Laika's next level

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Wednesday, April 01, 2009
TravisKnight Laika CEO Travis Knight on the set of Coraline.

PHOTOS COURTESY OF LAIKA

Travis Knight solidified his reputation as an animator with his work on Coraline, the debut box office hit from Portland animation studio Laika Inc., owned by his father, Nike founder Phil Knight. Now, as Laika’s newly named CEO, his first order of business is choosing the company’s follow-up film and seeking out a Hollywood studio partner that will help solidify Laika’s reputation as a rising star in animation.

Knight, who served as lead animator on Coraline, replaces Dale Wahl, who is retiring. Wahl will stay on board through October, acting as head of finance and operations until Laika finds someone for that role. Claire Jennings, producer of Coraline and Wallace and Gromit in the Curse of the Were-Rabbit, takes on the new position of president.

Knight acknowledges he comes to the role with a different perspective and background than Wahl, who he calls a “corporate and finance guy through and through.”

“What I represent is something entirely different,” he says. “This is a business about creating art. We’re making works of art. In me you have someone where that’s my background. I’ve been in the trenches producing. The creative process I understand to the core. I bring that sensibility to the leadership of the company.”

coraline Below, a scene from Coraline, on which Knight was lead animator.

Knight, 35, isn’t planning any major changes in the company’s direction or development slate, which he’s been involved with as a Laika board member and head of animation.

Laika has yet to identify its next film after scrapping Jack and Ben’s Animated Adventure in December. Among the eight in development are Here Be Monsters!, based on the bestselling book about a 12-year-old boy who lives underground in 1850s London, and Paranorman, an original idea from Laika story chief Chris Butler about a cursed small town that can only be saved by a 13-year-old boy.

Knight says Laika will continue pursuing films that set it apart from other animation companies and is looking for Hollywood studio distributors and partners in line with that philosophy. “The business has to be profitable,” he says. “In my mind, doing something innovative is the way to get there.”

Laika’s boldness paid off on Coraline, which has grossed more than $70 million in theaters. The film was distributed by Focus Features but was completely financed by Phil Knight when other potential partners balked at a scary children’s movie. Travis Knight won’t talk about potential finance partnerships for upcoming projects.

With Coraline complete and Jack and Ben off, Laika has shrunk its ranks down to around 300, but Knight says it will be hiring again once its next project goes into production. The nature of the film business, with the continual beginning and end of each new project, means that Laika’s ranks will continue to ebb and flow, he says. For Coraline, Laika brought in animators from around the world, but it also employed local talent.

Plans for a state-of-the-art 30-acre Laika campus in Tualatin are on hold until it gets other business fundamentals in place, he says.

Knight won’t be able to be as deeply involved in animating future projects as he was on Coraline, given his new role as a “neophyte captain of industry,” but, he says, “I made a commitment to myself that I can’t ever lose that direct connection with the work.”

JENNIFER NETHERBY

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