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Interview: Travis Knight talks quest behind ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’

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If Laika has taught us one thing during its 10 years of existence as a stop-motion animation studio that’s produced the Oscar-nominated features “Coraline,” “ParaNorman” and “The Boxtrolls,” it’s that they respect the intelligence of the people watching their films. Yes, the visuals they painstakingly produce, frame by frame, are stunning to be sure; but first and foremost, Laika’s films are about story — and the studio’s latest offering, the epic Samurai family adventure, “Kubo and the Two Strings,” is no different.

“Our films really come down to the way we feel about our audience. We don’t view the films that we make as product,” Laika CEO and “Kubo” director Travis Knight said in a phone conversation from New York Thursday. “While what we’re in is show business — it’s show and business, and art and commerce — I think it’s important to not discount the art portion of it. In the end, we are making films and telling stories. We ask ourselves, ‘So who are we telling stories for? Who is the audience for these movies?’ We have nothing but the utmost respect for the audience of these movies.

“We will not pander, and we respect the intelligence and the sophistication of audience, and we don’t talk down to them. That comes through in our movies,” Knight added. “If you look at a lot of other movies, and that is not the case. That is not the way producers are looking at their audience. But for us, that is how we look at our audience. They are our families, these are our people, these are our children that we are making these films for. We love and respect them, and we want to make something worthy of them. That’s the approach we take to our movies.”

Opening Friday in theaters nationwide in 2D and 3D, “Kubo and the Two Strings” takes place in ancient Japan, where it follows the fantastical adventure of Kubo (voice of Art Parkinson), a humble boy with an ailing mother who accidentally summons spirits from his family’s past that target him to exact an age-old vendetta. His only hope of successfully combating the spirits comes in a quest to obtain three pieces of armor that belonged to his late father, the world’s greatest samurai warrior.

Joined by Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey), the magically-gifted Kubo, armed with his stringed musical instrument known as a shamisen, embarks on the quest to face the spirits. But the quest isn’t merely about confronting the malevolent Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and evil twin sisters (Rooney Mara); in the process, Kubo strives to discover the truth behind the loss of his father.

Marking Knight’s directorial debut (he’s also serves as producer and lead animator on the film), “Kubo and the Two Strings” took about five years to produce, a time period much longer than most computer-animated features. However, Knight feels that it’s not the extra time Laika’s artists put into their work that separates them from their computer-animated colleagues, but their ability to put a human imprint, so to speak, on their films.

“There is certainly a timelessness to stop-motion. When you look at a stop-motion film, you see the will and the skill, and the imagination of an artist who’s brought something to life with their hands,” Knight said. “The computer is an extraordinary tool, but there’s no humanity in a tool. It’s all in service of its operators. So, the stuff you see that comes out of comes out of computers is a bunch of ones and zeroes and  I think you can do amazing things with a computer — and we’ve seen it with exceptional effects and beautiful films — but it’s just sitting there, waiting to be worked with by its operator.”

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On the other hand, it’s about, well, the hands, as well and hearts and minds behind the drive of a stop-motion animator.

“Inherently in stop-motion there’s this hand-crafted quality, which really does give it its humanity,” Knight said. “These objects become alive because of the will and imagination of the animator. It’s magical to me because it almost evokes this primal feeling. My youngest son is 3 years old, and sometimes I watch him from across the room when he’s playing with his action figures, with one in each hand and doing little voices, creating scenarios – I recognize what he’s doing is telling stories. Nobody taught him to do that. That’s just an innate part of who we are as storytellers. That’s just who we are as humans.”

Laika, Knight said, is essentially an extrapolation of that.

“What you see with stop-motion films is that they’re essentially toys,” Knight said. “They’re dolls brought to life as if they have an inner-life and they’re moving around, and living and telling these stories — they’re creatures with their hopes and dreams. I think it really is evocative of imaginative play like when we were kids. Stop-motion taps into an aspect of that that is very primal.”

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One of the many keys to the success of “Kubo” is that the story and the way it’s told is strikingly original. True, it is inspired by the such storytelling luminaries as Akira Kurosawa and Joseph Campbell — and to a greater extent how those storytellers influenced “Star Wars” — yet “Kubo” manages to forge its own identity.

“Unfortunately, originality is rare in this business these days,” Knight lamented. “We are in an industry right now where the pendulum has swung in one direction and where old presents are re-wrapped and offered up as new gifts. Old ideas are being dusted off and being regurgitated, but we’re fighting the good fight of trying to tell new and original stories, which has become increasingly difficult in this atmosphere.”

Movie reviews: ‘War Dogs,’ ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ on KQRS

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Tim Lammers reviews the Jonah Hill and Miles Teller true-life comedy drama “War Dogs,” as well as Laika animations studios stop-motion fantasy “Kubo and the Two Strings” on “The KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard and the crew. Tim, Tom and the crew also weigh in on the latest remake of “Ben Hur” and its box office prospects Hear the segment starting 7 minutes in.

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Interview: Laika CEO, filmmaker Travis Knight talks ‘The Boxtrolls’

When it came to producing animation studio Laika’s third stop-motion feature “The Boxtrolls,” company CEO and lead animator Travis Knight clearly had one thing in mind: Think out of the box. After all, it was that sort of innovative thinking that landed the studio’s first two films, “Coraline” and “ParaNorman,” Oscar nominations for Best Animated Feature.

Thankfully for “The Boxtrolls,” Knight had a deep well of source material in Alan Snow’s 550-page children’s book “Here Be Monsters,” which encapsulated all the things Knight, born in 1973, loved as a kid.

“It was like the stories of Charles Dickens and Roald Dahl,” Knight recalled for me in a recent interview. “It had a really great, biting satirical point-of-view like you see in ‘Monty Python,’ plus it had all of these incredible environments and all these different creatures.”

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Scene from “The Boxtrolls” (photo: Focus Features/LAIKA).

While the first time Knight read “Here Be Monsters” dates back 10 years, his path to the stop-motion craft tracks back to his childhood. It was then that the son of Nike co-founder and chairman Phil Knight watched Rankin-Bass stop-motion classics like “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and saw inanimate creatures come to life via the gifted hands of Ray Harryhausen in films like “Jason and the Argonauts” and “Seven Voyages of Sinbad.”

Then, Travis Knight said, he would create his own movies in his mind with his own action figures.

“There was something about those films to me that was absolutely so magical, and as I try to diagnosis what it was that turned me on to stop-motion, it really comes down to the things I did as a kid,” Knight observed. “Whether it’s action figures, Tonka trucks or dolls, kids can imagine scenarios in their heads and believe these things can come alive. When your imagination kicks in, you have this whole world exist within these toys. For me, stop motion is primal in that way.”

Ultimately, Knight said, stop-motion movies are like seeing child’s playthings being brought to life — except for now they’re characters in their own story.

“Stop-motion has this sort of weird, magical charm and energy that reminds us what it was like when we were kids,” he said. “I still have that feeling to this day. Even though I’ve been doing this for 20 years, when I walk to a stop-motion set and I see the puppets underneath those beautiful lights, I don’t feel the medium has lost any of its allure, charm or magic. It’s still just as beautiful as it was when I was a kid running home from school to see those after-school specials and movies.”

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Here be ‘Boxtrolls’

Opening in 2D and 3D theaters nationwide on Friday, “The Boxtrolls,” which contains some elements of computer animation, tells the story of Eggs (voiced by Isaac Hempstead Wright) — an orphaned, 11-year-old boy who has spent nearly his whole life underground being raised by a lovable set of trash-collecting creatures dubbed the Boxtrolls.

Above ground is the Victorian-era town of Cheesebridge, which is driven by wealth, class and town’s cheese product — and an evil exterminator, Archibald Snatcher (Ben Kingsley), who wants to rid the population of the Boxtrolls as a way to climb the social l

adder to become one of the town’s aristocrats. The problem is, the Boxtrolls aren’t as fearsome as Archibald portrays the creatures to be, and it’s up to Eggs and a morbidly curious girl, Winnie (Elle Fanning), to set the record straight before it’s too late and exterminator executes his dastardly plans.

While the story is filled with colorful characters, the ones that stayed with Knight most after reading Snow’s book were the Boxtrolls — a set of jibber-jabbering monsters that have as much if not more charm on-screen than the Minions of the “Despicable Me” movies.

“Of all the stuff in Alan’s book, his most unique invention were the Boxtrolls. They were just this really interesting breed of species that we never really seen before,” Knight recalled. “As we were developing the story over the course of the eight-nine years we used to turn it into a film, we always went back to them. There was something fundamentally compelling about them in this marginalized community. They were living in squalor, yet they were rich in what matters. They had love, affection and commitment to each other. They were timid yet had the external appearance of being monstrous, but they were actually very sweet, gentle souls.”

The medium of stop-motion animation is perhaps one of the most time-consuming of all filmmaking efforts, considering the infinite number of movements are shot to give the appearance that a character has come to life. But perhaps even time-consuming in this latest Laika feature was the task of whittling “Here Be Monsters” from its nearly 550 pages into a workable screenplay.

“The tricky thing with adapting something that’s 550-some odd pages is that you somehow have to fit the essence of that story into a 90-minute film,” said Knight, who appears in a time-lapse end credits scene to demonstrate the amount of effort it takes to animate a scene. “If you tried to do it straight adaption would have been a 12-hour movie, so you have to get the core of the story. It’s like a process in ruthless economy, where you have to strip out all the stuff that doesn’t support the core story.”

While Knight said several iterations of the script were developed, he always felt like there was something off.

“We were very close to Alan’s book, and there was a ton of stuff going on, and it was fun and frenetic, but in the end it was hollow,” Knight added. “There was nothing underpinning it, there was nothing at the core of it that was really resonant.”

Ultimately, Knight said, he and the film’s co-directors, Graham Annable and Anthony Stacchi, decided that the story needed to hit home, quite literally.

“Works of art are a Trojan horse, underneath the surface is a personal point-of-view or a deeply-held philosophy from the filmmaker that keeps everything at the foundation level going,” Knight explained. “For me, Tony and Graham, what really sparked us was this idea of family, because we were all fathers of young children. We were struggling with that thing all parents struggle with, which was trying to find that elusive balance between family and meaningful work.”

Once the filmmakers were able to tap in to the ideas surrounding the balance of work and family, everything started to fall into place.

“We explored that themes within the prism of this film and that’s when we really started to feel that we had something there,” Knight said. “That was the turning point when we felt we had the emotional core. Once you have that, then you can start layering in the fun, the weirdness, the metaphors and the big ideas. But without the core, it all falls apart.”

Lighter tone

While Laika’s films already have a distinct feel that separates them from other animated fare, there’s no question that “The Boxtrolls” is much lighter in tone than “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” Knight said the decision to go a different route with the studio’s latest feature wasn’t as much a conscious effort to put out a lighter film as it was their responsibility to tell a story the way it was intended to be told.

“Each story demands something different. Yes, there were superficial similarities between ‘Coraline’ and ‘ParaNorman’ in that they both had supernatural elements, the films are different from each other,” Knight told me. “‘Coraline’ was inspired by classic fairy tales, so it had some primal scares at the core of it that were consistent with the source material, so you have to honor that in the best way.

“While I think that’ something historically family films have done, over the last 20 years they’ve been eroding that edge,” Knight added. “It’s to the point where we almost have this inoffensive approach to filmmaking for families, which I think in the end isn’t doing our kids any service at all. The material in ‘Coraline’ was something that we had to honor and we couldn’t fluctuate from the consequences of it.”

Knight said while there were also scares in “ParaNorman,” they were much different from those in its Laikan predecessor.

“‘ParaNorman” had scares, but they were funhouse scares. They were rooted in Amblin films and schlocky Hammer Horror films from the ’70s,” Knight said. “But while it had elements of scares and it dealt with death in a serious way, the scares were more superficial.”

“The Boxtrolls,” Knight said, “isn’t scary at all.”  That’s because while the Boxtrolls are perceived as monsters by the townsfolk of Cheesebridge, audiences will quickly discover that perception is simply not the case.

“The film does have intensity, though. It’s rooted in Dickens, Dahl and ‘Monty Python,’ so by virtue, it’s a different kind of story,” Knight said. “It’s an absurdist coming-of-age fable. It certainly has moments where things are intense, but it’s not a horror film by any stretch of the imagination. Each story demands something different from the filmmakers, and while we always approach a film with the idea of balancing something artfully — the lightness and dark, intensity and warmth, emotion and heart — so we really have a dynamic story, the ingredients will vary depending on what the story requires.”

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