Amon Warmann chats with director Travis Knight about Kubo and the Two Strings…
For many Kubo and the Two Strings was the cream of the crop of very good animated movies in 2016. Arguably the most ambitious project yet from Laika studios, it’s a film that is by turns thrilling and moving, and it’s all bolstered by a fantastic score from Dario Marianelli.
Ahead of the film’s DVD and Blu-ray release, I caught up with Kubo’s director Travis Knight – who is also President of the stop-motion animation studio – to talk about the challenges he and his team faced in making the movie and how the themes of Laika’s latest are personal for him. We also discuss the studio’s voice casting process, including the controversial issue of casting white actors to play Asian characters. Have a read below…
It’s been a few months since the movie was released in cinemas. You must be pretty pleased with the reaction it got.
I loved every aspect of making this movie. It took us five years to make this film, so it really requires so much time and passion and commitment. It really is a labour of love, people pour their heart and soul into these movies. But we make these films in a little insular bubble. We have an animation studio outside of Portland, Oregon, and as we’re developing this film we have virtually no contact with the outside world. We don’t do test screenings, we don’t do focus groups… So when you see the movie come out there’s a purity to the filmmaking that really represents the vision of the filmmakers behind it.
So going into release we had no idea how people were going to respond to it. The really heartening thing to me is how well people have responded around the world, how much it moves them. As storytellers you’re ultimately trying to connect with people. What films meant for me when I was a kid, I watched a movie it really kindled my imagination. Some of them inspired you to dream, and some reminded us of how we’re all connected. That’s what we were trying to do with this film, and to have some degree of success with that is really heartwarming.
You begin the movie with a great “If you must blink, do it now” that immediately gets the audience’s attention. I’ve been to a lot of family screenings in the past that kids always talk through, but every child was silent for the entire movie.
The way we make films is slightly different to the way other animation studios make films. So much animation is hyper-kinetic – it’s sound and retina-burning colour – and we wanted this film to have a classical feel. We wanted it to be sincere, and thought-provoking, and emotionally resonant. There’s a sincerity and an honesty to the filmmaking behind it and kids pick up on that. It’s not just a bunch of pop culture jokes and fart jokes and pop songs; it’s something that’s about something and it captures the audience’s attention. That’s the intended effect and the fact that it had that effect is nice to hear.
Kubo goes through a lot of adversity in the film and that plays a big part in the decisions he makes in the final act. What adversity did you encounter making this film and how did it change the final film?
Making this movie was incredibly difficult. When we started developing the film five years ago Laika had never done a big sweeping epic fantasy before, and for good reason – it turns out it’s really, really hard! So there were so many different things in this movie that we just didn’t know how to do, and we knew we were going to have to invent technology and new processes that we’d never employed before. That’s slightly terrifying as filmmakers because we’re in this uncharted territory. We had these monsters, we had the incredible storms and sea, and we had a visual aesthetic that was really unlike anything we’ve done before where you’re trying to root the stylisation of the film in Japanese woodblock prints… There were a lot of different challenges along the way.
The inspiring thing for me just leading this team was to see how much people rallied and figured out these problems. It gave me the confidence moving forward that this crew can tell pretty much any kind of story, and in the years to come you will see that type of confidence come out in the films we make. It’s opened up a whole new world for us. The other challenge was how to make these characters feel alive, and to capture the emotion of the story they need to be really nuanced and subtle and expressive in the animation. When you have these big sausage fingers and you’re trying to make these nine-inch puppets come to life, it’s challenging. But I’m really proud of the way it all came together.
One of the hardest things for me though was just being open. As a filmmaker if you’re telling a story like this and you want it to have emotional resonance, you have to be willing to go into those parts of yourself that you typically try and keep protected. If you expose things that you believe and experienced, it makes you vulnerable. Because of the rich emotional vein that we try and tap in this movie, I knew that I was going to have to dive into my personal experiences that I don’t typically like to talk about – things that I’ve experienced with my family, and losing people close to me – that in order for the film to have that kind of intimacy and personal resonance, we need to be explicit with it.
Typically an animated film has 1 or 2 key themes, but it feels like Kubo has around 4 or 5; it’s about storytelling, it’s about legacy, it’s about the power of memories, it’s about honouring your parents. When did it click that you could fit all these threads into one film?
We try to make films for all members of the family, from the little kids to tweens to teenagers to young adults to parents to grandparents. So you want to have stories and narratives that are richly layered and have a lot of different degrees. Kids can experience it on one level as just a fun action-adventure story, but hopeful for a more cerebral audience there are layers in there that hopefully they can see parts of themselves as well. You have the core theme which gets to this notion of personal loss and how we respond to that. It’s also about healing and how you can come through the other side of a traumatising experience through the love of the people you have around you, and how we carry family with us even if they’re no longer physically with us.
There’s a lot of different themes at play but for me it all comes down to what’s at the core. For me it was a love story about a boy and his mother, and that was the thing that saw me through every single thing. There are things that we layer on top of that but at the core, that’s what it’s about. That’s something that really resonated with me because that was the most important relationship in my life. Always having that North Star with the promise you’ll never drift too far away from it is important, but I think for dynamic filmmaking you can find ways to layer other ideas on it.
Let’s talk a little bit about the voice work, which is uniformly fantastic. How did you arrive at Charlize Theron and Matt McConnaughey, both of whom had never done animation work before?
Anytime you go out to an actor you just hope they’ll be interested in making the movie, and we were really blessed with the type of actors we had in this film. The process of casting an animation, is different than the live action. There’s two parts to a performance – the one you see, and the one you hear. In live action those things are bound together but in animation they’re separate. For animation you want someone with a really rich dynamic and someone whose voice can convey the full range of emotion. The way we cast is that we’d pull clips from films the actors had done and interviews that they’ve given, and then we’d take the audio from that and put that up with the designs of our characters, and we’d ask ourselves if that voice sounds right coming out of that character. Once you start to narrow that down we’d essentially try to assemble the equivalent of an orchestra where every voice conveys something. Either they work harmoniously together or if they’re conflicting that they smash into one another in a way that’s discordant. Every voice is so critical.
We were fortunate that the actors were interested. I think they saw in this story the same things that we saw as filmmakers – it’s a beautiful story about family and it’s something they can share with their families – and of course they gave amazing performances.
Was casting white actors to play Asian characters ever a concern?
It is a consideration – it’s one of the dimensions that we evaluate these films on – but the fundamental thing we’re trying to capture is a beautiful vocal performance. It is one of those things that we consider, and certainly when you look at the entirety of the vocal cast we have actors from all over the world and I’m very proud of that. Those different experiences make for better performances. If you look across all of our films, we try to cast actors based on their voice – we’ve cast actors of colour playing white characters and sometimes that goes the other way around too – and it’s really all in an effort to have these characters come into light in the best way. So while it’s a consideration, it’s not the dominant factor.
Many thanks to Travis Knight for taking the time for this interview.
Kubo and the Two Strings is available on DVD and Blu-ray now.