After directing the “Transformers” standalone, Travis Knight is the first to admit that “Bumblebee” could’ve been made stop-motion at Laika and “Kubo and the Two Strings” could’ve been made live-action.
“As these things merge together, I don’t look at them as narrow bands,” Knight said. “I want to hit every genre and I’m excited by superhero possibilities [at Laika]. You can tell any story in this medium and do it in a beautiful way.”
But it was important for the Laika CEO/director/animation artist to try his hand at live-action to mature as a filmmaker. And “Bumblebee” provided the perfect opportunity. As a child of the ’80s, Knight grew up on “Transformers” toys and the animated series, and it was a great fit to make the Autobot origin story as his version of “E.T.,” the first movie that moved him to tears (with the support of executive producer Steven Spielberg).
Photo Credit: Jaimie Trueblood
“And on some level [‘E.T.’] was responsible for sending me on the path to becoming a filmmaker,” Knight said. “We could try and capture that elusive sense of wonder that you find with Amblin movies. But it’s tricky to pull off with newness and discovery in ‘Transformers.’ But Bumblebee was the perfect opportunity. He’s reborn, he has his voice and memory stripped away, he’s discovering the world, he’s discovering humanity.
“In all the iterations of ‘Transformers,’ Bumblebee is the one that’s had the most connection to people, the deepest affinity to humanity. That was never fully explored before. What it comes down to is his connection to this extraordinary girl [Hailee Steinfeld] that bonded him with humanity. A story about love and empathy and how a meaningful relationship can change the trajectory of your life and who you are.”
For Knight, transitioning from animation to live-action was both exhilarating and terrifying, but he enjoyed filtering the Laika experience to the “Transformers” franchise. “And I knew I was going to learn a bunch of new stuff, and have a whole new bag of tricks by the end of this process,” he added.
Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures
Yet for all of the challenges and pressures of tackling a Hollywood franchise for the first time, Knight was very much in his element making an ’80s rite of passage fantasy full of action, robots, cars, and rock’n’roll. Playing with Transformers, therefore, became an extension of playing with stop-motion puppets.
“Animation is a graphic distillation of a thought, an idea, or an emotion, so design becomes so critical in the silhouette and the color palette. And particularly with this I knew we were going to have a lot of kinetic action, so I wanted to make sure that when the robots are fighting each other, and the camera’s swirling around and you have all this energy, that you always knew exactly what you were looking at. And to treat it more like it was shot in 1987. With every choice, we made it feel like it was woven from the same threads of what was happening culturally in the ’80s.”
And so Knight impressed upon Industrial Light & Magic the importance of emphasizing emotion over spectacle, simplifying Bumblebee’s design, stripping him down, and streamlining his face to make him more expressive. “It was standard animation design stuff,” he said. “It evokes that primal experience. These are actually toys that I played with and now seeing them on the big screen was a big thrill.”
Yet while Knight was away, Laika had to function without him. “I sat down with my operational guys and key creative guys and figured out a way to work with this more limited availability,” Knight said. “I had to make sure Laika wouldn’t be damaged in the process or I wouldn’t have agreed to make ‘Bumblebee.'”
The highest priority was completing Laika’s fifth film, “Missing Link” (April 12, 2019, from Annapurna Pictures). Directed by “ParaNorman’s” Chris Butler, “Missing Link” centers on fearless explorer Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman) and his journey to Shangri-La with Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakas), a mild-mannered Yeti in search of acceptance and belonging.
“Part Jules Vern, part Indiana Jones, it’s gonna surprise people, and I’m excited about that because people have a sense in their mind of what a Laika movie is, and I don’t want us to be predictable,” Knight said. “It’s punchy, bright, colorful — a kaleidoscopic fever dream on some level.”
But after Knight’s “Bumblebee” adventure, he will continue alternating between directing animation and live-action (though definitely not “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3”). “The Marvel rumors are not serious,” he said. “I’m flattered and who knows what the future holds? But after nearly two years of being exposed to new techniques and new ways of making films, I’m going to funnel all that stuff into our process at Laika. That’s my baby and will always be a priority for me.”