Director of the music video Shrine / An Argument for the Fleet Foxes, Sean Pecknold, speaks on stop-motion, nostalgia, and the unique niche of animation in the world of cinema.
I knew Sean’s work before I knew his name. Some stop-motion music videos for bands like the Fleet Foxes and Grizzly Bear as well as some disparate BBC educational shorts had eerily similar retro-collage aesthetics that I hadn’t thought to put together until recently. But his latest music video The Shrine / An Argument did more than connect dots, it did that thing. Used good visuals to make a good song even better. Like croutons on a beet salad. Not necessary, but a nice bonus.
It’s a feat in itself that he was able to embrace the retro and nostalgic without resigning his work to an Urban Outfitter corner rack under a Banksy print and a refreshing reminder that no matter how co-opted the ’70s brand of the handmade might become, its appeal is rooted more in the heritage of our generation than its revivalist commercialization. Whether plaid is in or out, Sean’s stories about gods and nature are still a long way from pasé.
He and I passed some emails back and forth this past winter.
Jerred North Stop-motion has the stigma of being mostly for child audiences. There are the outliers like the Brothers Quay and Yuri Norstein, but for the most part there’s something about imagining the lives of inanimate objects that’s very childlike. Why is that? Does it play into some action-figure mentality or an alternate-storybook-world kind of need? What does stop-motion have to offer adult audiences?
Sean Pecknold I think about this a lot. I think stop-motion has a childlike quality to it, no matter what you do, what style or story. I think it gets written off sometimes for being too childlike. It’s a technique that allows for enormous amounts of creativity and style. I grew up watching stop-motion, and I think a lot of what I watched has found its way into my work. I am really surprised that more kids don’t grow up to be animators. It’s like you spend ten years playing with toys and moving little characters around, and all that’s missing from the equation is a clicking camera. And that’s all stop-motion is in essence, playing with toys and bringing creatures to life. It’s harder because you have to slow time down almost to a stop, but it’s still just as gratifying when you get to watch it move in real time. Stop-motion offers anything you want it to offer to adult audiences. For example, The Fantastic Mr. Fox was an incredible use of stop-motion that appealed to adult audiences as well, if not more, than to kids. I mean, animation in general is often misinterpreted as being only for kids, but that’s just wrong. Robot Chicken, The Simpsons, South Park, Miyazaki, Pixar and Aardman films, all that stuff is just as much appreciated and relevant to adult audiences than any other film form. If you have a good story that people are into, they are going to watch it no matter how the things or people move around.
JN Maybe that’s why most people don’t even blink if the characters in a movie are real or clay. The toy world just might make sense for eternity after childhood. Plus, to actually do it yourself, you really don’t need much at all to get started. Did you ever use the Steven Spielberg Lego Movie Maker set? I wonder how many animating careers that thing kicked off.
SP Wow, i really wish i had. I may have gotten a much earlier start, but i see it’s not too late to get one for my future kids.
JN 145 dollars used! So it’s an antique already? I used that thing all through elementary school, so still, for me, stop-motion and being a restless sixth grader are just tied together. Just another piece of why I think the aesthetic of your films really hits a nostalgic chord in me, or any of us who grew up with Will Vinton Christmas movies and shows like Gumby or Thomas the Tank Engine. How’d you get into this niche of filmmaking? Is there something about nostalgia you are trying to explore in your work, or is that just where your natural creative instincts stem from?
SP I grew up watching the Will Vinton specials, mainly the Christmas special. Me and my brother and sister would watch it over and over again. A lot of Sesame Street segments were done using stop-motion. Yeah, it was pretty much all over my eyes and brain as a kid. But for me getting into the form came more from photography and design. I never trained as an animator (and sadly that shows sometimes), and when I started to experiment with it, I fell in love with the control you can have and the ability to light and manipulate things in front of a camera. It’s very addicting once you start. And I think my designs usually stem from a sense of nostalgia perhaps, in that I’m drawn to the rich colors and clean designs of the ’60s and ’70s, though I try to make each piece feel like it’s own world, not owing too much to any one era or style. I love stop-motion because of the ability to touch real things and move real lights around. I experimented in computer animation for a bit before starting out with stop-motion, and the actual physical experience of it all is so much more real and tactile than clicking a mouse over and over again. I like having control of every little detail in a frame and that is easier to do on a smaller scale for me at the moment.
JN In most of your pieces the process of the creation isn’t disguised at all—it’s like the pieces want to be acknowledged as being handmade in somebody’s basement with the fingerprints of the tools, like smudges on the glass, all over it. Like in indie music where you can hear garage doors and birds chirping behind the guitar. Where do you think the resurgent appeal of the handmade comes from?
SP I have always appreciated that, being able to feel, or hear, or see the process of the recording in it. There is a Radiohead b-side I remember loving—I think it’s How I Made My Millions—where you can hear someone doing dishes in the background. I think it works for certain things. Like you wouldn’t want to see the foot of the camera operator in The Shining or something. But with singular stop-motion animations I think it is a natural process to leave a fingerprint on the frames. If I get to a point where I am not trying to do so much on my own, then perhaps I will try and eliminate some of the fingerprints, but for now I think it fits.
JN So, taking it even before the creation phase, how are your projects born, do they start with a set or model, or do the images and processes come first?
SP It’s hard to explain because it can vary based on the project. I usually think of ideas for a couple weeks or days. Then I look at reference images or old movies for a while and figure out the style of animation that I want to try. But then I do a lot of testing in camera to figure out the lighting and feeling of the environments. During that testing period I’ll write up a rough script for the animation, just enough to present and get started, because I know it will change along the way. I usually build the entire animation in After Effects first to work at the timings of the scenes, but I always leave room for flexibility in the action and scenes even, because no matter how much I block it out, I usually discover a different way to do something once I’m animating. If I’m listening to a song to get ideas, I usually put it on repeat for a couple days and cycle through a bunch of different images or ideas and then I’ll take a break from it and come back to it, and if any of those images still exist in my brain, then I start experimenting with them and try and build a concept around it. But it’s always different. Sometimes an idea will just come from the desire to experiment with a certain material or method or character.
JN When you say you block in After Effects ahead of time, do you have each shot broken down so you know exactly how much to move the puppets?
SP The blocking of a shot in After Effects is just the basic action and what I think will work for the length of the shot. So I will just use a very basic character and move it from one point to another. On shorter animations, like the projects I’ve done for the BBC, the After Effects animatics were actually very detailed and could have even passed for a final spot in someone’s mind. And I would bring that into Dragonframe, the animating program, and use it for timing reference in order to hit the correct points in the voice over.
JN I know you have a history with graphic design, and I’m curious: when you see paintings or design, do you ever think, If only it moved?
SP Absolutely. I think it’s hard not to look at something and imagine ways for it to move as an animator. I started as a designer and photographer before moving more into animation, and I would always want to see something move as I was working. There is so much power in the still image, in poster and graphic design and painting, but I just hit a point where I wanted to make more frames and tell longer stories. Some things should not move of course, and just moving stuff around doesn’t make it any better necessarily.
JN You use a combination of multi-plane animation and 3D clay modeling techniques. Can you explain how it’s different working with one or the other? How does the space you’re working in affect the final piece? After what you just said, I guess we could add a computer to this too.
SP I always pick a material based on the needs for the visuals. I love working with clay and I love working with paper. Paper works so well on the multi-plane, and I’ve tried to find ways to integrate other materials onto the multi-plane as well. Clay is great because of the way it takes light and feels three-dimensional, but I’ve discovered ways of making paper feel dimensional as well, using paint and the position of lights to simulate depth. It’s always a fun challenge to try and make individual elements feel like they all belong together.
Most of my more recent animations are done primarily in-camera. I always use After Effects when needed though, and some elements it just doesn’t make sense to do in-camera. For example in the Shrine video, Britta Johnson did some amazing hand animation for the dancing gods hair, but it was too much to swap those out in-camera, so she did those separately and then tracked them on in After Effects. Usually elements that are hand drawn, such as moving clouds or dust elements or flying leaves, are animated separately and then composited on. So technically all of the animation is handmade but not always completely in-camera. But if I had the time, I think everything would be shot in-camera.
JN Man, you’d be a Producer’s worst nightmare.
SP (laughter) Yeah, I think it can be a challenge to produce art-driven animation. (Not trying to invent a crappy phrase, but it fits perhaps.) But luckily I’ve worked with some very understanding and empathetic producers.
JN It’s interesting to bring the rest of the film hierarchy into this. I have a picture in my mind of animators and motionographers inhabiting a unique corner in an industry where the going personality mould is more high-octane and extroverted. But instead, you sit in a room for hours moving figures and models frame by frame. I know this is a gross reduction, but since you’ve done both animation work and live-camera shoots, could you talk about the unique aspects of the separate processes and whether you prefer parts of one to the other?
SP There are really great things about both processes. Sitting in a warm studio and moving things around for hours, and weeks, and months, can be incredibly fun. You are able to block the rest of the world out and just focus on making a new one. Listening to music and animating in the middle of the night is one of my favorite things to do. The time can go by so fast, months even, and I never really look at the clock to see what time it is. I’m so focused on the creation at hand. I love working in the studio. That being said, it can make you go crazy after a while if that’s all you do. After seven months of being in the studio working on the Shrine video, I had to get out into the real world, so my friend and I went to Iceland and Europe for a month and shot a film that we are now editing. I absolutely love being out in the real world and filming things and people. Somehow I tried to imagine the world as a large miniature set with a big light that moves around at the same time, and as an animator looking at the world that way it’s hard not to get exited about this massive pre-built set with limitless shooting possibilities. That may sound stupid, but for example a place like Iceland, you walk around and everywhere you look is like an amazing frame for some action to happen in. We interviewed a lot of people for the film project, and I really enjoy that aspect of being in the field, and I also acted in the film, so in that sense I was still controlling myself like I would a puppet in the studio. Every kind of filmmaking is fun and rewarding in its own way. I will always be an animator, but I want to do more live-action stuff too. I think it’s just a matter of what kind of story you are trying to get across. I appreciate animators who experiment with all the techniques of filmmaking, and I hope do the same moving forward into the future.
JN This is really funny. It’s obvious animating has incepted your brain when the world becomes a prebuilt set and you’re just a puppet in it.
SP Yes, it’s ironic for sure.
JN It seems like mixed media experiments have done a lot to push the craft ahead the last few decades which can put the bar pretty high. How high is the benchmark you push yourself to meet? Do you think you’ve tasted it yet?
SP As far as the animation goes, I still feel like I’m learning the craft. I never studied animation, and I feel like I learn on every project, and I try and study more closely the way things move in real life. But I still don’t feel quite yet like a professional animator, rather an artist who tries to visualize ideas using whatever is at my disposal. You look at studios like Laika and Aardman and they have placed the bar incredibly high as far as professional studios go. I could never compete with that kind of technical mastery, and I don’t try to. My stuff has always been an experiment with style and technique, and I usually keep trying new things too soon to become a master of any one aspect of animation. Master of none perhaps suits me for now, but I’m okay with that.
JN You work with Britta Johnson, another animator, but you’ve also worked with straight artists like Jesse Brown on the Mykonos video and then Stacey Rozich on the Shrine. What’s it like working with someone who is more a graphic designer or fine artist than an animator? Were you inspired by any of their specific drawings and thought how you could add motion, or did you think of segments and tell the artists what you needed?
SP The Mykonos video was a fun collaboration. I had the idea to use abstract shapes to create characters in that animation style and had just met Jesse who creates those amazing geometric buildings that I had seen and thought they’d look great in the video. I designed most of the scenes and backgrounds and interiors, wrote all of the ideas for each scene, and Jesse designed the beautiful buildings along the way. I think we have a similar aesthetic, so it was a really fun collaboration. For the Shrine, my brother (who is the singer and songwriter for Fleet Foxes) and I were both fans of Stacey’s print work and felt it would be a really interesting collaboration for a longer video.
She has some wonderfully beautiful god-like creatures that I kept coming back to and helped inspire some of the scenes in the video. Then I wrote all of the scenes on my own and worked with Stacey to design the characters. That video has a lot of characters in it, and Stacey did an amazing job coming up with sketches and patterns and colors on the spot and tweaking as needed. I am in awe of how fast she cranks those beautiful things out. The sea creatures at the end are probably my favorite and took the longest for us to land on the right design.
JN The Shrine is definitely a testament to that, and to how you work with your brother’s music. The first time I saw that video I was blown away by how it nails that marriage between image and sound. Especially with a song like that, with its movements over a long period of time, there’s a chance for a strong visual arc to match the music so you end up with something more like an opera than a music video. Did you and Robin collaborate on the narrative, or was it more a thing of you listening to the song and seeing the story born out in your head?
SP It was pretty much me listening to song over and over one night and then writing the script at four in the morning. Although I kind of worked backwards, starting from the ending of the song and imagining an underwater couple fighting over a main character and ripping his body apart. I had had that visual every time I listened to that part. And from there I added the other characters, scenes, and general narrative arc. But like I said, I always leave room for change along the way, and the scenes and the characters did change a bit from the original script as we moved more into animating.
JN That makes me think . . . there are definitely stories that I imagine each time I listen to a song, like the Radiohead song All I Need. I’m pretty sure I’ve had the same visuals ever since the first time I listened to it. It’s like that Keith Richard’s quote that songs are already made before you start, you just have to pluck them out of the air. Maybe music videos aren’t so different.
SP That’s interesting. It could very much be like that. But then you can also listen to a song 100 times, and then the 101st time listen to it in a different place, a totally different state of mind, maybe outside on top of a cliff or something, and imagine something completely different. It’s a tricky exercise to convince people that your vision for a song should be the one that is illustrated, but it’s fun.
Sean Pecknold is a director and visual artist who creates music videos, commercials, and films. More of his work can be seen on Granchildren.tv. He splits his time between Portland and Los Angeles.
Jerred North is a writer and lives in Brooklyn.