Titan Maximum Interview with Chris McKay

Chris McKay has a difficult job. Chris (and his insanely talented crew) have to take twelve-inch puppets and cameras and move them fractions of an inch at a time to make it appear as if they are beating the holy hell out of each other. And they have to do it very quickly, keeping to a strict timetable and budget. Chris talked to us about directing Robot Chicken, Moral Orel and the new Adult Swim series Titan Maximum.

Let's start off talking about Titan. The show is really pretty. And it has some pretty intense camera moves in it. What are the challenges in making it so fluid?

Time. Time is always the thing that we're up against. We have a really, really amazing, dedicated team with animation director Ethan Marak, [director of photography] Bryan Garver and Ross Shuman, production designer. And I just worked with these guys a lot to try to come up with - we wanted this thing to look like a Tony Scott, Michael Bay movie. We wanted it to look... We didn't want it to just be a parody that was just, you know, kind of just making jokes. We wanted you to feel like this was a real movie with these jokes happening, if that makes any sense.

So I was working with a bunch of people who really were kind of committed to that idea and really trying to just make this thing look as big and as much like a spectacle as we possibly can.

We heard you say Michael Bay and Tony Scott, but what were some of the things you were looking at specifically for visual inspiration?

We took a look at Final Fantasy VII: Advent Children, which is really great, Appleseed, and particularly Appleseed: Ex Machina was one. And I just love like, Neon Genesis, Cowboy Bebop, and even Samurai Champloo. Those were some that we were really kind of influenced by. So we were trying to approximate that sort of visual style.

And you know, of course Battle of the Planets, and Voltron, and stuff like that. But the shows that have the more modern sensibility, a little more cutty, you know, the camera is kind of whipping around and stuff like that. We just wanted to try to do that in the stop motion world, and try to kind of throw out all the rules that you can't do this or can't do that and just find new ways.

We've got incredibly small sets, so it's very difficult to sometimes shoot in there, so we ended up trying to do a lot of different things with lenses and just making smaller and smaller, little, almost like little mini-steady cams that we sort of developed that basically put these cameras on little weights, and even sometimes lights on little weights to move them around so it just gave you the feel like you were, you know, in a James Cameron movie or something and make it really feel like there was all sorts of stuff beyond the edges of the frame happening at all times.

And sometimes we'd even do things with some of these camera moves where people would be taking down walls and putting them up as the camera would move from one end to the other. I mean, we did all sorts of just, you know, sort of stage hijinks to just get it to look as big as possible.

Are the puppets a different scale in this than in Moral Orel or Robot Chicken?

Yeah, in general, Robot Chicken was an eight-inch scale, just because that's the Mego scale and Moral Orel was nine. And nine, for the building that we're in currently, nine is a good size. But we wanted more detail and so we went with a twelve-inch puppet, which is great for the animators because it gives them a lot more flexibility as far as emotions, being able to get their hands on the eyes, and manipulate the eyebrows and the face and mouth and stuff like that. It just gives them a lot more room to play.

So we went with a twelve-inch, which was great, but then we had to build the sets much bigger.

It seems that a lot of your stuff before Shadow Machine was in editing. What's the story with you ending up directing stop motion animation?

(laughs) Well, I had done a lot of editing and I had done some live-action directing. I think because these shows are... You know, it's almost like a guerilla-filmmaking kind of enterprise. Stop motion is generally the most expensive form of animation, so we really have to look at this like an independent film and I think being an editor and having edited a lot of independent films and also produced and directed an independent film, I think I come at it from a different point of view.

And sometimes that point of view works really well, and sometimes it's an education for me, but I think because I come at it from a let's-throw-out-all-the-rules, let's just try to make this look like, as big as it can be, let's try to make this moment as good as it can be, and I guess as an editor I kind of know what needs to be big and then what we can kind of get away with later.

I think that that's kind of the balance that I ride and why. You know, Dino had approached me during Moral Orel because I was really hands-on with the animatics and I just really loved that show and as the editor of Moral Orel I had wanted, requested to do the animatics specifically because that's how you build the show and I thought it was really important to really kind of create that from the ground up with sound effects and music and all sorts of things that would help sell these ideas, because it was, you know, it was a tricky balance that they were trying to do, both being kind of like, satirical as well as really kind of getting you involved in those characters. It was a difficult balance to do in eleven minutes.

So I started getting really, seriously hands-on in the animatics and Dino really liked what I did and I had kind of asked him if I could direct an episode if it was possible and there was one that was available and he let me. And people started liking what I was doing and also how fast I turned the sets over as well as got really good work and kind of pushed the envelope with camera and framing and lenses and stuff like that.

So then they just started giving me more and more chances to direct and then Matt and Seth let me direct the entire third season of Robot, and the fourth season of Robot and then that kind of naturally transitioned into producing and directing Titan.

Once you shoot an episode, do you ever go back and re-shoot scenes? How much is locked in at that point?

We get one take, that's it. So it's, yeah, you gotta give it your best shot. There is occasionally... If the schedule works out, it's possible to re-shoot something or I guess if something went really horribly wrong. I think there was one time when I had a character put up the wrong arm in a scene that was supposed to be an arm wrestling scene, and that was on a cut, so we had to re-shoot that.

But, you know, we never get to... We don't even get to do pop-throughs. I mean, literally, it's kind of flying by the seat of your pants, and again, it's like making an independent film, you know. It's guerilla filmmaking. It's really, you know, as much as possible, getting your ducks in a row before you start shooting and then, once you get into it, just giving the animator free reign to improvise as they get into the scene, which is really where a lot of the magic really happens. It's once you give them the idea and sort of the parameters that you're working in, these guys really just take off and make these characters and these moments soar.

Can you think of an example of when you go from the animatic to when an animator animates the scene of a pleasant surprise of how an animator executed something?

Yeah, almost any time I work with Cameron Baity, or Josh Jennings, or Liz Harvatine, you know, you'll say you want the character to, gosh I wish I could think of a really great, practical example, but just off the top of my head I can't... Let me come back to that if I can.

Of course. So this is the most action-oriented show you've directed. How does that change your approach?

You know, it's funny because we have a lot of discussions in the beginning, and I've noticed a lot of series sort of go through this. I was reading actually about Batman: The Animated Series and they kind of went through the same thing, where there are storytelling needs that you need to get across. We have eleven minutes to get these ideas across and you want there to be, for lack of a better word, a cinematic side to the show. In this particular instance, our cinematic moments are our action movie moments. They're fight scenes. They're space battles and monsters and that kind of thing.

And you know, it's a constant struggle, but I think what I really sort of praise both Matt and especially Tom, for giving me the freedom to say, "Okay, this is the moment where we need to introduce this monster," "This is the moment where we need to have this scene play out a little bit."

So they've allowed me to have the freedom to choreograph that even if sometimes we have to cut away story later or kind of speed through a story. Sometimes we (laughs) sometimes we even end up speeding up the dialogue a little bit in scenes around it in order to make the running time so we can have a moment where we can kind of play out an action beat.

So yeah, they give me a lot of freedom to be able to just have fun and sort of play with what in live-action would be sort of wire-fighting things, and stuff like that or some of the choreography you'd seen in a John Woo movie or something.

Have you ever asked them to tone an action scene back a little bit because you just won't have the time or something?

(laughs) You know, there was one moment towards the end of the schedule where we wanted one of the monsters that Titan Maximum was fighting to kind of go crazy and kill all these old people and we just didn't have enough time in the schedule to shoot it.

I had kept it up on the schedule, just hoping, hoping, hoping that we'd be able to shoot that moment, but we just weren't able to, so we had to scale it back considerably, so it turned into just one shot of the monster sending out a ray towards the city and things exploding and stuff like that, but didn't get to do the actual choreography that we'd wanted to do.

If you were given tons of time and money, what would be a dream project for you to work on in addition to the ones that you're doing?

Ah, jeez. If I had all the time and money in the world... I always think that time and money are evils. I'd much rather work on...

If you had some time and money.

Yeah, that's a great question. There's a story that I wanted to do about a guy who's this totally egomaniacal, shitty actor. And he's kind of a Tom Cruise-type where he can produce, and star, and pretty much can do anything he pretty much wants to do. And he ends up writing and directing this really horrible movie and the movie turns out to be almost like a Battlefield Earth kind of thing and it tanks completely.

And the movie studio had made all of these toys that were supposed to be marketed with this movie and because the movie tanked so badly, all the toys got shuttered into a warehouse and inadvertently, through the magic of filmmaking, our egomaniacal hero, licking his wounds, goes up to the top of the Hollywood sign, and he has this one-of-a-kind toy of his character from the movie and he throws it off of the Hollywood sign and ends up falling.

And when he wakes up, it's sort of Wizard of Oz-like, he wakes up in the world of the movie, but as played out by these toys and he has to kind of rewrite this movie by acting it out. In the course of the story, he realizes how ridiculous and egotistical and ill-advised this movie is and he has to end up rewriting the story by reliving the story in the world of these toys.

That's hilarious. And deep.

That's probably why it won't work.

Speaking of toys, do you share the love of toys and Eighties stuff that the guys at Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum have?

Yeah. I've probably gotten more into it now that I'm here, but when I was a kid, I had probably, I probably played with Star Wars toys up into high school, if not brought them to college. I love the three- and three-quarter-inch toys, like superheroes and Buck Rogers and Star Wars and stuff like that.

That might even seem extreme to a lot of people, but just because I know how extreme these guys are, I don't even compare to the level of knowledge that these guys have on a toy-by-toy basis. It's incredible.

Titan Maximum premieres Sunday, Sept. 27 at 11:30p ET/PT on [adult swim]