this fascination I had with this art and culture. This film combines all these things that I’ve deeply loved since I was a kid: stop-motion, epic fantasy, samurai stories and the transcendent art of Japan. It’s like it was almost made as if in a factory for me.

Zhang Yimou, who is a brilliant filmmaker and a huge inspiration for me, said that every boy either wants a train set or wants to make a martial arts movie. I never had train set, so I was that kind of boy. And so here we are. Kubo provided an opportunity for me to take that next step in my creative evolution. It was a reflection of my life.

Charlize Theron voices the character of Monkey in Kubo and the Two Strings

MM: Walk us through what a regular day was comprised of for you during the production of Kubo. What aspects require your approval or input throughout the process?

TK: My job as a director is a different than most people’s job as directors because I wear multiple hats. I’m a director, I also animated on the show, and I’m the CEO overseeing the whole company, so there’s a lot of different things that I’m doing on any given day. But in a typical day as just a director, you start pretty early and you have your big production meetings in the morning where you figure out what are the priorities for the day, and you sit down with your production management team.

Then the first thing you do is editorial, where you’re looking at shots coming off the stages, launching animators on shots, looking at rehearsals, looking at camera tests for different lighting scenarios or different setups we’re getting ready for shots down the road. You’re spending a lot of time in editing, storyboards and making the story reels. You’re dealing with character designs and building the props and sets. You’re going on rounds throughout the day where you’re meeting with animators, checking in with them and making sure everything’s going okay. You’re checking with the puppet department to see that the characters are coming along and that the wigs are looking good and the costumes are coming together.

Then you have visual effects dailies, pretty much every shot has some digital effect to a degree. We do all that in house, and it’s great because we have a digital pipeline where it goes directly from stage over to the edit and then to visual effects, so it’s this immersive thing happening all day long. But they’re long, exhausting days and they’re very taxing, because every creative and technical decision ultimately lies on the directors shoulders.

As a director, you try to be clear to and inspire [your crew], but in the end they’re always going to inspire you more than you can inspire them. And that’s what happened for me.

MM: What were some of the challenges that you saw on Kubo that you hadn’t experienced on the other features? Are you concerned about the difficulty of the technical aspects of the story of you want to tell? Does that ever reflect on your decision making process about what’s possible?

Travis Knight: When we start on a project we don’t think about how hard it will be to make it. We just want to make the best story. First of all, when you’re developing a project early on, you’re focused pretty much exclusively on developing the world and developing the characters, coming up with the story and figuring out the thematic core. Trying to figure out ways to weave in personal parts of your life in to give it meaning. So that’s not even something we think about.

If I was smart as a producer, I would be stripping all that stuff out, like, “Oh that’s too hard, we can’t do that.” But it’s only once we get to a point where we have a script that’s solid that we can take it to that next stage where we start the visual development and everything else. That’s when we really start to hunker down and figure out “How are we going to do this?” With Kubo, there was all manner of red flags. Just the idea of shooting an epic fantasy in stop-motion is absurd. It flies in the face of wisdom because our process is that we shoot these things in miniature. We shoot on a gussied up tabletop. That we could shoot a movie on a tabletop in a warehouse and make it look and feel like a majestic vista in this epic fantasy, it’s absurd on its face. A stop-motion David Lean film is just silly. But we really wanted to tell it.

That means we took advantage of every technical and artistic innovation that we had over the last 10 years, and since we’ve kept the crew together at Laika, we’ve been able to build on all of those things. It’s unusual for a team to be together for that long. Usually teams comes together then they start scattering and spreading out, but our core team has been there right form the start. 

Those things we struggled with on Coraline, we figured out and then applied to ParaNorman, and then a lot of technological innovation comes through on that film and you can apply that to the next show. This film really did take advantage of everything we’ve learned up to this point. Having liberated, free, beautiful cinematography was something we had been developing for years, and on this film we took it to the next level. We had an incredible director of cinematographer in Frank Passingham, who really took this film to a place we hadn’t been before in terms of camerawork.

We also had these big monsters, which was a nod to the fantasy films of Ray Harryhausen. One of the films I love more than anything is Jason & the Argonauts, and there’s this pivotal moment in fantasy cinema, where you have Jason fighting off against this army of stop-motion skeletons. So [our] scene with the giant skeleton was very much a nod to the master. We wanted to see if we could one up him, to a degree, with this massive model. 

There’s always the debate of  “Do you do it as a miniature, as a whole-scale puppet, or as CG?” We really wanted to do it as a practical thing, and that was an extension of what we learned on Boxtrolls, where we made this big Mecha-Drill and what we figured out was a big puppet. We applied those learnings onto some of the monsters on Kubo, so we have this 11-foot monster, the Garden of Eyes. It’s a big giant ball on a stalk, built to scale. It’s huge, but that paled in comparison to the Skeleton Monster, which at its full height is something like 16 or 17 feet tall, with a wingspan of 20 to 25 feet. Ridiculously big.

MM: It’s almost impossible that massive creature was brought to life via stop-motion animation.

Travis Knight: The construction is a convergence of technology. There’s also this really lo-fi stuff, where you have a cable that’s hooked up to a bucket with a sandbag in it that’s keeping something suspended. It’s all these great things side by side, and that’s one of the things that I love about the process.

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