Travis Knight interview: Kubo, Kurosawa, Miyazaki and more

Laika co-founder, animator and director Travis Knight talks to us about Kubo And The Two Strings and its love letter to Japanese culture...

For over a decade, Oregon-based studio Laika has honed its own unique kind of animation. Mixing traditional stop motion techniques with 3D printing and CGI, Laika has produced such captivating movies as Coraline, Paranorman and this year’s Kubo And The Two Strings. The indescribably busy studio co-founder, lead animator, producer and now director Travis Knight describes Laika’s hybrid approach as “Cavemen side by side with astronauts”; whether a scene is brought to life with puppets, CGI or a hybrid of both, his films have a foot in both the past and the future.

Kubo And The Two Strings, Laika’s most ambitious film to date, also has one foot in the far east. Set in Heian-era Japan, it’s Knight’s love letter to the counry’s landscape, architecture and folklore, as well as its own rich history in filmmaking. A mixture of fantasy, family drama and hyper-kinetic samurai movie, Kubo’s full of monsters, strange creatures and dreamlike landscapes. The work of Akira Kurosawa and animator Hayao Miyazaki are clear influences on Kubo’s tone and visual style, so it’s inevitable that both of these Japanese filmmaking legends come up in our conversation eventually.

As Kubo opens in UK cinemas, here’s what Travis Knight had to say about the high- and low-tech innovations and experiments that went into his new movie, how animation can explore difficult themes symbolically, and which Japanese films have most influenced him when making his grand fantasy.

What I appreciated was how quickly and subtly you established the sense of danger in the world you’ve created. Was that in the front of your mind when you started making this?

Ad – content continues below

It was important for us in the beginning of the film, where you have this cold open – you see a woman who’s going through this ordeal, who’s clearly seen some trauma – that we establish what kind of world this is. It’s a world where, if you get battered by a wave and you’re rolling around on the sea, and you smash your head on a rock, that hurts. You’re gonna bleed.

In the next scene, if you’re cooking rice on a boiling stove and you get splashed by the water, you’re gonna burn your finger. It’s not a Wile-E-Coyote kind of a world where you’re flattened against the side of a cliff and you brush that off and keep walking in the next scene. It’s a place where people get hurt and people die – alas, like life. So just some of those cues early on were letting the audience know what kind of a world this is. And it means there’s real stakes here, just like life, where there are things our heroes go through where you’re never sure at any turn what could happen to them. Hopefully the audience goes along for the ride and they feel for these characters when they’re imperilled.

If you effectively divest the story of those stakes, where you show that characters can bounce back, that they aren’t hurt by things that hurt us in real life, it does diminish what the story is and what the story’s about.

What was your process of crafting the story? Did the concept come first or the Japanese setting?

The original idea for the story came from our character designer, Shannon Tindle, and even in its most raw and early state, the idea of a stop motion sweeping samurai epic was something that was just really cool – something we hadn’t seen before. We started developing the project five years ago, and the early days are always really exciting and really fun, but also slightly terrifying, because the story can become anything at that point.

We start off with the germ of an idea, and over time we start to develop it. You start to figure out who these characters are, what this world is, what the themes are, what the architecture of the story can support. Also, where aspects of your own life can weave into it to give it resonance and meaning, and that’s what you start doing over that two to three year development period, where you’re figuring this out. And it really can become anything – it’s only as you start winnowing down and pushing certain ideas to the side that it starts to become clear what it is.

Ad – content continues below

At the core of the movie, the core of the story is fundamentally about a boy crossing the Rubicon from childhood to adulthood. Once you really start to hone in on something like that, then it becomes clearer and clearer what those other ideas and themes are, and how you can layer them on top. That happens over a period of time. 

The aspect I found interesting, too, was about bereavement, and how stories can help keep the memory of a loved one alive; they can be passed down.

Yeah. It’s a fundamental aspect of life, to go through loss. We don’t get out of this thing unscathed. That’s something that I was confronted with pretty early on in my life, where you lose someone really important to you. How do you reconcile those feelings? What can you do about that? Through the stylised prism of fantasy and animation, those are issues that we can explore in a way that is simple and beautiful and poetic – a way that children can understand. It’s difficult to talk to kids about these things. They’re difficult to explain to children. But when you see it dramatised on screen in a way that’s stylised, hopefully that takes a bit of the sting out of it, and makes it more digestible for children. So a fundamental aspect of being human is to suffer loss and to lose things, and there is a fundamental aspect of being human which is to love something is to expose yourself to pain and vulnerability. But it’s something that can also heal us and make us whole after they’ve gone, that grief.

As Kubo goes on this journey, he does suffer in some way an immeasurable loss, but by the end he’s strengthened by the experience. It really is a celebration of humanity in all its beauty and all its flaws. We really tackle the ideas of forgiveness and compassion and empathy, and talk about what loss can do to somebody, and how we can emerge, in some ways, better than we began.

Ad – content continues below

And even if we have loved ones that we’ve lost in our lives, we can carry them with us. They’re still part of our lives. There’s something that’s kind of beautiful about that, and the ideas there are really derived from Buddism and Buddist spirituality – this idea of wabi-sabi, which is something we explore in the film. It loosely translates as ‘imperfect beauty’, and it’s about transience and finding beauty in things that short of the ideal. I think that’s what the film is – an articulation of wabi-sabi in stop motion animation. We’re not machines, we have hands and we’re going to make flaws. We’re going to have flawed work, and we have to embrace the beauty in that.

Another aspect of Japanese culture is the concept of Kami, which is that there’s energy in everything. That even rocks are in some way alive…

There’s a moment in the film where there’s a celebration in the town – the obon festival. And there’s a beautiful idea there, where it’s a celebration of our loved ones, our ancestors. It’s not a solemn occasion, it’s not about wallowing in grief, it’s about celebrating the fact that these people were a part of our lives, and we want to keep them as part of our lives. That’s something that, in a meaningful way, we articulate, but we showcase it in that obon festival as well. 

Right. And stop motion is about bringing inanimate objects to life, isn’t it? So you’re breathing a life force into something that doesn’t move – which is like the Kami thing, in a way.

We’ve got a lot of thematic ties throughout the film. When you think about Kubo, he’s a storyteller, he’s an artist, he’s a musician. He’s an animator: he takes these pieces of paper and through his will and his talent, he transforms them into living, breathing things. In some ways, a lot of us animators saw Kubo as a proxy for ourselves, and I absolutely saw Kubo as a version of me. So I think that is fundamentally a part of it; what Kubo does as a storyteller is breathing life into something, so that’s why all those thematic elements all tie together.

Ad – content continues below

Is that why, even though you use modern techniques in your movies, it’s important for you to physically manipulate these puppets, to retain that sense that you’re breathing life into something?

I just love stop motion, and have ever since I was a kid. Everything from the Ray Harryhausen creature features to the Rankin-Bass holiday specials. There’s something so primal and beautiful and warm and charming about it that I adore, and I have since I was a child. When I started doing it when I was a kid, in my parents’ garage or basement, even as terrible as my early forays into animation were, there was just something amazing about the fact that you could take a physical thing and imbue it with life. It could have that spirit inside of it, even though it’s an inanimate thing. It’s just a beautiful artform.

In the 90s, with the ascendancy of the computer, there was nothing that we could do as stop motion artists that the computer could do better – with greater flexibility, with greater fine-tuned precision. So when we started Laika about 10 years ago, we were at a point where stop motion was effectively on life support. It was having to justify its existence. We wanted to reinvigorate it for a new era. And for a medium that goes back a hundred years, it felt as though it was withering on the vine.

The approach we came up with was to effectively embrace the art of our demise; to take the infernal machine that was threatening all of our livelihoods and make peace with it, to embrace it as a luddite would embrace the loom. So that really became a fundamental, seismic shift in the way we created our art; the computer was just a tool, just like a sculptor’s tool, or a pencil. It’s all in the service of the operator to tell a story in a meaningful way. 

We started to bring that into our process, which is art, craft, science and technology working together. You saw it in the beginning with Coraline when we started using stereoscopic photography for the first time; a digital capture system; a laser cutter; 3D printing. All these things merging together in pretty much the same way Georges Méliès was doing when he was sending rockets to the moon a hundred years ago – it was all those things blending together.

Ad – content continues below

What we saw when we were making Coraline was that you can have all these amazing, astounding visuals that we never could have gotten had we done things the old-fashioned way. And with each successive film, we’ve had these technological innovations that we can then take and apply to the next one. We use all those energies that we used to solve those problems and apply them to something else, which is why you see in Kubo – which is by far the most ambitious thing we’ve ever undertaken – we would never imagined making something on the scale of Kubo when we made Coraline. But because of all the innovations we’ve had on the three films prior, it made something like Kubo possible.

It still wasn’t a walk in the park – we had to come up with different innovations on this film – but it meant that it gave me courage that we can take on different kinds of stories in this medium that wouldn’t have heretofore been possible. That’s a liberating thing; that means we can tell all different kinds of stories in all different kinds of genres, and really take this medium and push it to its fullest potential. It’s a crazy thing to think that the medium’s over a century old and yet we’re just scratching the surface of what we can do in stop motion.

So what innovations have you made in Kubo that you think you could apply in your next film?

It’s basically in every single department. Things as simple as the different materials we use for making the puppets, the different silicon mixtures, to how we’re using laser cutters to etch into fabrics and so we can layer fabrics on top of each other. We have these incredible designs that would have been impossible to knit by hand. We came up with a water system that was a combination of practical water tests where we used bits of shattered glass and torn paper and garbage bags over big metal grids, to completely digital systems that we blended for greater precision and flexibility.

For our big skeleton monster, I love it, because it’s a practical puppet that we built. It’s 16 feet tall, it weighs 400 pounds. We developed a really ingenious system for animating it from the torso up, where we built a hexapod which supports the weight of the puppet. It was manipulatable through a computer; it’s effectively the same principal as you find in a flight simulator or a virtual reality ride in a theme park. And it allowed us to move it a frame at a time in all different axes, but it was still manipulatable by hand when we needed to go in and move it like a puppet. There were cables that were attached to the wrists of the puppet that ran up to the ceiling and dropped back down – they were attached to giant plastic buckets filled with sand bags! So it’s this combination of real high-tech solutions for some things and low-tech solutions for others; things you’d find in your garage, all blended together.

I love that approach, how at the beginning of every sequence we do on a movie, we get every department head together, whether they’re working in technology or doing things the old-fashioned way. We get round a table and we go through every shot in every sequence, and run through ideas of how we’re going to bring these things to life. I love that fusion of things, where you have cavemen side by side with astronauts, and you come up with a solution that makes sense for what we’re trying to accomplish in the film. Invariably, everything you see on the screen is a combination of those things – it’s technology and craft working together. 

Ad – content continues below

I’m glad you brought up the skeleton scene. I used to have the Japanese print on my wall…

Oh, Takiyasha, yeah!

To see that move was fantastic. This is probably a stupid question, but why did you have to build it so big?

There are a number of ways we could have done it. But when you have puppets that are making critical contact, they have to be the right size. So the skeleton’s holding the monkey puppet, and the monkey puppet’s 10 inches tall. So if they’re making critical contact, that hand needs to be the appropriate scale. And then the monkey breaks out of the hand and starts running up the arm and over the shoulder. It needs to be the right size. Kubo and Beetle are on the top of the skeleton. So there are different ways you could do it; we started thinking about building partial bits of the skeleton, but we soon realised that it meant the entire skeleton had to be built.

On the last film, The Boxtrolls, when we were trying to figure out how to bring the Mecha-Drill to life, we started thinking about doing it as a miniature – maybe a half scale – but even then it would’ve been two to three feet tall. But then we had a breakthrough where we recognised that it was effectively just a puppet – a giant puppet. All the same principles applied, we just had to scale it up. Once we did that, we realised that on this film, with these giant mythological monsters, they’re also just big puppets. Same principal, we just have to make them bigger. So instead of a hinge joint on the elbow, we used an automobile brake pad!

Ad – content continues below

Right!

So there are all sorts of things, it’s just a case of figuring out the best materials to bring something to life in a certain way. But because of the interactivity, the skeleton had to be the size that it was. It’s an amazing thing to see in person – it’s the first time a puppet has dwarfed the animators. Usually it’s the reverse! [Laughs] When our animator was up on a platform, animating the skull, his head fit perfectly in one of the eye sockets, it was so big.

That’s amazing. So going back to the story development, did you have a research trip to Japan?

No, we didn’t do that. My first exposure to Japan was when I was eight years old. My dad would go, and I tagged along on one of his business trips. I grew up on the west coast of America, Portland, Oregon, and Japan was so completely different from anything I’d experienced. I came back from that experience changed; it really was the start of a lifelong love affair with this beautiful culture. This film was our chance to pay tribute to this transcendent art of Japan. And so we had a handful of crewmembers who went to Japan if they needed to – our costume designer was one who sourced the proper fabrics and saw how they’re made. There are certain textiles and colours that you see in Japan that you don’t see anywhere else in the world.

So for specific purposes, we sent people to Japan. For other purposes, we’d just do tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of historical research on architecture and clothes and the towns in Heian-era Japan, and Kubo’s a composite of those things. We would bring in cultural consultants if there was something that was outside our experience; there was this 90-year-old Japanese choreographer, who came in and essentially came up with the dance you see in the early part of the film where the puppet’s doing the dance you see in the Obon festival. She choreographed the whole thing with [real] dancers, and we filmed it and used it as reference for our animators, to make sure we were bringing it to life in the best way.

Even though we were essentially making a fairytale, we wanted to make sure our fairytale had one foot in the real world. So the film’s woven with historical and regional references that we drew from real things in Japan. 

Ad – content continues below

So once people have seen Kubo, what would you recommend they see next? You mentioned samurai films earlier on.

I would recommend that any right thinking film lover watch any film that Akira Kurosawa has made. He was a huge, towering influence on this film. Yojimbo is one of my favourite films ever. And of course I was a huge fan of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, and I didn’t know that they were inspired in many ways by Yojimbo. Same thing with The Magnificent Seven – I saw that before I saw Seven Samurai, and I didn’t realise what the source was. You realise that the western versions often pale in comparison to the original, because they’re so extraordinarily beautiful.

There are different elements that we borrowed from or were inspired by Kurosawa, including camera movement, composition, camera, lighting. He was something of an aesthetic muse on the film, but more than that – the kinds of themes that Kurosawa explored in his films were things we wanted to explore in Kubo as well. Humanism, heroism, existentialism, the heroic ideal, things like that. So I would encourage film lovers to watch Yojimbo and Seven Samurai and Throne Of Blood – that’s an incredible film. Rashomon.

The other towering influence on the film was Hayao Miyazaki. From a different perspective, not necessarily from samurai films. Just the way he approaches his films – the sensitivity, the moral ambiguity that he imbues his villains with. There are so many beautiful things to explore in Miyazaki’s films. One of the other things that I love about Miyazaki’s films, is that when he sets a film in Europe, it’s not a documentary – it doesn’t really look like Europe, but it’s something he internalises, synthesises and weaves into his work. I love seeing that cross-cultural exchange. With this version of Japan we have in the film, it was the same thing: I was trying to capture the feeling and experience of visiting Japan for the first time, which to me was just this wondrous. magical place filled with possibility and mystery and beauty. That’s the feeling we tried to capture in this movie.

It’s interesting, the cross-cultural thing. Because lots of western filmmakers are inspired by Kurosawa and Miyazaki, but then they’re inspired by the west, too. Throne Of Blood was inspired by Macbeth, for example…

Ad – content continues below

Yeah! The Bard was a huge influence on Kurosawa – a guy who lived on the other side of the planet 400 years prior! He was inspired by John Ford, too. I just love what art can do and what it means for us; that it can cross barriers. It can speak to us across space and time and culture. That something 400 years ago can inspire and speak to us in a meaningful way – I think that’s one of the greatest gifts that art can give us. It elicits empathy, and lets us see the world in a different way. It touches us in a meaningful way. I think that’s a great example, with Kurosawa – he influenced artists and filmmakers I was inspired by like Spielberg, Scorsese, Lucas, tonnes of others. It’s what we try to pay tribute to in this film – it’s a culture that’s been so vital to us for so long, and it’s something that we rarely see on the screen, particularly in the west.

What’s your favourite Miyazaki film?

Oh boy. I’d have to say… it’s tough. I love Princess Mononoke, My Neighbour Totoro… [Totoro] is probably my favourite one just because of how beautiful and emotional it is. I love Spirited Away, that’s a huge one. Kiki’s Delivery Service. There’s not a single one that I don’t love in some way. Even Castle Of Cagliostro, which I think is one of his first ones…

It was his debut feature, yeah.

Yeah. It’s so unusual and exciting and fun.

The car chase!

Ad – content continues below

The car chase is amazing! There are so many great things in his movies. You can have a field day going through them.

Travis Knight, thank you very much.

Kubo And The Two Strings is out in UK cinemas now.