PES: The Deep

How did Showtime and PES come together for “The Deep”?
One day I woke up and had an invitation via email to be part of the series. There was no pitching process. They just wanted me to make one of my films.

How did the original idea for this most recent short come to you?
For as long as I can remember I’ve been obsessed with deep sea creatures. And certain tools have always reminded me of fish and other ocean creatures. One tool in particular – an old nutcracker – looked very fish-head-like to me (I used it as the head of the eel and the lantern fish in The Deep). So I collected lots of tools and metal scraps over the past 5 years with an eye toward creating an undersea-themed piece. The challenge became, can I get these rigid objects to have enough fluidity to really make them believable as sea creatures.

Can you describe the production process of The Deep? How did the demands of this piece differ from your previous shorts?
It was very straightforward. I shot the fish in traditional stop-motion against a piece of blue velvet from the 18th century that I chose because of its distinct markings of age and the way it reflected light – they just don’t make velvet like this anymore.

I didn’t storyboard, I just assembled the metal tools and scraps into deep-sea-like creatures, lit them, and then I animated them. Each shot, in turn, inspired the next shot I dreamt up. It was an extremely spontaneous mode of creation.

In post I added a layer of atmospheric effects to help create the underwater murkiness. I intended to do this from the beginning, I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it: in stop-motion, live-action, or CGI. In the end I decided to go the live-action route. I shot footage of dust particles against a black backdrop at different focal lengths and frame rates. Then in the Inferno, I worked with Wolfgang Maschin of Demiurge to composite the particles and add some additional dramatic lighting effects.

The style of your work commonly illustrates a stark contrast between natural and synthetic objects. In The Deep this is not the case. Was this a conscious or inadvertent change of course?
Inadvertent. The Deep just didn’t lead me in that direction. For some reason only metal objects seemed to belong in this world.

From beginning to end, can you describe your film making process? Specifically, do you prefer to start with a story or something else, like subject matter or aesthetic?
Ideas are hard to talk about. Just when you say one thing about how you get them, then something completely different happens, also leading to an interesting idea. For me, I tend to have several ideas in different stages of development. Sometimes I start collecting objects for a piece in anticipation of shooting – as I did with The Deep. Though I am constantly pushing several ideas forward at any given time, I usually get to a point with one particular idea where I feel it’s ready to go, so I make that one.

You are mostly known for object driven stop-motion animation. Have you ever been compelled to experiment in other styles, such as cel-animation or CG?
It really depends on the idea for me. I have used CG in commercials before, but I do not personally animate in CG, so I tend to avoid it in my personal work because I prefer a hands-on approach and I don’t like relying on other people. I like the immediacy of stop-motion.

How does the film-making process for a commercial differ creatively than your non-commercial work? Do you find that clients are mostly open to your style and ideas?
Commercials are not my ideas. I get sent a script and I have to work within that framework. I suggest ideas to make it better, and some projects give more opportunity for personal embellishment than others.

In my personal work, I stand 100% behind the core ideas, which are mine. There’s no excuse for a poor idea in my personal work, because I am in control of it.

As a child, were you interested in animation or did you take the long road to the art-form?
As a child I was out playing in the woods or making up games in the backyard. My parents didn’t want me watching much TV, and I wasn’t really interested in it anyway. I saw just enough Saturday morning cartoons to not feel deprived.

But I really liked to draw and paint. I learned how to paint watercolors at an early age – I took lessons from a children’s book illustrator. In college I studied printmaking and got obsessed with it. I made my own books and printed them on paper that I created by pulping my own underwear – we had a giant machine that turned just about anything into pulp that could then be made into paper.

I experimented with many forms of printmaking. I idolized the artist William Blake and was obsessed with his methods of making his own books (such as The Marriage of Heaven and Hell). When I graduated college I had a degree in English Literature with a focus on James Joyce as well as a portfolio of etchings and prints. I landed a job in the creative department of a large ad agency in NYC, based on the amusement the agency recruiter got from my etchings.

At the agency I used my first paychecks to start financing my own short films. I started with live-action, not animation. But then one day I had an idea about two chairs having sex. I really wanted to make it and I didn’t want anyone to fuck it up. I felt the best technique for the idea would be stop-motion. So I quit my agency job and taught myself how to animate. Of course, Roof Sex changed my life.

Outside of the animation medium, what inspires your work?
My ideas come from just living life day to day and thinking about stuff. I make little observations here and there. I go to flea markets and sometimes I get ideas there when I see things. I take a lot of notes. My friends know just to ignore me when I take a notebook out during dinner. But I hate forgetting ideas, so I operate as if I have no choice but to record them.

Likewise, who (or what) within the animation medium inspires your work?
The only animation that ever truly blew my mind was the work of Jan Svankmajer, the great Czech surrealist. He was the one who first turned me on to the potential of working with objects. But I gave away all my DVDs of his work last year when I moved to LA. I figured whatever inspiration I got I have already taken.

Where do you see the direction of your work going in the future? What is in store for 2011 and beyond?
More short films, of course. Plus I am developing some feature film projects of my own. It’ll be a challenge to get a personalized vision made in Hollywood.