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Travis Knight Reveals ‘Bizarre Wonderland’ that is LAIKA

NFTS News

Travis Knight Reveals ‘Bizarre Wonderland’ that is LAIKA

‘Innovation has Removed the Shackles from our Animated Storytelling’

(Pictured: Robert Bradbrook, NFTS Head of Animation; Travis Knight, LAIKA President & CEO/Kubo and the Two Strings director; Arianne Sutner, LAIKA Head of Production; Kubo and the Two Strings producer) 

Director and CEO of LAIKA, Travis Knight, gave the students at NFTS an insightful and intriguing glimpse into the ‘bizarre wonderland’ of his company, LAIKA, which has produced some of the most ground-breaking animated films of the last 10 years including Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls and the recently released Kubo and the Two Strings.

Travis was accompanied by LAIKA’s Head of Production and Kubo and the Two Strings producer Arianne Sutner along with a selection of puppets used in the film, including ‘Beetle’ and ‘Monkey’.  The session was chaired by NFTS Head of Animation, Robert Bradbrook.

LAIKA’s ethos is to combine the 120-year-old technique of stop-motion animation with new technologies and innovations that allow the filmmakers to explore new territory and make ‘movies that matter.’

Travis was driven from a very early age to be an animator despite living far removed from Hollywood in Portland, Oregon. He taught himself by studying the masters of animation including Ray Harryhausen and Disney’s ‘Nine Old Men’; he also used the jog function of the VCR in his parents’ garage to learn frame by frame: ‘This was something I was born to do.’

Eventually, LAIKA was formed and the idea for Coraline was born. It wasn’t however an easy journey to sell the concept of the film and the LAIKANS struggled to find a partner studio as ‘no one was interested in our weird little movie’ and certainly not one that featured a leading character who was female and not a princess! Travis described the rejection as ‘dispiriting’ and ‘soul-crushing’ but ‘we believed in what we were doing; creating bold films that matter.’ This single-mindedness and belief in the film led to the ‘perfect partners’ in Focus Features and Universal Pictures International.

The drive to constantly innovate has enabled the LAIKA team to win accolades at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ annual Scientific and Technical Awards. Scientific and Engineering Awards were presented to Brian McLean and Martin Meunier from LAIKA this year for the use of rapid prototyping with 3D printers to enable expressive character animation in its stop-motion film production.

These new techniques are then fused with stop-motion animation to ‘bring greater depth and richer storytelling to life.’ Travis illustrated how far they had come since Coraline, in which the lead character could make 200,000 possible expressions thanks to the 3D printing technology whereas Kubo in Kubo and the Two Strings has 48 million possible expressions ‘which highlights how the technology journey has been so special.’

Against the backdrop of these exciting innovations is the depth of the storytelling in LAIKA’s films which all have the ‘importance of family’ at their heart to ‘bring people together. They kindle people’s imagination and inspire them to dream.’ Kubo and the Two Strings is about the ‘precarious journey of childhood; a fairy tale for all ages that comprises a patchwork of nightmares and dreams underpinned by the primal experience of childhood.’

Despite the films having a common theme, Travis emphasized how ‘we don’t want a house style and each film should be distinct and represent the filmmaker behind it. It’s exciting to explore different genres that haven’t been done before.’ He also gave a tantalising hint about LAIKA’s next project, which is already underway: ‘We’re shooting it right now and it’s the first time we have shot two films concurrently. It’s unlike anything we’ve done before, tonally and aesthetically which is really exciting. Kubo was ground-breaking but we had to innovate to do it and these achievements have removed any restraints and shackles to our storytelling!’

Travis summed up his passion and commitment for his craft and had this counsel for the students: ‘Art matters and art needs champions, some of whom are in this room. Some of the best advice I ever received was from my father.  He told me ‘Don’t settle for a job, profession or career. Seek a calling and go after it as hard as you possibly can. If you can find it, it makes life’s highs higher than you could possible feel and helps you through any hardship. I hope you make art and animation your life’s work!’