Whether it’s the overwhelming pressure of following in his father’s famous footsteps or just sheer love of the art, Travis Knight wants to change the world of animated movies from the outside.
The president (and lead animator) of Laika — the cutting-edge production company behind the Oscar-nominated 2009 film Coraline — isn’t only planted far away from the hills of Hollywood amongst the unlikely suburban sprawl of Portland, Oregon, but with his new comedy ParaNorman, the son of Nike co-founder Phil Knight is advancing an art form by reigniting one that dates back to the dawn of cinema — stop-motion animation.
“There’s no shortage of beautiful detail in (stop-motion animation),” says Knight from a dark studio while taking a short break from finishing the final scene as lead animator on ParaNorman. “I think the thing for me that’s so impressive is how well observed it is. We have a skewed naturalism in this movie so it’s not quite real life, but it’s observed from real life — everything from the way we design and build the sets to the animation performances — it has a verisimilitude that I don’t think we’ve really ever seen before.”
When ParaNorman hits theatres August 17, Knight hopes the story of a young shock-haired boy who can communicate with the dead will not only entertain, but also open the eyes of filmmakers to the modern possibilities of stop-motion animation.
“There’s sort of a fetishistic obsession with detail but you tend to find that with artists and practitioners of stop-motion,” says Knight.
The medium has come a long way since a late 19th century short film, The Humpty Dumpty Circus, utilized the technique of cinematic stop-motion by manipulating and photographing toys before projecting each frame together to create a moving image. Now, by combining traditional puppetry techniques with modern technology (including the use of Rapid Prototyping — essentially creating three-dimensional objects from high-resolution digital scans), the range of emotions for characters is practically limitless. For instance, the character of Norman has an estimated 1.5 million facial expressions, which allows for a more nuanced performance.
“It’s extraordinarily important because that is what gives a film gravity, that’s what gives a film weight,” says Knight. “You can certainly make a little pop culture cartoon that people will enjoy and (forget), but that’s not the kind of film that we want to make. Believability is a key part of that... in the way our puppets act, the way they emote, in the way the animation is performed. It has to be believable. Because these are real things but they aren’t really alive, so there can be an artificial separation between these puppets and the audience and by giving it that naturalism and that believability, it breaks down that wall and you see Norman as a real kid and one you can empathize with.”
That characteristic may be significant, particularly in ParaNorman. Inasmuch as it’s a throwback to the George Romero-type zombie thriller, underneath its B-movie exterior, it tells a thoughtful tale about a boy who’s bullied and must overcome it.
“When you get down to it, this movie really is about intolerance and the impact that has on people’s lives and how we can be afflicted by it,” says Knight. “There are so many facets in this film that explore that angle. We can see cautionary tales of what one might become if they succumb to it and then you can see what happens to our hero, about what happens when you stand up to it and rise up against those things that force you down.”
While Knight surely would agree the allegorical considerations of using zombies to express that message was a strong theme for the cinematic world, the Laika CEO also argues that the prospect of making a zombie movie was simply too good to resist.
“I do think stop-motion has a history of dealing with some darker elements that other forms of animation don’t touch,” says Knight. “(But) there’s something just poetic and perfect about bringing these things to life in the style of Ray Harryhousen, this kind of shambling stop-motion glory. For whatever reason, they’re particularly suited for this medium.”