Interview Director Travis Knight talks Kubo and the Two Strings

Director Travis Knight talks Kubo and the Two Strings

As well as directing Kubo, Travis is the CEO of LAIKA who still gets his hands dirty animating.

From animation studio LAIKA, creators of the Academy Award®-nominated movies Coraline, ParaNorman and The Box Trolls, comes an all-new epic quest adventure: Kubo and the Two Strings.

Featuring the voice talents of Academy Award® winners Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road) and Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar), Kubo and the Two Strings sees young Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson) entertain the people in his village with his magical gift for spinning fantastical tales. When he accidentally summons a vengeful evil spirit seeking vengeance, Kubo journeys on a quest to solve the mystery of his fallen samurai father and discover his own magical powers.

Kubo and the Two Strings stars an all-star supporting voice cast including George Takei (Star Trek), Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa (“The Man in the High Castle”), and Academy Award® nominees Ralph Fiennes (Harry Potter), Brenda Vaccaro (“Johnny Bravo”), and Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). The Blu-ray™and DVD are packed with exciting behind-the-scenes bonus content, featuring the filmmakers and incredible voice cast, that allows viewers to dive even deeper into the magical story.

Kubo and the Two Strings is out now to download and available on DVD and Blu-Ray now and to celebrate the release DIY recently chatted with the director of Kubo and the Two Strings: Travis Knight. As well as directing Kubo, Travis is also the CEO of LAIKA who still gets his hands dirty animating as much as he still can. Travis told us all about Kubo - from inception to release - as well as all the trials and tribulations of directing for the first time, working with the incredible voice cast, and what we can expect next from LAIKA.

How did Kubo start life, and what was it about this one that made you want to direct it yourself?
I’ve always loved big epic fantasy stories. I think that’s kinda in my DNA because when my mother was in hospital recovering from having me she read me J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. She loved these stories and as I grew up would buy them for me and read them with me: C.S. Lewis, Frank Baum, Lewis Carroll, so I’ve always loved these big epic stories and have always wanted to tell a story like that.

The other part of it is when I was little my Dad let me tag along on one of his business trips to Japan. I grew up just outside of Portland, Oregon, so going to Japan at nine years old in the 80s was a really mind-blowing experience. Everything really resonated with me from the music and the food to the art, architecture and the comic books – that was my first exposure to this incredible manga called Lone Wolf and Cub. Even though I couldn’t understand the language, there was something about the visual clarity of the storytelling and that was a huge influence on this movie.

So this movie is effectively those two things together: a love of fantasy and a love of the transcendent art of Japan, inspired by family and about family – that was why I really wanted to make this movie because it really felt like it spoke to me on a personal level.

And how did you find directing?
[laughs]

Were there any surprises? Nice or otherwise?
It was super hard! I’ve been working in animation for twenty years so I’ve been around all different sides of production: I was a production assistant, I was a coordinator, I was a scheduler, I’ve been a stop motion animator, I’ve been a CG animator, I’ve worked in development, I’ve produced films, I’ve run a company – so there’s a lot of different facets of the process I’ve touched – but this was the first time that I’ve actually sat in the director’s chair.

What surprised me more than anything was how hard it is! [laughs] As a director you are at the creative nexus of everything. Every artistic and technical decision is on the director’s shoulders, so that requires that you really get into the details, the minutiae, the granularity of everything. As an animator, that’s something you do all the time, you’re focussing on small scale detail; then, on the other side of it, you have to be able to extricate yourself from all that detail and see the big picture – know where this thing is going, know how to articulate that vision, and know how to rally people behind that vision.

It was the most exhausting thing I have ever done, but it was also the most rewarding. It was an amazing experience and I loved every minute of it.

Did you still get hands-on involved with the animating too?
Oh yeah! I still animated! I am one of the fastest animators at the studio so I figured I may not be able to animate at my normal pace but I did the math and figured I could probably do this many minutes a week, and then I got into the directing part of it and all that went away! [laughs] But I still got to animate on the film. What I would do is get there really early and animate for about an hour before anyone else got in, then people would show up, I’d direct all day, and then after they left I would animate all evening. So I still got my hands dirty, but it was slow going!

Obviously “time” is such an important part of stop motion…
It is.
…and the medium is notoriously laborious, so how long did the film take to make, and having mastered it at LAIKA are there any ways that you have been able to speed it up at all?
There are not really any short cuts. Having done this for a good long while there’re things that you can do in the margins that speed things up but we make it harder for ourselves because if we come up with some kind of a breakthrough that speeds up the production process… well then we just get more ambitious! [laughs] So it just ends up slowing things down!

It took us five years to make this film. On a good week an animator will do maybe four or five seconds of footage, so when you have your full team assembled and you’re really churning, all cylinders are firing, you can do maybe two minutes of footage. So it really is filmmaking at the speed of a glacier. It’s so slow, so you really have to love what you’re doing, but beyond that because you’re making that kind of investment in time you want to make sure that it means something. You don’t want to make a little throwaway popcorn pop culture piece of ephemera confection – you want to make a film that resonates, that’s thoughtful, that’s emotional, that means something. So at LAIKA we only take on things that we love, and that we think have something meaningful to say.

There are some amazing large-scale action sequences in Kubo, and I have two particular favourites that we would like to ask you about. Can you tell us about the kinds of technical challenges you encounter making sequences like the giant skeleton battle, and Monkey’s fight with the evil sister on the boat made of leaves?
Both very, very tricky to do. The giant skeleton in a lot of ways was inspired by Ray Harryhausen. He is a huge influence on me, and in fact, if there’s one person who made me want to be an animator it is Ray Harryhausen. I loved his films as a child. One of the most iconic moments in cinema is in Jason and the Argonauts when live-action Jason faces off against an army of stop-motion skeleton warriors. It’s such a great scene and for this film we wanted to tip the hat to Harryhausen and hopefully one up the master on some level with a puppet that was so huge it actually dwarfed the animator bringing it to life!

We knew we wanted this giant skeleton warrior, but how we were going to make it was certainly a challenge. In the end we decided to build it full scale. We debated about doing it CG, or as a small-scale miniature, but we ended up building the whole damn thing! Sixteen feet tall, four hundred pounds, it was just a monstrosity! But it’s an amazing piece of cinema and you get a sense of the weight and physicality of it. It feels real and that’s because it’s a real object made in real life and brought to life by an animator, and that’s an amazing thing to see.

The fight on the raging storm at sea was also an extraordinary challenge because stop motion and water do not go well together. Stop motion and dynamic action and camera moves: they don’t typically go well together. We wanted it to be as lively and exhilarating as any live action sequence would be, yet you’re doing these things a frame at a time. So everything has to be thought through and planned and organised, and every camera move has to be programmed, and it’s not just that the camera is moving – the boat is moving too. So we shot this thing kind of Jaws style, as if the cameraman was on a boat across the way with a telephoto lens and shooting what was happening on the boat. So the camera is moving, the boat is moving, the characters are moving, the characters are fighting, and then the boat starts deteriorating, there are waves in the sea and crashing on the boat…

There are clothes billowing in the wind…
Everything! Chains are flying around, leaves are falling off – it was madness! At the beginning we were like “HOW are we going to do this thing?!” But the thing about our crew at LAIKA is they really like a challenge. There’s a beautiful inherent creative restlessness at the company. We always want to take the medium to places that it’s never been before. So when we confronted the crew with this crazy action sequence you could see people start to sag under the weight of it, but then you see the excitement creep in and people start thinking “How can we create new ways to make this movie?” I think you can really see that love and joy and passion from the crew in those sequences that have never been done before.

Definitely. You have a wonderful voice cast in Kubo, how did you go about assembling them, and how do you approach voice direction of actors?
Yeah, we were blessed on this film to get that calibre of actors. These are some of the finest actors in the entire world. When you start to think about casting a movie you make a wish list of people that you admire and actors that you think would be appropriate for the role, but there’s always an educational process in pulling that stuff together because what we end up doing is… you pull clips from actors films, from interviews that they have given, so you can see how their voice sounds independent of how they look.

So we take a character design – of Monkey say – and then we put a clip of the actor over it to see if the voice sounds right coming out of that character. You would be surprised sometimes that actors that you admire don’t have beautiful rich instruments in terms of their voice. So the things you admire about them are what they do with their body or their facial expressions, and what we really need are people with dynamic rich voices. Then like a band you start assembling these pieces, so you have your woodwind section, your brass… and that is essentially how you’re casting your movie – as instruments that complement each other. So you make your wish list and then you start reaching out to people to see if they’re interested and we had great luck in getting the cast that we did.

Directing them is interesting though… as you direct them almost exactly the opposite to how you direct animators. With animators you explicitly tell them the emotion of the scene, what’s driving the characters, what’s the heart, what are they feeling? Then the trick is how physically do you bring that to life? What gestures do you use to bring that to life? Essentially you work from the inside out.

Working with actors, you don’t tell an actor: “OK, you need to feel angry”, you figure out a way to create the environment for them to feel these emotions authentically in the moment. So you’re working from the outside in. It’s completely backwards versus animators, but it was a really cool thing for me to experience because it got me thinking about performance in a very different way.

What is LAIKA doing next, and are you going to direct again?
I will absolutely direct again! I need a little bit of time to catch my breath, but we’re working on our next film now. In fact, this marks the first time that while we were still shooting Kubo we started production on our next film, so we were actually shooting two films concurrently. We’re knee deep in production right now, and will probably announce the film in the next month and a half, two months, something like that. It’ll be out some time in 2018 and that might seem like a long way away but to us it’s right around the corner. What I’m excited about is that it is so unlike anything we have ever done before. Tonally, aesthetically, narratively, it’s so different, and we are so excited about taking the medium and the audience to places that they’ve never been before. I think people are really gonna like it.

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Kubo and the Two Strings is out on DVD, Blu-Ray and available to download now.