Interview: Travis Knight On ‘Kubo And The Two Strings’, Laika, And Superheroes

With the release of Kubo and the Two Strings I was given the opportunity to have an interview with the director of the film, Travis Knight. He graciously spent time to talk with me about the film. Knight is also the CEO of Laika as well as a Lead Animator on all of their previous films, which include Coraline, Paranorman, and The Boxtrolls. He spoke about his work as a director on this film and how it has been an incredible experience for the team making such an impressive film as Kubo is.

Kubo is obviously inspired by Japanese culture and stories so what was your process like adapting these themes into the film as a director?

Well you know the way is the way we approach these things you know one of the filmmakers that I love and who was a huge influence on the film is obviously Hayao Miyazaki. One of the things I love about Miyazaki is how he approaches you know some of the different subject matter that he tackles I know half a dozen Miyazaki films that are either based in or inspired by Europe and I just love his vision of that. It’s become something of a synthesis. He takes something he’s fascinated with in this case Europe European culture and he internalizes that synthesizes and then he we use it into his art. And so what you see you look to me as Miyazaki version of Europe is is almost like an impressionist painting of Europe. It’s not a documentary it’s not like trying to cash or captured necessarily completely accurately. It’s trying to capture the feeling and the  experience of the filmmakers. And that was the same basic approach that we took to Kubo.

You know my introduction to Japan and its culture and its art happen all over 30 years ago when I was 8 years old and my dad let me tag along to one of his business trips to Japan. And I grew up from Portland Oregon. So for those you know 30 some odd years ago for the moment I stepped for Japan it was really was an eye opening experience. It was like I’d been transported to another world. You know everything from the art and the architecture and the food, the silent dress, the music, the books…everything. It really was a revelation for me and I was completely enthralled by it. And that you know that introduction 30 some odd years ago was it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair I’ve had with this great beautiful culture. And so this movie is that you know the convergence of fantasy and family and you know the love of this transcended are from Japan. And so you know because you’re here you’re telling the story this in a specific place although it is a period fantasy you want to make sure that your fairytale has one foot in the real world. So in order to do that you got to make sure that you know you do rigorous research that you study you go to museums you bring on cultural consultants. You take trips to Japan to try to understand you know different aspects of what you’re trying to do to what textiles are used you know what towns look  like and hungry to you know what it does a statuary look like you know like every every single aspect of this film it is heavily researched in order to give it an authenticity to make sure it doesn’t feel like it comes off the factory floor to make sure it feels like the world that we’re experiencing has a history and tradition that you know independent of when the film is set. It like it’s the world that exists outside of the range of this movie.

You know that’s really important for the stakes to be real for you know the characters journey of feel real. This is a real place. But in the end it is a period of fantasy and so that you know we grounded in reality but then it lifts up off of that. And you know the palette the colors textured the scenes and you know they just become more wonderfully fantastic, but that only works because you are rooted in a real place.

How has working on all of Laika’s previous project prepared you for taking on this project as a director?

Yeah so it was way different. You know I’ve worked in animation for 20 years and in that time I’ve done a lot of different diverse jobs. I’ve you know to start with I was a production assistant and I was a scheduler and a coordinator  and I’ve been stop motion animator. I’ve been a CGI animator I’ve been a lead and supervising animator. I worked in development and I’ve  produced films I’ve run a company. All those experiences I feel we’re training ground and essential for me stepping into the role of director on this movie. You know in that period of time  I think all those different those different roles they gave me a different perspective on production and filmmaking and storytelling. All those were brought to bear on this movie you know as an animator you are often really fixated on minutia on granular detail on previous things like time at the expense of losing sight of the big picture. But as someone whose produced films and who has to run a company you have to see the big picture. And so I think that the director is kind of the fusion of those things you have to be hyper focused on detail but you also have to have a you know a big picture mindset and you have to know where every piece of the puzzle sits. And you’ve got to be able to articulate that vision to your crew.

But you know with all that said the way we make movies in Laika you know being the director is an exhausting experience. And you are the nexus of every creative and technological decision on the movie. It all rests on the director’s shoulders and it’s a really really demanding. But on the other hand, it’s also exhilarating because being able to work that closely with these incredible passionate artists who put so much of the movie is really inspiring. And so you know it’s a community effort. The movie you know it only works because it’s a collaboration of a ton of different  talents. But you need one vision driving itself. And so you know to do that on this movie it was an honor and the most gravely satisfying experience of my entire career.  I have loved every minute of it.

Since the animation is so detailed for this film as a Director  how was it like working alongside animators on this project?

Yeah. I’ve been a lead animator on every film that we have done up to this point  and like I said I was doing this professionally for 20 years.  Animation is a huge part of my life for my entire life. So you know to be able to work with animators in this way it was it was amazing it was an amazing experience to me. Animators work in isolation. You know there’s a whole hullabaloo before an animator gets started on a shot of lightning camera people and on on stage you have set dressers and makers on stage and everybody is getting ready for the shot, but once the shot begins the animator works in isolation basically until the shot is done and show you know you’re on set 10 12 hours a day. You might not even see another human during the whole day. And so it really is you know you’re shutting out the world and you’re focusing on the work of bringing these characters to life.  As a director it’s almost like the complete opposite experience you are interacting with people all they want to interact with animators. It was fantastic because I don’t even know how other animators work.

I’ve never really observed another animator working. Everyone has their own little idiosyncratic way of approaching things so you know to be to work with these guys and to be able to you know to collaborate on this level and then  we would check in with them on dailies to get then on around like during the day to go and visit  animator sets and just check on the progress and answer questions that sort of thing and just see how different animators approach their art is really fascinating for me. And to try and find ways that we can communicate in the best way and inspire each other. It was amazing. It was you know for this film to work  it’s an emotional film.

These characters need to feel real and so I really did push our team both on the stage and the facial  animation team and their visual effects team to really make the characters fully come to life that they are living breathing creatures with vulnerabilities and hopes and dreams and that requires a really subtle nuanced refined animation and was  just challenging to do in stop-motion, but I wanted to make sure that the animation was  the best animation I’ve ever done. And so you know that pushes us into some uncomfortable places. But I do think that people embrace the challenge. They went for it and they did it. I think this is by far the finest stop-motion animation that’s ever been done.

Since Heroic Hollywood is a site where we mainly discuss comic book movies I just wanted to know whether or not the superhero genre would be something that yourself or Laika be willing to try out in the future

I would absolutely love that.

I’ve told our team that you know before I shuffle off this mortal coil I want to make sure that we hit fulfillment, basically every genre there is you know one of the things that keeps us excited at Laika is a challenge to doing something new of  diving into worlds of exploring new genre of analyzing new and different aspects of what it means to be human. And so you know the films that we’ve done where Coraline, a dark, modern fairy tale and Paranorman a supernatural comedic thriller,  with The Boxtrolls a coming of age fable and now Kubo a big sweeping semi-epic hitting all these different genres is really exciting for me and it showcases how  animation is a powerful visual medium being used to tell  virtually any kind of story in any genre. I think that’s really really exciting.

And so the notion of telling a stop motion superhero movie would be an absolute joy. I mean it really would be something of a dream come true. It’s probably no surprise, but I was a huge comic book geek growing up and in fact if I was a prepubescent boy living in this era I would be in heaven with all these comic book movies that are coming out. They were few and far between when I was a kid you just didn’t have that kind of thing on screen. It’s an amazing thing how the culture shifted so we would absolutely love to do something like that. I think our main thing is like what’s new we can bring to the genre? What’s a different perspective that we can bring to it because by now there been so many of these movies that have been told stories have been told it’s well-trod ground. So if we were to tackle genre like that we would only want to it if someone were to bring something new to the genre. But with all that said I would love it. I would be in heaven if  we made a commitment. So that is definitely something I’m talking about.

Kubo and the Two Srings is now in theaters I implore all to go out and see this film.
Would you like to see them tackle a superhero film? Let us know in the comments!

Christian Michael Stoic

Christian Michael Stoic

Christian Michael Stoic is a writer, filmmaker, and comic lover from Los Angeles, CA. Heroic Hollywood is his introduction into the world of Journalism which...