How LAIKA is Revolutionizing Animation
Since LAIKA founded in 2003, the Portland-based animation company has married stop-motion animation with computer-generated wizardry to produce two of the celebrated animated films of the past decade, “Coraline” and “ParaNorman.” The studio is back this Friday with their third and most ambitious effort to date, “The Boxtrolls,” a 3-D wonder based on the book “Here Be Monsters!” by Alan Snow. The family-friendly tale centers on a group of misunderstood, sewer-dwelling monsters and their efforts to co-exist with the rich town folk that live above them.

READ MORE: Immersed in Movies: The Long and Winding Road for ‘The Boxtrolls’

Indiewire spoke with LAIKA’s President and CEO Travis Knight (who also works as a head animator) about the company’s stellar run and the current state of feature film animation. Focus Features opens “The Boxtrolls” in theaters this Friday.

Given your track record it’s clear your company is extremely selective about what it chooses to take on. What about “The Boxtrolls” spoke to you? 

This one goes back to our infancy. We have been around for nearly ten years and the first project that we took on that we started to develop into a feature film was Neil Gaiman’s “Coraline” and the second project that we were developing was Alan Snow’s “Here Be Monsters.” So I read that book nearly ten years ago — I think it was in manuscript form at the time — and I absolutely fell in love with it. I thought it was this magical book that had whispers of some of the great juvenile literature from when I was a kid, things like Charles Dickens, and Roald Dahl. It had a really twisted absurdist sense of humor, like you would find in Monty Python sketch, and so many unusual anachronistic things within its interesting weird characters. The whole thing is just really weird and I thought that if we could crack it, if we could somehow find a way to transform this 500-some-odd-paged book into a 90 minute film story, that we would have something really special.

That was nearly ten years ago (laughs). It took us nearly that long to get to where we are. Adapting a book like that to try to find a film story is often an exercise in ruthless economy. It’s like stripping everything out that is unnecessary to get to the core story that you’re trying to tell and then finding ways to layer things back in. So there that, and then there’s things of invention. So there’s a whole series of things that we had to leave find to make this film that came from the book, and then there were a host of things that we invented and added to it because it helped fill out the film story that we were trying to tell.

It’s just a really beautiful story, but it was a different kind of thing than what we had done in the past and I think that’s very important for the evolution of our studio — that we make films that are bold, distinctive, and enduring but that are not repeatings themselves, that are doing something interesting to show that we are challenging ourselves every time. This is a kind of story that did exactly that, it was nothing like what we did before. 

The sense of humor found in so many animated films nowadays is self referential in an effort to appeal to the older set. The humor in “Boxtrolls” feels refreshingly old school — it’s broad and can be understood by all ages. Were you going for a timeless quality?

The comedy in this film was really tricky to get right because in a very simplistic way “The Boxtrolls” is an absurdist coming of age fable and so because it had an absurd quality to it, you want to make sure that that then doesn’t get in the way of the stakes and the emotional resonance. Because it you go too silly and too absurd, then it’s like nothing really matters and you don’t take anything seriously. Getting that balance is tricky, but also because of the era, themes, and subject matter that we are dealing with, we refused to rely on the easy gags, the pop culture references. It wasn’t appropriate for this kind of film. Those things are relatively easy to do. So coming up with a sense of humor and approach to the comedy that was consistent with the film and the ideas and the themes represented in the film, was a challenge. But I feel at the end, we came up with something that works really well, and it has its own unique flare and unique point of view on the comedy.

And yet despite the lack of pop culture references, the work your studio produces is among the most progressive animated films out there right now. “ParaNorman” featured a gay character and the female heroine in “Boxtrolls,” voiced by Elle Fanning, is one tough gal.

We don’t want to make films that are of the moment, we don’t want to make little pop culture confections. We want to make films that last, that are distinctive, that capture the zeitgeist but don’t in any way become these dated little artifacts. So that goes to trying to find an approach to an adoring timeless storytelling that we try to bring with everything we do. But at the same time we are driven by things that matter to us, we don’t want to make things that are little trifles, we want to make things that are keenly felt, that are thought provoking, that are emotionally resonant, progressive as you said, and in some ways even just a wee bit subversive. Those are the kind of things that drive us, and so it’s been very important for us for every film that we’ve done to have strong female characters within them. If you can pick up on that with Elle’s character Winnie — that was not a character that was in the book, that was a character that we invented because we felt that it was something the story needed.

You devote a lot of your life to making these movies and you want to make something that matters. That’s what we try to do. 

All this discussion begs the question: what’s your current view on animation today? Do you keep up to date with the current animation field and if so, how do you feel about the state of the industry?

Before I was an animator and certainly before I was a guy who ran an animation company, I was a fan of animation. So I think it’s a mixed bag as a fan of animation in that animation has never been more popular than it is now, we’ve never seen more animated films produced than we do now, and yet there’s maddening generic sameness to so much of it that really doesn’t live up to the potential of the medium. There are so many wonderful stories and so many different kinds of genres that can be told using this incredible medium to such a powerful effect. I think generally in the film industry, we live in an era of reboots, remakes, sequels, and prequels where all these old presents are rewrapped and offered as new gifts. I think that there can be a short term gain from that for obviously the corporate parents, but I think it ultimately does a disservice to film to not champion original voices, original films, new ideas that really try to push the medium beyond where its been before. Those are all things that we stand for, which is why as a rule I’m against us doing sequels unless we’re telling a big story, like a “Lord of the Rings”-type story which would have that. I really think that it’s important for animation filmmakers and filmmakers in general to champion new ideas and new voices and it’s frustrating for me as someone who loves animation to see that that’s not generally the feeling that people have within the industry.

Your films all make bank, but they’re by no means “Finding Nemo”-type successes. You must feel the pressure to go against your company’s mantra.

You certainly can feel that pressure. One of the reasons we can do what we do is that we keep our budgets as lean as we possibly can, every single dollar we spend on our films is seen up on screen, we do not waste, we do not have bureaucracy and so by doing that we are able to keep the threshold for success lower than you would typically expect to find on an animated film. But look it’s true, we still want our films to be enjoyable and appreciated as many people in the world as possible but we think our films have something meaningful things to say, we think they offer connectivity for families and we would love for them to see that that. It’s a challenge, but what’s more difficult is to live up to our ideals which is to make these original films.

You don’t hear of many CEOs who also sideline as an animator. What makes you makes you not give up your side job? I’m sure you’re busy with your day one.

Again it goes back to the core of what we as a company stand for and what I stand for personally. Before I was any of these things I was an artist and it’s important for me to never lose that direct connection with the work. That mentality and approach to filmmaking is something that filters through the entire company. Everybody from the production assistant all the way through to the CEO contributes as much as they can wherever they can wherever that might be. I think because of that, that helps give the company a spirit. Even though as maddening as it is to bring these things to life, it’s something that I can never imagine myself not doing.

READ MORE: ‘The Boxtrolls’ Reviews

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