Like his frequent collaborator Neil Gaiman, Dave McKean made his name in comics, but has worked in a wide variety of media. Though primarily a visual artist who got his start doing CD covers and commercial work, he's also co-founded his own jazz label (Feral Records), made short films, composed music, and written and illustrated his own massive comics series, Cages. He's also illustrated Gaiman's scripts for the graphic novels Violent Cases, Signal To Noise, Mr. Punch, and Black Orchid, as well as Gaiman's children's books The Wolves In The Walls and The Day I Swapped My Dad For Two Goldfish. Most famously, he created the complicated collage covers for Gaiman's long-running cult series The Sandman.
Fans of those covers will recognize McKean's signature style in his gorgeous feature directorial debut Mirrormask, which arrives in theaters September 30. McKean recently spoke to The A.V. Club about the filmmaking process, his work on Broadway's Lestat and the Harry Potter films, the appeal of comics, and the purpose of fantasy.
The A.V. Club: What was it like translating your art style to film?
Dave McKean: Pretty straightforward, really. I've made a couple of short films, and a couple of music videos, and things like that. I've worked closely with a CG supervisor, and we've done everything just together. And I found it relatively easy to find a sort of 3D moving-picture equivalent to my… My stuff is generally quite collage-y anyway. So it's sort-of suited to gathering raw materials like shooting actors, then making stills or animating characters, then just bringing them all together in a 3D space. That process is very close to my 2D work anyway.
AVC: Did you face a technological learning curve in getting it to film, or did it all just follow naturally from what you learned on your short films?
DM: All the films I've done have been huge learning curves. I've learned so much in the last few years with this new medium and making this film. Certain parts of it, like working with actors for the first time, was a huge learning curve. But actually making pictures to look like my pictures, I've done it for so long, I'm kind of used to it now. So at the beginning of the process, designing and storyboarding everything, I sort of did all that. And then designed the characters, and doing the textures for the characters, and the texture maps to cover all the animated characters and the sets, I did those, because that's where my sort of coloring and textures get imprinted on the film. But then after that, the animators were free to play and add to the sets, experiment with the animation, and push and pull the characters quite a bit. It was very open, very free, and very improvisational. Then right at the end, once we'd worked on everything together, they rendered everything in many, many layers. And then I could bring all of those pieces together. So I got the final word on the coloring and the look, and everything that makes it look like my images.
AVC: Are your short films ever likely to be commercially available?
DM: Yes, we're putting together a company called New Video in New York. We're going to release all of the short films. It's over two and a half hours of shorts and a few music videos, a couple of very short features, commissions for the BBC, things like that. And they're all going to be together on a DVD, probably in the new year sometime.
AVC: What was it like integrating the way that you had learned to work from short films with the Henson Laboratory experience?
DM: It was the best collaboration, really. They were all my little team, which is 15 men and women fresh out of art school. They were all ex-students, and this was their first job. The great thing about that was, they brought all of their art-school enthusiasm and personal ways of doing things that they'd been experimenting with at art school, and that sort of arrogant feeling that they can do anything, which was fantastic. And they had not worked in the industry for a long time, and felt like there was one set way of doing anything—they were still very open. So it was a nice meeting of minds, really, because I did have to convince them of my worldview, my way that I wanted the images to look, and my view of what the film should be. But they were really very open to that. Also, the workflow was very unusual. Usually, you get to do one small job on a film like this. My idea was, I wanted each one of them to do their short film within my whole film. So they would do a whole chunk themselves. They would create the characters and the sets. They would light it, they would map it, and then we'd go through the camera moves together, and they would put it in and render it all the way through. So when it came up on the screen, that was their bit, they did that whole chunk. And that seemed to be great, most of them really responded to that, and it went well.
AVC: Apart from the live actors, how much of the film is CGI rather than puppets or other physical models?
DM: There are no puppets and no models. The actors are shot against blue screens, and there are two small sets—Helen's bedroom, and Mrs. Bagwell's bathroom. That's it. Those are the only sets we made, and then everything else is computer-generated.
AVC: What was the most difficult effect for you to achieve?
DM: God, there were many, and in fact, to be honest, some of them… Most of the ideas that we had worked out okay. And some were a bit of a push, but worked. There were a handful of little ones, they were very small throwaway things that tended to get left to the end of the schedule and weren't really allotted a lot of time, and we ended up just dropping them because they proved just too tricky to do. Usually, the most difficult thing to do is photo-real stuff. Something that has to actually look like the real world, because it's just so difficult to do that. We're just so used to looking at the real world, our brains instantly see when something is not quite right. So that stuff was difficult.
AVC: In the kinds of complicated multimedia, multi-layer artwork you normally create, have you ever run up against the limits of technology, or found things you just can't do the way you see them in your mind?
DM: I haven't found that. I think the reason is that I kind of enjoy the limits. If you've got no limits, you can do absolutely anything, it's very difficult, actually. I always enjoyed working with machines like color photocopiers and letter-pressing type settings, things where the limits are very apparent. You push the machine to do something, and it tries to do its best, and it usually has wonderful qualities all of its own. Then you get a sort of dialogue going, and the limitations become qualities. So I've never really found that a problem. PhotoShop is a program I use all the time with my 2D stuff. And that's an extraordinary program—you really can do anything there, and I've never hit my head on the ceiling. The 3D stuff is incredibly complicated, monstrously complicated, but for the things that I want to do, I've found very simple and interesting ways, I hope, of making images without getting tied up too much in the maps and technicalities.
AVC: Did anything in particular surprise you about the process of going from directing short features to directing full-length features?
DM: Nothing was quite how I expected. Working with actors obviously wasn't what I expected, because I didn't know what to expect. I have worked with actors before, but they'd been sort of puppets for me. They'd been masked, and they haven't had lines, and they'd really just done what I asked them to do, then the image is created around them. I've never really had to work with an actor to build a character, so that was fantastic. That was the area of the film that exceeded what I had in my head completely. All of the animation and everything, to be honest, is pretty close to what I had in my mind. But to have actors bring the lines to life… At one point, we had a scene on a rooftop where Stephanie Leonidas, the young girl central to the story, breaks down and bursts into tears. Well, that wasn't actually in the script, but our actress completely burst into tears and was very emotional, and all of that was absolute revelation, really wonderful.
AVC: Speaking of people in masks, that's been a very central theme in your work, and particularly in Mirrormask. What fascinates you about the symbolic value of masks?
DM: I've always used masks. I think it's a lot about the fact that masks often reveal a sort of subconscious element to a character. The mask is carved and given an expression or markings to reveal something, even though it's shielding the face. Even though it's hiding the face, it seems to reveal something underneath. And I always loved that, the root of a lot of African and Japanese masks. But it wasn't until I made a short film that I really understood why I love masks so much. I made a short film called The Week Before, and I had a character in it playing God and a character playing the Devil, and I gave them both very, very simple masks. Just little eyeholes, a line for the mouth, and small line for the nose, no expression at all. And there were no lines, it was all silent cinema with music. And then all of the body language in the characters created expressions, and you could swear that these masks changed expressions. Sometimes they looked angry or confused or upset or a bit tired, and you were absolutely positive that the expressions were changing. And I thought this was absolutely magical. So that's why I've continued looking at masks. I suppose I wanted masks in the film as a bit of a safety blanket, masks were just one element out of hundreds that Neil and I talked about, but slowly they became central.
AVC: Neil has discussed how developing Mirrormask was an unusually contentious process for the two of you, given your long history of collaboration. What was it like from your perspective?
DM: It was strange—we've never written together before. Neil's obviously written far more than I have, so I think he's just very confident. I think he's very happy just firing up his computer and starting to write something, not really knowing what it is or where it's going to go. I just can't do that. I really need to know that the film or the story's about something, and that I know what it is before I can really start writing. And I think that was the root of the tension, really. In the end, we just kind of muddled through. I continued making notes and trying to decide what on earth we were doing. And Neil just wrote stuff, and some of that stuff was used and some of it wasn't. But actually, in the end, we met in the middle. Neil had a pile of stuff written, and I had a pile of ideas on paper, and about halfway through the process, we sort of knitted them together and it all seemed to make sense. So in the end, it was fine. I never really intended to be writing. I just wanted to be in the room when Neil was writing, to make sure that he wasn't writing something that I couldn't make on this very low budget. But as we got into it more and more, ideas got passed around. And some of my ideas I'm kind of happy with, so I was happy just to write the odd scene. And that all seemed to work quite well.
AVC: He said that one of the things that you wound up discussing quite a bit was the nature of fantasy, because he believes that you're only comfortable with fantasy in allegorical forms. Do you think that's accurate?
DM: Yes, it is, really. I love fantasy stories, and I love other genres as well. I love horror stories and science-fiction stories, but only at the point where they're about people. When you just get fantasy stories that are about fairies or goblins, I just don't care. I'm never going to meet a goblin, it doesn't mean anything to me. So my definition of fantasy is very broad, it's anything to do with memory, or dreams, or ways of interpreting or making sense of the world. And I love all of those stories. And I like stories about people's need for fantasy, and people's need for escape or release, or to look at the world in a different way. I love things that are about real people and the way their brains work, and the way their minds and relationships work. So that's what I'm interested in: people. I love looking at people from a slightly different angle. So I do like fantasy, I just don't like it when it's sort of pointless and inhumane.
AVC: Where do you draw the line? Humans play a very small part in The Lord Of The Rings, for instance, but the story deals with real human emotions. It's just coming through non-human avatars.
DM: Well, it's all very personal, you know. The thing about Lord Of The Rings is, it's a seminal bit of writing, because it came out of a very real fear of fascism and totalitarianism. But my problem with Lord Of The Rings is the baddies, the orcs or whatever, never get to be anything other than evil. I mean, they just stomp around being evil all day, and that's rubbish as far as I'm concerned. I like—for example, a fantasy story that I thought I would hate, that I finally read and just adored, was the Philip Pullman books, His Dark Materials. Because it seems to me that everybody in that story, you identify with utterly. There is nobody who is good or bad, it's just not like that. They all are complex individuals. They all see the world in their own way that makes complete sense to them. Nobody goes around feeling that they're evil—they think that they're doing the right thing. And so that seems to have something really important, big, and deep to say about human beings. Whereas Lord Of The Rings to me is goodies and baddies in the end, and so it's less interesting. But it's a very personal thing.
AVC: Given Mirrormask's strikingly unique visuals, it seems likely that you're going to be hearing from Hollywood art directors asking you to give their films a similar look, or at least an unusual look. Are you interested in outside film projects like that?
DM: I've thought about that a bit, because I did some work on the Harry Potter films. And it's a pretty thankless task, really. If there's any point of view that I've got at all, or uniqueness in this particular line, I think I'd rather try and pursue my own films. Rather than dilute it and spread it around a bit, I'd rather just concentrate on my own films and try and get those made.
AVC: You were credited as a conceptual artist on Harry Potter And The Prisoner Of Azkaban. Did you work on others in the series?
DM: Yeah, I did some work on the second one that for some reason went uncredited. I did the same job—I designed some of the characters and created images for them to work with. I didn't do a lot of work on either, to be honest. On one of them, I was starting Mirrormask and writing it, and in the middle of other stuff. And then I was right in the middle of Mirrormask, so I didn't get to do a lot, but I did the same job on both. You know, it was okay, but you're just a sort of hired hand, really. Some of your ideas get used and others don't, which kind of means that it all becomes watered-down. It's okay, though—it was interesting seeing filmmaking on that scale. Particularly on Azkaban, because the director was wonderful. Alfonso Cuarón was a real ball of energy. Great fun.
AVC: If fans of your work were watching those films to see something you designed, where would they find your strongest imprint?
DM: Well, on Azkaban, I designed the, um… What were they called, the floaty screamy guys? The dementors. And I did a bit of work on the hippogriffs, trying to convince them to get the legs to bend a certain way. And then on Harry Potter And The Chamber Of Secrets, I did the spiders. But the dementors came out very, very close to my illustration.
AVC: Is the film adaptation of Signal To Noise your next project?
DM: Well, at the moment, I'm working on film design for the Broadway musical Lestat, based on Anne Rice's vampire books, and then I'm finishing up the script for Signal To Noise.
AVC: Are you primarily doing art design for Lestat, or are you involved in other ways?
DM: I'm designing the stage for every scene. And there's 44 scenes—it's a very, very big production. It's Warner Brothers' first foray into theater. They're very complex stages, so my images are embedded in the scenery, in the sets. But also, the sets are described and allotted with photographs, collages, and projections, so I'm doing all of that. But then every time a vampire bites another, they receive the memories and life story of that person. So we're doing that with film, and I've made several films for those. Some of them are live action, some are computer-animated.
AVC: Have you been involved with stagecraft before?
AVC: So this is an entirely new experience?
DM: If you're going to do it, you might as well jump in and do Warner Brothers.
AVC: How does Lestat fit into your feelings on fantasy?
DM: That's a strange one, really. I mean, the stories are interesting. They're great, long, kind of unyielding epic novels that take in three continents, and all kinds of stuff. So to do them in a book or a movie is difficult, but to do it onstage is just crazy. So it's been very interesting to try and nail down. I'm not the director, Rob Roth's the director. But I've obviously been working with him all the time, and I've been trying to help him tell the story, which is very unyielding, and really try to nail down what this thing is about. I think what I decided it was about, in the end, was the conclusion that the main character comes to. The fact that he's in the position of living forever, which is a fantastical conceit, but what makes it bearable for him in the end is this feeling of a bloodline, a line of people in his life. So at least that's a kind of interesting little central thing. Because that's what I think people hope for. An answer for the afterlife or religious belief. A need for some greater truth for our little lives.
AVC: Signal To Noise is a significantly less fantasy-driven story than Mirrormask. Are you interested in moving in a more mainstream direction, with more realism?
DM: I'd like to do an adult film next. I've spent over two years now amongst Mirrormask, and doing a couple of children's books, and I'd like to do an adult film. The film now is greatly expanded from the book. The stuff that's in the book accounts for only about an eighth of the film, and the rest of it is all new material. And some of that has a fantastical or allegorical side, and it certainly has some generally bizarre digital imagery. But it is a very different piece of work. And I wanted to do something digital, but not just to make pretty pictures. To try and get down to a new language. I think there's a new language of how to tell stories, and how to get inside people's heads, and how to show what people are feeling using these tools.
AVC: Artistically speaking, what's your process like? When you sit down to create a collage like your covers for Sandman or Cages, where do you start, and how do you put the pieces together?
DM: I doodle in little sketchbooks, so I always have a sketchbook with me. So I draw everything. I don't like working everything out on a computer, particularly. I like working things out just very simply on paper, with very simple drawings and indications of type and compositional lines. Then I try and find an image that's right. Sometimes it's just a feeling, sometimes it's an idea—usually I try and find an idea. And then if I'm expected to show roughs, I try and come up with a bunch of ideas, between three and 12. And I do very, very, very simple, skimpy doodles, nothing too committed. Because people tend to fall in love if they like it—if you color it in and they like it, then they want exactly those colors, even if they were just indications. You really have to do it as simple as possible so they can concentrate on the idea and composition. And then all of the energy goes into making the final piece. And the final piece can be anything—it can be a drawing, a painting, a collage—and usually, it's obvious what that should be. Usually, the idea dictates what medium you use. Then I just go about collecting those raw materials.
AVC: Do you think you're ever likely to return to comics on the scale of Cages?
DM: Yeah, I'd love to. I'd love to do another sort of novel like that. I've had one in mind for a few years that I'd love to do at some point. I can't imagine going back to doing straight-ahead commercial stuff for DC, but another book like Cages, or Pictures That Tick, which is a collection of short stories, that I will definitely do. I can't imagine not having a comics project of some kind on the back burner, or actually doing it. At the moment, it's just finding the time, because I really want to crack this film thing. I really want to do a film that I'm proud of. And trying to get used to the language, because it's so complicated and there are just so many opportunities to screw up and make mistakes, it's so difficult. And I want to try and at least get more comfortable with that.
AVC: Did anything in particular draw you to "straight-ahead commercial stuff" like DC's Black Orchid or Arkham Asylum, apart from the need to break into comics at that point in your life?
DM: Yeah there was, really. I had just met Neil, and we were both trying to break into comics—he was working as a journalist, and I was fresh out of art school. And it had a lot to do with—with Black Orchid, I suppose there were two appeals at the time. I wanted to do something that had an ecological story in the backbone. I'd be happy doing an ecological story somehow—I wasn't planning to dress it up in a superhero costume, but that seemed the thing to do at the time. Initially, I suppose the idea was this general feeling that comics had become sort of homogenous, and all the people were insane, and there is a specific way of drawing comic-book people. They all moved the same, and talked the same, and had the same expression. And I just wanted to scrape all that away and get back to what real people would like. So I decided to make Black Orchid very, very photographic, so you'd concentrate on what real people look like, real expressions. I never intended to do more than one book like that, but that was the idea, to try and get back to human beings again, rather than some strange fighter people.
And Arkham Asylum I thought was good fun. I met Grant Morrison and really liked him—he'd just discovered Jan Svankmajer, and I'd pretty much just discovered him as well. We both just had a lot in common, we both loved Dennis Potter. And Grant had written the script, and it had a lot of elements that I liked, and a lot that I didn't. It had Robin in it. Batman dressed up in his daft costume, and a lot of characters that I didn't understand. A lot of basic superhero stuff, because he had just written it on spec, he certainly hadn't written it for me. So we talked about it, and he was really keen to rewrite it, to make it much more symbolic, much more like some strange Alice In Wonderland story. And that was just perfect timing for where his head was at. So that's what we did, and I think probably on reflection, the Batman story weakened it. But there were a lot of things that I had great fun playing with.
AVC: What drew you to comics in the first place?
DM: I just love the medium. I love telling stories. I love narrative art. I never really got into gallery painting, putting on gallery shows or that sort of thing. I love telling stories. And even in single images, I tend to have stories inside them. I've always loved film, but I was making drawings and paintings and photographs. And you put art and narrative together, and that really is comics. I've always read comics as a kid, and growing up and going through art school. And the comics I've read have always changed. I've sort of jumped around. That's it, really. I love the feeling of a book, and you open the book, and it's full of images. It has this sort of intimacy of a novel, but you open the pages and you have this wonderful visual intimacy as well. At its best, I think it's sort of like a handwritten note, like music or something—it goes straight into you. When it's working really well and really personally, rather than these big superhero things. The small, introverted, voice-in-your-head stories, I think they work brilliantly as comic books. It's a unique medium.
AVC: You've worked as a composer, performer, photographer, fine artist, screenwriter, director, and a comics writer/artist. Are there any media left that you want to explore?
DM: Certainly at the moment, you could easily spend several lifetimes trying to master film. It make very good use of all the things that I love. Narrative, image-making, also sound and music. It's so full that I can't really imagine getting tired of it. Or getting to the point like I feel like I know it. Before doing Mirrormask, I was starting to feel a little comfortable. The books that Neil and I have done have been doing very well, and I was feeling much more comfortable in comics. It was very easy for me to feel okay with doing CD and book covers. So I really love this very difficult feeling of being completely out at sea. I don't know what I'm doing, and I kind of like this feeling. So I think for the moment, I'm going to continue to try and nail film down in some sort of shape where I'm happy with it.