Today we are thrilled to have director Michael Rianda here to talk about his career in animation, Gravity Falls, and his new film The Mitchells vs. the Machines.
We’re so excited to get a chance to talk with you at Rotoscopers. Thank you so much for coming in and talking with us.
Thank you for having me. It’s a treat, I’m excited.
What we like to ask our guests first is what inspired you to get into animation?
I think it was basically finding out that Flash existed. I found out that people were doing web cartoons, and the guys who made Ren and Stimpy were doing web cartoons, and all of these people were doing all these internet cartoons, and I was like, “I can get that program and do that?” It was so shocking to me that that was even a possibility.
And I was on these dorky animation chat rooms with some people… And some of the people who were on it, were actually in the industry, and they were able to say like, “Look, I’m a real human”…And they’re really nice and generous. And they said, “Hey, here’s what we did, and here’s the steps that you could take.” That was my entry way into it. And it’s cool because I had an online friend from Israel who we’re both in the industry now, even though we’re worlds apart
That’s so cool. So you could relate to Katie in The Mitchells vs. The Machines for making her little movies and things like that?
I never even considered that, but it does make sense that the first people she connected to in the movie are not in real life, because that’s what happened to me. My mom was like, “Who are these people? This is so pathetic.” And I was like, “I think they’re nice. I think they have good intentions.” And thankfully they did.
So you started out writing for Gravity Falls? How did that all happen? How did you get involved with that show?
It was interesting; I had worked at a place called JibJab that does animation, and they were doing… I was doing e-cards at the time, but I was like, “I’m gonna make the best e-cards anyone’s ever seen!” I was very ambitious, and somebody who worked with me there recommended me to Alex Hirsch who was making a show at the time, and he just…
And also at the time, I had a short film, this film Work that I made in college that was successful for what it was, and I’m still proud of it, but it… that opened a lot of doors. So I actually had other choices other than Gravity Falls at that time, uniquely and strangely, but Alex Hirsch, the creator, was so passionate and we got along so well, so quickly, we were immediately speaking the same language.
And I had told him, “Well, I wanna eventually make movies.” And he’s like, “Look!” He’s like a salesman; he’s like, “Look, you can make 20 movies in a year by making a TV show.” You make all these little movies, and it was really true. It was like lifting weights or something; I feel like I was sort of preparing to make the movie I’m making, every time we made an episode of Gravity Falls because they each had beginning, middle, end, make them all work. Make the jokes work. Make the emotions work. So it was really, that was a great learning experience for me.
When you were writing for Gravity Falls, did he… did Alex give you the overall this is where the season is going, and then here’s your episode or how did that work?
I think I was the first person hired on that show. So I started as a writer and then transitioned just because I refused to leave the studio. I was there at 10 PM, and he’s like, “What are you doing here?” And I was like, “I’m just working. What can I do to make the show better?” And he’s like, “Oh, you could do stuff if you want.” I’m like, “Great!” ‘Cause I really wanted it to be good. And I knew it was gonna be good, but I wanted to do everything in my power, ’cause also my wife was living on the other side of country, so I had a lot of free time [laughter], so I was just like hanging out…
We formed some of the season together in terms of a writer’s room. Alex definitely had the big ideas. It’s undeniably his show. And, but then at a certain point I became creative director and then became his second in-command where we would tackle writing episodes together, rewriting episodes together or if this thing needs work, we’d both take a crack at it, and I was on the team that was shaping all that stuff. So, it was really collaborative in a great way but also he was the one… I didn’t realize it until this movie. ‘Cause when you’re on a show, you’re… It’s like if you love animation you are really passionate about it and you’re like, “I’ve got all these ideas and this joke, it’s gotta be this joke, and not that joke, or this story point, not that story point!” And I had zero empathy for Alex and what he was going through as a show runner. I was just like, “Why isn’t he doing my ideas?”
And then when I started directing this movie, I was like, “I get all of it, I understand it all.” ‘Cause it’s so much harder to be the person who has to make that final decision, that’s an extra level of time, and thought, and fear, and all that stuff. So yeah, I now sympathize with him now
That’s the thing that amazes me about animated films and directors of animated films is just how many different balls you are juggling in the air. I think it’s so incredible.
It’s very difficult. On one hand, you’re having the time of your life, you’re making cartoons, you’re working with the best artists in the world. They’re making your thing better, it’s wonderful; you’re friends with all of them; it’s all great. And then on the other side of the coin, because you love it so much, you invest everything in it. And it becomes… Sometimes if you don’t look out it becomes all consuming, so you really have to try to balance those things. But it’s very fun.
I absolutely loved The Mitchells vs. The Machines. I said in my little social media post or whatever, I said, “I bought the art book after seeing it.” How did this all come about? How did you become involved with it?
Basically, I’d always wanted to make a movie as I have said before, and miraculously Sony Animation were like, “Hey,” because I think they knew someone who I knew at Disney. They were like, “Would you like to make an animated movie?” I was like, “Yes of course!”
It was just like a blank book behind me that I had with me in my back. And I was like, “Let me just polish them up a little bit,” then starting from scratch. But, it sort of like once I started coming up with them, it was really apparent one that was sticking which was basically I was trying to take the thing that I love the most which is my crazy family who I love, and the thing that I loved the most when I was a kid which is Killer Robots. And as an adult just thinking about technology, it’s like it’s interesting to live in a world where robots and AI can do a lot of the same things we can do, and more and more so every day, so making us think about what is important about humanity? And what are the things that make us special? And it’s basically our relationships. So, we really try to drill down into that and find out that even though these relationships are hard work, they’re worth it. And that ultimately became the thesis statement for the movie, but it took a long time to find because it started out just trying to combine these two things that I was really passionate about, and it took a lot of time to make them stick
Now, is it too strong to say the Mitchells are based on your family?
No. They’re entirely based on my family. In a ludicrous away, where my dad looks exactly like Rick.
And he’s like, “You gave me a little extra hair; I appreciate that.” [laughter] But, he… when I was growing up, he was this nature-loving man, and I tell this story about it where he woke me up at five in the morning one time and was like “Mike, wake up, we gotta build a bathtub in the woods, so we could legally be naked in nature,” and I’m like, “What, it’s five in the morning what are you talking about?” And then he’s like … And my mom’s like “He saw it in a Viagra commercial.” He’s like, “Don’t worry about that, don’t worry about that.” And then the thing was he made those bathtubs, he has… he drained the family’s bank account. And everyone thought he was crazy. And then when people go to those bathtubs they’re like, “These are incredible, your dad is a genius.”
And it really, and honestly it made me realize that we are closer to each other than I ever thought. Because he’s doing an absurd thing that he’s passionate about; it doesn’t make any sense to most people, and I did an absurd thing that I’m really passionate about that didn’t make sense to most people in terms of making a movie and going into animation. And it took a while for me to see how similar we were, and see him as a person ’cause when you’re a teenager, you’re like, “This guy.” And it was that process of finding out, finding the humanity in my parents was one of the things that inspired me
I love the animation, and the hybrid kind of feel, especially the backgrounds. It had a little bit of that almost comic book feel, almost graphic novel feel. And I thought that was beautiful. So how did you come up with the visual style of film, the animation?
What I came up with was a checkmark box on a wall that said, “Make it look wild and different.” And then every artist just slowly checked that box themselves. Not really, but I did work with the art team a lot. And they’re so good. The art team is unbelievable. The movie looks better than I ever thought it would because of them. And Lindsey Olivares was the production designer; she led things on the 2D side. Mike Lasker led things on the 3D side. And they’re both wonderful. And it was really cool because we were inspired by Lindsey’s drawings, at first, her drawings and her paintings and stuff. And all of her drawings have that kind of comic book look.
And we were like, “Okay, what if?” Because if you’re in animation, you know, you’ve seen the art books. You always look at the art book and you’re like, “Why didn’t they make it look like that? What is this?” You know, like, “This stuff was great, and then they make that in the movie?” So we were like, “How can we make the art book obsolete?” Not really, it’s filled with great stuff that we didn’t put in the movie, but we did want it to feel like, “Okay, we really just took the stuff in the art book, and it just started moving.” Which is really difficult to do. And it was this real push and pull. And it was, it was really cool having Chris Miller and Phil Lord around too.
When you’re making one of these movies it’s efficient if it’s an assembly line. It would be most efficient if this movie looked like every other movie. So we were like, “What if it looks wildly different?” They’re like, “Ooh, that sounds expensive.” So we would push it as much as we could. And then we’re like, “I wish we’d push it further.” And then we would show it to Chris Miller and Phil Lord and they would say, “Why don’t… Hey, push it further! Why are you guys accepting this?”
And it was a great license to then go back and be like, “Alright, how do we make it better?” And that was really cool. So the philosophy was, “How do we make it better?” Because the movie is about humanity and imperfect flaws, and how do we see that humanity on every frame? How do we see the lines and the watercolor marks and just the feeling that a person drew this, and make sure that every single frame looks like that, so you never forget that it was made by humans and you never forget what it’s about?
Last question. I have to ask the true star of the film, the voice cast is incredible, of course. But the Monchi the dog. Do you have a pug dog like that?
I did growing up. My sister had a dog named Monchi G. We couldn’t name it Monchi G for legal reasons. Monchi G dearly departed friend. We loved him, rest in power. But, he was… the thing that I loved about… it was actually a girl. The real Monchi was a girl, but the thing I loved about her was that she was so obviously flawed. Her eyes are going one way; she had trouble breathing. She walked weird. But she was so sweet and earnest. And she was always trying to do her best. And it was really sort of this little, I really felt a kinship with this dog. So when we had the movie, I was like, “Oh, we can put Monchi in there.” And it became a mascot for the family where they’re… they are really flawed, but they’re trying their best.
Edited by: Kelly Conley