When it comes to animation, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more creatively impactful duo than writers-directors-producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who have delivered game-changing animation for close to two decades.
Their list of credits is huge, spanning both film and television as well as animation and live-action, including producing 2018’s groundbreaking “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse,” which won the Oscar and Golden Globe for animated feature, among many other accolades. They also produced this year’s hit “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” out of Sony Pictures Animation and Netflix, and are involved in a revival of their celebrated, though short-lived, animated series “Clone High.” They also wrote and directed the critical darlings “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs” and “The Lego Movie.” Their IMDB pages are packed with myriad projects they are either writing, producing or directing. Sometimes all three.
Successful longtime partnerships such as theirs are hard to come by in Hollywood. Perhaps theirs has withstood the test of time because it was literally forged by fire after they met as students at Dartmouth College. They were initially introduced to each other by a grade-school friend of Miller’s. “But there is a more colorful story that we used to tell at meetings, which is also true, but not technically how we met, but it is how we became the closest of friends,” Lord explains. “It was when Chris lit my girlfriend’s hair on fire.”
“Accidentally, but yeah,” Miller admits. “Her hair smelled terrible, and then Phil thought it was funny so…”
“We all had a great laugh,” Lord finishes.
Lord, an art history major, and Miller, who studied government and studio art, took a lot of animation courses and “blew off most of our classes to draw our short films for basically the entire [senior] year,” Lord recalls. It was hot in their little studio “so we’d be drawing in our boxer shorts,” he adds. “Our friends would come [to visit] from an interview with Morgan Stanley in a beautiful suit and we knew then that our lives would diverge from theirs.”
“We made a decision that we were going to come out to Hollywood and try make it in show business,” says Miller. “It seemed like a crazy idea, but we thought we’d give it a bash,” even though they didn’t know anybody. And by mistake, they contend, they got a development job at Disney Animation.
Miller explains that a Dartmouth alumni magazine “wrote an article about me and it had some inaccurate exaggerations about some of the things that I had done, like I had interned at ILM, which is George Lucas’ effects company. It said that I helped design the dinosaurs for the new ‘Star Wars’ prequels and I was like, ‘Dinosaurs?’ And I did not. I brought coffee to the people who did that type of thing. Somehow, through a series of coincidences, it got into the hands of Michael Eisner, who then passed the article down to his underling, to that person’s underling, to another underlying, who called me and they said they wanted to meet.”
Being a college student, Miller told them: “’I’m busy right now with midterms, but my friend Phil and I are planning to move out to L.A. How about we save you a flight and we’ll meet you together?’ We sent them a VHS copy of our student films, moved to L.A. and took this meeting. It was really the only meeting that we had. And luckily, they liked the films and offered us a deal. It was an unexpected opportunity that we made the most of. We realize how lucky and privileged we were to be able to have it.”
That meeting solidified their partnership. “It was sort of an accident,” recalls Lord. “Because we took the meeting together, everyone assumed we were a team, and we wanted a job, so we just sort of went with it.”
“We had to learn how to be a team that first year we were developing Saturday morning cartoon shows,” Miller adds. “During college, we were friends, we would help each other on each other’s films, but Phil’s films were his and my films were mine, and we’d never been in an equal partnership where neither one was the boss. It was a lot to figure out how to be in a partnership, which was really challenging. It’s like a marriage, and luckily we stuck with it, because we weren’t very good at it at the beginning.”
They’ve certainly got the hang of it now. And with so many projects on their plate, it helps that they’ve built a strong team. “Thankfully, we’ve worked with a lot of really great people, and we are working on projects with really smart, creative filmmakers, all talented people, so it helps,” Miller says.
Animation holds a special place in their hearts because of its unique brand of collaboration. “You’re constantly inspired by the artists that you collaborate with every day,” Lord says. When working on an animated film, “you’re with one another for years. You become part of each other’s lives in a really meaningful way,” he says.
The medium is a very special artform, they say. “You spend so much time trying to tell a story through behavior and movement and try to express somebody’s personality through how they walk, and it makes you really observant about how people show themselves to you,” explains Lord. “Every detail matters. The way somebody holds their coffee matters, and it’s an opportunity to exhibit character and story and to really see your characters and have them show themselves. I find that that attention to detail is something that has been a hallmark of our working style. We sweat the details. All the little things matter.”
Adds Miller: “One thing that’s really amazing about animation is that visually it can be whatever you imagine. You’re not limited by the realities of the way the world actually looks, or by gravity, or physics, or anything. You’re only bound by your imagination, and that means tonally, that means stylistically, that means every possible way. Every film can be its own unique piece of art.”
Lord and Miller approach every project as an opportunity to create something new, whether it’s as writers, directors or producers. “When we are jumping onto something, we think about ‘What is an interesting way to represent this visually that matches what we’re trying to say thematically?’” Miller says.
“Every movie or show is an opportunity to get away with something,” Lord adds. “These opportunities are so unique that when you get to swing back, you want to do something that no one’s done before.”
With “The Lego Movie,” they wanted to make it look like a stop-motion brick movie, but on a grand scale. “It seemed like a cool opportunity to try some of those filmmaking techniques, with all the tricks and cleverness that requires,” Miller explains. With “Spider-Verse,” “the idea at the very beginning was to make a comic-book movie that really feels like you’re inside a comic book with all of the various different types of art styles that there are in the history of comics.”
In all their work, says Miller, “It’s not just ‘Let’s do a fun, crazy, random thing that no one’s ever done.’ It’s always, ‘How does the story want to be told?’ And what’s the most interesting and freshest way that we could tell it.”
While they do have writing and directing gigs in the wings, Lord and Miller have been producing a lot these days.
“It’s an outgrowth of our partnership,” Lord says. “We are uniquely well-practiced at working with one another and learning to celebrate what each other brings to a project and try to support that. It’s natural to do that with other filmmakers and collaborators. On ‘Spider-Verse,’ we got to work with three great directors and a whole host of filmmakers that were part of that crew, and that’s the joy of it, because you get smarter and better, and our ideas, they are magnified and catalyzed by the ideas of our collaborators. That’s what’s so fun about it. You get to see the world through their eyes and add that to your quiver.”
“We’re not big believers in the Auteur Theory,” Miller says. “It’s fun when we can get a bunch of people that are trying to do something new together and get excited about it. It’s rewarding finding people who have interesting voices and trying to help amplify those and make them the best they can be. It’s been great. Every version of it.”
The secret to their success is to give each other space. “We are very opinionated, and so what we’ve learned to do, over the years, is give each other room to try things and experiment with things,” Miller says. “In our early days, we’d get really fussy about every little detail at the very beginning of the process even though it was going to change a hundred times. Now, especially because there are so many things we’re involved with, if one of us has a strong idea about it, the other one will sort of say ‘Okay, let’s run with it. Let’s see it.’ And then know that if it doesn’t work, it’s not the last time that we’ll have to make a change on it.”
“The magic is when you hit a dead end, and either we can’t agree on something, or a problem shows up that feels unsolvable, and then we just hang out and talk it through,” Lord says. “We’ll say “Well, what about this?” And we try to “yes, and…” each other. You wind up coming up with a solution that neither of you would have thought of on your own. And it often unlocks those problems. Usually what you need is an elbow to the ribs of someone else’s point of view, because it really is a team sport.”
Lord and Miller see a bright future for animation. “Audiences are catching onto the idea that animation is a medium and not a genre, that any type of movie could be animated, that any animated movie could be anything, and so every year it seems to be getting more and more exciting,” Miller says.
Adds Lord: “I think we’re at the dawn of a golden age. We’ve been in it for quite a while, where there’s so much demand, and at the same time, more young people are interested in careers in our artform, and the access is so extraordinary because you can learn to do this job on YouTube. And for that matter, there are many great animation schools and programs, and the enrollment in those programs is, by orders of magnitude, more diverse and more female than it’s ever been. You get so excited at the quality of the work that people are doing, and the vibrancy, and the different ways that people are telling stories, that it gives you so much excitement about where a medium is headed.”
“When you go to an art museum, you can see in pointillists and abstract expressionists and all sorts of different kinds of art,” Miller says. “That level of variety is possible in animation, now more so than ever, even when we were starting. But it’s such an exciting medium because so much is possible, and we really only started to scratch the surface of what can be done.”