Special Problems is a multi-disciplinary creative studio composed of Campbell Hooper, Darron Lilley and Joel Kefali. Their work fuses hand drawn, painted, video, animation and illustration–often recontextualized in new and surprising ways. They recently interviewed with Beautiful/Decay to discuss their design collective, their approach, and thought processes behind their videos.
SL: Can you introduce/overview some of the key people involved with your design collective, what their roles are?
JK: Special problems is made up of Campbell Hooper, Darron Lilley and I (Joel Kefali). Cam and I (Joel) are based in Auckland, New Zealand. We have been making Music Videos together and collaborating on other projects for the past year. Darron lives in London and works on our web based projects. We also have recently acquired intern, Peter J Brant, from Grand Rapids, Michigan. He came over a few months ago! We call him Chad.
SL: How did special problems get started and evolve into the manifestation it is today?
JK: We were friends who had all been working solo for a few years. We had similar aesthetic concerns and all worked with both print and moving image. Campbell had special problems as a website for a while and a couple of years ago we decided to turn it into a group site, with our individual and collaborative projects as a collective portfolio, no names associated to jobs. A year later Cam and I formalized SP as a company and started collaborating much more on projects together. Last month was our first birthday and we’ve managed to go from having a few local clients to working with bands and other people around the world from our little studio in New Zealand. (I think offshore like that we work in south pacific pesos)
SL: What’s your creative process like—can you walk us through say an example of one of the creative projects you spearheaded as of late?
CH: For video ideas, Joel and I will just sit around for a couple of hours with the track on repeat and throw out ideas. It happens in the conversation – ideas that seem great in your head get tested when you have to articulate them. The ideas that work seem to be the ones that slide off the tongue and can be summarized in a sentence or two.
On a project like the Tame Impala video, we both just sat down and started working on a couple different scenes. Our desks are next to each other so the conversation continues: “yeah cool”, “more red”, “that looks like shit”, etc. We both shoot, draw, animate, edit and design, so the workload isn’t divided up like a traditional company might work. The work takes on a generic and ‘even’ quality as your hands get further away from the ‘making of’. Most specialists works to the inherent conventions of their craft. They go down a familiar path each time because its more efficient, but the energy in a work is created by it’s ‘breaking’ and specialists don’t ‘break’, otherwise no one would hire them.
JK: Yeah, I think when you teach yourself software or processes you end up with your own hybrid way of using tools. I also think it changes the energy of a video when you are hands on involved in all parts of a production, when shooting you consider much more aspects of the whole process, the video becomes much a whole process not compartmentalized into shot, offline, online. (a year ago, ten clips in I still had no idea what some of these words were. I was directing a shoot in London, with all roles assigned to people and wasn’t used to being so hands off. It’s strange and I think the clip become less our own as result of just standing and pointing, it felt wrong being told not to move the set, the art dept would do that. I prefer getting my hands dirty)
SL: In the video “Kept Low,” by the Mercy Arms, you created a surrealistic photo-montage that replicated a sort of druggy, psychedelic affect of jerky stop-motion. Can you talk a little bit about your process and what your concept behind the band was?
JK: People often tell us our clips are psychedelic etc, not having large experiences in that realm I think they are perhaps more naive, or from being inquisitive like a child than pscyh I guess…… So I sent the band a treatment that involved seas of flowers consuming the band while they were each performing. From there I conference-called with the band and developed the idea a bit further to fit in with their intended aesthetic.
We shot in Sydney and I worked with a local photographer named Angelo Kehagias. We shot the whole video frame by frame on a still camera. So I filmed test shots of the band performing and then broke their movements down into frame counts so they would be playing drums and guitar etc in time, (which worked sometimes). We shot in the bands practice space and shot for three days, pretty much round the clock, (we had frame quotas to fill each day). Angelo on the camera, me counting numbers and the band members inching shot by shot, while flowers were shifted around them. Then afterwards a little bit of post trickery. The band also brought a lot of their own personality to the clip, which in this case was a nice bonus to the idea.
SL: Another favorite video that you created was Tame Impala’s “Half Full Glass of Wine,” it’s a pretty playful and vibrantly colored manifestation of their song—can you talk a little bit about your inspiration behind this video, and making it?
JK: The record label had requested a treatment that was a ‘psychedelic journey.’ Coming from backgrounds as painters, we saw this as an opportunity to get back to our roots. Also, I have always been a fan of old animators liker Robert Breer and Bruce Bickford and wanted to draw on some of things these guys had done. The process was us in the studio playing, experimenting, refining for as long as we could hold the label off for.
CH: Joel and I both come from fine art backgrounds, so the thought of camping up in the studio for a few weeks after a months of location shoots was cool. We just sat around drinking and throwing stuff around – a bit of this, a bit of that….
JK: Yeah it was a really enjoyable process, feeling your way through a project instead of having to make hard calls under the pressure of a shoot day.
SL: I read that for the video “You and I” for the band Cut Off Your Hands, you shot the entire video by reprinting stills frame by frame with an inkjet printer—how long did this take? Did any point did you feel like giving up, seems like a pretty tedious task? But conceptually, how do you think the frame-by-frame, laborious aesthetic functions within the video?
JK: The actual printing out and rephotographing took 3 days… a pretty intense 3 days. I had a surprise deadline from the band. They needed the video on a Monday, telling me the Friday before. I didn’t feel like giving up at all, when doing stop motion or hand drawn animation, you have an idea of how it will look as you make it, but it is always exciting and surprising watching it in it’s completed form. I think, being an early clip, it was quite a youthful and ambitious idea, the band was in a similar headspace at the time too. The jerky, jittery motion worked in well with the post punk guitar sounds. Part of that video was a rejection of the computer (I had been working as a motion graphics monkey during that same time). I wanted the video to feel like it could have been made at anytime. It wasn’t tied to any particular technology. I think you also get some of those beautiful movements and analog effects, like the papers texture and the ink cartridges running out that don’t feel the same if I had tried to replicate them in post. The ‘lo-fi’ nature of it suited the bands attitudes as well.
SL: What do you think are elements that creates for a successful music video? What special concerns are at play when you’re creating a short video for a band’s song?
JK: A cohesive, almost singular idea. Good styling/ art direction. A consideration/ respect for the song and the band, adjusting accordingly to suit a track while still maintaining your personal work process.
CH: Approaching the video as musically as possible. A success is when the visual and musical elements work as a single gesture. I think music videos are usually made by directors who want to make films, but a music video isn’t really a film – it’s more abstract, like music. Beware of narrative!
SL: Many of your projects fuse a lot of hand drawn elements or unusual strategies that almost merge the moving image with print, photography, drawing, painting, animation—where does the interest in fusing all of these visual practices stem from? How did you begin working in this fashion?
JK: I don’t think it is an intentional ‘let’s fuse painting and film together’. We treat each project accordingly and some warrant the use of drawing or painting and some don’t. It also helps that Cam and I are both from art school backgrounds and had the opportunity to play around with materials, much more than if say we had studied film or graphic design. As a student, I was doing painting while learning animation software so naturally combined the two. Photography, painting, drawing are things that come naturally to us and excite us. So, I guess it is only natural they pop up in our work.
SL: On The Marr Factory portfolio it says you organized the show curation, design and performance—can you talk a little bit about your inspiration behind this?
CH: We were asked to put the whole show together and they let us do whatever we wanted. Darron and I are both involved in bands and sound-art so we threw it together. All the live sound pieces were patched into a massive bass speaker that I borrowed off a mate, then we destroyed it by pouring paint, buttons, flour, etc into it. The speaker vibrations animated the materials. The speaker cone was projected live onto a screen behind us. It was a shit speaker anyway.
SL: Who are some favorite designers, musicians, artists, etc?
JK: Luc Tuymans, Robert Breer, Jason Martin, Raymond Scott, Caberet Voltaire
CH: Morton Feldman, Anselm Kiefer, Åbäke, anyone on Touch Music…
SL: If you could design anyone’s music video or record artwork, who’d it be and what would you create for them?
JK: The Flaming lips – a choir of singing cakes
CH: Ben and Bruno – because he’s our intern from michigan and thats his solo project and he’s great (and we owe him for cleaning up our studio for the last few months).
SL: What projects do you have coming up in the near future?
JK: More music videos and cover art with some local artists, another trip to London, putting my skateboard to use and learning to make my own bagels.
CH: Yeah, we’re shooting some video pieces for London jewelry designer Jessica McCormack. We have been stalling on some of our personal video/painting projects. So, we want to get back into that. I also have a stack of books bought solely to make me feel intelligent. I haven’t read them yet. I should probably buy some more.
To view more of Special Problem’s works, visit: