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 it’s hard not to start expecting greatness from the Oregon-based stop motion company. And that’s 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 isn’t 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 studio’s 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 – instead of one movie every three years – 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 you’re 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?
There’s no kind of set process really, because Laika is not a company that has a lot of bureaucracy. It’s a very lean company, and you kind of get a sense from that that were not a company that’s run by marketers or hedge fund managers or movie moguls. It’s run by artists. And so there’s 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 it’s 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 that’s one of the things when you begin on one of these films, you have to do a little bit of projection. “Okay, what’s the world going to be like in three or four years?” You just don’t know, so there’s 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, it’s 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, “Okay yes, we’re going to make Coraline and yes, we’re going to make ParaNorman.” 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 it’s not the film that people make anymore, and it deals with subject matter that is pretty raw. It’s a lot of fun, but there’s also something really powerful underneath it all that you can experience it on different kind of surface levels, but there’s something else underneath that’s actually really potent. And it seemed like it was a big risk to do that and so that’s kind of the ingredients. I sort of felt like if I wasn’t worried that I should be worried because it means we’re taking the safe and conventional way out. If we’re doing something, if we’re pushing the medium, if we’re doing something interesting and telling really interesting, bold and distinctive stories, I think I should always be a little bit scared, and I’m always a little bit scared. Probably means we’re doing the right thing.
So is that kind of the Laika mission statement? Just keep pushing those boundaries?
Yeah, and it’s not pushing for pushing’s sake or innovation for innovation’s sake. I think there’s 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, I’m disheartened by the stuff that I see out there, the stuff that I have the opportunities to take my kids to. It’s 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 don’t have anything meaningful to say – there’s maybe a little kind of message that’s ham-fistedly put on top of it – and then you go on your merry way. And that’s fine, I enjoy those things too, but I don’t 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 don’t 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 they’re two very different kinds of movies. They look different, they feel different, they are very different kinds of movies. And it’s important to me that we don’t have a house style; that we don’t visually repeat ourselves, that we don’t 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 shouldn’t be perceived as kind of pushing the envelope or pushing on the edges of the form, that’s what it is because so many animated films don’t do that, so it doesn’t feel that way. But I just think it’s 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 there’s 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]. It’s 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 that’s what gives these things their beauty. It has that human quality because you’re not going to find that in any other form of filmmaking. It’s not discounting other forms of filmmaking; it’s 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 “creepy dark” thing, largely because of Tim Burton and Henry Selick, but if you look at historically that hasn’t been the case. If you look at films like the Rankin/Bass specials, those sorts of things, there’s 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 they’re looking at something that’s artificial.
So it’s 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 don’t want them to be constantly reminded that they’re 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 it’s kind of what we call a “skewed naturalism,” this very well-observed, very refined, very nuanced animation that we draw from our own lives, our own experiences. It’s 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 they’re real people. You forget that you’re looking at a bunch of dolls. You think you’re looking at something that has an inner life.
I’m 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?
That’s what we’re 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 Coraline’s release and ParaNorman’s release; it will be about two years of time between ParaNorman and our next film, and then shortly thereafter – and we’re still kind of working out the details and it’s a challenge to pull together – 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, that’s when we’ll 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 it’s a challenge and it’s something that we’re figuring out now. That’s definitely what we’re pushing towards.
I’ve 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 it’s a combination, like Coraline and ParaNorman, it’s a combination of adaptations from literature and original ideas. Those things that we’ve announced publically are just those things that we’ve acquired that are literary properties, things like Wildwood and things like Goblins, those things we’ve talked about publically. We’re not talking about the things that are bubbling that are original ideas. But it’s a combination of those things and I think we have a really interesting collection of things. And we’ll 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 they’re homegrown?
It’s different. Certainly one of the things that made ParaNorman different from Coraline was that ParaNorman was really a deeply, deeply personal story for Chris. It’s very much rooted in his life and you feel that. I think the most universal story is the most personal story. But that doesn’t necessarily have to come from one place. I think it’s very rare that you’ll find the source of all that stuff in one person. This was a very special story for us for a number of reasons, but it’s not to say that anything we do isn’t something that we don’t believe in wholeheartedly. You have to devote years of your life to it, so it’s 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?
We’re 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 we’d done for Coraline to what we’ve done on ParaNorman. We’re 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. “Okay, well we have that thing figured out,” now it’s like we don’t 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 it’s exciting to be a part of.