Laika President Travis Knight Talks ParaNorman, Expansion Of The Studio And Pushing Boundaries
Laika is proving itself to be a very special movie studio. While they have only produced two films so far - Coraline and ParaNorman - both movies are so brilliantly designed and have such wonderfully told stories that itís hard not to start expecting greatness from the Oregon-based stop motion company. And thatís where Travis Knight comes in.
The son of Phil Knight, the founder and chairman of Nike, Travis Knight created Laika in 2005 and currently serves as both the president and CEO of the studio. But he isnít you standard movie executive. Instead of spending all of his time in an office dealing with the business side of things, Knight is right down there on the floor with the other stop-motion artists of Laika and served as the lead animator on both of the studioís first films, and, as you can probably imagine, he is heavily invested in the commercial and creative future of the company and wants to make sure that they are constantly producing the best quality material they can make.
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down one-on-one with Knight to discuss not only the current status of Laika and his work on ParaNorman, but also what the future has in store for his studio. Read on below to find out how the studio head finds projects that he wants to tackle, what is being done to let Laika produce a movie every year Ė instead of one movie every three years Ė and balancing adaptations of books like Wildwood and Goblins with the more original material that the company is currently developing.
In addition to being the lead animator on this movie youíre also the owner of Laika and, I assume, have a great deal of influence in the discussion of what projects to take on. How did ParaNorman get the green light and what is the project selection process like?
Thereís no kind of set process really, because Laika is not a company that has a lot of bureaucracy. Itís a very lean company, and you kind of get a sense from that that were not a company thatís run by marketers or hedge fund managers or movie moguls. Itís run by artists. And so thereís a kind of a direct line between the manager of the company and the people actually making the art.
We were part way through production on Coraline when Chris Butler, who was head of story on the movie, approached us with this idea that he had. And the simplest version is that itís a zombie movie for kids, and I loved that idea. What could be cooler than stop-motion zombies? This is going back five years ago maybe, and certainly zombies were not so much in the zeitgeist as they are now. And thatís one of the things when you begin on one of these films, you have to do a little bit of projection. ďOkay, whatís the world going to be like in three or four years?Ē You just donít know, so thereís really no point, you just have to find those stories that you really firmly believe in and the people you believe in to make them. And then you put all of your support behind it. And with Chris it was easy because I really firmly believed in the idea.
Beyond the really surface idea and the zombie stuff, itís also just a really beautiful story with a deep emotional resonance, and it was something where I saw a lot of myself in the story, I saw a lot of myself in Norman, I saw a lot of my own kids in Norman, and I think that was true for basically all the crew. It really is kind of their story too. And so when it came down to deciding what film was going to follow Coraline it was basically the same ingredients which were true for that decision that were true for Coraline. And basically it was this: I believed in the material, I believed in the filmmaker driving it, and I was scared. Those three things are what led me to decide, ďOkay yes, weíre going to make Coraline and yes, weíre going to make ParaNorman.Ē Because it was such great material, Chris is such an incredible artist, and it was bold.
This is the kind of film I loved growing up, but itís not the film that people make anymore, and it deals with subject matter that is pretty raw. Itís a lot of fun, but thereís also something really powerful underneath it all that you can experience it on different kind of surface levels, but thereís something else underneath thatís actually really potent. And it seemed like it was a big risk to do that and so thatís kind of the ingredients. I sort of felt like if I wasnít worried that I should be worried because it means weíre taking the safe and conventional way out. If weíre doing something, if weíre pushing the medium, if weíre doing something interesting and telling really interesting, bold and distinctive stories, I think I should always be a little bit scared, and Iím always a little bit scared. Probably means weíre doing the right thing.
So is that kind of the Laika mission statement? Just keep pushing those boundaries?
Yeah, and itís not pushing for pushingís sake or innovation for innovationís sake. I think thereís a whole wealth of options for people to experience as entertainment, and we make films for families. And as someone who is just a fan of film and a fan of animation specifically, Iím disheartened by the stuff that I see out there, the stuff that I have the opportunities to take my kids to. Itís not the same kind of stuff that I would watch when I was a kid. All of the rough edges are all polished off, all of the intensity has sort of evened out, and we get these things that are a little fun, a little entertaining, but are just pop culture confections or trifles. They donít have anything meaningful to say Ė thereís maybe a little kind of message thatís ham-fistedly put on top of it Ė and then you go on your merry way. And thatís fine, I enjoy those things too, but I donít want to spend my life devoted to making those things. You spend two, three years making one of these things you want it to have some meaning, some resonance. And so those are the stories that we want to tell.
But we also donít want to repeat ourselves. If you look at Coraline and you look at ParaNorman certainly you can tell that there are threads of the same DNA between those two movies, but theyíre two very different kinds of movies. They look different, they feel different, they are very different kinds of movies. And itís important to me that we donít have a house style; that we donít visually repeat ourselves, that we donít tell the same kinds of stories over and over again. Animation is just an amazing medium through which you can tell any kind of story in any genre, and I just want to make sure that as I look through our development slate that we are doing exactly that. And even though that shouldnít be perceived as kind of pushing the envelope or pushing on the edges of the form, thatís what it is because so many animated films donít do that, so it doesnít feel that way. But I just think itís good storytelling.
You mentioned the idea of loving the idea of a stop-motion animated zombie film, and you can see how the two would mesh, but do you think thereís such a thing as a story that is best told in the medium or others that would never work?
Stop-motion has limitations, any form of filmmaking does, but stop-motion has a lot of limitations [laughs]. Itís kind of baked into the process. But it also has this kind of inherent warmth and charm and magic and that comes from the process, the act of an artist bringing something to life with their hands and seeing it unfold on screen. It has mistakes. There are mistakes all over these things, but thatís what gives these things their beauty. It has that human quality because youíre not going to find that in any other form of filmmaking. Itís not discounting other forms of filmmaking; itís just why this is special. And I think that probably there are stories that are better told in the medium, and I think stop-motion has kind of been associated with this ďcreepy darkĒ thing, largely because of Tim Burton and Henry Selick, but if you look at historically that hasnít been the case. If you look at films like the Rankin/Bass specials, those sorts of things, thereís nothing inherently creepy about any of those, in fact those are fairly warm. The creepiness in those things, if there is any, tends to come from the fact that they move in a weird way and that is a constant reminder, I think, to audiences that theyíre looking at something thatís artificial.
So itís something that we strive for very intensely to get over. We want people to have an emotional connection with these characters and with these stories, and we donít want them to be constantly reminded that theyíre looking at a doll. So that means really trying to push the performance of these things as far as we could. The style of animation that we tackled on ParaNorman is the evolution of what we did on Coraline, and itís kind of what we call a ďskewed naturalism,Ē this very well-observed, very refined, very nuanced animation that we draw from our own lives, our own experiences. Itís probably the hardest way to animate in stop-motion [laughs]. But if we can pull it off, and I think we can on this film, it allows for the audience to have a connection with these characters like theyíre real people. You forget that youíre looking at a bunch of dolls. You think youíre looking at something that has an inner life.
Iím also very curious about the upcoming projects that Laika has in development. Having been up to the studio, I know how much space one movie takes up, so do you have the capacity to work on concurrent projects?
Thatís what weíre building towards. These things take a long time to develop, they take a long time to shoot, the pace is glacial. There was three years between Coralineís release and ParaNormanís release; it will be about two years of time between ParaNorman and our next film, and then shortly thereafter Ė and weíre still kind of working out the details and itís a challenge to pull together Ė we do want to be on an annual release schedule. We want to put a film out every single year. And probably around 2015, 2016, somewhere in that timeframe, thatís when weíll start rolling it out. But yeah, that means if your film takes anywhere from 18 to 21 months to shoot you have to be working on things concurrently. And itís a challenge and itís something that weíre figuring out now. Thatís definitely what weíre pushing towards.
Iíve read that you have a project called Goblins and an adaptation of the book Wildwood currently in production. What is the status on those projects?
We have a pretty healthy slate. We have about 10 projects in various forms of development. And itís a combination, like Coraline and ParaNorman, itís a combination of adaptations from literature and original ideas. Those things that weíve announced publically are just those things that weíve acquired that are literary properties, things like Wildwood and things like Goblins, those things weíve talked about publically. Weíre not talking about the things that are bubbling that are original ideas. But itís a combination of those things and I think we have a really interesting collection of things. And weíll probably be announcing what the next film is within the next few months, right before the end of the year.
In terms of the new projects, do you approach the original ones with perhaps a little more enthusiasm because theyíre homegrown?
Itís different. Certainly one of the things that made ParaNorman different from Coraline was that ParaNorman was really a deeply, deeply personal story for Chris. Itís very much rooted in his life and you feel that. I think the most universal story is the most personal story. But that doesnít necessarily have to come from one place. I think itís very rare that youíll find the source of all that stuff in one person. This was a very special story for us for a number of reasons, but itís not to say that anything we do isnít something that we donít believe in wholeheartedly. You have to devote years of your life to it, so itís gotta be something that you believe in.
In terms of development on the technical side, your studio made a huge leap forward between Coraline and ParaNorman in the use of 3D printers, particularly in the move from black-and-white to color. Do you plan on continuing to seek out new technologies that will allow you to do even more in the stop-motion world?
Weíre constantly trying to find the best way to tell the stories that we want. I think that you can see the dramatic evolution visually from what weíd done for Coraline to what weíve done on ParaNorman. Weíre constantly reevaluating, constantly trying to figure out what bit of technology is the best thing to infuse into the craft, and just in order to tell the best kind of story and visually execute it in the right way. Once we kind of figure out a problem our ambition grows. ďOkay, well we have that thing figured out,Ē now itís like we donít have to spend all our time and energy trying to figure that thing out, so you tackle the next thing. And I think that over the course of time you will gradually see these things getting more evolved and itís exciting to be a part of.
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