Animator Lee Hardcastle On Producing His Surreal Rick And Morty Halloween Special [Exclusive Interview]

Regular viewers of Adult Swim probably know animator Lee Hardcastle from his work on those 15-second skits that often play between commercials. Those segments, called "The Non-Canonical Adventures of Rick and Morty," are wonderful, slightly-unsettling treats for "Rick and Morty" fans, throwing the show's characters into quick movie parodies in a delightfully eerie claymation style. If you don't know Hardcastle from that, you may have been introduced to him through his work on "The ABCs of Death," or his "Simpsons couch gag" shorts. They're violent and often horrifying, but so well-done that you can't help but keep watching. 

His latest project was released on Adult Swim at midnight last night: "Summer's Sleepover," a spooky 10-minute short about a sleepover gone horribly wrong. Hardcastle was nice enough to speak to us about his work on the special and his animation career in general. 

'It felt very strange because I'm so used to being scrutinized'

So the first time I saw your work was "The Simpsons" couch gag spoof, which I really loved. What are some key differences with the way you approach working on "The Simpsons" compared to "Rick and Morty?"

The Simpson videos are kind of like exercises. They're just ways for me to flex my creativity and not feel the pressure of trying to produce anything for anyone, but rather to just have a bit of fun and "stick it onto YouTube" sort of thing. And with the "Rick and Morty" thing, the difference with that is that I got approached and asked to do this "Rick and Morty" short film. And then I was suddenly in this different situation, this pressure of trying to produce something that it's like, not only do you want to be creative, but you want to actually produce something that people would like to see. I mean, it's a different kind of situation.

What was the extent of your interaction with the "Rick and Morty" show writers?

Oh, it was nothing. I had none, no interaction. Yeah, it was very strange, a very strange process, in a way that there wasn't very much feedback. They just sort of checked in every now and again, just had a look at what I was doing, read my scripts. And yeah, there wasn't much friction. I just did it. It felt very strange because I'm so used to being scrutinized, just so used to being told to do things differently, and there was none of that.

A lot of freedom with the creative process?

Yeah, too much freedom.

So clay animation is kind of well-known for being time intensive. How long did this short take you?

All in all, I think it was about a four-month project. I think there was about a month of that just sort of developing it and writing the script and storyboarding it. And then there must have been another month for that, which was post-production, and then two months of just building sets and animating and that sort of stuff. I think it was like three or four months.

How does that compare to some of your other projects?

It was a bit longer than what I'm used to doing. My other projects are usually two to five minutes long, like music videos. I'm used to just getting those projects done and then moving on to the next one. But this bigger one, there's just a lot more to think about. Takes a lot more energy, a lot more navigation. Yeah, it is completely different to the shortest stuff that you make.

'There was going to be some sort of virus that got out of Rick's lab'

So your special is mostly focused on Summer as opposed to Rick or Morty or the other family members. What inspired you to go in that direction with the special?

When I was approached by Adult Swim to make the short film, they asked me if I'd be interested in making a short film. And I was like, "Yeah." And they said the previous three that they'd made were focused on Rick and Morty, so they'd like to do one that focused on some of the other characters. So I very quickly just come up in my head, "Summer."

I just thought of Summer having a sleepover and having Summer's friends there, and trying to find a scenario to let bad things happen. That was my initial sort of go-to starting point. And from that, that's where it just went from. I didn't explore any of the other people, really. You know when you just think of something, you go, "Oh, Summer sleepover? Yeah. Yeah, we'll go with that."

What was the inspiration behind the villain?

Yeah, I really don't know. It was a very, very sort of developing process when it came to that. Initially, the idea was that there was going to be some sort of contamination break. There was going to be some sort of virus that got out of Rick's lab. I was going down this path of ideas in my head where a pizza man would turn up and then the pizza man would get infected and then it escalates. I was thinking about these situations where things escalate, starting from something very small.

And from that, I developed like, "Oh, well, I'll have maybe this little cute creature." It was a very unoriginal idea, but I was rolling with it. And you've got "Gremlins" and the Mogwai. And I looked for character design for the creature as well. I was looking at the Mogwai from "Gremlins" and looking at its big eyes and its big ears and stuff like that. One of the things that I find funny about "Rick and Morty" is how they do these rip-offs and stuff. They've got "Hellraiser" and Freddy Krueger, but the way that they change the characters, they do it in such a ridiculous way to avoid the copyright situation.

That's what I tried to do with that. I was trying to make a ridiculous Mogwai and just got rid of his ears and introduced that little wavy thing on top of his head. Yeah, it was a sort of wonky process of development that was involved in that creature. It was like that.

Yeah, I thought it was funny how it's like on the show, Rick always has a cute alien who seems harmless, and then it just spirals out of his control so quickly.

Yeah. I mean, it just felt like such a safe idea. Yeah, very sort of typical situation.

'I wanted to make something that Rick and Morty fans would enjoy'

What would you say was the most challenging part of this project?

I suppose the most challenging aspect was that I was more concerned about delivering a video that people wanted. I didn't want to just make some wacky old off-the-wall stuff. I wanted to make something that "Rick and Morty" fans would enjoy. I wanted to be very safe about it.

Yeah, because I was feeling like I was making something for this audience. I was feeling not Lee Hardcastle anymore. I was feeling like I was being hired to do something. That was the most challenging aspect of it, I guess, was just that pressure of wanting to deliver something that would be accepted in the "Rick and Morty" universe. It's a bit of a strange thing to be asked to write a story that fits in with the world of something that already exists and in such capacity. Everyone seems so familiar with everything that's going on in "Rick and Morty." I understand what that sort of fandom is like. It's very delicate, isn't it? You don't want to upset anyone with the wrong details and that sort of thing.

Well, I think you've succeeded. I really enjoyed the special, especially as a fan of the show.

Oh, brilliant, mate. Not many people have seen it, not many people have given me any feedback, really. I'm dying to see what people think. I'm dying to see what the response is. I can't wait.

So, you have a bunch of short parody clips with "Rick and Morty" that you do for Adult Swim.

Oh yeah. The Non-Canonical Adventures. Yeah.

What's your favorite parody that you've done?

Oh, I don't think I've got a favorite. I'll try and think of the ones that I like, though. I like the "Pulp Fiction" one. I like the joke in that. I think that was really funny. Oh, the "My Neighbor Totoro." I thought that one turned out really well. And yeah, God, there's so many of those — like 36 of them. Then the first initial ones that we did, I really enjoy. I was really quite proud of them. We did the "Re-Animator" and "Honey, I Shrunk the Kids." Yeah. I don't have a favorite, though.

So, just one more question before we go. I noticed the Rick and Morty pinball machine behind you. Is that a gift from the show, or did you buy that yourself?

I bought it myself.

Looks cool.

I was able to afford it because I did this short film. Yeah, it was a bit of a recent project, so I got it a couple of months ago. A friend of a friend was selling it, and it's a bit of a rare opportunity to be able to buy one. And just because the opportunity came up, it just felt like the right thing to do. I was like, "Yeah, let's get a 'Rick and Morty' pinball machine. Definitely."

"Summer's Sleepover" is currently streaming on HBO Max. You can find many of Lee Hardcastle's projects free to watch on his YouTube page.