Animator Travis Knight, best known for producing Coraline, pays homage to some of the great Japanese filmmakers, like Akira Kurosawa, in his directorial debut Kubo and the Two Strings from Laika Entertainment.
WBEZ Film Contributor Milos Stehlik of Facets Multimedia talks with Knight about the film which opens in theaters Friday.
This film is in some ways a very Japanese story. Can you tell us about that influence?
It’s heavily influenced by Japanese mythology and folktales. When I was around eight years old I tagged along with my dad on one of his business trips to Japan. From the moment I set foot in Japan it felt like I’d been transported to another world. It was just so beautiful and breathtaking — almost otherworldly. And it was the beginning of a lifelong love affair that I’ve had with this great and beautiful culture.
[The film] is a big epic fantasy. It’s evocative of Star Wars and Lord Of The Rings and the great films of Harryhausen and Akira Kurosawa. This film has offered us the opportunity to paint in those same colors to aspire to that pantheon of epic fantasy and it was really rewarding to get that on screen.
How does this appeal to American audiences, who might not know very much about Japanese culture?
I don’t think it presupposes any understanding or knowledge of Japanese folktales or mythology. Fundamentally, it’s a film that is about family. It’s a big action-adventure fantasy in the vein of Star Wars. So I don’t know that anyone needs to be aware of the inspirations, and it’s just something we don’t frequently get to see on the big screen. And I think there’s something about the spare poetry of the Japanese classic art aesthetic that’s really beautiful and really moving and when you see that on the screen it just really pops.
So it’s a story about family and a boy finding his ancestry…
He’s a boy who is the son of a goddess and the greatest samurai the land has ever known. But he has a mysterious past, and when he summons an evil spirit from that past, it rains down with destruction. He’s forced to go on the run. It becomes kind of this big epic quest story.
Along the way he meets this odd assortment of allies, including Monkey, which is this savage sword-wielding snow monkey voiced by Charlize Theron, and Beetle, a big brawny befuddled man-bug who may or may not be a samurai, voiced by Matthew McConaughey. And together they face off against near-impossible odds — gods and monsters — as Kubo tries to fulfill his destiny.
I think that most filmmakers do not see [3-D] as a storytelling tool; they see it as a gimmick. But we don’t use it to throw things in the face of the audience, we actually use it to immerse the audience.
One of the things you can do in film with color and lens choice and sound: you can bring the audience in and you can enhance the emotional experience. And I think used in the best way, 3-D can do that. And that’s the way we tried to use it in this film.
You were very happy running your own animation studio. Why did you suddenly decide to direct? Why not be an animator for Pixar?
Never! No, I love creating. I love making things with my hands. I love being an animator. But above all I really love telling stories — telling beautiful stories that bring people together with new and original ideas, which is a rarity in the world that we live in now which is dominated by franchises and brands and sequels and remakes and reboots and everything else. So the opportunity for us at Laika to tell new and original stories that analyze some different aspect of what it means to be human through this stylistic prism… it’s really exciting for us to do.
And this particular story really meant something to me personally. It was an opportunity for me to say something about family inspired by my own family. So I leapt at the chance and it was by far the most creatively satisfying experience of my entire life.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.