Sean Pecknold is a Seattle based artist who has created some incredibly poignant videos and animations. The video “White Winter Hymnal” for Fleet Foxes–a sort of time-turning-backwards retrogression via a magical crank — recently caught our eye here at B/D. Sean recently discussed that, as well his other works, inspiration, and process behind creating his magical shorts.
Where do you draw creative inspiration from, whether visual, sonic, philosophical, ideological….
Nature, old magazines, animals, the radio, my family, science fiction movies, musicals, time traveling, walking, old cartoons.
On your page I saw some images of rough sketches outlining video concepts—do you usually work this way? What’s your process like, from the inception of an idea to the final creation?
I occasionally make some really bad sketches to help visualize things. But it usually starts with a scene or a character, and I do a bunch of tests to get the look or technique the way i want it. I rarely know exactly what the end product is going to look like until about half way through the process. Not to say I don’t have a look I am trying to achieve but a lot of variables can affect that as the production progresses that can influence the overall feel and look of a piece. I spend a lot of time setting up shots, sometimes trying 50 variations of lighting or scene design before arriving at something that fits in the piece. I’m usually doing all the post production too, but i never have enough time for that…
One of your first animations you shot with clay was a short film called “The Color Keeper” for the Pierrepont Short Film Festival. What led you to working with clay, and what was your first impressions of working with clay animation? What do you enjoy about the process?
I’d always wanted to try it. Will Vinton’s Claymation Christmas special was on constant rotation for about 7 years every december at my house when we were kids. I was in New York in the spring and decided to give it a try. I loved sculpting and re-sculpting until I had something that i liked, the clay was so soft that it made it easy to shape something. I started to make a character and as I did it started to take the form of a security guard janitor, so i decided to write a little story based on him and keep adding little details. I had done some stop motion and pixelation before but this was my first attempt at animating a clay character. It was tough to animate though because the clay I had used was very soft, so he began to break apart as I animated. I made that in a bout a week and a half, it was a fun experience so I kept trying things and experimenting. And I pitched a similar technique to the Fleet Foxes for a music video.
I think one of my favorite videos is “White Winter Hymnal,” for the band the Fleet Foxes—also clay stop motion. Can you talk about this experience? How long did the entire process take?
The entire process took 2 months. We spent about a month and a half building the sets, and characters then about 2 weeks to shoot. It was pretty intense. I spent most of two months in our basement studio most hours of the day and night, i became really obsessed with it. But it was definitely a collaborative experience. I worked with 2 Seattle animators Chris Rodgers and Britta Johnson, whom I could not have made the video without the help of. I sculpted the prototype puppets and handed those off to Chris who turned them into the puppets you see in the video. I worked with Joy Andrews on making the clothing for each character, and Tom Troisch on building the forest. Spent a lot of time scavenging around for sticks and shrubs to build the forest. Britta, Toby and I made the giant spinning sky which took a few variations to get right, and then much experimentation to get the streaking effect while we were animating. The production was intense but it was the most fun I’ve had working on a project so far.
The concept of “White Winter Hymnal” is a sort of time-turning-backwards retrogression via a magical crank. Its sort of a poetic life lived in reverse and the fleeting nature of life and age and nature and the forces of the universe. It sort of beautifully complements the cyclical nature of the song, as well. Can you talk about your particular vision for this video?
The reversing of time by an old man using a crank was the initial concept for the video, which I thought would complement the round-like vocal structure of the song. Rather than trying to follow the lyrics of the song I wanted to match the mood that the song left me with, it’s a beautiful and tragic song, the record is full of references to nature and time and I thought it would fit in that vein if we were able to play with time in such a way. It’s a short song, I think if it was any longer it would have been harder to stretch the simple actions far enough, but it ended up being just the right amount of story and technique.
You also completed another video for Fleet Foxes—”He Doesn’t Know Why.” The vibe is very 1960’s, folk organic sepia-tone. Then the inclusion of a pack of goats—why these animals? What was the shoot like with all these animals? How was it filmed?
Yeah, we wanted to have that feel. We referenced an old canadian music show where it was a guest performing a song in a very odd scenario that seemed like it was from a movie that never existed. The shoot with the goats was pretty hilarious. They’re gentle creatures and were good about only eating what they were supposed to, but they really go to the bathroom quite often. We had a team of about 6 people with the job of sweeping up goat shit all day, thank you guys. We shot on super 16mm film in a small converted military bunker on Vashon Island near Seattle, with a small lighting package and some dolly track in about 8 hours in September. And the reason for the goats was that we couldn’t get 100 cats in one room without killing each other.
“When You Grow Up,” is a kind of modern day, retro-futuristic Jack and the Beanstock type of video—what was your inspiration behind this film? You said you created it in 3 days! That must’ve been a quick shoot?
Yeah that was a very quick shoot. Our main inspiration was let’s see what we can make in 3 days. We wanted it to have a retro sci fi feel to it, we really just quickly grabbed what we could around the block and studio and developed the style from there. It was made by a small team of us called Milk. Jonathan Baab, Tae Rhee, Aki Baab and Joy Andrews all worked really hard on it, and I co-directed with Matt Daniels, my brother Robin made the music for it. The film wouldn’t have the feel it does without that track. We showed Robin a rough cut after the second day, and he went away for a couple hours and came back with the finished track. But it was a fun shoot, there’s something about having a tiny window of time to do something that forces you to make decisions and stick to them, even if they’re bad ones.
You also recently completed a cut paper animation for the Fleet Foxes song “Mykonos.” The making of video shows how much work went into arranging, shooting, designing this shoot—can you talk about how it was working in this fashion?
I have wanted to try the glass plane animation technique for a very long time. I did some early experiments with simple geometric shapes forming masks and faces using symmetry, and showed the tests to the band and kept adding things to it. I really wanted to set up everything with paper but light it like I would light a 3d object so it has depth to it. Once the scenes were kind of sketched out I worked with Jesse Brown a graphic designer/artist who built all the structures in the video. I had been a fan of his geometric paintings for a while, and this was a great collaboration with him. My girlfriend Toby and friend Chris helped run the reference software many, many late nights during the month long shoot. I remember the first night I rode my bike home at a reasonable hour after the shoot and saw humans walking around and cars speeding by, it was kind of a shock. You forget about the world outside when you spend a month in a dark cave in a basement. But I really enjoyed the technique, I liked being able to stand up and look straight down. I feel like that’s the way interacting with computer animation programs should evolve. I hate sitting at a computer screen and staring straight ahead and clicking a little mouse. I think with the development of touch screen technology there will be some really cool ways to interact with animation programs in the next couple years.
It seems like working with stop motion animation requires a ton of patience—are there ever times where you’re frustrated? Or is it an enjoyable process for you?
For the most part it’s an enjoyable process. On the Mykonos video, the shot that had me almost crying was when the triangles fall through a screen of eyeballs and they all look at him as he falls. Because everything was just kind of floating freely on the glass, and everytime I moved the pupils the eyeballs would move slightly out of place and so it was a pretty painstaking 5 hours for a 2 second shot. But yeah it does require a fair amount of patience. I will hopefully someday attempt a project that really requires a lot of patience, where one shot takes weeks. Right now these projects are always so rushed that I really start to get into the groove of things when it’s time to deliver. When you are animating time speeds by, guess if it’s a boring thing to someone I’m sure doing one shot would feel like an eternity. But I love it. I’ve never had much patience for other thing but, for this I do…
Who are some of your favorite artists and musicians, and what do you admire about their work?
Winsor Mccay, one of the early animation pioneers, made some amazing cell animation. The title designer/animator Pablo Ferro, i love the quick cut editing style he pushed on his work in the 60s and 70s. Blu is doing some astounding wall painting animations now, i love how they develop and the trails they leave behind, so fun to watch. Yuri Norstein’s shorts are remarkable, the characters, the movement, sound, everything. David Byrne, Judee Sill, The Kinks, The Books, Henry Darger, Ira Glass, Woody Allen, Warhol, Jim Henson, Charlie Kauffman. And my family and our friends who make music and art in Seattle. I admire anyone who is not afraid to express the way they see the world.
What’re some of your next ideas/projects?
A project called Psst Pass It On is about to premiere featuring a stop-motion short film that my friend Matt Smithson and I made together. My friend Ryan Rothermel and I are working on a short film for a design conference in New York called F5. And I have a music video and a narrative short in development. Also Matt and I curate an animation dvd called Supervideografen, with a mixture of found and original pieces from artists around the world. And this spring we are releasing a print version of that called Papergrafen. The idea is to encourage storytelling of all kinds and share it with people. And I really want to collect short animations and videos from the last 100 years and project them somewhere deep underneath the earth where a future civilization could find, so I guess like a motion time capsule. That’d be pretty cool I think.