To understand Laika and the labor-intensive stop-motion animated films it makes, you have to first clear a lot of space in your head. The production details melt your brain. The puppet engineering is both hyper technical and mad-scientist-dream-machine-esque. The research is so thorough that the costume designer is as much a historian as an artist. And the art is precise down to a single hair on the head of a single character in one single frame that only equals 1/24th of a second, which, in an average movie length of 95 minutes, makes up approximately .000007% of the film. Do they actually scrutinize over that one hair in that one frame? Yes, they do. Perfection is not a goal, it is required.
The glacial speed at which Laika makes movies hurts to try to comprehend. A live-action film can be shot in 10 weeks. At Laika, one animator might only shoot 30 seconds of footage in that time. In the real world we’re impressed by speed, but you can’t speed up stop-motion perfection. At Laika, it is patience, endurance, and thoroughness that are revered.
To fully understand a creation, you must spend time with the creator and for Laika that man is Travis Knight – former animator, now president and CEO of Laika, and the director of their most recent release Kubo and the Two Strings. His journey to the top started a long, long time ago.
Picture a youngish kid, living out in the sticks halfway up a mountain with a ton of time to kill and no one chasing his whereabouts. A voracious reader with a wild imagination, he spent entire days as a kid exploring the depths of the woods surrounding his home, reading, making up stories, drawing, writing and generally living with one foot in this reality and one in the world he’s made up.
You might be imagining a protagonist from one of Laika’s feature films – like 11-year-old Coraline who finds a door leading to an alternate version of her own home and family, or 11-year-old Norman Babcock who can speak with the dead, or Eggs a boy who’s raised in a subterranean city by The Boxtrolls. Somewhat lonely kids with insatiable curiosity and fearlessness in the face of their big, scary worlds - you’re getting close. But the kid I’m describing is indeed Travis Knight, a self-described “big dork,” the son of Nike co-founder Phil Knight, now the head of Laika where the protagonists in his films are never entirely cut off from the unleashed creativity of his own childhood.
“When I was a kid, I was a pretty lonely kid. I was often in my own little world,” he says, “Even though when I was a kid I didn't have a ton of friends and I spent a lot of time alone, there was something about reading books and seeing films that reminded me of this kind of shared humanity that we all participate in. That's one of the great things I think storytelling does. It elicits empathy. It gets us to see the world through other eyes. It was always something that I was really drawn to.”
In a letter to his publisher in 1937, J.R.R. Tolkien says “a safe fairyland is untrue to all worlds,” and Knight would know. When asked about the stories that have most impacted his life, he drops “Tolkien” without taking a breath and his “big, fantasy epics.” As a kid Knight read everything Tolkien had written, in fact his mother was reading The Lord of the Rings when he was born. He says it’s hard-wired into his DNA to love this stuff, but the biggest inspiration for what goes on at Laika has more to do with his experience of fatherhood than childhood.
“Laika really only exists because I'm a father,” he explains. “When I had kids, it changed everything for me. I wanted to create things that were corrective; that were a restorative tonic to this sensory assault that so many kids are subjected to. When I think about what inspires me, it's to make those kinds of stories; to make movies that matter; to make films that have something meaningful to say that are resonant, that are thought-provoking, that are emotional, that speak to some kind of a deep truth and ultimately offer a hopeful, un-cynical view of the world.”
But as Tolkien knows, in a true fantasy, safety can’t be the only feeling we feel. Laika’s heroes veer off into the dark, are no stranger to peril, and face their fears head-on. As a viewer, we are not spared the ugly or morbid in favor of the pleasant. And it’s true, spending time in the dark makes the bright even brighter; a film can’t possibly span a range of emotions and experiences without exploring the shadows. Filing off rough edges results in sanitized storytelling that is easy to digest and mostly inoffensive. Sometimes nothing hits the spot like a good old-fashioned princess story, but only in the switch-your-brain-off kind of way.
“When I take my kids to a movie and it's churned up something and we have a nice robust discussion in the car on the way home, those are my favorite kinds of movie experiences,” Knight says. “The worst ones are when we've gone and we sit there for an hour and a half and it was engaging enough, but it's just bland. It's like a little bit of cotton candy and then it's gone. I like things to stick to the ribs.”
Knight recalls the first time a film moved him to tears. It was E.T. and he was about eight years old when he watched it in the theater with his mom. The profound melancholic truth of the story that “to love is to hurt” really hit him. He remembers bawling in his mom’s lap, knowing that the movie was completely fabricated and yet “it was as real as anything I’d ever seen,” he says. The experience has stayed with him. E.T. is a PG-rated film, it’s meant for kids, and yet there at its core is a theme which all of humankind has wrestled with since the dawn of time: that love gives you strength and makes you vulnerable.
“I WANTED TO CREATE THINGS THAT WERE CORRECTIVE; THAT WERE A RESTORATIVE TONIC TO THIS SENSORY ASSAULT THAT SO MANY KIDS ARE SUBJECTED TO.”
“I'm not interested in making pop culture confections; there are plenty of people who do that and do it well. I want to be part of making something meaningful. I think powerful storytelling runs the gamut of experiences. It's kind of this big dynamism of intensity and warmth; darkness and light; joy and pain; humor and heart ... It's all of those things combined,” Knight says.
Knight speaks not just as a storyteller, or as a master animator (production manager Dan Pascall reckons Knight is one of - if not the best - stop-motion animator in the world), but also as the president of the company. Businessmen, particularly when it comes to the motion picture industry, don’t tend to be risk-takers. Laika’s choice of stories, and the way they animate them: “a technique that's been around since the dawn of cinema: an animator on a set with a puppet and lights and a camera bringing these things to life frame by frame,” as Knight describes it, shows real faith in humanity. You can’t make a children’s movie the way Laika does without a real belief in the intelligence and capacity of children to process and wrestle with huge, and sometimes dreadful, themes. And you wouldn’t bank on the stories that Laika banks on without confidence in the parents of those kids seeing value in a film that yes, might scare your kids, but will absolutely make them think. It’s the difference between the uncle who talks to your five-year-old like an adult about real life things (because he doesn’t know any different or because he actually, really knows quite a lot), versus the lady in the park who talks in a baby voice and tells them how cute they are.
When Knight finished Laika’s first feature, Coraline, he thought they’d done everything right. “We had a novel written by a master - Neil Gaiman. We had an incredible director - Henry Selick. We'd assembled this great team of world-class artists. We'd had an innovative production technique that we were evolving. And we were telling this really beautiful story. We packed up our clown car and went down to the big city of LA and tried to sell our wares. We met with virtually every major film studio, every mini-major, every independent studio, and nobody was interested in what we were trying to do. Nobody,” Knight laughs. And the reason? It was something Knight hadn’t even thought about: no studio would pick up an animated film with a female protagonist who wasn’t a princess or a fairy. Cue boiling blood. “As a father of a daughter,” Knight says, “that was shocking, that you couldn't have a beautifully told film with a girl protagonist. So right from the start, we were bumping against this prevailing orthodoxy that this is something that you just don't do.”
The Laika crew soldiered on and eventually found great partners in Focus Features and Universal.
“The qualities that make for excellence in children's literature can be summed up in a single word: imagination. And imagination as it relates to the child is, to my mind, synonymous with fantasy. Contrary to most of the propaganda in books for the young, childhood is only partly a time of innocence. It is, in my opinion, a time of seriousness, bewilderment, and a good deal of suffering. It's also possibly the best of all times.” That quote is by the author of Where the Wild Things Are, Maurice Sendak, who also said, regarding the parents that were concerned the film adaptation of the book was too scary, “I would tell them to go to hell.”
To see children as innately robust and buoyant, and to believe it enough to tell stories accordingly, is to give children credit they rarely receive. What we make reflects what we believe, and Knight believes that kids are worth the risk, that the imaginations of kids go deeper than a princess marrying her prince.
So we’ve got the story, one Knight particularly relates to, about a young boy named Kubo whose superpower is storytelling and bringing his origami characters to life by playing his shamisen, a traditional Japanese 3-stringed instrument. Performing in the town square for money by day, and taking care of his ailing mother by night, Kubo’s past begins to reveal itself bit by bit and he finds himself on the run from gods and monsters that want his powers. On an epic quest to find his late father’s samurai armor - the only thing that will protect him - Kubo makes friends, fights in epic battles, and learns a lot about himself and his family along the way. The tale is big and sweeping, Kubo is brave and supremely loveable, and the power of storytelling ends up an invisible hero of the movie. Through all the ups and downs of the film, telling stories threads each act: to learn about the past, to endure the present, and to write his own future – Kubo tells stories to survive.
"I’M NOT INTERESTED IN MAKING POP CULTURE CONFECTIONS; THERE ARE PLENTY OF PEOPLE WHO DO THAT AND DO IT WELL. I WANT TO BE PART OF MAKING SOMETHING MEANINGFUL."
“In small bits and in big bits, you bring your own life and your own observations to these things. With Kubo, because I was leading the project creatively, it was just magnified. Kubo's basically me. He's an artist, he's a storyteller, he's a musician, and he's an animator really, when he's bringing these things to life. His journey, his progression from childhood to adulthood, what he goes through, his relationship with his parents... It's a magnified, stylized version of my own life. It can be challenging when you're creating these things to reveal parts of yourself; it makes you vulnerable, and then you put it out to the world completely exposed awaiting the unsparing judgment of the world on the film and as subtext, your value as a human being. We found that that's really the only way to do these things,” Knight says about his personal connection to Kubo and the Two Strings. But as he points out, sometimes the more personal you get, the more universal the story becomes.
“Because that's all storytelling is,” he says. “These are emotional experiences. We're connecting people. We're reminding us that we all touch the same surface of the world.”
Which, it dawns on me, sounds like something Kubo would say.