Coraline Animator Travis Knight of LAIKA

The son of Nike founder Phil Knight, Travis Knight had already spent 10 years developing his skills as an animator at Vinton Studios before his father bought the struggling company and rebranded it as LAIKA. Once known for ‘claymation’ commercial and TV work, including the famous California Raisins spots, the company is now in the business of making feature films and is kicking off that effort with Coraline, a stop-motion adaptation of the young adult fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. On the film, Knight’s working as one of the lead animators under Anthony Scott.

After college, Knight was hired as a production assistant as Will Vinton and crew were gearing up to produce their first TV series, the clay-animated Eddie Murphy comedy The P.J.s. By the end of the first season, he was spending most of his time animating.

Animation Magazine Online: What was working on The P.J.s like?

Travis Knight: You had to crank through so many frames because we had these ridiculous quotas that just seemed completely onerous. The good and the bad thing was that we didn’t have the luxury to re-shoot a lot of stuff because of how quickly we had to churn this stuff out. You’d get your brief from the director and then you’d go. There weren’t pop-throughs or rehearsals or anything like that. You basically had to completely trust your instincts. You couldn’t second-guess everything but just really go for it. That’s really where I came into my own as an animator.

AMO: Working at Vinton allowed you to learn CG as well. Do you prefer one over the other?

TK: One of the exciting things for me about stop-motion is that it’s the only form of animation that’s dangerous on some level. It’s also spontaneous, if you can get past the fact that you’re working for hours on end on fractions of seconds. Little things occur while you’re out there, little accidents. To me, that’s where a lot of the magic happens. You find this weird symbiotic relationship with this little doll.

I hadn’t done any CG. That whole thing seemed very strange to me. Of course, I had seen Toy Story and the big CG-animated films of the time and was blown away, but I had no idea how it was done. The training was essentially, ‘Okay, here’s your chair, here’s your computer, here’s a commercial, now go.’ I was terrified. But unlike stop-motion, which is essentially you throwing yourself out there and there really is no redo unless you want to redo the whole thing, with CG you do have the luxury of tweaking, massaging, changing and that sort of thing. So it wasn’t nearly as scary as working in stop-motion.

AMO: So now you seamlessly move between stop-mo and CG?

TK: At first it certainly wasn’t seamless’it was awful! I did not want to work in CG. I had my first taste of it and wanted to go back to working in stop-motion. Stop-motion is so immediate’you grab a puppet and pose it. With CG, you have all these buttons and your mouse, and it’s 3D but it’s not really 3D. Eventually you get used to it and realize it has its merits.

I’d work on a stop-motion commercial’one month I’d do the NFL on Fox campaign’and within a handful of weeks I’d be working on some CG project. It was cool because I got a lot of experience doing different things in a short amount of time. Being out on the stage you’re contorting your body in all those weird positions, burning your hands on hot glue, scraping your fingers on these rods and walking home with backaches and bloody hands. After a while you just want to go sit at a desk. Then you go to your desk and do CG stuff and, of course, that gets tiring because you feel like you’re working on a spreadsheet or something.

AMO: We often hear from directors that animators who come from traditional backgrounds generally make better CG animators than those who learn animation on a computer.

TK: That’s certainly what I’ve seen. It helps knowing other forms. However, there was a long period when I worked on CG and didn’t do any stop-motion for what must have been two years. When I came back to it, I found that I had learned a lot just doing CG. The different mindset and the different ways you approach a shot now kind of informed how I worked in stop-motion. I found my stop-motion stuff had a different vitality to it and I was able to do better performances.

AMO: Are you doing Stop-mo and CG on Coraline?

TK: We were trying to figure out how best to do the two different worlds, kind of going for that Wizard of Oz-type moment where she goes into this whole new world and we were toying with the idea of having one side of the world be stop-motion and the other side CG. We did some tests and ultimately decided that this story is perhaps better suited to stop-motion. I’m glad we went that way. We were going to have some fairly extensive CG effects but again we decided this film would benefit from having a more hand-crafted look. There are obviously some digital elements in pretty much any stop-motion film you’ll see these days, but it’s almost entirely stop-motion.

AMO: Did your interest in animation lead to your father buying Vinton Studios?

TK: My involvement was certainly a driving force in his involvement, but the company was going through harsh financial times. After 9/11, the advertising market got hit really hard. And it came at a really bad time for Vinton Studios because our two TV shows, Gary & Mike and The P.J.s hadn’t been renewed, so that revenue dried up and we were relying solely on our advertising to keep the doors open. We struggled for a while and, ultimately, the company was in such dire straits that if we didn’t have someone basically step in and save it, it would have gone under and there would be no animation force in Portland, basically. So, with the ‘S’ cape, here comes my dad and saves the day. He got the company back on its feet with a new vision and a new focus on doing long-form feature entertainment versus TV and commercials.

AMO: Any drawbacks to being the boss’ son?

TK: It was sort of odd at first. It felt unusual. It was like these two different worlds were colliding. But because of his involvement, my involvement in the company has increased. I’ve been blessed with opportunities that I probably wouldn’t have had this early otherwise. My involvement on the board and on the corporate side has given me a different perspective, so no, there are no drawbacks. It’s been really wonderful.

AMO: Do you feel you have to prove yourself all the more as an animator?

TK: There’s always that, but, in my head, I proved myself before he’d taken over the company. I think people who worked here had a fair amount of respect for my abilities as an animator, so I wasn’t like some guy who just came in. You don’t want to feel like you’re getting a free ride, but there’s proving yourself in other ways, too. When Henry [Selick] first joined the company, the first project we worked on was [the short] Moongirl. That was fairly terrifying for me because he is an icon for a stop-motion animator. It was a thrill to work with him, but that was pressure. It was like, ‘Oh God, I have to prove myself to this guy who’s seen some of the best animation in the world.’ But that was in CG, so then to work on Coraline, I again had to prove myself and make sure that I earned his trust and belief in me. As the studio’s first major foray into features, Corpse Bride not withstanding, there’s a lot of pressure on a lot of levels to make sure this thing is as beautiful as can be.

AMO: Are you working on any personal projects as well?

TK: Any animator has ideas for films percolating somewhere in their head, but this really is a full-time job. I’m a lead on Coraline in addition to handling all these other corporate responsibilities I have, so it’s this funny dance of almost having this myopic focus of fractions of seconds and millimeters and then trying to have a broader, more global vision of where the company’s going, the sorts of films we make and the look of the films we make. I’m up very early in the morning and I’m here until very late into the evening, and at the end of the week, the only thing I want to do is spend time with my family.

Travis Knight is one of 12 ‘Rising Stars of Animation’ profiled in the June issue of Animation Magazine, available at Barnes and Noble and other booksellers.