The innovative director discusses his unique brand of object-based stop-motion filmmaking.
Since his film Roof Sex burst on the scene in 2002, PES has built a career around pairing everyday objects with seemingly unrelated activities in clever, often humorous and always thoughtful stop-motion films and commercials. Through a combination of word play, iconic imagery and whimsy, PES creates very short but very complex films, deftly mixing numerous subtle and brash ideas into a highly orchestrated audience experience. Tens of millions of people have watched his films online over the years, with more than 3.5 million views alone of Fresh Guacamole in its first four days online.
I recently had a chance to talk to PES about his work, his filmmaking style, his Oscar nomination and using grenades in the kitchen.
Dan Sarto: How did you come up with the idea for Fresh Guacamole?
PES: Well, these ideas usually have a long gestation period. I love objects. I love thinking about objects. This is just the way I think. My films are just an expression of real thoughts that have amused me over time or that I encounter or come up with at random moments. There’s usually a moment or a single idea around which I structure an entire film. An idea that I essentially fall in love with.
Here’s an example from my film Western Spaghetti. My mother grew up in an Italian family, she’s a great cook, makes tons of great Italian food. My mother was always a stickler for pasta being cooked “al dente.” She used to say, “Great pasta should be firm and never rubbery.” Dozens of years later, I was in Staples and I see they sell giant bags of rubber bands. I’m thinking, “Great pasta should be firm and never rubbery” and here is a bag of rubber bands that looks exactly like cooked spaghetti. Then I had this notion, if that’s cooked spaghetti then what’s the uncooked spaghetti? You search your brain and you come up with the idea of pickup sticks. Great, now I have the core ingredient for making spaghetti. How can I build it out? What looks like boiling water but also carries the connotations of “bubbling?” Bubble wrap. I’m not saying it [coming up with these ideas] all happens in ten minutes. Some of the ideas come immediately and some of them are stewed on for months, even years.
So as far as Fresh Guacamole, again it comes back to a single idea I’ve always had when I walk into a food store. I see a pile of avocados. I’ve always had this little fantasy of grabbing one and throwing it and blowing a whole store up. So the idea of grenades as avocados is a very old idea for me. I hoarded this idea for years thinking that I could potentially use it somewhere.
PES: Then I decided, “Alright…grenade, avocado…what’s the dish? Guacamole! What else do you make with avocado? That’s the central ingredient.” And then, of course, just like Western Spaghetti, I played it out from there trying to fill in the blanks. There is always the right time to make a film I think and it’s not always “now.” They need to bake in the oven. I don’t put out a ton of content. I try to focus on making small but re-watchable and well-considered films. A friend remembers me talking about avocados as grenades back in 2004.
DS: Where do you come up with such innovative metaphorical ideas for the materials you use to animate?
PES: I used to carry a little paper and pen all around. Now I carry a camera and an iPhone. When I’m searching for objects I’m always finding ideas at places like flea markets. But I’m also just writing ideas.
DS: It must be difficult to find the right object all the time.
PES: Sometimes in these cooking films there’s an ingredient that’s a real challenge because there’s no obvious look alike. Part of the pleasure of making a film like this is that you stretch people’s imagination. It’s a little bit like a puzzle where not everything is a perfect look alike. The audience has to define the connection and identify the object through different means.
So for instance in Western Spaghetti, I did come up against a wall finding a substitute for garlic. Think how you rip off a clove of garlic with your thumb. You apply pressure to a head of garlic until it snaps [off a clove]. And I remembered when I was growing up in the 80s that’s what we cheaters used to do with the Rubik’s Cube. We used to apply pressure to that corner cube until it came apart and then we rearranged it. So even though a Rubik’s Cube looked nothing like garlic, through that [snapping] action there is a connection. Obviously the sound effects helped to sell it as well.
PES: Some objects are pure lookalikes and some carry different associations and connotations. Sometimes there’s wordplay going on, as in the case of dicing an onion using real dice. It’s interesting because dice are the only objects that appear in both films. I used dice as sugar cubes in Western Spaghetti. Then I had a better idea to use them as “dicing something” to play on that word pun. That’s one of the reasons why I felt like making a second iteration of a [cooking] film which I’ve never done in all of my work. I’ve got sequels that are written for almost all of my films, like Roof Sex and Game Over. For a lot of these films I had plans to do multiples, but then I just moved off them into new stuff.
DS: I’m sure you have no shortage of new ideas.
PES: Yeah. Making Western Spaghetti was the first time I had a lot of [related] ideas to keep going here and explore. So that’s why I figured I could take the liberty where dice can be a sugar cube and a diced onion in two different films.
DS: Have you had a situation where an object you thought would really work was just so difficult to animate that it forced you to use something different?
PES: Well, the first shot in Fresh Guacamole was always intended to be a knife because the film is really about a knife. Western Spaghetti is about cooking objects and Fresh Guacamole is really about cutting and mashing objects. So like a good topic sentence, the first shot is chosen to be the subject of the film. That’s why it’s the sharpening of a knife. Originally, I really wanted to get some sparks in there to create a little extra visual flair. But once I experimented with different things I wasn’t happy with any of them. So, I abandoned that idea and figured the simple sound of sharpening a knife that looks this big and terrifying is okay. Occasionally there are little things that I am not happy with or struggle with.
DS: So how long did it take to make this film?
PES: About four months from start to finish. And that’s just production.
PES: I work on these ideas for years and then once I decide to go I start collecting the objects. Occasionally, I collect things along the way that I know I’m going to use. I bought that cutting board a while ago because it was a once in a lifetime kind of object. I’ve never seen one as cool as that. In Fresh Guacamole that giant cutting board was like two hundred years old.
DS: I cook so I can appreciate how cool that board is.
PES: Yeah, the knife too. The knife I found searching on eBay. It’s a 200 year-old butcher’s knife hand made in Mexico.
DS: What type of setup do you use for filming?
PES: Just a straight forward setup. I used to use a LunchBox but now everything is done with Dragon. It’s not that it doesn’t have its annoying things, but it still has many more benefits. So the simple Dragon setup, a digital camera setup, captured still images, edited in Final Cut, sound design in Final Cut, then I take it to a final mix. That’s it. A tiny bit of retouching in Photoshop and we’re done.
DS: Primarily, don’t you do all the work on your films?
PES: Mostly. I do hire people for specific tasks. In Fresh Guacamole I had a co-animator named Dillon Markey. Those were my hands in the film and I needed someone there to manage the video feedback system and help with the animation when my hands were tied up in the shot. Which was usually all the time. With Western Spaghetti I had a different co-animator. They were both successful collaborations.
I do the sound design myself. There are very specific things that I hear where I think a certain sound will help connect with an image. Usually I have to go get that sound because it doesn’t exist in a library. Occasionally I make a film where all the sounds are pulled from a library. I did KaBoom, which was a little war film that’s clearly done with war sound effects. In 2010 I did a film called The Deep, which is a trip to the bottom of the ocean. All those were realistic sounds found in Hollywood sound libraries. But on films like Western Spaghetti and Fresh Guacamole you can’t just type “cutting an avocado” [into Google]. I mean it’s….
DS: There aren’t many libraries with sixty different iterations of cutting an avocado…
PES: Yeah. Also, it’s not uncommon for me to come across a sound effect where I figure, “Oh, I can definitely find a sound effect like flushing a toilet. There must be thousands of them. I’m sure I can find one that I like” and you surprise yourself that none of them are the sound that you have in your head that will work for an image. So sometimes you’re surprised at what you can and can’t get from a sound library.
DS: We’ve talked about this before. One of the unique things about your body of work is that your films are all extremely short. Have you considered any longer form projects?
PES: Yeah, absolutely. I’m developing two feature films right now.
DS: Can you tell us about these two projects?
PES: Yeah. Do you remember Garbage Pail Kids from the eighties?
PES: It turns out that Michael Eisner owns the rights. I pitched him my idea for that property and so we’re developing and he’s financing an animated feature film. I have another idea that I’m developing with Seth Grahame-Smith. He wrote Tim Burton's Dark Shadows and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. He also wrote the mashup novel Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. He’s now helping tweak an original concept of mine that hopefully we’re going to set up at a studio this year. So these are longer form ideas that I’m pursuing at the same time.
DS: That's a big change from a one minute short film.
PES: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. They’ll be character-based, which is also a big leap from my films. My films themselves draw a lot more from the heritage of advertising than from narrative storytelling. You have an idea and in thirty or sixty seconds you need to communicate that idea and hopefully some of that rubs off on your product. That format is not really about character development. It’s more about telling a joke or getting a certain idea across. My films don’t really have characters unless you consider an avocado going from whole to mush a character arc.
In my opinion a short can be even more powerful because if you can make something that people want to re-watch dozens of times it really allows you to connect. People are used to responding to these short format films because commercials have been a successful medium for fifty years. So our brain is already in tune with this idea of highly condensed storytelling.
DS: Do you think the Internet, social media and the viral nature of communication have played a part in the success of your films and the type of attention they get?
PES: Yeah, absolutely. But also it’s a little bit of the chicken or the egg because I was one of the first people releasing films online. First of all, people still think it’s crazy that I made a one minute film, do you know what I mean? I remember in 2002 people thought it was ridiculous that a one minute film took an award in Annecy. From the very beginning I was always really into making short and re-watchable things. If I do my job correctly, you peer through this keyhole and you see something special you can’t forget.
Whenever I went to film festivals, I always felt people’s short films were too long. A three minute film that was one minute too long in my opinion was the equivalent of a person overstaying their welcome by one third of the time. My friends tell me I can be very, very harsh on a film. It’s like the same thing as reading scripts. If it doesn’t capture you in the first couple of pages you put it down. I feel like I’ve got a very low tolerance for films that don’t move, that are fat, that aren’t cut as leanly as possible. There are films that I like, that I feel could be stronger if they were tightened by a third. Sometimes I feel the impulse to edit other people’s films that I think are good.
DS: I agree that many films are far too long. I share your feeling that many films could be a lot leaner and their message could be delivered more succinctly and powerfully with better editing.
You mentioned that people gave you grief about a one minute film winning a major festival award. Do you still get criticized that because your films are so short, people equate that with being too “simple” and somehow not as deserving of recognition? That if it’s not a bigger film, not a longer film, then it’s somehow not as worthy a film as a more ponderous twelve minute opus that someone worked on for seven years in their basement?
PES: Yeah. That’s why the Academy recognition is really nice. In some sense I feel like people are finally coming around to voting for what they like. It’s nice to be included in that bunch [the animated short nominees]. This is a complicated question that I could probably talk about for hours. I feel that to make great art, you want something that appears simple to everyone but in fact is complex. The kind of hoops and technical stuff that I jump through for any of these films, I feel people understand that there is great complexity that goes into pulling off certain things.
What my films don’t do necessarily is they don’t traffic in human emotions, character development or arcs. Again, they’re more idea based. People go to feature films to be taken on an experience, a journey, to follow a character. But my own personal philosophy is that they also want something different that’s shorter. They can derive a lot of joy and satisfaction from something that’s short and re-watchable and has some depth to it.
I don’t go for re-watchability just so people watch the same thing over and over. I like the idea that there are things that people might miss the first time and if they watch again they discover some of the hidden things in the background. There are more layers there. But I’m kind of off in my own world just making films that make me laugh or make me satisfied as an artist. I just pursue what I feel I’d like to watch that I don’t see in the world. I don’t know if the general feeling is these are completely shallow films or frivolous films. I don’t really know.
DS: Well, it’s an interesting area of discussion because it gets to the heart of what’s a good film. How subjective that determination is. Yet, whenever you have a competition, you have some type of judgment criteria. Why is one film picked to win an Oscar over any other film? What makes a film “good” enough to win the Grand Prix in Annecy?
PES: Well, you know, having been a judge in Annecy, I kind of understand a little bit of the mechanics and psychology of judging. What goes into those discussions and how three new people each year chosen at random end up making decisions together.
DS: I’ve been on juries as well. It’s an interesting dynamic.
PES: I judged the Platform Festival in 2007 and Annecy in 2010. I was happy with where our decisions netted out. But I feel there is a real impulse, when judges get into a room, to discard the kind of films that I make, which aren’t heavy, that clearly don’t have a meaning and characters that are going through bad things. But I don’t feel that somehow the psychology of judging films means you want something more than something that just feels entertaining.
DS: I agree. I would also contend that though your films may be short, they’re not simple. There are a lot of layers to your films and it’s obvious there’s a tremendous amount of thought that goes into your films. I don’t see any wasted motion or wasted ideas in your films either.
PES: Oh, thanks. That's a great compliment.
DS: You're welcome. I think that's why your films are compelling, whether they are fifteen seconds long or a minute long. I don’t ascribe to the fact that unless a film is made according to some arbitrary recipe that it can’t be considered a good film. There are certainly much longer films that take tremendous effort at all levels. But that doesn’t necessarily mean I enjoy them more than any other film.
PES: We haven’t verified this yet, but it [Fresh Guacamole] may be the shortest film ever nominated. You know, I couldn’t be happier or prouder of the nomination. It’s a great honor to be recognized by the mainstream of film acknowledgement. It’s not bad that they [the Academy] have embraced a film like this that doesn’t have a lot of the things that we’ve always joked about Oscar films always having to have.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.