Issue No 17

A Fairly Long Interview with the Director of the Shortest Film Ever Nominated for an Academy Award

BY Jonathan Mayor

PES is one the world's most celebrated animated filmmakers. His unique stop motion style and use of everyday objects (especially food and pop culture references) in new and interpretive ways, has forged a language all his own. His creative worlds are filled with avocado grenades and candy corn flames, Rubik’s cube garlic and pixie stick spaghetti, all funny memories and reminders, inside ideas brewing until they're ready to explode.

His longest film clocks in at a whopping one minute forty one seconds and his recent film Fresh Guacamole is the shortest film ever nominated for an Academy Award (Best Animated Short Film Nominee, 2013). With many of his films pushing or redefining the ideas of “story” or “character,” PES brings to life hugely original and playful ideas, while dealing with a range of topics from war to video games past: Nostalgic re-thinkings of the culture in which we come from and still relate to; short and contained pieces of insights, jokes, and constant reminders of some trends we'll never forget.

We connected in Los Angeles to talk about advertising and short film (of course), as well as some of the other things (longer content) he's up to now. An update on Garbage Pail Kids, or another first feature perhaps? One thing's for sure, PES continues to prove that very big and expressive ideas can come in extremely short doses.

JM: Where did you grow up and when did you become interested in filmmaking?

PES: I was born in New Jersey. I grew up in a small town named Budd Lake, NJ. It's a little natural lake about 60 miles west of NYC. It's actually closer to the PA border... the Delaware Water Gap. It's a place where the Mafia used to dump bodies from New York. They used to drive them out from New York and drop them in Budd Lake. That's Budd Lake's claim to fame.

Now filmmaking. For me, I did not grow up with any particular fascination with film.  I was more of an illustrator, artistic kid. I could draw pretty well as a kid and got some early attention for it. And my parents supported that. So at a pretty early age I was showing some capacity for expressing myself, but it was all along the lines of painting, drawing, stuff like that.

In high school, I continued with that. My drawings got better and I started showing my work. My school put on these little gallery shows and I would get my paintings and drawings featured in a local magazine here or there.

In college, I kind of weaseled my way into a printmaking class that I wasn't supposed to be in. I'd done enough work by the time the teacher realized I wasn't supposed to be there that he let me stay, and I continued making prints and experimenting with all forms of printmaking through all four years of college. I made my own books. Even in high school I was making my own children's books, writing and illustrating them. And then in college (with printmaking), I used to make my own books. I was intrigued by copperplate etchings, the old gothic texts, and I figured how I could etch these 15th century manuscripts and I'd write these stories about how my grandmother made me eat a disgusting meatloaf once and wouldn't let me leave the table until I ate it. Funny little things, interesting stories from my past.  I would write, illustrate, and then print them on paper I made by pulping my own underwear.

So I guess the impulse was always there to express myself and to make these little stories, but it wasn't until I graduated college, moved to New York City and got a job at an ad agency (a large ad agency), that I first had the notion that I could make a film.

JM: What kind of work did you do at the ad agency?

PES: I didn't want to live at my parents house after college, I wanted to move to New York City, and what did I have but a portfolio of etchings from college? So I started meeting with these creative recruiters at large ad agencies and I met this one, and she saw my portfolio and said “I got good news and I got bad news. The good news is, I love your work and you got a job. The bad news is, I can't hire you as a copywriter or an art director because you've never done any ads, but you clearly belong in the creative department so we're going to give you a job working as an assistant to one of the Creative Directors.”

So that's what I did. I worked with a top level Creative Director. Basically, as a glorified secretary. But that being said, I had enormous access to the agency and all the resources there. And it was one of the biggest agencies in the world. So there was a ton of stuff there. There were a ton of talented people there, and it wasn't long before I started consuming all the content that would come through there.

For example, we would get (all) these show reels, like the best commercials, short films, and music videos being done around the world every year. This is the late 90's and that was a really exciting time in advertising. There was a lot of amazing work being done in the Netherlands and also in Sweden. There was a directing collective in Sweden called Traktor. Basically these five Swedish guys who did all the best commercial work. And the things they did were like short films with logos at the end. So at that time I got really excited about the idea of making a piece of short content, and I took from advertising this notion that you could make a short piece of content and instead of putting a product or a logo at the end, you could just put your signature. And then call it a short film vs. a commercial.

JM: So what was your first film?

PES: My first film was a live action film called Dogs of War. (It was not an animation). It was an idea I had based on a dream. I think I fell asleep with the History Channel on to one of those war films, and I somehow had this dream that they weren't dropping bombs over Dresden, they were dropping hot dogs. And I woke up and I was like, I love that idea. That bombs look like hot dogs. So it is in fact very related to my later work in that it is a film that is based around one object as another object. In this case a bomb as a hot dog. So I devoted myself to this idea.

And you know, when you're starting out, you just need to do whatever you can do to make something. So let's go through the things I did: There was a kid at the agency who had this 16mm Russian camera called the Krasnogorsk (this is 1998 and digital hadn't really taken over, so you were still going to shoot film if you wanted to film something that looked really nice). So there was this kid who had this camera. He didn't have any time to use it so he lent it to me and I used it on weekends. I bought film and learned. My father gave me an old 16mm film projector from the basement of his school and I projected my films on my bedroom wall and learned about lenses and film that way.

My mother’s a hairdresser. I needed three kids, so I used her for casting. I called her up and said, “Mom, do you know any families that have three siblings who might do this?” Sure enough, she did, so I met with the kids, and it worked out.

I drove around New Jersey and location scouted until I found the right setting. It was a World War II movie-- I was looking for what I like to call 'old land' where I could shoot from really low angles, the kind you often saw in the archival footage - you know, overgrown and craggy.  I found it inside a cemetery in Hackettstown, New Jersey. I just needed to convince the parents of the kids to let me film their kids jumping on tombstones and stuff, but they were cool with it, no problem. The kids thought it was hilarious.   

I needed a model bomb in the film, so I went to a hardware store, bought some spare parts, and I made the bomb. I painted it. I dropped it at the lens and made my own special effects shots. Really basic stuff. But it worked. 

And I needed stock footage for this. So I called up a guy who ran a stock footage company in Louisiana at the time. I said look, I'm just a small guy starting out. I'd like to make this project, and I don't have a ton of money and need the footage donated. Can I tell you a little about it? I did, and he loved the idea.

A week later, a tape came with high res selects of all of the things I'd asked them to pull from the library. So I just went out and shot the thing.  Then I used the resources of the ad agency to find an editor to connect with and put it all together. And that's how I learned the process of making the film. And when I was done I was encouraged to continue with film.

JM: How did you make the transition to animation?

PES: After I did that little film... which was a film, but it was also a spec commercial. Because I was working in advertising at the time, I promoted it as a spec commercial. Which is the way most directors get their first jobs doing commercials. You just do like a fake commercial. But what was funny is that all the advertising press sources started featuring this Dogs of War film. So it wasn't long before the Creative Director of the agency called me into her office and said “How did you make this thing? Who paid for it?”  And a friend of mine at the agency was sitting there and actually blurted out “you did!" I thought I was gonna get fired right there but she was actually super excited about how I spent some of the time and resources available to me at the agency.  So I was encouraged. And I had her support in terms of building a reel.

But I quickly decided that the only way for me to do this new idea I had (Roof Sex), which was based on the idea of furniture pornography. The only way for me to archive this idea was through stop motion animation. And I knew this was going to take a lot of time. Still, I'm working a pretty low level job at an ad agency and I don't have a lot of money. But I knew I basically needed to quit the agency, and just take the plunge with my credit cards to do this film. I decided that I was going to go completely into debt to do this. To make this idea about two chairs that have sex on a roof a reality. So I quit my job... because to shoot that film required I be on a rooftop animating for two to three months. So that's what I did. And I kind of feel like that film was the big leap I made in my life. Because anyone I told that idea to thought I was an idiot. Or crazy. “You're gonna quit your job and probably burn 20, 30, $40,000, to sink it into this one minute short film about two chairs having sex?” Like, “this guy's fucking stupid!” Literally. But that was the moment for me when I was like, I really believe in this. And I need to show people what this is and the only way for me to do that is to just to it. And it's almost just by like sheer force of will that you make it happen. You almost have to be so in love... I shouldn't say 'you'. I  had to be so in love with the idea that I'd do anything to do it. You know, and to have that idea that I could do almost everything myself and call on some of the resources around me to help.1

So I grew up with a facility for drawing and continued to draw through college, but there was this day I had a day of reckoning about my skills as an artist and I had to be honest with myself. I never really enjoyed the process of drawing that much. Like I know other people who love to draw and love doing nothing more than that but for me, even though I can express myself that way, I always get really critical of my drawings. I always get caught up in does it look bad? I self loath. And beat myself up because it never looks how I wanted it to look. And so this is related to the beginning of my experimentation in animation, because I realized that if if I grab an object, and I photograph it, I don't need to worry about rendering it or making it look how I want it to look, all I have to do is breath life into it by photographing it and then doing that over and over. And it sort of freed me up from all the negative feelings and self criticisms that I feel as a graphic artist. So I ran with that, because it felt like a very immediate way to make things.

It allowed me to focus on ideas. It was very liberating to me to feel like I could take any object and put it in front of a camera and do something with it. I didn't have to worry about rendering, shading, drawing, texturing, any of that. All I needed to do was tell the story. And I never have to worry because it's always 100% realistic. That's the great thing about stop motion and the photographic medium, is that everything is always 100% believable because it is real. You never once have to worry about it not looking 100% real. It's really what you bring to it, your ideas that make it successful or not. So, that felt really liberating for me. It changed my life.


1 Funny side story: One of the reasons I even came up with the story for the film (Roof Sex) is my parents had this room when we were kids, that we weren't even allowed to go into. It had this great shag carpet and these gold chairs, and they seriously wouldn't even let us like step into this room. Off limits. So one day, twenty five years later, my parents call me up and say they're moving, do you want the chairs? I haven't been able to sit in them my whole life but now all of the sudden you're just gonna give them to me? So I'm like, yeah, I'll take 'em. And I'm sitting there with my roommate playing video games. Probably Nintendo 64. 1997/1998. And I'm sitting there looking at these two big gold chairs thinking what would this chair want to do, after being cooped up in that living room for so long. You know, that was the idea really. He just wants to bust out and have sex. And I had two of these chairs and committed myself to destroying one of them which was required for the film and then it was like how do I figure out how to animate. Because I didn't go to school for animation and I didn't know how to animate. The only thing I knew was I loved it because I'd seen the films of the great Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer. Amazing surrealist, he made films animating objects in the 60's, 70's and 80’s. I stumbled into a screening of something that he had in the film forum in 1997 and then I picked up everything he had and became fascinated by it. I used to get these bootleg VHS's from Kim's Video.  And what happened was I had this jog dial on my VHS player that allowed me to go one frame at a time and I could look at these films frame by frame. And I felt not only was I drawn to his films but in watching his films I could figure out how he achieved certain effects. So I knew that I could do it myself and I was excited about the medium, and the "Roof Sex" idea kind of encouraged me. Then I had to really teach myself how to animate, I didn't go to school for it, I knew absolutely nothing.  So, since I knew I needed to have chairs having sex, I started ordering doll furniture from eBay. My roommates thought i was crazy because I started to get these packages of doll furniture in the mail, and then stayed up all night shooting it on the dining room table night after night. And that's how I learned. So when it got around to actually doing the film, I knew exactly what to do, I was just doing it with life size chairs. On a roof.

JM: How do you describe your work? Or what themes and ideas do you find consistently running through your work (from your early films to now)?

PES: I think my work really revolves around one main theme. And that is looking at the familiar world in a different way. There's a certain language among objects that I've developed. I try to tap into hidden associations and meanings that reside within the objects that surround us. There's a lot of word play there, and a lot of logic that can be teased out of something that on the surface (first) appears to be nonsensical. Like if I tell you when I cut an onion it's gonna chop up into dice, it's like whatever. But if you link in the idea that we use the word 'dice' in our language as a kind of chopping, then the dice all of the sudden become like an insight. Like there was that notion just hanging out in the dice all along that now visually is a joke.  A lot of it comes from the selection of objects. And that there's a guiding principle of logic behind it. That's what I feel makes the films connect with audiences. Because I strive to make connections that people will not see as random but instead, I want them to say, “That makes total sense. It was there all the time, now I see it.”

An important film for me going back was a film KaBoom that I did in 2004. It was a miniature air raid done entirely with toys and festive objects. And that was one of the first times where I really discovered the sort of language of objects I'd been messing around with. I started working with this idea that an object could carry interesting associations with it. In that particular case, it was this sardonic vision of war where it looks candy coated and like a child’s game and it's all kind of gussied up in these festive objects like it's a celebration. An underscore of the distance we feel from real war sometimes. There was just something there where I felt like the choice of object not only for the form of the object but for the associations that come with it. It lent an entirely different level of meaning. So I continued exploring that.

I think what I'm really talking about is connecting on a deeper level. Not just a superficial level like one thing looks like another but there's more of an appropriateness, or a logic. And people find that amusing. The film as puzzle is something I really experiment with. Because the film itself becomes a recipe people need to decode. And that itself is powerful in terms of watchability. And then also, it allows people to stretch their imaginations. And it makes the viewer work a little bit harder. There's reward for that. Viewers feel good about working things out. It's like some things are clear, and others are like, “Oh, I didn't see the connection before.” I think good film has different levels of participation for the viewer. It engages them in different ways. And a lot of it is just my sense of humor. I am amused always by the ridiculous things that are in the world and have become popular. Like why is it in October we have a billion candy corns descend on us and we've taken this to be a representative icon of Halloween? You trace this thing back to its history. In the 1800's when candy corn was invented, it was marketed as basically chicken feed for people. You can check this out online. It wasn't Halloween related because Halloween hadn't really taken off. But now to us, it's this strange candy that's here in October and then there are none. It's just this strange object that's worked its way into a corner of our life. And I am amused by little things like that. We have to have Rubik’s Cubes and then of course we have to have even smaller Rubik’s Cubes keychains. There's this crazy thing with people where we need to have different iterations of everything. Sometimes it's just funny to see. So I work with that.

JM: So surrealism and pop culture are your big influences? 

PES: Yeah! I think my underlying philosophy on making films is that I want my films to give you something. What they give you is maybe an alternate look at the world. An alternate perspective that you take a bit of joy in because next time you see a peanut or whatever you might think a little differently about it. A pencil isn't a pencil all the time anymore and a candy corn isn't a candy corn - all of the sudden, it's a flame. It's just a five degree tweak in something we take only one way.

I sometimes think of my films as like new memory implants rather than films. In this short format I am not engaging viewers in a traditional form or mode of filmmaking. The strength of the short format is ideas. And you can create an idea in, I would argue, one second of film that can lodge itself in people's brains in a way they won't forget. And I think it's a powerful medium when used that way. And the great thing about it is that the viewer takes joy in that by the end of the film they've received something that they didn't have before. It's different than being amused or entertained. That's why I continue to love the short format. And it is interesting that I've made three second films, and I've made five second films, for years.

Fourteen years ago people told me I was crazy to make a three second film and release it online. And now everything's online, and we have an entire platform built on six second films like Vine. Because people  understand that ideas can come in bite sizes and that some of those bite sizes can actually be quite memorable. It's all just brainwashing you know... (Laughs).

JM: What is it about the short format, that drew you to it and keeps you working with it?

PES: I've always believed short is powerful. I have a pretty short attention span. I hate watching other people's films usually. (The films that I like, I love, but) 99 % of the films that I watch I feel they don't have a really good idea, or they take way too much time for the idea they have. And so for me, from an early point, I put a really high premium on understanding the strength of my idea. And in not being afraid to say, I have a minute long idea. That can be a really powerful thing.

I learned from advertising that this form of condensed storytelling is wildly successful in moving people. I mean there's a reason that ads have been popular for 50, 60 years. I mean if an advertisement can make you buy a product in 30 seconds that you didn't even really want... why can't it be used to share a mode of thinking as well? So I've always believed in the core idea that short is powerful.

I never want to be the guy who stays too long. Because I know what it's like to sit it the theater and watch a film flounder, for minutes or longer. I have this incredible itch sometimes to edit other people's films because a lot of times, it could be so much better. So maybe it's a combination of having a really short attention span, but also being very respectful of my audience. I want my films to strike that balance so that at the end of the film, viewers feel satisfied but want a little more.

I also feel that in the world we live, re-watchable is very important. Would I rather someone hardly get through my five minute film? Or would I rather someone watches my one minute film five times? It's an easy answer to that question. There's power to that.

JM: What are you currently working on?

PES: 300 things.

JM: Any to highlight? I've heard talk of some longer projects.

PES: I have a couple of feature films in development. A couple of personal projects. I'm always doing commercial stuff here and there. But then there's other stuff beyond that. I'm working on a children's book and a line of t-shirts. I am going to shoot the third and final... I actually shouldn't say final, but I am going to shoot my third cooking film. I feel like I just can't leave two cooking films, I need to have three. I tend to be tormented by ideas and it's like I almost can't stop thinking about it until I make it.

Even though a lot of my short content has been in stop motion, the feature projects I'm developing are not necessarily in that format. But I definitely think, whatever the techniques used to achieve them, if we get to that point, I think people will still feel a personal stamp there. Because it's this way of looking at the world that's at the core of what I do.

I wish I could tell you that I had something big that's in production right now, then I could give you a much clearer idea of when anyone might be able to look at it but development is just that. I've already put two years into developing The Garbage Pail Kids movie and we're still developing it. I can't tell you when it's going to get made. And that's one of the things that keeps me making short films. Because no one can stand in the way of me making those and putting them out into the world. And as an artist that means a lot to me. Because I've never dealt well in life with asking permission for my own creativity. I don't like to ask anyone permission for making stuff.  Maybe because of this I've come up with a lot of ideas that I don't need to rely on lots of other people to make. And that's what's special about making short films and that's why I encourage people to make them. Because something short and powerful can move millions and millions of people. And you can make something in your own living room, besides porn, that can be seen by millions of people and can have an impact.

JM: What's your advice for filmmakers just getting started?  

PES: Make films for yourself first and foremost. YOU are your ideal audience. Make something that YOU yourself want to see. What makes you different from the next person? Tease something out of yourself into the world.  For me, this is my sense of humor. If I have ideas, or jokes, or I see one thing and think it looks like another, I’ll share it with people sometimes but most of the time it just amuses me. With film I can express my sense of humor and package it in a way so other people can partake.

Work hard to tell your story in as few shots as possible. Be hard on yourself. Simplify it down to the core. Don't include anything that's not essential. Get to the point quick or people will bail on you. Oh yeah, and don't pick up the camera until you know your ending.

JM: What's it like being nominated for an Academy Award?

PES: I’ve never made films to win awards and it wasn't really something I invested much meaning in, but I did take it to be a really positive accolade, really because the film itself is so untraditional in terms of what the Academy usually recognizes. For one, Fresh Guacamole is incredibly short, just 1 min 41 seconds. It's got no characters and it's got no story per se. It doesn't engage viewers on an emotional level. I mean these are the things that you can almost always count on being in Academy Award nominated films. So I took it to be a great achievement that it even got nominated. I'm super honored. It seems to suggest that the Academy is actively expanding the kind of films that that it wants to celebrate, which is a good thing.