Director Travis Knight loves Transformers, which is obvious to anyone who’s caught Bumblebee in the new year. The soft reboot of Michael Bay’s live-action series dials back the action to the 1980s (beware of trying to make sense of the timeline) and behaves like an eight-year-old who respectfully unpacks his toys from the toybox, then throws themself into an imaginary battlefield between the Autobots and Decepticons. The movie references the cartoons, the comics, the toy lines, all without losing the emotional hook of a teenage girl, Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld), who learns to navigate a splintered social existence with the help of a robot in disguise.
Travis Knight loves Transformers — and while you can tell from watching the movie, he’ll also gush to you if you ask him.
“It was SUCH a huge thrill for me to bring those characters that I’ve loved since I was a kid to life in the way that I’ve always wanted to see them on the big screen,” Knight told Polygon. Bumblebee devotes most of the adventure to Bee and Charlie warding off the Decepticons on Earth, but the opening is energon ecstasy, picking up mid-battle between classic G1-designed bots. “I was just giddy ... And, look, if I was going to go to Cybertron, I was going to pepper that thing with as many of these characters that I’ve loved as possible.”
This is especially clear when Bumblebee gifts fans Soundwave, Megatron’s microcassette recorder lieutenant.
“I just thought it was so cool! Then Ravage popping out of his chest. We haven’t really seen that and I was like, oh, we have to see that, and if we’re going to see and that then we have to hear that awesome vocoder voice.”
Before signing on to direct Bumblebee, Knight spent years as both an animator and the president of the animation studio Laika, famous for stop-motion films like Coraline, ParaNorman, and Kubo and the Two Strings. Years of devouring Transformers cartoons and delicately shifting the parts of multi-step action figures paid off; Laika remains one of the few animation studios working in theatrical stop-motion today, and Knight is the face of the company’s prestigious success.
Did the work inform Bumblebee? In one scene, a curious Bee wanders into Charlie’s empty house to explore the nooks and crannies, only to leave the place in sub-Fyre Fest shambles. The visual gags, and the attention to Bee’s movements, feel completely in line with the stop-motion philosophy.
“I definitely see a parallel,” Knight says. “Essentially I treated any scene with the robots as if they were animated scenes. I approached them the exact same way. I broke down the script, storyboard it all out, and so because that one scene was Bumblebee trying to get familiar with this unfamiliar world, it was a lot kind of like Sorcerer’s Apprentice [from Fantasia] type stuff, very much an animator’s thing. That whole thing was completely boarded out within an inch of its life.”
Knight says it’s unclear if he’ll return to do a second Bumblebee movie or if the Transformers will take a new direction altogether (months before the release of Bay’s final installment, The Last Knight, Paramount Pictures assembled a “writer’s room” to hammer out the beats of what was imagined as a series of interlocked Transformers films a la the Marvel Cinematic Universe, though no additional films beyond Bumblebee were put into production let alone announced). One thing he’s firm about: he won’t be bringing the Transformers franchise through Laika’s doors.
“Everything that I’ve done at Laika reflects a certain philosophy or filmmaking philosophy,” Knight says. “I don’t see that fundamental thing changing moving forward.”
Knight says he loves the variety of what Laika’s no-limits approach has to offer. He loves “tapping into different genres and trying to apply our prism to the world,” so he doesn’t see a Transformers movie, or any major IP, being part of the future. The studio’s next film, Missing Link, due this spring, is an adventure film that whisks us away to Shangri-La and centers on a bigfoot-like creature. Yes, Travis Knight loves Transformers, but that’s only one gear under the hood.
“I’m excited to tell an interesting new and original stories at my animation house ... To the extent that you channel things that you love from your childhood loves and obsessions into what we do, I think that’s part of everything that we do.”