MirrorMask director Dave McKean on creative vision as well as creative thinking

Dave McKean, Director and mind's eye behind the visually stunning MirrorMask [2005], talks to Exit 6 director Mark Brennan about his journey from imaginative short films to fantastical features, and the students he's trusted along the way.

It’s difficult not to be impressed by Dave McKean. A quick look at his IMDB page shows credits as a Director, Producer, Writer, Composer, Editor, Production Designer, Digital Artist and even work in special effects. This is all before we get into his much-lauded comic book illustration and artwork, the style and tone of which he brings into his filmmaking. So my first question during our recent chat is to ask if there’s anything, creatively speaking, that Dave can’t do.

It's a question met with a disarming laugh.

“Plenty, plenty. There are lots of things that I can't do, but film seems to make very good use of the bits and bobs that I can do. I love drawing, it's still my favourite thing to do, but I really miss using sound and especially the music when I'm just doing books. That's my biggest plus of getting to make films, I get to work with sound.”

When it comes to filmmaking, as well as revelling in the process of developing concepts and ideas, plus the serendipitous moments of magic by actors caught on film, as an artist and illustrator, it’s the opportunity to work with sound and music that he finds particularly rewarding.

“I really love music and picture working together. Not necessarily the dialogue even. Just music and image together, that's my favourite kind of film experience. I made a film of Michael Sheen's passion project in Wales. The film is called The Gospel of Us. That was a three-day live theatre piece that I went to shoot with 10 cameramen. We shot all this footage and I brought it all back to the studio and waded through it for hours and hours, days worth of footage. But as soon as I stripped the sound that was recorded out of it, and just looked at the images, looked for a piece of music that I felt captured it, and just threw that music against it - that was pure magic.”

It was during his time studying at the Berkshire College of Art and Design, experimenting and finding his voice as an artist and an illustrator, that his interest in filmmaking began to take shape.

“They had a small audio-visual department with a 16mm camera, and with a friend, we used to take it out all the time and try and make little films. We just about managed to piece together a part live-action part-animated film by the end of the course, but it wasn't really part of the course. Most of the things I was supposed to do, I skipped. I squeaked through. You go into art school assuming that the piece of paper at the end is what you're aiming for, but, actually in the years that you're there you realise what's important is discovering who you are and what you want to say, and putting a portfolio together that will represent that, which is not necessarily the thing that will get you the highest mark in the course, but don't tell students that... especially their parents!”

If you're a student reading this, best to do the work now and question the merits of it later, but McKean would have you use that time to discover your own voice too. You never know when it may be called upon... more on that later!

After graduating, he went on to pursue a range of illustration projects across different mediums, but the filmmaking bug had bitten. Eventually he would work on an interactive CD-ROM project (our younger readers may have to do some Googling here) with producer Simon Moorhead, director of photography Anthony Shearn, and programmer and animator Max McMullin.

The Week Before (left) / [Ne]on (right)

“We now had a little team to make a short film. I wrote two. One of them was a silly, funny one called The Week Before [1998], a story about God creating the entire universe and everything in it, but it's actually the week before he creates everything - where you sit down on Monday morning with the best intentions of making everything, but you can't think of anything. It's not really about God; it's about the act of creativity. The other story I wrote was called [N]eon [2002], which was a much more quiet, melancholy story, was built around some Super 8 footage I shot in Venice when I was there.”

Both films would head out on to the film festival circuit, including selections at Raindance and Clermont-Ferrand International Short Film Festival. Significantly, McKean's work would grab the attention of Lisa Henson of The Jim Henson Company. Henson asked McKean, and his long-time collaborator, the author Neil Gaiman, to pitch an original idea for a $4M family movie. The result of which would be the 2005 visual effects spectacle MirrorMask.

“It was entirely originated from the offer from Lisa Henson. She'd seen [N]eon playing at film festivals and knew my work as an illustrator, and certainly knew it through Neil Gaiman, who she knew because the Henson's were flirting with buying the rights for his novel Neverwhere. There was an idea that we could get together and come up with a fantasy film along the lines of The Dark Crystal [1981] or Labyrinth [1986]. It all happened really fast. We wrote the first draft in a couple of weeks, and the only thing that I took from my short film experience were the lessons that I'd learned in how to make images look good, but not cost a fortune in terms of time and programming, photo-real CG, and all the stuff that is really, really expensive. I had a sense of where the expense was, and where in filmmaking you can make beautiful things, interesting things for less money. $4 million sounds like a lot of money, and it is a lot of money, but to make a CG-heavy fantasy feature film, it soon disappears. We had to be very careful.”

Star Jason Barry & Executive Producer Lisa Henson

The film was, indeed, a technical feat unlike any other film coming out of the UK at the time, especially on such a comparatively slender budget. Not only was McKean finding his feet after making the jump from short to features, he was also doing so using cutting edge technology to bring his artistic and highly stylised vision to life. That must have been a steep learning curve...

“Well it wasn't as much a learning curve as a learning brick wall! It was a ridiculous jump in ambition. I don't think it was much of a jump in terms of its script and its story, but in terms of the technical jump it was a major undertaking and it took far longer than we thought it would. It didn't cost more because it couldn't cost more, so we had to get ever more careful with the budget as we got to the end. Back then, we were also at the bleeding edge of technology. I could do that film now so much easier. I could do it at home here with the kit I've got around me. Whereas, even though it was only 11 years or so ago, things like render nodes, and storage, and the speed of the transfer of data, and all of that stuff was an absolute nightmare. We could not afford to take it to a professional effects house, because they would have burnt up our budget in a couple of months.”

Getting creative on a film of this size is one thing, but even I’m surprised to hear one particular way in which Dave and his team were able to get the job done without the benefit of a high-end production house.

“We ended up hiring 17 art students, fresh out of the graduation class at Bournemouth University, from a really great course. We hired a little studio in London, installed them with their fresh new computers, straight out of the boxes, and that was that. They each did a whole scene, beginning to end. They planned it with me, they built the sets, they put my texture maps on, they set up the cameras, they did the moves, they were in charge of rendering everything, they lit it, they inserted the live-action footage. They weren't given just little boring jobs like doing the bubbles, or doing the wisps of smoke in the background. They really saw the whole thing through, so it was like making a short film within my feature.”

Dave McKean (front) with his CG Team

Rarely would such an opportunity ever be offered to students. Congratulations to McKean and the rest of his team for finding such a small army, not only willing to put down their strawpedos and show up on time (or at all) but also to make it possible to complete the film. I wonder if they had any notion of the size of the task ahead of them.

“I'd cut the film but, of course, it was dreadful to watch. It was mostly little people running around a big blue screen studio with none of the characters or anything else in. I tried to insert my storyboards whenever I could, just to get an idea of what it might look like, but it was torture to watch. We had a big screening with this dreadful VHS cut of my film and I realised that for anybody else who couldn't see the inside of my head, it was really difficult to get to grips with. We watched it, and there was a sort of silence afterwards and some worried conversations in the corners of the room. Then one of the guys was pushed to the front to speak for them all. "How many effect shots are there in this film?" All I could think to say was, "well, it's just one long effects shot." You just have to get used in the fact that it's just one long thing rather than the traditional way of splitting everything up into little shots. That would be so dispiriting, because it's such a mountain to climb, you just have to think of it, "well you get to do from this from minute number 23 to minute number 30 that's your film, go off and do that so."

The Henson Company is mainly known for it’s practical effects wizardry in film. Was the CGI storytelling proposed in MirrorMask something they were looking to explore or was this pitched to them?

“No, I pitched it to them. I think they know the world of practical effects and puppets much better, but they also know how expensive that is.