“This is absolutely the most ambitious thing we've ever done at the studio...” hmv.com talks to Kubo & the Two Strings director Travis Knight
As the head of animation studio Laika and the lead animator on films such as The Boxtrolls and ParaNorman, Travis Knight is a man with plenty of hands-on experience in stop-motion animation, but his most recent project sees him taking the reins for the first time.
Knight's directorial debut, Kubo & The Two Strings, centres on a young boy from a small village in Japan whose life is turned upside down with the arrival of a vengeful spirit bent on re-igniting a age-old vendetta against his family. To protect himself and his mother, Kubo must embark on a mission to locate and retrieve the armour that belonged to his late father, a legendary Samurai warrior whom Kubo knows very little about.
Boasting a cast of voice talent that includes Art Parkinson, Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Matthew McConaughey and Rooney Mara, the film arrives in stores on DVD and Blu-ray this week and we caught up with Travis to talk about making the step up to director, his love of Japanese culture and why he thinks there is still plenty of hope for traditional forms of animation...
Kubo & The Two Strings has a great story, how did you come across the script?
“The original idea for the story came from our character designer on the film, Shannon Tindle. That essential core idea of a samurai epic told in stop-motion was just something that we'd never seen done, so that was something really exciting to me, to take on this big world of fantasy and do it using this really unusual method to give the audience something they hadn't seen before.
“Early on, as you're developing these ideas, the exciting thing and also the slightly terrifying thing is that it's like a blob of clay or a block of stone, so you're like a sculptor trying to find the sculpture inside the stone. These things can become anything at that stage and you start to develop the ideas over a period of time. In the case of this particular project, from beginning to end it was over five years and during that time you're trying to figure out which parts resonate with you, what shape this thing is going to take.”
What was it specifically about the story that interested you?
“What really excited me about this story was that is was this big fantasy tale and I've loved all that stuff since I was a kid. That's a gift from my mom, she'd read me all these stories by CS Lewis, Lewis Carroll, Tolkien and people like that, so I'd always wanted to tell this kind of story using this medium that I love. My dad let me tag along on a business trip to Japan when I was around eight years old and that was my first exposure to Japanese art and culture, the music, the comic books etc. - it was then that I discovered this amazing manga story called The Lone Wolf & The Cub. I came back with one of those comic books and even though I couldn't understand the language, there was something really beautiful about the clarity of the visual storytelling.
“So this film was really the convergence of those two things, the love of fantasy stories that I got from my mom and of Japanese culture that I got from my dad, in a film that was fundamentally about the sustaining love of family.”
You've assembled a pretty impressive cast with Charlize Theron, Matthew McConaughey, Ralph Fiennes etc. - how did you find putting that together?
“We were extraordinarily blessed to get these world-class actors to work on this film, these are some of the finest actors on the planet and the casting was interesting because the way you approach these things is unlike a live action film, where what you hear and what you see on the screen are one and the same. In animation, what the actor provides is the vocal performance, while the animator provides the visual performance, so what you're looking for is an actor with an incredible instrument that has texture, nuance and range. Oftentimes, with actors that we admire and think are great, their voice isn't always the most expressive part of their performance, it's often the things they do with their facial expressions, their body language and what have you. In animation, what matters is their ability to express emotion using just their voice, so what we ended up doing was we'd take a design of one of our characters, then pull up clips from a list of actors we admired from movies, interviews etc. so we could visualise how their voice sounds coming out of our characters."
Did you get everyobody that you wanted on board?
“Yeah, we were very fortunate. It was like a band or an orchestra, you start to kind of arrange these things until their voices work harmoniously with the characters and with each other, then that's your wish list. Once we had that we started going out to actors and saying 'would you be interested in being part of this weird little movie?'. And astonishingly, we got a great response from pretty much everybody that we reached out to. Charlize had never worked in animation before, Matthew had not, Rooney Mara had not, but we had this amazing group of actors, I think the story really resonated with them and they were able to bring this story together beautifully.”
This is your first time directing, how did you find making that step up?
“It was really hard! I certainly didn't make it easy on myself, I mean this is absolutely the most ambitious thing we've ever done at the studio, but I think it was a combination of all the different experiences I've had working in production over these last 20 years, all in one job. When I started I was production assistant working in scheduling and coordinating, then I was a stop-motion animator, I've worked in development, I've been a producer taking projects from conception all the way through to completion. So all those different jobs were looking at production through different prisms and with a director it's all of those things combined."
What were the biggest challenges you faced?
“As a director you're the nexus of all the creative, artistic and technical decisions, that's all on the director's shoulders, so you've got to be able to dive into the details, you've got to be able to look at the minutiae and the granularity and opine on these things in a meaningful way, but then at the same time you have to be able to extricate yourself from all of that detail and see the big picture, then be able to articulate that vision to a crew and hopefully rally them behind it. So it combines the eye for detail of an animator's perspective with the big-picture thinking of a producer's perspective all in one role. Really, I don't think I could have done the job had I not done all those other jobs over the last 20 years, it was the hardest thing I've ever done, but also the most creatively satisfying. I loved every minute of it.”
How hands-on did you get with the animation side of things this time around?
“I was very hands-on, I mean not as much as I have been on other films, that's just a function of time. One of the things you obviously need to animate a stop-motion film is a lot of time, these things take forever! So I was very ambitious early on, going 'oh yeah I can direct, I can animate, I can run a company...' well, life intervenes and directing really is a full-time gig, but I still made sure that I carved out time to animate. Usually the way it would work was that I would animate early in the morning before anyone got to the studio, then I'd direct all day and afterwards I'd go back out on the set and animate some more. It was really slow going, but I made a promise to myself not to lose that direct connection with the work, which is what it's all about for me.”
Are there any animators or filmmakers who have been have been a particular influence, on this movie or on your work in general?
“Well, both generally and specifically on this film, Akira Kurosawa has been a huge influence. The first film that I remember seeing in a movie theatre was Star Wars. When I was still fairly young I had read that George Lucas was really influenced by this guy Akira Kurosawa, so I thought 'well, I love George Lucas, I love Star Wars, who's this Kurosawa guy?' That lead to a kind of voyage of discovery as I started exploring these things by someone who had influenced somebody that I really admired, and when I discovered his films it was like an explosion in my mind, I couldn't believe how brilliant this guy was. I mean from his composition to his lighting and staging, everything about it, there is so much beautiful film-making in this one guy and I really do think that the birthplace of the modern cinematic epic was in Japan, and that's almost solely because of Akira Kurosawa.
“So he's been a huge influence on all of our films in some way, but specifically on this film, and the other big cinematic pillar on this movie was Hayao Miyazaki, whose work I absolutely adore. He has this way of expressing a sensitivity, a point of view, there's a humanism and an empathy in his films that I think is just so enriching and so beautiful, so I wanted to make sure that this film had that same kind of feeling. I hope that people will get to the end of this film and it does not become something that's about retribution or revenge, that it actually becomes a story of loss, healing, forgiveness and empathy.”
While we're on the subject of Hayao Miyazaki, he said recently that he thinks the era of hand-drawn animation is coming to an end – do you feel it's easier or harder these days for people starting out to make films using more traditional animation techniques?
“Well, for what we do, in some ways it's easier. When I started there wasn't much readily available information on how to do this kind of thing, there were very few opportunities. There were certainly no schools in the area that taught these animation techniques, there were very few books and back then the internet didn't exist. So just in terms of the internet, comparatively there is a wealth of information out there now in terms of the stuff that companies like ours will put out there, you know, little documentaries on how we make these movies. The technology that's available now is incredible, I mean you can essentially make things on your iPhone now, there are apps you can download, the software that we used to make this movie is stuff you can download from the internet. Even the cameras we're using to shoot this movie, they're Canon 5Ds, things you can pick up in any camera shop."
So has technology democratised the medium in a way?
“The tools are readily available for anyone who is interested in this kind of stuff , but I also think that the employment opportunities are more expansive now than they've been in the past, there are more studios, companies like ours that didn't really exist when I was starting out. A stop-motion film was a rarity, you'd maybe see one every five years. Now you see it more frequently, so even though stop-motion will probably never be the dominant form of animated film-making, there is a love for it. But I think that really only comes from people who care about it, I really believe that art needs advocacy. Animation needs champions, so it's really only because there are people like me or like Peter Lord or the Aardman folks that are keeping these things going, that creates the opportunities. You know, some executive in Hollywood does not care about stop-motion animation, they're looking at other things, but as long as there are artists out there who really care about it and trying to keep this incredible art form alive, then that creates opportunities for other artists and that's what we're trying to do at the studio.”
What's next for you after this?
“So we're actually knee-deep in production on our next film, we're probably going to announce it over the next few months and it'll be out some time in 2018 I think, but that's all I can tell you right now.”
Kubo & The Two Strings is available in hmv stores now. You can also find the film on DVD and Blu-ray here in our online store...