“Put yourself in a headspace to not care about what everyone thinks. When on the mixing stage, I always think this will be one dude’s favourite movie and that’s enough for me!”

Chris Miller and Phil Lord with NFTS students

NFTS students were yet again treated to a one-of-a-kind masterclass, this time courtesy of Oscar winning director, writer and producer team, Phil Lord and Chris Miller a couple of days before they picked up their BAFTA for ‘Best Animated Feature Film’ for Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse and on the same day The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part was released in UK cinemas. Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse also won the Oscar in the same category and the pair won the ‘Best Animated Feature Film’ BAFTA in 2018 for The Lego Movie. They also directed and wrote Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs which was nominated for a Golden Globe and four Annie Awards.

The session was hosted by NFTS Director, Jon Wardle at 20th Century Fox in London and among his questions were a number that had been put forward by the students.

Jon kicked off the high energy session by asking Phil and Chris how they started working as a team. Chris explained how Phil had convinced him to take an animation class while at university and from then on they started to make films. Phil continued: “We pulled three all-nighters to finish the first film and then followed that up with a year’s worth of all-nighters! I can’t say they were our finest quality films but you’d recognise us if you saw them.” Chris quipped: “We’ve been on the same sleep schedule since then!” Head of Disney at the time, Michael Eisner read an article about Chris in a publication about Dartmouth College of which he was also an alum and asked his team to contact him to arrange a meeting. This eventually led to a meeting with the Head of Animation at Disney and as they showed up together it was assumed they were a team so “that’s how we went on from there!”

Still from Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs

Phil and Chris’ feature film directorial debut was Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs which they also co-wrote having previously cut their teeth on critically acclaimed TV-Series like Clone High which they co-executive-produced, wrote, and directed for MTV. Phil explained how different the culture was between making films and TV-series at the time and how a collaborative approach led to a successful outcome for everyone: “We didn’t know anything about making movies, especially feature length movies. Suddenly we had a team of storyboard artists who thought we sucked!” Chris continued: “Our only move was to embrace everyone’s gripes about the movie. We asked the story team and the artists: What’s your vision to fix the film? Once we started incorporating people’s ideas, they got excited as they felt they could contribute. This feeling trickled into every department and everyone started trying to top each other!” Phil added: “We took the TV writers room culture into filmmaking so it felt like a little family and an improv group.”

Still from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

Jon clarified: “But you’re not saying yes to everything?” Phil countered: “The best idea wins and most people are respectful of that.”

One of Phil and Chris’ approaches to making movies is to put ‘thoughts and feelings’ at their heart and Jon asked how the realisation that audiences like this came about? Phil explained how Amy Pascal, who was head of Sony Pictures at the time had got them to “hang out” with Oscar nominated producer and self-coined ‘script whistler’ Lyndsay Doran (Sense and Sensibility). “She gave us a masterclass in emotional storytelling which helped us evolve to a place where we could see that the emotional stuff makes the movie funnier and is critical to the understanding of the story.” Chris added: “It’s obvious stories need conflict and bad things to happen to make them gripping but it’s sometimes a mistake for characters to be fighting all the time. We found that people getting on with each other is a wonderful thing to watch.” Jon asked if 21 Jump Street, which Phil and Chris directed, was a good example of this. Chris agreed: “Jonah (Hill) and Channing (Tatum) who play the lead roles in 21 Jump Street are so different as human beings but the cool thing about the movie is that they’re friends and love each other. That’s why the audience wants to root for them.”

Still from 21 Jump Street

Continuing this theme, Chris and Phil agreed that the tone that unites their output is “optimistic and nice” and centred around wanting the audience to “feel good”. Phil quipped: “We have faith in humankind!” Chris added: “We don’t want audiences to go away feeling bleak.”

Jon pointed out how diverse the cast of Spider-Man: Into the Spiderverse is and how timely that felt with the film coming out when it did, even though the work started on the film a number of years before the ‘Me-Too’ movement. Phil said: “Even at that time, there was awareness that the industry was due for a wake-up call.” Chris added: “When we were offered the opportunity to make an animated Spider-Man movie, we talked about how to make something different and unique. We knew straight away that we wanted to cast Donald Glover who had previously voiced Miles Morales in the Ultimate Spider-Man TV Series in a cameo due to the groundswell of support for a spider-man of colour. The idea we could make a comic book come to life was very exciting.”

The technical challenges in making the movie look like a comic book brought to life involved them writing new software and coming up with “fancy techniques” to fill the in-between gaps caused by animating at 12 frames per second rather than 24 frames to give a traditional hand-drawn, 2D animation feel.

On the techniques used for The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Chris explained that they used “mostly CG made to look like stop-motion. We used a lot more mixed media in this movie including lots of pipe cleaners and fabric! For one scene in the sister’s bedroom, we even built digital hands to mess up the fabric so it looked like water.”

One of the questions that came in from the students was about how Chris and Phil “stay sane” when waiting to hear about audience numbers for their new movies. Phil exclaimed: “I live in anxiety! Chris has a theory that creativity and anxiety are closely linked. You spend too much time on things not to have anxiety about whether people will like them. I don’t read reviews any more as I’ll find one thing that bothers me.” Phil counselled: “Put yourself in a headspace to not care about what everyone thinks. When on the mixing stage, I always think this will be one dude’s favourite movie and that’s enough for me!”

Phil Lord, NFTS Director, Jon Wardle & Chris Miller

After the masterclass, Phil tweeted: “Thank you @NFTSFilmTV for a great visit with me and Chris. You are all geniuses and we can’t wait to see what you make next!”

The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part is out in UK cinemas now.