The Art Of Animation: Kubo and the Two Strings

An epic fantasy with a deep emotional core.

From animation studio LAIKA, makers of the Academy Award-nominated Coraline, comes Kubo and the Two Strings, an epic original action-adventure and a cinematic experience that sweeps audiences into a world of wonders.


On the craggy shores of a fantastical ancient Japan, a boy named Kubo lives on a high cliff above the sea. A scruffy street urchin who is always clever and kindhearted, Kubo (voiced by Art Parkinson of Game of Thrones) ekes out a humble daily living, mesmerizing townspeople of a small fishing village with his magical gift for spinning wild tales out of folded origami. Among the villagers he enthralls with his stories are Hosato (George Takei), Hashi (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa) and Kameyo (Academy Award nominee Brenda Vaccaro). By night, Kubo tends to his fading yet regal mother as she slips into trances that seem ruled by the rising and setting moon.

This relatively quiet existence is shattered when Kubo 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 the fierce, no-nonsense Monkey (Academy Award winner Charlize Theron) and the quixotic insect samurai Beetle (Academy Award winner Matthew McConaughey), and sets out on a thrilling quest to solve the mystery of his fallen father, the greatest samurai warrior the world has ever known. Kubo must find the coveted items left behind by his father: The Armor Impenetrable, The Sword Unbreakable, and The Helmet Invulnerable.

With the help of his new friends and his cherished shamisen – a magical musical instrument –Kubo’s odyssey winds through howling blizzards in The Far Lands, the underwater Garden of Eyes, and the dangerous Bamboo Forest. Learning of his own magical powers with every new test of strength and character, Kubo must battle gods and monsters, including the vengeful Moon King (Academy Award nominee Ralph Fiennes) and the evil twin Sisters (Academy Award nominee Rooney Mara), to unlock the secret of his legacy, reunite his family, and fulfill his heroic destiny.

Travis Knight

Director Travis Knight

From the beginning, our community at LAIKA has wholeheartedly pursued the simplest of goals: to make movies that matter. Of course, that unadorned statement belies the enormous back-breaking and mind-numbing complexity of crafting an animated film from scratch and slowly, painstakingly coaxing it to life a frame at a time over the course of many years. But, putting all that aside, stripping everything else away, we’re just simple storytellers.

Travis Knight 2

Travis Knight is President & CEO of LAIKA, the award-winning feature film animation studio located in Hillsboro, Oregon. He has led or been involved in all key creative and business decisions at LAIKA since the studio’s founding in 2005. Before becoming President & CEO in 2009, he served as Head of Animation, supervising the studio’s stop-motion and CG animation staffs; and overseeing studio-wide animation production and development. Kubo and the Two Strings marks his directorial debut. He was producer and lead animator on LAIKA’s The Boxtrolls (2014) and ParaNorman (2012); and was lead animator on the studio’s first motion picture, Coraline (2009). All three of LAIKA’s features have been nominated for the Academy Award as well as BAFTA and PGA Awards. Coraline and The Boxtrolls were also nominated for Golden Globe Awards; and ParaNorman was cited as Best Animated Feature by 14 critics’ groups, more than any other 2012 animated feature. Mr. Knight was honored with the Annie Award, the animation industry’s highest honor, for his character animation work on ParaNorman and, as producer, received an Academy Award nomination for The Boxtrolls. He was named a “Rising Star of Animation” by Animation Magazine in 2007. Mr. Knight was supervising animator on LAIKA’s highly praised short film Moongirl. He began his career in animation in the late 1990s working on the Emmy Award-winning stop-motion animated television series The PJs, as well as on numerous national commercial campaigns, during his tenure at Oregon’s renowned Vinton Studios. Under his leadership, LAIKA has garnered worldwide distinction for its melding of the age-old craft of stop-motion animation with the most cutting-edge cinematic advances and manufacturing techniques. Fast Company named LAIKA one of the world’s “Top Ten Most Innovative Companies in Entertainment.” Mr. Knight was the inaugural recipient of the Simon Benson Award for Alumni Achievement from his alma mater Portland State University, presented in 2012. He sits on the Board of Directors for LAIKA and NIKE. Despite his corporate duties and filmmaker responsibilities, he still likes playing with dolls.

Says director Travis Knight “We believe storytelling is an important part of who we all are. We believe the best stories are a delicate and artful blend of darkness and light, of intensity and warmth, of much-considered thought and keenly felt emotion. We aspire to make films that engage the mind, that dazzle the eye with wonder, and that touch the heart with a reservoir of meaning. We tell stories that move us and that we hope resonate in the same way with audiences all over the world.

Art in its best forms speaks to our shared humanity, and nowhere is that more evident than in the art of telling stories. Good stories can bestow upon us tremendous gifts: they allow us to see the world through eyes that are not our own; they allow us to experience another’s story as if it were ours. They can open us up to new ideas, to new ways of thinking, to recognize the hidden connectivity of all things. A good story can elicit empathy. A good story can change you.

At LAIKA, we know how lucky we are. We have an extraordinary privilege to tell stories that bring people together, to kindle imaginations, to inspire people to dream. That’s what movies meant for me when I was a kid. They still have that power.

The great Robert Frost wrote “Nothing gold can stay.” And he was right. Beauty is transient.  Magic is fleeting. Wonder fades…and life itself is not built to last. But, as it happens, there is something that can go on. Our stories. Long after the thing itself is gone, our story of it can endure, thrive, and grow in power and meaning. The abiding power of stories reminds me that art can transcend any given time, place, and culture. It reminds me that we are all connected. That we all touch the world’s surface. And that art can draw us together over shared thoughts, emotions, and experience and speak to that which makes us who we are. My great hope is that Kubo and the Two Strings is that kind of story.”

Like its newest hero, Kubo, LAIKA has been on a journey. In 10 years, LAIKA’s status in the world of moviemaking has grown from fledgling animation studio to one of the world’s most admired producers of animated features. In 2016, the Oregon-based studio was honored with an Academy Award for scientific and technical achievement.

LAIKA’s traditions of bold storytelling, technical innovation, unforgettable characters, gorgeous visuals, and bringing the art form of stop-motion animation into the 21st Century all coalesce in the company’s most ambitious work to date, Kubo and the Two Strings.

The elements vital to this original story are love of Japanese culture and tradition, a boy becoming a hero, a quest packed with humor and action, and the self-discovery that we all seek.

Kubo and the Two Strings director/producer Travis Knight, an Annie Award-winning animator and Academy Award-nominated filmmaker who has produced, and been Lead Animator on, LAIKA’s Oscar-nominated ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls, points out that “stop-motion has been around since the dawn of cinema. Fundamentally, it’s the same process that Willis O’Brien used in King Kong in 1933, but we’ve created technology and techniques that have completely transformed the medium. Our combination of art, craft, science, and technology makes for powerful visual storytelling.”

Yet LAIKA eschews a “house style” of animation, preferring instead to utilize those techniques, styles, and aesthetics that serve a particular story most appropriately – often blended together. What is consistent at the Oregon-based studio is its mandate to tell stories that are bold, distinctive, and enduring. Knight says, “We want to make movies that matter, and to do so in a way that truly pushes the medium of animation forward.



A child comic book collector turned DreamWorks studio executive, in 2011 Marc Haimes tore off his tie and folded away his suit in order to pursue the passion that propelled him from Washington, DC to Los Angeles: writing. His first spec script, a live-action horror/thriller, was discovered by Shannon Tindle and Travis Knight, who thought the character work and darker sensibilities made him an out-of-the-box fit to write Kubo and the Two Strings. Most recently, Mr. Haimes finished writing a drama based on the Waco, Texas tragedy of 1993 for Oscar-winning producer Mark Boal. His current project is an adaptation of the subversive graphic novel Nimona, which will be directed by Academy Award winner Patrick Osborne and released by Fox Animation Studios. Following that, he will collaborate again with writer/director Shannon Tindle on an original comedy-adventure for Sony Pictures Animation that will take them from the ancient Japan of Kubo and the Two Strings to a futuristic Tokyo. Mr. Haimes is incredibly grateful for all of these meaningful creative collaborations and for his secret source of inspiration: his eccentric-genius dog, Henry.

“We are heirs of a great tradition of storytelling. Whether sitting around a campfire, in an amphitheater in ancient Greece, or at the Globe Theatre in Shakespeare’s England, experiencing stories in a communal setting is a powerful and timeless ritual. Now movie theaters are where we go for stories about who we are. It’s an incredible privilege to assume that legacy. We take it seriously. We want to give the audience something new, a meaningful experience, something they can remember and carry with them in their lives.”

Since storytelling forms the nucleus of the creative DNA at LAIKA, Kubo and the Two Strings could not help but appeal to Knight, who, as President & CEO of the company, decides which tales will be told.

“I had been looking for something big and expansive and epic in nature that would also speak to deep truths about life and childhood,” Knight recalls. “Growing up, I was an enormous, obsessive fan of fantasy epics. I was a voracious reader, devouring Tolkien, Greek and Norse mythology, L. Frank Baum, and the seminal manga series Lone Wolf and Cub. It’s probably no surprise that I was a film geek as well, and I adored the epic works of Akira Kurosawa, Steven Spielberg, Hayao Miyazaki, Ridley Scott, David Lean, and George Lucas. In fact, Star Wars is the first film that I remember seeing in the theater.

“LAIKA had yet to tackle a big fantasy. Probably for good reason. It’s really hard. Most stop-motion films look like they’re shot on a table top, because they are. But an heroic fantasy demands scope and scale. To make a small-scale movie shot on a gussied-up slab of wood in a warehouse look and feel like a large-scale epic lensed on an endless majestic vista is a nigh impossible task. It’s ridiculous. Nobody would do that. Which is exactly why I was excited to do it.”

So it was that Knight responded positively to a pitch from Shannon Tindle, who created the characters and the original story. “For me, Kubo and the Two Strings is very much about family,” says Tindle. “It was inspired by my wife’s relationship with her ailing mother. I wanted to tell their story through the prism of a fantastical Japanese-inspired folk tale. Drawing from such a personal place allowed the story to be an epic fantasy, but with a deep emotional core.”

Chris Butler

After amassing an impressive array of feature credits as storyboard artist, character designer, and sequence director over a decade, Chris Butler marked his first feature as director and screenwriter with LAIKA’s movie ParaNorman, which was cited as Best Animated Feature by 14 critics’ groups, more than any other 2012 animated feature. He shared the film’s Academy Award, BAFTA Award, and Critics’ Choice Award nominations; and received an Annie Award nomination for Best Writing in an Animated Feature Production, among other honors. Previously for LAIKA, the U.K. native was storyboard supervisor on the Henry Selick-directed Coraline, serving as head of story and also providing additional character designs. For his story work on the movie, he received an Annie Award nomination; and was recognized by Variety as one of animation’s top up-and-coming talents.

Marc Haimes developed the story with Tindle, and then wrote the screenplay with Chris Butler, who previously wrote and directed ParaNorman for LAIKA.

Haimes comments, “One of the central themes in Kubo and the Two Strings is the redemptive power of storytelling. In her moments of clarity, Kubo’s mother recounts stories of their lives together before his father’s tragic end. But she is steadily declining, and Kubo becomes the storyteller to the villagers not only to earn a living to support them but also to keep the tales alive.”

An epic quest movie

Kubo and the Two Strings is an epic quest movie with towering landscapes, exciting martial arts battles, magic, and fearsome villains. But it is also a story of maturation and forgiveness, the tale of one child attempting to define family and tradition and to understand how loss and healing reside side by side in the human heart.

“LAIKA movies always tell a personal story,” says director Travis Knight. “Paradoxically, the more intimate and personal a story is, the more universal it becomes. While that’s been the case with all of our films, there’s more of me in Kubo and the Two Strings than anything I’ve ever done. That can be a slightly terrifying prospect: revealing a part of yourself that you typically keep shrouded and protected. But it’s what we need to do if we want to tell stories that have meaning and resonance and real heart.

“The emotional core of the narrative is about a boy and his mother. That connects with my own experiences. Like Kubo, I was a lonely kid, and my existence revolved around my mother. She was my closest friend, the defining relationship of my young life. This movie explores that time in our lives when those things began to shift, and then irrevocably change; when we learn a profound and melancholic truth that to love is to hurt. That’s a hard truth, but it’s a fundamental aspect of what it means to be human.”