Monday, September 21, 2009

Interview: Chris McKay [part 1]


In 2004, Chris McKay made a trip to Los Angeles to follow up with some contacts he'd made while on the film festival circuit in years previous. To his surprise, he was offered a job as an editor for a young company in Los Angeles called Shadow Machine. He accepted and, early the next year, found himself part of one of the biggest hits on Cartoon Network, "Robot Chicken."

Having gone on to produce and direct both "Robot Chicken" and "Moral Orel," McKay is currently putting the finishing touches on Shadow Machine's latest, "Titan Maximum." Created by "Robot Chicken" writers Tom Root and Matthew Senreich, "Titan Maximum" is an animated sci-fi comedy set in a future where Titan, the largest moon of Saturn, is defended by a squad of brash, young fighter pilots. And a monkey.

"I loved comic books and movies and superheroes and toys when I was a kid," McKay told me. "I wanted to be an actor so I could play Spider-Man in a movie."

Born in Winter Park, Fl., McKay's family moved to the Chicago area when he was young. His earliest films were shot on his parents' super-8 camera. "It was fixed focal length. You couldn't zoom, you couldn't do anything. Basically just point it and click, and you were lucky if everything you got was centered."

He was influenced by Alfred Hitchcock from an early age. "When stuff like that would be on TV, [my mom and I would] watch these movies together. My mom liked Alfred Hitchcock. And so I got really into how to make movies. And you know, he was a name that there was sort of like a brand. It really made that correlation.

"And then when I would go see a movie like E.T., or see an interview with Steven Spielberg or something like that, he would talk about other filmmakers like Hitchcock and other people that influenced him. We didn't have a VCR and didn't have cable at the time. I'd have to go to the library and look up these books on these filmmakers, and look at these stills. Spielberg kinda led to Scorsese, and that led to Kurosawa. So you start to, you know, follow back and to see who influenced them. You know, John Ford. And deeper, and deeper, and deeper. So I just remember checking out all these film books and looking at all these stills and then wanting to see these movies."

McKay attended the film program at Southern Illinois University for two years, then completed his film school education at Columbia College. "Southern Illinois had a great film program. But I wanted to live in Chicago because I wanted to get on film shoots." That opportunity came with the John Hughes film Uncle Buck.

McKay: I was a production office intern. It wasn't a paid position. I got college credit. But again, that was one of the reasons why I made that choice. Cause I liked Southern; it was great. Southern was very artist focused. Like, you know, "Here's how you can be an artist." Not, "Here's how you can get a job and work in the industry." So many of my teachers at Southern were really great artists and it was neat to see their stuff. I had an experimental film professor who had written these books that I had read in the library; and then to go to class and he's the guy teaching your class, that was really great. So it was a different experience going to Columbia because everyone there was like a bitter ex-Columbia College film student. But at the same time, that's also very real. They have real world experience. They'd all come out [to Los Angeles] at one point after graduating college and tried to sell scripts, and met with certain levels of success, and then were back at Columbia College teaching. So they gave you really hard, good notes. Like, "Here's how to have a career" kind of thing. Which is what I really needed, because I was too much like a dreamy kid. I needed something where, you're gonna go work on Uncle Buck and then they're gonna send you to, you know, the South Side to go take pictures of some bowling alley or something like that. And you gotta figure it out. You gotta find your way there. You gotta get the right photos, come back and show them what the location looks like. Do all sorts of any number of weird tasks. And then I got to sit in on the dailies and listen in on, you know, them discuss what was good about a shot, and got to see their entire day's worth of work and them discuss it. So it was a really good experience overall. And then I got to meet all sorts of different people and make projects with them and kinda start to make contacts and develop friends and people in the industry that still I'm friends with to this day.

After college, McKay began working at a film and video equipment rental company in Chicago. "Just trying to find whatever job I could find right out of college that was sort of in the film business." He eventually landed a job making industrial films for a healthcare company -- "doctor training videos and things like that."

McKay: They were one of the first people in Chicago to have an Avid. The guys that I worked for didn't want to learn how to do it. So they told me to learn it and then to train them on it, and then they just had no interest in really learning it. So then I ended up being the guy that was the editor.

When the healthcare company shut down their creative services devision, McKay and a friend took out a loan, bought the Avid and some production equipment, and started their own company. "We did music videos and industrial videos and we edited some movies. We edited like half a dozen movies that were locally produced, like film festival stuff. So we parlayed that one Avid into two Avids, and had a decent little editing company for about three years."


The demands of running a business prevented them from writing and directing their own movies. So after three years, they decided to call it quits. McKay soon found a job at a production company with more typical business hours. This gave him time to write and direct a feature, which he was allowed to edit on company equipment after hours. The resulting movie was 2wks, 1yr.


He started taking his movie to film festivals, along with a movie he edited for a friend, Kwik Stop. It was during this time that he made the connections that would eventually lead him to Shadow Machine.



McKay: I came out here because I had a script and I wanted to raise some money. And I didn't really know anybody in Chicago I could raise money from. But I had met a bunch of people at these film festivals when I was going around with Kwik Stop and going around with 2wks. I'd made some contacts. So I just decided, you know what, I'm gonna take a trip [to Los Angeles]. I'm gonna talk to people. Just see. See if they've got any advice, see if they've got any help. And you know, just hang out in Los Angeles for a week. And that's how I ended up hooking up with a production coordinator, because she was a friend of a friend who had produced some independent movies and she was working as production coordinator on "Robot Chicken" and they had just lost their editor and she said, "Hey, you wanna move out here and be our editor?" And I said, "Yeah, I think I'll do that," and packed my bags and four days, I was out here.

Your Daily Joe: So they didn't pull you from Chicago? You were already in L.A.?


McKay: Yeah, she had seen my stuff. She was aware of me as an editor. I didn't think, honestly, that they were gonna want some fuckin' guy from Chicago. It was so great to have this meeting and have her, "Hey, you know, would you consider doing this job?" And then to have these phone conversations with [Shadow Machine founders] Alex [Bulkley] and Corey [Campodonico], and Matt [Senreich] and Seth [Green]. And I was kind of all like super high off of all that going back to Chicago. And then I went back, and I was sitting in my desk at this job, and I was going on a location scout for another thing we were gonna do on this job. And I kept saying to myself, "They're not gonna call me. They don't want some guy from Chicago to come out here and do this. What am I thinking? I'm getting all excited that I'm gonna quit this job." You know, I'm thinking about how I'm gonna sell my condo and do I have enough vacation time to just be able to up and quit and show up at Shadow Animation? Yeah, there was this moment of real self doubt where I was just sitting there going, "Nope, I'm gonna be this guy working on this job for the next five years." Or something like that. And then I got the call that said, "Yeah, we want you to come out, if you want to come out and work." And so I was able to go to my boss the next day and go, "I have two weeks of vacation accrued, and I'm gonna leave tomorrow and I'm gonna move out to Los Angeles."


So, couch surfed at friends' houses for a while, and then found an apartment. And, you know, been here for four years now, almost five years now.


YDJ: So Shadow was already established when you moved out here? The company, as well as "Robot Chicken?"


McKay: Yeah, "Robot Chicken" had not been on the air. I literally started with the first episode of "Robot Chicken." They hadn't... I think Shadow had just done Alex's movie [2005's The Zodiac], and some music videos. And Matt and Seth and Shadow had done those "Sweet J" stuff for Sony on the web, which is kinda the precursor to "Robot Chicken." But "Robot Chicken" as a show, I started the minute they started. You know, the minute they started shooting, I was there, editing the stuff.


YDJ: So how did you transition to directing at Shadow? Was it just a matter of asking?


McKay: I'm not one of those guys who walks around like, "Hey, check out my movie." I think they just knew me as an editor, and didn't really know I'd done other things. So Matt and Seth, and even ["Moral Orel" creator] Dino [Stamatopoulos], didn't necessarily know that I'd done those other things.


But clearly I was heavily involved in the creative. For "Robot Chicken," they were like, "We don't have any money to do an end title sequence. What are we gonna do? Come up with something." And I did the bock-bock-bock thing into my computer, and somebody overheard it through the wall and came in and said, "That's our end! That's it!"


YDJ: So that's your voice, the singing chickens at the end?


McKay: That was my voice originally that did it. I was just trying to try out some sound design stuff. And they liked what I was doing. So then we brought the entire post team in, and the writers, and we did the b'bock-bock-bock in the studio. But mine is the first voice on that.


YDJ: Is that your melody? Do you get songwriting credit?


McKay: That was, well, apparently it was a melody that stuck in my head from Dawn of the Dead. Apparently it's the mall theme, in the shopping mall. Or it's at least close enough anyway that people constantly compare it to that.


YDJ: You haven't gotten caught, have you?


McKay: No, I think everything's okay.


But yeah, so I was very creatively involved in the show as an editor because, at that time, they were still trying to develop what the show was gonna be. And then, when "Moral Orel" came around, that's when I sort of advocated to do the animatics, and to take over doing the previsualization stuff. And so I worked with Dino and Scott [Adsit] and Jay [Johnston] on building the show before it ever got animated. And I think Dino really liked the stuff that I was bringing to the table, and sort of looked at me, and once had even said to me, "You really deserve a producer credit on this, cause you are really helping shape this show." And I think we went out to dinner once and I said, "Well, I don't really want to be a producer. What I'd really like to do is direct. And if you've got an episode that you want somebody else to direct, I'd love the chance to do it."


And so for second season of "Moral Orel," when that came around, Dino let me direct an episode or two, and really liked what I did. So [he] ended up letting me direct more that season. I directed, like, I want to say nine episodes out of twenty episodes that they did for season two; direct or co-direct with Dino or Scott. So, yeah, Dino liked what I did. And [co-producer] Eric [Blyler].


So Matt and Seth came to me and said, you know, "We like the stuff that you're doing on 'Moral Orel.' Do you want to direct 'Robot Chicken?'" And so they gave me the entire third season of "Robot Chicken" to direct. And then, you know, I worked with Seth on the Star Wars stuff. And then the fourth season of "Robot Chicken," I directed that. And then when "Titan Maximum" came around, you know, they wanted me to do that.


I'm always trying to push. But I'm not the guy who just goes in and pushes and then leaves the room. I'm the guy that pushes, and then sits down at a desk and does the work. So I guess I earned their respect and trust that way.



YDJ: Going into film school, was your focus more on directing, or writing-directing, rather than editing? Because looking at your experience, it seems like editing was your original focus, which then developed into directing.


McKay: When I was in school, I thought I wanted to be a director/DP. Because when I was a kid, I liked framing shots. And when you read books, when they talk about filmmakers, they talk about the filmmaker's shot style, the way John Ford composes something versus the way Martin Scorsese composes something, or somebody else. So cinematography is key to understanding the look of a filmmaker. So I thought I wanted to be a director/DP.


And I studied film. So at that time, that meant "not video." So I didn't learn how to edit on video. I learned how to edit film, which is completely impractical, like as far as a job. Unless you're Michael Kahn or something like that.


During school, I was kinda known to shoot my own stuff, and people liked my compositions. And I think that comes into play here because I shoot things differently. And that's what Matt and Seth notice, is like, "Wow, I like the way he makes the toys look big." Or the way I use lenses in order to help make this not seem like you're looking at tiny little puppets. You're looking at, you know, if this is a story about a hero, you're looking at a hero even if he's three and a half inches tall. So that comes into play here.


But I guess as far as editing, because I was always, I'm always like the tinkerer, I'm always the guy who tries to figure things out. And among my friends, when we were trying to do this filmmaking group out of college or during college, I would be the guy who would figure out how to get the equipment to talk to each other. Like, I could be the guy who could figure out how to get your camera [to work].


Like, I lied my way into that job at the healthcare company, cause I didn't know video. I told them I knew how to set up all this equipment and edit this stuff, but I didn't. So I just took the books home and read it and, you know, like sank or swam. The next day, when I needed to put a camera together, I brought the camera away from where everybody was, and I kind of just tried to put it together and figure it out.


John Cusack had a theater company in Chicago. And my friends went to school with him and some of his cohorts. And they needed some video stuff for one of their theater productions. So we went down there and shot some stuff with their actors, and then came back, and I would be the guy who had to figure out how to get two VHS decks to talk to each other to make our edits so we could edit this thing together so that it could show at their theater company. Cause all we had access to was a Hi-8 camera, or a VHS camera, something like that. And these two decks that we could roll together and do these insert edits. So I was always the guy that did that. And so that's how I kinda became an editor. Because I would always be the guy. These guys, no one wanted to figure that shit out. And the only way we could get these things done that we wanted to do was somebody had to figure it out. So I kinda became that guy.


YDJ: Are you as happy doing animation as you have been with live action, actors, etc?


McKay: When you work with an animator, that's like working with an actor. These guys are your actors. And obviously with the voice stuff too. But specifically when you're working with an animator, you're working out ideas of performance, and they are your actors. They interpret things differently, and it's a different process, but it's a lot like working with an actor.


But I always loved animation. I made little stop-motion movies when I was a kid. Cause I had access, through school, to a camera that had an intervelometer. So I was able to do single-frame stuff.


I always loved animation, and this has been really rewarding because you get to previsualize big ideas on a small canvas. So I can do crazy camera moves here that I wouldn't necessarily be able to do without a crane that goes forty feet in the air. I can play with those ideas, and learn what works and what doesn't work on the small scale because I only need to bring the camera up four feet instead of forty. It's rewarding like that, because I get that chance to play.


YDJ: As the director, are you in the booth during voice records, shaping the voice actor performances?


McKay: Not so much. It depends on the show. Because of the way [Shadow] has budgeted and scheduled things, a lot of my time has been overlapped by other shows. So when we're in preproduction on one show, we're in post-production on another. As a director, I've kind of had to fill roles that, often times there's multiple things going on that I could and should be involved in, but I can't be in both places at the same time.


Matt and Seth and Tom [Root], as producers, and Dino as producer on "Moral Orel," are very hands-on guys, and most of the actors are their friends. So they like to do that stuff. And what's great about that is, I have the luxury of them going in and doing that while I can do other things like the storyboards, the animatics, the mixes if we're on post on something. And then I can go back later, because we have an ADR day or we have a sound day where I can go back in, it's like, "Well, you know, what we really need is this idea here." So I can actually listen to all this stuff and then kinda come back and spot certain things that I know, "Look, the performance needs to be this in this moment. She shouldn't be afraid. She's a tough, hard-as-nails woman. So she shouldn't say this line like a waif. This should be her moment."


So it's really good like that. I'd like to be more involved in that process, but for the most part I've had to be other places, so I haven't been able to be on it as much. But ... whenever I'm in the voiceover booth, like half the time I'm just laughing because it's just so much fun. It feels criminal to have that much fun at work.


YDJ: Are you planning on sticking with animation longer-term? Do you want to get back to live-action?


McKay: The stuff I would do live-action, my own stuff, is so esoteric, maybe, that it's almost better for me to just do it on my own and, you know, work in animation on stuff that's... I don't know. My stuff isn't very pitchable. It's more like moody tone poems, or something like that. If I was gonna pitch something animation, it would definitely be more like crazy and outrageous. I get to exercise that part of my brain.


YDJ: It seems like you're comfortable compartmentalizing like that. In your off time, you work on the more personal projects, but when it comes to something that you know would be easier to sell, you're still very happy making that sort of thing.


McKay: Oh yeah, absolutely.


Click here for part two of my interview with Chris McKay, where we talk in more detail about the Adult Swim series, "Titan Maximum."



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