When Travis Knight started interning at Will Vinton Studios - the people responsible for the California Raisins - he couldn’t have know stop-motion animation would become his life. The son of Nike founder Phil Knight, Travis became an animator working in a medium that was seen as essentially dead, killed by the computers that were taking over all the traditional forms of animation. By the end of the 1990s Vinton Studios was in financial trouble and Knight’s father stepped in and took over. Knight transitioned the company to Laika, Inc, and began focusing on doing what almost no one else was doing: making stop-motion feature films.
Their first movie was Coraline, a critical success, followed by the truly wonderful (and underseen) Paranorman. Now Laika has their third feature about to hit, The Boxtrolls, a loose adaptation of the novel Here Be Monsters!; in The Boxtrolls the titular creatures - friendly tinkerers and petty thieves - live beneath the streets of Cheesebridge. They’re being hunted by the humans aboveground, who believe they are terrible monsters. Only Eggs, a human boy raised by the Boxtrolls, knows the truth, and he has to save them from the devious plans of villainous Archibald Snatcher.
I got on the phone with Travis Knight, a guy well-known for speaking his mind (at a Comic-Con panel he explained how The Boxtrolls’ humor is different from his competitors: “No farts. This ain’t DreamWorks.”) and asked him about spending his whole life working in a medium that most had long-since given up as dead.
You’ve said in the past that doing stop-motion animation is essentially a crazy thing to do, that it’s a crazy way to spend your time. What kind of person is drawn to stop-motion animation?
Knight: If I’m any indication at all it’s someone who is a little unusuall. Someone who has deep-seated emotional problems! Someone who is neurotic. I think it’s an unusual thing to fall in love with; it’s not something you can imagine that you can have an enriching, fulfilling life going after. There’s not a clear path to success by devoting your life to playing with dolls for a living. It’s one of those things where you either have that passion or you don’t. The interesting thing about Laika is that it’s very much an island of misfit toys. It’s unusual people with strange talents and very unusual passions who have somehow found each other.
As a collective, as a community, pooling those talents we’ve been able to redefine the medium. We’ve been able to change what is possible in this field we all love, and to take it beyond where it’s been before. It’s only because these people care so deeply about their work that this was able to happen. The only kind of people who pursue stop-motion as a career are people who are absolutely in love with the medium.
You talk about redefining the medium - what is it that makes stop-motion more than just a retro style of animation? What makes it remain vital?
Knight: It can be retro. We’ve seen examples of that. If you look at The Fantastic Mr. Fox it has that quality; it’s one of its charms, actually, and it’s a lovely film - but it looked like it could have been made thirty, forty years. It has that rough-hewn thing, and I think that’s what people tend to think of when they think of stop-motion. For us we see stop-motion as something different entirely. We see it as an incredible art-form whose potential has been largely untapped. Because it is a hand-crafted thing, and because it’s been separated from the advancement of technology over the generations, it’s gotten stuck in this little area and we’ve tried to do - from Coraline to Paranorman and now in Boxtrolls - is to embrace and integrate technology in a way that has never been done before.
Anybody who is a fan or practitioner of stop-motion in the 80s or 90s felt it was a bad time because the computer was usurping the craft. Anything you could do in stop-motion you could better in CG. We try to find ways that we can take this medium into new places where we can utilize the best parts of it - the warmth and the hand-crafted charm - and make it more expansive by bringing in the flexibility of technology. Because of that, in the five years since CORALINE was released, you can chart the evolution of the studio and the films that we make and it is dramatic. It’s a seismic shift between what we did on CORALINE and what we can do now. We push at it.
It’s not retro if you’re trying to evolve it - it becomes the opposite of retro. It’s doing so with a bag of tricks no one else on Earth has. We use every kind of animation, from hand-drawn to stop-motion to CG and we have a massive bag of tricks where we take techniques that go back a hundred years and whatever process, whatever tool, whatever technique makes the most sense for the shot or sequence is what we employ. And that’s why our films look so different.
Having your films look great is part of what sets you apart, but what makes a story right for Laika?
Knight: Broadly speaking we make films for families. That is something that is an instant barometer of the things we make. I think we have a more expansive view and definition of families than most other places, but we’re not going to make something that doesn’t generally fit that definition. When we think of storytelling, when we think of a successful film, we’re agnostic about the technique at that point. We’re trying to find the stories that we feel have an artful blend of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth. Stories that have the ability to take the audience on this ride over all the peaks and valleys of a story. I don’t believe you can have the elation, the joy in the film without having the antithetical emotional response at some point in the telling. The joy’s not going to be as joyful without the pain to go with it. Finding the stories that support that kind of storytelling but are also thought-provoking, that have something meaningful to say, that aren’t just pop cultural confections, those are the stories we love. Things that are personal to us, that we believe in, that say something of meaning, that actually touch on issues in the culture… and then the question how do we bring this to life in the most powerful and beautiful and evocative way and push the medium forward visually.
Why has the landscape changed so much in the last twenty years when it comes to animation? It seems like animation is more prevalent and more popular than ever right now.
Knight: Animation has been one of the most profitable sectors of filmmaking for years now. There’s a ‘me too’ attitude in Hollywood where people see some success and they go running to copy it. But they don’t really understand why something was successful. You see a lot of film companies that have risen up in the last three or four years that are trying to do animation, that are trying to copy the successes of Pixar and Disney and DreamWorks without understanding why those things worked. You end up regurgitating these formulas and these superficial ideas rather than tell a unique story that is suited to the medium.
But that’s not what we’re about. We’re about telling stories that have a point of view. I think there is a sameness to the animation that’s being done in the modern era. It’s more successful than its ever been, broadly, so that’s why you see more product, if you will. But I think as an industry we run the risk of treating these things as product, not as films, not as experiences for the audience, and it’ll turn them off in the long run. Showcasing the same kinds of stories in the same kinds of ways - you’re not offering anything new, and I think that’s to the detriment of us all as an industry if we don’t wise up.