LAIKA Founder and CEO Travis Knight makes his directorial debut with Kubo and the Two Strings
It was late last year that LAIKA celebrated its tenth anniversary. This August, Focus Features‘ big screen release of Kubo and the Two Strings represents another major milestone for the Portland-based stop-motion animation studio. LAIKA’s fourth feature film (following Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls) represents the directorial debut of company founder, CEO, animator and producer Travis Knight. As you might expect, there are a multitude of reasons that Knight decided to himself helm Kubo and ComingSoon.net got a firsthand look at what makes this one so special. Not only did we get to visit the incredible sets of Kubo and the Two Strings, we were allowed to photograph them. In the gallery viewer at the bottom of this page, you can check out more than 100 behind-the-scenes photos from the production and, in the video player, get a glimpse at the impressive craftsmanship that has gone into telling LAIKA’s biggest story to date.
Part of what makes LAIKA such an inspiring place for the diverse blend of creative talent that have come together there is the determination to make each project something very different than the last. That happens both in terms of storytelling and in the technical process of crafting the sets, costumes and characters. Stop-motion, after all, isn’t just about building a story frame by frame, but also first building every single thing in each and every frame. Thankfully for the studio, technological breakthroughs are being made that enable LAIKA to push the boundaries of what’s possible in a medium as timeless as cinema itself.
“When we started thinking about ‘Kubo’ five years ago, one of the things that got me excited was, at the core of it, it was this big epic fantasy,” Knight explains. “It’s not the kind of story that you typically see being told in our medium of stop-motion. There’s a reason for it, because it’s really hard!”
In the past, we’ve explored some of the stop-motion techniques LAIKA has employed on our visits to the set of Coraline (this reporter’s very first assignment for ComingSoon.net) and our looks behind The Boxtrolls both visiting the set and exploring the puppet modeling and costume design. Now the creative supervisor of puppet fabrication, Georgina Hayns returns for Kubo and the Two Strings. This time around, the size and scope of the story calls for all sorts of fantastic designs in a story inspired by samurai epics.
“Something that could be evocative of those great epic stories that I loved growing up as a kid,” Knight explains of Kubo‘s origins. “You know, things like ‘Star Wars’ or a David Lean movie of Tolkien or ‘Lone Wolf and Cub.’ Things like that which had the sweep and scale and had some emotional resonance underneath it all, but would be something that was really interesting and new told in this medium.”
The film follows young Kubo (Art Parkinson), a boy with one eye and a mysterious past. Living with his mother in a shoreline village, Kubo delights local crowds with incredible stories that, as he plays his three-stringed shamisen, bring to life origami avatars. As one might imagine, there’s a personal connection between what Kubo does with his fantastic ability and what those at LAIKA do in their art.
“You try to find pieces of yourself in all these characters and to see them without judgement,” Knight continues. “Which can be hard, because some of them are awful people… Kubo is essentially a proxy for me. He’s a kid. He’s a storyteller. He’s an animator, really, when you think about it. His whole world revolves around his mother and he goes on this journey of exploration. This journey of discovery over the course of the film. This classic kind of Joseph Campbell hero’s journey. It really is about that point in our lives when we’re crossing the rubicon from childhood to adulthood and the things that we gain and the things that we leave behind along the way.”
The tale soon finds Kubo in the traveling company of the insect samurai Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and Monkey (Charlize Theron), in search of answers to an ancient mystery that concern Kubo’s father as well as antagonistic gods and monsters like the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and evil scythe-wielding twin sisters (Rooney Mara), clad in raven feather cloaks.
“[Monkey] essentially becomes a maternal figure for Kubo,” Knight continues, “and Beetle becomes something of a proxy for his father.”
“[There’s] another theme that will run throughout the movie,” adds producer Arianne Sutner. “… What it means to be human. What it means to be perfect.”
That’s another aspect of the story that has a strong parallel in the way LAIKA approaches its films and something that the design of Kubo and the Two Strings evokes. Inspired by the work Japanese woodblock printer Hiroshi Sugito, the look of Kubo aims to offer a film that, visually, is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before.
“I think the idea of imperfect beauty is, it’s a core element of the Japanese aesthetic,” says Knight, “and it’s something that we embrace here and have right from the beginning. Because as much as we strive for perfection in everything, there’s always going to be imperfections. There’s always going to be problems with it. But I think that’s part of being human. You end up living with these things that, try as you might and as perfect as you want to get them and as elegantly crafted as they can be, there’s always something wrong with it. And that’s ok. There’s something beautiful about that.”
Among the incredible puppets you can view in the photos below are two puppet creations unlike anything LAIKA has ever done before. One of them is LAIKA’s biggest puppet to date, a truly enormous skeleton marionette.
“[I]t’s kind of ridiculous really,” Knight laughs, “because it’s essentially it’s a moving set. It has to perform. But I love all the technology and everything that went into making it, because it’s really high tech. We developed these new systems. We machined these new gears and everything to bring it to life. On the other hand, we have an arm that’s held up by a cable and a bucket with sand bags. So, it’s low-fi and high-tech merging together… The great thing about that is that, once we conquered a challenge like that, we know we can do it. It makes me ever more confident in our teams. That we can tackle pretty much any challenge. Even though we don’t necessarily know how we’re going to do it, some genius always figures out a way to get through it, and it’s inspiring.”
The other massive puppet is a tentacle creature from the film’s “Garden of Eyes” sequence. It’s actually an animatronic creation with tentacles that can be manipulated remotely. The eye itself actually moves via a gigantic homemade mouse of sorts that uses an actual bowling ball as for its trackball.
“It would have been a crime to do that in CG,” says Sutner. “We didn’t want to do it in CG. It energized us, and scared us and challenged us to be able to make it like that and we’re so damn proud of it and we love to show it off.”
“One of the things I love about our community that we have here is that everybody wants to create something new and exciting,” says Knight. “It’s just an invigorating place to be a part of and it really can come from anywhere. I think some of the solutions that happened on ‘Kubo’ came from some unexpected places… It’s what it’s so totally inspiring to be a part of this place, world class artists and technicians who dream big and bring these things to life in a beautiful way.”
Even with his demanding schedule as director, Knight himself is — as he has with all LAIKA films so far — doing some hands-on animation work on Kubo himself.
“I always want to keep getting my hands dirty,” says Knight. “To have my hands in actually creating the stuff, not just calling the shots. It was important to me… to try to find those moments when I could get out on set and bring something to life… Now that we’re here at the end of the process, I can see the hands and the spirit of all the different people who have touched the movie. You see it on the screen and all the pain that we’ve been going through over the course of these last five years, it goes away when you see these things come to life in a way where you actually believe it’s a living breathing thing.”
Kubo and the Two Strings opens in theaters August 19.