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Film Bumblebee director Travis Knight’s mission to make Transformers more than meets the eye

For a brand defined on being more than meets the eye, the past few Transformers films have arrived exactly as expected (or dreaded): loud, incomprehensible cinematic migraines.

Whereas director Michael Bay once made extreme destruction seem effortless – his first and third Transformers films are admirably bonkers – the architect of the franchise delivered one of the worst films of his or anyone’s career with 2017′s Transformers: The Last Knight. But that cash grab still lived up to its financial intentions, even if all signs pointed to Bay needing a break. Which is where Travis Knight comes in.

The filmmaker has been working in animation for two decades, mostly as chief executive of the stop-motion-focused Laika Entertainment (owned by Knight’s father, Nike founder Phil Knight). But Knight’s directorial debut, 2016′s Kubo and the Two Strings, impressed Transformers producers enough that they gave him the reins to the series, albeit tasking him with a distinctly anti-Bay vision: Bumblebee, a gentle eighties-set adventure closer to early Steven Spielberg in tone.

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Whether the, ahem, transformation will be enough to keep all the various Autobots profitable enough for another six films remains to be seen, but in the meantime, Knight is enjoying the best reviews to ever be doled out to a film involving Autobots. Ahead of the film’s release this Friday, The Globe and Mail’s Barry Hertz spoke with Knight about franchise fatigue and the future of animation.

U.S. director Travis Knight attends the global premiere of Bumblebee at the TCL Chinese theatre in Hollywood on Dec. 9, 2018.

VALERIE MACON/AFP/Getty Images

How was the transition from stop-motion animation to CGI here?

Well, the animation wasn’t much of a trip because I’ve been doing animation of one sort or another for 20 years, working in hand-drawn animation, stop-motion and CG. Every film at Laika is a combination of all three. The live-action component was new, though, and that was exciting and terrifying. So many aspects are analogous to animation, but the speed of it is so different. We’re working at such an accelerated pace – while in animation, it’s the speed of a glacier. Kubo took five years.

Do you feel you have a stronger sense of control with stop-motion, when you’re changing things one tick at a time? Here, you’re directing real people.

You do that in animation, too, but in a vocal booth as opposed to on set or location. The control aspect is noticeable, though, in shooting because in stop-motion, we’re in a big warehouse, a controlled environment. On location, you’re at the mercy of the elements. I remember we’d be scrambling to get everything we need during a night shoot, and my [director of photography] would come over and warn, “The tyrant is coming.” As soon as that sun comes over the horizon, we had to stop.

How is it going from properties you had control over to a very established franchise? I imagine there were many people carefully watching over this

They were, but after we had a number of successes in development and shooting, people backed off. I still have my philosophy of filmmaking. I remember when I sat down with Michael Bay early on, he gave me one piece of advice: “Protect the movie.” There’s going to be a lot of people pulling your attention, but you have to remember the movie you’re making.

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What is that filmmaking philosophy?

You see it in the stuff I've done at Laika: I've always tried to make movies that have an artful blend of darkness and light, intensity and warmth. That have a thinking brain and a strong beating heart at the centre of it. If you can connect with the audience emotionally, that's potent storytelling.

Was franchise fatigue a concern?

I never really felt it. There's a lot of things I can't control, and the thing I could control is I'm going to put everything I had into it. No one can predict how a film can perform or be perceived, but I had to make a film that meant something to me. And if it means something to you, it's likely going to mean something to someone else.

Aside from your initial conversations with Michael, was he involved?

We had a number of conversations about the franchise, this particular story and it was great to talk to another director in that personal way. But I knew I had a different point of view on these characters and this franchise, and it wasn’t going to work unless I could do it. To his credit, he knew that, too.

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How do you feel your point of view splits from Michael’s?

I think it’s fairly obvious. We’re very different kinds of filmmakers. He’s got his aesthetic and point of view and predilections, and I have mine. Aesthetically, you can see the difference. He’s one of the great cinematic stylists with action – you can tell a Michael Bay movie from one frame. That’s him. And that’s not the kind of movie I wanted to make. This is very different tonally, aesthetically. And to the producers' credit, they wanted to tell different stories in this universe.

How did you balance shooting Bumblebee and leading Laika?

You basically don’t sleep. I was working 16-hour days on the shoot, and at the beginning and ending you’re trying to keep things moving at Laika.

At Laika, do you think stop-motion animation has reached its full potential?

Never. With Coraline, we brought so many innovations to the process, and even then we gained new expertise and solved new problems. You build up your bag of tricks, and stand on the shoulders of what you did in the past.

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Are you optimistic that there’s room in the marketplace for these different kind of animated films, not the CG variety of Pixar and [Universal’s] Illumination?

If you look back at when Laika started 15 years ago, only certain kinds of animated stories were being told. Stylistically, you weren’t seeing much innovation. As popular as animation is now, a lot look and feel the same. There are exceptions, but the Laika stuff, we’re pushing to tell different stories. I don’t want to repeat myself. Part of our philosophy is to drive new things.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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