Thursday, September 24, 2009

Interview: Chris McKay [part 2]

Chris McKay began working at Shadow Machine in 2004, first as an editor, then later as producer and director on the hit animated series "Robot Chicken" and "Moral Orel." (Click here to read all about it.)

This Sunday, Cartoon Network debuts his latest directorial effort, "Titan Maximum" - a sci-fi adventure comedy from Tom Root and Matthew Senreich. "We're trying to make it look like a Michael Bay movie or a Tony Scott movie, you know? Something that's bigger than it is."

Your Daily Joe: How was "Titan Maximum" sold to the network? As a finished pilot? As a pilot script? As a series outline?

Chris McKay: I wasn't 100% involved in every aspect of that. First off, "Robot Chicken" does really well for Adult Swim, so they're gonna get more leeway maybe than somebody else going in with a project. But I think that the series bible, which is a pretty extensive bible that Tom and Matt have put together, was what sold the show. Cause the series bible had, really, the entire pilot broken down. It wasn't a script, but it was broken down beat-by-beat. It had an entire seasonal arc, and had in fact arcs for several seasons. It had a couple of episodes. It had really elaborate character descriptions and a really elaborate world overview. So the show was essentially sold on that. They got an order to do the scripts. And then when the scripts came in, they saw that they liked how the scripts were coming, so then they ordered us to go into production.

YDJ: Does Cartoon Network give you more freedom because of the success of the previous shows?

McKay: Adult Swim is a very creator-driven network. And I think that they're really good at giving really appropriate notes, and then also being hands-off in ways that a lot of other networks sort of meddle. Having edited at other places for other shows and things like that, it's a huge difference between Adult Swim and other networks. Because I think they focus on the right details and have very specific things to say, and then for the most part kind of leave you to create the show you want to do. And one of the smartest and probably kindest things that I ever heard from, I think it was Nick [Weidenfeld] at Adult Swim, was just, at one point he was talking about somebody's show and the thing I remember him saying was he wanted to make the show that that guy wanted to make. He was sort of giving a critical note about something, but it was like, "Look, here's what I want you to do with the show. But I only want you to do the show that you want to do. So this is my suggestion." That's their philosophy and it's really great to work with people like that who, when they have notes, they have great notes. And otherwise, they don't sit there and try to nitpick everything and focus-group it and all that kind of thing. They're a great network to work with. Really, they're artists themselves. Keith Crofford was a film producer. Nick understands story. So you know, they're real smart.

YDJ: For the storyboards and animatics, you're not the storyboard artist. How closely do you supervise? Are you hanging over the storyboard artist's shoulder the whole time?

McKay: No. These guys are artists. It's great to pick their brain, another point of view. What I do is just break down the shots in the script. So I'll highlight a certain area that I think, you know, we're gonna be on a medium shot of this character here, we're gonna dolly over here. I'll just write in these notes. And we'll probably talk about those notes a little bit. And then we'll probably talk about sort of overall tone. Like I'll say, "Well, the show is supposed to look like 'Battle of the Planets,' or 'Neon Genesis,' or 'Voltron.' So I want us to compose things like this. It should be a wide shot where we see this huge monitor behind them. We can frame this thing floor-to-ceiling and our character's only this tiny little thing in the frame. Because it's supposed to be a science-fiction movie, it's supposed to be a big scale, future world stuff."

So I'll talk to them about things like that. They'll do a pass on it. And then I'll get that into the system. And there'll be things that, you know, they'll see some idea and they'll say, "Hey, what if we tried this... Let me try this." And they'll pitch me an idea on how to do a scene or a shot or something like that, and I'll cut it in and we'll see if it works.

Sometimes I'll reframe things cause I want it to be a pop-zoom in or something. You'll realize something works better wider, so I'll push the board back so it makes it look like it's a wider shot. Or I'll have them do a revision. It's like, "No, that idea just doesn't work. This really needs to be told as a point-of-view shot, not as a following shot."

I think it's really important to, when you're working with guys like this -- I mean, these guys are artists -- to really use them as sounding boards and have them bring stuff to the table. It makes for a better show, ultimately.

YDJ: Are the storyboards usually there after the first pass, or do they go through a lot of revision?

McKay: It depends on the episode. Because sometimes it all depends on, do they get the tone of that story? And with "Robot Chicken," the tone can be changed every five seconds. So if they think that this is supposed to be super dark, and it's actually supposed to be super light, yeah, you're gonna get something back that you're gonna end up needing to revise. Or the eyeline is really supposed to be traveling right to left, not left to right, and without doing that then this whole idea is gonna become confusing. You know, sometimes there are those things where it's like somebody doesn't totally understand what the joke is. Like, the joke is that this thing is concealed, there's something that's concealed up until a specific moment.

Or there's a lot of the kinda crazier camera moves that I'll try to describe to somebody. And you can describe it to them 'til you're blue in the face. And ultimately it's like, sometimes I'll just take the camera onto a set, or put up some cardboard characters or some toys or something like that, and just go, "Nope, it's gotta go around them like this, and it's gonna feel like this." It's just about communication. These guys are really smart and mostly get it. I would say like 75% of the time, it's right on, and there's 25% changes.

YDJ: Do the animators rely mostly on the storyboards and animatics, or mostly on direction that you give them on the stages before they begin a shot?

McKay: Well, it's essential to have a storyboard, from a performance standpoint, that reflects what the idea is you're trying to get across. Or that, at the very least, reflects the stage direction that you want to try to get across. The animator -- because this is something that's done over an extended period of time -- relies on the storyboard heavily. And it's important to make sure that that board reflects your best idea at all times.

However, there are so many factors. And this is where animation and stop-motion is exactly like live-action filmmaking. Your set conditions, your animator's relative height, the costume, the wear-and-tear on the specific puppet they're using that day... all those things come into the factor as to how you're gonna get that shot done. So you will need to understand also how to adjust your plan at a moment's notice. [If] that puppet's eight inches tall, and the back of the set is twelve inches tall, pretty soon you realize, "Well, I can no longer shoot this camera low because my puppet's head is peaking up over the top of the set." And you can't put a ceiling on it, cause it's lit. So you gotta adjust your plan and figure out another way to shoot that. Plus, where's that animator gonna go? If it's on a smaller stage, how's your animator gonna fit in there without breaking their back?

And, again, the dialogue with the animator. Sometimes the animator comes to the table and they've got an idea about how this moment should play out. And it's really important to hear that, and listen to it, and see how that fits into it. Because these guys are awesome. They know human beings' behavior so well. Like I said, it's just like dealing with an actor. That's their instrument. Watching people, watching what people do, and understanding how that can be portrayed in this puppet.

YDJ: How many puppets do you make for one character, say a main character like Palmer?

McKay: The puppets are expensive, and time-consuming to make. And we need to use them for, in this particular case, an entire ten-episode cycle. For "Moral Orel," it was 20 episodes.

For a main character like Palmer, there's probably ten of them. There's probably half a dozen flight suit ones, and we had a couple in his leather jacket, and then we had a [bare chest] one for the volleyball scene. But yeah, those ten puppets have to last.

We have fifteen stages. Between twelve and fourteen animators working at a time. So at any moment, there's an excellent chance you're gonna need Palmer. And so you have to be careful how you schedule it. If you don't think smart about how you're gonna use your sets and how you're gonna use your puppets, you'll just fuckin' screw yourself. Because then you'll have an animator just sitting there not doing anything, and that could be, not only could that just be that shot blown, that could be your ability to get an entire set up there and built by the end of the season. So you have to realize and think about that ahead of time.

And, you know, it's also a costuming thing. The flight suits are an elaborate costume to make. And we have one person who does all the costumes. She has a team of interns that come in and help her out. But there is one person in charge of costumes, and that is a fucking huge job. Any extra puppet needs a costume. So you really need to be careful.

YDJ: Will they be able to use the same puppets to shoot season two, or will they need to build a whole new crop?

McKay: They'll probably take a look and see who's still a workable puppet. I mean, some of those puppets will end up getting repurposed as background puppets maybe. But they'll probably have an assessment, probably the animation director [will] go over the puppets that are left and check them for weakness and strength, and go from there.

YDJ: You have fifteen stages going at a time. You're shooting all ten episodes of the season simultaneously. How do you keep all of that straight?

McKay: [laughing] Some people would say not well, depending on who you talk to. But that's part of the job. You have to be really clear about where you're going. You have to understand the arcs of where the characters are going for these scenes and stuff like that. And you gotta check your notes and be thorough. And then, hopefully you've got a good team of people. You know, great animation director, great lead animator, great animators and production designer, DP [director of photography], people there to help you out. Schedulers and people like that are able to help you out and just remind you, "Don't forget, we're gonna need that thing over here. You're gonna need to do this, you're gonna need to do that." So that's definitely a huge part of my responsibility. You're telling a story over time, so you better know that stuff rock solid.

YDJ: This show was made on a larger scale, with larger puppets and larger sets than both "Robot Chicken" and "Moral Orel." What was behind that decision?

McKay: That's just because we wanted more expressive characters. "Robot Chicken" is based on toys, so everything needs to be Mego scale, because we might end up using a Mego toy in it. So it's eight-inch scale. And that's because it's easy to find costumes and props and things like that that we might need. If you need a baseball bat or a machine gun or a club, instead of having somebody build that you can go to a toy store and find something that is appropriate, find a costume. So that's why we kinda stay with "Robot Chicken" in eight-inch.

[With "Titan Maximum"] we jumped into twelve-inch for the performance aspect of it, cause you get more detail. The more an animator can get their hands on the puppet and manipulate that puppet, the better the performance you're gonna get.

YDJ: Was it more expensive to make "Titan" on the larger scale?

McKay: Yeah, because the sets have to be bigger. And our [production] building should be bigger. To be able to really do this show, and do this show well, our building should be bigger. Because, you know, we're trying to figure out ways to not see off the set. And when you got a puppet that's four inches taller than the Mego set, that means your set at least needs to be four inches taller. And again, probably more, because to get that wider shot, you're gonna need to go back further. So it's a huge increase in cost, and time-consuming in planning.

YDJ: So whose decision was it to spend more on this show - the creative team at Shadow, or the network?

McKay: I'm sure there was a negotiation. I'm sure there was a very unrealistic number from the network's perspective that we came up with, and that was probably shot down. [Then Shadow] came back down to a number that was closer to what a "Robot Chicken" budget is. We're really not that far from a "Robot Chicken" budget. We just had to figure out a smart way to use it.

But here's the thing. On "Robot Chicken," you have to change your sets every five seconds because it's a sketch comedy show. Here, we can keep the sets up longer. So that, over time, becomes a cost-saver. Because then you can figure out ways to reuse that set or to use it in another episode, or when some big location is called for, where it's "Let's go to the exterior of the Titan base," and I as a director and producer go, "Well, I already have the hangar set up. Why don't we set the scene in the hangar? It's up, it's lit, it requires these same puppets that are already there. Let's do it there, because then we don't have to take a set down or somebody has to build a set. They can concentrate on something else, and we can shoot that scene there."

YDJ: How much influence do you have on the scripts as a director, and how much influence do the writers have on your direction? Are there ever any major conflicts when you want to change a location to save time and money, and maybe they feel it ruins something story-wise?

McKay: I wouldn't say that I influence the writing very much. I probably give some performance notes, or I might say you don't need this dialogue exchange here because a shot would do a better job than this dialogue exchange. But it's not like I'm sitting in the writer's room with Tom and the rest of the guys telling them how this thing should get written.

And at the same time, they're not necessarily telling me how this thing should get directed. They are the producers and they are the creators, so their input is obviously something I'm super interested in understanding because the shows comes from their minds and their point of view. But they give me a lot of free rein to do a lot of stuff with it. I mean, when I edit the animatic, you know, they [write] "Spud falls out of a balcony," but it's up to me whether that fall is two seconds or we try to make it funny over a minute.

But there's things like that. How that dialogue scene gets shot and, you know, how sympathetic or not sympathetic this character is, or whose point-of-view we're seeing it from. I mean, all of those things are part of the director's job. But if you're a director who's not trying to figure out what your writers' intent is, then you're not doing your job as a director. Cause again, it came from their minds and you have to respect that and build from that.

But they trust me. And I trust them. So it's great. This is the best working relationship that I've ever had, and there are conflicts every day. You're gonna run into those conflicts. And ultimately, everyone has to learn how to figure it out and trust each other and get along. Our relationship works great. But we run into those problems all the time, because that's the nature of doing this job. It's a highly collaborative job done under incredibly constrictive time and budget restraints.

YDJ: There's a lot more computer generated imagery in this series than any previous Shadow Machine show. Should we expect a fully CG show in the near future?

McKay: I imagine. And part of the reason why we're trying out the CG stuff here is to figure out a smart way to incorporate that in other shows. And I'm sure that there's other shows that they're pitching that would be CG shows. You know, it's all filmmaking.

Stop-motion is one of the most fun. It's amazing how endearing a real puppet can be compared to some other kind of art, whether that's CG or Flash-based. This stuff is made by people putting their hands on this thing and using their instincts one frame at a time to tell a story, to deliver an emotion. So it's an incredibly personal art form. There's nothing like stop-motion. And this company has made its name, and will continue to do stuff with that I'm sure. But they're an animation company. They want to try other things. And they're a filmmaking company. They probably want to do some live-action stuff at some point. It's just a matter of what's right for the project, what's right for that thing. And right now, for these projects, stop-motion is the right thing.

But you know, we've experimented with some stuff. Done paper cut-out things. You know, animated different things in "Robot Chicken" to try different forms out. You know, that's what's great about doing a sketch comedy show like that, is you can try different things out, see what works and what doesn't. But yeah, I think that they'll definitely experiment with other things. And it's fun, because animation, at its heart, is the purest form of filmmaking.

YDJ: What's next for you personally? Do you have shows you'd like to pitch for Adult Swim? Do you want to get back to making features?

McKay: Yeah, I hope to pitch some shows to Adult Swim, as well as develop my own stuff. After "Titan Maximum" is over, I'm gonna take a little bit of time and, you know, do some writing and pitch some shows. So yeah, I'd love to work on a show as a creator. But right now, today, every day is about learning something and growing. And so being able to do this, work for really strong, really great producers who give me a lot of freedom, has been a really great learning experience. And right now, that's been the most important thing to me. Hopefully I'll be able to get a show on Adult Swim or some other network. But this, right now, has been the most fun for me. And I'm gonna start taking steps to chip away at that next thing when I get a little more free time. But it's a 24/7 job to produce a show like this, so that's what I'm concentrating on right now.

YDJ: And you get to play with toys for a living.

McKay: Yes, exactly. Can't beat that.

"Titan Maximum" airs Sundays at 11:30 PM on Cartoon Network, beginning September 27.

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