Kubo and the Two Strings Director Travis Knight: ‘It Was an Amazing Thing to Be Part Of’

Kubo and the Two Strings director and Laika CEO Travis Knight on bringing his Japanese fantasy epic to life.

There may be no more beautiful film you see this year than Kubo and the Two Strings. The fourth feature from Oregon-based animation studio Laika – following Coraline, ParaNorman and The BoxtrollsKubo is a richly imagined and gorgeously crafted story of a young boy named Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) who lives in a small Japanese village and cares for his mother. When spirits from the past return to fulfill an ancient vendetta against Kubo’s family, he must set out on a quest to find a suit of armor – once sought by his late samurai father – that is the only thing that can help him defeat the supernatural powers arrayed against him.

Kubo is aided in his quest by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), two anthropomorphic creatures with agendas of their own. The story is filled with moments of wonder, heartbreak, terror and humor, and the hybrid techniques of stop-motion animation and more modern CG work together create a visual palette that is once again unique to Laika. Kubo also marks the first time that Laika CEO Travis Knight has himself directed one of the studio’s films, making this one of its most personal projects as well.

We spoke about all this with Knight when Den of Geek sat down recently with him in Los Angeles…

Den of Geek: First of all, what a beautiful looking film. The studio has such a unique style with everything you do.

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Travis Knight: Thank you. I appreciate that.

Can you talk about the inspirations for this film?

When we started Laika 10 years ago, one of the core considerations…the simplest, most unadorned statement was that we wanted to make movies that matter. We wanted to combine history and tradition with cutting-edge technology and innovation to tell interesting stories and things that had meaning and resonance.

At Laika, we always want to challenge ourselves. We always want to tell new and original stories. We want to try out new genres. We want to dive into new worlds and explore different aspects of the human condition. Those are kind of the core things and the philosophy that drives us in the movies that we’ve done.

When we were shooting ParaNorman about five years ago, knee deep in production, we just started developing Kubo and the Two Strings. Even in its earliest pitch it was something that seemed like it was really beautiful and special. To be reductive about it, it was kind of a sweeping stop motion samurai epic. But it’s more than that. It felt like it had the bones, the structure that could support big ideas, as well as kind of being able to weave personal stories within it that would resonance and meaning.

There was something about it that really spoke to me. When I was a kid, when I was growing up, I loved fantasy. I loved big epic fantasy. I think it’s kind of in my bones. It’s in my DNA. When my mom was pregnant was me, she was reading Lord of the Rings. In fact, when she was recovering in the hospital after I was born, that’s the book she was reading. So it was almost in the air as I took my first breath.

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When I was a kid, right around the same time that I’m starting to get into those kind of stories, the stop-motion and everything else, I took my first trip to Japan. I was around eight years old. I went there with my dad. I grew up in Oregon, so I had never seen anything like it. It was a complete revelation to me. It was so unlike my entire existence just in terms of the art, and the music, and the movies, and the architecture, the food, the style of dress, everything. It was so other worldly almost in its beauty. It was just breathtaking.  It really made an impact on me. I was utterly enthralled by it. And so, this film really is like the convergence of all these things that I’ve loved deeply since I was a child. It’s stop-motion. It’s big fantasy stories. It’s samurai stories. And it’s the beautiful transcendent art of Japan all kind of rolled into one. It’s almost like it was made in a factory just for me.

This is the first one you decided to direct. What went into that decision as opposed to just maintaining the role of producer and CEO of Laika?

Well, I think when I think of the film of Kubo and then I think of my role as the director, it feels like they are kind of extensions of the same thing. I think about the transition going from artist, to producer, to CEO, to director. Artist animators, they focus on the minutia; they focus on the granularity. That’s their whole job, is to figure out ways to bring something to life in tiny little increments. They are focusing on detail. And sometimes you can lose sight of the big picture. As a producer or CEO, you are always looking at the big picture.

And so, I think the combination of those things, being in the trenches and making the art and being in the executive boardroom making decisions on the business and creative operations of the company, I think those two perspectives really are what enabled me to take this job as a director. It felt like it was an extension of all the things that I’ve learned in all those various experiences over the years. But it was different. It was different than anything that I’ve done before. It kind of slaps you upside the face initially because of how you are the nexus of every single creative and technical decision on a show.

And for a show like this where we’re creating a world, it gets down to the size of a prop or a cut of hair on Kubo’s wig. The decisions get so granular at some level that it could be overwhelming. It could be very demanding. But it’s by far the most creatively satisfying experience of my entire career. It was just an amazing experience. It was exhausting and took a big toll on me and my life. But to be at that point where you are working with these incredible, amazing, passionate artists, world-class artists that pour their soul into these things, it was really inspiring. It was an amazing thing to be a part of and I’m very grateful for the experience.

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Laika seems to me it’s its own unique entity. The films have their own unique look, first of all because you still utilize the stop motion aesthetic. How that translates into box office, we don’t know. But let’s say you are just outside the mainstream. Is there any pressure inside or outside the company to go for something a little more mainstream at all and go for that Finding Dory money…?

Well we would love Finding Dory money.

Of course. And I don’t want to put down other animation studios; they all have a certain look because they all utilize kind of the same techniques…

Well, to me, if I have a criticism of the modern animation landscape, it’s not just technique. I think people make films in the way they make films. I don’t critique a live action film because they are utilizing what makes a live action film. That’s one way of making films. Just like working in hand-drawn animation as a way to make films is completely valid. You can make beautiful stories using that technique. And CG is the same sort of thing.

Now, what we do is unusual because it’s a strange hybrid of a lot of different techniques, which I think visually give them their own unique stamp. They feel unlike anything else because they were brought to life in a way that no other studio in the world does.

But I think from my perspective, the thing that is most disappointing for me as an audience member, someone who’s loved films since I was a kid, is that it feels like we are treading water artistically, creatively as an industry. That we have a fixation on franchises, and tent poles, and brands, and sequels, and prequels, and remakes, and reboots. I think within that band, there are only so many different kinds of stories you can tell. It’s pretty limited, actually. There’s only so much variety. I think within that band, tent poles, and templates, and formulas can be great for the bottom line. But they’re not particularly great for showcasing the diversity of human experience. And to tell meaningful stories, things that have resonance, things that stick to your ribs, those are the kind of things we want to do. Those are the kind of films that I loved when I was a kid.

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When Laika started 10 years ago, really, at the core of it was my kids; I became a father. As most first-time parents, it changes everything. You start working at the world in a different way. You start thinking about the world in a different way. You start thinking about your own life in a different way. And it completely changed the trajectory of my career. I started to see the kinds of things that they were exposed to, which, from my point of view, was a vapid sensory assault, by and large. I mean, obviously, there’s exceptions to that.

But stuff that was geared towards families, for the most part, it was mindless. I didn’t want to be a part of that. I wanted to make a corrective. I wanted to make films that were meaningful, that were beautiful, that were un-cynical, that spoke to kind of a hopeful view of the world, that talked about the shared humanity that all of us have. So much of the stuff we see is about dividing people. And I wanted to make films that brought people together.

So that was kind of at the core of what we did right from the beginning. Now, we want to tell the most powerful stories that we possibly can and do so in a beautiful and visually stunning way. And we want to tell a lot of different kinds of stories. As I think about the things that we’ve done in the past, they are all very different from each other. As I look ahead to the things I know we have coming down the road in the future, they are very different from anything we’ve done in the past.

And we find that exciting. We love to do new things. I don’t want to repeat myself. I don’t want to make little pop culture confessions or little things that just wash over you and that you forget about as you walk out of the theater.

For me as a parent, the best experiences I have at the cinema are when I’m driving home with my kids and they are engaged about what they just saw. They are talking about the ideas and the themes and the things that have been raised. And we can talk about it as a family. We can connect as a family. That’s what stories are supposed to do. They are supposed to bring us together.

So that’s the driving force. Of course you want your films and your art to be seen by as many people as possible. So I would love for us to have a Finding Dory-sized financial success. But, at the same time, we tell stories the best way we know how. We are drawn to telling stories that are not typically told in animation.

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So if that means that we have to compromise our values to have that measure of success, we just won’t do it. I still think that we haven’t found our sweet spot in terms of finding those kinds of stories that resonate broadly with the world. I think we’ve done a good job of telling beautiful, meaningful stories. But we’ve yet to find a story that breaks through and goes everywhere. Of course we want to do that. But from my perspective, I don’t want that to be engineering. We can absolutely copy formulas and templates, but that’s not something I want to do. I devote my life to this. This is my life’s work. Outside of my family, this is the thing that matters to me more than anything. And I don’t just want to make little bits of ephemera.

What were, technically, the most challenging aspects of this one?

It was all hard. I mean basically nothing in stop-motion comes easy when you are building entire worlds. So on both ends of the spectrum, the big, crazy spectacle, the big action sequences, the giant monsters, the big environmental effects, obviously those are very, very difficult to do. But, on the other end of the spectrum, the kind of small, nuanced, intimate moments when you have a boy connecting to his mother and you see kind of what he’s thinking and what he’s feeling by his eye movements and the slight rustling in the fabric of his kimono, those real human moments that we can see part of ourselves in, even though it’s just a little assemblage of steel and silk and it’s a little doll. When we can see ourselves in that, when we can feel what he’s feeling when it’s affecting us emotionally, to me that’s magic. And that’s really hard to do with stop-motion because it requires really well-observed physical acting.

There are two parts to the performance. There’s the vocal performance supplied by the actor and there’s the physical performance supplied by the animator. And so, the physical side of acting, when you are working at that scale, can be challenging to bring these things to live in a subtle and nuanced way. But it’s important for these things to feel alive. That’s what we have to do.

So it was the subtlety. It was really beautiful, refined animation. But then there was the spectacle as well, these giant monsters which were the size of this room. They were ridiculous. But that was an extension of all the different technical and artistic innovations that we’ve had right from the beginning because we’ve kept our core team together — and that’s a rarity in this industry that that team stayed together as long as we have. We’ve been together for 10 years. But we’ve grown as artists, and as filmmakers, and as people. And we learn with each film. So things that used to be really hard and we were scratching our heads how we were going to do this on Coraline, we do today as a matter of course; it’s just part of the way we do stuff.

So then you can apply that energy on the next show: what’s the next thing? What’s the next thing that’s going to tell this story in a powerful way? On this film there were a ton of environmental effects that were really challenging. The flowing robes were just a nightmare. The long hair…all that stuff is just really a pain in the ass in stop-motion. But that’s what the story was about. We wanted to make sure that it had that cultural authenticity that was drawn from that place. That’s the style of dress. That’s the hairstyle; kind of that Edo period in Japan. And we wanted to make sure that was very well-researched and came through because we wanted the place to feel lived in that history and tradition. So you have to do that research in order to make it feel like it’s alive in the film.

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But there was nothing that came easy. But I’m really proud of the team that they always rallied and figured out a solution, whether it’s a technological innovation or whether it’s a really low-fi solution, like having the monster’s arm that has a cable and a bucket with a sandbag in it. It runs the spectrum. I mean we have a monster that has a little deflated Mylar balloon in its head. Sometimes it’s really simple stuff and other times it’s incredible, massive, throbbing-brain stuff. And that’s an exciting thing to be a part of that innovation.

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I noticed some shots where you see Monkey’s fur twitching a little bit from frame to frame. No matter how advanced this gets, that, to me, retains that sense of what original stop-motion animation was.

Right. We try and minimize that stuff as much as possible…but it’s there. And I think that is, to a degree, one of the things I love about stop-motion, is that it’s imperfect. I think what you are seeing is the hands of the artist at work. They are giving life to this thing. It’s a human thing. I call these things little vampires, these puppets, because every little bit they have onscreen is life that’s been sucked out of an animator. People really give their lives to these things.

As much as we strive for perfection, we are never going to get there. We are always going to fall short. And I think that is something that we have to make peace with and we have to embrace that part of our humanity. We are never going to be perfect…We strive for the ideal. We never get it. But we find beauty in those things that fall short of it. We find beauty in those things that are imperfect. We find beauty in those things that are human. I think that really kind of defines stop motion on some level.

I know you don’t like to talk about projects ahead of time, but do you know what your next one is? How far ahead do you look down the line?

We probably have about 10 projects at any given time that are in various forms of development. Some are just ideas that we’re starting to nurture and cultivate and some things are pretty far along. We are, in fact, shooting our next film right now. It’s the first time we’ve ever overlapped productions. While we were still shooting Kubo, we were beginning production on our next film. It comes out in the spring of 2018.

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So, yeah, we’re probably going to announce it by the end of the year I would imagine. But one of the things that I’m most excited about when I think about the films that we’re developing is how different they are than anything that we’ve done. I think for people who have a sense of what a Laika film is, I think they are going to have to recalibrate after they see some of the things we’ve got coming down the pipe, because they are really different. But they are great and they are really exciting. And they still have the same ethos that drives everything that we do.

Kubo and the Two Strings is out in theaters today (August 19).