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Variety’s Creative Leadership Honoree Travis Knight Makes Bold Moves Onscreen and Off

Travis Knight Bumblebee
Stephen Lovekin/WWD/REX/Shutterstock

Deep in the pacific Northwest, in the rain-drenched, cold brew-infused world of Portland, Ore., Travis Knight has created something strange and very special. Over the past 15 years, the stop-motion helmer and producer has built Laika, a film studio that’s become famous for crafting movies by hand.

They’ve also been lauded for their cutting-edge technologies that they use in conjunction with their stop-motion art. In 2016, Laika won a Sci-Tech award from AMPAS for its 3D printing technologies.

It’s taken years to attract and develop the kind of unusual, gifted artists that can make hits including “ParaNorman” and the critically lauded “Kubo and the Two Strings.” But Knight, who describes himself as a lonely kid who loved to read and become immersed in stories, feels in sync with the creative family who’ve joined him there.

“We are a strange group of people, from all walks of life, from all over the world,” laughs Knight, who is receiving the Variety Creative Leadership Award on Oct. 17.

“What I love about our community is that the people come from everywhere and all the people were all kind of the little weird artistic kid in their class and sat in the back and didn’t really get along with anybody, but they have something, some beautiful part of themselves, that was just aching for expression. And I think one of the things I’m most proud of is that we’ve created a home for those kind of people. It’s like Santa’s workshop if all the elves had piercings and neck tattoos.”

Sometimes he finds someone with a reel on the internet. Other times, there’s someone who has specialized in a craft so unique that it’s indispensable to stop motion. Just the same, don’t let the body art or scarifications of the staff distract you. Knight embraces the culture of his Oregon hometown, but he runs Laika with the heart of a helmer and the eye of a CEO.

“What he has built with Laika is nothing short of remarkable and inspiring,” writes Megan Ellison, founder of Annapurna Pictures, in an email to Variety. Annapurna is working with Laika on “Missing Link.”

“As a leader he has been able to cultivate an environment that pushes creativity beyond its limits in both artistry and technology. Every Laika film is a true work of art that reinvents and challenges the world of animation and storytelling and it is without a doubt much to Travis’ credit that the studio has become a distinct and desired home to creatives and artists alike.”

As part of an overall strategy to expand the Laika brand, Brad Wald, the company’s CFO, is expanding the catalog of products that will feature signature Laika characters and films. Wald, who previously worked on marketing for “Downton Abbey,” says Knight is keen on preserving the relationship between superfans and his work. Only items that fit the identity of the boutique studio will work for them.

Knight, the son of Nike founder Phil Knight, has kept his studio on track through the kind of obsessive pre-production that eliminates nearly everything unnecessary once he goes into production.
He wants to make the kind of films that are worth the sacrifices and hard work that go into them.

“He’s got a vision and when he lands on a project, he knows that he wants to do,” says Arianne Sutner, head of production for Laika. “He’s all-in and read everything about it so that once we get into the meat of making [a film] he can really answer any questions with confidence. He’s really disciplined and prepared and I think those two things are what you need to make these movies. You can’t be a dabbler with these kinds of films.”

Sutner was a producer on “ParaNorman,” “Kubo and the Two Strings” and is working on the upcoming 2019 Laika film “Missing Link,” which was written and directed by Chris Butler, who was also drawn to work at Laika.

Butler credits Knight for taking a chance on him when he’d written about 30 pages of “ParaNorman.” At the time Butler had never directed a film, but Knight knew instantly he wanted to make Butler’s script with Butler as the helmer.

“On Fridays after work at Laika they have food and drink and it was my first or second weekend at Laika, and I knew a couple of people, but that was really all,” says Butler. “And this friend of mine introduced me to someone named Travis and then walked away, and Travis and I talked for quite a while. It was only after I left that my friend pointed out that was Travis Knight. He was really a very regular guy.”

For Knight, the lonely kid who found a way to reach others through stories, that kind of connection is everything.

“I just got a letter the other day from a mother whose child has autism and they’d seen ‘Kubo’,” says Knight. “And it provided an opportunity for them to bind together and the letter talked about the music and it’s just that moment that every parent longs for. And that’s why we do what we do, to reach people and make people’s lives better.”