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Supervising Animator Chris McKay Talks ‘The LEGO Movie’

Everything indeed is awesome as our colorful plastic friends take the box office by storm.

I never had LEGO when I was a kid. I had Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets, G.I. Joes and Major Matt Masons. But no LEGO. So, at age 16, after receiving the first paycheck from my first job as a stock boy at Kinney Shoes, I spent the entire $163 on LEGO. It was a glorious toy store score. Over the next few years, I invested many hundreds more in a colorful brick collection I still have stuffed into several duffle bags stacked in my closet. So precious were my LEGO blocks that I never let my daughters play with them. Mention that to them today and it still pisses them off. No worries. It was a sound strategy I stand firmly behind even to this day. Those were and still remain “my” LEGOs. Period.

Over the course of the last year, the more and more I saw about the upcoming LEGO Movie, the more I was intrigued. Hopeful yet cautious. Hopeful that in the right hands, The LEGO Movie could be the film of a lifetime. Cautious that it was entirely possible corporate instincts to protect an invaluable iconic toy empire would force the production into the land of cinematic cheese.

<strong><em>The LEGO® Movie</em></strong>All images ©2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

The LEGO® Movie. All images ©2014 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.

Well, thankfully, my trepidation and fear were all for naught, my hope blissfully rewarded. The LEGO Movie has arrived, in all its absurdist and charming glory. $69.1 million opening weekend U.S. box office absurdist and charming glory to be more precise. And one of the key people we have to thank for all that absurdist and charming glory is Animation Supervisor and Editor Chris McKay. Yes, the Chris McKay of both Robot Chicken and Moral Orel fame.

I had a chance to speak to Chris late last week, a couple days before the film took the U.S. box office by storm with the second biggest February opening of all time. He shared his insights on the challenges of finding the right animation look, of knowing when to push or abandon a gag and of convincing Warner and the LEGO Group to trust the filmmakers’ vision of how the movie should be made.

Dan Sarto: The film is hilarious. It takes anyone who has ever played with LEGO to a very happy place.

Chris McKay: That’s what we set out to do. We wanted to make the film feel like the way you play, the way I remember playing. We wanted to make it feel as epic and ambitious and self-serious as a kid feels when they play with LEGO. We took something you could claim is the most cynical cash grab in cinematic history, basically a 90 minute LEGO commercial, and turned it into a celebration of creativity, fun and invention, in the spirit of just having a good time and how ridiculous it can look when you make things up. And we had fun doing it.

You can’t do a movie like this without doing a certain amount of it in the computer. The bulk of this movie is CG. But it’s a real testament to the artists and all the people involved. We set out right away, “We want this to have that warm, organic feeling that LEGO brick filmmakers have when they’re making brick films in their basements.” That’s the great thing about LEGO. It’s one and a half inch scale. On your dining room table, you can have an entire city block with cars and alleys and multiple three story buildings.  You can have a skyline. You can make these incredible things right there in a very contained space.

So we said, “OK, in the computer, since you can do anything you want, we’re not just going to do anything we want. We’re going to have rules. You can’t animate any character in a way that you can’t move them if you had your hands on them. No squash and stretch. You can’t give them elbows or knees.” We had to find out good, real world solutions for the problem of movement.  But that gave the movie its warmth and charm.

DS: If they move like regular CG characters, then they’re not LEGO. The constraints on their movement, that’s what makes them real characters for anyone who has ever played with LEGO.

CM: Exactly.

DS: Did you do any previs or other visual development testing to determine the look you wanted to capture?

CM: From day one, we sat down with people from Warner Bros., from LEGO, even some storyboard artists and said, “Hey, this is how we’re going to do it. We’re only going to do it within a LEGO world. Everything is going to be made out of LEGO.” LEGO explosions. LEGO smoke. LEGO fire. Every single thing we do will have to be interpreted as to how it would look in a LEGO world. We decided right off that LEGO would be the “medium” of this movie.

We had all these people who felt you wouldn’t be able to empathize or fall in love with our characters if they only had two dumb eyes with no pupils and no depth or teeth in their mouths. So, we decided to create an audition where Emmet [the lead character] would audition for his part in the movie. We did a little black box thing in the computer, where we had an animator have Emmet walk up to camera and say, “Hi, I’m Emmet!” Off camera you’d hear a director say something like, “OK Emmet, go ahead and read that script.” Then he’d say, “OK, I got the script here. OK…I can do it!” The director would say, “Uh, that’s a little big. Can you take it down a little bit? Try and make it a little sad.” Then Emmet would say [in a weird voice] “I can do it” and the director would say, “Well, how about you try it like you’re really angry.” Emmet would yell, “I can do it!” We had him do an audition.

We had some key artwork, some designs and beat boards. Then we played that test for the executives. When they saw that audition, even though there was no set, no props, no explosions, people went, “Oh, I get what’s going to be funny, and silly, and charming, and sweet and sincere about this movie. It actually is all about this hard plastic character that can only do certain things.” They got it.

DS: So how did you get involved in this project in the first place?

CM: The producers were talking to a lot of people who could co-direct this movie. There are a lot of great people in the animation world that could have done this. When they met me, they had a script but they weren’t entirely sure it was finished. They knew they wanted to do it either in stop-motion or in a way that felt like stop-motion. They wanted it to feel like the brick films. I had done stuff with LEGO on Robot Chicken. We did a bunch of LEGO sketches. I know what it’s like to put something together that’s very rudimentary and find solutions to very practical problems. How do you make a LEGO guy throw a punch? He can’t twist his body. He can’t twist at his waist. I had that experience. I’d also had a background in editing, in story and in producing. I’d worked with tons of toys. I was really a natural fit.

Chris and Phil are a co-directing team. They operate like one director. They were doing 21 [Jump Street] and then ultimately 22 Jump Street so they needed someone who could help guide the ship when they were gone, who could work with them to develop the story and characters, as well as go to Australia and supervise all the animation, the effects, all the lighting and rendering. So I fit that bill.

DS: Was there any consternation on the part of the LEGO folks trusting their property to people like Chris and Phil, since 21 Jump Street was pretty risqué, as well as to you, with your history on Robot Chicken? Certainly Robot Chicken has broken a few barriers of good taste in its time.

CM: [Laughs] Yah. From both LEGO and Warner Bros. there was some hesitation. Less with Warner than with LEGO. Warner felt that while seven year old boys would like this movie, what about their parents? What about their older brothers and sisters? They wanted to make something that wasn’t like the video games, that wasn’t like the direct-to-DVD stuff.  So after hiring Chris and Phil, and after hiring me, they came around, even though sometimes we pushed things past their comfort zone. It took a while. We’d show them an animatic and they’d say, “No, you can’t do that.” But ultimately, there were very few things that they weren’t swayed by once they actually saw some of the material coming together.

We had many rather vigorous debates about things. But from their standpoint, we moved them out of their comfort zone into a place where they actually really liked everything we were doing. They finally understood we weren’t just trying to poke a stick in the eye of the audience. We’re big kids. We wanted a movie that would play for different audiences. To do that, you have to have a bunch of different kinds of jokes, different types of characters and stories to tell.  You also have to approach everything you do with love, which they were able to see us do.

Conversely, the LEGO people really made us understand and appreciate some of their values as far as playfulness. There was a sense of play and fun in the making of this movie that came directly from the fact the LEGO Company operates like that. They moved us into an area of comfort that worked really well for us.

DS: Is the film all CG? Is there any stop-motion?

CM: The majority of the movie is CG. There are several minutes of some stop-motion but I can’t really tell you much about what it is. There are some real toys that are integrated into the CG. Knock on wood, if we do a sequel, I’d like to do more stop-motion. It’s a complicated hand-off between CG and stop-motion. Shooting live action plates and the like. We just scratched the surface on this film. We should get even crazier.

DS: Animal Logic did the animation. It must have been nice to jump right into such a sophisticated animation studio to make this film.

CM: I’m so used to working in a dirty garage [laughs] with Robot Chicken. Now Matt and Seth have themselves a really nice studio they built in Burbank. It’s really beautiful. But before I left to do this movie, their studio was down and dirty. That’s how a lot of TV animation gets done. Especially when you’re doing stop-motion TV animation. So, to go to a place like Animal Logic, that not only has all the right teams of great people, and software and renderfarms, but has an R&D department to create new tools that we needed, that was amazing.

There are a ton of effing unsung heroes on this movie. The people who did the modeling and surfacing, and the animators, they are the true unsung heroes of this movie. They come from all over the world. Animal Logic has a deep bench of creative and technical people who have varied backgrounds that provide truly great perspective to everything that they do.

Grant Freckleton, the production designer, is an amazing guy with an amazing eye. He’s like the fourth director on this movie.

DS: Often a gag isn’t really funny until the animators get hold of it.  Were you guys able to riff and push on things to make them funnier than they initially seemed to be?

CM: Absolutely. Unlike in stop-motion, where you can get locked into things, in CG you can iterate and develop things organically between departments. One of the things I enjoy is when I’m working with an animator and suddenly they come up with a good idea, but we need a bit more. So we go to post and ask them to add in a sound effect, to open it up a bit. So, then we give it back to the animator, who says since now we’re doing that, we need just a little bit of special effects. So we bring it over to the effects guys. They come in and add this “thing” right at that needed moment. Then we figure out now we’re going to need the camera moved into a very specific spot and it would look really cool if we got a little lens kick off the special effects we added.  So we have the layout guys tweak the camera slightly, so the camera move slows down just a little at that certain point. Because we’re highly flexible, we can develop gags almost like you’re improv-ing.

It would be irresponsible to do that sort of thing on a big animated movie. But because Animal Logic was so nimble and had such tight communication between the departments, we were able to do things more spontaneously, which really makes the movie more spontaneous.

DS: What were the biggest challenges on this film for you and your team?

CM: Our biggest challenges were time and money. It was also a big challenge to convince people what we were doing was the right thing. We constantly had to check-in with people to convince them we were making good decision and that this was going to be a movie that if we stuck to this plan, was going to work. When you talk about gags that start on the page, get into an animatic and then go to animation, sometimes there is a dark period where something is just not working. It was funny on the page, it was funny the first time you saw it with an animatic and some boards, but now that it’s up on its feet and the animation isn’t all there yet, some things just hit you with, “Oh, this is not going to work at all.”  We went through several of those periods with big, important moments of the plot. 

Sometimes, that’s a wake-up call that you have to come up with a new plan. At the end of the day, that’s really what directing is like. In your gut, knowing that something is going to work, or it’s not going to work. Sometimes, you have to stay the course. Sometimes, you have to get under the hood and find out what’s not working. And sometimes you have to engage your creative resources and come up with a new thing that’s going to be even better. That’s what makes it fun.

DS: Looking back on this film, what gave you the most sense of personal satisfaction?

CM: The fact that we made a movie that was sweet and absurd and ambitious and unafraid to be sincere, and that was OK. In a time that most people want to make cynical stuff, tell cynical jokes and wink at the camera, we were able to make something that could switch back and forth from being ridiculous to being a Michael Mann action scene. People watch this film and they are fully engaged and having a great time. That to me is the most satisfying part.

DS: Was there ever a time you just reflected on the fact you were making The LEGO Movie and thought, “Jeez how cool is this?”

CM: Yes. I’m pretty lucky to do this for a living.

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Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.

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