In 2004, when he was 29, Travis Knight learned in a phone call that his brother, Matthew, who was four years older, had died in a scuba diving accident in El Salvador. It was Travis' responsibility to find his parents — Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny Knight, who were out at a movie — and tell them.
"That was maybe the worst day of my entire life," said Knight, president and chief executive of the Oregon-based stop-motion animation studio Laika, reflecting on the loss in an interview in Los Angeles earlier this month. "My brother and I had unresolved things. I just wish I could have had one final conversation with him. I was intensely, profoundly angry at the unfairness of it all."
Twelve years later, Knight, now 41, has directed a film that grapples with some of these same issues, "Kubo and the Two Strings," which opened Friday. An epic set in a fantastical version of ancient Japan, the film follows a boy, Kubo, who is trying to locate a magical suit of armor that was worn by his late father.
"When Kubo responds to grief and loss and he's got rage and anger, that's real, that's what we feel," Knight said. "It took me a good long while before I could make peace with it myself."
Like each of Laika's three previous features — "Coraline," "ParaNorman" and "The Boxtrolls" — "Kubo and the Two Strings" feels wildly different from the broadly popular films made by larger animation studios. Knight declined to give a budget for "Kubo," but said that if you added all four of Laika's feature film budgets together, they would not add up to a major computer animated film at Disney or Pixar. He's also proud that Laika doesn't have a house style, although it would be fair to say that the studio's style is Knight's personal taste, a taste developed in a childhood spent largely alone, lost in art and buoyed by money. So far it's a formula that works for the studio; all three of its previous features earned Oscar nominations, and each grossed more than $100 million worldwide.
Written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, from an original story by Haimes and Shannon Tindle, "Kubo" is Knight's first film as a director, but the executive has been a hands-on figure at Laika since the studio's founding in 2005. He was a producer and animator on "Paranorman" and "The Boxtrolls," and a lead animator on "Coraline."
The "Kubo and the Two Strings" voice cast includes Art Parkinson ("Game of Thrones" actor Rickon Stark) as Kubo, Charlize Theron as a stern-talking monkey charged with keeping Kubo safe and Rooney Mara as a spooky pair of sisters who haunt him on his journey.
Much of the ideas and aesthetic of the film are informed by books and art Knight discovered through his parents. Growing up in Hillsboro, Ore., a suburb of Portland, Knight learned to love fantasy stories like those of J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and L. Frank Baum, thanks to his mother, an avid reader. At age 8, he visited Japan while accompanying his father on a business trip and came home with a backpack full of manga comics.
"I spent most of my time alone," Knight said of his childhood. "I made friends slowly when I made them at all. Most of my time I spent making things — writing stories, drawing, making music."
At the time, Phil Knight was building Nike into a retail giant, and often traveling for business.
"When you're growing up and you see a parent working so hard to build something … all these things come at a cost. ... As a kid you don't necessarily understand that. When I found animation, that's when I finally understood it."
Although he was developing an artistic sensibility as a child, Knight said he didn't see art as a career choice.
"I didn't know anybody who was a professional artist," Knight said. "I figured I'd have to be a proper grown-up and make a career for myself in finance."
Travis Knight's grandfather, a lawyer and newspaper publisher, had been skeptical of Phil Knight's plans to build a shoe company. And with his dad Phil building Nike into a retail giant when he was a child, Travis similarly blazed his own path, briefly trying rap music and getting a bachelor's degree in social science from Portland State University before settling in as an animator at Will Vinton Studios, where he worked on the TV show "The PJs" and some commercials.
"The Knight boys have a long tradition of disappointing their fathers," Knight said. "We have to follow our muse. One of the things my dad told me when I was growing up was 'Find your calling. Find what you're meant to do.' When I found animation I knew this was it. ... I feel so intensely about it. It was when I finally understood the passion and intensity my dad has for what he does."
Phil Knight's success has helped facilitate his son's. When Will Vinton Studios was struggling financially in the late 1990s, Phil Knight invested in it, ultimately becoming its majority shareholder. In 2005, after Will Vinton shut down, Laika was founded from its ashes , and it now employs 500 to 600 people at a time.
As an animator, Knight is known for his speed and focus. The painstaking, solitary task of moving puppets frame by frame on an animation stage suits his introverted temperament. Stop-motion is an artisanal filmmaking style, made famous by artists like Ray Harryhausen or in the 1960s Rankin Bass Christmas specials but rarely performed at the scale that Laika does it anymore (except at Britain-based Aardman Animations).
"He wants the animation to be subtle and emotional and he wants to do everything in a scene," said Arianne Sutner, who heads production at Laika. "Stop-motion animation is pretty physically demanding. You're on your feet. You're contorting your body in weird ways. It requires such focus. But it seems relaxing for him in a weird way."
For the first time since its founding, Laika had two movies in production at once during the making of "Kubo and the Two Strings" — the second film has not yet been announced.
"It was exhausting and exhilarating," Knight said, of directing his first film while running the studio. "It's weird because effectively I'm my own boss. I've always had one foot in each world. I've always been involved in the minutiae of creating art. At the same time you've got to have a global vision. You've got to look more broadly."
His vision for Laika has been to diverge from most major filmmaking trends. He doesn't test-screen films, make sequels or gravitate toward intellectual property with big built-in brand awareness. Those choices are possible because Laika's budgets are significantly lower than its major CG animation competitors', Knight said.
"When I became a father, I saw what passed for family entertainment," said Knight, whose children are 15, 13 and 3. "So much of it was vapid. I wanted to make things that mattered. I wanted to surprise people."
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