411mania.com Interviews: Director and Animator Jon Schnepp
Posted by Jeffrey Harris on 12.22.2013
411mania.com speaks with longtime animator, director, and producer Jon Schnepp, director and producer of such animated shows as Metalocalypse and The Venture Bros. Schnepp talks about his new webseries, Hail to The King, based on the brand new Avenged Sevenfold album of the same name, his upcoming completely crowdfunded documentary The Death of Superman Lives, and much more.
I recently got the chance to speak with and interview the talented director, writer, animator, and producer Jon Schnepp. In case you didn't know, Schnepp for many years has been a driving force behind many of our favorite shows. Early in his career he worked as an animator for Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. He was also background artist for Aqua Teen Hunger Force. He later served as director, co-producer, and character designer for the tremendous death metal extravaganza that was Metalocalypse.
More recently, Schnepp wrote and direct his own segment of The ABCs of Death, "W is for WTF." He's also currently hard at work at completing his documentary project, The Death of Superman Lives. Schnepp completely financed the documentary from a campaign on Kickstarter, and the film is due out soon. You can check out some of Hail to The King and our interview with Jon Schnepp below.
Jeffrey Harris: So how does the Hail to The King animated project tie into the Avenged Sevenfold album and how did you get involved?
Jon Schnepp: I got a call from Machinima—I had been talking with them and I had met them earlier in the year and talking with them about a bunch of different projects. And this project came up and they thought I'd be perfect for it. And Avenged Sevenfold felt the same way. Avenged Sevenfold had an album called Hail to the King that they had been working on as well as this whole entire storyline. [It was] a sword and sorcery storyline that they had been working on making a videogame, an iPhone game and they wanted an animated series that told the bulk of the story as more of a like a prequel—a setup for the videogame. So once you start the game, you just jump in and you're this character, the Deathbat. So what I'm basically doing with the prequel is telling the origin of the Deathbat. So that's kind of how it all started up, and they had a really early beta test of the game that I checked out. And they had a really rough outline of the animated cartoon I was going to work on. I just went from there. Machinima worked with Avenged Sevenfold on the story and the script. And I came in and voice directed the actors and just started working on the radio play, and animatics, and designs, and background. And over the last six months just really put it all together, so really a fun project to work on, especially with getting access to Avenged Sevenfold's music and all their instrumentations. So I was able to weave it all together into this one—you basically watch all six episodes altogether, and it's this one seamless story.
Jeffrey Harris: Did you ever have to get hands on with Avenged Sevenfold in the making of this project? And did they want to give you any input into how the animation would turn out?
Jon Schnepp: Not particularly. We talked. They were all busy touring in Europe, so I just made sure every step of the way that they saw and signed off on things. So they listened to the radio, which is just like old school—you're just listening to a radio play. They signed off on all the artwork and character designs. They were involved every step of the way. I just wanted to make sure they were digging on what I was making for them, since it ties in with their videogame and album that came out beforehand. It was that kind of a process. We didn't talk on the phone about the project. We just went back and forth. "Check this out." And they said, "Yeah, that's perfect. Or this and that." So it was a really fun project.
Jeffrey Harris: The style is very evocative of Metalocalypse, so did that inform the art and design style you went with here?
Jon Schnepp: Well, I mean basically I've been doing animated cartoons for the last 15 years. And Metalocalypse, especially the first two seasons, I basically created the look and the characters of Death Clock. I designed those characters. I storyboarded and edited and directed and did compositing on almost all of the episodes I did for the first two seasons. And out of 40 episodes, I think I directed about 35 of them. I directed a bulk of the episodes. Did all of the music videos for them. So my style and look, the look of Metalocalypse is basically my style and my look. A lot of people who watched Metalocalypse who knew me before I did Metalocalypse, when they saw it, they were like, "Wow. That looks like something Jon Schnepp would do." And then they saw my name at the end of the credits. But Metalocalypse has become such a big hit now that that itself has become its own look. Basically, when I do something, I'm just doing how I do things.
Jeffrey Harris: So is Metalocalypse over now or is the special going to be the end of the show and the adventures of Death Clock?
Jon Schnepp: Well, I wouldn't be the person to ask. I left the show after the fourth season. So I didn't work on the opera. That was all Brendon [Small, creator of the show]. Tommy Blacha didn't work on the opera either. Those questions are all up to Brendon Small. My time with Metalocalypse was creating the characters of Death Clock, directing the first four seasons, and working with those guys for eight years. And at that point, I was like, "I'm going to move on to other projects." There's a lot of other things I want to do. I'll just watch with everyone and see what happens with Metalocalypse or Death Clock.
Jeffrey Harris: The Venture Bros. is one of my favorite animated shows ever. The show is brilliant. The look and style is great. How was it getting to work and co-direct the show?
Jon Schnepp: It was a lot of fun. It was a different experience for sure from what I do on say a show like Metalocalypse. It was all done in-studio, so it was a very transformative show. Like we'll get a script, but that always changes. It's never the final thing. Everyone adds in their two cents. We change lines while we're recording actors. We change scenes if they're not working. We cut scenes. And we always throw in different music videos and surreal segments. I always had these crazy, different things I wanted to add. With something like Venture Bros., it's a very locked down show because Jackson [Publick] and Doc [Hammer] just write those scripts so tight that you can bounce a penny off them. That's the show. It doesn't change. I got a call at the end of season two, Jackson and I just started hanging out, getting lunch, and talking about movies. And out of the blue, he calls me. I had been working on Metalocalypse for just four years solid and getting ready to take a long break, like a six month break. And I got a call from him saying, "Hey, I'm burnt out. I was hoping that you might come and co-direct season four with me?" And I couldn't say no. That's one of those once in a lifetime chances that you just simply don't say no to, like, "Alright. I need a month." He wanted me to get on a plane that week. It was literally like, "I need help for working on the same two episodes for five months."… It was like a situation. So I was happy to just come in there and add some new energy and flavor to the crew that was working in New York. It was a lot of fun. I met a lot of cool and really talented people. Venture Bros. has always had a really just a stable of incredibly talented animators and artists. So it was a lot of fun, and it's a different kind of show. So my job as a co-director on that was really just like tightening all the edits, making sure the story boards—the flow happened really well, and trying to cram as much into each episode as possible. It was fun. It was only for the first part of season four. And then I went right back to work on Metalocalypse season three.
Jeffrey Harris: For a project like Hail to The King, is this a project you can do mostly in-house, or do you have to out-source any of the animation or finishing work overseas?
Jon Schnepp: No, it was all in house. It was a pretty small crew. I mean each episode is only three and a half minutes. So we did six of them. The budget wasn't giant, so I was able to keep it really tight. And it was a small crew, and we did everything here in California. It was really fun. I did a lot of work. A couple friends came in and helped me work on some of it. Like I said, it's a pretty small and a really fun project to work on. Hopefully a lot of the people who see this Hail to The King, they dig it and we'll make more of them.
Jeffrey Harris: You've been in the industry a long time. And it seems now more than ever, it's harder and harder to get an actual show off the ground and made on the air. But that's why I really like these projects from Machinima because they seem to encourage and enjoy original, creative talent. And online we are seeing some outlets for creative talent in work like this. What do you think about this transition we are seeing in animation?
Jon Schnepp: I like what you said. I like what you said. I think you're right. I think the web in general is a great place to expand and to be able to try new things, trying to put show ideas out. It is getting tougher to make new shows, but it's more shows being made. So it's catch 22. There's more people making content, but there's lesser and lesser slots to fill where you actually get paid to make it. There's no worries, really. Just keep making what you're making, and you'll rise to the top. Cream flows to the surface. However you want to look at it. Persistence is the main thing. Have your vision. Don't give up. All those things you hear from a lot of people are really true. I'll vouch for that.
Jeffrey Harris: You voiced The Wisdom Cube on Aqua Teen Hunger Force, right?
Jon Schnepp: *In the Cube's voice* Yes, I did. This one time I was eating cantaloupes! I was The Wisdom Cube. That was a lot of fun.
Jeffrey Harris: Have you acted again in any animation recently and do you voice any characters in Hail to The King?
Jon Schnepp: I didn't do any voices for Hail to The King. Sometimes it's more fun—I don't want to wear that many hats. I'm producing it. I'm directing it. And within that context of overseeing the animation and the storyboards…It's a lot of fun. There's a lot of talented super-talented voiceover actors. I got to work with a bunch of them for the Avenged Sevenfold cartoon. I didn't really feel the need to throw my voice in there. But I love doing character voices myself. I've done a lot over the last 15 years. You'll see me popping up in different things eventually.
Jeffrey Harris: What is the current status of the Death of Superman Lives documentary? Do you want to roll it out at Comic-Con or a convention:
Jon Schnepp: Yeah, well I'll ya I'm interviewing a couple people this coming week. I've got one of the main art directors I'm interviewing the first week of January. So I've got interviews going all the way through January, and there are a couple more people I'm trying to lockdown for February. I should have the film done and finished and locked in March is pretty much where I'm looking at. It's probably going to hit either the festival circuit for a premiere, or it will be premiering closer to July at Comic-Con. It will be coming out for a mass audience is—August is my guess for 2014.
Jeffrey Harris: So with this documentary and all the years and money that were spent on the aborted Superman project, will you also look at what ultimately happened with Superman Returns and Man of Steel? Or is the main focus mainly on Superman Lives as it was?
Jon Schnepp: It's mainly focused on Superman Lives. I touch on some of the other iterations because it's personal for me. The reason I'm even making this documentary is because I was not a fan of Superman Returns. It was just more of the same of what I grew up with when I was a kid. It was like this nostalgia dud factor for me. So it made me go back to these older designs that was something that was really creative and interesting. And that's why I got interested. This concept that never got off the ground, and the more I looked into it, the more designs just kept popping up, the more interested I was in this project that never happened. So I'll end up touching a little bit on Superman Returns and of course Man of Steel and all the different iterations that were before and after it. It's really more so about how hard it is to actually make a project in Hollywood—a superhero project is what it's mainly about and the endurance of what the Superman mythos really is.
Jeffrey Harris: Can we expect any interviews with prospective director Tim Burton and prospective star Nicholas Cage?
Jon Schnepp: Not yet. Not that I can announce.
Jeffrey Harris: Jon Peters?
Jon Schnepp: When it happens, I'll announce it.
Jeffrey Harris: Did you like Man of Steel?
Jon Schnepp: I personally did like it, yeah. I thought it was a really fun, great new version of Superman that was much more cosmic and science fiction based, which was a lot of fun. I thought Henry Cavill did a great job as Superman. I liked the fight scenes with Zod. I liked Michael Shannon as Zod. I had a few issues with the ending—towards the end, it became too much of a special effects fest where it lost a little bit of the climactic power that it could've had if it maybe shaved off the end sequence where he's going to the other side of the planet fighting that tentacle monster. That's where I remember I hit my sweat-special effects limit. My brow started sweating. I was like, "Oh my god!" Even though it looked cool watching him fight those cool, metallic tentacles, I got bored. And I started sweating. So if I know if I'm in a movie theater and my brow starts sweating, I'm like "Oh my god. I'm bored. Even though this is cool looking. It's lost me." So I remember that went on for like 10 minutes. He's screaming. He's fighting. And they keep cutting away to Perry White trying to save the female Jimmy Olsen. Totally not needed. They should've just cut all those things out. He should've just went in and smashed the thing. I'm just saying like, "Oh, if I was in charge of the movie." I would've just cut that whole scene out. Then he fights Zod and everyone is all psyched about it. They got that energy. All that buildup you've been working toward for the last two hours to build instead of having him fight some tentacle monster and then Zod. I'm like, "Oh, now he's fighting Zod? I'm tired!" People don't want to be tired when you're getting to the climax.
Jeffrey Harris: Would you agree with me that Warner Bros. is clearly gearing up Justice League right now and all this silliness about Batman vs. Superman is nothing but hot air? What they are really making right now is Justice League.
Jon Schnepp: Yeah, I'm with ya man. I said that on the AMC Movie Talk Show. And we talked about that a week ago. Can you just please announce it as Justice League and stop calling it Batman vs. Superman? But it's cool. Whatever. I'm just happy they're making it.
Jeffrey Harris: Every passing day, you hear Gal Gadot announced as Wonder Woman in her feature film debut, we're hearing about Martian Manhunter…they're making a dang Justice League movie. Let's call it what it is.
Jon Schnepp: Warner Bros. has to save something for Comic-Con next year. They don't have a movie coming out, so they have to save the announcement. Marvel has like 800 movies coming out, and DC has one. It's not even coming out next year. It's coming out 2015. So they really got to get on the ball. They really got to start getting their characters out there, letting people use their characters and make movies and TV shows. So they've got equally fun characters just like Marvel does. Just Marvel--even though they wish they didn't sell all their stuff to Fox and Sony, it actually worked out for us the fans. Because we actually get like eight Marvel movies a year now.
Jeffrey Harris: Are there any other projects you're working on you'd like to share with us?
Jon Schnepp: Yeah, watch AMC Movie Talk. It's on YouTube. I'm one of the hosts on that show. I do it like three times a week. All we do is talk about movies. It's from the AMC Theater Company, so we do it through their company. So we just talk about movies and upcoming news and casting and trailers. So check that out. I'm running right now a Kickstarter for a crazy, surreal animated cartoon called Unicrom: The Unicorn Barbarian. It's about a unicorn barbarian. It's a madcap adventure. I've got Mark Hamill, Dana Snyder, Laraine Newman, and a bunch of other amazing voiceover talent. So if you like that up on Kickstarter, I'm running that all the way through January 2. So if anyone wants to contribute to that and help me make a really crazy, cool cartoon, it'll be a lot of fun.
Schnepp's Hail to The King webseries is now available in full at Machinima and YouTube, and you can check it out in the player above. You can check out more of Jon Schnepp on AMC Movie Talk on YouTube. And you can check out his Kickstarter campaign for his original animated project, Unicrom: The Unicorn Barbarian, HERE.