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.

Additional Reading:

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Sexism and the Outspoken Actress

[ The following originally appeared as a guest post on May's Machete on September 18, 2009. ]

In his review of The Ugly Truth, Roger Ebert -- the best film critic working today -- said, "Amazing that this raunchy screenplay was written by three women." Later, a reader wrote in to ask him, "So what? Women are not allowed to write raunchy screenplays, when they are the gold standard for successful men's comedies these days?" To which Ebert responded:

Women screenwriters should certainly have all the latitude of men. It's just that The Ugly Truth is so outspokenly vulgar it surprised me, and I don't usually associate that sort of screenplay with women.
This gave me pause. Mild though it may be, this is clearly a sexist notion on par with, "I don't usually associate funny standup comedy with women," or "I don't usually associate good driving abilities with women." Things that, outside of a humorous context, I wouldn't want to go on the record as having said.

What's particularly galling to me about Ebert bringing sexism into the discussion of The Ugly Truth is this: I don't like Katherine Heigl, the star of that movie. Granted, I've never met Katherine Heigl; maybe she's a super lady. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say: I don't like most of the things I've heard or seen about Katherine Heigl over the last few years. Heigl has managed to position herself as a mouthpiece for various issues, one of which is sexism in popular culture. So, in disliking Katherine Heigl's public persona, I've had to confront possible sexism in myself -- in my reactions to her, and in my perception of women in general. Is my inclination toward disliking her the very example of the sexism she speaks out against? Do her actions make me uncomfortable because she's not behaving the way I expect, the way a good little starlet is supposed to?

Before October of 2006, I'd never really been aware of Katherine Heigl. Despite a longtime affinity for stories about aliens and conspiracy theories, I'd never watched "Roswell." And I never had any interest in the whole "Grey's Anatomy" phenomenon. But it was that autumn when the Isaiah Washington controversy erupted. For those of you who may not know, Washington, one of the stars of "Grey's Anatomy," was accused of calling co-star T.R. Knight a "faggot" on the set (an accusation Washington denied). Knight was forced to publicly come out, and Washington was eventually fired when it became clear that the viewers demanded it.

During that incident, Heigl passionately defended Knight in the press. "T.R. is my best friend," she said. "I will throw down for that kid." She added, rightly so, that Washington's use of a homophobic slur was "not okay."

The public stand she took on the Isaiah Washington controversy was the beginning of the reputation she would soon have about her. For now, most people agreed that her outspokenness was appropriate. She stuck up for a friend, and took a stand against homophobia. This was all very admirable.

Just as that whole controversy was beginning to subside, the press blitz began for Knocked Up, Heigl's biggest feature film appearance since her breakout status on "Grey's." I'd been a huge fan of The 40-Year-Old Virgin, and was looking forward to this Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen follow-up. The movie was enjoyable enough (not as good as Virgin, in my opinion), and Heigl did a perfectly fine job. Then she gave an interview to Vanity Fair where she said:
[Knocked Up is] a little sexist. It paints women as shrews, as humorless and uptight, and it paints the men as lovable, goofy, fun-loving guys. It exaggerated the characters, and I had a hard time with it on some days. I'm playing such a bitch; why is she being such a killjoy? Why is this how you're portraying women? Ninety-eight percent of the time, it was an amazing experience, but it was hard for me to love the movie.
After her defense of T.R. Knight and then this, the cultural conversation about Heigl was underway. Was she right that Knocked Up was sexist? If so, why did she agree to be in the movie? She had to know, going in, how the female characters were going to come off. If that wasn't cool with her, then she shouldn't have done it; after all, she was already on a hit TV show. Seems like a cynical move -- be in a movie that's going to raise your profile (and, not coincidentally, your paycheck) even though you have ethical objections to ideas the movie is propagating.

The other side of the argument is that she may have been locked into a situation that wasn't worth trying to get out of. Maybe she didn't see eye-to-eye creatively with the filmmakers, and her role developed into something that was different than what she thought it was going to be. A common occurrence. So when the interviewer later asked how she felt about the movie, she did nothing more than to give her honest answer. She spoke her mind, and more power to her! She's real; not another one of these Hollywood puppets reciting the publicist's line.

Her anti-Knocked Up interview wasn't enough to make me dislike her, but it did leave a bad taste in my mouth. It's a clear-cut case of biting the hand that feeds. Knocked Up was a movie that was predestined to be a hit. The Judd Apatow juggernaut was running at full steam. Anybody involved in that movie was going to reap huge benefits. And she did. So perhaps it would have been the more politically wise move -- or at least the more polite move -- to keep such opinions between herself and close, trusted confidantes.

Then came the 2008 Emmy controversy. Heigl made a rather loud public moment out of her decision to withdraw from the competition. She would refuse a nomination because, she said, "I did not feel I was given the material this season to warrant an Emmy nomination and in an effort to maintain the integrity of the academy organization, I decided against competing. ... I did not want to potentially take away an opportunity from an actress who was given such material."

Translation: The writers of my show aren't catering to me and making me look as awesome as I should look.

This is where she lost me. What a completely unacceptable thing to do! I mean, seriously, how dare she! Everything she has in her career she owes to the writers of all the various projects she's acted in over the years. The Emmy she'd already won the previous year, the money, the fame, the (I'm presuming) creative fulfillment of making a living through the self-expression of acting! That's all thanks to the writers. Yes, yes, the writers need good actors to perform their material, just as well as actors need good writers to give them decent material. But that's the point! It's a team effort. That very same writers had guided her to an Emmy win the previous year, and here she was throwing it back in their faces.

Interesting that she went so public with her grievances about her lack of good material, considering her previous comment that the Isaiah Washington controversy should be kept "very much in house." If she was unhappy with the material she was being given or the direction her character was taking, the appropriate people to discuss this with are right there in the production office and on the set.

Heigl was obviously making a power play. She had flexed her feature film might in Knocked Up, so now she was stoking the flames at "Grey's Anatomy" in order to either get more money and accommodations out of that production, or else get let out of her TV contract early so that she could make more money doing features. That led to a storyline in the following season of "Grey's Anatomy" where her character had a death scare. (And no, I wasn't actually watching the show; I was just aware of the storyline.) Ultimately, Heigl and the producers were able to reach some (undisclosed) terms, so her character survived and remains on the show.

Which leads to the latest Heigl incident - her 7/20/09 interview on David Letterman. Guns blazing, Heigl is no more than a minute into the interview when she takes the opportunity to "embarrass" (her word) the producers by telling the Letterman audience about a 17-hour workday she'd just suffered through, which she said she thinks "is cruel and mean."

Well, folks, not only is a 17-hour workday routine for below-the-line crew members... not only are 17-hour days a frequent occurrence for TV writers pounding out those last-minute script revisions that Heigl finds so unworthy... not only do actors spend the vast majority of any shooting day in downtime while other people do the heavy lifting... but, as veteran TV writer/producer Ken Levine puts it:
What [Heigl] neglected to add was ... this "cruel" shooting schedule was only to accommodate HER and her needs. The producers graciously shuffled things around so she could go off and do promotion for her new film. Also, with union rules, the producers had to pay a ton of overtime and penalties to make this happen. The thanks they get is Katherine Heigl going on national television hoping to embarrass them.
So budgets were exceeded and all cast and crew members were subjected to an unnecessarily long shooting schedule so that Heigl could go on Letterman and promote her shitty movie The Ugly Truth. What. A. BITCH!

Ah, but there it is. THAT word. Symptom one of the misogynist. "Bitch." What is it that compels me to use that word here?

I recently read this blog post, which outlined various "unacceptable" female behavior, and labeled such behavior with the form of "bitch" with which it's frequently associated. A woman who steps outside of the socially accepted ideal of female behavior may be called, "mean bitch, crazy bitch, stuck-up bitch, angry bitch, bitch with daddy issues, dyke bitch, shrill bitch, frigid bitch," etc. In my weaker moments, I might be tempted to call Katherine Heigl a stuck-up bitch, and a shrill bitch, and I'd probably throw in an inconsiderate bitch and a selfish bitch for good measure. But what am I really trying to say here? She's brash, discourteous, and a loudmouth. These are characteristics we find in men every bit as frequently as we do in women. What does it add to the discussion to top off the description with "bitch"?

"Bitch" is a gendered word. As any second grader will giddily inform you, it's actually in the dictionary! A female canine. (Marge Simpson: "Well I'm going to write the dictionary people and have that checked. Feels like a mistake to me.") To use the word derogatorily suggests that there's something inherently wrong with the female gender. The very act of applying that word does, indeed, paint me as a sexist, and weakens my argument.

I don't believe my opinions of Katherine Heigl have anything to do with her being a woman, or anything to do with me being sexist - which I do not believe myself to be. If a man were behaving the same way Katherine Heigl does, I'd have just as much of a problem with him. And I probably wouldn't think to call him a "bitch." I'd call him a reckless idiot, an ingrate, an asshole... characteristics men and women can share in equally.

I don't hate Katherine Heigl as a woman, I hate her as a person. I'm a dick that way.

Additional Reading:
T.R. Knight Leaves Grey's Anatomy
Katherine Heigl takes leave of absence

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."

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Baldwin Hills

"Santa Monica Canyon is on the western edge of the city. Quiet, isolated. That's one of the strange things about L.A. - patches of barren wilderness hidden in a vast metropolis."
-- Lt. Joe Friday (Ed O'Neill), "Dragnet" (2003)
My first "industry" gig was an internship at the music video and commercial production department of A Band Apart. As an unpaid intern, your job is essentially to do whatever lackey work you're told to do. Most often, this means doing runs.

2003. MapQuest and cell phones were prevalent. GPS was not.

I have what I consider to be a really good sense of direction as far as north-south-west-east goes. I am not, however, good with roads. And as I was very new to L.A., and as L.A. is known for its sprawling breadth, going on a run pretty much meant getting lost. I would MapQuest directions from Band Apart to the destination, and could follow those directions right up to the front door. But for some reason, it rarely occurred to me to print out reverse directions. I always thought to myself, "Just follow these directions backwards." That never seemed to work, though.

So one day, I was making a delivery to some music company. It was one of the bigger companies, a name you'd recognize, but I can't remember which one. And since I never had to make a repeat visit to that office, to this day I would never be able to find that building for you again. But by my estimation, the offices had to be located somewhere south of LAX. This is rare for a music company; most of them are located in Santa Monica, or up in the valley.

As usual, the MapQuest directions got me exactly where I needed to go. I went to the office, made the handoff to whoever was expecting it, and then headed back toward Band Apart. And promptly got lost.

Whenever I would get lost, I'd rely on my sense of north-south-west-east. Band Apart was north of where I was, so I started heading that direction. But that's where my lack of comprehension of roads comes into play. Roads do weird things, like curve and veer. Or end. So I'm heading along north, waiting to see anything I recognize, when suddenly the road I'm on comes to an end. Now I'm forced to make a turn in a direction I don't want to go. So I'm looking for the nearest opportunity to course-correct and set myself north again. By the time I'm headed the right direction, I have no idea where I am and where this road might be taking me. All of a sudden, I find myself driving past some oil fields.

Oil fields! Where the hell was I? Did I manage to slip over to Texas?

Whenever I get completely, thoroughly lost, I always go west. If I can find my way to the ocean, which is extremely hard to miss, then I can figure out where home is. Once I know where home is, I can find things such as where I work and where I shop and stuff like that. So I started going west. Eventually, I found the ocean, and was able to take the long trip back to Band Apart again.

When I got home that night, I reported to my roommates that there were oil fields in L.A. Yes, right in the middle of the city! It's like you're driving through the middle of civilization, then suddenly everything goes dry and bare, and then there are oil drills! And then you keep driving, and you're back in the middle of the city again.

What I was unable to tell my roommates that night was exactly where those oil fields were. Because I had no idea where I was when I found them. But they'd have to take my word for it. There are oil fields in L.A.!

Well, it's been a good six years since that incident, and my knowledge of L.A. has grown a tremendous amount since then. I still manage to get myself lost occasionally, but I can correct that situation much quicker now.

As for the oil fields, I can tell you exactly where they are because I now live about two miles away from them. They're in Baldwin Hills. The road I had been on that day was La Cienega. It's all very normal for me now, and constitutes my typical route to the airport.

Click around on the map/street view below for a look at L.A.'s oil fields.

View Larger Map