Many of us have spent most of our school years daydreaming and scribbling in our math books. Hell, most of us still daydream and doodle at our office job. But few of us have actually followed our dreams. Mike Mort has finally produced his passion project; a stop-motion feature-length film featuring a character he came up with as a teenager. Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires is the product of four years of hard, repetitive work. Mort is credited as the writer, director, sculptor and voice of the primary characters, including Chuck Steel. I caught up with Mort at the Fantasia Film Festival to talk about the long process of crafting his masterpiece.
Chris Aitkens of Nightmare on Film Street: How are you feeling after the screening?
Mike Mort: Great. It went down very well. I was trying to listen to see whether some of the jokes were working. There seemed to be laughter all the way through so I think it worked.
NOFS: Has the cut changed since its world premiere?
MM: No, all we’ve done is we beefed up the sound slightly. It need just a little tweak and I think it’s working perfectly now. I was very happy with the screening.
“When I first came up with him, he was just a square-jawed action hero-type scribble in my school book.”
NOFS: I was very surprised to hear that you came up with Chuck Steel when you were 15. How has the character developed over the years?
MM: When I first came up with him, he was just a square-jawed action hero-type scribble in my school book. I started to just draw him over and over again in different scenarios. At some point, he was in a post-apocalyptic world, another time he was in a fantasy world. Over the years, I’ve made a number of scripts and story ideas around him, but the “trampires” idea came from joining up two ideas. The Night of the Trampires came to me as an idea for a low-budget horror which would be live action. And then I ended up joining that with the Chuck Steel storyline. This is the result, but it’s taken a long time just to get to this point, probably because I learned things over the years about writing and story structure. When I was 15, I didn’t know anything about that stuff, I was just drawing and sculpting. It’s probably good that it’s taken me so long, otherwise if I made it years ago, it probably wouldn’t be as good.
NOFS: When I was watching the original short [Chuck Steel: Raging Balls of Steel Justice], the premise seemed a bit more realistic. There are still elements that are completely zany, but why did you want to go for a more fantastical approach for the feature-length?
MM: Just because I wanted to put as many things in this film that I wanted. There are things that I wanted to do in animation for a long time like karate fighting, car chases, monsters, meltdowns, explosions, all those things that I wanted to try to find a way to make. And I thought, this is my one opportunity to do this, I’m going to put everything in this film and construct a story around these things I wanted to see in animation.
NOFS: What was the reaction to the original short film?
MM: I didn’t attend Fantasia that year when it was shown. We didn’t do a huge amount of festivals because we went straight into making the feature film so we didn’t need to push it. One thing we would like is to get the views up on Youtube, it’s run up to about 250,000 views, but we would like it to be more than that so more people are aware of Chuck Steel as a character. The reaction to it was good, everyone liked it and my backers who backed the short film wanted to go straight into the feature film.
NOFS: Would you mind describing to me the pain-staking animation process?
MM: Where do I start? Can you be a bit more specific?
NOFS: All I know is that you have to make a different mouth for every syllable, you have to make different characters for all the crowd scenes…
MM: Yeah, we had a lot of crowd scenes in this film and a lot of villains in the crowd of Trampires. I wanted to make sure that they were all different and all look unique. The common thing with stop-motion films is, with background characters, change a head or change a hat, and you think it’s a new character. We wanted to make them all look completely different so that when you’re watching the film, it’s a visual overload, but not to the point where you don’t know what’s going on, but it feels like a real crowd because everyone is different. So it was hard to construct those things. It’s not hard to design those things, you just sit down and draw. It’s was hard on the budget we were on to actually create the stuff but we found ways around it. We made four or five different body shapes that we dressed differently. That was the only time where we standardized things for easy construction, and then all the heads and hands were unique to the characters. And we did that for all the humans and Trampires as well, that was probably one of the biggest challenges.
As for the lip-sync for the characters when they talk was the other big challenge where we stuck with the approach of hand-sculpting the lips every frame so the animator would take the head off, sculpt it, clean it up, put it back on. It’s crazy really but it has a nice look to it. That’s the technique we used on the short film, I didn’t want it to veer off wildly from the look of the short, so we stuck with that.
NOFS: Were there particular scenes in the movie that were difficult to animate?
MM: The fighting scene at the end with the clowns and all that was quite time-consuming because of the amount of characters running around. The foreground action would be the primary shot, but for everyone of those shots, we would have to shoot a background plate which had this crowd running around in the circus as well. And we could only do so much reuse of those background plates because we kept changing angles, we didn’t want to standardize it to one angle and then repeat the background. We did a little bit of that, but it’s very minimal. So the crowd were probably the trickiest.
NOFS: You’ve been animating for quite a while, what were some of the first projects you worked on?
MM: Years ago, back in ’92, I did a TV series called the Gogs, which was of a family of cavemen. It’s all on Youtube now, it was an idiot cavemen clay-mation. That took a few years to shoot, it was a half-hour special. I then did a few short films and most of my work has been doing commercials as a director or animator or model maker, whatever jobs turn up. But I was always chasing this project in the back of my mind because I wanted to make an action movie in stop-motion. People have tried to do stop-motion action on Youtube, but I wanted to do something slick and impressive. Took a while but we got there.
NOFS: You also briefly worked at Aardman studios as a director for Shaun the Sheep. I noticed you slipped in a small tribute to Wallace & Gromit in the short film. Is there anything you tried to sneak into the feature film?
MM: I did have conversations around this about whether we should do a little nod again, but we already did that in the short film, so we decided to leave it. Everyone knows Aardman and they do great stuff, but that thing in the short film was just a little gag. It’s not like we’re trying to wind each other up or anything.
NOFS: Have you heard any feedback from the Aardman people about Chuck Steel?
MM: I think Peter Lord [Producer of Chicken Run and Curse of the Were-Rabbit] saw it at Annecy and he said he liked it. I’d like to screen it for all those guys over there at some point, so they can see what we’ve been up to. And a lot of the animators who worked there worked on the film, so this is the pool of talent that we shared.
NOFS: What’s next for the film?
MM: We got more festival screenings coming up. We got FrightFest in London and Sitges in Spain, and a few other ones as well. Running parallel to that we are talking to distributors, trying to get a good distribution deal for it, theatrically hopefully, that’s the plan.
NOFS: Is there anything you would like to do with Chuck Steel in the future?
MM: I have two ideas for sequels. I haven’t started writing them out properly yet because I don’t want to count my chickens, I want to get this one out and hopefully it does well enough to allow us to do another one.
NOFS: Any last thing you want our readers to know?
MM: If they’re aware of Chuck Steel, the short film especially because that’s out there, then it would be good for people to like it, to share it as much as possible, get the word of mouth out about this character. Making an independent film at this level—because we’re not a $100 million film nor are we a $1 million film, we’re in that tricky part in the middle. We do need people to find us and follow us.
If you want to find out more about Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires, you can visit the official movie website. Don’t forget to follow Chuck Steel on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram! And be sure to tell all your friends!