Faculty Member Animates St. Vincent Music Video
May 6, 2021
As a young, avid cartoon fan, Chris McDonnell didn’t think he could turn his fascination with funny and grotesque drawings into a career. Today, McDonnell is currently a faculty member in the UArts Animation department as well as a director, bestselling author and an accomplished animator — with credits including Portlandia, Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! and Lady Dynamite. Most recently, his animation work can be seen in St. Vincent’s “The Melting of the Sun” video. Drawing upon his influences, which range from Schoolhouse Rock to Ren and Stimpy, McDonnell created a music video that brought St. Vincent’s Warhol-esque, ’70s vision to life.
Now in his third year as a full-time faculty member in UArts’ Animation department, McDonnell first got into animation during his time at UArts’ Saturday School and Summer Institute, where he learned he could turn his passion for drawing and dream of directing into a career. McDonnell’s animated work has aired on Cartoon Network, Comedy Central, HBO, IFC, Netflix and Nickelodeon.
How did you first start animating?
Well, I didn’t know I could [animate] as a job or I never thought about my future really, until I was 16 or so. And it occurred to me that people are working in animation studios, and it can be their job to create animation. In sixth grade, I remember, we had our handmade yearbook. And everyone did, like, a “What’s your future career?” And for some reason, I said I was going to be a director. I was thinking about that the other day, because it just seemed I didn’t think too hard about that. It turns out that I am doing a form of that — animation directing on different projects and also creating my own stuff. As far as animation, I grew up watching a ton of animation and loving it and drawing funny pictures. My main thing was drawing really funny, grotesque, silly things — that’s always been a fascination [of mine].
I went to UArts Saturday School and Summer Institute, and now I’m working in the Animation department with Lowell Boston, my Saturday School teacher when I was 16. I took a few classes with Lowell and a Summer Institute class with Dave Deneen, who was the videography teacher. He did a Public Enemy music video and the Dead Milkmen’s “Punk Rock Girl” video.
Anyway, I took videography with Dave Deneen, which was formative. We were working with VHS cameras, analog editing equipment, and he showed us how to blow up stuff with magician’s powder. That was my first experience with art school. And from that second, I knew I had to go to art school. Growing up with all the Disney films, and especially Warner Brothers, you know, Looney Tunes cartoons. And then it was the late ’90s, so Ren and Stimpy and Beavis and Butthead came out at that time.
I knew that I wanted to study animation, and my No. 1 goal was to go to New York. All my friends were going to go to college in New York, so we all went to New York to different colleges. Then [my future wife and I] moved out to LA and lived there for six or seven years. My first and only actual studio job was working for Tim and Eric’s first show, which is called Tom Goes to the Mayor. And surprisingly, they were surrounded by a lot of people from Philly and the Philly area.
Right. Because they are from Philly?
Yeah. But that was great. It was really weird, fun and challenging, and weird again. And eventually, we came back to Philly. Since then, I’ve done most of my actual, big-time freelance projects on television shows thanks to the connections to the crew I knew in LA, mainly from the Tim and Eric studio days. Everyone who worked there kind of branched out, and now they’re all doing great things. You know, the person who was the intern there is now directing stuff and hiring me on the occasion that they need some animation.
I also fell into writing and designing art books. In LA, I met someone who was really ambitious and had publishing connections. We wrote and designed our book about [McDonnell’s college professor] Ralph Bakshi, because we had that connection. Later, I did books about Adventure Time, Steven Universe, Bojack Horseman and Invader Zim. My freelance work ended up on shows on Netflix, HBO, IFC, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Comedy Central. Usually, I was working on comedy shows that were live-action, but they needed a little parody segment of an animated cartoon. I’ve done a lot in this style, which references Schoolhouse Rock.
I noticed the Schoolhouse Rock inspiration in the St. Vincent video, too.
Yeah, that was one of the big reference points.
Can you tell me about the process of making the St. Vincent music video? Were you given free rein to do whatever you wanted? I know she reinvents herself with every album and image is really important.
From interviews I’ve read with St. Vincent — well, she says it best in those interviews so don’t take my word [for it]. But basically, she says each album gives her that chance to be a new person every three years or something. She’s very conscious about the image and total package and visuals play a big part in her music. And I really appreciate that. She’s actually a filmmaker, as well. She did a film with Carrie Brownstein from Sleater Kinney [and Portlandia]. That’s actually the connection — Bill Benz, who brought me on [to this project], is one of my old contacts from LA from working on Portlandia.
Bill Benz wrote the treatment for this music video with Annie [Clark, or St. Vincent]. So when I got it, it was just one sheet of writing that pretty much describes all of the action: “Reveal live-action Annie within a phosphorescent bubble; a champagne glass tumbles through the air and crashes on the ground, dissolving into a crashed Corvette,” and so on. I directly followed their outline, but there was a lot of invention as I designed and animated. [Bill Benz and Annie Clark] were the directors in the actual process; someone else shot the live-action video out in LA and sent it to me. So, what it came down to is — all the stuff is on my plate, and then it’s up to me to make the whole video. As directors, they gave notes on different versions of it as I made it. But because it’s so time-consuming, it wasn’t up until the last week where it was actually complete from start to finish, and we were able to discuss final notes on the video as a whole.
I'm assuming the whole process took place during COVID.
Yeah, it took about six weeks to make. It was being tweaked up until several days before it launched. On projects like this, a producer secretly builds cushions into the schedule, because something always goes wrong or takes longer than usual. At a certain point, [the producer] called me up and said, “So, she booked Saturday Night Live and we need the video.”
It sounds like also a lot of your projects, even before COVID, have been done remotely.
Yeah. Almost all the TV animation I’ve done has been just in my home studio in Philadelphia.
Do you feel like animation has become more popular in the last year because of everyone being forced to create remotely?
I’ve heard it’s a really hot time for animation. I mean, studios in New York, Atlanta and LA are all chugging along and hiring. In theory, it could be a great time for our students. It’s competitive out there, of course.
Do you have any projects coming up that you’d like to share?
I’m going to be on a creative leave, which is something you can apply for as a teacher at UArts. I’m going to be working on a personal project using UArts facilities. I’ll still be teaching, as well. I’m going to make sure to go to the Center for Immersive Media and work with Alan Price on motion-capture and VR sculpting. I’m going to use the creative leave to experiment and advance my skills on a personal project. I’ll bring all that stuff back into the classroom.