We loved Jesse Ewles and didn’t even know it – that is until we saw his name appear at the start of the current Phèdre video. It’s a video so decadent and downright messy you can’t help but watch it on repeat. So we dug deeper and it turns out he did that awesome Grizzly Bear video too, and Final Fantasy, Tokyo Police Club and numerous others. He’s also done some seriously impressive shorts. In fact we highly recommended an hour or two exploring his website – that is of course after you’ve read this in-depth interview with the man.
Bowlegs: How did you get into filmmaking? What was your first music video and how did it come about?
Jesse: I had a chronic problem overworking images when I was studying illustration. I would get bored with an image, or to fussy about the execution. I also would get hung up on story telling. I would try to add more narrative to pieces that would work better with a simpler, iconic image. What I liked best about switching to film and animation was that, as a boot-strapper without much money, it was impossible to overwork anything. There simply wasn’t time to for that. The size of projects ensured that I had to move from task to task, or else the video would not be finished.
My first music video was for a musician from my hometown of Hamilton, named Wax Mannequin. I liked working for Wax, because he was so weird. We didn’t need to tone anything down. I’d say, “In the next shot, a bunch kindergartners are kidnapped by a creepy dude in a pink sweater, and forced to eat a dead zebra.” And he’d say “Wow! Great! That’s exactly what I had in mind.” It was great to have that kind of freedom at the time. I was younger, and didn’t have much patience or the tack to convince people a weird idea was the way to go, so it was really great to have that kind of encouragement to be weird.
Bowlegs: Your films incorporate various techniques, like the Grizzly Bear video’s stop-motion or the Kathryn Calder inventive projections. You clearly like to try new things? How do you know if an idea/vision is going to work? Have some gone seriously wrong?
Jesse: I actually have an entire blog devoted to ideas that didn’t workout (www.ideagrave.com). Everything I do is an experiment. I’m set on permanent beta mode. I consider music videos my alternative film school. I see them as an opportunity to try things, learn, see what I find interesting, and what produces reaction in the audience. Things sometimes don’t go as expected, but that’s what makes trying new things exciting. The approach also develops one’s resourcefulness, which I hear from established filmmakers is the most valued skill to have. I’ve learned to think pretty fast on my feet, so, if something doesn’t go right, I can usually imagine a quick fix or a way to MacGyver a solution from some garbage bags and some muffler tape.
Bowlegs: Okay, so who came up with the gorging decadence witnessed in the awesome Phèdre video? Can imagine it was a fun and sticky day’s filming?
Jesse: The band originally asked another director friend of mine if he wanted to help shoot a weird house party video with lots of food, naked people smearing goo on themselves. And my friend said: “Jesse’s been bugging me to make that video for three years.” Funny how that happens sometimes.
On the shoot day someone donated a case of wine, so everyone was drunk, half naked and fooling around. I had to play dad. Warren Hrycun, my DP, had to fuss about keeping honey off the camera as it was borrowed from a friend. By the end of the day we had destroyed that house. Daniel Lee, from the band, had to go back several times after the shoot for further detoxing. There was a lumpy blend of honey, fish scales, rotten mango and red wine coating everything that even bleach couldn’t destroy. It smelled terrible. My favourite memory from the shoot day was disposing of the honey and lamb’s heads. I poured the ten-gallon honey jar into the sewer grate. The passing neighbours were very confused. Then Dan, our friend Brendan and I threw the lamb’s heads and other food garbage into the dumpster that the local elementary school use. I wonder if the kids ever found the heads?
April, Dan and Arrick from Phèdre did a masterful job handling production, calling in favours for make up, set decoration and location for a no-budget video. They’re stars. You can see they have the drive to make impossible things happen.
Bowlegs: Clearly you are not solely into making music videos – where did the Aesop: Kingdom of Frogs film spring from? Is animation something you would like to use more of? Is it a laborious technique?
Jesse: The Aesop project started as an initiative to collaborate with a bunch of other weird directors I had met online via videos.antville.org. I thought it would be neat for each of us to make an interpretation of an Aesop fable. Then, afterwards, we could submit the collection to festivals or maybe make a DVD. We were unable to raise enough money to commission the other directors, but I was able to get a grant from the Canadian TV station Bravo! for my section.
As for the approach, I went to school to study computer animation, so I think animation is always at the back of my mind. Animated work is cool, because it draws upon the huge catalogue of painting and graphic design I was into as a student. I think that animation triggers a different part of the brain than live action does – it seems to suggest metaphor immediately. Maybe that’s why it can be so distracting to see live action mixed with animation?
There’s a huge wealth of great pop psychedelic images young illustrators are creating right now. Since I have a background in that scene, it’s fun to try and make videos and animation that draw on that energy. I’m currently working on an animated video for Of Montreal that has lots of original paintings in it. It’s super time consuming, but the approach gives me brain sparks that are different than when I shoot live action stuff. I think that the live action filmmaking I enjoy most experiments with storytelling, narrative and character arcs, where as I like animation that focuses on exploring colour, mood and design.
Bowlegs: When filming, do you normally work alone on the cameras or entrust others to shoot alongside?
Jesse: It’s different for every job. Ideally I like to be able to hire a proper DP for the main camera, and operate the second camera myself, when we have a decent budget.
I generally treat music videos as exercises in playground design. I try to assemble some toys in a space that suggests a mood. The toys can be anything from a camera with a kaleidoscope lens on it, or a simple trick like slow motion, or an interactive prop that invites experimentation, like the honey in the Phèdre video. I like to shoot guerrilla style – run and gun – so that there’s lots of room for improvising. We rehearse everything well, and then we shoot in sequential order, so we’re able to improvise shots and experiment on the fly while avoiding confusion.
I like to steal locations and jump around the actors and the set pieces, finding shot angles and experimenting as I go. If I’m on second camera it’s way easier working with a great DP like Berry Cheung or Greg Biskip, because I get the coverage I want while also freeing the DPs to find beautiful shots intuitively.
Bowlegs: What cameras do you use at the moment – do you have a wish list of equipment? What would be top of the list?
Jesse: I use the Canon 7D with a Canon EF 24-105mm f/4 L IS USM at the moment. I’m looking forward to working in 4k for live action as soon as the prices come down. Right now, I can only use that resolution for animated stuff or stop motion. It’s really remarkable to see how fast the technology of film is democratizing. The PV-GS400 I mentioned earlier was $2,000 when I bought it. Now, just six years later, you can get 4x the resolution for 1/4 the price.
Bowlegs: Is making films your full-time career, or do you still need to make ends meet with less inspiring work?
Jesse: I used to design footwear. Sneakers, slippers, novelty stuff. That was interesting, but the corporate culture was depressing. Frat boy business stuff reminds me of high school. My design partner, Dean Tzenos, and I quit in 2006. Dean decided to pursue music with Odonis Odonis and I stared making indie videos. We had a bit of money saved up to put towards our start-ups, so we lived off that money while we worked on our portfolios. Since then, I’ve been able to get by just doing video work. There’s been a half dozen times where I’ve been completely broke and have applied for part-time work, but I was always turned down. Apparently I’m not qualified to do anything but what I’m doing. I can’t even serve coffee in Toronto without three years experience. It’s tough to work in animation studios in Toronto as well, since I’m a media generalist, and the companies prefer their artists to have a focus, such as modelling or animation.
Bowlegs: Are you making any music videos, or have any planned, at the moment? If so who are they with?
Jesse: I’m making an animated video for Of Montreal, then a maybe a video for the band Adam and the Amethysts.
Bowlegs: What else do you have in the pipeline?
Jesse: Besides music video work, I’ve been developing a couple sci-fi stories I think would be interesting first feature films for me. One is a Vonnegut-style story about artists in a dystopian future. The other is a gritty steam-punk revenge story about hunters in the American wilderness.
Bowlegs: Tell us some of your favourite music videos you’ve seen lately?
Jesse: From the Toronto scene: Exploding Motor Car’s video for Timber Timbre was my favourite video last year. Those guys are geniuses, and they live four blocks from me. That blows my mind.
From Elsewhere: Sean Pecknold’s new Fleet Foxes video is incredible. As was Andrew Huang’s new short film Solopist. There are so many awesome young video makers working at the moment: Adam Bizanski, Exploding Motor Car, Sean Pecknold, Andrew Huang, Jessi the Elder, Allison Schulnik, Cameron Tomsett, Michael Wartella, Andrew Bruntel, Matt Hamill. I think the tie that binds this crowd is they’re all directors that have lots of technical and craft skills. They can animate and composite or draw or paint. Getting your hands dirty, building sets, designing things, drawing, editing, it leads to different kinds of visual discoveries that traditional directors who just ‘direct’ are less likely to discover.