Travis Knight, di­rec­tor of Kubo And The Two Strings and CEO of Laika, on the in­spi­ra­tion be­hind his lat­est stop-mo­tion won­der



The idea was sim­ple, and it was ridicu­lously hard. The chal­lenge I set for the team was to do a stop­mo­tion David Lean film, a Kuro­saw­ian myth in minia­ture. On Kubo, we re­ally learned how to push the medium to its break­ing point, and then push be­yond it. Tolkien has been a north star for me since my mom tucked the Lord Of The

Rings se­ries into her hos­pi­tal bag when she was re­cov­er­ing from giv­ing birth to me. I have al­ways wanted Laika to tackle fan­tasy, grand ad­ven­tures and trans­port­ing jour­neys, so when Kubo And

The Two Strings came to us as an idea, it re­ally spoke to me and I felt we were fi­nally ready as a stu­dio to at­tempt the scale and scope.

The idea of mak­ing a small-scale film look like a large-scale epic that’s been shot on a sweep­ing, end­less vista was kind of ab­surd on the face of it, but we’ve got such a wide ar­ray of tech­niques — peo­ple who are cre­at­ing tech­nol­ogy and peo­ple who are do­ing things the way Ge­orges Méliès was do­ing [them] when he sent rock­ets to the moon. It’s that com­bi­na­tion of craft and tech­nol­ogy — we take the raw and the re­fined and we merge them.


In con­ceiv­ing and de­sign­ing the char­ac­ters of Mon­key and Bee­tle, we looked to an­i­mals in­dige­nous to Ja­pan. For Bee­tle, we drew from the Ja­panese rhi­noc­eros bee­tle, known na­tively as kab­u­to­mushi, which lit­er­ally means “hel­met bug”. The in­sect’s fea­tures re­sem­ble the head­gear worn by me­dieval sa­mu­rai. In Ja­pan, the rhi­noc­eros bee­tle is as­so­ci­ated with strength and fight­ing prow­ess. And in mytholo­gies and cul­tures around the world, the bee­tle is a sym­bol of trans­for­ma­tion and meta­mor­pho­sis. Since trans­for­ma­tion is a cen­tral theme of the film, this is an in­stance where the film’s the­matic core fused with de­sign for a per­fect nar­ra­tive syn­the­sis. We based the face de­sign of Kubo’s evil aun­ties, The Sis­ters, on clas­si­cal Ja­panese Noh the­atre masks. The Sis­ters’ masks have the tra­di­tional ‘neu­tral’ ex­pres­sion which worked well to cover the na­ture of their true char­ac­ters and lent it­self nicely to a spooky ef­fect wherein we hear them, but don’t see their lips mov­ing.


We delved into so much of the Ja­panese arts that we revere, but ended up re­turn­ing again and again to a 20th-cen­tury block-print artist named Kiyoshi Saito. He was trained in tra­di­tional Ja­panese block print­ing, but he was in­spired and highly in­flu­enced by other Euro­pean artists in­clud­ing the French Im­pres­sion­ists. Saito’s use of the nat­u­ral grain of the wood tex­ture in his block-print art in­spired us to use it as a sig­na­ture through­out the film. Not only did we think of each frame as a wood-block print on its own, we used the idea of the lovely wood-grain tex­ture in many ap­pli­ca­tions: from ground plane in Kubo’s cave, to the sides of his sharply an­gled moun­tain, to tex­tures we see on the vil­lage homes and roofs. We used that same tex­ture across ev­ery se­quence in the movie — it be­came Kubo’s vis­ual sig­na­ture.


It made sense to us to in­clude an homage to the mag­nif­i­cent Star Wars in the un­der­wa­ter se­quence when Kubo is be­neath the sur­face at­tempt­ing to bring the ar­mour up.

Kubo en­coun­ters a mon­strous sea crea­ture with a hundred gi­ant eye­balls that are hyp­no­tis­ing our hero and at­tempt­ing to drag him to the depths be­low to de­vour him. It’s clearly our take on the Sar­lacc. It’s also a call back to Steven Spiel­berg, whom I adore (along with the rest of the world), and who is the rea­son I was in­tro­duced to Akira Kuro­sawa.


Our young hero Kubo bat­tles with colos­sal crea­tures. We at Laika are huge fans of the great Ray Har­ry­hausen and his an­i­mated fan­tasy epics. The op­por­tu­nity to make the gi­ant skele­ton prac­ti­cally [in-cam­era] in­spired our crew to pay trib­ute to the mas­ter stop-mo­tion film­maker. One of the key in­flu­ences for the Hall Of Bones scene was the iconic skele­ton fight from Har­ry­hausen’s Ja­son And The Arg­onauts. It’s our at­tempt at one-up­ping our idol with a pitched bat­tle show­cas­ing a skele­ton pup­pet so im­mense that it dwarfed the an­i­ma­tor bring­ing it to life. I think Un­cle Ray would be proud of us!

KUBO AND THE TWO STRINGS IS out on 16 Jan­uary on DVD, blu-ray AND Down­load

From top to bot­tom:

The Sar­lacc-ref­er­enc­ing mon­ster with a hundred gi­ant eye­balls; Travis Knight had long wanted to cre­ate a Lord Of The Rings-style “trans­port­ing jour­ney”; En­ter­ing the Hall Of Bones.

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