Seriously. Do you have any idea how hard it is to rock a lid like that? Almost impossible. And yet he does it with remarkable ease. And the glasses too. You put that hat and those glasses on almost anyone else (especially me) and it’s like a freaking Halloween costume – but on this dude – Epic Cool. Natural. You know why? Confidence baby. This is a guy who knows what time it is. He is the hand on the proverbial steering wheel for some of our favorite TV of the last five years as the Director of Robot Chicken, Morel Orel, and the incredible Titan Maximum. He’s so cool he even agreed to spend some time on our goofy website. We join our interview already in progress . . . How long is the turn around on an episode of Robot Chicken from the completion of the voice track to handing off to the network for scheduling? What is the actual process from the first day you come to work on it?
On a Robot Chicken budget, every part of the process takes about a week, so if you break it down by each step – per episode – it works out to about one week to write the script, the following week we storyboard it, then we take a week to make an animatic, next week build the puppets and sets, the following week we shoot it, then a week of post to lock the edit, a week to do the special efx and sound efx, with about a day to mix it, color correct it and send it out. However, because it would cost too much to do it this way, we don’t produce a single episode at a time. What happens is the writers take a little over a month to write the first five episodes and when they are approved (by Matt(Senreich) and Seth (Green), legal, S&P) then we start working on five episodes at a time. While we are (story) boarding, building and shooting those first five episodes, the writers write the next five and the boarding, building and shooting overlaps the first five so a some point we are producing anywhere between ten to fifteen episodes at once. And that’s how you put a season of Robot Chicken together. Although it sounds really clinical it’s actually a lot of fun. Because our deadlines are so tight each department scrambles to come up with solutions to problems presented in the script and – unlike a lot of other places that have the luxury to debate every prop detail- we have to improvise the best solution possible and get it up on the screen as fast as we can. It really tests your creativity, problem solving, communication, etc. I’m really proud of the team we had on Season Five.
It was the best team we’ve ever had and they busted their asses to finish the season and the Star Wars Three special. Everyone was firing on all cylinders. It was pretty exciting.
You’ve done a lot of work on shows that have 15 minute episodes. On Morel Orel those 15 minutes each have a beginning, middle and an end. On Robot Chicken they are rarely connected by a narrative and the Titan Maximum episodes are actually more like chapters of a serial – when you’re working with such a short period of time which format is your preference as a story teller?
Sketch comedy is fun because from sketch to sketch everything a director controls can change – tone, pace, shooting style – everything. So it allows you to stretch yourself, play with things you don’t get an opportunity to play with, experiment. But there is NOTHING like working with story and characters that you love. It is a drug. It is a sickness. And I say this because you find yourself saying and doing things that you wouldn’t under other circumstances. You become protective. Sometimes over protective. Because you are nurturing something to life. No matter how brilliant a script is, as a director (for sure as a director but any dept head should feel this way – I know I did as an editor “pre-viz-ing” the show before I started producing and directing; you start to see what that character CAN BE. What the story CAN BE. So you start searching for ways to play with the story, setting, or mood to reveal that character, their likes, dislikes, their complexities, you look for ways to show off their inner life, little reactions and things that support or contradict what’s going on in the scene or story – and you start pruning away anything that distracts from that. And then you find yourself becoming highly critical of people that don’t do that. That don’t love their characters. That don’t love the craft of building a story. That don’t look for ways to evolve storytelling or the visual language of film. That don’t love their AUDIENCE. One look from your character – whether a puppet or an actor it doesn’t matter it’s YOUR CHARACTER that matters – can replace an entire scene of exposition. Understanding where that trade-off happens separates filmmakers from directors, separates true collaborators from dept heads. Btw, I think Moral Orel evolved into a serialized show and that one of the genius choices Dino (Stamatopoulos) made was to drop serialized moments into stand alone episodes. Sometimes they were just quick scenes or a piece of dialogue or a passing sign, but they are all there. So i look at Moral Orel and Titan Maximum – although worlds apart in every other area – as very similar models from an episodic TV perspective.
You get to work with a phenomenal amount of “big time” acting talent on Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum. A few years afer Robot Chicken and Titan Maximum cease production I’ll reach out to you to find out who the biggest pain in the ass was but for now, who stands out in your mind as being the most fun to work with?
There are very few people that come into Robot Chicken, Titan Maximum or Moral Orel and have a bad time. There was a table read/punch-up meeting of a Moral Orel script that I don’t think I’ve ever laughed harder in my entire life. Even people that at first are wary of what they are doing there (for instance if a sketch is making fun of them or a character they played) end up getting into it and having a good time. If you listen to the takes of Gary Coleman doing his thing on the episode he was in, you see him bite into that acting thing – the talent is still there, the desire to fill a role, to be a character is still there. There are a lot of actors that you think are kind of one note and then you’re blown away by how much fun they are in the booth. That being said I think there are DVD commentary tracks on Season Three and Season Four which illustrate who the two biggest pains in the ass were. Maybe I can throw that bait out there and see if DVD sales spike after this interview goes online. The most consistently funny and fun to work with person I’ve ever seen is Breckin Meyer. Period. The end.
I think Sasha is a descendant of Nurse Bendy and her bear. Although I think Tom Root would beg to differ. It would, however, explain one animators opinion that Sasha was into bestiality. That discussion may or may not be on the Titan DVD crew commentary track. Spike!
Morel Orel is one of the darkest satires I have ever seen. It’s also probably the most offensive thing to ever show up on a channel that also shows reruns of Scooby Doo. Did the production team behind it face a lot of “opposition” from the folks at Adult Swim or did the network know what they were getting into when they ordered the episodes? Was it ever “toned down” by request? By the way, I grew up watching Davy and Goliath and from the moment I saw that first teaser bump I felt it was flat out genius.
The people behind Adult Swim are huge fans of Moral Orel. It’s offensiveness (not a Moral Orel episode title reference) was definitely encouraged. However I think Adult Swim would have been more comfortable with a dark, offensive show that was more heavy on the crack smoking and pastry bag baby making. I think those kinds of things are dark but ultimately safer because it’s so funny, absurd and outrageous no one who would be offended by it could be taken seriously. I think when the balance of the shows episodes tip toward plots centered on marital discord, religious hypocrisy, and struggling with homosexuality – and the emotions and consequences are played for REAL – then you start to make people nervous. Because even if it’s a puppet, you FEEL what’s going on. And some people find that funny. Other people get confused. Should I laugh at this? I think the idea that it’s both funny and sad at the same time makes it funnier. Like I said it’s real. It’s true. I think most people can carry around two contradictory thoughts in their heads at the same time, but I think it’s just that some people don’t want to. Dino (Stamatopoulos) is a true artist. A true filmmaker. Because he cannot stop searching for the truth. And that’s not safe or easy. And it usually comes with a price. I think when the show started it was kind of a joke to Dino, Jay(Johnston) and Scott (Adsit) . But it was really fun to watch them develop that first season because you could see them either get bored with just making jokes and start to realize that they loved these characters – I could see them start to get into the possibilities of this show, from a humor perspective, from a character and story perspective – and start to play with things that they weren’t exactly sure where it was going to take them but they wanted to get on that ride. It was thrilling to be a part of that.
I just watched Robot Chicken Star Wars Three again the other day and I just can’t help but be amazed at what an amazing piece of television comedy it is. The Emperor’s arc is flat out hilarious and infinitely quotable. So first of all – thank you. Second of all, as someone who has been to Skywalker Ranch, what can you tell us about that experience? Are you a Star Wars fan? Does it lose some of it’s “mystery” when you work so closely to it?
I am a huge Star Wars fan. I grew up on Star Wars, Raiders, ET, Poltergeist, The Thing, Blade Runner, Road Warrior, Wrath of Khan, Creepshow, etc. I don’t think that kind of thing ever loses it’s magic, especially when you experience it as a kid. In fact the closer I get to it – for instance going to Skywalker ranch, walking around ILM, seeing behind the scenes of Clone Wars or The Force Unleashed video game, getting a peek into the Lucasfilm archives – all that does is connect me more to it in a really visceral way. Makes me even more hungry, focused and aware that every thing we do is important because there’s a little kid out there that will see the stuff that we do and want to make some cool movie that I’m going to want to see some day. I really enjoy working on Robot Chicken. The audience for the show is really great. One of the things I notice is that it’s kind of a gateway show for parents and kids to enjoy together, to find something in common, to laugh together or be silly together. I think that’s a good thing. I think that comes directly from Matt and Seth. I think that joy, that silliness and the warmth that it produces is directly related to their take on the world. They are super-nice, giving people. I think RC fans are nicer than the average person, I think Moral Orel fans are smarter than the average person and I think Titan Maximum fans are more passionate, like the way I was in the library geeking out over a Michael Moorcock book or Woody Allen’s Side Effects. A ridiculous generalization? You bet.
How do you feel about the amount of live action shows making their way onto Adult Swim? Do you think it’s a side effect of the amount of time it takes to produce the animated stuff or do you think there is a different sort of programming shift happening?
The live action shows that Adult Swim greenlights are pretty funny. I like Tim and Eric. I like Children’s Hospital. I think it’s pretty consistent with the kind of programming they’ve been doing since they started. Eagleheart is to Walker Texas Ranger as Venture Bros is to Johnny Quest (I know, that was the easiest analogy). Seriously, no one else is going to do these kinds of interesting creator driven shows and that should be celebrated no matter what format it’s produced in. Other networks would fuck up a good thing by getting too involved in it in a negative, fear-based kind of way. Adult Swim is the “Yes” network. Adult Swim looks at the direction the show is going and acknowledges that as the baseline of the conversation. All of the feedback and notes I’ve ever seen from Adult Swim has been very smart, focused and encouraging. Re: Budget and Schedule – Adult Swim has that down to a science and can find an animation format that is as expensive or cheap as their perceived value (vis a vis advertisers value of the audience the show brings) of the show itself. Broad sketch comedy like Robot Chicken can merit the most expensive form of animation – Stop Motion. 12 Oz. Mouse, maybe not so much. But there should be a broadcast network to try a 12 Oz. Mouse out.
In 2002 you wrote and directed the live action film 2wks, 1yr about a couple negotiating their extremely complicated emotional relationship while trying to decide if they have a future together. How much of that story is autobiographical? Is it hard to tell such a personal story or does it end up being therapeutic showing you things that you hadn’t realized while “living through it”?
2wks, 1yr was me trying to figure myself out, holding up a mirror not only to my life, but also trying to figure out the kind of filmmaker I wanted to be. I was always drawn to writing big – sometimes ridiculously big – subjects that were way over my abilities, or topics/characters that I just didn’t have any real experience with. As a result the writing felt phony and hackey and untrue. So I did what should have been painful obvious – write what you know! I wrote something that was sort of stream of consciousness about people in their 20’s on the fence about their lives and what they were doing. It was mumble-core before anyone had categorized it yet (although, obviously at the time a lot of other people were doing that sort of thing). I guess the difference, which was important to me, was trying to capture the inner life of people visually, aurally and through cutting back and forth between present and past. This was pre-Memento (or Eternal Sunshine of Spotless Mind or Blue Valentine) and, although I wasn’t breaking new ground, I was doing something only a few other filmmakers bothered to try. I think maybe The Limey had come out while I was shooting it – and I felt very excited to be working in that kind of company – even if my efforts were on a much smaller scale. I’m most proud of that and the performances the actors. At the same time I was shooting my film, I was editing a movie for a friend of mine, Michael Gilio and it was an amazing opportunity to be working with another filmmaker who was going through the same kind of things I was going through – making our first films, growing from being boys into men. Mike was the lead in my film and I was cutting his film so we could rely on each other in ways that we couldn’t with other people because creatively and personally we had big stakes in the outcomes of both projects. I recommend that to anybody – put a team together because nobody does this alone. It was probably the single most important time in my life and prepared me for working on things like Robot Chicken. When you make your own films you become very responsible not only to the story, the characters, the actors, the crew, but also to the audience. You realize very quickly that you are in communication with people and that everything you do, every decision you make is important – and you learn very quickly – especially if you are producing it yourself – what is most important is what is put on the screen must be clean, clear, quick and focused. Everything else is bullshit. All that matters is that connection to the audience, so it really makes you analyze a scene for what is the most important detail, idea, plot point of that scene and that kind of helps quiet the noise of all of things that can compete and muddle a film…or a sketch.
I worked in the production office of Uncle Buck which was housed at New Trier High School when the school had temporarily shut down. We used every part of the school. The gym was the sound stage for the interiors – Buck’s apartment, the Family’s house, etc – the principal’s office was our production office, costumes was in the theater dept, special effects was in the shop. John Candy was a super-nice guy and really funny in person. He was always hanging out, making people laugh. Super-professional.
My Padawan Darilyn Tiberius Skywalker (Real name – I think.) has a publicly stated goal of writing for Robot Chicken. How would you suggest one begin the process to achieve success at such an endeavor? (She actually talks like that.)
I honestly don’t know much about how one gets hired, but I can tell you what I think works if you are going to write sketch comedy, which if you do it right should help you get hired somewhere. I guess these are rules or things I’ve noticed about the process that I hope will help. Be funny. Have a personality that is friendly and warm, be a considerate human being that cares about other human beings, that is curious about other human beings and have the ability to string a few sentences together. Most importantly if you seem desperate or needy you will scare the fuck out of people. What is true of dating is true in job hunting. That is kiss of death in every aspect of life. Fast is funny. Always. If you can tell an entire sketch in one page, you win. Because if you can do that, then every description, every piece of dialogue and every character is there to serve the point of that sketch. And that’s good storytelling. Good writing is plot structure and that is exactly what everyone is looking for. There shouldn’t be anything that doesn’t serve the point. When we talk to the lawyers before we shoot a single frame of the show, we have to justify the parody of the sketches that take on – for instance – the Smurfs. We have to defend our parody. I actually think that’s a good writing exercise. Try writing a sketch where every quarter of a page has to have a direct comment about the underlying property (the idea) you are writing about – and not just the same comment over and over but advance the idea as the sketch goes on. Rob Scrab and Dan Harmon have the right idea over at Channel101.com . Write a TV pilot, but do it so that it plays out in five minutes. If you can master a complete story with a beginning, middle and end, that the character has an arc that feels complete in five pages – and make it entertaining – you win. Write great dialogue. The best way to get hired ANYWHERE is to write quick, witty dialogue. You can probably live the rest of your life on punch up meetings alone. Keep writing, keep submitting no matter what. That is the advice John Hughes gave me. It works.
If you ever find yourself in a position to direct Clone Wars on Cartoon network, would you please reach out to me – I have some ideas to spin that off into a mirror universe where Anakin does not HAVE to become Darth Vader but can still explore the dark inner turmoil that… wait a minute; this may not be the right time for this conversation…
I got a chance to peek behind the scenes of Clone Wars. I envy Dave Filoni very, very much.
Are you going to direct the second season of Titan Maximum? Soon? When? Can I see it now? Is it almost done? So Gibbs was right all along! That is SO Cool! Damn Claire still scares the shit out of me . . . How about now – is it done now? Gotta be done by NOW -I mean it’s been like 10 minutes . . . (Sorry – I’m a ahhh, well, sorta real big fan of that show . . .)
I would work on any show that Matt and Seth and Tom Root produce. These are world class men. The crew that I had on Robot Chicken Season 5; I wish that I had had on Titan Season 1. If we get a second season of Titan, it is going to blow people away. The stuff Tom and Matt and Seth have planned is going to be amazing.
What’s Calmixx? I poked around expecting to find an obscure H.P. Lovecraft reference, D&D, Dr. Who, but nothing…
I’m Calmixx. LOL. Back in the late eighties I started an Independent comic book company with a buddy but all the small companies had these ridiculous names like: DANGERPOINT COMICS ! or HAZARDOUS TALES !; real cheesy nonsense that was supposed to grab people but just came off as lame and pathetic. We’d say “Just Calm down already and tell the story.” That led to a lame joke about the phonetic spelling of the word Comics. “Calm-ixx”. We used it as the title of a few books we did and somebody at the time thought that was actually my name – Cal Mixx. Like I was some comic book writing cowboy from the 40s. It just kinda stuck from there. I have come to learn that it’s also the name of a Calcium Nitrate Weed killer and a pet tranquilizer so I have THAT going for me. Sigh.
Chris – we’re big fans of your work and I really can’t stress how much I appreciate your taking the time to chat. You rock dude! Now please go make some more Titan Maximum.
We’ll wait right here.