Travis Knight '98 leads the enchantment at Laika animation studio.
A LONG DAY at Laika lasts about four seconds.
That is, four seconds of a silicon puppet doing something−kicking a ball, opening a school locker or running from an evil ghost. Those four seconds might take a 14-hour workday and will enlist the talents of animators, sculptors, set designers, and photographers.
This is the world of stop-motion animation, and Laika, headquartered in Hillsboro, is one of the top studios in the world doing this work. ParaNorman, which opened last summer, has earned an Academy Award nomination just as Coraline did in 2010.
The company's CEO is Travis Knight, a 1998 graduate of Portland State who was honored in October with a PSU Alumni Achievement Award. He divides his time between the heavy business decisions of overseeing a 700-employee studio, and doing what he really loves: playing with puppets.
The puppets in Laika movies are about nine inches tall, made of flexible molded silicon wrapped around a steel skeleton. Everything about them can be shaped and moved in tiny increments. The job of animators such as Knight is to inject personality into these movements. If he wants to show the hero of ParaNorman brushing his teeth, the animator will spend an entire day having the character squeeze toothpaste onto a brush, raise it to his mouth, do all the little motions of brushing, and generate a mouthful of white froth.
After each movement, a camera takes a shot. Twenty-four shots make a second. ParaNorman is 5,520 seconds long.
You do the math.
"It's ridiculous," says Knight.
Ridiculous in a cool way, because Knight can't imagine doing anything else.
"Ultimately the films we make are really labors of love. You can see it as you walk around this building. There are not very many people on the planet who have the patience or the skill or the intense focus to do this labor-intensive, mentally taxing kind of work."
Wouldn't it be easier and cheaper to make these movies with computer animation? Knight says no, stop-motion is actually less expensive and requires a lot fewer people. But that's not the point. Stop-motion, because of its hands-on nature, imparts more humanity in its characters than any computer ever could. That's why he loves it and why Laika is widely admired.
"Laika is helping to build Portland as the stop-motion animation capital of the world," says Vince Porter, executive director of the Oregon Governor's Office of Film and Television. "Clearly they stand up against anyone in the industry."
Laika is also bolstering the local economy, says Porter, who knows of former Laika employees who have created spin-off businesses to support the animation industry. Vendors supplying parts and services to Laika are also growing in tandem with the company's success. Portland's Cambridge Precision Machining experienced a 20 percent increase in revenue when it manufactured the tiny puppet skeletons for ParaNorman. It now gets referred business from as far away as Great Britain.
KNIGHT, son of Nike founder Phil Knight, grew up watching classic stop-motion movies and TV shows such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and the works of stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen. The latter combined stop-motion with live action photography in movies such as Jason and the Argonauts (1963) and One Million Years B.C. (1966). As a boy, Travis Knight loved to sketch and make things, and tried his hand at stop-motion, even through there were barely any books on how to do it.
"My story is the same as every other animator of my generation. We were just kids who loved the art form and went into our parents' basement or garage and figured out how to do it on our own," he says.
After college, he got a job as a production assistant at Portland's Will Vinton Studios, which made it big in the 1980s with its claymation California Raisins ad campaign. Knight worked there in the 1990s, when Will Vinton was making the TV show The PJs. His job entailed doing a hundred different things, from helping build sets to scheduling shoots, but it did not include the one thing he really wanted to do: animate. He got his chance one day when the studio was shorthanded.
"I was terrified, but I did a fine job," he says.
From then on, animation was added to his job description.
Vinton suffered a devastating financial downturn after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. The studio was heavily dependent on ad work, and the attacks led to an advertising recession in the United States, says Knight. Phil Knight was a majority shareholder in the company, and acquired it outright in 2002. He and Travis talked about how to salvage the company in a way that focused on its best qualities.
"It ultimately came down to people," the younger Knight says. "When we rebuilt the company, we wanted it to be about this community of artists."
Laika studio's stop-motion movie, ParaNorman, was released in August and is the story of a young boy who can see the dead and must use this gift to lift a curse that threatens his small town. Alumnus Travis Knight (right) is president and CEO of Laika. Photo by Reed Harkness.
Mike Smith, an artist who still works with Knight, came up with the name Laika, which was the dog the Soviets sent into orbit in 1957.
"There was something about it we liked—this aspirational quality—a mutt from humble origins that touched the stars," Knight says.
Travis Knight is also a lead animator at Laika and can be seen here manipulating the puppets in ParaNorman. Photo by Reed Harkness.
LAIKA was formed in 2003, and Travis became president and CEO in 2009.
But before he took the helm, he was the lead animator for the company's first major film, Coraline. Filmed in 3-D, it's the eerie story of a young girl who moves cross country with her parents to a strange town. She's lonely, and her parents are too busy to give her much attention. She finds a hidden corridor in her new home, follows it, and discovers an alternate world inhabited by her "other" parents—ones who are nicer and more attentive. As attractive as this other world is at first, she finds that things are not quite right. The other mother turns out to be a witch bent on keeping Coraline captive.
Based on the 2002 book by Neil Gaiman, the story had all the elements of some of the best children's literature: discovery, gaining power in a world of flawed adults, dealing with emotional issues such as isolation, fear, and loneliness. Viewers expecting to see a typical kids' movie might have been disappointed. Or shocked: it's pretty scary.
That suits Knight just fine.
"I don't want to put out little pop culture confections to the world. I want to tell stories that have some meaning. That's a big part of what this company is about," he says.
New York Times reviewer A.O. Scott, who called Coraline's 3-D effects "unusually subtle," admired the film's novel approach. ". . . Rather than race through ever noisier set pieces toward a hectic climax in the manner of so much animation aimed at kids, Coraline lingers in an atmosphere that is creepy, wonderfully strange and full of feeling," he wrote.
ParaNorman has some of the same themes as Coraline. So does Laika's next feature film, scheduled for release in fall 2014. But Knight isn't talking much about it. Not yet, anyway—not until the company formally announces it this winter.
"It's definitely a Laika film, which is to say it's not your standard Hollywood family fare," he says.
BEING DIFFERENT is a kind of personal mission for Knight, who said his artistic goals changed the instant he had children. He said the entertainment industry just wasn't making 'em like they used to, and he wanted to resist the temptation of going with the flow just to make money.
"We're awash in a world of sequels and reboots and remakes, where old presents are rewrapped and offered up as new gifts. At Laika, we want to do things that make our kids proud and have a positive effect on how they see the world," he says.
His children are now 9 and 11 years old, just the right age to critique their dad's work.
"They're the perfect focus group," he says. "I run ideas by them all the time. They're very honest—they'll tell me if something sucks or if they like it."
Knight's goal for the company is to overlap projects so that it's putting out a movie a year. No stop-motion company has ever been able to do it, he says. The genre is known for ramping up employment while a project is going on, then letting most of the animators and craftspeople go when it's completed. Because of this, the artists who make stop-motion films tend to live kind of rootless lives.
Knight wants his artists to come to Oregon and stay. Making that happen is where the business side of Laika comes in: acquiring story rights, figuring out the funding and the scheduling. But all of that is in service to the art of making movies one painstaking frame at a time.
John Kirkland is a staff member in the PSU Office of University Communications.