Travis Knight is both the head of Laika, the Portland, Oregon studio at the vanguard of stop-motion animation, and the director of their latest film, Kubo And The Two Strings. By all obvious signs, he’s very good at both of his jobs.
I spoke to Knight on the occasion of Kubo getting its DVD, Blu-ray and download release, and given that Den of Geek had already spoken to him about this film specifically, I thought we would chat about Laika in general. Knight gave me a history, took questions about the future, and addressed some of the fine points of how animation gets done the Laika way. Here’s how our conversation went.
Can we start by going back, way back? I’d love a potted history, starting at the moment you became involved with Will Vinton studios.
What would you like to know?
How did you get from outside, step by step, to where you are now, steering the flagship and being in charge of the whole fleet all at once?
It’s been quite the journey, much like the unlikely stories of our characters. When I was a kid, I adored it, specifically stop motion animation. I loved the Rankin Bass holiday specials, like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer, but above all, I loved the Ray Harryhausen creature features. I think the thing that made me a little bit unusual is that I wanted to learn how to do it. Like so many animators of my generation went down into their parents basements, completely self taught, as an artist, as an animator.
Growing up outside of Portland, Oregon, I didn’t know anybody who was a professional artist so the idea that I could make a career, a viable living from doing this, seemed outside of the realms of possibility. I knew it could be something I could do alone, as a hobby, but not something I could devote my life to.
But once I graduated from college, I got a job as a production assistant at the studios on the TV show [Will Vinton Studios] had just gotten going at the time. It was called The PJs, it was a primetime stop motion show, the first of its kind in America. I got a job as an assistant, then I started co-ordinating, I started doing scheduling, working production management, but what I really wanted to do was animate on the show.
The producer I was working with saw I had talent and gave me a shot just doing a simple bit for the show. I did a decent job at it.
Do you remember what shot it was?
I do. It was not interesting. There was a character called The HUD lady, who worked in Housing and Urban Development, just a silhouette, it wasn’t even much of a puppet. But you could animate her with simple pantomime gestures. The set was waiting for an animator, nobody was free to animate on it, so if I screwed the shot up, it wouldn’t matter it was waiting for a couple of days anyway. But they liked it, they used the shot, and then more and more, they started giving me simple shots they needed to get through the schedule.
The best thing about working TV and commercials is that you have to crank through a lot of footage quickly. I got a ton of professional experience in a short time. At the end, I was animating full-time, then I started working on commercials in CG animation as well as stop-motion animation.
Through a combination of circumstances, some mismanagement, a turbulent economy, the worst ad recession we’d seen in a generation, Will Vinton Studios went insolvent, it couldn’t make its payroll and it couldn’t pay its bills. What I believed is that this artistic community I met working at the shop, around the area, is that they were really special. I thought it was worth saving, and so out of the ashes of that community we formed what became Laika with a completely new perspective on filmmaking.
We got out of the work for hire business, focusing all of our attention on feature films to become the captains of our own destiny. We knew that we loved stop motion, but with the ascendancy of the computer, stop motion was on its way out as a viable movie making medium. But we thought that if we could find a way to blend our craft in a technique that went back to the dawn of cinema and blend it with new tools, new technology, disruptive technology and thinking, we could bring the medium to a new place.
By having one foot in tradition and one foot in the future I thought we could tell stories in an interesting way.
At some point in that story it stopped being about you and started being about the whole group, Laika, a ‘we’. How did you get to your position in this group? What was your break?
The company went out of business and if it wasn’t for somebody stepping up and saying “We’re going to make something new out of this”, there would be no Laika.
So, really, at that point you felt like you just had to stand up.
Somebody had to, or the community would be scattered to the breeze. I decided we’d try to make it work, this new philosophy and these new techniques that we were developing. I had a philosophy on storytelling that I’d been developing over the years, through my experiences and my personal belief of how stories are made, and this became the foundation of the company. That’s when it shifted from me being an artist to me being an executive, a leader.
I founded Laika a little over ten years ago, and those early years were really about finding our way. We brought technology into the mix in a way that it hadn’t been before, with stereoscopic photography.
I have some specific questions about your pioneering techniques. So, imagine I’m an animator. You know what that’s like better than most.
I do indeed.
As an animator, I’m thinking about character, I’m thinking about performance, and the way it works today, I understand, is that there’s a possibility for 3D printed head parts that give me a palette of options rather than some sort of facial rig – comparable to what I’d be using if I were a CG animator.
So, as an animator, do I get any input into what that range of head parts will be? Or are the 30, 40 animators…
…20 animators working with 300 or 900 face pieces?
On Coraline she had about 600 mouths, about 300 brows, combine all of those and you had about 200,000 different facial expressions she could make. For Kubo, 48 million facial expressions. It’s ridiculous! More than me. I have four expressions.
But the origin of these face parts… does that design come from the animators?
It does. It’s an update of what George Pal did with his Puppetoons. He would hand draw the animation then carve them out of wood, replacing them a frame at a time.
I’m interested in the pipeline.
The stage animator does have some input. We have a facial animation team that just works in a computer, pre-visualising how the faces will come to life. Left to their own devices, animators have their own idiosyncratic styles. We have 20 animators on a film, it can’t look like 20 different personalities brought these characters to life. It has to look like Kubo is Kubo, not 20 different Kubos.
We all have to understand the animation style, and develop a vocabulary of how this character moves, and people have to hew closely to that style. In the end it has to come down to one creative voice, one vision, one mind. In this case, on this film, that was me. In terms of directing actors, animators, facial performance – anyone will have their own take on how they should be, but you need one point of view and that comes down to the director. Really, the thing that binds the idiosyncratic styles, visions and voices together is the director. In the end, it’s all decision that I had to make… working with the artists.
It’s very different to the pipeline in other animated media. I remember how on hand drawn somebody would come in to do clean up to get characters back on model.
And in CG you have a supervisor, unifying character animators, in their way.
We talked about George Pal physically sculpting from a hand drawn prototype. What you have is a high tech development of that old idea. But as you develop these new techniques, creating your facial animation in a computer, for example, at what point does stop motion stop being stop motion? We obviously still have light shining on solid objects, it’s photography – that seems to be the cardinal rule? But what if you get to the point where armatures are manipulated using digital controls, the sort of rigs CG animators are used to, rather than hand – sort of how the sea is done in Kubo – is that just an advance or is it something new, no longer stop-motion?
For me, I think we’re working in a medium that’s over 100 years old but still just scratching the surface. We made Kubo and it was by far the most ambitious thing we had ever taken on, we’d have to develop new techniques and tools that we had never used before. I think this speaks to the ambition of the artist to take the medium where it has never been before.
There are some people – shall we call them purists? – who think stop motion should be a certain way, the Harryhausen herky-jerky style. I’ll tell you this: Harryhausen was not a purist in the sense that he was cutting edge technology for the day and if he had the tools we have now, he would gladly have made use of them. He invented technologies.
What we want to do is have this medium live up to its potential, which means always pushing, trying to advance it, trying to get the next level of performance, nuance and subtlety, and to make it as dynamic as it can possibly be. But what you’re looking at when you look at stop motion film is a physical object shot on a set, with lights and a camera, brought to waking life by the will and imagination of an animator. That never goes away. I don’t think that it being nuanced and subtle means that stop motion has lost its charm. No – it’s stop motion is starting to live up to its potential. When you stop seeing the characters on screen as a novelty, as puppets assembled of steel and silicon, and start connecting to them as human beings with hopes and dreams and aspirations, which I believe we did in this film, when you can connect with them on that level, we succeeded. We’re trying to tell stories in this medium that we love in the best possible way, not settling but always pushing for the next innovation.
We could never had made Kubo had we not made Coraline, or then Paranorman and The Boxtrolls. All of those evolutions, with the gang coming together, all of the tools and technology and artistic solutions over ten years, without that, we’d never be able to take the medium where it is now. There’s been a seismic shift. The same techniques Georges Melies used a hundred years ago, we’re still using them, just blending them with the cutting edge.
It’s very hard to put together a status quo of Laika from the information available publicly. There was talk of you releasing one film a year but now there’s no idea of what the next film will be or when it will be out.
There won’t be a film in 2017. One film a year is where we’re going, but it takes time to get there. For the first time ever we overlapped production, between Kubo and our next film. We’re shooting it now.
Physical production, right? Is it one of the ones I’ve heard about? Is it Wild Wood or Goblins?
I’m not going to say! There will probably be an announcement soon, in the next few months.
Gah! I suppose we’ll have to wait. Travis Knight, thank you very much.
Kubo And The Two Strings is available to download, and on DVD, Blu-ray and Blu-ray 3D right now.