Interview with Travis Knight on Directing “Kubo” – Animation Scoop

Interview with Travis Knight on Directing “Kubo”

Travis Knight is the President and CEO of Laika, the stop-motion animation studio behind Oscar-nominated hits Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. Their latest feature, Kubo and the Two Strings, opening this weekend, marks Knight’s directorial debut. He told me about some of the decade-long efforts of the studio, bringing Kubo to life, and a “mind-blowing” day working with one of Hollywood’s biggest stars.

Jackson Murphy: Congratulations on the film. It’s fantastic.

Travis Knight: Thanks. I really appreciate it. You work in these things, in an insular bubble, for so long – and this one for five years – and never knowing quite how people are going to react to it. So when people respond positively to the work it means a great deal. Everyone at the studio really poured their hearts into this movie, and when people respond well and they’re moved by it, it’s incredibly meaningful for all of us.


JM: Before we get into Kubo, I have to congratulate you and everybody at Laika on celebrating 10 years as an animation studio. That’s incredible. What does a decade in this very competitive and very exciting business mean to you?

TK: It’s really been an extraordinary run. We had a celebration at the end of last year where we got a bunch of people we work with, a bunch of our colleagues and work friends, together where we celebrated our 10 year anniversary. On some levels, it was like celebrating our failure to go out of business. When we started, it was very inauspicious. When you go back 10 years ago, we were a weird little band of anonymous misfits nestled in the rain-drenched, patchouli-oiled armpit of the Pacific Northwest. Nobody knew who we were. But we had big dreams.

Travis Knight

Travis Knight

During the 90s, with the ascendancy of the computer, it was really threatening to put anyone who worked in stop-motion out of a line of work. Stop-motion really was on life-support. For us…we had to figure out a way we can reinvigorate this thing that we’d all loved, otherwise we’d be relegated to the dustbin of history, like the Tingler or the Smell-O-Vision. Our approach was to fuse art and craft with technology and cutting-edge innovation. And that was something that wasn’t done in the medium. In terms of our approach, philosophically, we wanted to make movies that matter. We wanted to tell stories that are meaningful and thought-provoking, emotionally resonant and enrich people’s lives. The kinds of things that we do fill a void that just isn’t being filled by anything else. There’s nobody making movies like this.

JM: Much of Kubo includes really heavy, mature themes about love and loss. And the finale is so powerful. Did you go into this movie trying to appeal it more to adults than kids?

TK: No. Our approach is that we make films for families. Our definition of family is, potentially, a little bit different or it’s carved-up a different way than I think most studios’ is. We have a different perspective on films that are appropriate for families. When you look at classic fables or fairy tales – you look at the Disney films from the 40s and 50s – you look at the Amblin movies from the 80s: one of the things that I think they had in common was that they all understood dynamic storytelling. They understood the artful balance of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth, of humor and heart. Blending all those things make for richer, more evocative stories.

For us, we’re not interested in making little pop culture confections. We want to make things that have substance. We want to make movies that matter. [Kubo] is a story about loss, but it’s also a story about healing. It’s a story about some heavy stuff, but there’s also a jubilance, and a joy, and a humanity bubbling-up underneath it that makes it a potent story. Our films are never going to be babysitters. It requires you to think. It requires you to engage.


JM: The animation is so daring and so inventive. One of the major elements is Kubo’s origami figures that come to life. Simple question: How did you do that?

TK: All of that stuff was practical. All of that stuff we shot on stage. One of the things that’s always challenging is what material to make these things out of. We work in a certain scale, and then on the big screen it has to feel real, even though it’s through a stylized prism. Originally…we tried using paper, and it didn’t work. These things would deteriorate almost instantly. The materials that we use have to be durable over a long, two-year shoot.

We tried a number of different, other things. We tried cardstock. We tried urethane. We tried some different fabrics. In the end, the material we found that worked the best was tyvek, which is something that is often used in construction to wrap houses in. And it’s also used in FedEx envelopes – that plasticy, papery stuff. What it allows us to do is – it still behaves, it looks, it folds like paper – but it’s much more durable. It’s virtually tear-proof. That’s a material we ended-up using for all the origami creatures. And we shoot that a frame at a time.

JM: I read that you said [star] Matthew McConaughey did push-ups for a scene. That must’ve been a very interesting experience for you.

TK: It was. As an animator, you end-up approaching scenes a specific way. You dive into the emotion that we’re trying to communicate in the shot with the emotions of the character, with the emotions of the scene. And then you try to find gestures, impressions, body language, physical activity that can evoke the emotional response that we’re trying to convey.

With actors, it’s a different way of working – it’s a different way of thinking. Because in animation the only thing that the actor can use to communicate emotion is their voice, it’s a pretty significant burden to try to find all the different complexities and nuances to convey the full range of emotion using just that one instrument. The fascinating thing, for me, is how actors can use their environment, use their bodies, to get the performance that they’re trying to evoke.

For Matthew, because of what the scene was, he was trying to capture a certain, ragged quality to his voice, and it just wasn’t coming out the way he wanted it to. So, we’re just sitting there, and all of a sudden, he just disappears…from the vocal booth. [I said] “What happened? Where’d he go?” And so I got up, and I walk over to the vocal booth, and I look, and he’s on the ground cranking-out an inhuman amount of push-ups. I’ve never seen a human being do that many push-ups. It was very impressive. As soon as he finished, he promptly got up and he delivered the line, and his voice had the exact, ragged quality that we were going for. And it was amazing. He absolutely nailed the performance.

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy

Jackson Murphy is a movie critic and entertainment columnist. He is the creator of the website, and has made numerous appearances on television and radio.
Jackson Murphy
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