UNRAVELLING THE STRINGS
Travis Knight, director of Kubo And The Two Strings and CEO of Laika, on the inspiration behind his latest stop-motion wonder
THE EPIC INSPIRATION
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.
THE JAPANESE INFLUENCE
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.
THE SAITO IMPACT
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.
THE OBLIGATORY STAR WARS REFERENCE
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.
THE HARRYHAUSEN EFFECT
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.