The celebrated stop-motion animator discusses his new short and Kickstarter adventure.
If any artist is emblematic of the hip, funny, contemporary Internet-savvy independent animation director, it’s PES. Since his Roof Sex hit the web in 2002, he’s produced a steady stream of unique, innovative and hilarious stop-motion shorts, culminating in a Best Animated Short Oscar-nomination for his last film, Fresh Guacamole. In fact, Fresh Guacamole has the distinction of being the shortest nominated film in history, clocking in at a mere 1:41.
His latest film, Submarine Sandwich, released this past Tuesday, is his third in a series of food-related films (Western Spaghetti being the first in the series). This time, PES has recreated the deli of his dreams, slicing up a unique array of culinary delights. In anticipation of the film’s release, we had an opportunity to talk about the production, his inaugural Kickstarter experience, and the challenges he faces every day as an independent short film director.
Dan Sarto: So, tell me about the new film and Kickstarter experience. You’re a vertically integrated marketing machine now!
PES: [Laughs] Yah! I’m still trying to figure out which is better – the old way or the new way! Working with Kickstarter, there’s just a lot more to do. It’s a machine.
DS: I’ve spoken with many folks who’ve run successful Kickstarter campaigns and many have said they never imagined they’d be required to do so much work that had nothing to do with creating their film. They had no idea what they were getting into. Many were not all entirely pleased with the process. They were forced to take on responsibilities that were not all to their liking. Primarily, they had to get quite aggressive promoting themselves and their work.
PES: We’ve had a really positive experience with Kickstarter. Sarah [Phelps, his wife] runs the business and I run the art. There was just a lot of additional work I had to do besides make the film.
DS: It’s hard work, it’s a lot of work and it doesn’t really end up on the screen.
PES: We did enough research to know that there were many common and troubling pitfalls. We were prepared. But that doesn’t mean we didn’t have to put in a huge amount of additional work. My past two films were done for Showtime. They gave me money, and all I had to do was make the film. Of course, that’s a lot of work as well. But, all I had to do was make sure I delivered that film appropriately and on time. In return, I gave them a licensing period to run it on the Showtime channel. I wasn’t allowed to run it on my own YouTube channel where my fan base is.
On one hand, I still owned the film and all the rights reverted to me after a year. Once the license was done, I put the film on my own website and continued to generate views. You couldn’t have hoped for a better outcome for a 1:40 second stop-motion short film. Showtime did ask me to try and create an eight-short series, but ultimately, they didn’t have money to fund my next film. So, we had to look elsewhere for money.
Nikon read an article, I think on AWN, where I explained I used Canon cameras with Nikon lenses. They approached me in March saying they’d like me to try using one of their cameras on my next film. I said, “Sure, send me one. I’ll play with it a little and try a few test shots.” They sent me the camera along with some very expensive lenses. So I threw it into a production and was quite happy with the results.
Their interest, and why they became such a great partner, was in me using their technology to shoot my film. They weren’t interested in owning the film. That was great for me, seeing as I’ve dedicated my career to building my own catalog of films. My whole approach is a long-term look at monetizing my films over time.
So Nikon provided this great 8K image resolution D810 camera and some additional sponsorship money with the stipulation I fund the rest of the film via Kickstarter. [Laughs] They were going to make me work for it.
DS: Yah, there’s no such thing as a free lunch. It’s the way of the world.
PES: They’ve been a wonderful partner. I can’t tell you how excited we are how well it worked out with these guys. That being said, we didn’t have enough money to shoot the film. We had to figure out where to get that additional financing that didn’t require giving someone else the right to put the film on their website for a year. With Fresh Guacamole, lots of people saw it on Showtime, but my fan base as a whole didn’t get to see the film for an entire year. It was a bit frustrating to see 8 million people watch Showtime content after viewing my film as opposed to viewing my library of work.
There are other positives when you release your film on your own channel. You get an uptick in subscribers. Plus, people discover all my old work, or experience it all over again.
So we launched our Kickstarter campaign. It was a bunch of work just to prep for the campaign. And it’s not like you launch and then kick back on the beach. Your work is just beginning.
The thing that was most different about this process, in some ways the hardest part, was sharing my idea with the world before making my film. I had to get people excited about the idea of my film. You can’t get people excited unless you talk “about” the idea. There’s only so much talking you can do “around” the idea. It was a big leap for me to give people a couple of the best ideas of the film before I even made the film.
DS: So now that the film is done, what are the next steps for its release?
PES: Now we put it online and hope it competes with Santa Claus [laughs].
DS: You have a huge fan base you’ve been cultivating for years. How to do “get” your film to them?
PES: Good question. It’s changed a lot. There’s no standard any more. We’re trying to evolve as everything is evolving. For a long time I didn’t do shit to promote my films. I would toil away in obscurity for months and then one day, I’d make the film live online. It would have its own trajectory, its own life. But we all know social networking has evolved considerably over the last six years. The marketplace is so cluttered with calls for attention that you begin to lose faith that people are going to discover your work.
I’ve always come up short in communicating with my fan base. Honestly, I’d work in the dark, one day put something online and say, “OK, there you go.” That was it. So Kickstarter is this machine where you’re forging relationships with your supporters. People are now talking about the film “before” it’s released as opposed to “after” it’s out there. That’s different than in the past when we’d hustle, hustle, hustle, make the film, release the film, and then tell people about it.
DS: So what’s unique about this film? What’s Submarine Sandwich about?
PES: When I made Western Spaghetti back in 2008, it was an experiment. Until I start making a film, I really don’t know if it will work. I thought, why don’t I make a cooking film but instead of using real ingredients, everything I use will be inedible. It became one of my best known films by the way people responded online. I discovered I really liked the format, the genre of the cooking film. [Laughs] I think about eating a lot. I had a bunch of other ideas in my head that ultimately became Fresh Guacamole. I’d go into a market and think a pile of avocados really looked like grenades.
So Submarine Sandwich is about a deli slicer. A couple years ago, I stumbled upon this amazing deli slicer in the Museum of Modern Art of all places. An exhibition on industrial design had this Hobart Streamliner deli slicer sitting on a pedestal. It was beautiful. Taking inspiration from the world around me, I thought, “What would I cut in that thing? What would my meat be?”
I immediately thought that a boxing glove would serve as a great Italian ham. That image of a boxing glove being put into a deli slicer was enough to ignite the idea of doing a third cooking film. It’s not that I look to do sequels for sequel sake. But I have so many ideas and it just so happens a lot of them center on food. Plus, I couldn’t leave it at two [food films]. I had to do a third.
DS: Lists come in threes. Joke setups come in threes. Celebrity deaths come in threes.
PES: And now my food films.
DS: All told, how long did the film take to produce?
PES: We launched the Kickstarter campaign in mid-July this year. That lasted a month. By mid-August we finished. You have to wait 15 days to actually get your money and you’re never sure if any pledges drop out until you actually get your money.
As far as personal films go, the scope of Submarine Sandwich is the largest I’ve ever done. It’s an entire space. The idea started out as a boxing glove on a deli slicer. But then it became, “Well wait, I need a meat case.” So we had this beautiful giant meat case shipped from Atlanta. Now I have a meat case. So, now I need more meat. And with more meat, now I need a real deli. Alright, so now we’re building a deli. Everything just kept getting bigger and bigger in terms of space. I built the deli of my dreams filled with all the things I wanted to have in it. No shitty film props. I bought equipment from all over the country.
DS: It’s safe to say that in all your films, every prop, every background, every little piece of something is deliberate. Nothing gets tossed in just because it’s convenient. There’s nothing trivial or frivolous about any of the components you use.
PES: I’m a firm believer that you can feel the authenticity of things. I could easily take images of items, blow them up and put them in the background. But it wouldn’t feel the same.
So as far as making the film, after we got funded, I did an animatic. That took a week. Of course there was a set build.
DS: Stop-motion animatic?
PES: Yep. When I have enough of the props to start fleshing it out, I do a simple animatic. A rough stop-motion film. That’s where I really experiment and make the film. Where I make many of the creative decisions. It becomes very clear, this is how I’ll start the film, this is what’s working, this is how many shots we’ll need, things like that. We ended up with 31 shots. And though things do change over the course of the production, I always refer back to the animatic. That wasn’t how I always shot films.
I worked again with Dillon Markey, who worked with me on Fresh Guacamole. He’s great. My hands are in the film again, so it’s only possible to do one shot a day, sometimes two. Sometimes a shot setup took two days. All together shooting took seven weeks. There are always a combination of easy shots and difficult shots, but I don’t want to get caught up in that.
DS: Besides the sometimes painful realities of running a Kickstarter campaign, what else have you learned during this production that you’ll take with you moving forward?
PES: Right now, I just want to sleep for a month [laughs], so there hasn’t been too much time for reflection. But I will say that there have been moments where I’ve been thinking I need to put in place a better system to get more ideas out there to the world. The system I have is so dependent upon “me.” I do everything, from idea to execution. I need to take a step back and see how I can create more content in the future without doing all the work. I don’t want to decrease the quality…
DS: You want to get more work out there…
PES: …Yah. Trying to make a living off of short films is basically a joke…
DS: …You think?
PES: …Yah. I’ve managed to do that through work for hire projects. Working on commercials.
DS: I’m going to put that on a t-shirt. “Trying to make a living off of short films is a joke!”
DS: That’s a separate conversation we should have some time. It’s something I’ve been railing against for years and years. The “promise” of the Internet and digital distribution is a fallacy in practical terms for most short film makers – much of the hype is a ploy by larger media companies to get content for themselves...
DS: That’s my old curmudgeonly media guy assessment. Too many people don’t understand that the “wonders” of our instantaneous digital communication age have come at the expense of economic models that used to provide artists with a real living. “Getting your work out there!” doesn’t feed your family. OK. I’ll get off my soapbox.
PES: Absolutely. This is a topic that I think about, talk about, I’ve dealt with every day for the last 10-15 years.
DS: You are as commercially “tuned in” and focused as any director I know as far as taking advantage of the most current and viable means to generate money on animated short films.
PES: I have done a number of commercials and continue to do them now and then. But I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t want to do work for hire. Over the last year or two, we’ve been trying to shift our business model to be centered on me creating more content. Even if that means doing two shorts per year. I’m looking to do more of what I do best and find out how that can feed itself.
For Kickstarter as you know, we’ve had to create some merchandise related to Submarine Sandwich. That has been quite an important step for me because I’ve never done any product merchandising tied to the launch of a film. The thinking is, “These films get so many hits, how can we sell some t-shirts to make some money to finance the next one?” What would people be interested in buying from us? How can we turn some of those views into revenue we can use to create new stuff? Kickstarter forced me to take that leap that I’ve been hoping to take for some time.
Of course, I’ve seen an uptick in advertising revenue since YouTube introduced the partners program. Of course there have been more licensing opportunities. These things do generate revenue. But, for me, how does one take advantage of the millions of views, if you’re lucky enough to get that amount of traffic.
I hope the new film does well. But you never know. I’m just happy it’s done.
That’s part of the devil of making art. For me at least, these ideas don’t stop bothering me until I make them. The only way to get rid of them is to boot them out, then clean up the hard drive in preparation for the next one.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.