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Last Animation Hero: In Conversation with Mike Mort (Chuck Steel: Night Of the Trampires)

As British stop motion animation feature Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires hits British cinemas, Mark Brandon talks to the movie’s creator, Mike Mort.  Read our Review here

It’s 1985, and future stop motion animation director Mike Mort is not paying attention in class. No, he’s doodling a blond, square-jawed all-American action hero in his exercise book.  Fast forward thirty-five years and Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires hits UK cinemas just in time for Halloween.

“It’s been a long, long road,” says Mort, recalling the initial Super8 film featuring Chuck Steel, and more experiments at college. “Chuck kept popping up here and there,” he reflects.

“When I was at college, I really wanted to do SFX,” he says. “I’d been inspired by Ray Harryhausen (Jason and the Argonauts, The 7th Voyage of Sinbad), Phil Tippett (who did the stop motion chess scene in Star Wars) and Randall William Cook (Caveman, The Thing, The Gate), but by the time I left in 1992, Jurassic Park was just around the corner, and it killed that kind of work”. 


Mort started experimenting with plasticine, and in 1993, co-created claymation-style series Gogs for Welsh broadcaster S4C, which went on to win numerous awards including an international BAFTA.  

“I learned a lot of my craft there,” says Mort. “We did a lot of the SFX in-camera, lots of old school double-exposure stuff. It was fun doing that. In series two we had access to digital effects which made life a little less nerve wracking.”

From there, Mort’s career developed into commercial advertising, where he had a successful ten-year run, his most famous ad being the Levi’s ‘clay man’ (to the tune of Shaggy’s ‘Mr Boombastic’).

Then, realising his career in commercials was winding down (“you have to be the new thing on the block...”) and tired of being pigeonholed as the ‘clay guy’, Chuck once again reared his chiselled jaw, and Mort decided to make a short film featuring his evergreen hero. 

“I was all on my own, no backers at that stage,” recalls Mort. “I converted my basement into studio space, I had some equipment and lots of old armatures and I built all the puppets and the set. I had a little help from a couple of friends, but essentially it was all me.”

“I was tapping in little nails, thinking ‘what the hell am I doing, where is this going to go?’ But then I met my backers [a private equity firm]. The main guy [Rupert Lywood] was a big fan of the Gogs, and came to visit, I showed him the sets and puppets and a terrible animatic, but he saw what I was trying to do.”

The short – Raging Balls of Steel Justice – did well at animation festivals and quickly became a cult classic, with the backers keen to progress a feature-length movie. The beginning of 2014 saw the team move into the studio for an unusually extended four-year shoot (“usually it takes 18 months, but we were a small team and there was less time pressure”), bringing the no-nonsense balls-out Chuck Steel to the silver screen.

Well, balls out and unfeasibly large tackle if the situation calls for it. For Chuck Steel is a man of his time, a square-jawed, motorbike-riding, leather jacketed, tight jeaned, guns-a-blazing action hero who thinks nothing of calling women “sugar tits” or punching his long-suffering captain, Jack Schitt, in the balls at every possible opportunity.

Mort is very aware that Chuck Steel’s abrasive approach and coarse humour does not land well with everyone. “It’s very un-PC,” he admits. “The landscape has got very sensitive over the last few years, in fact, you could feel it changing as we were making it, and we started to wonder how this was going to be received.” I challenge him as to whether he considered a course-change at that point.

“We did think carefully about it but there’s no way of making this in a politically correct way, so we just went ahead and made it authentic to the films which inspired it. They’re the films I love and still watch now – I’m a person of that era.”

Gogs (1995)

Trampires is, essentially, a comedy horror movie, but Mort isn’t a big horror fan.  

“Horror films used to scare me, I was a bit of a wimp, but I loved the Harryhausen monster movies. I picked up Evil Dead 2 and thought ‘oh that has monsters in it’. I watched it that night and loved it, it was very intense. The style of that film, and action movies have seeped into how I see the world.”

So, Evil Dead 2 meets...?

Die Hard, Rambo, Terminator,” says Mort. “And the films of Peter Hyams [Capricorn One, Outland, Timecop] too. I love his action movies, the way he cuts it and paces it, the music he uses.”

This is, at base, what marks Trampires out from other stop motion movies. “We shot it at 24 frames per second [as opposed to the typical 12], and it’s shot like an action movie,” explains Mort. “In the usual stop motion movie, you get a shot where the camera pans around and you see all the nice models and the set and I thought we’re not going to do any beauty shots, this just happens to be where we’re filming these people, the backgrounds are just backgrounds.”

“Every time the camera moved, Laura [Howie, director of cinematography] or Geoff [Robins, head camera assistant] would ask ‘do you want any fairings [acceleration or deceleration between two key frames] on this?’ I said ‘no’. I wanted it one speed from beginning to end, to give the impression of it being a piece of film which had been cut, not some beautiful shot designed to go from beginning to end, I wanted it to look like an edit from a live-action shoot.”

“The icing on the cake was the post-production [under Chris Callow],” adds Mort. “Chris added lens flares, camera shake, dust, smoke, embers in the air, anything we could get away with. I think we had post on every shot.”

Mort’s one-man journey had taken Chuck successfully through a short, but when it came to the big screen, the idea of big-name voice talent was mooted.

“We came really close with a big star which would have given us a wide American release,” explain Mort, “but that fell apart just before COVID.”

Further talks came and went. Then, a stroke of luck.

“We had a surprise visit,” recalls Mort, with some relish. “Our backer brought [TV supremo] Michael Grade, Simon West [director of ConAir] and Roger Taylor of Queen, with his wife, Sarina. She knew Jennifer [Saunders] and Paul [Whitehouse] and they ended up revoicing some of the characters. It was really challenging for them, not just lip-synching, but creating performances in the very short time we had them. I think they did a great job.”

Roger Taylor started to write a theme song for Trampires, but didn’t get time to finish, but the movie still features tracks from Judas Priest and Saxon, among others. Saxon re-recorded their track and came to the premiere too. “They’re a great bunch of guys,” says Mort, proudly. “The soundtrack is basically my CD collection!”

The rest of the movie’s highly effective action score was provided by Joris de Man. “I used to play a lot of video games when I was a kid,” says Mort. “I heard Joris’s music on a game, Killzone and thought ‘this is great!’. I reached out to him, and it turned out he was living in Brighton and his wife was an animation producer I’d worked with, so it all fell into place.”

Most of the voice talent on Trampires remains Mort’s. He voices Chuck Steel, Steel’s eventual English sidekick, Abraham Van Rental and – somewhat controversially – the black police captain, Jack Schitt. While he may be principally an animator, director and model-maker, Mort has an impressive range of voices. “I did them initially because we had no money, so I did them in the short and it made sense for me to do continue to do them for consistency.”

Ultimately, Trampires was something of a solo mission, or at least vision. Mort can be credited as creator, writer, director, producer, modelmaker as well as the three main voices. “I think I probably did two too many jobs,” he reflects.

Nonetheless, for a reputed $20m budget, this is one heckuva film. The climax of the film (“it’s slightly nutty,” says Mort, with typical understatement) features a staggering 200 puppets, with no CG filling in the backgrounds. “It was all puppets,” he says. “It was crazy putting together that scene.”

Even when it came to distribution, Mort took a DIY approach.

“We approached cinemas directly,” explains Mort, “and it’s fair to say the independents didn’t really like it, but the UK Big Four [Vue, Showcase, Cineworld, Odeon] did.” Trampires opens to an initial 55 screens at the Halloween weekend.

So where next for Mort and his crew?


“It’s too early to say,” says Mort. “I’ve been so embroiled in Chuck for so long, I need to have a bit of a break and see how it is received. It’s not the flavour of the times, a lot of studios loved the idea but turned it away because they’re very risk-averse these days.”

Mort ends our hour-long chat by showing me a – frankly amazing – model of a barbarian he’s been working on, complete with horned helmet and axe.

“I would love to do a Swords & Sorcery type thing for kids,” he confesses. “Inspired by Willow and Lord of the Rings, keeping the absurdity, but not so sweary.”

‘Chuck Steel: Night of the Trampires’ can be seen in cinemas across the UK from 29 October.  AFA would like to thank Animortal and Blue Dolphin Films for making this interview possible.

Mark Brandon has been a fan of all things animated since he can remember, and a writer since he could put pen to paper. He lives in the south of Scotland, where he writes science fiction and fantasy, goes for walks in the country and lifts big bits of metal up and down (mainly for vanity’s sake).