'ParaNorman's' Travis Knight: The Nike Scion Behind the Oscar-Nominated Film

Travis Knight Laiko CEO - P 2013
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Travis Knight Laiko CEO - P 2013

"This is the kind of story kids need to see," says Knight, whose Portland-based animation house made the stop-motion hit.

On a dimly lit stage in Portland, Ore., Travis Knight sits alone with his complete attention focused on a small doll. On this particular day in March 2012, he and the puppet are surrounded by a miniature set of a wooded forest, made luminescent with the use of such materials as glass, gauze and dabs of glue.

Knight spent the better part of the past few years on such stages making Focus Features' 3D stop-motion film ParaNorman. The very embodiment of the term "hands-on executive," he was not only a lead animator and producer on the film but also is the CEO of Laika, the Portland-based animation house that produced it. His personal story is just as striking as those of the characters he has brought to the screen: Instead of following in the footsteps of his father, Phil Knight, the Nike founder and chairman, he insisted on pursuing a career in stop-motion animation, where he has become a major force.

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The puppet with which Travis Knight has spent so much of his recent time is a model of his latest film's protagonist, Norman, a misunderstood young boy who travels with a band of misfits. "It's a really powerful story about what it means to grow up and be different," says Knight. "This is the kind of story kids need to see. It's OK to be different."

Knight, 39, relates personally to the film's themes. Growing up, he had little interest in sports; instead, he enjoyed Jason and the Argonauts and other classic films from stop-motion pioneer Ray Harryhausen, whose art involved creating animation, frame by frame, with puppets. Even though his father had made Nike a success by associating it with some of the biggest names in sports, Knight says, "I didn't have the all-consuming passion for sports that my father does. When I found art, I could understand this thing that my dad had -- passion and drive."

Fortunately for his son, Phil Knight had some empathy when Travis admitted he'd rather "play with dolls" than someday run Nike.

Phil Knight -- after graduating from the University of Oregon and earning an MBA from Stanford --had had a similar conversation with his own father, who was an attorney. "When I told my father I wanted to sell shoes, he let me know that I had absolutely broken his heart," he admits. "I think my experience probably made it easier for Travis and I. It became clear, probably as early as high school, that he really didn't want to work with Nike. I was OK with that. I always encouraged him to find what he wants to do."

So when Travis finished his education at Portland State University, his father suggested he try a few internships, which included such Portland-area businesses as Nike's ad agency Wieden & Kennedy and stop-motion company Will Vinton Studios, where Phil Knight served on the board of directors.

In the end, Travis joined Will Vinton -- the studio that coined the term "claymation" and popularized the California Raisins characters. Soon, though, in the wake of 9/11, Vinton's commercial business was hit by the recession. The company could have gone under if Phil Knight had not decided to step in -- becoming chairman of the board -- to keep the business going. The company was relaunched in 2005 as Laika. It retains a commercial production arm. But instead of relying on work-for-hire, it moved into producing its own animated films. "We came to the conclusion that we had a better shot if we got into content for movies," says Phil Knight.

Laika's first feature was Henry Selick's 2009 movie Coraline, based on the book by Neil Gaiman. The first stop-motion feature to be produced in stereoscopic 3D, it was considered a risky bet given its relatively dark story about a young girl who discovers an alternative but sinister family. Released by Focus, it not only grossed nearly $125 million worldwide but also earned a string of accolades, including an Academy Award nomination for best animated feature.

While there was a three-year gap between the releases of Coraline and ParaNorman, Travis Knight says he now is working toward an annual release schedule of studios like Pixar, which puts out at least one film a year. Laika is in production on The Boxtrolls, a 3D stop-motion and CG hybrid animated feature based on Alan Snow's fantasy adventure novel Here Be Monsters, for release in 2014. The Boxtrolls is being directed by Anthony Stacchi (co-director of Open Season) and Graham Annable (story artist on Coraline and ParaNorman) and produced by David Ichioka and Knight. The voice cast includes Ben Kingsley, Toni Collette and Tracy Morgan. Once again, Focus will handle worldwide distribution rights.

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Other projects are in various stages of development, including adaptations of Philip Reeve's novel Goblins that will be directed by Will Vinton alumnus Mark Gustafson; Wildwood, Colin Meloy's children's fantasy novel; and some original material.

Although ParaNorman wasn't quite as popular as Coraline, it still did solid business. Opening Aug. 17 in 2D and 3D, the movie, produced at a cost of more than $50 million, grossed $107 million worldwide and earned Oscar and BAFTA nominations.

In the movie, Norman and a group of students band together to save their small New England town from a Fog-like curse. The filmmakers themselves joked that the movie is "John Carpenter meets John Hughes."

"I think the biggest theme in ParaNorman is not to judge a book by its cover," says Chris Butler, who wrote its original story and co-directed the film with Sam Fell, who previously had worked at the U.K.'s Aardman Animations. "Behind that is a message of tolerance. We may think that we know someone just by looking at them, but we don't. We always hoped that the audience would watch this movie and have a fun time, they'd enjoy the ride, they'd laugh, they'd cry, and at the end, hopefully they would look a little bit different at the people who sat around them."

Adds castmember Anna Kendrick: "What makes Norman an outsider is what makes him special. Everybody is Norman in their own way."

Some studios might have considered Norman too much of an outsider, but "Travis is really committed to telling stories that other studios wouldn't," says Butler. "There was a time when family movies were a little more daring, a little more irreverent."

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Some of Laika's choices might appear off-beat, but that's because Travis says he likes to take creative risks, particularly if there's a hint of danger involved. He says that "fear" draws him to stories. "When I read a script and it makes me a little scared, that's when I know we are probably on to something because someone else isn't doing it. I love that it is a risk. That is what gets me excited."

Says Focus Features CEO James Schamus: "I think Travis is already a creative force; I hope the force continues to rise. That's good for everyone, including animation lovers. A lot of filmmakers have a message. The message is built into the character in a Laika film. They lead by example; they don't lecture you. Travis and his team don't emulate anybody else. They are taking their own path, and that is really exciting. They lead with their feelings, and they just are different."

In 2009, just after Coraline was released, Knight was named Laika's CEO. For a while, he says, he has felt like "an artist in search of my inner CEO. I found when I balance those two, it makes me better at both. Being an animator gave me some preparation for that. With stop motion, you really do have to bifurcate your brain."

But finding that inner CEO wasn't always easy, particularly when he found himself in the uncomfortable position of leapfrogging his bosses into his new management role. "That was a really strange transition, to go from someone who was in the trenches to someone making bigger decisions and having a degree of authority," he admits, adding that what might have helped was that he was a "fellow artist -- someone who really cares about the work we are doing, not someone who is only looking at the bottom line."

ParaNorman came about because Knight became intrigued by some material Butler had developed on the side while working on Coraline. Selick urged him to show the first 30 pages of his ParaNorman script, along with some notes for the remainder of the story, to Knight, who immediately asked, "Where's the rest?" As Butler recalls their initial conversation about the movie, about the only response he was able to muster was "OK." "I think I was in disbelief," he says. "That kind of stuff doesn't happen. I love that that can happen at Laika. It's a brave, fresh studio."

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The finished film is a remarkably ambitious and lovingly crafted animated work in the best tradition of stop motion, whose lineage goes back through Willis O'Brien's work in 1931's King Kong and, more recently, has been championed by Aardman, best known for the Wallace and Gromit adventures. The process can be painstaking: Posing the characters by hand, even the fastest animators can complete only a couple of seconds of animation in a day. But, says Knight, who loves the medium, "It's where you can truly see the artist's hand at work."

Often, because of time and cost restraints, stop-motion films involve only a few key locations and a handful of background characters. But Knight, as Laika's head, approved more than three dozen sets as well as a larger number of background characters.

ParaNorman also features what are arguably the most emotive stop-motion characters ever created by pioneering the use of digital printing technology in the stop-motion process. The filmmakers created many, many parts of each character's face digitally -- such as different eye or mouth positions -- and those designs then were printed out using a color 3D printer, which creates three-dimensional objects. They were then swapped out on each puppet's face, frame by frame, to create different expressions. There were, for example, a whopping 9,121 parts printed for Norman's face, amounting to 1.5 million possible facial expressions, which is something that previously could not have been done under the available budget.

While a printer had been used in Coraline -- where the title character had up to 200,000 possible facial expressions -- it was not a color printer. "Everything had to be hand-painted before they had the color printer, so the design was still being held back," explains director of rapid prototyping Brian McLean, asserting that for ParaNorman, "we can have an emotional range in a stop-motion character that has never been achieved before."

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At Laika, the soundstages were divided up by draping them into 52 individual stages so that multiple scenes also could be animated concurrently. On a typical day, Knight could be found working in solitude on his stage, tweaking a Norman puppet's pose ever so slightly and shooting the next still with his Canon 5D DSLR camera. Since the movie is in 3D, two still images (one for the left-eye image and one for the right) had to be shot for each frame of the movie. "You go home with backaches, you cut yourself on wire," admits Knight. "But you do get into this Zen mode -- this funky groove. When you have brought something to life, it is really rewarding. That's probably the most intensely focused part of my days -- that's the best part of my day."

Looking back on the path his own career has taken, Knight, who is married and has two children, says he would be very happy if someday his own children decide to pursue careers in the art that he finds so rewarding. "But if you look at what Knight children have done in the past, that's probably not going to happen," he acknowledges, jokingly adding, "We have a long history of disappointing our fathers. I hope they find that thing that moves them."

On a more serious note, he concludes, "Whatever that happens to be, I will be supportive of it. When I look at what my grandfather did, my father did, what I'm doing now, one of the things that make life worthwhile is finding that thing that you can contribute to the world and not holding back."