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Feature Film

The Knights of Laika

Knights of Laika

This article by Chuck Salter in the new issue of Fast Company is a fascinating indepth read about the transformation of Will Vinton Studios into Laika. The story includes the first joint-interview with Laika owner Phil Knight (who also founded Nike) and his son Travis “Chilly Tee” Knight, who is an animator, director and board member at Laika. The article is slanted very much towards their side of the story, but it doesn’t pull any punches and addresses the studio’s historical baggage in the form of ousted founder Will Vinton.

When I wrote briefly about Laika a couple months ago, I described my feelings about the studio as “cautiously optimistic” and that opinion still hasn’t changed. They’re clearly an outfit with a vision (albeit not quite fully developed) and they’re run by a creative entrepreneur with a proven track record (which is more than can be said for most execs working in feature animation). And most commendable, they’re attempting to stake their claim as being an original producer of animated features instead of positioning themselves as yet another Pixar/DreamWorks clone. Now it just remains to be seen if the Knights’ big gamble will pay off; it’s definitely a story worth following.

(Thanks, Joel Brinkerhoff, for letting me know about the article)

  • Mark D

    Oh dear, god help em.

    People might forget that as gargantuan as Disney and Pixar have become, they started out with little cash and lots of innovation. All the money in the world couldn’t buy that.

    something tells me all those Indonesian sneaker factories will soon be turning into animation farms.

    He and Phil liked the sound. But as a metaphor, it’s a little uncertain: When that dog came back to earth, she was dead.”

  • Mould Err

    Travis Knight : “Daddy, can you buy me an animation studio?”

  • So when are they going to really stand on their own and give Will Vinton his name back?

  • That’s the spirit, Mark!

  • Writer didnt do his research. Actually, the dog died in space. She never came back to earth.

    But I can’t fault these guys for giving it the studio a shot. It’s not like they’re corrupting something that was a fabulous success before their involvement, and it’s not like the studio would still be there without their intervention. In time, thanks to their investment of millions, we’ll be able to plunk down $7 and see some pretty good stop-mo animation, something we won’t see much of otherwise.

  • Theodore Hughes

    The Hollywood deck is stacked against Laika and their hiring choices were curious. Neil Gaiman’s fantasy feature track record, if Henson’s “Mirror Mask” is any clue, is a bizarre one, and not in a good way. Henry Selick gave the world “Monkeybone” but is an exacting technical director, as the article asserts. Will the 14-20 male, violent computer gaming audience sit still for a dark stop motion fable that isn’t quite dark nor bloody enough for them? If the story doesn’t drop the ball and go for blind alley pseudo artiness, maybe. The competition is in place, however: DreamWorks’ fart joke heavy fare is moderately successful, Sony’s is consistent and Pixar’s is damned good. Phil Knight cites that “there is no sneaker school”, which allowed him to pave his own path building Nike. But there was no Hollwood-scale adversarial force out to slash his throat with every misstep in the rubber soled shoe racket, either. Must it take a billionaire’s resources to pose even a minor threat to Hollywood? It shouldn’t in the age of You Tube.

  • intergalactic

    I think sometimes it easier to “dog” a studio before they even have the chance to produce any real content based on what the buzz is. I’m originally from Oregon and back in the day met Mr. Vinton at an event that they hosted called “The Portland Creative Conference”. Will Vinton’s studio will always be remembered and respected for its steps forward in Stop Motion Animation but I think that Will Vinton would be the first to say that he made some poor business choices along the way.

    I love the guy, love what he’s done in the past but bottom line is…the studio is now owned by someone else and unfortunately he’s not part of it. Also for those of you who would like to make a more informed comment on the merit of Travis Knight, I think that Ward Jenkins put it best on his blog here:

    “What’s telling to me is that Travis was already an established animator, working for years at Vinton Studios before his dad bought the company. Think about that for a sec: Travis didn’t have to work. At all. He’s set for life. His dad co-founded Nike, for pete’s sake! But he loves animation and has been in the industry long enough to have paid his dues.”

    I honestly hope that Laika has the ability to pull of some great story driven features.

    Only time will tell.

  • chris boylan

    it seems like theres alot of people on here who dont quite know what they are talking about. the article was well written and anyone who really wants to know what it’s like over here can put in an application when laika’s hiring again.

    hang tight, we’re all working very hard not to disappoint anyone.

  • Donnu

    Sure, Travis was an animator for a few years prior to his dad taking over Laika/Vinton. However, you gotta say.. WTF.. The kid was put on the board of directors..? You can’t tell me that if any other person besides Phil came in that Travis would be sitting on the board? Nepotism at its finest. I gotta wonder if everyone is on eggshells around the kid.

  • Jay Pennington

    Firing Vinton from his own company…that’s just low.

    So who owns the Claymation trademark now?

  • Norton

    Vinton should’ve read that contract he signed more carefully. And not only was Travis put on the board because of his dad but his dad built him a house, inside of his own home. Nothin’ like making it on your own, eh?

  • intergalactic

    This letter from Will Vinton was posted on AWN a few years ago…I think it covers a side of the story that isn’t being represented here in the comments.

    I saved a copy of this letter because I thought it served as a humble reminder of what can happen in business, even in animation.

    A Message From Will Vinton

    June 10, 2003

    Dear Friends and Colleagues:

    My good friend and associate, Jim Hardison, said it best, “It’s surreal!”

    After many great years building Will Vinton Prods. and creating groundbreaking Claymation and 3D-animated films, television and commercials, and growing Will Vinton Studios, I have been forced out of active involvement with the company by Phil Knight and his associates. The situation could also be described as “Machiavellian”! And I expect you’ll hear much more about this David and Goliath story in the near future.

    I am currently exploring new business opportunities and relationships and am open to a wide range of possibilities. I hope to give you details about the new plans in the near future.

    Effective immediately, I am represented by Jon Levin at CAA (Creative Artists Agency) for directing and producing of animated features and by David Tenzer and Rob Kenneally at CAA as a developer and executive producer for Television projects. CAA’s number is (310) 288-4545.

    For advertising and commercial projects, my new company will be associated with Happy Hour Entertainment ( in Portland. Happy Hour is a mix of former colleagues and new talent. I hope my years of experience in branding and producing and directing popular advertising using animated characters will help us reach new heights. My current office is in the Happy Hour facility at 1330 NW 14th Ave. Portland, Oregon, 97209. Happy Hour’s main number is (503) 295-6800, the fax is (503) 295-6636.

    To update your address book, here’s my permanent contact information (Please make sure you update the email since things sent to Vinton Studios is nearly impossible for me to retrieve):

    Will Vinton
    [personal contact info deleted]

    As I told the remaining staff when I let them know I was fired, it’s been one amazing 27-year run! When I think back on the highlights of my career I’m astounded at some of the great things we did together – but the best part of it all was working collaboratively with some of the best people and talent anywhere, inside and outside the Studio! That has been my greatest pleasure thus far!

    I look forward to building on that in some exciting, new future collaborations.

    Best Wishes and Stay Animated!

    Will Vinton

  • Benjamin De Schrijver

    Ah well, you wouldn’t be complaining if it were you. So he got lucky and was born in a rich family. Compared to some, the same happened to us. I’m jealous too, obviously, but it’s not like it’s Travis’ fault. None of you would let an opportunity like that pass. And to consider it low to fire Vinton out of his own company? Please. You’re talking about a contract with a guy who set up factories where people work in human rights violating working conditions.

    Be happy jobs were saved and created, along with a studio that seems to take a little bit of a different route than other studios, both story- and medium-wise.

  • George

    Would you be such a defender of the Knights if you weren’t on their payroll?

  • Benjamin De Schrijver

    I assume that comment was aimed at intergalactic, but just to be clear: I’m not on their payroll.

  • This is the “Billy West / John K” voicework fiasco all over again. Rather than blaming the people responsible, everyone focuses their hate on whoever gets the job next. Shame on Travis for being mildly successful. For shame, sir.

  • chris boylan

    george im assuming that you were referring to me, and if so

    im defending laika, not the knights

    there are alot more people involved than the two of them. as i said before, if you want to know what its like, wait till we’re hiring and come see for yourself. otherwise i ask that you have patience and reserve your judgement until you can actually see what we can do.

    as i said we’re working very hard over here to not disappoint anyone.

  • intergalactic

    Yeah, I’m not on their bank-roll either but I am excited to see what comes out of their studio. The more I read the more encouraged I am to hear that they seem to be taking things slowly and cautiously.

    I wish Laika and its crew the best of luck!

  • Donnu

    “Shame on Travis for being mildly successful”? Is he successful or just born to the right father? He’d still be an animator if it weren’t for the money that daddy brought in. Some would argue that he didn’t deserve what he got for his talent. Rumors are already swirling about what really happened with Klubien and perhaps soon Selick. Something tells me that this story is about to become a whole lot more interesting.

  • Oh, please. Donnu, I’d check your sources first before you start anything up here, if I were you. There’s nothing more sad than someone trying to start their own “rumors” from misinformation on a site like this.

  • Esn

    “Coraline, says Schamus, “is the most technically and aesthetically advanced movie I’ve ever worked on–3-D and stop-motion and high definition. And you’re talking to the producer of The Hulk.””

    Oh, please. The Hulk is supposed to be technically and aesthetically advanced now?

    Anyway, interesting article. The proof will be in the pudding, so I’m kinda reserving judgement until I see their first film.

    However, forcing Will Vinton out WAS a pretty dirty trick to pull. Oh, it’s legal of course. But I can’t help but feel sorry for the guy. He was a true pioneer, and he made one of the best stop-motion films I’ve seen, back in 1985 (“The Adventures of Mark Twain”).

  • Donnu

    Well, I actually originally heard that from someone who works there. then heard something similar down in LA

  • that is such a gay photo.