Each month, we turn our spotlight onto the unsung artists behind the biggest new movie releases. Last month we highlighted David Koepp, co-writer of Jack Ryan Shadow Recruit. This month it’s Phil Lord and Chris Miller, co-writers and co-directors of The LEGO Movie.
The pages of Hollywood history are littered with stories of success borne of versatility, and the tale of Phil Lord and Chris Miller is no exception. This dynamic duo met as students at Dartmouth College and took an introductory course in animation. They both began to create animated shorts that were successful at a range of small festivals, such as The New England Film and Video Festival. This love of artistic storytelling led to jobs developing Saturday morning cartoons for Disney. Quickly outgrowing that brand, their move to developing primetime animation for Touchstone Television gave rise to their first high profile project, Clone High.
Developed in 2000 by the producing team now known as ‘Lord Miller,’ and originally called Clone High School, USA!, this Canadian-American adult cartoon was rejected by FOX, but later picked up by the Canadian channel Teletoon, and MTV for US broadcast, between 2002 and 2003. The show centres on a high school that is operated as a classified US military experiment, overseen by The Secret Board of Shadowy Figures. The student body is made up entirely of clones of famous historical figures, being raised and educated with a view to their abilities being harnessed for military use. Conflict stems from the School Principal, who has his own plans for the clones – namely, the creation of a themed amusement park, ‘Cloney Island’.
The main characters of the show are broad parodies of their legendary namesakes – Abe Lincoln (weak and indecisive), Cleopatra (vain and promiscuous), Joan of Arc (an angst-ridden goth), Gandhi (hyperactive and desperate for acceptance) and John F. Kennedy (a hormone-driven, arrogant jock) – and much of the comedy is derived from their apparent inability to live up to the examples set by their esteemed genetic parentage.
The series employs the highly stylized appearance of ‘limited animation,’ which reduces the number of drawings required, made popular by shows such as The Powerpuff Girls, Dexter’s Laboratory, and Samurai Jack. Speaking to the Los Angeles Times in 2003, Chris Miller explained their stylistic choice:
“We like the snappy pose-to-pose animation, more for reasons of comic timing than anything else. Things that aren’t expected are funnier: If an anvil’s going to fall on your head, it had better not take more than three seconds.”
Phil Lord explained further:
“But we never want the viewer to be paying attention to the animation, because it’s there to serve the jokes and the story. We strip out extraneous movements, because we don’t want to draw your eye to anything that’s not part of the joke.”
Thirteen episodes were produced, but not all were broadcast due to low ratings. As is often the case with short-lived TV shows, Clone High has found further life and a renewed fanbase on the internet, and is often re-run on Canadian television – usually late at night.
In 2005, Lord and Miller teamed up with ‘The Lonely Island’ – a US comedy group founded in 2001 by Andy Samberg, Jorma Taccone and Akiva Schaffer. The group was rising to prominence at the time, having begun work on Saturday Night Live as writers, and with Samberg as a performer. Lord and Miller executive produced and co-starred in their sketch-show pilot Awesometown, though it was rejected by both FOX and MTV and was never broadcast. Lord and Miller did find some success in 2005, however, by building on their position as two of the youngest TV showrunners of their time when they co-executive produced 17 episodes (and co-wrote 2) of the hit show How I Met Your Mother.