Kubo and the Two Strings: Interview with director/producer and LAIKA president & CEO Travis Knight
Last month I flew to Los Angeles to attend the press junket for the upcoming LAIKA studios animated film Kubo and the Two Strings. I had the pleasure to sit down and interview the talented Travis Knight (director/producer and LAIKA president & CEO).
All of the bloggers and press had the chance to preview the film, and we were all in awe of the amazing imagery shown on the big screen. Now it was time to pick the mind of the man who made it all happen…Travis Knight.
What was your favorite scene or moment in the movie?
Sometimes asking a director/producer their favorite scene is like asking them to pick their favorite child…sometimes they can’t just pick one. As with Travis, he couldn’t really tell us his favorite. The entire concept to creation took five years. In the beginning you start with an idea and over time you “figure out who these characters are, what this world is, what are the big issues you’re trying to explore and then beyond that, what kind of personal things you can weave into the narrative to give it meaning and resonance.” Though while speaking with Travis, we found out that Kubo is a version of himself. Kubo is “an artist, he’s a storyteller, he’s a musician, he’s an animator. And his mirror, his journey pretty much mirrors my own.”
Travis grew up on the side of a mountain that was 15 miles away from the closest town. He, like Kubo, spent a lot of time alone. He spent a lot of time exploring the woods near his house, climbed trees and jumped over creek beds…very nature oriented. Travis spent a lot of time creating and drawing and making music and writing stories and when he wasn’t doing that his whole life revolved around his mother. “She was my closest friend in the world.”
This “film explores that moment in our lives when those things begin to shift and then irrevocably change; when we learn that profound, melancholic truth that to love is to hurt and those things go hand-in-hand and you know, love is an amazing thing because it opens us up and it makes us vulnerable. But at the same time, it heals us and it gives us strength and it makes our life worth living. And so you know, that’s one of the kind of core themes that are at the heart of this movie and every scene, to varying degrees, has elements of that at play.”
During the film you will see nods to Indiana Jones and to Ray Harryhausen in the big skeleton sequence. “We had no idea how we were going to pull it off. So when we see this thing at the end and I can appreciate all the challenges that we had in front of us when we started and I see the beautiful set design, the incredible animation, the cinematography, which is exquisite and then this monster, which is essentially a moving set come to life and it’s completely, and you completely buy into it. You don’t see these things as an assemblage of steel and silicone and cloth and everything else. You see these as living, breathing things. That’s really exciting.”
Handling the HARD subjects like loss and grief in a smart and sensitive way.
Finding the perfect balance is a tricky thing. “It can be elusive. It’s… I think back to the things that I loved when I was a kid and they… the things that stuck with me, the thing that took up residence in my head and stuck to my ribs, they were always those stories that had that artful balance of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth that took us on a journey in a really dynamic way and didn’t sugarcoat things, but talked about things sensitively and hopefully in a poetic way that even kids could understand. And you know, we make films for families, so we don’t speak down to our audience. We really want to respect their intelligence. And so we talk about fairly sophisticated issues and that mean something to us when we were kids and now as parents with that other generational perspective, looking the other way, we’re grownup kids who now have kids of their own.”
Did you know that LAIKA only exists because of Travis’ kids?!?! After being an animator for 20 years, life changed after having kids. Travis’ outlook on the world completely changed. “It shifted around, I think like most of us do and you start seeing things in a different way and as, as someone who’s involved in film and in television and in commercials, I didn’t want to devote my life to making stuff that was damaging to my kids. I didn’t want to make stuff that was part of a big, vapid, sensory assault, which is so much of the stuff that’s geared towards children.
I wanted to make art that was meaningful, that had resonance, that, you know, had an uncynical view of the world, that offered a hopeful view of the world. And so that was really the impetus for Laika beginning to… at the start to begin with. It wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my kids and this film definitely wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my kids because the whole thing explores the relationships that we have, you know, with our parents and then from the other way, with our children.”
“We have to make films that are pure, that we believe in, that mean something to us and that means something to our family, so we’re always reevaluating, we’re showing things to our kids, seeing how they respond and that ends up kind of changing how these films evolve.”
“We try to make films that are meaningful for the whole family and when I think of the best cinematic experience I have as a father is when I go see a movie with my kids and on the drive home we’re talking about what we just saw and some of the ideas that were raised. And those ones that were, where we go see a movie and it’s essentially a little pop culture confection that just washes over you and it doesn’t really mean anything, those are terrible because (LAUGHS) none of us is talking about anything. And I love those opportunities to engage with my kids and sometimes if you can tell a story that has, you know, issues that we’re exploring, those are opportunities for families to engage with each other and I love that.”
Stop Motion Animation
Stop motion animation “is a very unusual process of filmmaking. Laika is an unusual place.” Travis’ referenced LAIKA to Santa’s Workshop…except the elves have tattoos and piercings. “Stop motion as medium has been around since the dawn of film. It was one of the first visual techniques ever invented and it was essentially the invention of stage magicians, who at the dawn of cinema were looking for ways to bring their illusions to life in a different way for their audiences. When Georges Méliès was sending rockets to the moon, those were some of the techniques that they were using at the dawn of cinema. So it’s hard to imagine, but at one point in the world stop motion was cutting edge filmmaking. But it’s not anymore and with the the ascendancy of the computer in the ’80s and ’90s, it basically stop motion was on life support. No right-thinking person would follow this as a field, that was a viable way of making movies. And so for those of us that had loved it and had dedicated our lives to doing it for a living, we had to find a way that we could reinvigorate this more of a medium; that we could bring it into a new era and you know, otherwise we were going to be relegated to the dust bin of cinematic history, like the Tingler or the Smell-a-rama or something like that; just a quaint little footnote. And so we, our approach was weird. It was to essentially embrace the author of our demise to the infernal machine, the thing that threatened us all to learn to love it and we did, we embraced it and recognizing that what is the computer, really? What is technology really? It’s just a tool. It’s a tool and service of the operators and for us, we use it as a tool to tell stories, a tool to make art. It’s effectively no different than, than a paintbrush or a pencil or a sculptor’s tool. It’s just one way that you can use to tell a story. And so, but by merging those things, by merging craft and art and science and technology and forward-thinking innovation, we can take this medium that we love, fuse it with, you know, modernity and bring it into a new era and that’s what we’ve done.”
The crew at LAIKA loves to challenge themselves. They always want to tell new and interesting stories and to dive into new genres. So the opportunity to tell a big, epic fantasy…something they’d never done before or even attempted, was really exciting for a lot of people.
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Kubo and the Two Strings is in theaters NOW!
Disclosure: I was invited by LAIKA and Focus Features to attend the #KuboMovie press event in LA on 7/7-7/8. All opinions are my own.