Heavier than Heavy:
An Interview with Metalocalypse Director Jon Schnepp
If you love the Metal, then you are no doubt hip to Metalocalypse, the Adult Swim Network's animated series about Dethklok, the world's most phenomenally popular Death Metal band. But maybe you aren't watching this ridiculously awesome show because you are too cheap to pay for the basic cable. In that case, here's a little back-story: Metalocalypse chronicles the daily lives and assorted misadventures of Dethklok members Nathan Explosion (vocals), Skwisgaar Swigelf (lead guitar), Toki Wartooth (rhythm guitar), William Murderface (bass) and Pickles the drummer. Created by Death Metal fans Brendan Small and Tommy Blacha, Metalocalypse is both a loving homage and over-the-top parody of the blackest of black music genres and its legion of rabid fans. Quite possibly the most violent gore fest of a television program ever to grace the non-primetime airwaves, Metalocalypse is spot-on in its blazing satire, completely hilarious and undeniably addictive. Now in its third groundbreaking season on Adult Swim, the show is directed by Jon Schnepp. With an impressive résumé that includes gigs on Space Ghost Coast to Coast and The Venture Brothers, Schnepp is one of the most buzzworthy young animators/ directors/ editors working in the industry today. Jon Schnepp recently spoke with Ink 19 about beating the censors, loving the metal, how working on Metalocalypse is a dream come true, and what actually goes into directing a show that just this season expanded in length from eleven minutes to twenty-two minutes per episode. Bang your heads.
I know that you have an extensive background in animation and TV, including having worked on Space Ghost: Coast to Coast. How did that lead to you becoming involved with Metalocalypse?
Tommy (Blacha) was my second roommate in my college dorm, so we've been friends for over twenty years. He moved to NYC from Chicago after he graduated to write for Conan O'Brien and we kept in touch over the years. I was living out here in LA and then he moved here and was working on Andy Richter Controls the Universe. Around 2003, he became head writer of The Orlando Jones Show and he suggested I come over to edit and do animation for some of the sketches. I met Orlando and ended up working on that show. Then Tommy and I started writing a screenplay together, which we only just finished this year. While we were writing that, he was hanging out with Brendan (Small). I'd met Brendan just in passing at a few of these different comedy shows he and Tommy were doing. Tommy and Brendan had come up with this idea to do a Death Metal cartoon and they asked me to design the characters, which I did in January of 2005. Then I did two music videos for them to play while they were on tour. The year before, they were doing these little shows at the Steve Allen Theater, which was this Death Metal satire thing, like "George Fisher (Cannibal Corpse vocalist) Goes to the Hospital," and other weird little sketches. Metalocalypse all stemmed from that. Adult Swim green-lighted the idea and we started production on the actual show in November of 2005.
I'd love to get the back-story on each Dethklok character and how his look and personality was inspired. I've always thought that Nathan Explosion was based on Type O Negative vocalist Pete Steel.
That's the fun thing, online I always see comparisons to all of these different death metal guys or just regular metal guys or old school metal guys -- like Tony Iommi. People have gone to the trouble of making charts and [pointing out] "this is from this picture... " But, honestly they all came from my head. George Fisher was the inspiration for the "bulk look" of the body of Nathan Explosion. There are bunch of photos I had that I was looking at, and all of the death metal bands [singers] seemed to have long black hair and other [shared] idiosyncrasies. Basically, I figured the lead singer should have black hair. Obviously, the lead guitarist was Swedish with blond hair, Pickles would be a red head and then the other two had brown hair, except Toki's was lighter.
Speaking of seeing comparisons posted online between the characters and real guys, I once saw a set of pictures indicating that Pickles was modeled after Axl Rose's "Bo Derek Braids" look.
That's funny. When I first drew Pickles he had spikey hair, because I was drawing him more [as if] he was a punk/death metal guy. You can see older drawings [of his character] online from when Adult Swim first announced Dethklok. He looked that way for quite a while until we went into production. When we were starting to mess with the characters, Brendan and Tommy suggested that maybe they weren't that into the spikey hair, and could we try making him look like a picture they had of Devin Townsend from Strapping Young Lad. I said all right. We have a character designer who does most all of the other characters on the show now, and when he re-drew all of the characters he drew them a little bit prettier, because I drew all of them kind of thuggish looking, except for Pickles, who had the best looking face. I kept the same exact face but changed the hair.
I drew another picture of Pickles with the bald head, like Devin Townsend, and even storyboarded most of the [Duncan Hills] coffee jingle [episode] drawing Pickles with a completely bald head. That picture got leaked out and Devin Townsend's manager called [and asked us not to use it], so we changed his look to the "dreadlock comb over" he has now. What's funny is that Devin ended up being on the show! In the second season he did a voice for two different episodes.
People came around, but at first, before the show even came out, a lot of people in the metal community were like, "What the fuck is this? Making fun of Death Metal? Fuck this show!" But some people embraced it early on; Metallica was really cool about doing voices, and they were the first guys that were recorded on the show. It was only after season one had aired and season two was starting to air that people really started to come around to the show. It was like, look, we're not making fun of death metal; we love death metal and we're actually making a comedy show, you know? It's weird.
And I think Brendan has pointed out; it's not like they're a band that sucks. They're supposed to be the greatest, most popular band in the world!
Yeah! The show is about band dynamics and the way people get along with each other, and people do suck. If you're in a band, there are fucking egos and a lot of people are stupid. It's just a sad reality. But nobody could be as dumb as Dethklok. At least any person in a real band should enjoy that. "We might be stupid but we're not as dumb as Nathan Explosion."
I'm sure everybody's on board with it as this point. I mean, like you said a lot of Metal and Death Metal guys -- King Diamond, members of Metallica and Dimmu Borgir -- have gotten involved with doing guest voices on the show. Do they usually come to you or does Brendan seek them out for cameos on the show?
The first year we had to ask everybody. Brendan and Tommy had a "hit list" of people that they would like to ask and the second year people came to us. Representatives would call and say, "Hey, we've got this band available," so once the first season aired, now with the second and third season, everybody wants to be on the show.
The show is already so wildly violent and insane, even though it's a cartoon; how do you go to the next level with that? Do you have to pass a censor?
Yeah, we do have to pass a censor, but it's kind of funny because... have you seen all of the episodes?
I may have missed a few.
There was an episode in season two, called "Deth Fashion." It had this Klaus Kinski-esque costume designer, who would make clothes out of human skin. He had made these outrageously super S&M-looking bondage clothes for Dethklok. We had a sequence at the very end where they went to his mansion and busted the doors open, and it was [a scene of] people being skinned alive -- it was really gruesome. We all get into the idea of pushing it over the top, and now that we've done it, it's almost like [we don't know where to go next]. I don't know if you've seen this new third season, which are half-hour episodes, so they're more story-based. People get killed and die in the show all the time, but we've almost done all of the mass murders and different kinds of ways of dying, and it gets old after a while. But as far as censorship [for murder and violence], no, it doesn't happen. We're censored for sex, just like every other American TV show, because we live in a puritanical country. Anything showing a lady's breast is censored. Anything that has anything to do with sex is censored. But we can chop off heads and burn babies, and it's fine.
I just watched "FatherKlok," where Skwisgaar tries to find out who his real father is...
Yeah! That's the most recent one we've done.
I was very conscious of it now being half-hour episodes and I hoped that wouldn't mean things were going to get soft. Like, having more time to explore the story might make it get wimpy? But no, Skwisgaar's mom was banging everybody -- like she was the Cartman's Mom of Death Metal -- and I did notice the black bars across the groupies' bare breasts.
And all of those black bars will be taken off on the DVD, just so you know. We'll be doing the uncensored DVDs now, with all the swearing [that gets bleeped out on TV] and any graphic [sex]. I think the first season is still bleeped on the DVD... because we were told there was no way it would ever air with swearing. Then all of a sudden they started airing Adult Swim shows, or putting out DVDs, that were uncensored, but we would have had to remix [the sound on] all of those first season episodes and it costs a lot of money. For the second season we had it uncensored and the third season as well.
How difficult has it been moving from a 15-minute to a 30-minute format? How did that actually happen?
Brendan just wanted to push the show to a half hour. At first we actually got a lot of resistance from Adult Swim, they didn't want to do it. I think we proved that the show works better -- or it works differently -- as a half hour show. The eleven minute ones were like, you set up a premise, you execute it and you have an awesome concert. They were relatively easy, but of course some of the scripts were incredibly complex for an eleven-minute show, and were hard to do. The writers would write a twenty-five page script and I was like, "Guys, come on!" They'd be squeezing everything in there and having to cut this or that... every episode is always like that. There is a ton of stuff that gets cut out and things that don't work, or they're funny but they have to go, because we're so time conscious. Now, with a half-hour show -- which is 22 minutes of story -- I wonder why do I get a forty-four-page script? Come on! (Laughs) But it's gotten better.
Also, it took a long time to get the actual half-hour format for the Metalocalypse show to work. As you can tell, we only aired five episodes of season three last year and we're doing the other five right now. We had to get a lot of scripts rewritten and we had a bunch of people come in and workshop scripts. Plus Tommy left the writing part of Metalocalypse; he's not involved anymore with that, though he still does the voices. He's making another show now, also for Adult Swim, and he's focusing on that. That left Brendan to be in charge of a group of writers and it took longer than we thought it would to refine it. I think we've got it down now, where we get a script and then we roundtable it with all of the people who've already worked on the show for the last four years, which is me and Mark Brooks -- who's the other director of the show this season -- and Felipe Salazar, who's the main editor of this and last season. We all sit with Brendan and just go over the entire episode, cut stuff that's not funny, rework and rewrite stuff that's not in the tone of the show. Then we record that, and rerecord it after we've got it edited. Then we refine it again or add new scenes, so it's a process.
Overall, how fun is the show to do?
You know what? It's a lot of hard work, so really sometimes we're just walking around pissed off, because we're fucking doing so much stuff. The show is made by six people, literally. We have a group of people who do the animation, the backgrounds, the character designs and prop designs, but all of that stuff is done within two or three weeks per episode. But then four people -- me, Felipe, Brendan, and Mark -- work on each episode for three months: reediting or re-compositing the show, and having new animation redone. So no, we don't jump around excitedly, but once in awhile... You know when I get a big kick out of it is when I see somebody with a Metalocalypse t-shirt on. Then I'm like, "Fuck yeah!"
I was at a party this past Christmas and was talking to a woman who was talking this and that about Sweden. She didn't know about the show, so I looked to my right side and there was a longhaired dude with a goatee. I said to him, "Yo dude, have you seen Metalocalypse?" He was like, "Fuck man, that's my favorite fuckin' show!" It's that kind of thing now, where I can look at somebody and if they look like they even vaguely listen to metal, I know they've seen the show. So, it helps in getting points across if I'm with other people. We were talking about Sweden and she didn't know any bands from Sweden so I was like, "Look, ask this dude."
(Laughs) those kinds of moments are really fun, and just expanding [the franchise is great]. We're doing a comic book now, through Dark Horse, for which Brendan and I wrote the outline. That will be out at ComicCon 2010, Metalocalypse issue one. I'm really excited about it. We're exploring different parts of Dethklok and also other characters. We save most of the guest spots for death metal guys to do cameos. And now this season Brendan really wanted some of his guitar heroes, like Steve Vai and Joe Satriani, to be on the show. So, it's opening up a little bit to not be specifically just black or death metal bands.
I always see Mark Hamill listed under the voice credits: which character does he do?
He does Senator Stampingston and Mr. Salacia, from the Tribunal. The old, evil wizardy-looking dude, sitting in the center throne in the back, (imitating voice) "No, we must watch them!" that's Salacia. Then Senator Stampingston is the guy who's always talking in front of the giant screen. (Imitating voice) "Gentlemen, Dethklok has once again... " gotten into some kind of bullshit. Mark also plays a whole bunch of different reporters and side characters. We had Malcolm McDowell come in once. He nowadays basically just voices Vater Orlaag, who's the right hand man to Salacia.
Maybe this is a good time to talk about the Tribunal, which appears to be a panel of religious and political leaders that follows Dethklok's every move. What exactly is that all about?
That will be explained; we haven't explained it yet. They're kind of like the Illuminati or those who control commerce and the machinations of the world. But they've been watching Dethklok because Salacia and some of his other guys know that Dethklok is somehow involved -- and we haven't revealed how -- in the coming Metalocalypse. So, Metalocalypse is not referring to Dethklok. Dethklok the band doesn't even know what the word Metalocalypse is. They've never heard it before. Metalocalypse is what is coming, and Dethklok is part of what is causing it, because they're bringing death metal and metal music to the masses.
They're a cog in the wheel.
Yeah, so when you really think about it, Dethklok is causing this, but the Tribunal is not doing anything about it. Some of the Tribunal members -- like General Crozier -- do want to do things to stop it, but Salacia, the guy who's in charge of the Tribunal, stops him [from taking action]. At the end of season two, Salacia stops him and kind of fucks his mind up. Then basically he becomes Chief of Staff, so now he's in control of a larger portion of the army. All of those things are slowly being built up over this season, but we've downplayed it a little bit as far as not letting all of the shit that's happened happen all at once.
The Tribunal hasn't even been in every episode this season. We're just adding all of the pieces slowly, as opposed to every episode having a Tribunal moment. Originally, they were there to follow the Metalocalypse, but also as a story point refresher or exposition style thing. In season two it started to become more expositional and we wanted to try to figure them out a little bit better. It's all a part of the things we use to get the story told. Instead of just exposition, let's move it along, or not include it at all. Now we're really only throwing it in when it's needed and then only if we need to move the B story forward. To get more information out that we don't want to have any of the other characters say, we can do it in the Tribunal.
Are you also a musician? Do you write any of the music?
No, Brendan does all of it. All of the music videos, the actual visuals, I do all of those. I'm always excited for those because that's the pay off, for me. When we were talking about jumping around and stuff, when I get a new song that I'm going to make the visuals for, it's really exciting. The songs are always really good; Brendan is pretty incredible. It's fun. So, that's where I get my little kick. Like, "Man, I've got this fucking awesome Dethklok song that people are going to flip over. What am I going to do with it?"
That's what keeps me going through the "real world job" aspects of it, because it's not glamorous. Here, let me just discount some more of the glamour part of working on a show. All you do is sit in an office. Then you go from that office to another person's office. Then from that other person's office you go into another room that's larger, with other people in it, and make notes on drawings, and watch crude storyboards and make notes on that, and listen to radio plays and cut people's voices out. It's not like a rock & roll life style. Granted, we get into all of the shows now for free, so that's pretty cool.
Speaking of live shows, it was such a genius idea as well to take the whole thing on the road as a concert experience. I saw the show in 2008, because I had just interviewed [Dethklok's live drummer] Gene Hoglan for Modern Drummer. It was fantastic.
People still don't get it. Even now, people ask, "So, what is it, do they all dress up?" And you have to explain that it's a band of older guys who are all playing the actual music from the album, and then the visuals from the show, music videos, will be playing on a giant screen behind them. It was really fun when I first saw it projected with a huge audience -- because even though I made all the videos, it was so cool being there with all of these people who are into the show. It became like I was watching a heavy metal movie.
What have been some of your favorite episodes? My current favorite one was the "DethHealth" Hamburger Time episode.
That's actually my favorite episode that I've done so far. It's all over the place but it really comes together. It has a badass song at the beginning and lots of surreal dream sequences and nightmares in it. It's funny -- it's all of the things that I like doing in the show smashed into twenty-two minutes.
Yeah, sometimes I can't believe how dense with visuals and concepts each episode is. Also, I always get a little sad when you have to cut out the Dethklok theme at the beginning of the show, because I love that song.
I started doing that in season two because we were running out of time. We only had eleven and a half minutes, and we needed that extra thirty seconds. That's what was so ridiculous about the eleven and a half minute shows that it's hard for people to get. I mean, you get it, because you're acknowledging how much stuff is crammed into that time. But you don't understand how much stuff had to get cut out just to make three lines of dialogue stay in the show. And maybe those three lines are necessary because they set up this, this and this just to bridge all of the little pieces together, like puzzle pieces. When you have to take all of the breaths out of one character just to save time, you can't really do that because then you have somebody talking like this (imitates someone talking really fast without stopping for a breath). You need to have pauses. So, when you see episodes of the show that don't have the full theme song at the beginning, it's because [we needed that time for something else]. Just imagine you're panning in on a shot of somebody's castle. Instead of it being one thousand one, one thousand two, and then cut, it's got to be a six second panning and zooming shot with this badass music behind it, and then zoom in. Then it's like, "Man, that background is fucking bad ass!" You have to buy those two seconds from some other scene.
That makes sense.
Last year, episode twenty, it was the shortest intro ever. It just said "Metalocalypse" with the sound of a bell in the background, or something, because we needed every second for that episode.
One of my favorite somewhat reoccurring characters is Dr. Rockso, the Rock & Roll Clown.
Oh yeah! He's a breakout character. It's weird; he's a tough character because he's awesome in small doses, but if you have too much of him in the show [it's too much]. In this season we've got ten episodes and he's in two of them.
Did you have a hand in designing his look?
No, he was designed in part by our storyboard artists and our character designers. Originally, he was created as two separate characters, a clown and a magician at Murderface's Birthday party for the "BirthdayFace" episode. We had all of the storyboards up on the wall and we were looking at them. We realized it was repetitive to have this clown making all of these balloon animals and making fun of Murderface, then we'd cut away to another scene, come back and there was a magician doing goofy tricks with Murderface. We decided to combine them and make some kind of weird, magic clown. Then the idea was, why not make a Rock & Roll Clown? Then somebody said, "Let's call him Rockso." It was definitely a group effort of five people standing around the storyboards. I think Tommy was the one who came up with his catchphrase, "I do cocaine!" And that stuck immediately. He's completely David Lee Roth of later Van Halen mixed with all of the hair metal guys. He's got another episode coming up that we're working on now.
When you guys first started doing this, did you have any idea it would become so popular and go on for over three seasons?
What's funny is that Brendan and Tommy told me the idea and I was like, "Wow, that's going to be a super hit, man!" They were like, "We'll see." This was before I even drew any of the characters. Right off the bat, I told them, "I'll do this for three seasons." And they were all, "We don't even know if we're going to do three seasons!" But I was so sure of it. I wanted to work on the movie and the video game and the comic book -- and now all of that shit is happening. I thought for sure that it would either be a mega-hit or no one would watch it. But as we were making it, once we got into production and I had just finished "Thunderhorse," which is the second episode, I was like, "Fuck, I would quit animation if this doesn't go over." Because what I've always wanted to do in animation is an animated heavy metal show. How I looked at it is there's really nothing left for me to do in animation, which is kind of a bummer.
This past year I also did The Venture Brothers. I co-directed that show with Chris McCullough, and that was fun! But the Metalocalypse show, for me, is so perfect. I like doing animated music videos and I like really harsh humor. I love death metal, and just metal in general. I wasn't a big death metal fan when I started working on the show; I was just a regular metal fan. What's so great about the show is it also introduces all of these different people to another universe of music entirely.
It's really genius; so accessible but still so underground and subversive.
Yeah, the episodes from the third season feel that way, too. We're not catering to a specific crowd and we're not making it for anyone other than us, and people who think like us. And also Adult Swim is incredibly awesome to everyone here. There are two executive producers from Adult Swim and they make a few notes with Brendan onto the scripts, and that's it! They leave us alone. Every other TV show I've ever worked on has had ten or fifteen producers. On our show, it's me and one other person who are the producers. It's pretty awesome to be able to make exactly what you want to make and then it airs on TV -- with no in-between person who's saying, "you know what? I just felt that scene didn't work, so I'd like to re-do it in a museum." Fuck you, that's not going to happen! It will be exactly the way we want.
Like I said, the only thing I've ever encountered from Adult Swim was censorship on any sex scenes. The "Thunderhorse" episode originally had this [explicit] sex scene with Skwisgaar and this girl in a music video, but I ended up putting that into the "Thunderhorse" concert music video -- so you saw that live. Funny enough, on this most recent episode, "Fatherklok," which we talked about, I was able to get around the censors when doing that sex scene with Skwisgaar's mom -- because obviously she's fucking, or getting fucked by, two guys -- by just showing their heads and implying what's going on. I figured it out; to just show this guy's head, and this other guy's head from the other side, and then her face upside down. That makes it even more sexual and more perverse, because you don't know exactly what's happening, and there was nothing they could say about it. I was so happy about that, like, "Ha! And they can't censor me!" I think that was my crowning achievement.
Speaking of character development, I can't believe how well-developed the back story is for each character.
Yeah, because it's fun! We've been revealing a little bit of the back story with each character. "Fatherklok" was the first time you ever saw anything about Skwisgaar's childhood. All the audience has known is that his mom is a former Miss Sweden named Surfetta, and she's a slut. There are a lot of story elements we'll go into that I think will be pleasing for the fans of the show, as well as just being fun to tell. Right now we're just exploring the band dynamics and having fun with that. Because once you actually tell the Metalocalypse, then the show is over.
I have heard people ask why it's called Metalocalypse and not just called Dethklok.
I'll tell you why. It's not only because of that reason I told you earlier. Dethklok originally was spelled D-E-A-T-H-C-L-O-C-K, but there's a website called Deathclock Dot Com, which is about learning the date of your death, as in a "death clock." So we weren't able to use that spelling. And I recall being on the phone with Tommy and he said we can't use that name, and I had done a logo for when it was called just Deathclock. I suggested that we use the spelling "Dethklok" and keep the name. So I unofficially came up with the actual spelling. We were just calling it Dethklok and then we found out that Marvel Comics has a character called Deth Lok, that hadn't even had a comic come out in years but just this past year he had a new comic come out, and they were going to sue Adult Swim if we used the spelling of D-E-T-H-K-L-O-K. They said, "It's too close."
Then Brendan and Tommy just came up with a million different names for the show: Project Metal -- there were so many different names. I think Mike Lazzo said, "Call it this," and it was basically Project Metal, a Metal Journey, Metalocalypse, Dethklok. It was some incredibly super long name, and that's what the show was called for about a month. Then we decided to just call it Metalocalypse, because everyone would know it was about the band. So originally Metalocalypse was just a dumb name that came up from riffing; "Metal Story, Project Metal... "
Something that Metallica can't sue us over.
Yeah, there were just a million different derivations. You'll see even on the albums -- Deth Album One and Deth Album Two -- it has to say "Metalocalypse: Dethklok," because Brendan can't even put out an album just called Dethklok. It has to say Metalocalypse: Dethklok, to avoid any lawsuits. But it's within the branding realm and it works out, especially since the name "Metalocalypse" is actually this thing that is coming, that will be revealed slowly.
I'm very happy to be doing this, and I'm glad people dig it. We're in the third season and it looks like we're going to be doing the fourth season. We've gone through the growing pains of going to a half hour show, and it's working out. There's still a lot more story to tell, regardless. Then, writing the comic book, and doing it as an anthology made me realize, wow, there's so much material to have fun with that isn't even in the show. The comic book is all stuff about Dethklok in the beginning and end, but then it's also exploring all of these little side characters, too.
It's also really fun to work on a show that's meant for an adult audience. I've done kid's shows many years ago and those are fun, but you feel slightly disconnected when you're doing that kind of stuff, because no adults see it. So there's really nothing to talk about when people say, "Oh, you're in the entertainment business?" And I say, "Yeah, I do this show that's on at 9:00 in the morning and six-year-olds watch it." Anything where I was the animation director or editor, it's not that exciting. So, with the stuff I've directed I try to do adult stuff. I used to edit Space Ghost and I worked a little bit with Aqua Teen Hunger Force, designing their house and a bunch of the early stuff for their pilot episode, and the more I work for Adult Swim, man, that's the stuff I'd want to do anyway. I don't want to put a gun to my head in this business, so I'll stick with doing shows for adults.