Artist Profile / Sean Pecknold
Interview by Sarah Hartigan for Dragonframe
Sean Pecknold appreciates the simplicity of geometrical shapes, enjoys lighting paper (not on fire), and finds inspiration for his projects while in motion, preferably on a bike. While best known for his music videos for Fleet Foxes, his prolific work extends into directing films, photography, animation, and broadcast content.
SARAH: Is this about animation or just life?
SARAH: I was watching the trailer for A Nice Day For A Walk To The End on your website, can you tell me a little about that?
SEAN: So, I had done a seven-month stretch of animating from April through October. My friend and collaborator Matt Daniels (mattd.co) and I decided to take a month-long trip to Europe.” We knew we were going to stop in Iceland. We went to this beautiful place on the southern coast and wandered around and took photos and continued to Europe. I had been in the animation cave for seven months, so it felt really good to be out. We knew that we maybe wanted to shoot something, but we were also having a good time just traveling and taking pictures. I heard Berlin was a cool place and decided to get an apartment there and shoot something. We were getting breakfast, and I came up with the idea of making the film about someone who moved to Berlin on a quest to find meaning in his life. We didn’t have money to make the project, so I knew we had to do something that was resourceful. We found a filmmaking site and found a fixer, a local guy who spoke a bit of German, who was our sound guy. It was mostly improvised, maybe a five or six-page outline, but that was basically it. I knew, because we went to Iceland and it was so beautiful, that we wanted to go back and shoot some of it there. The plan was to shoot a bunch of interviews in Berlin and then go back to Iceland and shoot this dream-world sequence there. By the time we got back to Iceland it had snowed and there was a huge blizzard. It was different than when we were there a couple weeks before but it was insanely beautiful. We went back to the same place, this black sand beach and it was still a crazy blizzard, but we shot in that. In the teaser, there’s a shot of that. But then the next morning there was an insane calm, and we shot a scene on the beach where this guy meets this Cat God.
It was an experimental documentary. The shooting was great but when we got back, we were unsure of what to do with the project. We both started working on other projects. It was one of those things where we could have just moved on but I really wanted to finish it, and I’m glad we did. It was nice for me to have spent a couple years animating and then to get out and shoot some live action and just mix it up with different mediums. It was a fun project, and I’m glad I was able to get some animation in it. I was in it, and I don’t think I want to continue doing that, but it was almost something I would actually do in real life if I were bummed out in my career, not that I was, but it made sense for it to be me. Some people would do a project like that and not want to show anyone because they’re embarrassed of themselves or of the experimental nature of it, but I’m glad we shared it.
SARAH: Have you had any screenings of it?
SEAN: We didn’t have any screenings of it. It would have been fun to have shown some clips and get a good reaction. It’s a different experience between showing something in a theater where people are sitting captive and knowing people are watching it online or assuming people are watching it online. It’s the same thing with shorts and animation. It’s so much cooler to be at a place and see it on a big screen and gauge the reaction.
SARAH: Can you speak a little about A Study in Time Travel.
SEAN: It’s an ensemble cast of characters. It’s about a twelve-minute film, but originally it was going to be longer. I made it because I wanted to explore these different scenes I was imagining happening in a fictional Los Angeles. We had a house rented for a few days and I had an outline written of which scenes I wanted. We knew which people we wanted, and I would have them come in and then I would write; I would adapt the character to the scene outline I had. There’s kind of a loose thread of this kid moving in out of these moments. Like he’s controlling and traveling through these characters. He eventually finds his older self in the old man. I loved that experience, It allowed me to work with my friend Zia Mohajerjasbi as my DP, whose work I’ve loved for a long time, and his lighting and cinematic sensibilities are very much in line with mine.”
SEAN: I like to light everything like I light my animation, I like to back off. Simple or sometimes complex but moody and interesting. I spend a lot of time lighting stuff. I just did the lighting workshop at CalArts, and it was hard to describe because sometimes you don’t even know what you’re doing. It’s not a science. Every director is different. If you watch something, you might not care how it was lit.
SARAH: But it tells a lot of the story. Sometimes I wish I had someone following me around lighting everything. Life would be so much better.
SEAN: Yeah, sometimes you’re at a nice place, a restaurant, and if the lighting is bad, it makes for a bad meal or a bad date. Lighting is so key. I think that is the only reason anyone ever liked my animation. No one is going to be blown away by the animation but if the animation is okay and the lighting is great, then it is watchable.
SARAH: Music is another big component in your work.
SEAN: It’s interesting doing music videos and especially with animation. It’s really fun to map out a song and map out a story to a song. It’s a great exercise to do. I loved having songs and figuring out what could happen in each section.
SARAH: What’s your process for making a music video?
SEAN: I usually listen to the music over and over again. I have to be moving, on a subway or a train, or preferably a bike. I have better ideas when I’m moving because everything is changing. It’s nice to rest, but I don’t feel that inspired when I’m sitting. It usually starts with some physical action I want to tie in. My first animation, it was this pixilation of real humans in animation, came from me pushing my bike up a really steep hill in Seattle and I thought it would be cool to see a guy being yanked around town by this bicycle. I flushed out a story behind that. Some people start with a grand idea for a story, but I usually start with a smaller part, which is good for animation.
SARAH: Do you go over the idea with the band you’re working with?
SEAN: I’ve worked with a few bands, and it’s different each time. With my brother’s band, Fleet Foxes, it’s usually just us talking about some ideas and then sharing those with the band. We’d talk about stuff naturally. We grew up knowing the same visual inspirations. With other bands, sometimes I’ll just do tests and show that.
“With my brother’s band, Fleet Foxes, it’s usually just us talking about some ideas and then sharing those with the band.”
SARAH: Is it fun working with your brother?
SEAN: Yeah, it is fun. It can be challenging to mix work and family, but I just loved his approach to music. He always inspired me when I was doing stuff. We pushed each other. When he was forming a band, I was starting to do more film stuff. It was probably because of the collaboration that people were able to see my work. He did the score for that live action short, A Study in Time Travel, so the collaboration continues.
SARAH: Do you want to go for walk?
SEAN: Yeah, let’s go for a walk. It’s so mellow here in Ojai. I bet you can really focus on stuff here or is it harder? Sometimes it’s easier to focus in busier environments for me. Like in a big city. LA is kind of in between. It’s a bigger city but also mellow. I think I prefer more stimulation. I can’t write at home; I can’t focus at home.
SARAH: Where did you go to school?
SEAN: I went to school, but it wasn’t a good experience. I went to school for TV, but it wasn’t pertinent to what I wanted to do. I probably would’ve loved an art school, but I don’t think I had the confidence to get into one. After my not so great college experience, I went to Europe, and I sat on a train and I read books that I wanted to read and that’s when I started really opening my eyes because I got out of my comfort zone. I think anytime a kid can go travel when they are young, or even take a break after high school, they’ll be better off. But now you can learn stuff on your own, that’s what is so amazing about the Internet. You can teach yourself whatever you want to learn, and you can figure out how to do it online.
SARAH: How do you plan films?
SEAN: Before I do a stop-motion, I do an animatic in after effects to get the timings and sometimes I’ll even cut out the characters. But I get to a point where I just want to start. Starting and moving the real stuff is always so much more fun. Sometimes I improvise while I’m animating. If I don’t know the next shot, I’ll figure that out while doing the current shot. A lot of people don’t work this way. Sometimes I have the beginning and end, but the middle I’m figuring out.
SARAH: Let’s talk about the technical side of animation for a minute. Filmmaking, particularly animation, has a lot of technical aspects. Is there an area of that side that you are drawn to?
SEAN: Probably the picture taking. I guess that’s why I got into animation. When I was in high school, I took a ton of pictures but didn’t do much with them. Later, when I got a digital camera, I would just take pictures all day long. It felt to me, in high school, like something other people did. Animation, or even pursuing the arts, was a career. Like you had to be an amazing illustrator from day one. Photography really led me to animation. Animation was just that, put the camera down and make some stuff move around. It’s the most primitive of the crafts. You’re a kid playing with toys but slowed down and doing it frame by frame. I loved setting up the camera and lighting was the same thing, it was a bit of the cinematography aspect of it that I was really drawn to. Britta Johnson, a Seattle-based animator, who’s worked with me on countless animations, was also big reason why I decided to pursue stop-motion, I had seen her work, and thought it was so cool, and luckily was able to hire her on the first music video I made, and since then she’s taught me so much about animation and life. She’s the best.
If we are talking about the craft or technique, I was into editing because my Dad was an editor and a designer. I got that visual side from him. He was really good at rhythmically cutting to music. He was also a musician and a guitar builder.
I got into story telling through editing. I worked on some documentaries and did some TV shows when I was twenty-two and twenty-three. But then I realized I don’t like sitting at a desk. I’m probably the least technical stop-motion artist. There are some artists that really dwell on the technical craft of it. I prefer stuff that you can tell it’s stop-motion. I like knowing it’s stop-motion. Like Fantastic Mr. Fox, it’s beautiful but you can see the human hand in it, whereas sometimes that is removed too much. It felt real, and that couldn’t have been a CG.
SARAH: What were your favorite films as a kid?
SEAN: Toy Story, Will Vinton’s A Claymation Christmas Celebration, Field of Dreams, and The Shawshank Redemption. Those four movies I remember watching so much because they were some of the only VHS tapes we owned because they had been damaged somehow and we weren’t able to return them to the video store. I know they’re an odd pairing. I also loved the Disney movies growing up, like The Lion King and Aladdin, the 90’s era before they stopped doing the hand-drawn features. It is so hard to pick a favorite. There was great story telling in Shawshank and even in Field of Dreams. I actually showed a couple of clips from those films in my CalArts presentation. And they’re both about something similar: Don’t give up on your dreams. I loved Spielberg movies, E.T., and I was a big Terry Gilliam fan growing up, like The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It wasn’t until later that I realized that Terry Gilliam started as a stop-motion animator. He was doing all the papercut stuff from Monty Python. I thought that was a cool way to get into filmmaking. Yuriy Norshteyn multiplane stuff is what I wanted to do because I had done some after effects in the same vein and I remember someone telling me to check him out. I had some characters that looked similar. When I saw it, I was like this is amazing. It blew my mind. It was a big animation inspiration. I saw him speak at USC. I’d already done some animation stuff, and he had been working on this film for twenty-five years that he showed some clips of. It was simple, but it was the most beautiful thing that you’d ever seen.
“I think you have to get a little crazy, to do something great and that you love. You have to lose yourself.”
I don’t watch as many movies as I should. I feel like I’d rather be making movies. Although, I love seeing a great movie and talking about it with people and dissecting it. I love the art form, but I’ve probably only seen half of the movies I should’ve seen. There’s only so much time you have on this earth. So do you want to watch everything or do everything? If I’m animating, I go deep into the animation cave, and I don’t really watch anything. It has to be all-encompassing. I know other animators who are the same way. Your perception of time changes. Days can go by really fast, even though you are doing something very tedious and slow, the days can go and go because you’re having so much fun. So I’ve gone months and months without coming up for air. The longest film I did was The Shrine film, and that took the longest because it was the longest animation. I think I took one weekend off, in all of those months, and I like working like that. I like to work hard for two or three months, and then not. It’s hard to treat your work casually. Even when you’re hanging out with friends, you’ll be thinking about the studio, and you won’t be fully there. I think you have to get a little crazy, to do something great and that you love. You have to lose yourself.
SARAH: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve worked on?
SEAN: Sometimes the experience of a project is incredible, and everything about it is incredible, but then the end product is not as great. I do look at The Shrine video as a challenge, but I loved it. I still love the process of it. I loved being in the studio every day and working until five a.m., being in that zone completely and then watching the end product years later and still taking something from it. Being proud of it even if I have imperfections or faults with it, I’ll still take it as a whole. Sometimes I like the short and contained projects, that are done completely, because you don’t have time to develop a weird relationship with it. I think there is beauty in brevity. You really have to choose those words or frames wisely.
SEAN: No, but I loved geometry. I was watching a lot Sesame Street, and it was a lot of shapes. It was so simple because they only had a week to do whatever they were doing. I was drawn to that. For me, that shape video, the Mykonos video that I did, was just two triangles. That was a big time constraint. I was thinking of a character, but I didn’t have time to animate a full character. I was like, what do you need to tell the story? And it was two feet as triangles and the world around that. That was such a fast video; it was a month.
I love shapes, colors, and patterns. Maybe that’s why I fell in love with paper because it is lightweight. I love lighting paper. You can make something really simple and inexpensive.
SARAH: What else have you been up to this year?
SEAN: In early 2015 I received an art grant from the art and technology company VSCO, and have used it to make two new short animations, one out of clay and the out of paper. It’s been a great collaboration with Art Director Adi Goodrich who designed the sets and has been a collaborator on it throughout the animation process. We’ve been running a small studio in Chinatown over the past year, collaborating with our friends on film, animation, and music video projects. You can check out her rad work here: http://www.adigoodrich.com
SARAH: Thank you for taking the time to speak to us about your work and the life that surrounds it. It has been a pleasure.
Behind the scenes of Walking:
Awards and Accomplishments:
VSCO Artist Initiative Grant Recipient 2015 (Visual Supply Company)
Best Animation at UKMVAs (UK Music Video Awards) (Shrine)
Special Jury Prize – SXSW (White Winter Hymnal)
Vimeo Award Nominee (Mykonos)
Vimeo Award Finalist – Best Music Video (Shrine)
ADC Young Gun Winner – (Art Directors Club)
Animations for BBC & NYTimes.