A multi-talented artist with two decades banked in the craft of animation, Kubo and the Two Strings director Travis Knight is a man on a mission. Also serving as CEO and President of the Oregon-based Laika, Knight took on a project of epic scope for his directorial debut, looking, as always, to expand the kinds of stories the studio will tell, and the mechanisms for doing so.
It’s fair to say that Kubo is a remarkable technical achievement—the film benefits from technology created for it, used, in one case, to harness and control a 16-foot skeleton demon. Below, Knight discusses his passion for Japanese art, the many visual inspirations for the film, Kubo‘s unique color palette, and his hopes for the next ten years of Laika.
How did this project come to be, and why did you pursue it for your directorial debut?
We started developing Kubo and The Two Strings over five years ago. The original idea for the film sprang from the mind of our brilliant character designer, Shannon Tindle, a guy that I’ve know for over ten years. There was just something that was really exciting and rich, evocative, even in the simplest form of the story, this notion of doing a stop-motion samurai film. It was something that really excited me.
When I was a kid, I loved big, epic fantasy stories. That was something that I inherited from my mother—she would read me those stories when I was a kid. In fact, when she was recovering in the hospital after I was born, the book that she was reading was Tolkien’s Lord Of The Rings, so it’s like these types of stories have been a part of my life basically from the beginning. It’s almost like it’s embedded in my genetic code. This was a canvas with which we could start to paint with those colors.
The other thing that excited me, too, was it offered us an opportunity to pay homage to a beautiful cultural tradition and art style that we typically don’t see on the big screen, and that’s something that’s rooted in Japan. My love for Japan started over 35 years ago. When I was around eight years old, my dad let me tag along to one of his business trips to Japan. I grew up in Portland, Oregon, and when I went to Japan for the first time, it really was a revelation—it was a huge eye-opener. I just fell in love with the place and the culture, the architecture, the music, the comic books, the movies, the TV shows. It was really a beautiful thing.
When I went to Japan for the first time, that’s when I was exposed to this incredible manga comic book called Lone Wolf and Cub. I brought it back with me and even though I couldn’t understand the language, there was something that was just so beautiful and rich about the clarity of the visual storytelling. Those two pillars essentially for me were the things that were inspirational for me to want to move forward on this story, just the love of fantasy that I got from my mom and the love of Japan that I got from my father. It’s fitting because fundamentally at the film’s core, it’s about the sustaining love of family. So to make a film that was inspired by family that was about family, I felt like it was the perfect kind of story for me to take the helm for the first time.
But it was challenging because we’d never taken on a big epic fantasy like it before. Ever. We challenged ourselves on everything that we’ve done, but something of this scale was something that we’d never even considered taking on before. It just seemed like it was too far out of our reach. In the time that we’ve been together, we’ve effectively kept the core team together, and we built on all the artistic and technological innovations from film to film to film, which meant that by the time we started working on Kubo, I could imagine that we could start to harness some of those innovations that we’ve developed over the years to tell a story like this.
I remember when we first started talking with the crew, and we were saying, “Okay, look, we want to make a stop-motion David Lean film.” People laughed—it’s that’s ridiculous. Because when you understand how these things are done, that we have a crummy little warehouse in Portland, Oregon, and the sets these are just essentially gussied-up tabletops…We shoot on a really small scale, and yet a David Lean epic is majestic. It’s sweeping. So the idea was kind of absurd on its face. But that was the challenge, and that’s what this required.
The project is certainly epic in its ambitions—you created a 16-foot skeleton demon for the film.
I wear multiple hats on pretty much everything that we do—on this specific film, I produced the film with my partner Arianne Sutner, I directed the film and I also animated on it. From a producer’s prospective, the idea of making a rogue picture in stop-motion, that’s a nightmare because that means pretty much every sequence of the film takes place in a new location, which for production efficiency, that’s not something you want to do. You want to be able to reuse locations. You want to travel back to the same places over and over again.
We figured out how to manage that. Then, there are these other challenges, like these big mythological creatures. The giant skeleton was something that was inspired by Japanese folklore and Japanese woodblock prints, and also by Ray Harryhausen. If there’s any one single human that’s responsible for me becoming a stop-motion animator, it’s Ray Harryhausen. I absolutely adored his films growing up.
One of the most classic pieces of cinema is the battle between Jason and this army of skeleton warriors in Jason and the Argonauts. It’s this beautifully animated piece that Harryhausen did, and our big battle of the skeleton monster is meant to be a tip of the hat to that, but also an attempt to one-up the master, because with the skeleton monster, we had a puppet that was so big it, actually dwarfed the animator who was bringing it to life.
When it was fully assembled, it was 16 feet tall. It weighed over 400 pounds. It was just enormous, but it looks incredible on screen. I love how it’s a convergence of everything we do at the studio, which is high tech and low-fi solutions. It’s art. It’s craft. It’s science. It’s technology all rolled into one.
You have this puppet that, because it was so big, we had to develop a piece of technology to support the weight and be able to move it. We made this thing called “the hexapod,” which supported the torso, which is essentially the same kind of thing that you see on a flight simulator or on a virtual reality ride at a theme park. And what it allowed us to do was to support the massive weight of the puppet, but also be able to move it at pretty much any angle.
On the other end of that scale, we have the thing was essentially like a giant marionette, because on its wrists it had these cables that would support its weight. Those would be strung up to the ceiling and dropped back down, and held by plastic buckets filled with sand bags. The animator would step on these weight sensors, which would activate the cable. He would then be able to move the arm into a certain position, and then step off the weight sensor, and the arm would hold itself in place. It was an extraordinary piece of high tech stuff, along with stuff that you find in your garage.
Could you elaborate on the visual style you were going for in the film, and the materials used?
We don’t want to have a house style, so every film has to have its own unique thing.
On Kubo, we were inspired by ink wash paintings, by Noh theater, by late Edo period doll making, by origami, clearly, and by this set of art called ukiyo-e, which literally means “pictures of the floating world.” The most well known form of ukiyo-e is the classic Japanese woodblock print. We went back and studied the masters, including Hokusai and Hiroshige, but the one key visual artist that was our touchstone was a 20th century graphic artist, Kiyoshi Saito.
He came from this tradition of Japanese woodblock printmaking that goes back hundreds of years, and at the same time, he was a guy who looked beyond his own situation, looked beyond his own culture. And he was heavily inspired by Western painters, Western thinkers—people like Paul Gauguin and Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso. In his work, you saw this incredible infusion of East and West, and old and new, and the real and the imagined. It was so exciting because that’s effectively everything we do at the studio—we look all over the world, and are inspired by so many different forms of art and artists, and we fuse that with our own sensibilities, and hopefully come up with something new.
We wanted the thing to look and feel almost like it was a moving, living, breathing woodblock print. That was the prism by which we looked at everything.
The color in the film is incredibly vibrant. What was the approach in achieving that look?
All that was by design, and it was rooted in the same inspiration. Kiyoshi Saito was essentially a self-taught artist—he did everything on his own, and because of that, he used a very limited palette in his prints, because he had to reuse the woodblocks to bring these things to life. He wasn’t made of money—he couldn’t do multiple pigments. And so he’d end up doing just a handful of pigments per image, but it was really rich and evocative, and he used texture to help give it life.
We took that same basic principle and applied it to Kubo. For every key sequence, we had a specific color palette. There were just a handful of colors for the beginning of the film—it’s essentially black and blue. And within that there are a lot of different gradations, but that was the palette of the film that was intended to evoke a certain kind of feeling and emotion. The colors we use are orange and green, or purple and pink—they are very simple, limited colors, but it makes everything very rich.
What are the lessons you can take with you, going forward from your directorial debut?
I feel like it’s the culmination of 20 years of working within animation. It really felt like my entire career was leading to this experience, because I’ve done a lot of different jobs in the time that I’ve been working in animation.
I started out as a production assistant. I’ve been a stop motion animator, and CG animator. I’ve worked in development. I run a company. And all those different experiences give you a different perspective on the filmmaking process, on management, on creation. And stepping into the director’s role on this film, it felt like it really took advantage of every single one of those experiences that I had leading up to that.
As a director, you really have to dive into detail and granularity; you have to focus on the minutia. Every single aspect of this world has got to be designed and built and brought to life. And that’s something that, as an animator, you’re always focusing on, those tiny, almost imperceptible details.
That fixation of detail was critical for being able to do this job as a director. But on the other hand, you also have to be able to extricate yourself from all that miasma of detail and be able to see the big picture. You have to be able to articulate a vision, and you have to see where everything is going and how all these interlocking pieces fit together.
One thing I was very surprised by was how hard [directing] was. It’s by far the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my career. I don’t know how things are done at other studios, but at Laika, the director really is the creative nexus of absolutely everything. You are at the focal point of every single department, so it can be really burdensome. It takes a lot out of you. But at the same time, it’s invigorating, because you are interacting and inspiring and being inspired by so many incredible, passionate artists. It really was an amazing experience, and I’m so grateful for it. Having gone through it, I know better what to expect the next time around.
What avenues are you hoping to go down with Laika in the next few years?
Our long-term ambition is to be on an annual release schedule where we’re producing a film a year. We’re still a little bit away from that, but we’re moving towards that. We’re truncating the period between releases. In fact, while we were still shooting Kubo, we ramped up production on our next film, which we’re shooting right now. That was a first time we had actually had two films shooting concurrently.
The thing about it is, I want us to tell a huge variety of stories. One of the things that I love about our slate that’s in development is that everything is unlike anything else. It’s so completely unique—it highlights how potent a medium animation is.
Often times, we see animation get ghettoized because you tend to see the same kinds of stories told the same kinds of ways. And that’s not by virtue of what animation is, it’s just the choices that are being made by executives, filmmakers, what have you. And animation can be so much more. That’s the thing that gets us excited. There really is an inherent creative restlessness at the studio where we always want to challenge ourselves. We really want to take the medium into places that it hasn’t been before. That’s why we tell stories.
I think in the fullness of time, these last ten years have been pretty amazing for us. But as I look ahead at the next ten, it really does feel like this is when we’re going to come into our own. These next ten years are where we’re going to define what Laika is, who we are. And I think it’s a really exciting thing to be a part of.