Laika’s fourth film, Kubo And The Two Strings is a stop-motion samurai epic that delights in toying with convention. The tale of young boy Kubo (Art Parkinson) who sets out to fulfil his destiny while trying to avoid having his remaining eye plucked out by his grandfather (Ralph Fiennes), it takes inspiration from Japanese culture, Jason And The Argonauts and director Travis Knight’s relationship with his mother. Knight talked us through everything from the technique for animating water and McConaughey’s voice-booth antics, to fire-breathing chickens and the secret inspiration that is Ben Affleck.
Though there are no out-and-out spoilers, those who have yet to see the film may want to return once they have witnessed Kubo’s quest.
1. Laika was still working on ParaNorman when the idea for Kubo came about
We were still in production on ParaNorman at the time that we started developing this idea. The original idea sprang from the fertile mind of our brilliant character designer, Shannon Tindle. And even in its early state there was something exciting about it: this sweeping stop-motion samurai epic. It was just a really cool concept. It’s something that we’ve never seen before.
2. Director Travis Knight’s childhood had a big influence on the film
Growing up, I was an enormous, obsessive fan of big fantasy epics. I was just the right age when Star Wars came out. The movies of [Ray] Harryhausen and [Akira] Kurosawa. With Kubo we had a canvas on which we could paint in those same colours. We could aspire to that great pantheon of epic fantasy. And right around the same period that I was getting into these things, I took my first trip to Japan. I was eight years old. It was otherworldly: the architecture, the style of dress, the food, the art, the music, the TV shows, the movies, the comic books. Fast forward 35 years and this film combines all these things that I’ve loved since I was a kid. Fantasy, stop-motion animation, samurai stories, and the beautiful, transcendent art of Japan: it was like it was tailor-made just for me.
3. This film has a lot of love for mums
I spent a lot of time alone as a kid, exploring the woods near my house. I spent a lot of time creating, doing things in a solitary way. And when I wasn’t doing that, my entire existence revolved around my family. My mum was my closest friend in the world. It was not a weird, dysfunctional, co-dependent mother-boy thing, like Buster and Lucille Bluth. It was a genuine relationship. And it was really the defining connection of my young life, just like it was for Kubo.
For Charlize [Theron], going back three years ago to when we first started talking to her, she was a new mum and she had a lot of powerful experiences with her own mother. And so I think this film and this role, because Monkey becomes something of a maternal figure for Kubo, really spoke to her. Every single artist who came aboard had a similar story.
4. Kubo needed ‘godlike’ compositions
[Kubo is] gifted with divine music and is almost godlike in his power to create music, which is a reflection of how he’s feeling. When we started to develop this character we figured out that Kubo is basically an Orpheus figure. I started thinking, “Who could possibly write music that good?” And that’s when we started work with Dario Marianelli, who we’d previously collaborated with on Boxtrolls. He’s so extraordinarily gifted that he did not blanch when I said, “Okay, you need to make godlike music.” He took it on and he did it. It was amazing.
I know that we’ve soaked more than a few bunk bed mattresses in our day. But that’s not the prime motivation. We want to make films that bring people together.
5. Matthew McConaughey read Kubo to his children
When he got the script he told us that he read it to his children in segments as a bedtime story. That really warmed my heart!
6. Laika will never take their voice casts for granted
I think it was kind of casting to type, because when people think of a hirsute, flea-ridden simian they think of Charlize Theron. Don’t you? We’re a small independent animation studio in the armpit of the Pacific Northwest, so it’s incredibly humbling when actors who have their choice of any project they want to be involved in choose to be a part of our films.
7. McConaughey got his sweat on in the voice booth
Acting in live-action and animation are two totally different things. To try to capture all the emotion in the voice can be challenging. And so there was a moment – Matthew was trying to get this particular quality from his voice, we were talking about it, and then all of a sudden he just disappeared. We’re in the control room and there’s some glass between us and the vocal booth. We’re just all looking over, like, “Where’d he go?” I stood up and looked over and there he is, on the ground, cranking out an inhuman amount of push-ups. I’ve never seen a man do so many push-ups. And then he immediately got up and delivered the most amazing line, and his voice had this incredible quality. He knew that he could do this physical thing that would unlock this emotion orally. And it’s in the movie.
8. Laika is aware that its films have ‘soaked more than a few bunk bed mattresses’
We tend to be associated with stop-motion horror for kids. It’s funny when I hear people talk about us, to see through what prism they see us. It’s true on some level. We’ve been accused of making movies that are dark and scary. Some say that we’re fixated on grotesqueries, fetishistically obsessed with the macabre. And yeah, we are. It’s worth noting that that’s only a part of what we are, but I know that we’ve soaked more than a few bunk-bed mattresses in our day. But that’s not the prime motivation. We want to make films that bring people together. We’re storytellers, we want to kindle imaginations, inspire people to dream.
We make movies in the tradition of those Disney classics that had that incredible blend of darkness and light. I don’t think you can have joy without a little bit of pain. I don’t think you can have light without a little bit of darkness. Sometimes there is some intensity in our movies, but that is only to tell the most powerful story that you can.
9. Kubo contains the biggest stop-motion puppet you’ve ever seen
One of my favourite movies when I was a kid was Jason And The Argonauts. There’s a classic cinematic moment where Jason faces off against an army of skeleton soldiers. In our film, we wanted to pay tribute to that and try to one-up the master by not having a bunch of small skeleton puppets, but the most enormous puppet you’ve ever seen in your life. We have a giant skeleton monster and when it’s assembled it's 16-feet tall. It’s the biggest stop-motion puppet that’s ever been made. In fact, it’s a set. It’s a moving, animated set. And I’m incredibly excited for people to see it. It’s certainly the most ambitious thing we’ve ever taken on.
10. Ben Affleck is Travis Knight’s multi-tasking inspiration
It has always been important for me to get my hands dirty, making life with my own hands. When I started working on Kubo, I figured, “I can do it all. I can animate, direct, run the company, no problem.” So I started to think, “Who’s done something similar in the past? Who can I look to as a model? Oh, Ben Affleck! He’s awesome – he can write, he can direct. I’m as good as Ben Affleck, right?” Well, no. It turns out I’m nowhere near as good as Ben Affleck, that magnificent bastard. I was able to animate on Kubo, but not nearly to the extent that I’d planned. I would come in early in the day, crank out a few frames in the morning before anyone arrived, work all day, then crank out a few more in the evening. It did wreak havoc on my life to a degree, but it was important for me to be involved on that level.
11. Water is virtually impossible to animate. So Laika improvised...
There are things in this movie that at the outset we had no idea we could do. Part of that was the monsters, part of that was these incredible big action sequences, something you don’t see in stop-motion and for good reason. In animation, water is virtually impossible to do. For something like this big, stormy sea, we did a bunch of tests where we did things practically, using torn paper and rippled shower glass, shower curtains on metal rods. It’s this nice, beautiful convergence of the physical and the digital.
12. Travis Knight didn’t know who Rickon Stark was
I am a Game Of Thrones fan, but three years ago I don’t think I even remember the character of Rickon. We auditioned hundreds of actors from three continents. These are blind auditions – our casting director sends us audio files, but we have no idea when we’re listening to them who it is. All we go off is the performance. When we heard Art’s audition, it was exceptional, it was mind-blowing, a lightning bolt.
[Art’s] voice has this beautiful, timeless quality and his performance just breaks my heart. To carry this movie on his shoulders, to hold his own in scenes where everyone around him had decades of experience and trophy cases full of Oscars and BAFTAs, that’s a heavy load to put on any actor. These are the finest actors in the world and Art fits right in beautifully.
13. Art Parkinson’s voice prevented him from taking part in a final recording session
He was the same age as Kubo when we started recording him, but there is this perfect period of about six months before a boy’s voice changes. By the time we got to our last recording session with Art his voice was deeper than mine, so he couldn’t do the voice.
14. There is a fire-breathing chicken...
We have this segment in the movie where we see Kubo’s gifts early on. He’s a storyteller, a feudal Japanese version of a filmmaker. He brings these origami figures to life through his art. He’s a street performer, like a busker, and so he tells these incredible stories. Often inspired by ones his mother has told him. But like all filmmakers, he wants to get a little bit of drama, a little bit of action, a little bit of comedy in there. So yes, the rumours are true – there is a fire-breathing chicken.
15. ...and monsters
Our movie is a big maturation metaphor, and so you start playing around with the idea. The magic of childhood is manifested as actual magic. Those fears we have of the unknown physically manifest themselves as monsters emerging from the shadows. And they are pretty cool monsters!
Kubo And The Two Strings is in cinemas now.