When I last spoke with Travis Knight he was juggling the responsibilities of CEO and lead animator at his Portland-based animation studio, Laika. Now, with the company’s fourth feature, he is adding another to his resume: director. Kubo and the Two Strings, the year’s most gorgeous-looking animation thus far, arrives in theaters this week, and I had a chance to speak with him about his debut.
We discussed the wide-ranging influences on the film — from Kurosawa to manga comics — as well as his thoughts on voice acting, Studio Ghibli’s legacy, and much more. Check out the full conversation below.
The Film Stage: In the film, I saw inspiration from Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress with this ragtag group of characters and the unlikely hero — and obviously that was inspiration for Star Wars, which I heard was one of your first movie-going experiences — so I’m curious if you talked about developing that dynamic, and the influence Kurosawa had on this story.
Travis Knight: That’s absolutely true. Kurosawa was a towering influence — over me, personally, and over the film, specifically. It’s interesting you picked up on some of those nods; we have them scattered throughout the film. Kurosawa is a towering figure in cinema — he’s one of the pillars. In fact, I think the modern cinematic epic started with Kurosawa and he’s been so influential on so many filmmakers that I loved. That’s actually how I discovered him: when I was a kid — as you said, the first film that I remember seeing in the movie theater was Star Wars — and the first film that moved me to tears was E.T. Both were heavily influenced by Kurosawa, and so, when I discovered that, I went back and started to look at his films — and of course I was blown away, and I think you see threads of that woven throughout the film.
It’s not just that he’s a brilliant artist — I think Spielberg called him a Victorian Shakespeare, just in terms of his filmmaking: the cutting and the composition and the staging and the light. The way he made films was extraordinary, but he was more than that. It was what he made films about, which were these really powerful, potent themes, like humanism and existentialism and the heroic ideal. Even though those films weren’t his better-known Samurai films, in these smaller films, like No Regrets for Our Youth, you still see those big ideas you see woven throughout. So those were some of the core ideas we explore in Kubo and the Two Strings, and they are a nod to Kurosawa.
But the film really is inspired by a great number of different artists and different forms of classic Japanese art, including origami — [I can’t catch the name] brings origami to life with his art; effectively, he’s an animator on some level. So not only when we see origami in the film, but just in the design of his kimono, and some of the buildings and the ships — and even the the mountains he lives in with his mom — those are perfect geometric shapes, and that’s inspired by the origami. Then there are things that give nod to, like ink wash paintings and noh theater; our characters were heavily inspired by late-Edo-period doll making. Probably the biggest single visual influence you see on the film, outside of Kurosawa, was Ukiyo-e, which is literally these pictures of a floating world. The most important form of Ukiyo-e is the woodblock print, and I think the most famous woodblock print ever is Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” and you see a nod to that in our film: the opening sequence of the film, we have a massive towering wave that dwarfs our hero, and that was very much a nod to that incredible woodblock print. So you see a lot of those things woven into the movie. In some ways, what we tried to do, the movie looks like a moving painting, so that’s a nod to some of that beautiful Ukiyo-e art.
Probably the biggest visual influence on the movie is an artist named Kiyoshi Saitō, who was a brilliant graphic artist and wood block print painter in Japan in the 20th century. The thing that was interesting about Saitō was that he comes from a great tradition that goes back hundreds of years of woodblock printmaking, but he kind of threw that off his shoulders. It was still kind of in his bones, but he decided to try a new way of making this thing where he was essentially the author of all the art, as opposed to being one part, one cog of the process. So the work you’d see that he would do was his pure, undistilled vision of his subject. What’s more, he was heavily influenced by Western painters — European painters like Henri Matisse and Paul Gauguin. So he takes all these incredible influences and he internalizes it, he synthesizes it, and he weaves it into his art — and then you see this incredible thing come out that’s unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. That was, in turn, a huge influence on us, on this movie — not only stylistically, but just his approach: this fusion of East and West, and old and new, the real and the imagined. That was something he did in his work, and that is something we tried to do in ours as well.
There’s sort of a debate online about whether it benefits the film itself to have famous voice actors — if it helps the marketing and such. I was curious about Matthew McConaughey, because, at the beginning, he keeps the persona that he’s had in different movies, but then you kind of get lost in his character after his first scene. So, as a director, did you have any guidance for him?
Well, I know that the casting process is pretty opaque for people who weren’t a part of it — and there is a logic to it, there are reasons behind every single decision that we make. Casting live-action is very different than casting animation. When you’re casting live action, there are two parts to the performance: there’s the performance that you see and there’s the one that you hear. Those things are bound together. In animation, however, those things are completely separate, and really the actor is the performance that you hear. So what you want is an actor who can convey the complexity, can convey the full range emotions with the one instrument they have available to them, which is their voice. Some great actors, that’s not their most powerful instrument; their voice isn’t the most expressive part of their tool kit. So often times when you disentangle what an actor looks like versus what they sound like, it leads you to some interesting revelations.
So that’s part of our process, we pull clips from movies and interviews to hear how an actor’s voice actually sounds to try and see if they’re right for the movie. Because, in the end, it’s almost like a band or an orchestra: you want each actor to occupy their own unique space of the sonic spectrum — just like you got your violas and your violins and your cellos, etc — each of them occupy their own section, which comes through in the mix. You want the same thing for your actors, so every time you cast a new actor you basically have to recalibrate — you start to play clips from other actors and think, “Does he play well with them?”
So for McConaughey, for what that character was, we wanted a great actor; we wanted someone who is warm and engaging — but also has bluster and bravado — but ultimately had this really warm, beautiful, earthy quality and can play vulnerable and sensitive. With Matthew, going back three years, when he was cast in the movie, we’d seen Mud and Killer Joe and especially Dallas Buyers Club, where he showcases incredible range of performance. That’s exactly the kind of thing we wanted in our movie, so we reached out to him — and of course we’re just a dinky little operation in the armpit of the Pacific Northwest — we reach out to him to see if he’s remotely interested in our film, because he has all the options in the world in what he can be involved in. But it resonated with him in a meaningful way, and I think it’s because of some of the core elements of family. In fact, he read the script to his children in chapters as a bedtime story, which was really meaningful for us.
So yeah, with a director and an actor, you’re collaborating and trying to bring life to the character in the best possible way. So you capture the scenes in as many number of variations possible, because often times you’re recording the actors not together; you don’t always have them together. So you don’t always know what the other actor is going to do, so you have to get a lot of variations to the scene. It can be a weird process for an actor, but I think all of our actors were game and I think they all gave amazing performances.
What drew you to the film’s story, where you’re opening with a fable, and then Kubo kind of recreates the fable in the town square, and then there’s a lot of talk about mythology and fables, and then the film itself can kind of be a fable that will live forever? And can you talk about that sort of nesting-doll structure?
So we started developing about five years ago — when we were knee-deep in the production of Paranorman — and the original idea for the movie sprang from the fertile mind of our brilliant character designer, Shannon Tindle, and, even at its most raw state, there was something really exciting about it. You know, the idea of making a sweeping, stop-motion Samurai epic was just a cool concept, and it spoke to me on a number of different levels. When I was growing up, I was into enormous fantasy epics: I absolutely loved Tolkien, I loved Star Wars, I loved Greek and Norse mythology, I loved L. Frank Baum, and manga comic books like Lone Wolf and Club; I love the films of Spielberg and Kurosawa and Harryhausen.
So with Kubo, it was as if we had a blank canvas with which we could paint in those same colors, with which we could aspire to that epic pantheon of fantasy — that was at the core. When you follow a typical Joseph Campbellian Hero’s Quest structure, it’s a pretty well-trod path, but it’s a very solid foundation which you can use as architecture, for which you can layer on ideas and personal experiences and personal stories, and you can then give the film resonance and meaning. By following that structure, I think it allows us to do a lot of different things within this fairly well-known archetype of story. I’m incredibly proud of the way it all came together.
The timing of the film is interesting. Last year, Studio Ghibli did their last full-fledged feature — for the time being, at least — and this film… I don’t want to say it takes up the mantle, but if someone wanted to see a movie that had some similar qualities I would direct them to Kubo, with the magical realism and sense of adventure and escapism. As a director, obviously you didn’t know Studio Ghibli might not be making movies anymore, but how does it feel to have a film that has some of those qualities that obviously people are very interested in?
Well, I refuse to believe that Ghibli’s not going to make films anymore. I refuse it. Yeah, I mean, you can probably see in the film what enormous influence Miyazaki’s had on us as artists. So, for us, for our film to be spoken in the same breath as Ghibli is an incredible honor. I do think that we are kindred spirits. When I look at the kind of stories that Ghibli is drawn to — the kind of films that they make and the things that we do as well — it does feel to me like we have the same sorts of obsessions and fascinations, and interest in exploring different aspects of the human condition.
So that’s always been a part of what we do, to tell meaningful stories that are resonant and thought-provoking, that speak to something thematically and hopefully take the medium to places it hasn’t been before — and do it in a visually stunning way. That is, of course, something we’ve seen in all the Studio Ghibli films. Again, I refuse to believe they’re done, but we’re very happy if we can, in some small way, carry on that tradition that we’ve been inspired by with Miyazaki’s work. It’s a great honor for us.
Kubo and the Two Strings opens on Friday, August 19.