MM: Laika’s films are progressive and mature in the themes tackle in their narratives. Children are not seen as fragile creatures, but as intelligent, nuanced individuals. The stories reflect relevant dilemmas. Why is this notion a core value in the way you and your team create animated films?
Travis Knight: When I think about how Laika began, everything changed for me when I became a father. Once you have kids, it completely upends your whole world. It changed the trajectory of my career. When I started to see the things that my kids were exposed to, the kind of entertainment that was geared to children and families, it was appalling. It was different than the kind of things I was exposed to growing up. As an artist and filmmaker, it was something I could actually do something about. I didn’t want to be any part of that. I wanted to make films that were thought-provoking, meaningful, things of beauty that offered an un-cynical, hopeful view of the world that explored issues that mattered.
It’s always been important for us to respect the audience’s intelligence, to not talk down to them. To not make little pop culture confections. I think Kubo is a meditation on loss, healing and forgiveness, but it’s also a big exciting samurai epic. It’s a lot of fun, but it has something meaningful to say underneath it all, which has always been an important part of what we do.
MM: One of the most striking elements in Kubo is the origami sequence. What technical complications did you face when attempting to transport an art form that exists on paper into this stop-motion animated world?
Travis Knight: It was tricky, because we have a lot of different scales at work in the film. We have these massive monsters, our normal size puppets such as Kubo, which is about 9 and a half inches tall. We have the origami that he creates, for which we have the normal scale origami, which is about an inch tall, it’s really tiny pieces of paper. Then up close for some of the performance elements, you see these things transform and turn into little living action figures. Those are 700% scale, so those were really big so we could get the performances we needed out of them. Kubo is essentially an animator. He’s kind of like a feudal Japanese filmmaker, when you think about it. We wanted it to be evocative of when you’re a kid, and you’re playing with your action figures or your dolls.
The physical side of bringing that to life was very challenging. We had an animator, Kevin Perry; he’s a young guy, but had a real knack for figuring these things out. He had a very scientific mind and he was able to figure it out. we forced all of our artists who had to interact with the origami to take origami lessons. It takes years to become an origami master, so we were never going to be, but we needed to know enough about how it worked to stylize it. Kevin immersed himself in how origami is made, where you take one sheet of paper and through these beautiful geometric folds you can make something come to life.
There’s a lot of cheating in our world. There are multiple pieces, replacements, and different bits of paper. The idea was to make sure the audience had something to draw their eye to that would guide the eye in the right direction, then quickly transform it into something else. It was really challenging, because we had a lot of different scales at play, and just getting all that transformation to play on screen, as a thing that you see, was a real trick.
MM: While Laika’s work is grounded on stop-motion animation, your films also employ CG in a significant manner. How do you balance these two mediums to create something cohesive and still be true to the company’s distinct approach?
TK: Look, we’re not purists about it. We’re filmmakers, and we’re storytellers, and we want to tell the best, most powerful, most evocative story possible. Now, the foundation of everything we do is stop-motion. That’s at the core. I fell in love with stop-motion when I was a kid. We’re excited about the prospect of taking this medium that we love to places that it’s never been before. It’s been around for a century—when Georges Méliès was sending rockets to the moon, it was a way for stage magicians to bring their illusions to life in a different way using film. It’s hard to believe, but stop-motion was a cutting-edge technique at one point. Now it’s not, but we still think it can be a powerful bit of storytelling.
When we started Laika 10 years ago, stop-motion was withering. The ascendancy of the computer was complete, and we had to figure out a way to not be relegated to the dustbin of cinematic history, like Smell-O-Vision or something like that, a quaint little footnote. We were trying to find the best way to re-invigorate it. That’s when we decided to embrace the infernal machine that was trying to put us all out of work. It’s really just a tool. We could tell powerful stories using that convergence of art and craft and science and technology.
We try to capture as much stuff in camera as possible, but there are some things that are just virtually impossible to capture with the medium. I think a good example of that is the opening of the film, where you have this incredible raging sea. Now, water is always something that’s hard in any form of animation, but we began with tests using practical materials: bits of torn papers, rippled shower glass, garbage bags and shower curtains on rods. That basically defined the look of the water, and we did a lot of practical tests with it. But when it came to actually interacting with the boat and everything else, we knew that we couldn’t do that as a practical matter.
We did a bunch of practical tests to inform the computer stuff, and then the computer animators took over and created most of the water stuff that you see. So it really is just whatever tool makes the most sense, whatever tool can tell the story in the best way. Often in a shot, there’s this practical bit, there’s this bit that’s a miniature, there’s this bit that’s a matte painting, this bit that’s a CG effect. It’s a convergence of all these different forms of filmmaking in one film, which I think is cool. It’s one of the things that that gives Laika films their own unique aesthetic. MM
Kubo and the Two Strings opens in theaters August 19, 2016, courtesy of Focus Features.