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Travis Knight Interview: ‘Transforming’ from Animator to Live Action Director

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Before the UK cinema release of Bumblebee, the prequel to the Transformer film franchise, and the first live action version not to be directed by Michael Bay, we sat down for a casual chat with the film’s director Travis Knight.

Animation and stop motion fans will know Knight more from his role at LAIKA as animator, director and producer; with his first directorial role coming in 2016 with Kubo and the Two Strings. Knight discusses his ‘transformation’ to live action film (excuse the pun), working with CGI verses stop-motion, and his thoughts on the use of stereoscopic 3D going forward. Interview by Johannes Wolters.

As a  former animator….

Former nothing! You are never a former animator. One is always an animator.

So you will never from now on see yourself as a big director, a big producer? You will always see yourself as an animator?

Oh, yeah. First and foremost – that is, how it began! It is in my blood, and I will always animate. Until my hands do not work anymore. (looking at his hands) They are still pretty nimble!

Good to see that! There is not a lot of spontaneity when creating stop motion films; I admire your patience in doing this. But now with Bumblebee you had characters on the set that actually walked and talked on their own. That must have been quite interesting for you?

Yeah, you know it is funny, the process is very different in a lot of ways but there are a lot of analogs from one system to the next. The way we create a stop motion film, a lot of the departments, a lot of the processes are replicated in live action. Of course, with stop motion it is moving in a much slower pace and is much smaller. But yes, actors can talk back, they are not just samples of silicon and steel, but there is actually a fair amount of spontaneity in stop motion. I think there is a little bit of misunderstanding due to the process. Because you have to be incredibly disciplined and thoughtful on how you lay all this stuff out, you cannot just make stuff up as you go. So, an animator has to bring discipline to their work but, as you are creating, as you are making something, you always run into a  problem. And you have to be able to shift gears on the fly. And so there is – and in stop motion specifically -a kind of improvisational quality to the work as you’re creating it. But this is nothing compared to what we have in live action because you are dealing with different personalities and people’s moods…

Are the Eighties now a kind of paradise for us? The best place to have had a childhood?

Yes, it is funny but I think it is natural. I think you are seeing people who grew up in that era and are now at a point in their careers where they can tell stories. And so often at times you go back to the things that you did love and did have an obsession for when you were growing up. We have a lot of filmmakers now, who are making films that were inspired by things from the 80s; from their own childhood. In an another decade, stuff will be set in the 90s. I think this is just a natural thing where filmmakers go back to where they first fell in love with different kinds of art or were obsessed about specific kinds of music or story. And it becomes a part of us. I mean, I think that those things that we deeply love become a part of who we are.

A quick question towards terminology… Until now you have made stop motion films that are heavily enhanced by CGI; some form of hybrid, which has no name. Now you have made a so called live action movie heavily enhanced by CGI…

It is a different kind of hybrid!

Is it?

It is… Stop motion, which is effectively the animation equivalent for live action mixed with CGI, is what I have previously done. On this film it was live action mixed with CG and a little bit 2D as well. It is kind of playing with this similar sandbox but the big difference here was live action being a part of the thing.

You are coming from stop motion; was it difficult to adapt to the world of CG?

No, I have animated in CG before. I have animated in stop motion, in hand-drawn animation, and in CG, so I am familiar with all these processes. I worked for years in commercials doing both; stop motion commercials and CG commercials. I have done visual effects and I worked with CG teams for the better part of sixteen years. So there was no learning curve at all.

However, it is very physical to work with stop motion, while it is very different  to sit in front of a screen working with CG characters. Is there a difference for you working in those different fields?

Oh, certainly. There is an immediacy to stop motion that you do not really get in CG. When you are on set, playing with your puppet, playing back your scene, seeing how you manipulated the object, how it is playing; everything is lit, everything is ”rendered”, everything is beautifully done in that moment… so when you have captured the frame, that is the frame that is going into the movie.

With CG there are so many iterations from the very first pass; when it is very clunky looking or when there are splines all over the place… Then you have a refinement pass, and you start to hone the performance – so it is iterative. Whereas in stop motion it is progressive.

With CG you go through  a cycle and then you go through another cycle and you give notes and another… so it is a very different process. You can still arrive at a great place. And I am proud that I worked with it. Even then, once you have locked down the animation performance, you are lighting it, complying textures and compositing it all together. You do not really know how it all is going to look until the very, very end. Whereas in stop motion as soon as you capture the frame and the shot is done you know exactly how it is going to look. It is a different way of approaching things.

Fundamentally it is really the same. It is about the performance.

Would it have been possible to do the film with modern stop motion techniques?

That would never have been a possibility – I would be still making the film now. It is such a slower process.

How was it working with your executive producer; Steven Spielberg?

It was a dream come true on a lot of levels. He was so inspirational to me. The first film that moved me to tears as a kid was E.T. I saw it with my mom in the theater when I was eight years old and I remember being this blubbering weeping mess by the end of the movie. I had never experienced anything like that before. It really made me realize at a pretty young age the power of the thing we do. To tap into something that we maybe do not know was in there.

So he was the guy that made me think about that. When I first met him he mentioned how he had watched “Kubo” with his grandchildren, and when they came to the end of the movie he said he wanted to give the movie a great big hug. I remember how in that moment my spine had liquefied when I heard how he had enjoyed my movie. It has been a real thrill to be a part of one of his films.

In terms of the spirit [of Bumblebee], that was the feeling that I was trying to evoke with that movie; those great classic ‘coming-of-age’ Amblin films from the 80s which to me always evoked wonder, laughter and tears.

Do you know why they reached out to you to direct the movie?

It is an interesting question. On some level you would have to ask the powerhouse of Paramount why they wanted to work with me. All I known is that at some point they reached out to me and said they wanted to talk with me about a new Transformers film, and I was like “You got to be kidding me! Me? That is not going to happen!”

Why do they want me to direct a Transformers film. Michael Bay is a very, very different filmmaker then I am.

Who had the idea to reach to out to you?

It is a great question; one I will probably never have an answer to.

I think that the short answer is probably that the producers at Paramount had seen “Kubo“ and saw something in it that they felt was interesting and showed a certain familiarity with visual effects, complicated visuals and action, as well as emotion.

So, when we started talking, for me it was like “Okay, if you want to meet to make a movie in the Transformers world, this is the kind of movie I make”, and I explained very clearly my philosophy behind it, but I think that “Kubo” and my experience at LAIKA was one of the things that gave them confidence that I could pull it off.

Is there a lot of pressure in making those films?

Yeah, of course; these are big films. I do not know if I would use the word ‘fight’ but definitely you have to have a point of view and be forceful about what that is.

One of the great little bits of advise that I got from Michael Bay early on – we sat down, and I tried to pick his brain on his philosophy and how he approached these things which I thought was very interesting and informative – but he said “Look! There are a lot of players involved in a movie like this and you have to protect the movie.” Those three words -“protect the movie.”

There is all kinds of noises, all kind of chaos, all kind of pressures, all kind of things that are pulling you in all kind of directions, but you have got to be the one person who is guiding this thing through all these stormy waters. The original idea that went into that movie, to my original pitch, the original idea, the emotional core of the movie. It was something I had to preserve. And I feel like I did it.

In the previous movies, the Transformers were sold to me through sound design. Here Bumblebee is a nice guy. What is the secret behind that?

As animators that´s what we do; we give life to something that has no life, that is just an idea. This means drawing from your own experiences, drawing from your own observations and thoughts and ideas as well as those of others, to make him a really believable character.

When I was with the animators I was talking about the clarity of it: “This is what he is feeling in this moment… This is what he is thinking in this moment…” And I would leave a lot of the physical things to the animators. When that did not go right, I said” No, that isn’t what I want!”, and then I get up and act things out like you do; feeling like a complete buffoon.

For me Bumblebee, and all the other robots, are not awesome special effects; they are characters. The animators were actors. One of the things I am most proud of in the film is that Bumblebee is as much an actor as Hailee Steinfeld is in this movie. They have a beautiful relationship. You believe that he exists.

 And you have so little to work with. The eyes,  the eyebrows…

This is very interesting that you mention that because early on in the process, when we were designing the characters, I talked about what kind of performance I wanted from the robot and their instincts were just to add more details to the head, and moving parts.

I looked at the first pass, after I had given notes, and said: “No, no, this is going in the wrong direction. You have to simplify. It is not about adding details, but making the details that are there mean something. Strip it down. Simplify!”

So it really came down to a couple of brows, eyelids, a little bit of muscle action. That was it. And making his antennas move. So the expression is mostly in the eyes. Which is where people are looking anyway when they try to figure out emotion. They have done studies, people focus right in on the eyes. So we enlarged his eyes, we made his pupils bigger; more expressive. This is the most expressive part of his body.

How was the transition from working as an animator for a director, to now being a director?

Throughout my career I have been wearing multiple hats. So I see myself to this day first and foremost as an animator. But over the course of my career I have done many, many things; I worked in development, overseen different crews, produced films, run a company, and I have directed films.

I always felt like when I was working for a director that we always had a great collaborative relationship. As a director, working in animation, you have to treat your animators as if they are actors… because they are. They are bringing the physical performance. Just the same way that a live action actor would make choices to try to evoke an emotion or feeling… animators just have to do that over a long period of time.

So when I made the switch to director, I wanted to make sure that I gave the animators the tools they needed to bring the scene to life. And nothing else. This is what it is important and then let them do the magic. This is a similar thing with actors; you want to give your collaborators just enough information so they can bring something of themselves to it. There is the old saying that directing is 90% casting. And I think there is a lot of truth in that.

When you can find collaborators and you are all rowing in the same direction and they are all bringing parts of their own experiences, that is the beauty of film. It is like all these different people with different backgrounds focusing on one goal to try to bring life to something that does not exist. And if it works, I really think this is magic.

What about the stereoscopic aspect of the movie?

We shot on Alexa cameras, and we had an incredible Oculus system. But we also wanted to make sure that the film felt like it could have been shot in the 80s. We used a series of lenses that were built in the sixties and seventies because that would have been what it would been shot with.

In my previous films, when I did stereoscopic photography it was all native. We would shoot left eye and we have those little micro-movers which take the cameras slightly over to take the right eye. And that would be your perfect stereo image.

That was not practical on something like this. So it was a post-conversion process.

One of the great things about all these different tools we have at play – like lens choice or light or color or music – you can use these tools to evoke a feeling or an emotion. And 3D [stereoscopic] used in the right way can do that beautifully. I think that we have seen historically, that as an industry we have cannibalised that tool and made it worthless.

I can´t understand this; they should be able to learn this grammar…

It is tricky. When we made Coraline we realized that we could actually use this tool to get the audience in the emotional space of our main character. Sort of like in the “Wizard of OZ”, when Dorothy goes to Oz and we go from the sepia tone world to Oz, where everything is bright and full of colour… We tried to find the modern equivalent of that and we used 3D [stereoscopic]. In her [Caroline] world, it is compressed – she feels claustrophobic and shut in, so we kind of flattened the world. Then when she goes into this new world and her life opens up, then we have space, we have freedom, we have oxygen. You can breath. And the audience can feel that emotionally. Even if they can’t quite figure out why it feels different… using 3D to enhance that feeling.

It is hard to understand that other filmmaker do not use that tool like you do? Is it difficult to learn?

I think they do not understand it, and I think they do not care. There is a lot of different things at play – 3D can be used beautifully to great emotional effect. I think some filmmakers understand that; people like Ang Lee, and James Cameron. There are others too.  But at LAIKA, because we shot everything natively from the beginning, we tried to find an emotional reason to use this tool and when we can find that hook, we can more effectively tell a story!

Bumblebee is currently showing at UK cinemas throughout January 2019.

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