Kubo's director talks about stop-animation's survival in a digital and sequel-obsessed industry

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Apr 29, 2019, 6:18 AM EDT (Updated)

In today's Hollywood culture and economy, the sequel or remake is king. And that's exactly what makes Portland, Oregon's LAIKA Studios the proverbial salmon swimming upstream. In the span of a decade, they've produced four theatrical films based on original stories in the purposefully almost-analog medium of stop-motion animation. LAIKA doesn't buck a trend, they buck all of them. Yet, with each subsequent film, they continue to outdo themselves visually, narratively and emotionally. 

Their latest, Kubo and the Two Strings, is the culmination of 10 years' worth of storytelling and technical wisdom put into an incredibly affecting film that's equal parts hero's journey, Japanese samurai actioner and an immensely personal and graceful meditation on grief, loss and growing up in a harsh world that wants to strip us all of our compassion. Director and LAIKA CEO Travis Knight talks exclusively to Blastr.com about how the company has grown into a truly independent storytelling studio committed to preserving and propelling the stop-motion art form with integrity, honor and heart. 

After doing three films centered on the various stages of being a kid on the cusp of change, did you know another childhood journey would be your fourth story?

It's interesting, because these things take a long time to make. This project was in development for five years, so in those early parts of the process, really all you're focusing in on is what is this story, who are the characters, what are the big ideas this architecture can support, and then what aspects of your own lives are you weaving into it to give it meaning and resonance?  In the early part of the process, it can be anything, and it's almost defeating how many different directions you can take the thing in. Eventually, it starts to bubble up. You are looking for the sculpture inside the stone and what is this story's point of view on the world.

How did Kubo's story, then, come to be?

The original idea came from our brilliant character designer, Shannon Tindle, who I had worked with years ago on Coraline. He was one of our key character designers, and we maintained contact over the years. But five years ago, he called me up with a handful of ideas he wanted to pitch to me that might make decent films. We met at this dimly lit, tartan-walled Scottish restaurant over a dinner of Yorkshire pudding and shepherd's pie. Shannon pitched me the bones of a few ideas and there was one in particular really stuck to my ribs, even more than the haggis, and that was the idea that eventually became Kubo and the Two Strings.

What about his pitch grabbed you?

Even in its raw state, there was something very exciting about it, which was this sweeping, stop-motion samurai epic which is something we haven't really seen before. It gets you going and then you starting thinking, what is this story's point of view? We get pitched a lot of things, but we virtually decline everything. This one got me excited because, when I was a kid, I was an enormous, obsessive fan of big, epic fantasies. It was almost like it was embedded into my genetic code, because when my mom was pregnant with me, she was reading Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. One of the first great gifts she gave to me was a love of fantasy. She would read me these stories and I just adored them. For his part, my dad gave me a very different gift, but one that was just as important. When I was eight years old, he let me tag along on one of his business trips to Japan. I grew up in Portland, Oregon. I'd never experienced anything like it before, it was so beautiful and breathtaking. Everything from the art, the architecture, to the food and the style of dress, the music and the movies and comic books were different and I was completely enthralled. I was changed by the experience. It was the beginning of a lifelong love affair with this great and beautiful culture. This film offered the opportunity to make a movie that was a convergence of the love of fantasy from my mom, and the love of the transcendent art of Japan from my dad, bound up in a story about the sustaining love of family. It's effectively a film about family inspired by family.

I think most will go in expecting a straight adventure film, but Kubo features a deeply affecting story that covers everything from handling a physical handicap, to parental mental illness and then loss and grief. Yet, none of it is heavy-handed or false. How did those elements become the core of the tale?

It's a story....maybe not what I originally thought it would be, but it became a story fundamentally about dealing with grief, loss and the things that come from the process of becoming an adult; the things we gain and leave behind along the way. It sounds unpleasant and heavy, but the whole point was to deal with it in a sensitive and intelligent way that respected the audience. Through the stylized prism of animation and fantasy, we could tackle some of these bigger issues and make it understandable for kids. Those are the kinds of stories that I loved when I was growing up. Those films really left an impact on me and stay with you for the rest of your life, that get you to see the world in a different way, or get you to understand an aspect of living that is hard to articulate. We try to do that in this film. Even though we deal with heavy issues, there is a joy that bubbles up from underneath. There's a love of humanity and a sense of compassion, empathy and forgiveness which are critical to understanding, particularly with how fractured our world is.

LAIKA has never shyed away from stories that talk up to kids and refuse to pander. Kubo is another protagonist who is complicated and maybe travels a road most "kid" films don't even attempt.

I think it is a part of life. We all deal with aging parents or aging grandparents, or how we change as we grow older. While it's not fundamentally what the movie is about, I think it's important for some of the big themes of memory and responsibility. This kid has been denied something we all hope that we can have which is this incredible, loving, warm family that is connected. He only gets it in little bits and pieces and it's drifting away from him as his mother starts to drift away. He's terrified it's going away for good and he's never going to have it again, which prompts the journey. He defies the rules and that sets everything off.

Was there any concern the story was too intense for a 90-minute kid's film?

The film focuses on when parents are the center of our universe. At some point in our lives, things shift and change. While for most of us it takes months, or years, but with Kubo it's a movie and we can compress time. It's a fundamental part of growing up. Ultimately we hope people can take some example from how Kubo responds.

How have you been able to keep stop-motion alive in an culture and industry that is all about computer-animation?

When we started 10 years ago, all of that was bound together. So many of us had been working in stop-motion for a good chunk of our lives. We love the medium and its possibilities, yet as an industry things were going in a different direction. With the '90s, we saw the ascendency of the computer. It could do anything we do, and better, with greater precision. It was better for VFX, animation and working in live-action. There was so many aspects we couldn't compete. Stop-motion was on life support so we had to figure out how to justify our existence. Our approach was to embrace the author of our demise: the infernal machine that was threatening all our livelihoods. We recognized it was a tool to tell our stories. So if we were able to find a convergence of art, craft and science and technology and blend them together stylistically, we can tell stories in a new and interesting way to re-invigorate the medium.

LAIKA is not a sequel factory. All of your stories follow their own path with children heroes and resonant storytelling being the only connective tissue. How do you keep that going?

In terms of the kinds of movies we make, it was important for us to tell stories that are meaningful, thought-provoking, resonant and hopefully, enrich people's lives. It was born of me being a father. When I had kids and saw what was geared towards families and what a vapid sensory assault so much of it was, I was appalled. You don't think about that before you have kids, but when you have kids, it changes everything. More than anything else, the impetus to start LAIKA is, I have been working in this field, but I wanted to do something different and honor kids in the world. Because of that, we're not interested in doing sequels, or doing the same stories over again. We want to tell original stories and diving into genres and new worlds. It's not where our industry is. We live in an era of franchises, brands, reboots and sequels and prequels. I'm not interested in that, and I recognize that puts us odds with the industry. It's harder to make noise when you are doing a new and original story or get attention when there's no number behind [the title].

I guess literally hand-creating every second of film on the screen means you better love the story you invest in, too?

If you are going to devote so much of your life to something, it has to mean something to you, and has to matter. It's why we do this. We love what we do.

Kubo is your first director's title on a LAIKA film. What sequence scared you the most in terms of execution?

All of them. [Laughs] They were all hard. Clearly, the big spectacle stuff is challenging. We didn't have any idea how to do a raging storm at sea, with a big battle on top and crazy cinematography. We have these massive, mythological monsters, including a skeleton that was a 16-foot tall puppet and weighed 400 pounds. It was a moving set. But, because we've kept our core creative team together for 10 years, we build on all the artistic and technological innovations that happen in every film and we apply them to the next movie. But Kubo was the most ambitious thing we've ever taken on. The spectacle was hard, but maybe most important was capturing the moments of stillness, quiet and intimacy. You have two characters talking and connecting so you can feel their emotions, their joy and pain and aspirations and dreams. These are little assemblages of steel and silicone, cloth and plastic. If you don't buy into them as living breathing things the movie will have no emotional heft whatsoever. Making sure the beautiful moments of nuance and closeness between the characters work. So there was no aspect that wasn't hard, but I'm really proud of the way it all came together.

Kubo and the Two Strings opens August 19, 2016.