Being a part of the promotion for Kubo and the Two Strings was an amazing experience. I love being able to interview the cast and see a prescreening. Behind the scenes about movies has always fascinated me. I was excited to be part of the interview process of the director, Travis Knight. It is exciting to hear the things that went through the directors head when it comes to the making of the film.
Questions: Now that we’ve seen the movie, can you tell us what your favorite scene or moment in the movie was, if you have one? I know it’s like picking your favorite child, but…
TRAVIS KNIGHT: Well, I can give you an answer to that. I got a bone to pick with those kids. Well, it is… it is hard to say that, oh, that one scene is my particular favorite. I mean, you know, we’ve been working on this thing for so long; it’s been five years and it’s, you know, you begin with, um, with this idea and then you start to, over time, figure out who these characters are, what this world is, what are the big issues you’re trying to explore and then beyond that, what kind of personal things you can weave into the narrative to give it meaning and resonance. And you know, as we started developing it, it really became… it took for an artist who’s supposed to be kind of attuned to things; I was very stupid in terms of like seeing how much of myself (LAUGHS) was in the story until pretty late in the process, when I finally figured out that Kubo is basically a version of me. He’s, you know, he’s an artist, he’s a storyteller, he’s a musician, he’s an animator, really, when you think about it. And his mirror, his journey pretty much mirrors my own. I mean, he has, you know, he’s a kid who, you know, he’s basically a lonely kid and that was really my experience growing up.
I was, you know, I grew up on a, the side of a mountain that was 15 miles away from the closest town, which was itself just a little country-fried place. And I spent a lot of time alone. I made friends slowly when I made them at all. I spent a lot of time exploring the woods near my house and climbing trees and jumping over creek beds and things like that. I spent a lot of time creating and drawing and making music and writing stories and when I wasn’t doing that my whole life revolved around my mom. She was my closest friend in the world. I say that and you guys are not giving me that look, but sometimes when I say that people give me this really strange look and I think they’re thinking it’s some weird mother boy, like… yeah, like Buster and Lucille Bluth and it was not. It was a beautiful (LAUGHS) relationship.
Yes. And it was really the most meaningful connection of my young life and this film explores that moment and for a variety of reasons it always, it changes for some reason or another. But for a variety of reasons, this film explores that moment in our lives when those things begin to shift and then irrevocably change; when we learn that profound, melancholic truth that to love is to hurt and those things go hand-in-hand and you know, love is an amazing thing because it opens us up and it makes us vulnerable. But at the same time, it heals us and it gives us strength and it makes our life worth living. And so you know, that’s one of the kind of core themes that are at the heart of this movie and every scene, to varying degrees, has elements of that at play.
So for me to kind of carve it up and saying, oh, this thing was my favorite and this thing, I like this more than that, I really can’t do it and there are definitely things that were really challenging that when we accomplished were incredibly satisfying to see all complete. Like we did the big, Otokuro sequence, the big skeleton sequence, that was kind of a nod to Indiana Jones and to Ray Harryhausen and at the beginning we had no idea how we were going to pull it off. So when we see this thing at the end and I… I can appreciate all the challenges that we had in front of us when we started and I see that, you know, the beautiful set design, the incredible animation, the cinematography, which is exquisite and then this monster, which is essentially a moving set come to life and it’s completely, and you completely buy into it. You don’t see these things as an assemblage of steel and silicone and cloth and everything else. You see these as living, breathing things. That’s really exciting.
But at the same time, you know, you see moments like the beginning of the movie where you know, where Kubo is taking care of his mom and the, you know, the acting is just exquisite. It’s really subtle and refined and you can, you know what this character is thinking and feeling and just little glances, little gestures that he makes and you know, that’s as challenging to do as the big spectacle. So I’m incredibly proud of the film. I love the whole thing. I mean, artists just poured their souls into it over years and I think it’s just a beautiful slice of humanity; it’s a beautiful work of art. So I can’t choose. I can tell you who my favorite kid is, though. (LAUGHTER) Come talk to me after the press conference.
Question: Good morning. Um, something that really stood out to me about Kubo is how you handle these really hard subjects like loss and grief in such a really smart and sensitive way. When you’re making a children’s movie and talking about subjects like this, how do find a balance of what’s appropriate to put in it?
TRAVIS KNIGHT: Yeah. It’s a tricky thing, finding that perfect balance. It can be elusive. It’s… you know, I think back to the things that I loved when I was a kid and they… the things that stuck with me, the thing that kind of, the things that took up residence in my head and stuck to my ribs, they were always those stories that had that artful balance of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth that took us on a journey in a really dynamic way and didn’t sugarcoat things, but talked about things sensitively and hopefully in a poetic way that even kids could understand. And you know, we make films for families, so we don’t speak down to our audience. We really want to respect their intelligence. And so we talk about fairly sophisticated issues and that mean something to us when we were kids and now as parents with that other generational perspective, looking the other way, we’re grownup kids who now have kids of their own.
And so I think back to the things that I loved and you know, in fact, Laika only exists because of my kids. The whole company started because, you know, I’ve been an animator for 20 years and when I, when I had kids it changed everything for me. My entire outlook on the world completely changed. It shifted around, I think like most of us do and you start seeing things in a different way and as, as someone who’s involved in film and in television and in commercials, I didn’t want to devote my life to making stuff that was damaging to my kids. I didn’t want to make stuff that was part of a big, vapid, sensory assault, which is so much of the stuff that’s geared towards children.
I wanted to make art that was meaningful, that had resonance, that, you know, had an uncynical view of the world, that offered a hopeful view of the world. And so that was really the impetus for Laika beginning to… at the start to begin with. It wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my kids and this film definitely wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my kids because the whole thing explores the relationships that we have, you know, with our parents and then from the other way, with our children. And so um you know, I think it can be, it can be a challenge because you certainly don’t want to (LAUGHS) traumatize children and I know, I know, based on things that I’ve heard that in the past we’ve made films that have led to a handful of soaked bunkbed mattresses. (LAUGHTER)
So maybe sometimes we push it a little too far. But the dividing line for me is a little strange because when I was five years old I saw The Exorcist, my compass is probably off. (LAUGHTER) But you know, you run things by your kids and it’s what we always do. It’s like you know, how would they respond? You know, does this mean something to us? The only thing in the end, the only thing we can go by, we don’t use focus groups. We don’t have, you know, we don’t run things past, you know, a screening where we get kind of test scores and see, okay, now we’re going to recalibrate in this way. We have to make films that are pure, that we believe in, that mean something to us and that means something to our family, so we’re always reevaluating, we’re showing things to our kids, seeing how they respond and that ends up kind of changing how these films, you know, evolve.
So, you know, in the end, I don’t know, I think it really is up to every parent to decide what’s right for their kid, but we try to make films that are meaningful for the whole family and when I think of the best cinematic experience I have as a father is when I go see a movie with my kids and on the drive home we’re talking about what we just saw and some of the ideas that were raised. And those ones that were, where we go see a movie and it’s essentially a little pop culture confection that just washes over you and it doesn’t really mean anything, those are terrible because (LAUGHS) none of us is talking about anything. And I love those opportunities to engage with my kids and sometimes if you can tell a story that has, you know, issues that we’re exploring, those are opportunities for families to engage with each other and I love that. Yeah.
Question: Definitely could see some of those sort of classic movie references, Star Wars, saw the Indiana Jones. I was wondering what has inspired you to dedicate your life to these animated films? Is there a particular movie? A story, an experience that you can point to and that’s where, that sort of dated your love.
TRAVIS KNIGHT: Yeah, it’s you know, sometimes I, you know, I made this my life’s work, so sometimes I try to take a step back and extricate myself from the day-to-day of it. Why do I do this? (LAUGHS) This is a very strange way to make a living. But I’ve loved animation for my entire life. It’s, you know, it’s funny because I think this film is really kind of a combination of all these things that I’ve loved deeply since I was a kid. I was drawn to stop motion from a very young age. I really kind of deeply fell in love with it, you know, the Ray Harryhausen Creature Features, the Rankin and Bass Christmas specials; those things like that. There was something about that I really thought was interesting and beautiful and charming and I’ve tried to analyze in the years that have passed, what about that appealed to me? And I think something clicked for me a while ago when I was watching my three-year-old son play with his toys and he was on the other side of the room and he had his little superhero dolls and he’s like, you know, he’s putting on these little voices and telling, and telling stories and it dawned on me.
This is really just kind of a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human, telling stories. Nobody taught my boy how to do that, but he’s telling a story with imaginative play he’s bringing his beloved playthings to life. And in some way I think that stop motion is kind of evocative of that feeling. It’s almost like a child’s plaything being brought to life through imaginative play and I think maybe that’s something that stuck with me when I was a kid and it has, since I… all through my life I’ve always loved that form of filmmaking. I’ve loved storytelling. You know I was… you know, I’ve been, at various points of my life I’ve been a musician in my life and so the act of creating and telling stories and trying to engage people, I think the best form of art is that thing that engages us, that kind of gets us to think about things in a new way or gets us to reflect on our own experiences and I love that side of it.
I think the best form of art brings us together. It can cross, you know, time and space and culture and connect with people and speak to us in a way that maybe we didn’t even know was there. I think I talked to some of you about the first time that I cried in the movie theater was when I saw E.T. and I was, I remember sitting there, I was about eight years old and I was sitting there and I was bawling. I had my head in my mom’s shoulder and on the one hand I knew what I was seeing was not real. I knew that it was fake. I knew that someone had a camera and people were playacting and all that sort of thing. But on the other hand, it spoke to me in a way that was more real than real. It kind of tapped into something that I didn’t even know that I felt because it’s this kind of portrait of loneliness and this kid who makes this incredible connection but then loses it. And that was things that I didn’t even recognize that I felt and when I saw it on screen it reflected a part of who I am.
And so the opportunity for us to tell stories like that, it’s an extraordinary privilege. I mean, we take it very seriously, the opportunity to tell stories, to connect people, to kindle people’s imaginations, to inspire people to dream. That’s what movies meant for me when I was a kid and those are the kind of things that we want to make now and those are the things that drive me, you know, to this point and will moving forward.
Question: So aside from filmmaking and stop motion animation, what things are you a geek about? And which things have you been happiest that you’ve been able to share with your kids and what things have your kids made up that you wouldn’t have been otherwise?
TRAVIS KNIGHT: (LAUGHS) Well, I am a geek about a great many things. I don’t know, I don’t know where it stops, actually. I mean, I was a nerd in every possible way you can imagine. I mean, I think part of that was a great gift to my mother because she was, when she was pregnant with me she was reading Lord of the Rings, so my first breath in the world (LAUGHS) was in a room where my mother was reading Tolkien. So it was like, I think that’s kind of just infused in my bones to kind of be a fantasy geek and that has been true for my entire life. But of course, I love comic books. You know, I love Star Trek, I love all that stuff that is just kind of pathetic and nerdy but you know, kind of speaks to you in some way.
The great thing about when your kids get older, too, is you know, my oldest son is 15. My daughter is 13 and my youngest son is three and… pretty big spread there. (LAUGHTER) My wife and I were very surprised. (LAUGHTER) The… but the cool thing about once your kids start to get to a certain age, you can start sharing things with them that you loved when you were a kid. And it’s interesting because you see what resonates and what doesn’t; what stands the test of time and what doesn’t. What speaks to kids nowadays and what doesn’t and so things that I really loved…
I remember when I tried to show, show my boy Flash Gordon, which I, with (LAUGHTER) Sam Jones, with that awesome Queen soundtrack, I remember when I tried… yes, exactly… I thought, oh, I can’t wait for him to watch this movie. I’m so excited. I must have watched that movie, you know, 30, 40 times when I was a kid and I put the DVD on and he was so bored; he couldn’t even get through half of it. He’s like, “Dad, this is terrible,” I said, “No, no, no,” and I had to sit there and explain to him how awesome it was. No, you don’t understand how awesome it is. (LAUGHTER) And we got into this big debate about how awesome it was and it didn’t work.
But then on the other hand, some things feel like they are evergreen. When I showed my boy and my daughter Star Wars, [GASP] it was this amazing experience and that was actually the first film that I actually remember seeing in the movie theater. And so it’s interesting. I kind of love that, that I can share things with them that they love and then they try to share things with me that, that they love and all the stuff they love is awful and so they have terrible, (LAUGHTER) they have terrible taste. Stuff in pop culture now is terrible. It’s dreadful. (LAUGHS) But yes, it is. But no, it’s… yeah, I don’t know. Like my, I remember when my son… (LAUGHS) first started getting into Minecraft and I just didn’t get it. And he’s sitting there and we’re making and I’m like… so wait. What are you doing? You’re pounding on a rock? You get a cube? And then you… we’ve got a set of Legos over there. We can just… no, no, but you can do this now on a computer. Oh, God, I don’t understand it and there’s definitely a generational gap there. But I mean, that is one of the great things about being a parent.
You share things you love; they share things with you that they love and you know, sometimes (LAUGHS) those things, they’re cross signals, but it’s, you know, it’s one of the things I love about being a dad.
Question: You started to talk a little bit about just the use of stop motion animation, but I wanted to see if you could elaborate more about how that really enhances the storytelling component of the film and maybe what are some of the challenges? Obviously time and… is a challenge. But maybe some other challenges that we wouldn’t necessarily think about. I just think that I had visited Laika last year or the year before and I just, I thought it was just such a real unique process of filmmaking. So can you just talk a little bit about that?
TRAVIS KNIGHT: You know, it is a very unusual process of filmmaking. Laika is an unusual place. I mean, you’ve been there so you know it’s basically Santa’s Workshop with you know, elves that have body tattoos and piercings. (LAUGHTER) Um… you know, stop motion as medium has been around since the dawn of film. It was one of the first visual techniques ever invented and it was essentially the invention of stage magicians, who at the dawn of cinema were looking for ways to bring their illusions to life in a different way for their audiences. And you know, when Georges Méliès was sending rockets to the moon, those were some of the techniques that they were using at the dawn of cinema. So it’s hard to imagine, but at one point in the world stop motion was cutting edge filmmaking.
But it’s not anymore and with the, you know, with the ascendancy of the computer, you know, in the ’80s and ’90s, it basically, stop motion was on life support. No right-thinking person would follow this as a field, that was a viable way of making movies. And so for those of us that had loved it and had dedicated our lives to doing it for a living, you know, we had to find a way that we could reinvigorate this more of a medium; that we could bring it into a new era and you know, otherwise we were going to be relegated to the dust bin of cinematic history, like the Tingler or the Smell-a-rama or something like that; just a quaint little footnote. (LAUGHTER) And so we, our approach was weird.
It was to essentially embrace the author of our demise to the infernal machine, the thing that threatened us all to learn to love it (LAUGHS) and we did, we embraced it and recognizing that what is the computer, really? What is technology really? It’s just a tool. It’s a tool and service of the operators and for us, we use it as a tool to tell stories, a tool to make art. It’s effectively no different than, than a paintbrush or a pencil or a sculptor’s tool. It’s just one way that you can use to tell a story. And so, but by merging those things, by merging craft and art and science and technology and forward-thinking innovation, we can take this medium that we love, fuse it with, you know, modernity and bring it into a new era and that’s what we’ve done.
But there are inherent limitations of what you can do in stop motion. I mean, we saw that right at the start with, you know, with Coraline and then with this film; this is the most ambitious film that we’ve ever done. And the idea… I mean I could see that on… on our guys’ faces when I started talking about it, a stop motion David Lean film, it was just, oh my God, what is it? He’s lost his mind. I mean because we make movies in a warehouse on a slab of wood that you know, and to make that look like it’s this endless majestic vista, it’s absurd.
I mean, it’s ridiculous on its face. And yet the crew at Laika, they’re really excited about challenges. We always want to challenge ourselves. We always want to tell new and interesting stories and to dive into new genres and so the opportunity to tell a big, epic fantasy, something we’d never done before or even attempted, was really exciting for a lot of people. Now, you know, the pace is glacial, as you mentioned. It takes forever to do these things. You know, on a good week an animator will do maybe four or five seconds of footage and for me it was even worse because I was, you know, I was directing the film, running the company. I’m like, hey, I can animate, too. No problem. (LAUGHTER)
It didn’t work very well. Because I would spend my mornings animating. Everyone would show up then and I would work all day and then everyone would leave and then I would animate a little bit at night. And you know, getting very few frames done. But it’s really slow going and… but it’s all kind of… and it’s also kind of mathematical. It’s almost like, kind of like you’re playing chess. You’ve got to figure out, keep all these things in your head and you’ve got to figure out, you know, where the puppet needs to be, on what frame. It’s progressive and you really can’t make any mistakes. It’s like, you know, being on a high wire without a net. You can make no mistakes. You get one shot at basically every shot. And so that… it’s kind of exciting, though, because you don’t want to screw up, but you’re always trying to come up with new ways to make it come alive. And it can’t look mathematical. It has to look like these things are alive; that it has naturalism.
There’s a moment that I love at the beginning of Kubo where he’s going around in the morning and he’s picking up the pieces of paper that are on the ground and you know, he grabs one and then when he goes to grab the second one he misses it and he’s got to get it again and there’s no reason (LAUGHS) for that to be in the movie, other than that’s just a very natural gesture, that you know, we make mistakes as people. We’re not perfect. We’re not completely precise and that’s something that’s in our filmmaking and in our acting of our puppets. It’s hard to do in the way we make it, but it also makes these characters fully come alive and I think that when you see these characters on screen, you lose yourself in it. It doesn’t seem like it’s a 9 ½-inch tall puppet that someone is just manhandling with their big sausage fingers.
It looks like a boy with dreams and aspirations and emotions and you forget and you fall into his world. Even as someone who has brought that boy to life, I forget and I get wrapped up in the story and I think that’s as close to anything, I mean, that’s as close to magic as anything that I’ve ever seen.
Kubo and the two Springs hits theaters on August 19th. Be sure to see this magically film.