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Q&A: Chris McKay Goes Full Caped Crusader on ‘The Lego Batman Movie’

Of the many praises made of The Lego Movie released in 2014, one common observation was the way it paid homage to ‘brick films,’ stop-motion, and the general handcrafted play that is very much tied up with Lego itself.

Director Chris McKay (center) with Will Arnett who voices Batman and Zach Galifianakis who voices The Joker.
Director Chris McKay (center) with Will Arnett who voices Batman and Zach Galifianakis who voices The Joker.

Animation supervisor Chris McKay was a large part of bringing that feel to the first movie, having earlier been involved with shows such as Robot Chicken and Moral Orel. Now he has returned as the director of The Lego Batman Movie and, with animation studio Animal Logic, worked to infuse that same sense of handcrafted animation – and fun – into this film.

Cartoon Brew caught up with McKay to discuss some of the challenges of making Lego Batman – from mixing its poignant story with plenty of superhero gags, to choices about animation style. The director also reveals what things didn’t make the final cut.

Cartoon Brew: The film feels like a poignant story about Batman needing help from friends, but at the same time there’s just so many great gags and moments going on – how did you balance these two aspects?

Chris McKay: Well, you know, it’s obviously tricky. We didn’t have a lot of time to make this movie. We basically started with a three-page treatment about two-and-a-half years ago and I just finished animating and lighting and mixing the movie at the end of December, beginning of January. So it was not a lot of time to be able to iterate the movie the way that I think a lot of other animated movies, even on the first Lego Movie, are able to do.

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I have to give a lot of credit to the crew that I worked with. They worked really hard, within a tense deadline, and pretty high expectations – obviously it’s tough to follow up the first Lego Movie because it’s such a once in a lifetime experience.

Now, I’m a big fan of Airplane movies, Naked Gun movies, and I wanted to do something that was as fast and funny as that kind of film but also find a little bit of heart, find a little bit of earnest sincere emotions in the Batman story because I knew that was our only unique way into this character. Maybe for some of the other Batman movies there’s no upside to Batman solving his problems. But I thought that there was a chance for us to be able to do that while at the same time, trying to lovingly tell jokes and humorous observations and critiques of what Batman represents in comics and the world.

I basically pitched the movie to the studio and said that I wanted to make Jerry Maguire as directed by Michael Mann with a lot of jokes in it, and they kind of let me run with that.

That’s very evident in the opening heist sequence, which even has a song. Can you talk about how that came together?

Chris McKay: We set up in the first movie that Batman is probably somewhere between Trent Reznor and Ice Cube. He fancies himself as some sort of heavy metal rapping machine, as he says in the movie. And so it was important to try to take all of those things that I loved about our Batman and distill all of the Batman stories down into one guy -I wanted to just have this big explosion of love and affection and a lot of fun. He just seemed so super confident, he comes bursting in there into a fight scene like that with a theme song. So he’s got his own sort of Shaft-esque theme song that he blares as he comes in and fights bad guys.

We worked with this song writer named Cheap Shot who wrote a really funny Batman song. He used a little bit of the Neil Hefty Batman theme in there. I didn’t want it to be just a parody song. When it’s a parody, it’s never going to be like a real song, but I wanted it to sound and feel and be produced like a real song, but with some jokes in it and something that would seem like a lot of fun. I probably only changed like a couple of lines. I think I just wanted Batman to say that you know that he didn’t pay his taxes, stuff like that. Those are probably the only things that’s really added, otherwise most came right out of Cheap Shot’s head.

Another thing that is evident in that heist sequence, and the whole film, are references to Batman as a universe. How did you immerse yourself in that Batman world, because it feels like there are so many things to take from, both kitsch and dark, and that there are so many eras of Batman to absorb?

Chris McKay: Well, we’ve had a lot of the dark Batman stuff recently. Batman’s a very flexible character, obviously. There’s the Adam West stuff, the Michael Keaton stuff, Frank Miller, Zack Snyder, Superfriends. Researching the movie, in my head I guess I was thinking that we were basically taking the Burt Ward Robin and sticking him in the Batmobile with the Zack Snyder/Ben Affleck Batman, or the Frank Miller Batman. And putting these two different energies together. Somebody who’s like the grumpiest, dark grittiest, broodiest Batman with the most positive, indefatigable kid.

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When that image hit me I was, like, we just have to figure out a way where we can use all of the history of Batman in the movie because it’s also part of the critique maybe of Batman. He’s been around for 78 years in comic books, since the beginning of the comic series, and Gotham City still hasn’t changed. Gotham City is still in movies and TV and is literally still the worst city in the world. Still the most crime-ridden city in the world. These Batman films and shows and comics could all exist on this one timeline and the movie could be about the 78-year history of Batman’s reign on Gotham City.

And that’s part of the fun of the movie is that it’s a big mashup of all of these things, and it goes beyond the jokes, too. We’re talking about a guy who’s afraid to change, he’s got a hole in his heart, he’s got a lot of fear of getting hurt again. And the fun of it is all of these different colorful characters or dark ones, in one giant package. And it’s a big love letter to a character that I really liked when I was a kid and I’m trying to have as much fun with it as possible. And take on a premise as absurd as putting all of the characters in one movie.

One of the things you established on the first film was the brick film and staccato type of animation approach which was such a great homage to Lego and handcrafted play in general. Where did you want to take the animation style for The Lego Batman Movie?

Chris McKay: We’re still trying to make it feel like the brick films, and like the old Rankin/Bass stuff. It has such charm because of the handmade quality. It kind of just reminds you maybe of something that’s simpler, sweeter, more innocent. But I knew that I also wanted action scenes, and I think in the first movie because of the ‘end of the movie surprise’ you wanted it to feel a little bit more like stop-motion and I probably sat on the animation a lot more because it’s like what a kid could do. Those were the rules we were applying to the animators.

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On this movie it was different because it was more about Batman and I wanted the action scenes to feel as action-packed as possible, and I wanted the emotional stuff to be as emotional as we could if we’re going to swing wildly from comedy to sincerity and that kind of thing. So I’d give the animators a little more free reign to do everything that they could and treat it like it was a more sophisticated stop-motion enterprise.

Whereas on say Robot Chicken what we would have done, if we were working with Lego, we would shave down the toy, shave down the arms, in order to be able to replicate something that’s like a squash and stretch. In CG you just end up crashing something into the body away from camera where you can’t see it – stuff like that in order to get the same idea across, but still not squashing or stretching the actual plastic in a way like what you’d see on other Lego direct-to-DVD movies, where they have knees and elbows. We still do it with bricks and sometimes crashing plastic into plastic.

The thing that we talked about with the animators, and I had stop-motion animators who knew enough about cg also on the team, was, how would we do it if we were on set. You know, you would have shaved this thing down. You would have shaved the neck down a little bit so you could get a twist to the head that made it sound like the character was listening to something. That kind of thing.

The animators were always encouraged to never let the computer interpret, they were encouraged to make as many individual choices along the way so that it was never about setting a point to another point, or letting a computer do it. Obviously we did the animation on 2s instead of 1s, and sometimes 5s, it just depended on what the scene called for, and what we could get away with.

There are so many characters and vehicles and environments in the film, but were there any that you worked on that didn’t make it into the final picture?

Chris McKay: Well the movie was supposed to come out in May 2017, so I wish that I had the three or four more months. I could have used it to do a few more things, put a few more jokes in there, clean up a few things. There’s always a few extra jokes you want to tell or have a few more swings at a scene just to clean it up and make it great.

There’s probably a few moments in the movie I would have wanted to maybe expand more, have a little more fun with. I think there were characters I wanted to include from Batman’s history that Lego was uncomfortable with because of their backstory. I think I got as many in there as I could, but there were a few where they were just like, nah, we’re not going to do Flamingo or the Grant Morrison stuff.

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There was an explanation of how Batman got into the Mayor’s outfit and how that all transpired that was going to be an end credits thing that I wish we could have done because it was really funny. Hopefully that’s going to be on the dvd. There’s stuff like that that I wish we could have animated and made because there’s more funny stuff that I wanted to do.

  • Elsi Pote

    Lego Batman Movie: everything but the batsink and I bet somebody put one somewhere in shot.

    Congrats to Chris for looking like a down to earth guy.

    And congrats to those who prove it that feature animation can be a sprint race sport.

  • StephaneDumas

    I wonder if they’ll be some nods to the 1966 tv series as well with the “Pow”, “Zapp”, “Kapow”, “Splat”,etc…? ;-)