Sunday 18 March 2018

Travis Knight's String theory of life

After decades of animation, Travis Knight's directorial debut, Kubo and the Two Strings, is a story to delight old and young

'Kubo and the Two Strings'. These three characters are voiced by Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, and Art Parkinson. Below, director Travis Knight
'Kubo and the Two Strings'. These three characters are voiced by Matthew McConaughey, Charlize Theron, and Art Parkinson. Below, director Travis Knight

Anne Marie Scanlon

Growing up with a business and philanthropic Titan for a father can't have always been easy, but Travis Knight, the director of Kubo and the Two Strings, whose father Phil Knight founded the super-brand Nike, makes it sound like an idyll. "We lived out in the country in the middle of nowhere. I spent a lot of time alone when I was a kid, I climbed trees, hopped creek beds, read, watched movies, I'd make stories, make films. I always loved that solitary experience of making things. There's a solitary aspect to animating… It's ultimately the animator and the puppet coaxing a performance out of it."

Knight's first creative endeavour was rapping under the name Chilly Tee, a career that was cut short by the fact that Knight didn't like being on stage. "I hated it," he says of performing. His real interest lay in "creating… I think the act of creating music, of writing and composing of doing things that way, where you are actually making something, I love that."

Despite the brief foray into the music industry, the animator has always had a profound love of film and remembers fondly seeing Star Wars at the age of three which "left a life-long impact on me." Both of Knight's parents were avid movie-goers and they would "just drag me along," he says laughing. "My parents were pretty liberal and exposed me to pretty much every (genre). I loved it, there was something about going to the cinema, being in a darkened room with strangers, watching this flickering image on screen, being transported to another world... there was something that was magical about it."

He's not kidding when he says there was nothing off-limits as his parents took him to see The Exorcist when he was five. "It traumatised me, it absolutely traumatised me," Knight tells me, laughing at my horrified expression. When I ask him if he would let his own children, a son of 15, a daughter of 14 and a boy of three watch The Exorcist, he answers smiling "No! No way!"

Knight tells me that he's always loved animation, before making the observation that most kids do, but 'stop-motion' animation in particular has always held a fascination. Like any person born in the pre-internet, pre-media & film degree age, he figured out for himself how it worked.

Kubo and the Two Strings is Knight's directorial debut. He began his career in animation two decades ago and in the intervening years he's worked as "a production assistant, a scheduler, a co-ordinator, an animator working in both stop-motion and CGI, I've developed films, I've been a producer, I run a company, so there's a lot of different things I've done in the medium (of animation) but being a director is by far the hardest thing I've ever done. It was ridiculously hard. As the director you are the nexus of every single artistic, creative and technical decision on the movie." I can't even begin to imagine the level of patience a person needs, but Knight does not strike me as the temperamental type.

The film centres on Kubo, a young Japanese boy with only one eye, who can magically make origami figures move. Like all good "big epic fantasy stories," it involves a quest. Knight's particular love of this genre comes from his mother who read Lord of the Rings when she was pregnant with him. "That's why I gravitated so much towards Kubo and the Two Strings," Knight says, "it was an opportunity to tell a story that was evoking those same kind of fantasies that I loved growing up."

There are some very adult themes at the heart of the movie - grief, loss, the parent-child bond, the father-son bond (or lack thereof). I ask Knight how much of the film was informed by his own experiences - having such a hugely important father and later losing his older brother Matthew quite suddenly 14 years ago. "In some ways the film is a highly stylised and heightened version of my own life. I think that through the prism of fantasy," he continues, "where things are stylised and removed from reality we can explore meaningful issues, things that resonate with our lives and take a little bit of the sting out of it. Sometimes these heavy issues can be difficult to explain to children but to dramatise it in a stylised way it can make more sense. That's what stories did for me when I was a kid; they allowed me to understand things that maybe my parents couldn't explain. That's what we've tried to do in this film.

"A fundamental and unfortunate part of being alive is," Knight continues, "to suffer loss and to suffer grief… With this film, which is fundamentally about family, I started to think about losing my own brother and how it felt so cosmically unfair… I wish I'd had an opportunity to have one final conversation with him."

Ultimately though, the director tells me, one of the messages of Kubo and the Two Strings is that "even if we don't have the people we love with us, we carry them with us."

Kubo and the Two Strings is in cinemas now.

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