The Kansas City-based design collective MK12 (mk12.com) had made a name for itself with the visual wit of its work for clients like MTV and the scientific opening credits for Will Ferrell’s Stranger Than Fiction. But nothing prepared the world for the release earlier this year of MK12’s half-hour short film The History of America (historyofamerica.tv). (Well, almost nothing: In 2005, MK12 released a trailer that became so popular that user response crashed its Website.) Years in the making and utilizing a combination of Rotoscope and computer animation—with some live-action interludes—this self-described “psychedelic Western space opera” begins with an impossibly expansive conceit: American history imagined as a furious, elaborate war between astronauts and cowboys, fought mostly near Las Vegas. As you might imagine, The History of America is very, very funny, but the humor is secondary to the hypnotic pull of the film’s epic drive. It’s like someone got John Ford, Michael Bay, and Monty Python together to direct an animated version of War of the Worlds. MK12, currently a nine-person collective (John Baker, Heather Brantman, Jed Carter, Teddy Dibble, Timmy Fisher, Shaun Hamontree, Chad Perry, Ben Radatz, and James Ramirez, many of whom have worked together since MK12 was founded in 2000), preferred to answer our questions, via e-mail, as one entity. Here’s our interview with them/it.
What was the inspiration for The History of America?
MK12:First and foremost, it had been a while since we had worked on a project of significant length, and we hadn’t found many opportunities to give a story room to breathe. In early talks about this project we realized that it would be a perfect opportunity to do this.
In light of America’s increasingly-poor standing with the rest of the world, we thought it would be a good time to make a piece with a distinctly pro-American tact. But not with any kind of propagandist slant; we just wanted to celebrate those things which are good and unique about our country.
HoA is an epic, but my understanding is that it was a very small operation. How many of you worked on it, and how long did it take you to make?
MK12:In total it took us about four years to develop, but most of that work was done on the off-hours and on weekends. It would have been a much quicker production had it have been an official production. Though we took time off from commercial work towards the end of the project, on average there were only a few people working on it at any given time.
Did you approach it as a regular production, scripting it all beforehand, or did you develop it as you went along?
MK12:A lot of our films are about seeing what comes from the process of creation, and we usually don’t storyboard out of concern for locking ourselves into a format that may or may not work. This time, though, we chose to storyboard the entire film; it was the only way we could keep narrative continuity throughout. That said, we still tried to keep the format as open as possible, within that context.
You’ve screened the film at some film festivals. Which do you prefer, showing the film at festivals or having it available for online download?
MK12:We’ve gotten a pretty strong reception at festivals so far, which is always encouraging for us. We always favor public screenings over downloads. Film is a social medium and there’s no way to match the immediacy of a crowd reacting to your work in a theater.
How do you balance projects like HoA and work for corporate clients?
MK12:Working on our own films gives us more control over our commercial projects, because quite often clients refer to our past work as inspiration for their campaigns. That makes it feel less like work-for-hire and more like an extension of things we’re already excited about doing.
Earlier this year, you reported that you did a “short vignette” about the Apocalypse for a documentary film, Holy Wars, directed by Stephen Marshall. What that was like?
MK12:It’s a 60-second breakdown of the Apocalypse as interpreted by both Christian and Islamic extremists. Both sides have a lot of similarities and some interesting subtle differences, so we thought it would be interesting to play both Apocalypses simultaneously, pausing to highlight those differences. It’s a lot to cram into 60 seconds, so we chose a highly oversimplified, icon-driven approach that feels like a cross between a subway map and an instruction manual.
What else are you guys working on nowadays?
MK12:At the moment we’re working with director Marc Forster on the upcoming James Bond film, to be released in November of ’08. But when we can we’re also developing ideas for a few new film projects.