Director Travis Knight on bringing Bumblebee to life

The director of the Transformers spin-off talks about the robots' 'streamlined' new look and taking inspiration from his '80s heroes

Bumblebee is available now on Digital and 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Media Distribution

When Travis Knight was announced as Bumblebee‘s director, there was a heightened expectation for the movie, as his animation work had seen a superb run of character-driven work, wrapped within a unique visual style. Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and Kubo And The Two Strings have all been fantastic, alternative family entertainment with an edge, delving into dark corners of dysfunctional relationships while brimming with hope and heart.

Thankfully Knight has managed to bring the same sensibility to Bumblebee, which is not only the best film in the franchise but a great film in its own right. You can read our full review here, but it’s an absolute joy to behold for fans old and new, with an especially strong central performance from Hailee Steinfeld that brings real emotion to the dynamic between her and Bee. Of course, there’s also the opportunity to watch Optimus Prime devastating Decepticons as only he can, which goes a long way to upping the film’s thrill factor.

We were fortunate enough to sit down with Travis Knight for a lengthy chat about Bumblebee and the challenge of creating his own take on a well-established cinematic universe…

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I wanted to start with the opening of the film and the war on Cybertron – that 10-year-old part of me was elated to see the original Generation 1 designs and the characters we’ve grown up with. Was your plan always to open with a statement that said: “I’m a fan too, I’ve got this and this is my version”?

I am a fan and just like you I came of age in the ’80s and I was a kid when I was exposed to Transformers for the first time. I just thought they were so awesome, they were really unlike anything I’d ever seen or experienced. So when we were telling the story about Bumblebee, it’s an origin story about a Transformer so it made complete sense to set it in the era where the Transformers originated to begin with, which was the mid-’80s.

In terms of how we kick the movie off, I just thought it would be tremendous fun to just give a slice of that very first episode of the Transformers miniseries, where you see the final days of the Cybertron, you see Wheeljack, you see Bumblebee doing their thing and you see Soundwave and Shockwave – it was like, if we could just do a slice of that to kick things off. I felt like a kid. I felt like a kid creating that whole thing, sitting down with the guys at ILM and crafting that sequence. Oh my god, it was so much fun. In my brain, I had a whole movie of all that stuff, but we could never do that, but it’s like “Oh we’ll just do a piece of it!” [Laughs]

I would encourage a whole movie of that! The opening was authentic even down to the triangular Decepticon jets…

The tetrajets!

Yes! And I thought, “There’s no way that can be a coincidence!” How much fun did you have trying to find the balance between the established Michael Bay designs and the Generation 1 versions?

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You know you don’t start with a blank canvas – there are 10 years of live-action films to this point that Michael has directed and he certainly has his own aesthetic. He’s definitely a pretty extraordinary cinematic stylist – he’s got his look, he’s got his thing, but that’s not my look, it’s not my aesthetic. At the same time, you have a foot in each world, you want to make sure that it’s logical – the connection between this film and the ones that have preceded it.

Also, I wanted to pay tribute to that original generation of designs, which I think were just so simple and bold and beautiful. But because this film is set 20 years prior to the events of Michael’s first film, it did give it some license. So then going back to Cybertron, to me, it was like: “All bets are off! We have all the license in the world to do whatever we want here!” So, it was about walking that tightrope. Specifically with Bumblebee, he’s got an established design so let’s blend that with the original Generation 1 design, which is more or less about simplifying; giving him a clear silhouette, making it more about the plating than the inner workings, not making the design so busy, making sure that we reduce the details so the details that are left really matter and really resonate.

When I spoke with the designers and the animators about Bumblebee and the degree of expressivity that I really wanted out of this character, he needed to be the most expressive and emotional Transformer that we’ve ever seen. Their instinct was to start adding a bunch of details and stuff to his face – essentially make him a human with metal skin – and I’m like, “No, no, no, that’s not what it’s about, it’s actually about simplifying.” It’s about reducing detail, so the stuff that is there really matters and it fundamentally comes down to his eyes, his antenna and a little bit of his muzzle; that’s it. So that was the point, it was making sure that every single robot had a clear silhouette, had a clear colour palette, so at a glance even the new ones we invented – you knew who was who at any given moment, no matter what was happening with all the battles and the kinetic camera work and everything else – that you always knew what you were looking at.

One of the things I loved most about Bumblebee was that you kept the scale of the war, but kept the number of characters down to a handful, which really allowed the intimacy of the characters to shine. Character work is something that’s always been key to your work, but did that also help when stepping into such a huge franchise?

Yeah, I mean you look back at the trajectory of the live-action films and they get bigger and bigger, more expansive and more spectacular and I didn’t know where I could go from there! [Laughs] I didn’t know how much bigger I could make them and I didn’t know how much more spectacular I could make it! So this film was really about going in the other direction – let’s take this massive canvas that they have been painting on for the last 10 years and let’s focus on a very small corner of it; let’s tell a more intimate story, a more personal story and a more character-driven story about this relationship, about this connection between this robot – really get to understand this robot in a meaningful way – and this girl and the fusion of those things.

Essentially, because Bumblebee has always been, in every iteration, from comics to cartoons to films, the one Transformer with the greatest infinity for humanity and I thought it would be cool and exciting to explore why that is. What is it about his existence and his experience; why did he become the one character who loves humans more than anyone. Why is he the most like us? I think this film answers that question, it’s because of the relationship that he forges with this extraordinary girl. We still want to make sure that this is a Transformers franchise film, so you want to have some cool robotic fisticuffs and some high octane speed chases and cool battles – I love that stuff too – but the core is essentially about the relationship and that was the thing that had the most emphasis.

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And filmmakers forget sometimes with action you need that emotional investment, so that it becomes more than just spectacle…

I one-hundred percent agree. It was a conversation that I had repeatedly over and over again with our animators, with our crew and stunt guys, with our fight choreographers. It was like, “Look, all that stuff is fun. All that stuff is great fun to watch, but if you’re not invested in your characters, who cares?” None of it makes a difference, it’s just noise, it’s just sound and fury and retina-burning colour and images and stuff – you have to care about what happens with your characters. The end of the world means nothing, it’s too big. You’ve got to focus on the end of Bumblebee, or the end of Charlie, or the end of her family. You’ve got to focus it in. If you care about that, then you care about whether they prevail or whether they fail. Everything else just gets lost, it’s too much so you’ve got to focus and so that was one of the things that repeatedly that we kept coming back to.

Hopefully, a lot of people have seen the end credits of Kubo And The Two Strings, where you show the large-scale models used. Did you have a large scale Bumblebee on set or was it mostly CGI?

We tried to utilise as many of those tricks as we could. Coming from a physical animation background, as well as a virtual animation background I wanted to – along with everything we’ve done at Laika – as much as you can, try to capture stuff in camera. Even though those films are hybrids that I’ve done at Laika and this film is a hybrid, as it’s live action mixed with animation, you want to try and get as much in camera as you can. So we used a lot of tricks, I used a lot of my stop motion tricks for the sequences with a lot of robot interaction. I broke those things down on storyboards to within an inch of their lives, so everyone knew exactly what was going on, which is critical for the crew and for the actors because, in reality, there’s nothing there.

We would bring in a stand every now and then, which was essentially like a torso, just so that the actors could get a sense of the physicality, what would happen when light hit in the camera lens and how it would react, which was helpful for our visual effects team. We had a guy who was a former circus performer on stilts, occasionally he would kind of walk around to give the crew a general sense of like “Okay, how long does it take to cross from one side of the room to the next. What’s his height?” For me, it would be like, “So it takes 36 frames for him to step there,” just because I have got it in my brain! But that doesn’t mean anything to anybody else! You try and do whatever you can to get people to visualise what’s in your head, so it was a bit of a trick to kind of walk people through what was set in my skull.

Eventually – I tell this story because I think it’s just so much fun – but I was sitting with my cinematographer, Enrique Chediak, and early on we were working composing a scene and he says: “Travis, I don’t see the robot.” And I say: “He’s right there and this is what he’s doing.” He couldn’t see the robot, but it’s in my brain. So we go through this whole process and after working together for weeks and weeks and weeks, we’re about halfway through the shoot and at some point, we’re setting up a new scene and we’re talking to the compositions and he says, “Travis, I see the robot!” and it was great because it was when our processes started to merge together; my animation processes, his live-action processes – they started to blend together and I think that you can see a degree of that on the screen.

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Being able to play in the ’80s made the whole film a nostalgic love letter to that decade – the film seems to wear its influences on its sleeve from E.T. to John Hughes – was The Breakfast Club chosen as an iconic ’80s flick, or because Judd Nelson voiced Hotrod in the 1986 Transformers The Movie, or both?

I’m glad you picked up on that! There are a lot of little Easter eggs throughout the film, a lot of little nods to Transformers history, specifically those ’80s going into early ’90s Transformers, as those were the Transformers that I fell in love with. There is definitely an aspect of that. The Breakfast Club reference was picked up for a variety of reasons, for me setting the film in the ’80s was a chance to pay tribute to those great cinematic titans of that era and obviously, the biggest one is Steven Spielberg. A guy who I have idolised my entire life and on some level, I think he’s responsible for me becoming a filmmaker.

But the John Hughes of it all, I think there is something really special there, in the sense that those movies that he made; he never talked down to teenagers, he always treated adolescents with such sincerity and such warmth. He looked at that experience honestly and often told those stories with great humour, but also with great pathos. I thought that, as a kid watching those movies, I always felt like, “Oh here is someone who understands what it means to be a teenager and to go through these trials.” So that element, I wanted to make sure that we brought to this movie. Like no, this isn’t just some old man’s version of what it means to be a teenager, this is really when we’re looking at that time in our lives in a serious way. Still having fun and still playing around with it, but giving the nod to John Hughes I thought was a way to directly tell the audience what this film really is about.

There’s also guys like John Carpenter too, who I absolutely loved growing up in the ’80s, his films always had some deep political messages behind them, but they always had this great sci-fi, insane, just out there gonzo stuff. So I tried to weave elements from that into the film as well, which was a lot of fun. Even the score, I love the John Carpenter scores, so when I sat down with my composer Dario Marianelli we talked about that – we want this John Williams kind of aspect, this Amblin aspect, but then we want some awesome electronic John Carpenter stuff, it’s like mashing those things together and I think he really pulled that off with aplomb.

What is your favourite ’80s John Carpenter film, out of curiosity?

Oh god! I love Escape From New York obviously, I think I just made that under the wire – it’s got to be like 1981, it’s super early. They Live is one that not a lot of people have seen, but that fight with Rowdy Roddy Piper and Keith David when they’re in the alleyway and they’re just fighting forever – it just goes on and it just keeps going and going and going! [Laughs] And I love Big Trouble In Little China – there are so many good ones. In fact, when we built the town of Brighton Falls, you have to squint to see it, but in the background there’s the Dragon of the Black Pool, we actually recreated the facade of Wang Chi’s eatery from Big Trouble, it’s there in the background, so a way to give a nod to the great man.

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One of the things I think that’s important about your films and Bumblebee as well is that it deals with parental loss and teenage issues, especially relationships with parents, which was something a lot of ’80s movies focused on. Why is that an important theme for you?

We’re all working at our issues, aren’t we? Sometimes on the big screen, sometimes in therapy! When I was making Kubo, I reflected a lot on my own experiences growing up and on some level for me, Kubo represented… The way I personally think about film is that it’s real life wrapped in metaphors; you explore these things with this veneer of fantasy over the top of it but for Kubo, that was a fantastic version of my childhood, it was essentially about me and my mum and me and my dad.

This film, it’s not exactly that there are elements of that in it. I thought about my own childhood here and as a father of three I thought about my relationship with my own kids and just how complicated those relationships are. Sometimes that sense of loss when for a variety of reasons, a parent is taken away or is unable to be a part of their children’s lives in the way they want to be, or the way their children need them to be. So that was an aspect of Kubo and was an aspect of this – the core relationship between Charlie and Bumblebee has nothing to do with that; that’s a different kind of relationship, but there is an element of that just because it’s such a primal thing and so many of us have gone through it and I have too, so it’s just thinking about that and trying to give the film additional depth and dimension.

In terms of deleted scenes or extra features, what can you tell us about the home entertainment release?

We’ve got a lot of cool stuff. We have more stuff than they will ever be able to put on a home video release! We’ve got additional animated scenes that we never fully took to completion, we have additional action scenes that were partially completed in animation, we’ve got some live action scenes that for pacing and for storytelling clarity that we had snip out, that I still love.

I mean the initial cut is always really, really long so there are 30 to 40 minutes of scenes that are never going to make the movie, because in the end I’m trying to tell a streamlined story and you find some scenes just get in the way. I really do believe that the trimmer the vessel, the more it can carry and you should really hone in on what your story is and then kind of build out from there. So we’ve got a whole host of scenes, both live-action and animated, that will finally see the light of day on the home video release. I’m excited for people to see it.

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What’s next for you? Have you got any plans to do more with this franchise, or have you got something animated lined up?

I started my company 15 years ago, Laika, and it’s still just such an enormous part of my life. It’s so important to me; it’s my baby on some level, so we’ve got more films coming out there. Our next animated film, Missing Link, comes out this spring and I’m really excited about that. Just to give you a sense of how slow the process is of making an animated film, we started shooting that when I started shooting Kubo [laughs] and now in the time between where I finished Kubo and we released Kubo and then I started working on Bumblebee and now we’re releasing this film and Missing Link is still not done! But we’re finishing the film and it will be done within the next month, so that’s coming out and I’m really excited about that, it’s a ton of fun.

And we’ve got a lot of really great, interesting, unusual content that we’re creating down the road for a number of different films. There are a handful of films that we’re developing, which are really unlike anything I think that’s ever been done in the medium, that I can’t wait to share with the world, but of course, that’s down the road.

Then as for me personally, again Laika is my priority, but this experience really was one of the most rewarding creative experiences in my life. Creating this whole thing and then diving into the deep end of this kind of filmmaking and looking down the road, it’s something I’d be interested in exploring if the right kind of story came along, I’d love to play in the live-action world again if and when it ever makes sense, but until then I’m just going to keep things going at my shop.

Bumblebee is available now on Digital and 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD from Paramount Home Media Distribution