Matt's Blog

Interview - Director Chris McKay On The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie

The Lego Movie is receiving terrific reviews (it’s currently 97% on Rotten Tomatoes) and I recently caught up with Chris McKay (the film’s editor and animation director) to talk about the film. You can listen to the full audio extract from the interview by clicking here.

Matt:  When I first heard they were making a Lego movie, my first reaction was one like “What? Really? How?”  Did you get a lot of people asking you the same sorts of questions when you signed on?

Chris:  Yeah.  That’s a perfectly reasonable response to the idea of doing The Lego Movie.  When I said we were going to do it in the stop-motion style and try to make it feel as charming and warm as a Rankin-Bass movie, they were still saying no one is going to want to watch a movie where the minifigs only move the way minifigs can move and where the style is trying to adhere to a stop-motion aesthetic.

For Chris, Phil and myself, we stuck to the vision of what it thought it might be.  When you watch those “brick films” that fans make on Youtube, they’re beautiful and silly and absurd.  Their ambitions are epic and that’s the kind of movie we wanted to make.  We wanted it to feel like Michael Bay or Henry Selick were 10-year-old boys and got together in their basement to make the coolest movie ever!

Matt:  I’m accustomed to a director sitting on a set, giving instructions, looking at footage overnight.  How does it work though as the co-director of an animated feature?  What’s your day-to-day routine?

Chris:  Day-to-day, I’m the guy who is down on the ground with the team.  I’m with the layout artists, designers and animators.  I’m then sending those images and edits back to the studio and back to the other filmmakers.  We then have a dialogue about where the movie is going and what other opportunities exist.  We may have come up with an idea in animation or with the dialogue that will require a change.

We also had some amazing actors who would go off on tangents while they were recoding that would open up other possibilities.  We would explore those things and then send them back to Chris and Phil and say “look, this is where the movie feels like it’s going” so let’s follow this path and see what happens.

Matt:  One thing I’ve always wondered about in animated features is the way characters mouths move up and down while speaking.  Is there a formula you follow – as in “when they say this, their mouth should always move like this” or is it more random than that?

Chris:  It kind of depends on the design but there are definitely rules people follow.  That said, rules are always made to be broken.  It has to be measured against what you feel like is “true”.  Every time there’s a rule that says “you have to do it this way” – for example a lip sync has to be “this” way every time a character does a “P” – there’s always another solution that does something completely different but rings absolutely true.  You have to go with your gut.  It’s way more art than it is science.

Matt:  In this film you have characters from DC Comics, The Simpsons, The Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter.  Do you have certain rules from the copyright-owners that you have to follow when bringing these characters to life in the film?

Chris:  Yeah, to a certain extent.  We were obviously in love with all these characters and so we never wanted to do anything like poking a stick in someone’s eye.  When you’re dealing with Star Wars and stuff like that, there are copyright owners that get nervous with the way they’re being presented.  But honestly, with every single person we approached, we showed them what we were doing and said that we might improvise a few things.  No one ever said “no, you cannot do that” or “here’s a set of rules”.  By background is Robot Chicken.  Phil and Chris made Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs.  People knew that were going to treat these characters with love and respect because we’re also fans.  They trusted us.

Matt:  There’s so much going on visually in this film – not just with the characters but with the detailed background shots that all I have to look like some kind of Lego construction.  To give us some kind of perspective, how many people are working on a film like this?

Chris:  We had close to 300 people work on the movie but that’s actually a small crew for an animated movie.  That number is from top to bottom including sound and everything else.  Usually it’s closer to 500 or 600.  I had 30 animators at most.  I had 5 board artists.  There were a handful of people in lighting and in layout.

Compared to other animated features, this was a low budget movie but it’s a testament to the crew that we pulled it off.  Many of them wore multiple hats.  There were plenty of people that did a variety of jobs to just get the movie done.

Matt:  What sort of work goes into editing a film like this?  Given the expense of pulling every scene together, I’m guessing there’s not a lot that gets left on the cutting room floor so to speak?

Chris:  (laughs) Yeah, it’s different for an animated movie because post-production starts at the very beginning.  You’re starting in the story phase as you’re taking the boards that are coming in and you are editing them against music and voices that you and your co-conspirators are doing in order to make a scene work.  You get need to get the movie up in an emotional way to show people if this scene is working and if this act is working and if the character’s arc is working.

You are doing the pre-visualisation of the movie as an editor.  There are only a certain number of editors that have that skill set as other editors are only reactive to the material that’s in front of them.  In animation, you need to develop and build the idea and come up with new ways to solve problems.  For example, if a joke isn’t working, you may have to come up with a way to sell it through different visuals.  It’s something that you do in tandem with the board artists.

Matt:  You have your own little cameo in this film as Larry the Barista.  How did that come about?

Chris:  It’s because I was doing scratch voices and one of them stuck in the movie.  I recorded it on my desk while trying to meet a deadline and we needed to figure out who would be this character and I was like “ok, I’ll just do it” and so I recorded a bunch of things.  Believe me, I tried, I wanted to get other people to do it.  We had other people read it.

It’s part of the magic of filmmaking.  If you get it right once, that’s all you need.  Some people can psych themselves out of a performance because they’re trying to work it too hard.  At the end of the day, if you can just get one take right, you’ll be fine.  So actors out there, just relax, it’ll be ok!

Matt:  You’ve won an Emmy and directed a bunch of episodes for the animated TV series, Robot Chicken.  And I was therefore going to ask if you wanted to step up be the head director of an animated feature film… but I believe that’s already the case!  Is it true you’ll be heading up a sequel to The Lego Movie?

Chris:  Yeah, I’m going to direct The Lego Movie sequel.

Matt:  When will that get started?  When can we expect to see it?

Chris:  We’re working on a treatment right now.  Once the movie took off like it did, we knew we wanted to make a sequel.  It’s kind of a double edged sword because good sequels are very hard to come by.  I’m looking forward to the challenge of trying to make this into something that’s worthy of the first movie because it’s so special.  Having watched it several times with different audiences and seeing how people respond to it, it’s something that’s very important to me.