Friday, November 18, 2011

PES by Numbers

PES, photo courtesy of

Currently based in L.A., the stop-motion animator/director PES first established his career in NYC where he became an important fixture of the local indie animation scene. PES represented a new type of indie animator, one whose creativity and ambition was matched by his savvy in self-promotion utilizing new media. Just as Bill Plympton broke ground by tapping into new markets such as MTV and tournées like Spike and Mike in the late 80s and early 90s, in the new century PES became the darling of viral videos that spread via e-mails, his website, and later on YouTube.

I miss the guy and his energy, so today I thought I’d share PES’s complete essay written in 2005 for use my first book. Enjoy!

“I shot my first film when I was 25. It was live-action and it was a short film, precisely 48 seconds long. It was more like a commercial than a traditional short film, with fast-paced editing and a surprise ending.

I spent 700 dollars on it and called in lots of post-production favors. I had to figure it out from the ground up. I wrote it, directed it, produced it, cast it, did the costumes, built models to create my own effects in-camera and I even borrowed a 16 mm camera to shoot it. My goal was to discover, in a relatively low risk scenario, whether or not I enjoyed the process of making a film enough to continue doing it.

At the time I was working in a large advertising agency in New York City. It was my first job after college. I was a “creative assistant,” in other words, a glorified secretary to an ad executive on the creative side. This means I had gotten m y foot in the door in a fun place to work, but that was about it. I was at the bottom of the totem pole. My days were spent doing menial tasks like booking flights and making popcorn in the reception area. Stuff you could do with your eyes closed. But at least I was getting paid, and I had lots of time to devote to developing some of my own ideas.

The advertising agency was great for many things, one of which was RESOURCES. There were people, machines, tape stock -- anything and everything you could think of -- tens of thousands of dollars worth of goods and services.

Another interesting thing about being in the advertising agency creative department was that I was surrounded by creative content from all over the world: commercials, short films, music videos, print advertisements and posters. I looked at everything in my spare time and was definitely influenced by it. I was drawn to the short storytelling format of comm ercials. A simple idea, you’re in and you’re out. Leave a viewer with a thought, make them laugh, but more than anything: get their attention. Show them something they’ll never forget. The big lesson I learned from advertising is that short can be powerful.

After I made my first film (the 48 second “Dogs of War”) I promoted it to advertising press sources. I slapped a logo on the end and called it a “spec commercial,” a term used in advertising to refer to commercials that were not commissioned but are useful in getting a director paying work within the industry. The press sources ate my film up, even though it wasn’t a commissioned job.

Calls from agents and commercial production companies looking for up-and-coming directors started coming in: What else do you have? And when can I see it? What’s your next project? Can you send me your reel? Unfortunately I had only those 48 seconds to my name.

The title card from "Whittlin' Wood," demonstrates how the filmmaker's signature design sense makes it to every aspect of his work.

I planned my next films. The second was another live-action short film shot in a desert that could also function as a “spec commercial”. I called this idea “Whittlin’ Wood.” The third film was a little idea about two chairs that have sex on a New York City rooftop. It was to be an animation with objects. Two life-size chairs would need to move inch-by-inch on a real rooftop. I knew immediately had to quit my job in order to make these films because I would need lots of time to shoot the second one, “Roof Sex.” On top of that I had to teach myself how to animate.

I took out 8 credit cards and quit my job. This was a scary leap, but necessary for me. It was the moment I placed all my faith in my own ideas and myself.

I learned more about filmmaking in that year than any time at school could have taught me. I thought very hard about all my shots, and about how the films would play out. I considered many options for every scenario, choosing the ones that made the most sense to me. Since I was spending the only money I had access to, I had to make absolute sure both these films were good. A dud was out of the question. I never really believed in learning by making mistakes. My feeling was, if you think hard enough through an idea, and if you have a genuine feel for the medium, you can avoid simple pitfalls that a less-prepared filmmaker might make.

One of the reasons I was drawn to start making films in a shorter format was that I felt I could have a better chance of making a great film all-around, with fewer compromises than I might have been forced to make on a larger film (given the financial constraints I was working with). So very early on I decided that for me a great 1-minute film was going to be 100 times more valuable than a mediocre 5-minute film. I believed in the inherent value of great short content, especially in an increasingly internet-savvy world.

At the time I also wanted to get up and ru nning as a commercial director so that I could make money to finance future personal projects. Commercials were always how I planned on making my bread and butter. It was where the big money was, and I knew that from the very beginning. But aside from money, I knew commercials would be great for experimenting with techniques and equipment, working with A level Hollywood cinematographers and art directors, getting valuable experience directing large crews. As an added bonus, if you were lucky (and talented) you even might make something that gets absorbed into the bloodstream of popular culture. Above all, I felt commercials and music videos were a logical entrée to getting larger projects such as a feature off the ground sometime down the road.

Check out this still from Roof Sex. Anyone can drag some furniture on a roof, but how many can compose a shot like this? PES's cinematography paints the city scape as if he designed the buildings himself.

How/why I started doing animation
Now I went back to the drawing table. At this point I will remind you that I had only done one animated film, this was not my “thing” yet. I had made Roof Sex ® because it was funny and I loved the idea of furniture porn, not because I wanted to make an animated film. I taught myself how to animate because I had a clear vision for this film and I didn’t want anyone else to fuck it up. I had to do it myself in order to be 100% certain it was exactly how I wanted it. However, the process of creating Roof Sex was so exciting for me that it was like opening up a chamber in my brain stuffed with hundreds of ideas about objects and now I wanted to make them all. Like Steinback said, ‘First you have one rabbit. Then you have a hundred.”

Only thing was, that credit card debt was eating all my money and I had literally nothing to make my new films with. This turns out to have been the next critical juncture for me: I would start making the cheapest of these ideas first. I called up the armies of household objects, small stuff: peanuts, seashells, binder clips, and other assorted ≥ household objects. The more films I could make the better. I pushed myself. In no time I began to create several films with animated objects, some as short as 10 seconds. I was just following some of my ideas, within the realm of what I could afford to make. All this work was very experimental; I was really just playing around. Stop-motion animation just happened to be the best method for this crop of ideas, not the only type of film I ever wanted to make. But I persisted.

The next important decision I made was to create a website where my films could have a home. Sarah my girlfriend was key in this process. She learned basic html and we put it up ourselves in a couple of weeks. I called it, and I offered my films up for free. The idea was to do something simple, focusing on the work.
On my website I posted my short animations along with Roof Sex. “Roof Sex” drew thousands of people to my site instantly, sin ce it already had a life of its own.
Furniture Fornication as art, in "Roof Sex."

Traffic on my site began to climb over the following months, completely by word of mouth. People came to the site looking for “Roof Sex” and discovered a body of work, lots of ideas and executions. Films I had made 2 years before were now seen in the context of everything else I had made. This is very valuable to people out there because you suddenly leap from being a one hit wonder in the public’s eyes to an artist with a particular style and distinct point of view. This “fingerprint” is really the most valuable asset you have. It’s what makes people want to work with you.

On Film Festivals
Annecy 2002 is when my life started to change. Roof Sex took a top prize for BEST FIRST FILM at Annecy. Overnight it became one of the most talked about films in the world. When we returned home to NYC the fax machine was flooded with papers and my first instinct was, what the hell happened here. But i t turned out to be licensing agreements for “Roof Sex”: TV channels all over the world had seen Roof Sex at Annecy and wanted to run it on TV. Better yet, they were offering to pay. I was dazzled by the requests – there was a genuine desire out there for short content. It confirmed everything I had been feeling when I first decided that short and memorable was the way to go.

On Promotion
If you have something new to say, it’s only half the job to make it: you have to get it out there. Otherwise, you don’t give it a chance to have an impact and you lose out on the opportunity to experience any benefit the film may bring you. Promotion is a very important part of the equation.

This weird thing happens when people get familiar with your work. They think they know you. They talk about you on a first name basis. For better or for worse, people start seeing you as a kind of brand: your taste, the ideas you make, the way you tell a story, the pacing you set. This is your fingerprint. People latch onto your name as a symbol that stands for the combined identity of all these things. “Have you heard of this guy PES?” “Oh he’s the guy who did that Nike thing…” or “Oh, the chair guy…” "That’s very PES," stuff like that. I believe it’s very important for artists to carve out their identities in the marketplace, really develop a distinct voice. When someone who's not involved in film knows about you, they want to see your next films. These are the people who enjoy your films for sheer entertainment value. When advertising, music video, television, and film people know about you, they enjoy your films but they also keep you in mind for future commissioned projects. Unless you have a trust fund an/ or are happy getting paid outside the industry, this is valuable turf for you. Do not underestimate the value here. It’s only a matter of time before they bite.

So, after a couple of rollercoaster years of making films and promoting them in both the film and advertising industries, I finally got my opportunity to direct legitimate commissioned work. And this is working out great for me. It’s exactly as I thought it would be. Some projects are great and others are just so-so. But they all help finance my personal projects, which I rely on for my own artistic satisfaction. I haven’t had any terrible experiences with commercials so far. They are collaborations, and sometimes the creative compromises you make along the way (the client technically owns the film) are a bit depressing, but at the end of the day it’s just a commercial."

1 comment:

Charles Kenny said...

What a great essay. There's plenty of great advice and quotes in there from a guy who's not only super nice, but is clearly deserving of all his success too.

Thanks for posting Dave. :)