Director brings distinct new vision to ‘Bumblebee’

It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that when Paramount Pictures plotted out the first spinoff of the “Transformers” universe with “Bumblebee,” they turned to LAIKA producer, director and CEO Travis Knight to take the helm of the movie franchise. After all, what studio wouldn’t want a stop-motion animation director (and an Oscar-nominated one, no less, for ” Kubo and the Two Strings”) known for meticulously planning out every one of his characters’ moves?

“There is an aspect to stop-motion filmmaking where you have to put a lot of discipline and forethought into the process,” Knight said in a phone conversation from Los Angeles Wednesday. “In stop-motion, we cannot shoot any coverage whatsoever, so every single shot — every single frame — is thought about, and what you shoot is what’s going to go into the movie … so, after working in stop-motion for two decades, applying that same prism to a ‘Transformers’ film was something I was really excited to sink my teeth into.”

New this week on Blu-ray, DVD and streaming video (Paramount Home Media Distribution), “Bumblebee” tracks the Autobot fan favorite’s origins story, which begins with Optimus Prime sending his fellow Transformer to Earth to protect the planet after their home world of Cyberton comes under attack by the villainous Decepticons . It’s there where Bumblebee encounters a teenage outsider, Charlie Watson ( Hailee Steinfeld ), and shocks his new human friend with his ability to transform from a Volkswagen Beetle into a battle-ready robot.

However, while Charlie knows Bumblebee’s intentions are good, the robot in disguise is seen as a hostile invader by a secret government agent, Col. Jack Burns (John Cena). Complicating matters even further, two Decepticons have tracked down Bumblebee on Earth, and they’ve convinced Burns and his fellow agents that they’re their allies when they’re actually the complete opposite.

“Bumblebee” is appropriately set in 1987, the same era where the Hasbro Toys and the animated “Transformers” animated series captured the imaginations of children in the U.S. Among those kids was a young and impressionable Knight, who in a sense, was already making “Transformers” movies in the theater of his mind like a stop-motion animator.

” For me, the unique charm that stop-motion has is that it feels almost like a primal thing when you’re bringing children’s playthings to life. When you’re a kid and you’re playing with your dolls or action figures, you’re creating little stories, ” Knight said. ” And that’s what stop-motion is. When you’re a kid, you’re taking this doll and you’re imbuing it with life through your imagination. ”

Knight said he played with Transformers toys when he was a kid and was 9 years old when he saw the “Transformers” animated series for the first time.

“I also read the comic books and played with the toys, and I created my own stories with Bumblebee, Optimus Prime and Megatron , and we went on all these adventures together,” Knight recalled. “I’ve known these characters since I was a child, so to tell a story again about these characters — but one for the world to see — was a thrilling experience.”

Knight, who is making his live-action filmmaking directorial debut with “Bumblebee,” said he wanted to achieve something with the character that he was able to create with his stop-motion animated characters: real-life emotion. If he could do it with puppets that are meticulously animated frame-by-frame for a film like ” Kubo and the Two Strings,” the filmmaker knew he could accomplish it with a computer-generated character, too.

“It was of prime importance for me to make Bumblebee a real, flesh-and-blood character, if you will,” said Knight, who is also producing the upcoming LAIKA stop-motion adventure comedy “Missing Link.” ” He’s just a series of ones and zeroes on a computer, but for the film to work, he needed to feel like an emotional creature. Effectively what an animator does, is they bring personality and life to something that has none of its own, and that was the case here. There is a funny thing about the CG and the stop-motion perspective. Obviously, this is an overgeneralization, but generally for me, CG looks real, but feels fake. Stop-motion looks fake but feels real. ”

Essentially, Knight said, ” Bumblebee ” is the culmination of the two animated mediums, with CG artists creating the body of the character, and the employment of his stop-motion filmmaking sensibilities to provide the Transformer with his heart.

“He’s a CG character, but I wanted to bring the prism to all my stop-motion characters to his performance, emotions and physicality,” Knight said. “In talking to my animation team at ILM — in my very first meeting with these guys — I talked about all this in great detail,” Knight said. “They actually ended up re-rigging the character in a different way than they did before to accommodate this new kind of performance.”