'Chuck Steel' Director Mike Mort On How He Made His '80s-Inspired, Stop-Motion Animated Action/Horror/Comedy [Fantasia Film Festival Interview]

"It's not 1985 anymore; it's 1986," explains one of the many characters voiced by British writer/director Michael (Mike) Mort in his first feature-length stop-motion animation work Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires, the follow-up of sorts to his 2013 Chuck Steel short, Raging Balls of Steel Justice. Like the short, this film is a send-up of 1980s American action movies like Die Hard and Lethal Weapon. But with Trampires, Mort adds a bevy of tributes to horror films of the decade as well, including very funny and graphic shouts out to the Evil Dead trilogy and John Carpenter's The Thing, among others.

Mort's screenplay and storyline don't seem to have any issues crossing the politically incorrect line (also an '80s staple), and the film feels all the more vital and exciting as a result. The story involves Steel and an elderly vampire hunter named Abraham Van Rental (both voiced by Mort, as is Steel's too-old-for-this-shit captain, Jack Schitt) solving a series of mysterious disappearances of people leaving L.A. clubs and bars, which they eventually tie to a type of vampire — the trampire — that prefers blood with a high blood-alcohol content. Sporting a high production value, Trampires is a ridiculous, often tasteless romp that comes courtesy of the newly created British animation house Animortal Studio. The film is currently looking for a distributor after it finishes a series of film festival appearances.

/Film spoke with Mort (along with one of the film's producers, Randhir Singh Heer) the morning after a triumphant North American premiere at Fantasia Festival in Montreal (read our review here). For stop-motion animation geeks and '80s movie fanatics, Mike has a great deal to say about the detail-oriented, time-consuming nature of the production, the many action and horror movie references, and about where he goes after this labor of love.


Last night was the second screening ever of this film, and during the Q&A, people were skating around the issue of the film's political incorrectness. Has that ever been a concern, especially in more recent months?

In more recent months yes, but when we were making it, no. This have changed fairly recently in terms of sensitivity around virtually everything. So the anti-PC jokes are making people a bit more nervous than when we started the film. I don't think that's a bad thing, even though I do think we're taking ourselves a bit too seriously these days. I think a film that comes along and laughs at everyone is what we need.

You really don't spare anyone, especially the misogynistic white male a**hole at the center of your film.

Right. Exactly right.

Let's back things up, you said yesterday you created this character when you were around 15. What was going on and influencing you at that age that birthed Chuck Steel?

Obviously, over the years, it's been honed and refined into more of a story with more details and layers, but when I first drew him, he was a square-jawed action hero. I used to love monster movie and horror films, and Evil Dead 2 was a big influence on me and Ash as a character, there are a lot of similarities with Ash's attitude. When I started as a doodle in my school book, it was just something I liked to draw in it, and then I started making a few short films.

And I do remember the original short, and there's none of that in the feature, correct?

There's one gag when the police are being emasculated by the psychologist in the montage. You see someone cross out "Most Wanted" on the poster and write "Most Misunderstood," and all the criminals on the poster are the criminals from the short.

That's great. You mentioned Evil Dead 2, but there a moment at the end where a creatures head is twisting that looks like it's right out of The Thing.

Yeah, all those rubber head, stretchy effects, you're meant to spot those references and say "This is from this, this is from that." They aren't necessarily direct homages to particular films; it's more of a feel and a throwback to those types of films.

What's interesting about those effects from those movies in particular is that they were originally stop-motion or otherwise practical effects.

We build rigs on those stretchy-head things so you could animate the stretch, but it was the some principle as a prosthetic rubber head. We're just pushing something through and stretching it.

You also said that Animortal Studio was created to make this film. Talk about that part of the process.

The Chuck Steel character was something I've tried to get off the ground in a project over the years for quite a long time. And this script, I wrote it in 2001 and tried to get it off the ground then, and doors would open and then close. I just couldn't move it forward, so I parked it on a shelf and moved on with work. I was frustrated that I wasn't getting anywhere with it, so I decided to make the short film in my basement. So I started making the models and sets from things I'd collected over the years. I'd cannibalized old armatures and used those instead of making the models [from scratch], because I didn't have any backing. It was also the first time I'd tried to do any voice work, so I did the voices on the short film.

Early on in the process of making that, I got introduced to my now business partners through a colleague. Rupert Lywood, who isn't here and is the third partner with me and Rand here, he's a big animation fan and he loved something I'd done years ago called Gogs, a film about a caveman family. He basically backed the short film, and when we finished that, he said "Let's make a feature film." And then it was just a matter of them getting the financing together. As of right now, it's been about four years since we started production. The film took about two-and-a-half years; with setting up the studio, three years; and another year of wrapping everything up and getting to this point. We've not been the fastest [laughs].

I've interviewed folks from Laika and Aardman over the years, and I know they digitally print all of these different expressions and use face replacement to speed up the process, but you didn't do that. You stuck to old-school molding each expression one frame at a time. Was that by necessity?

With the short film, I didn't have any other choice. That's what I knew how to do, and I knew how to make that that way. And I didn't want the look of the feature to veer off wildly from the short, so we stuck with the same technique. For the next time, there are shortcuts that we need to take. The rapid-prototyping printed face thing, if you've got the budget and time, you can do that really well. If you don't, that can be poppy and jerky, so I stuck with what I knew well.

It looks expensive, so congratulations on achieving what appears to be a high production value. How did you get it to look that way—big, widescreen, colorful, huge crowd shots, explosions?

We didn't use any CGI characters; the only CGI in the film is the cityscape when we're doing flying scenes. The fire has live-action element pumped in. There's a lot of composite work and VFX work. One of the things we did was add a little bit of camera movement in post, so there's a little bit of wobble, a bit of life, to things. We also have lens flares; big-budget films always have a bit of lens flare. Those are quite simple things that can help things look bigger. If you want to know, it cost $20 million to make this movie.

That's incredible. I would never have asked.

That's refreshing to hear you say that. Everyone wants to know. They want to compare you to all the other animation house budgets. I can tell you, we were less than all the others.

Chuck Steel Review

What were some of the things you did not to make it look too slick, too smoothed out, leaving the artists' fingerprints on the work?

We didn't overplan the shots. We had storyboards and knew what we wanted to do timing wise, but we would put a lot of the responsibility on the animators and let them go for it. A lot of these films, they do a lot of tests to get the timing perfect, and I thought, "I don't want it to get to that level where you film the actors doing stuff and then basically just rotoscope it or copy it." We did a little bit of that but not a huge amount. I allowed the animators to put a little bit of spontaneity in it. It makes it look more handmade.

That's a risky thing to do.

It is but it's also a necessity because of the timing, and we were trying to do so many shots in this film that if we were going to be blocking them all out, we'd still be shooting it now.

Another film that came to mind in one of the climactic showdowns near the end was Killer Klowns from Outer Space, which I just saw again recently. You have these Trampires dressed as clowns, and each one has a totally different design. How long did it take to design 25-30 different clowns.

The drawing process is actually quite quick because I just sit down and draw; I like coming up with characters. I love that film; that's a classic of the '80s, and everyone is currently scared of clowns, aren't they? We were determined all of the background characters have different faces, because one of the short cuts in stop motion is that people use the same head on all of the background characters and then change the wig or swap out facial features. But we sculpted every single one differently. One of the things we were worried about was continuity because we had so many single characters, it was like "If we have one in this shot, then we can't use them in another shot." And I said, "Don't worry about continuity in background characters. There are going to be so many faces, and we're going to mix them around all the time; no on is going to spot who should be where. It's chaos."

The amount of gore in this is really impressive. Is there a trick to shooting that? And how did you achieve that great melting effect when the Trampires die?

Sometimes if someone was hit with a bullet, we would destroy the puppet. The animator was told to rip the head and heart out—put hot glue in there and create a wound, paint it up, and throw the head back, and we'd add a little blood spray in post. For the melty stuff, we would construct the character as a melted skeleton that we could animate then we would cast the skin version on top of it with a bit of meltable wax, then we'd paint that with acrylic paint, which when you heat up the wax, the paint looks like skin, it sags. But you'd have to heat it with a hair dryer and take it away before it melted too much, take the frame, then put the hair dryer back in.

I can't believe you have any control over the process doing it that way. That seems uncontrollable.

 [laugh] It is a little bit. Some of those shots ended up being very quick because you can't make them last very long. But it works on screen. We added things like smoke and blood spray afterwards.

I couldn't believe how many of the voices you did. I recognized Jennifer Saunders as one of the characters, but I didn't know until the end credit that you voiced most of the other lead characters.

The main three characters, yeah, we stuck to the same plan as the short film. Because of the budget level we were at, we wanted the money on the screen. We were eager to not blow the money on voices. It's been a conversation we've had all the way along, if whether that was the wrong or right decision. We're still having that conversation now. Potentially, the voices might change; it just depends on how things play out. It's all about distribution.

Where did you pull your American voices from?

I just tried it on the short film, and it was fun. I lock myself away; nobody is allowed to see it. [He points to producer Randhir Singh Heer] He's seen it. It was just a bit of fun to start with, but we'll see if that stays or not.

I hope at least one of the voices does. I never guessed you were doing all of the voices.

One of the reasons was, when I had the short film and had no back end, I thought "I have to find a way to do this with nothing." And I watch things like Seth MacFarlane doing voices on Family Guy, and I thought "What the hell, I'll give it a try. People do this." And it was alright in the end, once you get past the embarrassment factor.

The action portions of this and the references you're pulling seem uniquely American. What would you say is the most American thing about this film? You can say bad things if you want.

 [laughs] No, there aren't any bad things. I grew up with American movies; I'm obsessed with them. I couldn't watch British film because they were too depressing; they were always about council estate and people being out of work. Whereas American movies always had a fantastical edge or a good-and-evil vibe, always over the top. As a kid, a lot of it was stuff I was drawn to. There's nothing bad in it; it's a love letter to all of that.

We talked about horror film influences. What were some of the action films you loved the most?

Die Hard, The Last Boy Scout, Sudden Death, which I know is a ”90s film, but I really like it, Under Siege, anything with Gary Busey in it. Eye of the Tiger, do you remember that one?


The people who owned the rights to the song, because it was such a popular song, they thought, "We're going to make a movie about this," and it's an action movie starring Gary Busey. Those films, I used to always find it hilarious that the off-the-rails cop was being shouted at by the boss, but he never got fired no matter what he did. I tried to push that to ludicrous extremes.

Chuck Steel

The psychologist character, outside of where that ends up by the end, where did the idea for that come from? I've seen versions of that character in certain films try to analyze the damaged lead character, but this is different. The influence she has in the squad room is different than what I've seen before.

In the original script, that character was a man and not a woman, but at a certain point, I changed it into a woman mainly because there weren't any strong female characters in it, and it needed one somewhere. It added another dimension to the script in terms of the male-female thing. Chuck's misogynistic behavior seemed to get ramped up, and she was the counterbalance to that, in addition to what else she was doing in the police station with the other cops. In the film, it's laughing at liberal agendas as well as conservative ideas. I don't think it's making any particular political point, but we were laughing at as many things as we could.

Speaking of politics, you have this Puritan character as governor. And you said last night that there's a character here that was slightly based on Donald Trump, but long before he was running for president. The character is just a drunken partier.

Yeah, he was just meant to be a businessman, and at the time, Donald Trump was just known as a businessman, but it's not meant to be a caricature of him. He's just got slightly weird hair [laughs].

What do you think the 15-year-old you would think of this movie.

He would probably think "Finally, I got it made!" [laughs] I don't know; I'm not sure I can make that leap. If people aren't familiar with all of the references, I don't know what they'll think of it. It's a fun ride.

I don't want people to watch this at home. This is a shared-experience, midnight-movie type of thing. What has your Fantasia experience been? The audience went crazy for this last night.

It was great. The film looked and sounded great on that screen, which is really important. We'd done a final little tweak to the sound, punching things through, and it really worked. I was trying to listen to people's reactions and when the laughed, and a lot of the time, they were missing jokes because they were still laughing at the last one. I guess they'll have to watch it again.

Do you have ideas for further Chuck Steel adventures? There's a joke at the end of the film about werewolf prostitutes.

Maybe that [laughs]. I do have ideas for sequels but I'm not counting my chickens yet. We have to see how this goes and keep our fingers crossed that we get that opportunity.

You mentioned you were doing other work in the periods where you weren't making this film. What were some of your other jobs?

I was doing animated commercials. I directed...you know Shaun the Sheep [the television series]? I directed five episodes of that. I worked as a freelancer, directing and animating.

So you have worked in the mainstream. How did you want to make your operation different and similar?

We definitely wanted to be our own entity. We'd like to do more edgy projects and adult fare, which is not to say we won't do more family stuff as well. One of the things I think works well in the film is the pace—it is quite relentless, in the action scenes, it's fast, it feels like a live-action film. I think that's one thing we can do really well, set pieces and action scenes where you forget it's stop motion.

Is it actually more difficult doing action scenes in terms of timing things out?

Not really. It just depends on how you direct it, how you see it in your head. There are a lot of shots in there where you just get a close-up of Chuck's eyes in an action scene, and that comes from, if you watch any Stallone films, he does that all the time. They cut from a massive wide to a close-up of his eyes, so there are a lot of things I've picked up from watching over the years that I can then inject a lot of pace into, but are actually quite simple.

Speaking of going R-rated in a normally family-friendly form, I'm curious what you think of this new muppet movie that coming out soon, The Happytime Murders.

We are keen to see how that does. We haven't seen it yet; I've only seen the trailer, but that's the closest of to the kind of film we've got, but with muppets. And considering how most studios are putting out nothing by safer, PG-13 film, how is anyone supposed to make anything different. We're watching that one closely and hoping it does really well. One of the things I wanted to do with the film, because when you adult animation, there's a tendency to be crude and unpleasant and have sex jokes, I did want to maintain the charm with Chuck—a little bit of innocence in him. Yes, it's gory and violent but it's also quite fun, and there's nothing in there that's going to make you go "They stepped over the line there." Sometimes film that try to push these boundaries go to far, I feel anyways. We'll see how that one does, though.

Best of luck. I can't wait see where this lands.

Thanks. Cheers.