As the president and CEO of Laika, the animation studio who wowed audiences with its adaptation (directed by Henry Selick) of Neil Gaiman's Coraline, one might expect to find Travis Knight sitting behind a desk or in power lunch meetings with business partners. While Knight may do some of that, a good chuck of his day is spent alone on a studio set moving and photographing plastic puppets, one grueling frame at a time. For Knight served as lead animator on Coraline, and is doing so again with Laika's follow-up macabre stop-motion epic, ParaNorman. I recently joined a group of journalists in meeting Knight at Laika's Portland headquarters, where he was in the midst of animating one of the film's many labor-intensive scenes. Find out what he had to say about ParaNorman, and check out some exclusive behind-the-scenes images, after the jump.
What it is about ParaNorman that made you want to be hands on?
It's that I kind of can't not be. I was an artist long before I was involved in the business aspect of it, and one of the things, as I increasingly took on more responsibilities for the business, it was important for me not to lose that direct connection with the creativity of the work. This particular story, it really spoke to me, and I think it has great resonance with the crew here. Because I think the story of ParaNorman is, in large measure, the story of the people who are making it. It's a story of outsiders, of people who are kind of marginalized for what they are and what they represent. But also at the same time these people have extraordinary gifts. That's the center of the story of Norman, and it's true of this crew here. There's a bunch of strange people in this building, who are kind of on the fringes of society, but they are amazingly talented people, and have extraordinary gifts, and when they share [them] with the world it really does enrich those around them. Because of that core of the story, it was something that I absolutely had to be involved in. Plus, what's better than stop-motion zombies? [Laughs.]
Everyone at Laika seems to acknowledge that everyone else here is weird.
Yeah, we all found each other. A little land of misfit toys here. But I think you kind of have to be. Look at what we do all day long – it's a very strange way to spend your day. But it's an amazing group of people who are capable of doing extraordinary things.
ParaNorman is different than Coraline, but similar in that it's a fantastic kids' story. Going forward, do you see yourselves continuing to do that specific type of film or branching out?
Visually, I think we certainly don't want a house style. We don't want each film to look like something we've done before, or anything else out there. But you can see this film really doesn't look like Coraline. Also, because of the content and the tones of the films we do, we are looking for a variety of different sorts of things. We don't want to do any one thing. This film does share some of the same DNA of Coraline. But I think the main thing they have in common, that comes into play in all the things we do, is that we're just looking for really powerful stories with emotional resonance. We do want to tap into the zeitgeist, we do want to be in tune with the spirit of the times, but we don't want to make little pop-culture ephemera, or little confections, that sort of thing. So ParaNorman, like Coraline, has something meaningful to say. It's dark and intense where it needs to be, and it's light and playful and fun where it needs to be. I think those are definitely things you can see in the two films, and things you would see in anything we do moving forward. We don't shy away from darker, intense material where it's appropriate for the story. I think most stories can actually benefit from some level of that. Because it just heightens the experience for the audience. It just gives them greater dynamism and storytelling. So in a long-winded way of answering your question [laughs], hopefully no Laika film feels like any other Laika film, but there will be some sort of a thread that goes through them.
Above: A mechanical face, and the silicone visage that goes over it, for a character in ParaNorman. Courtesy of LAIKA, Inc.
As an animator, can you talk about the tone of the performances in this film and how they may differ from other stop-motion films we've seen?
Sure. It took a little while to figure out what the animation style was going to be for this film. But it's all rooted basically in the same thing, the kind of story that we're telling, and how we approach the design, the art, the camera work, the set building, the materials. It's all what we call a "skewed naturalism." Coraline was more theatrical, and so the performances tended to go in that direction. But this film requires something different. It required more verisimilitude. So as we approach the animation, it's important that we capture that. We don't go for posy stuff. We don't go for real theatrical stuff. They actually feel like real people, real characters. That's not to say that we're trying to mimic reality, it's just very well-observed animation. It takes little personality tics, things that people do, and incorporates that in a stylized way into the animation. It's very difficult animation to pull off in stop-motion, but I do think it gives it a feeling, a vibe, that's different really from any stop-motion film you've ever seen.
What sequences in particular did you enjoy working on the most?
I don't know if enjoy's the right word. [Laughs.] I started off on the film doing a very somber melancholy scene, acting heavy: Norman kind of interacting with his buddy Neil in his bedroom, and the grandma; and they have a sweet moment together. Then I went from that right into this high-energy action thing with these zombies bursting from the ground. That was quite a shift in terms of the animation. I won't say it was fun, but it was an interesting new challenge. Part of the thing with that one was just the environmental problems. We had to have earth erupting. We had to have debris and bits of dirt flying in the air. Oh my God was it a pain in the ass. At one point we'd talked about doing elements of that in CG, and I said, "No, no, no. We're gonna do that practically." Then when I was out there stabbing my fingers with bug pins and scraping my hands bloody with wires, I was like, "Why the hell did I agree to this?"
But in the end I think when you watch that sequence, because it was all done practically in camera, it has a certain feeling that we couldn't have captured in CG. It has a veracity to it. Now at the end of the film, my last sequence kind of goes back to where I started. It's a really kind of delicate, subtle moment between two characters. So in the film I've come full circle in terms of the animation I've done on it. It's a nice way to go out.
Yet you have incorporated CG in a bigger way than ever before.
Yeah. I think one of the things that makes what we do here somewhat unique is we use whatever tool makes the most sense for the process. At the core, both Coraline and ParaNorman are stop-motion films, but increasingly we're integrating other things into it. We're adding CG effects where appropriate, we're even adding 2D effects and hand-drawn stuff into different elements. So it's whatever tool makes the most sense. We're not purists in the sense that everything has to be done in camera. But we tend to go that way because it just has a certain vibe and a flavor. But if there's something we can do in visual effects or CG or hand-drawn animation that does the job better, we'll use that. So it really is a combination of all different forms of animation entwining with each other. And it just has a different sort of feeling I think.
Above: Final manicuring of a zombie hand before it goes onto the puppet itself for ParaNorman. Courtesy of LAIKA, Inc.
Where do you see stop-motion going over the next few years?
It's a good question. This group of people will continue to challenge the medium to evolve, to push on the edges of what it's been. We saw that with Coraline by integrating different bits of technology into the process. That gave us something that we haven't seen before. And on this film we push our crews even harder to come up with new ways to innovate. And you can see just in that short period of time, that handful of years from Coraline to this one, it's kind of a seismic shift in how we're making this film. I don't know where it's going to go, but I know that that is a primary thing with this group of people. We're constantly trying to strive, to innovate, to come up with new ways to do things, and to in some way demonstrate that this medium of stop-motion can be much more than it's been defined as. It's not this kind of creaky, anachronistic way of making films. It actually is a very vital art form that can do wonderful things when put it in the right kind of creative, artistic hands. I don't know. I think a handful of years from now, a few films down the road, it'll be quite a bit different; and this will look like a creaky dinosaur.
Were you a big horror or monster fan as a kid? And did that help inspire your work on this film?
Oh yeah, absolutely. That's one of the things that appealed to me right away, this idea of these George Romero-esque shambling ghouls done in a Ray Harryhausen style – what a cool thing that could be. In so many ways, in a sad way, this film taps into my childhood. In that it's just this wonderful combination of schlocky horror films merged with kind of this John Hughesian, coming-of-age, heartfelt comedy. And a big Amblin-style adventure. It's the kind of film that so many of us loved growing up, and the kind of film that people just don't make anymore. This is kind of a nod and homage to those sorts of films.