Passionately pursuing admirable goals, no matter what challenging obstacles stand in the way, is a fulfilling aspiration that the most determined heroes aim to realize. The inspirational young title protagonist in the upcoming animated fantasy film, ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ boldly relies on his courage to follow his dream of defeating his opposing enemies and protecting his life.
Travis Knight, the president and CEO of the stop-motion animation studio, Laika, and up-and-coming actor, Art Parkinson, have also successfully obtained some of their ambitions by working on the family movie. Knight made the transition from working as a film animator to making his feature film directorial debut, while the 14-year-old Parknson made one of his first leading actor appearances, with ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ Focus Features will showcase their latest success by releasing Laika’s latest poignant animated movie, which was written by Marc Haimes and Chris Butler, in theaters nationwide on Friday.
‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ follows the clever, kindhearted Kubo (voiced by Parkinson) as he makes a humble living by telling stories to the people of his seaside town, including Hosato (George Takei), Hashi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Kameyo (Brenda Vaccaro). But his relatively quiet existence is shattered when he accidentally summons a spirit from his past which storms down from the heavens to enforce an age-old vendetta.
Now on the run, Kubo joins forces with Monkey (Charlize Theron) and Beetle (Matthew McConaughey). The trio sets out on a thrilling quest to save Kubo’s family and solve the mystery of his fallen father, the greatest samurai warrior the world has ever known. With the help of his shamisen – a magical musical instrument – Kubo must battle gods and monsters, including the vengeful Moon King (Ralph Fiennes) and the evil twin Sisters (Rooney Mara), to unlock the secret of his legacy, reunite his family and fulfill his heroic destiny.
Knight and Parkinson generously took the time recently to talk about directing and starring in ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ during exclusive individual phone interviews. Among other things, the filmmaker and actor spoke about how they wanted to challenge ourselves by creating a stunning and unique new fantasy-inspired stop-motion movie that explores the human condition. They also mentioned how they both appreciated the process of capturing the performers’ facial movements while they were recording their lines, as it helped the animators create the characters’ expressions in a more realistic matter.
In his discussion about directing ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ Knight revealed that he started working on developing the animated adventure movie about five years ago. “I was working on the production for ‘ParaNorman‘ at the time, and I was looking for something that was really different for us. One of the things that we decided to do at Laika is really challenge ourselves, and dive into new and exciting stories. We also wanted to dive into new genres, and explore different aspects of the human condition,” the filmmaker revealed.
“So when our character designer, Shannon Tindle, originally pitched the idea for ‘Kubo,’ it was amazing. I thought it was such a cool and evocative idea,” the director divulged. “He did it so brilliantly that even the simplest and rawest idea of a sweeping, stop-motion samurai epic seemed like such a cool concept. So I couldn’t wait to see it on the screen.
“It spoke to me in a meaningful way. when I was growing up, I was an obsessive fan of fantasy, and I loved (fantasy author, J. R. R.) Tolkien,” Knight revealed. “In fact, when my mom was pregnant with me, she was reading ‘The Lord of the Rings.’ So that was in the air when I was first born. She was also reading it when she was recovering in the hospital. So that was one of the gifts she bestowed upon me-a love of epic fantasy, and that continues on to this day.”
The helmer added that he is a fan of such filmmakers as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. “With this movie, we had a blank canvas in which we could paint in these great colors, and aspire to these great fantasies” that those directors have created, Knight added.
“When I think back to being a kid, what also peaked my interest in animation, stop-motion and fantasy was when I took my first trip to Japan with my father when I was eight-years old,” the director also revealed. “I grew up in Oregon, so I had never seen anything like what I was experiencing in Japan. The art, architecture, style of dress, food, music, movies, TV shows and comic books was a revelation for me; they were unlike anything I had ever seen, and I was so enthralled.
“So this film combines everything that I have loved deeply since I was a kid, including stop-motion, fantasy and samurai stories, as well as the beautiful art of Japan. It was almost like it was made in a factory, just for me,” Knight added with a laugh.
“‘Kubo’ was a very interesting experience for me, because I have been working in animation production for two decades,” the filmaker added. “I had been a PA (Production Assistant), a scheduler and a coordinator. I have also worked as an animator, on both CG and stop-motion. I’ve also been a producer, and have guided projects from inception all the way through completion. I’ve also a CEO, and oversee a company’s business and creative operation. So I think all of those experiences have prepared me to move into the role of being a director.
“With that said, I was still overwhelmed by the complexity of it when I first started directing this film,” Knight revealed with a laugh. “This was an incredibly ambitious film, and it was more complex than anything else we had ever done before. As the director, you are at the center of all of these creative and executive decisions.”
The helmer added that directing “can be overwhelming at times, but it was also completely exhilarating. It was the most creatively satisfying experience of my entire life. To be there, and help inspire these passionate and brilliant artists, who ultimately end up also inspiring you, was great. I’m incredibly grateful for the experience, and it was one of the highlights of my life.”
Having worked as an animator in various forms for 20 years was a key component in helping Knight adjust to becoming a first-time feature filmmaker. “When you start developing a an animated project, and on this movie specifically, for the first two or three years, you’re not even thinking of the visuals, as you’re just trying to crack the story,” the director explained.
“During the early stages,you’re just trying to figure out who the characters are, and what the point-of-view is of the story’s world. You’re trying to get the structure right. You’re also trying to support big ideas, and weave in very personal aspects of your own life, so that you can give the story meaning,” Knight also emphasized. “Once you start to solidify the foundation, you start adding visual development, and can ultimately bring the animation on board.”
Having an animator’s eye for detail is something the director feels like he has had for his entire life. “The danger of that, however, is that you can get caught up in the minutia of everything. But being a CEO and producer also requires me to step back and separate myself from all the details, and look at the big picture. Having both of those experiences, and focusing on creative details as an artist, and the big details as an executive, allowed me to have the perfect balance you need when you sit in the director’s chair,” Knight explained.
“I think my experiences as an animator really came into play when we started production, and I began working with the other animators,” the filmmaker added. “We all speak the same language. I know what’s possible and impossible out on the stage. So I know what to ask and push for, and what was ridiculous. But I still pushed for what was ridiculous,” he also noted with a laugh. “But I feel like having that experience of working in production for so long was really beneficial for me on this film.”
Knight also praised the team who worked with him on making ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ and called his colleagues “extraordinary. They’re world class artists from all over the world, and they’re passionate and amazing. They found bits of this film that resonated with them, and they poured their souls into it, and I think that comes across in the final movie.”
Parkinson began his conversation by discussing how he became involved in voicing the title character of ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ He explained that he “had gone on an audition when I was working on another film in Belfast, ‘Dracula Untold.’ I got the email from my agents at the time. They said, ‘There’s this animation film, and we would like you to record the script on a Voice Note and send it in. So I said cool, and we read over the script.”
The actor added that after reading the script, he thought it was very good, and decided to record part of it. “A couple of days later, they asked me to record a few more scenes, which we did. It was really handy, because it was just a voice memo, so I used more of my voice than physical action.”
Knight also spoke about the casting process for ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ and revealed that “You don’t typically think about the casting for animated films until you’re deep into the process. When you start to figure out who these characters are, that’s when you start figuring out who can bring life to them with their voices.
“Casting in live action is different than casting in animation. In live action, there’s basically two aspects of the performance; there’s the performance that you see, and the one that you hear, and those things are bound together,” the filmmaker pointed out. “But in animation, those things are completely separate. The animators provide the physical part of the acting, and the actor provides the part that you hear.”
So during the stage in which the filmmakers start thinking about casting, “you make a wish list of people you would love to work with. Then you start pulling clips from their interviews, in order to hear how their voices naturally sound. You put that up against the design of the characters, and see if they fit. Often times, when you separate their voice from their physicality, you’ll realize that their voice is the richest part of their performance.”
Knight added that there are times when the actors that filmmakers wouldn’t fit into an animated role “all of a sudden become perfect for the role, because of what they can do with that instrument. They prove they can convey the nuances, complexities and emotions of their characters with just their voice, and that’s an incredible talent.”
So during the casting process for ‘Kubo and the Two Strings,’ “we aimed high. We wanted to get the finest actors in the world. To this day, I’m astounded by the quality of acting in this movie,” Knight admitted with a laugh. “We got such an amazing group of artists, and are doing some of the finest work.”
The director also described working the actors on the family film as “interesting, because from an animator’s perspective, you approach acting in one way. You think of the emotions that you’re trying to convey, and what physical gestures you can use to convey them.
“But with actors, it’s effectively the other way around. You want to capture real emotions, so you want to create a moment during which the actors can physically feel those emotions,” Knight explained. He added that the experience “was eye-opening for me, because I don’t work that way as an animator. So it was really exciting to see that kind of collaboration, and watch the actors work in a completely different way. I’m really proud of our actors, and think they did an extraordinary job.”
Once Parkinson was cast as Kubo, and began recording his lines for the family film, he enjoyed collaborating with Knight on his role. “Travis made it really easy to bring the character to life. From day one, he had the statues of Kubo set up. He also had pictures of the sets and scenery that was going to be in the film, such as Kubo’s cave, as well as Kubo’s mother. So it was easy working with Travis from day one, because he tends to go into detail when he’s describing something,” the performer explained.
“When we first started recording the film, we had the sculptures on the set,” Parkinson further noted. “We were recording in Portland, and they took us to the Laika studios and gave us a tour. It was really cool to see how everything was made, as well as how all the sets were put together, and the research they had done.”
The actor also divulged when he first saw what his character would look like in the movie. “When they first sent me the script, it actually had a picture of Kubo on the front page. So the day we got the script, we knew what Kubo looked like. I thought he was a really cool looking character.”
While Kubo interacts with most of the other characters in the animated film, Parkinson revealed that he recorded most of his lines on his own. “But it was very easy to record on my own, because Travis really explained the characters to us. But we also did a couple of sessions where we recorded with Charlize and Brenda, which was really great.”
Having acted in both animated and live action films and television series, Parkinson added that performing in both mediums requires “a different approach. Instead of making facial expressions and body movements, I had to put all of my emotions into my voice. That’s something I worked on with my mom, who’s my drama coach. It was fairly easy, but it was also something I had to get used to,” the performer added.
“There was actually a camera in the studio that recorded my facial expressions, which helped the animators who created the different faces for Kubo. So they took some of the facial expressions I made, and put them on Kubo,” Parkinson further explained about the animation process.
The types of facial expressions the performer made “usually depended on the type of scene we were recording. There’s a scene where Kubo was eating sushi, so they recorded me actually eating sushi. That made it easier for the animators, because they could see my facial expressions, and use them for Kubo whenever he was eating sushi.”
Parkinson added that “Whenever we did a take, they would say, ‘That’s great.’ But before we would move on, they would ask, ‘Can you do one more take, so we can have more facial expressions for the animators?'”
In addition to discussing the experience of working with the cast on recording their lines, Knight also mentioned the process of determining what type of music he wanted to include in ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ The director pointed out that the title character “is mythical, and is gifted with a divine talent of creating music. He can coax the rocks and trees to dance with just his music. So when you start thinking about what kind of composer can convey divine music, and that’s a tall order for anyone,” Knight admitted.
“We had just worked with Dario Marianelli on ‘The Boxtrolls,’ and I was so utterly impressed by him,” Knight also divulged. “He’s an amazing artist, and is able to immerse the audience in exactly what they need to be feeling as they’re watching the movie. So I reached out to Dario to see if he was interested in working on this film.
“But it was no small task, as there’s a lot of music in ‘Kubo.’ The music is so critical to the movie. When Dario and I were talking about it, we were discussing how often times, when we’re feeling these strange emotions that we have a difficult time articulating, there’s something that can give expression to that,” the filmmaker noted. “The music is supposed to be evocative to what the characters are feeling and experiencing in the moment. So the music is reflective of Kubo’s emotions.”
When Marianelli created his first piece of music for the fantasy film, “it was absolutely clear to me that he understood what we were going for. I think it was a beautiful collaboration. Dario is an Italian composer who lives in the U.K., who was working on a film that was being brought to life in a studio in Oregon, and was inspired by the art of Japan. So it was a very strange combination of things, but I think the did a beautiful job,” Knight proclaimed while further describing his collaboration with the composer.
In addition to the music and characters’ facial expressions, the overall action sequences were also an important element to telling the story in ‘Kubo and the Two Strings.’ As an actor, Parkinson embraces the experience of performing his own stunts. “Most of the time, whenever I’m asked if I want to do something, I will request to do it myself. It really does get you into the character’s state of mind.
“For example, when I was working on ‘San Andreas,’ there were a lot of wave scenes. So it was great to be put in a situation where I was put in real waves and thrown about. But of course, there were stunt doubles there on the day, in case I felt nervous or unsafe doing it. But overall, I usually do my own stunts,” the performer also revealed.
Parkinson also called his work on ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ “a great experience, and I’ll definitely look into doing more animated characters.” He added that he’s currently filming another movie, and is looking forward to taking on more acting opportunities in the future.
Watch the official trailer from ‘Kubo and the Two Strings’ below.
Written by: Karen Benardello