Scott Benson: Rendezvous “The Murf” Interview

Scott Benson can’t seem to stop putting out creative work, whether it’s light-hearted (Opposites, Future Trends in Motion Graphics) or helping himself and others ponder more serious themes (Rebranding, On the Subject of Depression).

His music video for Rendezvous’ “The Murf” pairs a cosmic story with beautiful, stylized design that will both make you make you smile and wonder about the future. In spite of his busy schedule, Scott was kind enough to share some stills, storyboards and insight from creating “The Murf.” The FlickR sets are high-res, so feel free to check them out full-screen!

How did the project come about?

Rendezvous contacted me about two days before Christmas last year. They had seen my work on Animation Tag Attack, episode eight and On the Subject of Depression from last August, and liked them enough that they basically said, “We need to approve the style and concept, but beyond that do whatever you’d like!” That was awesome, and I can’t thank them enough! They sent over the track — I listened to it about 100 times and then started doodling.

What was the inspiration for the story?

The story was inspired by some very big changes in my beliefs last year. The video was, in retrospect, me working out how I view the world, humanity, history, the future now. It’s one of those things where you look back, months later, and say, “Hey! This was really about something entirely different than I thought it was.”

Less personally, it is an expression of wonder about the universe and our place in it. It’s also about technology being a natural byproduct of a naturally occurring species. That’s why there are these odd, synthetic angles and pixel-ish fires and square highlights. I wanted to show something as primitive and foundational as our use of fire as technology, and the universe as a completely natural place to find it. In a way, pixels and perfect 45-degree angles are as at home in the universe as beehives and anthills.

Our ability as a species to be curious, to learn, to work together is a wonderful, fantastic thing. We obviously cause many, many problems for ourselves and other life, and we certainly have massive problems to deal with now and in the future. But overall, I really do think things are on the whole getting better. You get so much pessimism and nihilism from all sides right now, but there is more than enough reason to be optimistic, even exhilarated about our future.

I think it was Carl Sagan who quipped, “If the dinosaurs had had a space program, they would not be extinct.” It’s bittersweet — the humanoids in the video lose their world, their immediate home and birthplace, but they endure because they are smart, industrious, and able to work together. If we survive, it’s going to be for the same reasons. There’s a head-swimming grandeur in looking at the impossible distances and eons, and seeing how we fit into it, struggle and survive.

Visually, there’s the obvious stuff that’s all over my work — Kubrick, Wes Anderson, Chris Ware, iconography, folk art, video games, etc. I was also inspired by really synthetic but primitive-looking monochrome patterns you used to see in old Paint programs on black and white computers. I remember I had an old Mac we got a from a garage sale in 1992, and it used these wonderful repeating patterns instead of colors. It reminded me of the odd, deceptively purposeful-looking patterns you find in nature, and that helped to inform certain images. It also helped to inspire the large amount of repeating imagery, compositions and shapes throughout the video — showing that, taken as a whole, it’s one big self-replicating pattern playing itself out in unexpected ways.

what was the biggest challenge about the piece?

The biggest challenge was settling on an idea. I had about three different concepts and I just sat there for several days staring at them on a piece of paper, not sure of what to choose and if I’d even be able to pull it off. I’m sure most people can identify with that. You look at what you want to do as a whole and it just seems … improbable. I was also working on three other projects during most of this period. I don’t recommend it, but such is freelancing. The Sword of Damocles is always swinging over your ability to pay rent a few months from now.

What tools did you use? How long was the project timeline?

Other than some texture overlays and the clouds I made in Photoshop, “The Murf” is 100 percent After Effects. Just about everything onscreen is a humble shape layer, or maybe an instance of Particular. Nothing overly fancy. That’s how I tend to work — just keep piling on really simple things until it becomes what you want it to be. Scribbly storyboards were done in Flash or on printer paper. I was so disgusted by my sloppy boards that I started posting comparisons on my blog.

From conception to final approval, the whole timeline was about six weeks. I started in mid-February and did the final approved render in the last week of March. I remember that when I finally emerged, I was really surprised that it was early spring. I had of course left the apartment in the preceding weeks, but I was so in the headspace of working and making things that I hadn’t really noticed that the snow had finally melted.

What advice would you give to those who want to make a music video or short film?

Think small. There’s that old saying about how you eat an elephant. (Answer: one bite at a time). While I don’t condone the eating of elephants under normal circumstances, I do think that this is the best way to make things.

I do one-minute projects — pieces that are short enough to be manageable but long enough to be actual shorts. Sometimes they come out longer or shorter. Some people do five-second projects, but I suppose I’m just not that talented! A minute gives me room to breathe as a storyteller and develop an idea or a character.

Don’t start out trying to make your big huge magnum opus. The best way to ensure that you’ll make things in the future is to have a track record of making things in the past. So start small. Over time, you’ll build up enough small bits that you’ll know how to make a larger bit, and after that an even bigger bit, and so on. What’s more, you’ll have a portfolio and a history full of things you’ve made. And if you work hard and are honest with yourself, chances are you’ll get better. So make something. We could always use more makers, more voices, more storytellers, more ideas.

Oh, and it helps to have good ideas and something to say.

What’s next for you?

I’m deep in the bowels of a big monster of a short called Potential that is almost a spiritual successor to “The Murf.” It’s eating my brain alive, but in a mostly good way. It’ll be done in the coming months. People are either going to love it or hate it. I’ve also started selling prints, which is fun and hectic. This week I’m recording a song for a fun upcoming short as will be out (fingers crossed) in October sometime. And tomorrow I’m getting a haircut.

Thank you to Scott for taking the time to answer our questions! Hopefully this will inspire people to go on and make something too.