Art Director James McDermott riffs on the colorful creatures of 'Rick and Morty.'
If you’ve seen any eye-catching promotional artwork for the new Adult Swim series Rick and Morty lately, direct your compliments towards James McDermott. The Emmy Award-winning animation vet was recently tasked with creating a snazzy cover featuring the show’s leads for Animation Magazine and a billboard-worthy image of the cast in the midst of a frightening, fantastical confrontation [above]. Of course, by this point he’s pretty darn familiar with the characters, having art directed the entire first season of the show after being hired by creators Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland following the completion of their ambitious Pilot. In his quest to play up the visual possibilities of the show’s sci-fi-meets-suburbia premise, McDermott has found himself overseeing props, backgrounds, character designs and color schemes, all the while keeping a ‘70s vision of the future in mind. In this exclusive interview, he opens up about the challenges inherent to that process, shares some tantalizing glimpses of the creatures yet to come and hints at a controversial sequence no one will see coming.
James Gartler: In only four episodes, Rick and Morty has already given us some of the strangest alien designs ever seen in animated television. What’s your approach to these characters – to make them terrifying or funny or a mix of both?
James McDermott: It’s a smorgasbord. It’s all over the place. Some stuff is scarier, but for the most part everything just has a bizarre twist to it that’s meant to be funny. There were a couple that needed to be scary and serious-looking, but really only a couple of those and everything else was really off-the-wall and crazy. Someone did ask me, ‘so what would you say the art-direction is like?’ and I just said, ‘it’s very…testicular!’
JG: That’s definitely seems to be consistent throughout the episodes…
JM: It’s done in a way that’s not beating you over the head with it (laughs), if that’s possible!
JG: In the pilot, there was a great moment where Morty coughed-up some phlegm and it grew into a creature who aged and then died within a matter of seconds…was that in the script?
JM: No, it was the storyboard artist that came up with that particular bit. There was plenty of stuff that wasn’t in script that we had to flesh out visually somehow, which was nice. Most shows don’t really want the artist’s input. The writers just want to do their thing and don’t really want your opinion. I worked really closely with Justin [Roiland] and we spoke almost every day. It was really nice to be able to have that relationship with him and pick his brain to try and bring my own ideas to the table, and those of the other artists as well. There was definitely a lot of input from everybody.
JG: Do you have anything that you were able to slip into the show yourself?
JM: There’s so much stuff. There are episodes that have 450+ plus character designs for one episode. There was so much design work done! There’s one particular character that has a quick bit and doesn’t even say anything but is the strangest character I’ve ever seen on television. I can’t even describe it. It’s in our forth episode. I was able to sort-of put it together and it worked just by its bizarre-ness.
JG: Since the show was born out of a riff on Back to the Future, can we expect to see more nods to sci-fi or fantasy realms?
JM: Oh yeah. There’s definitely a ton of ‘70s sci-fi and horror references, but we were able to create our own Rick and Morty versions and keep it in that universe.
JG: Is that material that appeals to you?
JM: Yeah. I grew up on sci-fi and horror movies. As I’ve gotten older it’s not as much my thing, but it’s been sort-of fun…the scripts just had so many strange references to movies I’d never even heard of, that were beyond the cult classics…
JM: One of my favorites, though it may be more known among sci-fi guys, is Zardoz, which is just the strangest movie I’ve ever seen. It’s kind of a cult classic because it’s just such a bad movie, but it’s so bad it’s good. Sean Connery is in the lead role, and he’d already made his name as James Bond, so the fact that he did this bad sci-fi B-movie just blows my mind. There’s this giant stone head that floats above this army and shouts out ‘penis is bad and guns are good!’ and it just makes no sense! (Laughs) I’m not making this up. It’s the strangest movie that I’ve ever seen and in our seventh episode we reference that and it’s pretty funny.
JG: Having worked on King of the Hill, Eloise and Beavis and Butthead, how do you feel about these designs? Do they pose their own challenges, what with their long skinny arms and those bulbous heads?
JM: It was really fun in the sense that the characters can kind-of stretch a little bit and it’s not really breaking any rules. Their expressions are pretty big. It was funny because when I first saw the Pilot I thought that the reality world was almost making fun of primetime cartoons and almost mocking it in a way, kind-of emulating a shitty prime-time show, but then when we go into these alternate universes, that’s Rick and Morty showing off and just going into these really wacked-out worlds.
JG: Talk to me about the reality portion of the series…is it just there to support the sci-fi stuff, or will we be exploring it over the course of the season? Do we ever spend an entire episode with just the sister or the mother in the home, for example?
JM: I feel like the writers did a good job with dividing screen time between all the family members. The majority of the time, yes, we’re with Rick and Morty but Jerry has this sort-of beaten Dad storyline, but at times he gains his confidence and becomes the man I think he wishes he could be. We have a whole episode of Summer and Rick going on an adventure together. I would say it’s probably 30/70 as far as being home versus the alternate universes.
There is one episode that entirely takes place in the house. We were trying to stress to the writers that we needed a break to really get all these episodes in the can. ‘We’re going to need to do some episodes where we can re-use backgrounds’, and so they wrote a whole episode about Inter-Dimensional Cable and we did all these really strange one-off bits that they’re all watching on cable in their living-room…but that did not end up being a break! It ended up being one of the bigger shows as far as the volume of designs, so we didn’t really catch a break there!
JG: Just how difficult is it constantly having to come up with different environments for Rick and Morty to explore? The episodes are essentially one-shots, so it’s not like you can build a world and keep the characters in those same similar environments. You always have to keep it fresh…
JM: Welcome to my nightmare! Every episode can stand on it’s own and feels very unique to itself…and unfortunately, we created alien races and locations that we blow up by the end of each episode so I don’t think we’ll be revisiting most of them in Season Two. It was tough because of the volume of design required. I’ve never worked on anything like this for television. Normally that’s a no-no.
JG: How are you hoping people will respond to the series?
JM: The Adult Swim audience will find it because they are watching the channel, but we’re hoping to pull in a new audience that isn’t the typical Adult Swim viewer. I just think the show is funny as hell and it’s one of the first shows that I’ve worked on in a long time that is just legitimately funny and I don’t have to feel strange about laughing at it. I’ve worked on shows where I’ve thought ‘oh I don’t know if should be laughing at this!” There were things that were so racist or mean-spirited or whatever it was, that didn’t have that tact to it. This is done in a very clever way and it’s not too mean-spirited or racist or anything like that. It’s just a fun ridiculous show.
JG: Were there any visuals that had to be edited out? Obviously with Adult Swim there is a certain amount of leeway, but was there anything that was considered inappropriate content visually?
JM: Yeah, there were things that had to be redone because they’re seemingly too violent or too graphic. There was an issue with blood in “Anatomy Park” because we’re inside of a human the whole entire episode. We do show blood but there’s a certain limit to how much we can show. Or if we had a character that had a testicle chin, then we just couldn’t color it flesh color. We had to come up with some sort of weird alien color that wouldn’t be offensive.
We have a rape scene in one of them and that one had to get retooled because it’s a very sensitive topic, obviously. The way that we depicted it had to be redone probably six or seven times just to get it right so that we weren’t crossing any lines. We had to be very careful about it…
JG: …which makes sense. It is rape! You always have to be careful about rape.
JM: Yeah, but he was getting raped by a jellybean, so it’s kind of weird.
JG: Well, hey, I guess if you have to be raped, a jellybean is the way to go…? I don’t know.
JM: It would probably hurt less…?
JG: I would hope so. I’m not even sure how that would work, frankly.
JM: I’m not sure either (laughs).
Look for more episodes of Rick and Morty on Adult Swim. For more information about the series, visit http://video.adultswim.com/rick-and-morty/ , or to check out McDermott’s blog, visit http://jamesmcdermott2011.blogspot.ca/.
James Gartler is a Canadian writer with a serious passion for animation in all its forms. His work has appeared in the pages of Sci Fi Magazine, and at the websites EW.com and Newsarama.com.