While there may still be controversy surrounding the origins of Laika animation studios from the ashes of the original Will Vinton Studios, there’s no doubting their quality record since then: Coraline, ParaNorman and now The BoxTrolls create elaborate stop-motion worlds with a creepy edge to them that pushes the boundaries of what we’re used to in “family friendly” cartoons without ever being inappropriate for braver children.
CEO Travis Knight is hardly an aloof boss – he began as an animator, and he still likes to do the work himself, even as he has to reconcile big-picture concerns with the details of the company’s fictional universes. In a wide-ranging discussion, I got to talk to him about Laika’s present and future…and why they won’t be exploiting their past.
Luke Y. Thompson: First question: When I write this article, should I write “Laika” in all caps? Is it an acronym, or is it just a word?
Travis Knight: No, it’s not an acronym. We always do write it in all caps when we write it internally, but people do whatever they want to do, so you do whatever you want to do.
LYT: Where does the name come from?
TK: When we started the company, nearly 10 years ago, we were looking for an idea that really kind of defined what we were, what we were about, our philosophical core. So we opened it up to everyone who was then part of the company, and said “What should we call ourselves? How do we define ourselves?” And we had a slew of ideas on what we should be, and one of our artists, Mike Smith, was actually the character designer on BoxTrolls, designed every character on the film – he submitted this idea for “Laika.” The idea, the word “Laika” is a Russian word, and Laika was the first dog in space.
As an idea, it was something that we really were keen on, because it was kind of an aspirational idea, this notion of a mutt from humble origins who somehow touched the stars. It was something that we were aspiring to do. We were this kind of weird little outpost up in the Pacific Northwest, and we were trying to do something that really hadn’t been done before in this medium. It felt like it was a perfect encapsulation of what we were.
LYT: You’re listed as head animator and CEO. I would think either one of those roles would be so time consuming. How do you manage both?
TK: There’s no doubt about it – it’s a weird thing. It’s a tricky thing that often times feels like it is shredding my brain and ripping it in two parts. I was an artist long before I was an executive. I was an animator long before I was a businessman. And yet I think that both jobs really do play to different parts of my personality, and the way my head works. And I’ve found that both jobs make me better at the other.
As an artist, I think sometimes the danger can be that you get lost in the detail and the minutiae and the granularity of everything you’re doing. You can lose sight of the big picture. As an executive, I think you have the other problem – it’s ALL big picture! So sometimes, you can lose connection with the art – the thing that you’re making, what it’s all about. I think by having a foot in each world, it makes me better at the other. It makes me more conscious of both of those things.
But in practice, it can be pretty tricky. I’ll be in a marketing meeting, or a board meeting or something, then I’ll have an hour, so I’ll run out on stage and I’ll animate ten frames, and then I’ll go to something else. Then I’ll run out for half an hour and animate a few frames. It’s just – it can be a tricky thing to manage, but it works. It goes to the core philosophy of what we are about. We have no bureaucracy. Every single person at Laika contributes as much as they can, wherever they can.
LYT: Can you sort of turn off the appropriate parts of your brain when necessary? Like when you’re animating something like this, you’re presumably thinking about serving the story only, but the businessman part of you might say, “This part might not play so well in Peoria.” Something like that?
TK: No, I can’t separate those bits! I think that the executive wants me to be economical, and to move quickly, and to eliminate the extraneous bits of business, but the artist in me is always pushing on for us to do the best animation we possibly can. So there’s no doubt about it – it can be frustrating. But I think that there is an aspect of animating that is very kind of soothing for me. It allows me to kind of get into this almost Zen-like state, where you really focus on this one thing. And it can be frustrating, but sometimes the best tonic for me when I’m struggling with of the business aspects is for me to go on stage and animate for an hour, because I can get my head straight.
LYT: The three Laika films so far have a pretty good consistency of tone, which I think Henry Selick told me is “tales for brave boys and girls,” is how he put it. How important is that? Are you striving to maintain a particular tone for the brand, or is that just coincidence that those have been the films you’ve made so far?
TK: No, and in fact, it’s actually – we actively try to avoid that. We try to make films that are each, in and of themselves – we don’t want to have a house style aesthetically, including the visuals of what we do, and in terms of the ideas and the things that we explore. Now there’s no doubt about it, that because these films come from the same place, the same group of people, you’re going to find strands of DNA. You’re going to find similarities between them. But while Coraline was a very dark modern fairy tale, that had – because of its source material and because of its influences – it had to be dark and scary in places. It had that kind of vibe to it.
But it had those primal scares, and I think that with the superficial similarities between that and ParaNorman, in that they’re both sort of contemporary American stories, with a supernatural glaze on them. But ParaNorman is a very different kind of story. It’s a supernatural comedic thriller. Its scares were more kind of fun-house scares. It was drawn from those ’80s Amblin films, those horror films like that.
For BoxTrolls, it’s a different kind of a story. It’s a period piece. It’s kind of an absurdist, Dickensian coming-of-age fable. It’s not a scary film, by any stretch of the imagination. But what it does share is a philosophical point-of-view. We believe in dynamic stories. We believe in a lot of up and down. We believe in intensity and warmth. We believe in darkness and light. We believe in all those things, so when you get to the end of the story, you’ve gone through a range of emotion and feeling. So while BoxTrolls is not scary, I think it does have intensity where it needs to.
LYT: Yeah. And I’m wondering how that factors into the marketing. As a guy who runs a nerd site, I’m wondering why there aren’t more action figures based on your movies, because there need to be. Why there aren’t more t-shirts – that kind of thing. Is that – are licensors a little afraid of the material, or has that just been a decision not to market it so much?
TK: It’s not so much a decision for us not to get into merchandise, but I do think it’s a reflection of where the industry is at. I think when you go back a handful of years ago, people were licensing different intellectual property for lots of different kinds of animated films, and films in general. I think a lot of those companies have moved away from that kind of stuff, and now you’ll find in large measure – just like the industry is moving to sequels or reboots and remakes and prequels and all that sort of thing – oftentimes toy manufacturers, apparel manufacturers, only want to license those things that they think are a safe bet. That usually means something that has a built-in fan base, or is kind of a known quantity, in terms of intellectual property – sequels, prequels, reboots, remakes. Companies will make those toys, but they’re very less likely to go for something untested, something that’s its own unique intellectual property.
So I think it’s just a recognition of where the world is. People don’t want to make BoxTrolls toys because they don’t know anything about BoxTrolls, and they’re worried about the potential audience for it.
LYT: It seems so perfect. You get a box, you press a button, the limbs spring out.
TK: Seems pretty perfect for me, but what do I know?
LYT: How many more do you think it will take before Laika is that kind of established brand? Where it’s not so much a risk?
TK: The tricky thing is I don’t feel like we will ever be that kind of brand, because we want to make unique, individual, original films, every time out. We’re not interested in making sequels. So while we make Coraline, ParaNorman and BoxTrolls, the next film that we know is coming down the pike, which we haven’t announced yet but we’ve already started production on, is something that’s totally different from anything that we’ve ever done before.
So even if a company got comfortable with doing action figures for the BoxTrolls, the next thing is going to be nothing like the BoxTrolls! So it doesn’t – that’s one of the tensions that we have to work with as an independent animation house, is doing unique animation. But it also gets to the core of what we’re about, which is not to do by-the-numbers films.
LYT: So if the BoxTrolls does super well, there wouldn’t be another movie that expands on the other creatures in the book, for example?
TK: Alan Snow has got enough densely packed creatures and characters in Here Be Monsters, the book, for five films. But the thing is, we are not interested in doing sequels. Us, as a community, have lived in the BoxTrolls universe, and Alan Snow’s universe, for nearly a decade. As much as we love it, we are moving forward and we’re making our next film, so it’s not necessarily something we’re interested in.
LYT: Stop-motion, it almost feels like there was at one point a stigma, not just because it took so long, but because people didn’t think it was commercially viable. Is it now at the point where it is a safe bet? Where you don’t have to worry that people won’t come to your movie because it’s stop-motion, and they’ll do it just based on what the content is?
TK: I don’t think it’s necessarily a “safe bet.” I mean, when you look at what the kind of general form that animation takes these days, which is CG animation – that’s kind of the coin of the realm, that is the only form that animation takes place – even something that used to be commonplace, things like 2-D animation, which used to be all you would see, now that would be a rarity. You never see a 2-D animated feature coming out of a big animation house these days. It’s something that little independent studios do.
And so I think that anytime you do something that deviates from the norm, which now is CG – the same thing that made Pixar stand out in the early to mid-’90s is what makes hand-drawn animation films stand out now. Those things have reversed. So I don’t think that it makes things easier, but I do think that when people look at our films, there’s a sophistication and a complexity, and a beauty to the design, and a sophistication to the design, that people are almost confused what they’re looking at. It doesn’t look like your daddy’s stop motion. It doesn’t look like Rankin-Bass. It doesn’t look like Ray Harryhausen. And yet, at the core, that’s what it is, and I think because of how far we’ve taken the medium that it feels like something new and original, even if it does feel a little unusual.
LYT: How many movies are in production at any given time? Is it just one at a time, or are there more?
TK: We have multiple films in development at any given time. We are now starting to get to the point where we overlap the production of the films, so ultimately we want to be on an annual release schedule, where we are producing and releasing a film a year. With each successive film, we’ve been able to truncate the period between releases. The film we’re working on now, we just started working on, it’ll probably be out sometime in 2016, and then pretty shortly thereafter it’ll be a year and a half, then a year, till we at the point where we’re making a film every year.
LYT: If the story were right, would you ever do an R-rated animated movie?
TK: I think not. I mean, a very basic threshold for the kind of films we do – we make films for families. I think our definition of family is more expansive, and our definition of a family film is more expansive, than studios typically see them as. For instance, the Harry Potter or the Lord of the Rings films or the Hunger Games – I feel those are all kind of family films. By that, I mean you have stuff within the film that appeals to kids, that appeals to teens, that appeals to adults, that appeals to parents. We’re never going to target just adults. We’re never going to target just kids. We want to make the kinds of films that appeal to all members of the family.
So I think that you’re going to see a lot of interesting films, and a lot of films that come out of Laika that really push on the edges of what people think is acceptable for animated films, but we’re never going to do a hardcore R-rated animated film. That’s not what we do.
LYT: That’s not what anybody does, at least domestically.
TK: Well, no. I mean, I think there are some people that are starting to toy with that, but that’s not really our thing.
LYT: It’s interesting – the steampunk influences in this one. I’m wondering how much of that was conscious?
TK: A lot of that stuff was kind of inherent in the material, in Alan’s book. He had a lot of these kind of weird technologies smashing into each other. These weird kind of anachronistic ideas. So you have little bits of technology right next to things of antiquity, living together. And so it was a natural kind of development that came out of the source material. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun to play around with, to see an alternative view of how technology might have evolved in this fantastic world. We don’t get too heavy into it, but it’s definitely there.
LYT: My last question is does Laika still have the rights to the Will Vinton catalog, and if so, can we get some cool blu-rays out of it?
TK: That stuff is all kind of embroiled in weird legal stuff. It’s not something that we’re in any way looking to exploit. For us, the main thing that we’re – that stuff, all that stuff, the IP and all that kind of stuff is wrapped up in all kinds of complicated stuff that was made back in the ’80s, anyway. So it’s not really ours to use. But more than that, our whole point is where we’re going moving forward, rather than looking back.
LYT: That Mark Twain meets the devil scene, I just see on YouTube so many times, and I want to see that whole movie on Blu!
TK: I don’t think it’s going to happen.
The BoxTrolls opens Friday.