Travis Knight interview: Laika, Boxtrolls, Gilliam, future

The man who runs Laika, Travis Knight, chats to us about his plans, hating sequels, more Laika movies, Terry Gilliam and The Boxtrolls.

Travis Knight is an unusual man. He has two jobs at stop motion animation studio Laika. Firstly, he runs the company. But secondly, he’s part of the animation crew, taking direction from a film’s directors.

With The Boxtrolls heading to cinemas this week, he sat down to chat to us about plans for more Laika movies, his hatred of sequels, and a possible Terry Gilliam project….

I have an ongoing belief that it’s important to talk to children about ‘real’ things, and that there are few better Trojan horses via which to do that than film. When you look at a project that’s appropriate for your company, is there a resonance that you’re looking for, and is that way Laika’s films to date have been steeped in pre-established literature?

I do think we certainly have an approach and a philosophy that we want to make films that inspire people. That are bold, distinctive and enduring. We’re not interested in making pop culture confections.

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We put so much of our lives into making these things, and pour so much of ourselves into making the films, that we want to make sure that it means something.

I think back to the kinds of movies that I grew up loving, and the films that affected me, that made me think about the world in a different way, and opened me up to different ideas. I think that’s the best form of art. It gets us to recognise and share our humanity, give us opportunities to connect. When I go home from the cinema, and my kids are in the car, if they’re talking about what we just saw and having an animated discussion about it, to me those are some of the best experiences.

That’s what we want to do. We want to create these things that people can experience together and then talk about. So we do things that are more thematically challenging, and we do things that are more thought-provoking, in order to reach and respect the audience, and their intelligence and sophistication. Unfortunately, I don’t think enough films do that.

You clearly sacrifice box office by doing that.

Yes.

And also by the art form that you show a wonderful ongoing commitment to. But does that mean that you set up your business so that immediate box office is not the be all and end all? Because Laika seems to exists in a weird bubble, miles away from the animation community. Yet we still read stories about how DreamWorks is disappointed that How To Train Your Dragon 2 made only $600m at the box office. So: if every film you made brought in $1 of profit, but endured, would you be happy with that?

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I think any artist wants their artist to be seen and appreciated and enjoyed by as many people as possible. I also think in order to be true to who you are, you can’t water down and shrink from that responsibility. Sometimes by being more provocative, by being more true to that sort of thing, you will sacrifice a little commercial success. I’m of the mind that in the fullness of time that if you make good art, ultimately success will follow.

I’m pleased with the performance of our films thus far. I’d love for more people to have seen them. Not from a profit motive, although that’d be nice! But because I just think those kind of films are good for families to share together. I wish they’d get a bigger audience because I think they deserve to be seen.

I think the kinds of things we’re doing are worthy of doing, which is why we do them. And yeah, sometimes you do make sacrifices.

I think what your films aren’t are surrogate babysitters. You’ve made the point that this is a film for a family to see together. It’s not one to send the kids in to see while you go out shopping. Presumably that’s part and parcel of what you mean? You need to sell to four people rather than a child.

That’s absolutely true. We’re not interested in making little visual babysitters. We want the whole family to engage in these films. As a father myself, I see what meagre offerings are out there. So many of the films are little pop culture confections that don’t mean anything, that don’t require thought or richness. There’s nothing we can connect over.

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It is really important. We want to have things for the entire family to experience together, which is why we try to layer in different ideas and metaphors, as well as the stuff that the youngest kids can appreciate. Sometimes there’s an intensity that may make people a little uneasy, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

Hasn’t Harry Potter kicked down a few doors there though?

Yes!

It’s had a lot of positive impact on what a family will sit through together.

Yes. We think about family films in that same way. Harry Potter is absolutely a family film. I think when most people – even those in the industry – think of family films, it’s dumbed down.

But you’re in an industry that also likes to treat animation as a genre, and stop motion as a sub-genre.

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But look, that irritates me too, but I think people can be forgiven for that. Because when you look back over the last 15 to 20 years – and there are exceptions – more often than not, as an industry we’re telling the same kind of stories in the same kind of ways with the same kind of aesthetics. There’s a generic sameness to so much of it.

Animation is nothing more than a powerful visual medium that you can use to tell any story in any genre. Looking forward to Laika, I see what’s happening on our development slate, and we’re hitting on so many different genres, and we’re using this beautiful medium to bring it to life. 

So if a piece of material came into Laika, that you fell in love with but wouldn’t suit stop motion, would you pass on it?

That’s never been our experience. Because if we were to pass on things we thought were virtually impossible to do within the medium, there’d be hardly anything we could do.

Stop motion struggles in so many ways. It’s not good at big action and spectacle. But we don’t accept the limitations. We try and find ways to bash through them. By working from film to film to film, we’ve been able to innovate things, to come up with new processes, new technologies and new ways of working. I think we’re at a point now where even though we virtually every film we start I have no idea how we’re going to do it, we figure it out. It’s a testament to that crew, that loves the medium so much. It’s a weird and exciting thing to think that this medium we work with is over 100 years old. Yet it feels like we’re just scratching the surface on its potential.

If you’re looking at the future of the medium, one of the things that’s always guaranteed a steady flow into it is that stop motion is the easiest form of animation to try, short of a flip book. Now even more so: some plasticine and a mobile phone can get you started.

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But we’re at a point now where Pixar has released a free version of the Renderman tools to use at home. The same tools that were used to make Toy Story. A 10-year old can sit there with said tools. Is there a bit of you that such fears that now that such luxuries are available, that youngsters will veer away from stop motion? Or do you have an ongoing confidence in it?

CG is the coin of the realm, and I don’t think that stop motion is ever going to be the predominant way that we do a film. I think that it draws a certain kind of person to do it, and devote their life to doing it. And I think that technology has been an extraordinary democratising tool. The same software and cameras we use to shoot our film, you can get right now. The information is out there too for those excited in working in stop motion.

But it’s hard. It’s not an easy life, and it’s not an easy way to make a living. So I think it’s going to draw a certain kind of person. People who are drawn to this kind of work are unusual, and also very passionate. We have a whole building full of them in Oregon. And yes, we wish there were more of them – we’ve scoured the planet looking for the best artists in the world – but I also think it’s an exciting thing. We have a multi-cultural crew, and I think that informs the kind of movies we make. They don’t feel like a standard American animation film crew. 

Do you deliberately set your company up then 950 miles away from the heart of Hollywood? Also, I’ve looked at the picture of your HQ on the internet…

… it’s a dump! [Laughs]

Well, with all due respect, it doesn’t look like a hive of animation! But do you deliberate make it so far out of Los Angeles, and the CalArts capture area? That people have to make a pilgrimage almost to come and work for Laika?

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Well, Laika is in Portland because that’s where I’m from. But I think being away from a central film hub like Los Angeles or New York, you don’t have that kind of infrastructure and the vast amount of talent at your immediate disposal. You have to find it or grow it. So that’s what we end up having to do. Portland is an unusual city in itself though. It’s a strange community – a cross between a suburban centre and a frontier watering hole! And I think the person who likes that kind of lifestyle tends to be a great stop motion artist.

Being removed from Hollywood? I think it’s allowed us to develop our own culture that’s completely independent of it. So I think it’s a benefit on balance.

That concentration of talent in Los Angeles – and it’s the highest concentration of animation talent in the world – for whatever reason, the structure, the way these kids are taught, the kind of films the companies are making, it fosters a generic quality to some of the work. And being physically removed from it does help.

The loveliest description I’ve read of your company is ‘the place where Luddites meet futurists’.

Right.

Is that what you’re striving for?

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It is. One of the things I love about the process is you take an age old process and combine it with modern technology. You have different kinds of people with different kinds of thinking, forced to work with each other. And I think anytime you have those duelling perspectives, it’s fertile ground for creativity, innovation and ideas. 

The Boxtrolls, then. It’s based on a 500 page book that you’ve been working with for ten, eleven years. But it’s a small slice of the book you’ve taken.

It is, yeah.

Was that ten years about development then? Or was it speed of your pipeline? That when you put one film into production other things have to get in the queue?

I just think stories have needs and demands, and you have to find a way with them. That book, at another studio, would have delivered a different kind of movie. When we were trying to craft the book into a 90 minute film, it’s tricky. It’s an exercise in ruthless economy just to distil that down to the essence. We had versions of the script early on that were very faithful to Alan’s book. And they were a lot of fun, but ultimately quite hollow. They didn’t have anything underneath. We hadn’t figured out what our personal core was in terms of the emotion of it.

It really wasn’t until we started reflecting on our personal experiences and how that related to the book. Me and the two directors, at the time we were all fathers of young kids. We were all doing that standard thing that young parents do, struggling with family and meaningful work to try and find that balance. Looking at it through out kids’ eyes, remembering from our parents’ perspective, we started playing with that family dynamic. There was a germ of it there, it just needed flowering. Once you get to that core, then you can start layering in other ideas. Ultimately that’s what took the time: to get to that point.

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But also, we don’t have a massive development team. It’s a couple of guys in a room trying to figure things out. It’s not like this massive team. It takes a long time, but it’s a very personal thing.

Now you’ve taken this particular part of the book, Here Be Monsters out, are there other bits of the story you want to dig at? I don’t think you’re going all Hunger Games on us, but is there more in there you want to bring to the screen?

I’m someone who’s against sequels. I do not like them, and I do not like this trend as an industry that we’re ruled by prequels and sequels and reboots and remakes. Rewrapping old presents and presenting them as new gifts. I hate it.

I think that great sequels can be done. Some stories warrant multiple films because they’re big stories and they need that canvas. Alan’s book, you could make multiple films out of it. But out of that book, this is the story we wanted to tell, and I’m not interested in revisiting it. When you look at a story, ideally, the story should explore a pivotal moment in the protagonists’ life. If we’re doing a sequel, by virtue of what it is, it’s going to be a diminishment. The second most pivotal moment of his life!

I think this for us, this encapsulation of Alan’s book, is our take on it. I’ll never say never, but I’m more interested in coming up with new stories and new ideas. 

I saw a credit attached to this film that thanked Edgar Wright. Can I ask what that was about?

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He’s just a huge inspiration. We got to know Edgar a little while we were making ParaNorman. Shaun Of The Dead was a huge influence on us. He’s just a brilliant filmmaker. A great inspiration for us.

The projects that we know of that you’re working on again lean on existing literature, that you’ve optioned some pre-existing stories. Is that deliberate? Are you looking towards literature, where stories have already had to stand some degree of time?

No. We look for great stories wherever we find them. It’s just the stuff we’ve announced. The only time we can announce things is when we’re actually making it or if it’s something that already exists – a book, a graphic novel, what have you. There are other ideas we can’t talk about until we make them.

I think what you’re hearing – Goblins, Wild Wood – are things that already exist in the world. We think they’re great stories and that we could make great films out of them, but there are a number of other things that you’ll never hear about!

Are you sticking to a rough every two year cycle? That’s where we are right now, but that’s not ultimately where we want to be. We want to be more prolific. We want to be on an annual schedule, a film a year. No stop motion studio has ever been able to do that, for good reason.

Just physical space alone I’d imagine is a huge problem there?

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It’s very challenging! But with each successive film, we’ve been able to get the period between releases shorter and shorter. So we’re already starting to shoot out next film, we started earlier in the summer. We’ll probably announce that by the end of the year. It’s an extraordinary project, a beautiful story, and it’s unlike anything we’ve done. And what’s more, we just started shooting that, and then sometime before the end of the year, we’ll be greenlighting our next film. We’re closing that gap. Within a handful of years, I think we’ll be on an annual cycle.

Are you genre shifting again?

It’s very important for us not to have a house style. Certainly for us our films have strands of the same DNA, and the same philosophical approach. But we want to make sure that each film is its own thing. Has its own visual aesthetic, its own feeling. As  I look ahead, I’m really excited at the projects coming down the road.

Can we just touch on editing your films? Because more than any form of animation, stop motion lends itself to intense preparation, and by the time you get to the animating itself, at least two years of work tends to have been done. You had a 70 week physical shoot on this. But what’s involving in the post-production editing process? You merge a few different animation types in Boxtrolls, but how long does it take once you’ve got your last shot?

Stop motion, more than any other form of filmmaking, requires extraordinary discipline. We can’t shoot any coverage at all. What we shoot on the stage we have to be committed to putting in the film. You may shave off a few frames here and there. But basically what you shoot is what you cut in.

So we do shoot the film multiple times before you really make it. Storyboards, editing, everything. But once we’re producing footage on the studio floor, the reels are pretty locked. But I will say that because it takes a good year of shooting to make one of these things, you’re always revisiting, always exploring. Is there a better way to make this scene scene? A better version, a better gag, a more poignant reading of this line? You’re storyboarding throughout. It’s always evolving, always changing. But we only have so many puppets, so many sets and so many cameras, so you can’t just ask for another one – we have to build them, and they take three or four months. 

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Was there anything in the talk about you doing something with Terry Gilliam? He mentioned is earlier in the year?

Oh that rascal Terry!

Years ago I was introduced to Terry by Neil Gaiman. Neil and I were at an event, and he brought Terry with him, because he thought we’d get on. And of course we did, and I’m a huuuuge fan of Terry Gilliam. In some ways we describe Boxtrolls as Oliver Twist if Terry Gilliam had made it. I think he’s an extraordinary artist, and animator. We’ve talked a little bit about it, yeah. But I think it’s…. ultimately, who knows what happens with it, but if we can make that work, I think a Laika film that Terry Gilliam directed would be genius.

So I can get away with saying ‘conversations are ongoing’, then?

Yes, I think that’s safe to say! We’re big fans, and I think he admires what we do as well. And we’ve definitely had conversations about it. That’s a safe way to put it.

You talked about your desire to up Laika’s output. But you’re unusually hands on. John Lasseter, for instance, juggled running Disney and Pixar with directing Cars 2, but that’s the exception. You, however, run a company, yet you’re a lead animator on Laika’s films. But if you’re aim is for a film a year, don’t you personally have to sacrifice something there? Will you be able to have that level of impact? You’re animating scenes on films as it stands.

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Yeah. It’s always been important for me to not lose being directly involved in the work. It’s why I got involved in this business in the first place, and it’s why I love it. I also think it speaks to the philosophy of the studio that there’s no bureaucracy. Every person in the company contributes as much as they can, wherever they can. I happen to be able to contribute in animation. So in addition to running the company, I’m also a member of the crew.

Do you put the bins out as well?

[Laughs] Er, if it’s sitting there, and nobody else is doing it! [Bet you a quid he doesn’t]

The more  things we take on, it’s going to pull me in a lot of different directions. And I’m already being pulled in a lot of different directions. So we’ll have to see. That is the thing: we have to make sure we don’t lose our principles. Taking more on, you don’t want to lose the focus. Something has to give for me personally at some point, but I love the work. I’m blessed to be able to do what I do for a living. But I am one man after all!

Last question, then. What’s your favourite Jason Statham film?

[Thinks, grinning] I didn’t know him as Jason Statham at the time, but maybe Lock, Stock or Snatch. I think he was great. The Transporter films were fun, though!

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