Coraline, which opens today in theaters, was a long time in the making. Not just because it’s the first 3-D stop-motion animation movie. But because it grew out of a business involving Nike founder Phil Knight and his son Travis that was anything but inevitable.
Like any good movie, the journey to Laika Entertainment, and ultimately Coraline, began with what screenwriters call an inciting incident: The action that sets everything in motion.
It was 2002, and Will Vinton, the creative genius who made the dancing, crooning California Raisins improbable ad celebrities back in the 1980s, was desperate. The terrorist attacks on September 11 had decimated the advertising industry. Will Vinton Studios, once one of the most successful animation shops around, was teetering on the brink of bankruptcy. Vinton reached out to a fellow entrepreneur in Portland, and Phil Knight did what only the Phil Knights of the world can do. He dipped into his vast fortune, investing millions to save the company.
The investment was personal. His son Travis worked as an animator at Vinton. Like a lot of fathers, Phil had hoped that his two sons would one day work for his company, maybe even run the place. But that was not to be. “They made that clear from the beginning,” Phil told me. They had to find their own passion. Travis’s passion was animation, in particular stop-motion, which involves meticulously posing and reposing small foam and metal puppets, shooting one frame at a time.
After the company continued struggling, Phil took control, renamed it Laika, and appointed Travis to the board. “I probably have pushed him to take more of a management role than he’s wanted to take,” Phil said. After pursuing his own career path, away from Nike and as an artist not a manager, Travis found himself working with his father for the first time. It wasn’t what he’d initially set out to do, but he couldn’t deny that it gave him a chance to fulfill his dream of making movies.
The Knights’s goal hasn’t been simply to make one movie, but to build the next great animation studio. Laika’s 30-acre campus is expected to cost another $55 million, and there are more than a dozen films in development. Coraline, their nearly $70-million debut, represents both a technical innovation and a bold creative choice. It’s a sophisticated ghost story based on the bestselling young-adult novel by Neil Gaiman and directed by Henry Selick, who made The Nightmare Before Christmas. It’s about family, identity, an offspring seeking independence from her parents, all familiar themes to the Knights.
Ultimately, Phil put Travis in position to follow in his footsteps after all–as an entrepreneur. Now father and son are making the same sort of ambitious and unorthodox bets that catapulted Nike into the big time. We’ll see if it works for Laika.