Every year, it gets more and more difficult to draw a clear boundary between animated and live-action films. The official terminology used by the Academy Awards feels particularly vague and anachronistic:
An animated film is created by using a frame-by-frame technique, and usually falls into one of the two general fields of animation: character or abstract. Some of the techniques of animating films include cel animation, computer animation, stop-motion, clay animation, pixilation, cutouts, pins, camera multiple pass imagery, kaleidoscopic effects, and drawing on the film frame itself.
This definition feels like a half-step up from we know an animated film when we see one. When you get down to it, don't all movies use a frame-by-frame technique? The fact is that nowadays, all of the boundaries are blurring – even within the world of animation. Stop-motion animation is not necessarily a separate species from computer animation.
One of the 2012 nominees for Best Animated Short Film is a film called "Fresh Guacamole" by the California-based filmmaker PES – the shortest animated short ever nominated by the Academy, at a brisk 1 minute and 45 seconds. His visual style is organic and human, but he makes full use of technology in his distinctive shorts.
“Fresh Guacamole” has just been nominated for an Academy Award. Is it the film that you’re proudest of?
I’m proud of all the films I make, and I’m usually the most proud of the most recent one I’ve made. The next one I make, I’m sure I’ll be more proud of than this one, so … I’m really always about what my latest thing is.
Your films are all about translating objects from something familiar into something that we’re not used to seeing. Do you tend to start with one central transformation and work outward from there?
Yeah, I think that’s the way it works. I constantly look around and have these thoughts that one thing is kind of like another. Occasionally I’ll mention it to friends or family and people laugh at that. This has happened my whole life. And so essentially my films have become a little bit of an exploration of that personal sense of humor. But I will say in practice, yes, each film really has a single nugget that the idea is formed around.
For instance, I did a film called “Game Over” back in 2006. I grew up on these classic video games and arcade games and had a particular fondness for them, and I came across this interview with Toru Iwatani, the guy who created the Pac-Man character, and he mentioned that [he got] the idea for the Pac-Man character from a pizza with a slice missing. So in that moment I was really like, “Wow, that’s a great nugget, but what would happen if you applied that logic to all these old video games and made a film that way?” So I built "Game Over" from there.
Your first animated film, “Roof Sex,” was about chairs having sex on a roof. Do you think you’re ever going to return to the world of furniture pornography?
With all these films I’ve made, I’ve always had sequels written and ready to go. So I have had several other possibilities for more furniture porn and more unexpected furniture shenanigans. But each time I stare down the barrel of wanting to create something new, I just end up moving on to a totally different film and wanting to explore something different.
So what makes “Fresh Guacamole” interesting for me, at least in my body of work up to this point, is that it was the first time I actually went back to a film template I’d already done — “Western Spaghetti” in 2008 — and created a second iteration of the same type of film. Something about the cooking-film format sparked to me.
Would it make sense to go back do a sequel to something from so long ago?
No, it probably wouldn’t make sense, but the thing with ideas is that you never know where you might find the right place for them. So I could easily see a furniture porn sequence in a feature film somewhere, or perhaps another novel use of furniture that isn’t necessarily pornographic, in which case I’d be doing something kind of new but kind of based on something that I’ve done before.
I think a lot of the shorts that I do are kind of like experiments. Some were even little experiments for bigger ideas. For instance, this film I did in 2004 called “KaBoom!” — which was a little air raid on a miniature city made of all different household objects — really was a test for a bigger, much more expensive and ambitious film. And it turns out I never really had the opportunity to make that bigger film until this year. Because of the success of “The Deep” and “Fresh Guacamole” (which were originally commissioned by Showtime), Showtime asked me to potentially develop something on a larger scale than just a one- or two-minute film — something to be released serially. So, we’re talking about making that film now, nine years after I made "KaBoom!"
Your films strike me as primarily visual, but the sound is so important. At what point in the process do you start to focus on the sound?
I think it’s there all the way, because I’m always hearing sounds. I’m looking for a certain sound and I have that in my head and I know the image has to kind of meet up with that, but I don’t really get into the sound design process until after I’m done shooting. When I’m closing in on an edit that I’m happy with, then I’ll start laying in some sound because the sound will then alter things. It’ll make certain things feel quicker and certain things feel longer. Things change, so there’s a little bit of flexibility there. So I initiate that sound process halfway or three-quarters of the way through getting a rough cut together.
I do my own sound design. Sometimes I’m using sound effects from Hollywood libraries — such as for films like “KaBoom!”, “Game Over” and “The Deep.” Other times I have to create all my own sound effects, as in “Western Spaghetti” and “Fresh Guacamole.” But no matter what, the process is always the same for me. I am always trying to match what I hear in my head and what I think will go best with the images. It’s a personal thing.
Obviously you didn’t have any choice with the video games, it had to be those sounds. But with “KaBoom!,” you did, and it really worked – that it was a familiar-sounding bomb drop.
Yeah, totally, totally. And it’s funny, because sometimes I use sound effects that I then hear other people using because they’re the same effects available to anybody on sites like sounddogs.com. Films like “Western Spaghetti” and “Fresh Guacamole,” I mentioned those are films that I had to create the sounds for. I have a field mic that I use, and I try to get the sounds that I’m looking for. And I try to use all the original props from the film, so if you’re using a giant cutting board, it’s going to sound different than a little cutting board. So I really try to be specific to the props that I’ve used, and I just do a lot of recordings until I get the sound that I have in my head.
What people don’t really understand is that I conduct these films as experiments for myself. Take, for instance, the idea of putting the sound of cutting through a soft avocado against visuals of a knife slicing through a grenade – which everyone knows is a hard object. Until you put that sound in there and experiment with it, it’s just a notion that it’s going to work. So part of it is like an experiment to really push it and see – can I sell you a grenade as an avocado? It’s that combination of realistic sound effects on top of realistic objects, but not the objects they’re supposed to be. I think that’s where the magic happens. It’s certainly the most exciting part of the process for me.
At what point are you able to watch footage of what you’re doing? Do you monitor all along?
Well, now we can monitor all along. This is a change that’s basically happened over the last six or seven years. When I shot “Roof Sex” back in 2001, I just used three Bolex cameras, no video feedback. I just sat on a 104 degree roof for, like, three months moving those chairs around. I got a ton of footage, and some was better than others. There was no video feedback whatsoever.
Nowadays, we have the ability to monitor everything live in a computer with frame-grabbing software, so it’s instantaneous feedback. I know right away whether or not the animation is working, and that’s really, I think, what’s enabled us to do these more refined pixelations, for instance, moving the human body, which I’m using in “Western Spaghetti” and “Fresh Guacamole.” To get these highly detailed and complex movements of a hand down and to feel natural, you really need the video feedback to be able to manage that in detail.
Do you miss that moment of watching the footage for the first time, not having any idea how it all went? Or was that terrifying, and do you want nothing to do with that anymore?
More terrifying. For instance, when I was shooting “Roof Sex,” I thought I had this great shot, and then [when we got it] back from the lab, some woman was opening and closing her window across the street like 20 times, and a whole shot was blown because of how distracting it was. You never knew what was happening without live feedback, the best you could do was guess and hope for the best. A city like New York, it’s just always moving. People’s curtains blowing in the windows, people walking in the background on the street, clouds racing by and casting shadows, trees throwing epileptic fits (they look like that in stop-motion). In “Roof Sex,” I tried to minimize that background noise to the best of my ability mostly through clever framing. But it was always nail-biting time waiting for that footage to get processed.
If I were to take your computer away from you, would you still be able to do what you do?
(Laughs) Whoa, that’s a crazy question. I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that before. Yeah, I mean … I certainly lean on computers for the editing process, retouching and sound – who’s going to be editing on an old system now? A Moviola, right? (Laughs.) The thing is – you use the computer in different ways now – it's crept into all aspects of production.
For instance, we used the computer to pull off some specific effects in “Fresh Guacamole.” Cutting through the Christmas lightbulb [which represents a jalapeño in the film]: Obviously, no one can cut through glass, especially with a butcher knife in your bare hands. So the solution I chose was to design a replacement series of bulbs in the computer in Z-Brush and Mudbox and print them out on a rapid-prototype 3D printer and have them painted by modelmakers so they could then be photographed in front of the camera. So there’s still computer involved, even though, in the end, it’s shot in stop-motion.
Have you ever calculated the number of hours of work that go into each second of your finished film?
Oh, God. No. I try not to do that, really. The funny thing about it is, I would almost guarantee that I spend more time thinking about a film than shooting it. I work on these ideas for years, you know, I finally reach a point where I’m like, “OK, I'm ready to shoot this.” I really don’t like to pick up a camera until I’m ready to go and I know the ending and I have a clear vision of everything. I produced “Fresh Guacamole” in four months, which seems like a long time to a lot of people for a 1 minute 40 second film. My friend told me I’ve been thinking about it since 2004, as far as he can remember.
What’s next for you?
Well, there are dozens of projects that I’ve got at various stages. I have two feature film projects that are in development. The first is the Garbage Pail Kids, and that’s obviously based on that property from the 1980s, which is a property that I pursued here, in Hollywood. I had a take on it. I really loved the characters, loved them when I was growing up, and still think there’s something fun to do there. So I went out with the producer and we found that Michael Eisner, the ex-CEO of Disney, had the rights to that property. So we went and pitched him our idea, developing it with a writer, and he liked it enough to sign on a development deal. So that’s what we’re in the process of right now.
And then the second project that I’m working on is called “Lost & Found,” and that’s a personal idea. I’m developing that with Seth Grahame-Smith, who wrote “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and Tim Burton’s “Dark Shadows,” and he’s working with me on cracking the story and setting it up at a studio. It’s a much more drawn-out process to get a feature film off the ground and even tougher to get an original idea made.
I would assume it’s a huge adjustment.
Well, yeah, because certain things don’t happen overnight, so you kinda have to buoy several of these projects at once while you continue to do other things. I’m currently designing a plan to shoot a third cooking film — because I really can’t do two, as a lot of people have pointed out to me. (Laughs.) That will hopefully happen this year. I’m starting to collect objects for that. Then there’s that big project with Showtime, which would be the largest, most ambitious film I’ve ever made if they pull the trigger. So, there’s always stuff in the hopper. I could just blab forever.
One last question: How did you find out you’d been nominated for an Oscar?
It’s funny. I’d turned my phone off. I crashed and I woke up, turned the phone on, and I just had like a hundred texts pouring in at once. It sounded like a slot machine! (Laughs.)