A stop-motion samurai film — that's the germ of an idea that grew into the sprawling fantasy film, Kubo and the Two Strings.
It's a coming-of-age epic set in fantasy Japan about a young storyteller who makes magic with music and origami paper. The film stars Art Parkinson as Kubo, the Samurai's son, as well as Charlize Theron, Ralph Fiennes, Rooney Mara, George Takei and Matthew McConaughey.
While the Disney and Pixar brands have become synonymous with blockbuster animated films, the small Portland-based studio behind Kubo has been quietly making its mark. Since it was founded a decade ago, Laika Entertainment has earned three Oscar nods for animation for the films Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls.
Writer and director Travis Knight, who is also the head of Laika, tells NPR's Audie Cornish that Kubo traces a boy's transition from childhood to adulthood.
"This film explores that time in our lives when those things begin to shift, and then irrevocably change," Knight says. "When we cross the Rubicon from childhood to adulthood — and the things that we gain and the things that we leave behind along the way — which can often be bittersweet, but it is a fundamental journey that we all go through."
On the basics of stop-motion animation
The basic way it works is that you have a puppet ... they have a steel armature, which is like a little skeleton inside their body, and they're covered with a silicone skin and you know, they have cloth costumes.
In a lot of ways, it's like a live-action production house, it's just in miniature. We still have the same departments. We have, you know, costuming and hair — although in our hair department we're actually creating the hair. And then we move these things a frame at a time, and the thing we've done differently at Laika is that we try to merge technology and forward-thinking innovation with this 100-year-old art and craft, and it's that fusion of those things that makes the productions look so interesting.
On the challenges of animating the film's epic landscapes
At the beginning of the movie, we recognized what this film was, which is it's a big, sweeping epic. And I think that's really difficult to tell in animation, specifically in stop-motion, because the way we make these things, they're effectively shot on tabletops in a crummy warehouse in Portland, Ore., so we want to make it look like it's an endless, majestic vista, which is kind of absurd on its face.
So for things like the water, we ended up using panes of rippled shower glass that we would shoot a frame at a time. We had torn bits of paper that we would use for cresting bits of water. One of my favorite things was we had this metal grid, and we covered it in garbage bags, and we moved it a frame at a time to give a sense of the motion of the waves going through the scene.
And then we give that information to our visual effects department, and they start to blend that stuff with computers and with computer simulations. But when you see it on screen, it behaves like water, which is important for the audience to understand what they're looking at, but it has a stylized look driven by classic forms of Japanese art.
On the influence of Japanese artist Kiyoshi Saitō
It is a period fantasy, so we're blending a lot of different things. We take elements from Edo period Japan. We take elements from Heian period Japan. In terms of the visual inspiration from Kiyoshi Saitō, he comes from a tradition of wood block printmaking that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years, and yet, he was always heavily influenced by Western thinkers, Western painters. And so he fused those things together in his art, and that's something that we try to weave into our environments as well.
On casting mostly white actors in a film set in Japan
I think it's important to note that acting in live-action and acting in animation are two very different things with very different considerations. In a live-action film, an actor's gender or age or ethnic or racial background or physical appearance can be character defining qualities, but in an animated film that's not true at all.
On portraying Japanese culture without falling to stereotypes
For the first two, three years of the project, all we're doing is developing the script, the story, the characters, the world, and as part of that process, you are diving really deep into regional and historical research to make sure that you're grounding your fairy tale in the real world.
I was 8 years old when I was first introduced to Japan. I tagged along with my dad on one of his business trips to Japan, and from the moment I set foot there, it was like I'd been transported to another world. It was so completely different than anything I had ever experienced. And so for me, that was the beginning of a love affair, a lifelong love affair, with a great and beautiful culture.