TEN YEARS AGO, Laika could have just as easily named itself “Longshot.” Sure, it was backed by Nike co-founder Phil Knight, who had bought a controlling interest in the animation studio back when it was Will Vinton Studios, but in order to really get your movies recognized by Hollywood you need more than cash. And studios aren’t always keen to partner with the new kids, no matter how well-heeled well they are.
“We’re an outlier. We work in an industry that is dominated by franchises and sequels and prequels and remakes and reboots, but we’re devoted to telling new and original stories,” says Travis Knight, Phil’s son, who runs Laika. “We live in a modern, glossy, high-tech digital world. But we make movies in the most moth-eaten, anachronistic way possible. By using our hands.”
The Portland-area studio didn’t release its first stop-motion feature, Coraline (based on the Neil Gaiman book), until 2009, some four years after its founding. Then came ParaNorman in 2012, followed by Boxtrolls in 2014. Now Laika is taking the rare break from the famously laborious stop-motion process to celebrate its 10-year anniversary. (The studio is deep in production on their next feature, Kubo and the Two Strings.)
To commemorate the anniversary, WIRED asked Knight to reflect on the last decade and share how Laika survived in Hollywood—even while being based in Oregon.
The Most Important Thing: Perseverance
“Ten years ago, when we started working on our first filmCoraline, we approached virtually every major film studio, every mini-major, every independent distributor of note. I pitched headlong into the process with unbridled optimism. I thought we had all the vital ingredients for a truly exceptional film: a beautiful, best-selling novel written by a master [Neil Gaiman]; a brilliant, visionary director at the helm [Nightmare Before Christmas’ Henry Selick]; an army of passionate, world-class artists; and a groundbreaking production process that honored tradition while looking toward the future. My optimism was misplaced. Nobody was interested in us. Nobody was interested the weird little movie we were making. The reasons and criticisms were legion:
‘Stop-motion is not a viable filmmaking medium.’
‘Everyone knows you can’t have an animated film with a female protagonist, unless she’s a princess or a fairy, of course.’
‘No boy’s gonna go see a film with a girl’s name in the title. No girls will see it either. The damn thing’s too scary.’
‘Teens aren’t interested in animation.’
‘Adults see animation as a babysitter. They don’t want their kids to be challenged.’
It was all pretty heartbreaking. My hopes for artistic validation were dashed—at least they validated parking. But we soldiered on. And eventually we found an excellent partner in Focus Features and Universal, who remain our collaborators to this day.”…