"It’s a weird thing. No doubt about it."
Laika CEO Travis Knight could very well be referring to the studio’s new movie, ParaNorman, which opens nationwide on August 17. It’s a coming-of-age-zombie-comedy-adventure film shot in 3-D but using the most dated technique in Hollywood, stop-motion animation. It doesn’t get any weirder than that. But actually, Knight, 38, is talking about is his role on the movie. Or rather, his roles: president/CEO, producer, and lead animator.
When he wasn’t running the studio, based outside Portland, Knight was on the ParaNorman set, meticulously posing metal and plastic puppets. To create one second of action takes 24 individual frames (or shots); Knight, one of three lead animators on a team of 36 animators, made 15,000 frames himself–-almost 10 percent of the movie. "If I had 15 minutes free or an hour between a board meeting or marketing discussion, I’d run onto the set and animate 20 more frames," he says.
Imagine Howard Shultz insisting that he personally whip up Starbucks frappuccinos and lattes or Jeff Bezos packing boxes at an Amazon warehouse in addition to his, you know, other full-time job, CEO. That’s the duality Knight embraces and balances at Laika. "Creativity is messy and inefficient," he says. "But corporate governance needs to be tight and organized."
It is a weird thing, but at this point Knight can’t imagine working any other way. A few years ago, I wrote a story ("The Knights Tale") about how Nike founder Phil Knight, Travis’ father, had rescued the financially-troubled company, then Vinton Studios, where his son worked as a young animator. Travis was a dedicated artist with no designs on becoming an executive, much less a CEO. But after gaining control of the board, Phil made him a board member. Even as Travis jumped several rungs and became a studio executive, he didn’t give up his craft. The arrangement certainly worked on Laika’s first film: Coraline, was nominated for an Oscar; Knight was nominated for an Annie Award, animation’s top prize.
Oddly enough, Travis Knight credits his years working in stop-motion as the ideal preparation. Toiling away alone on a small curtained off set on his scenes–-pose, shoot a frame, pose, shoot and so on–-forced him to "see the minutiae and the big stuff." As an animator, he says, "you focus on one frame and then back up and see where it fits in the whole film." As CEO, when he backs up, he’s thinking about the whole company, about 350 people on each movie and 150 more on the administrative and commercial (ad) side year-round. He’s asking which movie ideas are worth the risk of the lengthy stop-motion production process. ParaNorman took three years, the shoot alone 18 months.
Coraline was a huge risk, especially for a studio debut. It was darker and more sophisticated than Hollywood’s typical animated fare—too scary for the preschool set—which narrowed its potential audience (see our Making-of-Coraline slideshow here). Despite being based on a popular Neil Gaiman novel, the project chilled distributors until Focus Features eventually signed on. ParaNorman, Laika’s second film, is even more daring. It’s an original script by a first-time writer (Coraline storyboard artist Chris Butler) with not one but two directors, neither of whom is named Henry Selick (who directed Coraline as well as The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach). No matter. Knight was won over by the story of a ghost-whispering young boy trying to save his town.
"I felt the same way I did when we decided to make Coraline," he says. "I was freaked out. Are we going to do this thing? But I think people can see what kind of company this is after we made Coraline. A company that marches to the beat of its own drum. We’re not trying to ape what everyone else did. We want to do new and original movies in a medium that was declared dead a generation ago."
A look inside Laika, narrated by Travis Knight.
Taking risks and embracing fear is not only integral to Knight’s philosophy and Laika corporate culture. It’s also a theme in ParaNorman. "There’s nothing wrong with being scared," a ghost tells Norman, the protagonist, "as long as you don’t let it change who you are." Off-screen, Knight puts it this way: "If I’m not worried about what we’re doing I should be worried. Because the safe and conventional thing is not what this company is about."
And when Knight is thrown by a business issue he hasn’t encountered before, he can always turn to his close advisor, his father, who’s Laika’s chairman. "Anything I’m confronted with that seems novel to me, I’ll start asking him and he’ll say, ‘That reminds of something that happened to me in ’76 or I dealt with that in ’95," says Knight. "It’s great having him as a resource and those different kinds of interactions are a great thing for our relationship."
Despite the success of Coraline—it cost $65 million and grossed $124 million, including $75 million in domestic box office—Laika has faced its share of challenges in recent years. Along with Selick, Claire Jennings, the president of the entertainment division left the studio. It scrapped a computer-animation feature that was in the works. Without a continuous pipeline of projects, Knight made a couple of rounds of layoffs. The goal remains releasing one movie a year—Pixar’s pace—and Knight expects Laika to get there within four years. Among the projects in development is Goblins, based on the Philip Reeve novel of the same name, with Mark Gustafson, the animation director on Fantastic Mr. Fox set to direct.
A steady pipeline would smooth out revenue at Laika, which relies on its profitable commercial production business between movies. It would also allow Knight to do more of what he loves. When he animates, it’s as though he’s acting through the puppets.
In ParaNorman, he’s responsible for the sequence in which zombies first rise out of the ground, which was so involved it took nearly a year to complete. "To get into that mode, I was listening to [Black] Sabbath to keep the energy up," Knight says. A quieter scene near the end that he animated was satisfying in a different sense. "It was super subtle, the heartfelt moment of the movie."
A satisfying payoff for the audience. That’s something both an animator and a CEO can appreciate.
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