The Knights' Tale

Living a quiet life as an animator, Travis Knight never dreamed he'd work for his father. Then the Nike founder gave him an offer he couldn't refuse.

The shoes were black, hard, and tight, and Travis Knight squeezed into them as if this were day one of military school. He was wearing a suit, too--his only suit--for the first time in who knew how long. Usually, he showed up for work in jeans, a T-shirt, and his lucky Doc Martens. But in fall 2002, he was starting a new job, one he'd never considered and certainly never pursued.

He was terrified.

Up until then, Travis had been just another young, obsessive animator at Will Vinton Studios in Portland, Oregon. He spent his days mostly alone, posing his delicate puppets or creating computer graphics for ads and a short-lived TV series, hoping for another show, maybe his first film. A humble life near the bottom of the ladder. Today that would change. Travis was taking a seat on Vinton's board of directors, a body he'd always thought of as some kind of secret society. He was 29, with no experience as a manager and only four years as an animator, his first real job. Ever.

To make it all even more complicated, at the meeting he would also step into a second role he'd never expected: the boss's son. "I was freaked out," Travis recalls. "These worlds were colliding."

This was Phil's idea. That's what Travis calls his father. Phil. Same as everyone else. Travis never wanted to draw attention to the fact that his father was the man who swooshified the globe. He hated reinforcing the notion that he was born with silver Nikes on his feet. Even though, well, he was.

Phil Knight is one of the world's wealthiest people, but he's also a parent. He worries, meddles, backs off, meddles some more. He had hoped his two sons, Matthew and Travis, would come to work for the empire he had started in the 1960s by selling sneakers out of the trunk of his car. Maybe they would even run it one day, he thought. But they weren't interested. "They made that very clear from the beginning," he says.

A man like Phil can buy alternatives, however. After the advertising market plummeted following September 11, with Vinton Studios near bankruptcy, Phil dipped into his billions and saved the company. And Travis's job. Now the largest shareholder, Phil asked his son and a couple of Nike veterans to join the board of directors. Travis was relieved about Vinton, but uneasy about his new role. Not only was he now the boss's son, he was about to become his bosses' boss, whatever that meant. He feared what must be going through their heads: What the hell does this kid know?

The board met in a conference room at Vinton. There was Will Vinton himself, with his handlebar mustache, the creative genius who'd put the studio on the map in the 1980s with the California Raisins. (He'd be gone in a matter of months.) There was Phil, the new chairman of the board. And there was Travis, the youngest and quietest director, taking it all in, feet throbbing in his shoes.

"I said yes," Travis says of Phil's request to join the board. "But I didn't know what it meant."

Five years have brought great change to the Knight family: Phil is no longer Nike's CEO. Travis the animator is finding his inner executive. And both have suffered the death of Matthew in 2004, which has only tied them more tightly to the new family business.

Laika, as Vinton is now known, has grown to nearly 400 people--animators, model makers, set builders, puppet engineers, riggers. If the Knights have their way, they are creating not only the company's first movie, Coraline, slated for release next year, but the next great animation studio. Period.

With that immodest goal in mind, they have lured away veterans of Pixar, Disney, and DreamWorks. They're designing a $55 million, 30-acre campus, complete with a fitness center and 300-seat theater, conceived by the architect of the nearby Nike campus. They're dropping no less than $50 million on their very first picture, with another of the same scale waiting in the wings. They're using two radically different forms of animation, which is almost unheard of. Phil's commitment to date: $180 million.

At Laika (pronounced LIKE-uh), Phil has made other moves that will one day be seen as either the bold improvisations of a maverick or the naive missteps of a sneaker mogul out of his element. He brought in Dale Wahl, a former Nike exec with zero experience in the film business, as CEO. ("I told Phil I wouldn't know Finding Nemo if it hit me in the face," Wahl says.) Phil hired Henry Selick--a man whose work he still hasn't seen but who is one of Travis's animation heroes--to be supervising director, even though Selick's box office falls with every film he directs (he has never come close to matching his biggest success--The Nightmare Before Christmas, back in 1993). Phil also kept the commercial division, Laika House, a rarity in animation (the film division is Laika Entertainment).

Then there's Coraline itself. Based on the best-selling young-adult novel by Neil Gaiman, Coraline is, by design, no Shrek. There's no wisecracking barnyard menagerie, no potty humor, no topical winks for the adults in the audience. (It does, however, feature celebrity voice talent, Dakota Fanning and Teri Hatcher.) It's a ghost story about a clever girl who discovers a door in her house that leads to a mysterious, parallel world. But the other world in Coraline is dark and scary, which, unlike, say, Cars ($244 million at the box office), rules out the 8-and-under crowd. And instead of superslick computer animation, it relies on stop-motion, an older, handcrafted technique that happens to be Travis's specialty (although with a modern twist: It's being shot in digital 3-D, an industry first for stop-motion). "Stop-motion is sort of the redheaded stepchild of animation," Travis says. "But it's incredibly beautiful. What we're doing will blow people away."

Maybe so. But Laika is a curious and elaborate gamble on Phil's part, albeit one a man with $9.5 billion or so can well afford. Some industry types are bound to ask whether he's trying to build an enduring business or indulge the dreams of his only remaining son. They'll wonder whether Phil, who frequently uses the phrase "in 25 words or less," is patient enough for a movie that's literally made by hand over several years. They might even pause at the name, Laika. Suggested by an employee, it refers to the dog shot into space by the Soviets in 1957, "a humble mutt that touched the stars," as Travis says. 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.

They're creating not only their first movie but, they hope, the next great animation studio. Price tag to date: $180 million.

They're unlikely partners, Phil and Travis. "He was the most athletic of my kids and the least interested in sports," Phil says. "At Nike, we have these meetings with coaches and athletes throughout the year, and he was around some of the best NBA players. I think he just didn't want to compete with any of that."

Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi, John McEnroe--they all visited the Knight house. "It didn't seem odd to me," Travis says. "They were just people my dad did business with, his clients." He didn't tell friends about the superstar houseguests. He didn't want the attention.

Travis quit Little League, despite being one of the best players on the field. He was drawn to individual pursuits, tennis and karate, just as Phil was hooked on running, the true solitaire of sports. But Travis was never a fan. "My father has this insane, all-consuming passion for sports," he says. "I was like, Man, I don't understand being that heavily invested in something."

He wouldn't understand until much later.

"Phil is my father," Travis says. "He's part of who I am. But I don't want to be defined by that."

As a kid, Travis was more likely to pick up a sketch pad than a football. He preferred watching the herky-jerky stop-motion skeletons in Ray Harryhausen's films to ESPN. He made his own crude stop-motion movies. "Superhero crap," he says, "with dolls and things exploding."

Being Phil Knight's kid was … complicated. Especially in a community as small as Portland. Whenever Travis picked up The Oregonian, he knew he might see a story about his dad or a biting editorial cartoon. He couldn't escape his father's shadow as easily as other kids, not when his classmates were clamoring for the very products his dad made. Travis got used to hearing "That's Phil's son" and "That's the Nike kid." He became wary at an early age, skeptical of others' interest in him.

Unlike Matthew, the older brother, who worked a little in the Nike warehouse, Travis stayed away. "Phil is my father," he says. "He's a part of who I am. But I don't want to be defined by that."

But it's a seductive thing. And powerful.

In high school, Travis dreamed of becoming a rap star. This is the part of the story he'd just as soon leave on the cutting-room floor. In the early 1990s, long before hip-hop was mainstream, before Snoop Dogg became a pitchman for Chrysler, Travis was an oddity. He was not simply a white rapper but a white rapper in Portland. He was at the top of his class at Jesuit High School and had already been admitted to Stanford, but he had his sights on a recording contract.

Phil wasn't thrilled. "It's not like when your kid is born, you hope he grows up to be a hip-hop artist," he says. But he could relate. When he was 24, fresh out of Stanford business school and three years removed from the University of Oregon track team, Phil had told his father he was starting a sneaker business. "I'm disappointed," his father replied.

"Basically, it broke his heart," Phil recalls. William Knight, a prominent Portland lawyer turned newspaper publisher, envisioned a nice stable career as a CPA for his son. He was old school. "I can almost never remember him giving me a compliment," Phil says. "It was, 'You can do better.'"

Phil was different. He told his rapping son, "Why not try it?" Travis asked a family friend to pass his demo on to MCA Records, a major label, and soon he had himself a deal. Keith Shocklee, the former Public Enemy producer assigned to make the CD, said Travis had talent, but his family name didn't go unnoticed: "I was told, 'This is Phil Knight's son. Show him how it's done.'"

Travis, just 17, moved to New York, and on the advice of his managers, became Chilly Tee. For six months, he lived out of his parents' Manhattan apartment and rapped about being misunderstood ("Krisis of Identity") and about getting pushed to be something he wasn't ("Get Off Mine"). Chilly resisted the advice to milk his Nike roots--for the most part. The last cut on the disc: "Just Do It."

But the CD tanked, and the proposed tour never happened. Disillusioned, Travis enrolled at Portland State University, close to home but a long way from Stanford.

To this day, Chilly Tee's father keeps the CD on his iPod. His favorite song is "Get Off Mine," the title track. "I like the attitude," he says.

A father can push. He can open doors. But once the son passes through, he's still left to walk on his own. After Travis graduated, Phil suggested a series of internships in Portland. He made some calls. Will Vinton Studios was the first and last stop. Back in 1998, the company was cranking out episodes of The PJs, an animated Fox series with Eddie Murphy. Production was unrelenting, and one of the directors let Travis pitch in. Before long, despite his lack of formal training, he was promoted to full-time animator. "He's a natural," says Mary Sandell, now a Coraline producer, who hired him at Vinton. "I'm not just saying that."

Travis discovered his own "insane, all-consuming passion" for breathing life into the foam-and-metal dolls. And he realized he had the almost bottomless patience it required. Stop-motion is created frame by frame, 24 frames per second of film. "Two or three seconds of animation is a good day," he says. (For his part, Phil says, "I wouldn't have the patience.")

By 2002, Vinton's two TV shows had been canceled. Its ad work was vanishing. The company had too many employees, too little cash, and mounting debt. Phil, who had invested $5 million to help the company expand during its PJs heyday, deliberated for a week about intervening. Saving Vinton "was going to take a pretty good investment," he says. But it came down to more than money. One of his biggest regrets, he often tells business-school classes, was being away from his family while building Nike. By this point, Matthew was off doing his own thing, raising money for orphanages in El Salvador. "If I don't do it, [Vinton] fails, and Travis goes to work for some other animation place," Phil says. "Probably in L.A."

Of course, it wasn't that easy. When Phil did step in, Travis got a stark lesson in corporate Darwinism. Will Vinton, the chairman at the time, didn't realize that Phil, as part of his original investment (15% ownership), had included a clause allowing himself to assume control of the board in the event of significant losses. "I was naive," Vinton says. "Definitely naive." A few years earlier, his stock had been worth more than $20 million; six months later, he was fired from the company he'd founded and given $125,000 in severance. Devastated, he sued Phil and the new board members, including Travis, saying he'd been unfairly forced out. It was all part of Phil's plan, Vinton charged, to hand over the studio to "his child." A judge dismissed the suit.

"Dark times" is how Travis describes his initiation into the brutality of business. It looked like the low point, but it wasn't. Not even close.

In May 2004, two years after Phil bought Vinton, Matthew traveled to El Salvador for Christian Children of the World, a Portland nonprofit. He was shooting a fund-raising video and helping acquire two houses for orphanages, one for boys, one for girls. He visited the country several times a year, often enough for the kids to call him Tío ("uncle") Matthew. This would be his last trip. While scuba diving with colleagues in Lake Ilopango, near San Salvador, he suffered a heart attack 65 feet underwater and died instantly. He was 34.

Travis, who accompanied his father to El Salvador to bring his brother's body home, regrets that he and Matthew had drifted apart as adults. "That's why Jack and Ben is so important to me," Travis says, referring to Laika's second film. He won't say much else about the movie because it's still in development, but the relationship between the two protagonists is clear.

Phil stepped down as Nike CEO several months after the funeral. Matthew's death, he says, influences his relationship with Travis in ways he's not even aware of. "If it's your subconscious," he asks, "how do you know?"

After a long pause, Travis says, "It brought the family closer. You realize all this can go away in a minute."

It's a Friday morning in April on the set of Coraline, housed in a nondescript office park not far from Nike, outside Portland. Phil, 69, sits at a conference table in a black T-shirt, pin-striped suit jacket, and black Nike Air 360 running shoes without socks (he averages 25 miles a week these days). He sips a Diet Coke. Without his trademark shades, Phil, notoriously media shy, seems less mysterious. Not verbose by any means, but approachable, even playful with his son. Travis, 33, on a break from animating, is built more like a broad-shouldered wrestler than a runner, and he's dressed like a roadie in a black T-shirt, jeans, and his lucky boots (they date to his big break, The PJs). It's their first joint interview.

Asked what his toughest business decision has been, Travis's quick wit deserts him. "Do we really want to get into this?"

"Changing CEOs?" Phil asks.

"I'm thinking of something else."

Earlier this year, Laika reviewed the latest work on Jack and Ben, an original screenplay by Jorgen Klubien, who helped write Cars and other Pixar films. Phil, Travis, and the other board members agreed the script wasn't working, and they let Klubien go. (He landed at DreamWorks, working on the next Shrek.)

"It was heart-wrenching," Travis says, "because I considered Jorgen a friend, and that relationship is destroyed."

Phil's advice? "That's the way it works. Get used to it."

The father is teaching the son that, artistry aside, he'll need to keep his claws sharp. The son musters a tight smile.

"In 25 words or less," Phil says, "in your nonfamily life, the thing that means the most to you is the company." (Even after stepping down as Nike's CEO, he says, as chairman he still "walks the fine line between meddling and being away too much.")

"I probably have pushed him," Phil says. "That's kind of the way fathers are, right?"

Travis is learning this and other lessons. Firing a friend is just the latest. "If this company is to survive and make the films we want to make, we have to make those sorts of decisions, even though they're painful," he says.

"Those will be with you forever," Phil tells him.

Coraline is a fairy tale that explores the nature of family and identity. Who are your parents, really? Can you accept their flaws? Would you exchange them, given a choice? Just as Coraline traverses two worlds, so too does Travis. "There are things about the company I can't discuss with my friends on the floor," he says. "But the minute I become a suit to the other animators and artists, I lose a huge part of who I am. I don't fit into either world."

Travis is more comfortable with that dual role, though, than he was when he joined the board. He's had several years to reflect on the events that turned him and his father into partners. And while being Phil Knight's son can clearly be an albatross, it's hard to ignore the upside. Travis, after all, has come an awfully long way in his nine-year career--far beyond the imagination or reach of a typical animator. Phil created opportunities for his son before he could earn them on his own. Overseeing development of the Laika campus. Hiring the animation department for Jack and Ben. Sitting on the board of directors. Before Laika, Travis had hoped to eventually supervise or direct one day. But nothing like this--and certainly not this fast.

For all of that, he's grateful. He embraces the responsibility. "If not me, then who?" he says. "These are people's livelihoods we're talking about. I'd much rather be a part of those decisions than leave it up to someone else."

"Extrapolate this out long enough," Phil says, "and one day it'll all be his."

Travis never worked at Nike, so Phil was never able to show him how he makes decisions, how he thinks about business. Laika gives him that chance. And in hiring industry novices such as Wahl, Phil may be replicating some of the more successful--if counterintuitive--choices he made back in the day.

When he brought in Wahl to run the footwear division at Nike, Wahl had no footwear experience but wound up staying 16 years and thriving in all sorts of jobs he wasn't qualified for on paper. Same goes for Howard Slusher, Phil's right-hand man at Nike, a former sports agent so ruthless he earned the nickname Agent Orange. For Laika, Phil instructed Slusher to scour the globe for top talent in … children's book publishing. Slusher brought back Fiona Kenshole, the former publishing director for Oxford University Press Children's Books in London, to scout stories for acquisition. She doesn't have a film background, either, but her connections helped Laika win the rights to the best-seller Here Be Monsters, one of several projects teed up behind Jack and Ben.

"It's not exactly textbook, is it?" laughs Phil. But as he always says about Nike, "There's no sneaker school." To his mind, nothing beats on-the-job training. Being in over your head. Taking risks. Making--and learning from--mistakes. He's thrilled to be an underdog again after 40-plus years in sneakers. And thrilled to be grooming his son at Laika. "Extrapolate this out long enough, and one day it'll all be his," Phil says. "I probably have pushed him to take more of a management role than he's wanted to take. That's kind of the way fathers are, right?"

Hollywood has been quite an education for the Knights. In 2005, Travis, Phil, and the rest of the Laika brain trust shuttled back and forth between Hollywood and Portland, introducing themselves to studios as the "Miramax of animation," a nod to the old indie studio known for its surprising range. But first, Laika needed a distributor. Otherwise, Coraline would go nowhere. Lions Gate, Warner Bros., Paramount, Universal--they all passed. After that, Travis says, "we did some soul searching."

Coraline producer Bill Mechanic, the former chief of Fox Studios (Titanic, X-Men), wasn't surprised. "Hollywood is a me-too place," he says. "They want what's safe." Phil, however, was taken aback. "I knew it was a tough business, but it's been even tougher than I thought," he says. "It's a hard process to get to yes." Phil, who went so far as to take a three-day screenwriting seminar with Travis, doesn't care much for what he calls the "Hollywood thing." That is, canceled meetings, postponed meetings, calls that go nowhere. In the movie business, even the founder of Nike gets blown off.

Finally, Selick managed to get the script to Focus Features, the art-house arm of Universal. Focus CEO James Schamus, a veteran producer (Brokeback Mountain) and screenwriter (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), thought Coraline stood out. And he thought Laika understood moviemaking in a way few newcomers do. 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."

Laika was in business.

It's hard to imagine Travis giving up animation anytime soon to be a studio head. He's one of the first staffers to arrive each morning. A little after 8 a.m. on a Friday, he has already been at work for an hour, hot glue stuck to his fingers, dirt smudged on his jeans. The production takes place in a huge unmarked warehouse. Sealed off from the clamor of hammering and rock 'n' roll, a series of stages is defined by tall black curtains clipped shut. A red light indicates filming is under way. Eight animators (soon to be a couple dozen) are working on various scenes, hoping to please Selick, a famously exacting director. The space is disorienting, dark, so the alleys have names. Travis is on Easy Street.

At the moment, though, he's laboring to adjust a tiny brown disc ever so slightly on a puppet's eye. Suddenly he stops. Throws up his hands. "I lost the pupil!"

This part of the job comes more naturally to Travis, recently named one of 12 rising stars in Animation magazine. He lives with Coraline and the other characters, dreams of them. "I can find solace here," he says. After finding the pupil and putting it in place, Travis repeatedly toggles through frames on the monitor, making sure the movement looks natural. The puppet comes alive, eyes bulging. Satisfied, Travis hits a few buttons on the keyboard, and the 3-D digital camera captures another frame.

Only 129,599 to go for the 90-minute film.

Later, in a nearby screening room, Phil, Travis, and Selick don square, black-rimmed 3-D glasses--a trio of Buddy Holly impersonators--to watch some early footage. Phil's in a good mood. He hasn't seen Travis animate, but he hears about it plenty. Travis and his wife and two young kids are living in a wing of his parents' home--"like a Chinese family," Phil says--while a new house (this, too, by Nike and Laika's architect) is under construction nearby.

Today, Phil sees a few scenes--his first glimpse of actual footage--including one in which Coraline vies for her father's attention by dancing with a door.

"Who did that part?" Phil asks. "That's pretty good." He knows. And Travis knows he knows.

If all goes well, sometime next fall, father and son will be sitting in a real theater with a real audience watching their film debut. Phil is loath to disclose a box-office target, but admits, "Obviously, we'd love to do $100 million."

That's Laika, reaching for the stars. Who knows, maybe at the end of this journey, the dog will even walk away.

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  • Mark T Byers

    I'm seeking info on a full size Bronze statue of "SECRETARIAT' I purchased at Del Mar Racetrack 1/29/2006. I have lost my bio-info and need help. Small inscription on the base possibly spells Laika Genius Studios. Invoice said ' Hand Cast,Lost Wax Bronze "Secretariat", Signed.' I'm semi-disabled ex-ironworker interested in selling this 7 foot tall 800 pound bit of history to a more deserving owner. Was your studio involved in any way?