The LEGO Batman Movie sees Will Arnett reprise his role as the Dark Knight, as the breakout character from The LEGO Movie gets his own animated adventure. With a new ensemble cast, a LEGO building theme to incorporate and decades of Batman history to boot, Chris McKay had an awful lot to juggle. The director, who served as co-animation director and editor on The LEGO Movie, explains the approach he took to the highly anticipated new film.
How does it feel to have completed The LEGO Batman Movie, and it be ready to open to audiences?
It feels great, I was really lucky that Warner Bros. allowed me to be a part of it, that I could work on this movie with this crew and be able to tell this story. I’m really proud of the work that everybody did on it. I feel relief that we got through it and we made something I’m proud of.
Earlier in your career you worked on the stop-motion toy based sketch comedy Robot Chicken. How did that stop-motion series help inform the way you animate LEGO minifigures?
Working particularly in low budget stop-motion requires you to be very nimble, very quick with your ideas and move forward fearlessly. Even though the LEGO movies are big budget movies, our ambition for these movies is pretty big. Our ambition for telling stories that have a lot of jokes in them as well as having an emotional arc to the characters is something that’s a high wire act that’s hard to do. So being trained in that kind of ‘do things fast, turn stuff around’ mentality has helped me out making these movies. Because I know the intricacies and charm of stop-motion I can help the animation team find that thing that makes it feel like old school stop-motion.
The movie starts with a big, bombastic action sequence opening – why was it important to open The LEGO Batman Movie in that way?
The first movie was kind of like The Matrix. It was the hero’s journey, Matrix type movie. We want each of these LEGO movies to feel different, and when you look at all of the Batman movies there is at least one action sequence, something you remember that’s a very visceral cinematic thing.
It was also important to me that the beginning of this movie feel like the end of the third act of somebody else’s Batman movie. Because the idea was that you’d have this big thing, this big epic action scene and have a lot of fun, with all of these characters in this world – then you’d follow Batman. What happens when Christopher Nolan’s movie ends, when the credits roll? Batman’s having to go home, check his mail, eat food, all that kind of thing. It helps people understand that we’re trying to look at Batman’s real problem. This is the only kind of movie that can attack Batman’s central problem, the fact that he’s got a hole in his life and is afraid to let people in.
So it felt like that was the way to do it. The action scene was both fun for me, I wanted to do something that was thrilling like that, and at the same time it was to contrast with that we’re now going to peek behind the scenes and see what it’s like being Batman.
Was it a challenge to introduce so many elements and set up so much in a short space of time?
Yeah, and that was probably the thing that we did the most iterations on. Because it was a tricky balance and it’s one of those things where I’m asking a lot of faith. You can imagine back in the beginning of the process when it’s just storyboards and it’s my voice, not Will Arnett, and it’s rudimentary sound effects. I’m asking the studio to sort of go, ‘okay, yes, you’re going to go 7 or 8 minutes without seeing Batman in a 90 minute movie, so a tenth of your movie doesn’t have Batman in it’. Batman’s the whole reason every kid’s there and that’s a risk, especially with little kids, there’s a ticking clock with animated movies as far as people’s patience goes.
So that whole sequence went through a lot of different changes because it was trying to not only prove to the studio that this thing can work but also how much information we wanted to get in, especially when we started to develop the relationship to Man in the Mirror as a theme. A lot of work went into finding the right balance.