Travis Knight has been the President and CEO of the stop-motion animation studio Laika since 2009, but the studio's fourth and latest film marks the first time the boss has been in the director's chair.
"Kubo and the Two Strings" tells the story of a young boy from a small Japanese town who goes on a journey to discover his family's magical history. The film is Laika's most ambitious to date — more than 20,000 faces were made for the Kubo puppet alone.
The Frame's John Horn spoke with Knight about why he wanted to become a stop-motion animator, the challenges of running a company and directing his first feature film at the same time, and the lack of Asian voice actors in a film that's set in Japan.
Growing up in an artistic household:
Art has always been a huge part of my family. I think the Knight boys have a long history of disappointing their fathers. My grandfather was a newspaper publisher, he was a lawyer, he was an upstanding member of his community. When his boy, my father [Phil Knight, co-founder of Nike] told him that he had a deep and abiding love to make shoes for a living, it devastated my grandfather.
Fast forward 30 years later and I tell my dad that I love playing with dolls, you could imagine the reaction. But he's always been incredibly supportive and my mother has as well. The love that we have, the respect that we have for art and artistry in our family is something that was a huge part of the fabric of my life growing up.
Why Knight took the director's chair for "Kubo and the Two Strings":
We shepherd these projects for a long periods of time and we take those things on that we love and we're very discriminating. As we sort of developed this project and started to see those parallels between my life and this film, it really became something that I felt like I could bring a perspective to that would be special and would do justice to the story.
When I was growing up, I was an obsessive fan of big fantasy epics, and that was a gift from my mother. In fact, when she was pregnant with me and when she was recovering in the hospital after I was born, she was reading Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings." So in a very real way, Tolkien and fantasy had been a part of my life since the moment I took my first breath. Because of all of those things and more, it was something that I decided that I was going to take on.
Being a CEO and director at the same time:
Being both an artist and an executive, being someone who's creating the work and someone who is overseeing it and guiding the company, I think that that can create a certain degree of tension, but it's something that I've been doing for a long while. So I have a foot in each world and I think that each job actually makes me better [at] the other.
With the way we make films, we have to be incredibly disciplined because we have to keep the budgets as lean as we possibly can. We're an independent animation house, we're not a part of some multinational media conglomerate. So we've got to be very smart about how we're using our resources.
This project is by far the most ambitious thing that we've ever taken on just in terms of the scale — effectively, we wanted to make a stop-motion David Lean film, a monumental Kurosawan myth in miniature. Because of that, we had to be very, very smart early on in how we were planning and organizing and scheduling it. You have to wear both hats when you're in the role that I'm in, but at the end it was by far the most creatively satisfying thing that I've ever done in my whole career.
The lack of Asian voices in "Kubo and the Two Strings":
Evaluating casting can be a very opaque process. Sometimes people don't know what leads to the decisions that you make. The key thing is that we want to make sure that we're casting actors who can bring things to life with their voice. But I fully recognize and appreciate that inclusion matters, that representation matters.
I think that someone's history and tradition and life experience can evoke a better, richer performance, which is why on all the films that we've done we have a diverse cast. I believe that's true for this movie as well. We have a real terrific cast of actors from all over the world, with all manner of life experiences including a number of terrific actors of Japanese ancestry, and I think that makes the film richer.
Laika and its history of diverse storytelling:
Diverse stories that are different and have a different point of view are typically not made in Hollywood. You could look at our own history: When we started making "Coraline" 10 years ago, I felt like we had all the key ingredients for what would be a spectacular film. We had a best-selling novel written by a master, we had a brilliant visionary director, and yet when we met with film studio after film studio, they were not interested in making our movie.
The refrain that we kept hearing over and over again [was], You can't have an animated film with a female protagonist. But there's a corollary: Unless she's a princess. When we made "ParaNorman," we had an openly gay lead character in the film. After that movie came out we were threatened with boycotts, people rallied the MPAA to give us a more restrictive rating or to get our film thrown out of the theaters.
The broad point of view is that when you look at everything we've done, we tell diverse stories with diverse characters, brought to life by a diverse artist.
"Kubo and the Two Strings" is in theaters on Aug. 19.