Chris McKay knows a little something about playing with toys. Having directed more than three dozen episodes of Seth Green's demented action-figure comedy Robot Chicken and nearly half of the cult animated series Moral Orel, he's honed the art of subverting, deconstructing and generally torturing viewers' precious memories of childhood keepsakes to a fine point.
In his role as animation co-director of The Lego Movie, McKay was given a different challenge. Directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were out to craft the definitive Lego adventure, celebrating the beloved block toys in a far more complex and visually groundbreaking manner than anything ever attempted before ... and doing it without traumatizing anybody.
You're billed as The Lego Movie's animation co-director. What does that entail?
Chris and Phil sort of operate as one director, you know what I mean? Like, they're a unit even though they're two different people. And most animated movies have a co-director that works on the movie with the [principal] directors. I was with them once they laid the script down and started developing the story. Animated movies develop organically; once you've got that script as a blueprint, you start to develop the way the movie's gonna be shot, the way the movie's gonna be designed, how your special effects are gonna go - and also how your story's gonna go, because so much of it comes out of the action of the story and the interactions of the story, and what you can tonally bring to the table.
What are Lord and Miller like as collaborators?
They are real, real structure guys. Even though they want to explode that [structure] and have it go out of control at times, they're always keeping the story moving forward, always keeping the energy of the character [focused] on their obstacles and what they're trying to achieve. They're also just really amazing because they bring a lot of heart and inner life and sincerity. They can be as cynical as anybody else, and as cavalier as anybody else, and as scatological and childish and all the other stuff as far as the storytelling goes, but there always is something very sincere and true and loving about the characters that they create and the worlds that they create - because they truly are in love with everything that they do. When they're putting a movie together, they're in love with all those characters, and they're in love with the journey, and that's something that's just a real amazing gift.
I was talking to them earlier this afternoon, and they said that they keep stuffing ideas into their movies until the last possible minute to keep themselves from getting bored. Is that really how they work?
They're incredibly generous guys and they welcome everybody into the room. They have this writer's room mentality that they carry throughout the entire process.
How does that go?
The key to having a successful writer's room is there should be no shame. It should be, "Let's just talk about ideas; right now, I don't give a fuck about whether it's good, bad or indifferent, let's just try to make each other laugh. Let's try to come up with good ideas, let's try to come up with interesting right turns or left turns the story could take. We're not gonna judge anything; just put it on the table." And throughout the entire process, that's the way they operate. They operate like that all the way down the line into the [final] mix. Because every idea's important and good. It's just an amazing gift, to be able to work like that. And I think it shows in the movie.
Is there any one piece of The Lego Movie of which you're most proud?
Sticking the landing on the ending is the thing that I'm probably most proud of. And leading up to that, there's a moment in the movie where it stops being something that you're watching ironically, or you're just kind of paying attention to the jokes or whatever - [the moment] that Emmet's goal becomes something that's important, and you start to get emotionally involved. And the fact that we were able to make those moments work? I'm just really proud, and feel so satisfied that we were able to take you on this journey that should be silly, that should be absurd, that should be patently ridiculous - but we played it straight, we played it as epically as we possibly could, and that we were able to get people wrapped up in something that has a ridiculous plot. They get into it and they get moved by it. That's the thing I'm most proud of.
There seems to be some common ground between the sort of high-velocity joke delivery machine that is Robot Chicken and the pop-culture cornucopia of The Lego Movie. The tones are very, very different, but both projects show our childhood toys doing some very strange things.
The thing about Robot Chicken is kind of like what Chris and Phil do, too, where we're gonna make a sketch or a joke or a moment that is for the six people that remember the Glowworm [toy], you know what I mean? Or the people that remember when you cut Stretch Armstrong open, this crazy crap fell out. And we don't care, because there'll be another joke later on that's for somebody who loves Harry Potter or The Lord Of The Rings. But for that moment right there, we're talking to that guy: "Yeah, this is something we all loved at one point, we had a ridiculous obsession with it, and we've all been there so here's that joke."
I also wanted to ask about Moral Orel, which you worked on with Dino Stamatopoulos. That was a very, very, very strange show, using the aesthetic of the old Davey And Goliath stop-motion cartoons to tell some really awful stories.
Sometimes there's a very dividing line between people who appreciate Robot Chicken and people who appreciate Moral Orel. Robot Chicken definitely pushes the envelope in certain areas, but it's pretty crass. Moral Orel is so dark and so specific about the inner workings of its characters ... it's kind of a litmus test for people. [laughing]
My jaw just dropped when I saw the first episode, just for the pure disconnect of seeing those characters doing and saying the things they do.
Yes. [laughing] I think even in the darkest episodes, there is something about the way that the design [works] against what these characters are going through - there is something that is just funny. It's almost like Andy Kaufman funny, maybe, but there's something about that that I think is still funny to me, and I think it works like that for other people.
I've described it to a few people as "corrosively wholesome."
[explosive laughter] I'll have to tell Dino that! That's amazing. That's hilarious.