The President and CEO of LAIKA, the Oregon stop-motion studio which this month claimed its sixth Oscar nomination, Travis Knight was excited by the prospect of taking the company in new directions with its latest film, Missing Link.
Directed by Chris Butler (ParaNorman), the epic adventure film centers on Sir Lionel Frost (Hugh Jackman), an investigator of mythic creatures who comes across the sentient Sasquatch, Mr. Link (Zach Galifianakis), in the Pacific Northwest. Befriending the lonely Bigfoot, Frost then accompanies him on a journey to Shangri-La, in hopes of reuniting him with his long-lost relatives.
From Knight’s perspective, what was so compelling about Missing Link was that it retained the visual grandeur and thematic richness of the studio’s past films, while bringing to the table a brand-new aesthetic and tone, with which to play. “A lot of the films that we’ve done have been darker, have lurked in the shadows, to a degree, exploring murkier aspects of what it means to be human,” says Knight, who produced LAIKA’s latest. “Missing Link was interesting for us because it was a big, bright, kaleidoscopic, colorful adventure.”
In essence, the film reflected the core values, with which the studio was created some 15 years ago. “When we started LAIKA, the essential idea was to create wholly unique, original, bold, distinctive and enduring animated films,” Knight says. “So, with each movie that we develop, it has to basically tick those boxes.”
As the producer explains, part of the challenge inherent to Missing Link was that it aimed to bring the visual scale of a live-action epic into the medium of stop-motion. “To try to make something that was on a tabletop look like a huge, epic world is incredibly challenging,” Knight reflects. “But that’s what this story was. It was a big swashbuckling, whip-cracking adventure film.”
A related challenge had to do with the film’s basic structure. Like Kubo and the Two Strings before it, Missing Link was a road picture, moving swiftly from one ambitious, hand-crafted environment to the next. “From a producer’s point of view, you want to be able to reuse locations, because every location is a unique design, a unique build,” he says. “When you’re building all these things by hand, it becomes an extraordinary challenge, [particularly given] the fact that a lot of these places are these big, wide, panoramic vistas.”
For Knight, there was no one screening or moment on set when the film seemed to click into place. “I think with each phase, there is that thrill and that fear. If it’s something that I haven’t done before and it gives me some anxiety, I feel like maybe we’re on the right track,” he shares, “and with Missing Link, there was that.”
Six films into its run as a leading innovator in the medium of stop-motion, LAIKA’s penchant for risk-taking continues to pay off. Facing incredible competition at this year’s Golden Globes, Missing Link bested three studio sequels (Frozen II, Toy Story 4 and How to Train Your Dragon: The Hidden World) and one massive reboot (The Lion King), to claim the award for Best Animated Feature Film. While LAIKA has yet to win an Oscar, this vindication of original storytelling may set the studio up to claim its first.
For the Missing Link producer, the Academy’s embrace of the film—as well as original works like Klaus and I Lost My Body—is a testament to the endless possibilities inherent within animation. “I’m also encouraged by how seriously the [Animation] Branch takes its function,” Knight reflects. “These are people who really care about the artistry. They watch all the movies, and they’re swayed by nothing other than their admiration for the craftsmanship and the storytelling on the screen.”
Looking to the future, Knight intends to keep pushing all kinds of boundaries, with the films he oversees at LAIKA. “The films that we’re developing now are really challenging for us as a studio, and really exciting for me personally, because I think they are so unique and so different, unlike anything that anyone else is doing or that we’ve done,” the producer says. “At the same time, we’re recognizing how much the landscape across the industry has shifted, where it effectively isn’t just the theatrical experience any longer, with so many different avenues opening up, including streaming.”
“It’s exciting for us to explore storytelling in those forms, as well,” he adds, “and I think our core values remain true across all the different things we’re developing.”
In conversation with Deadline, Knight also spoke to his ambitions as a director, at this stage of his career. Making his feature debut with Kubo, before launching into live-action with Bumblebee, Knight says he’ll continue to cross mediums and genres in the projects he takes on, pursuing those that excite (and scare) him the most.
“So many of the creative choices I’m most proud of were driven in part by fear, and Bumblebee was an example of that. Diving into the deep end of franchise filmmaking was something that I blanched at initially, thinking, How the hell am I going to do this? But I think artists love to challenge themselves. They love to put themselves in uncomfortable positions and fight their way out of it,” he says. “So, personally, I’m really excited about playing around with different kinds of stories. I think you’ll see that from me as a director, but also from us, as a studio.”