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Sean Pecknold: Madness in his Methods

Sean Pecknold: Madness in his Methods

The director explains the methods behind his quirky and brilliant work in an excerpt from shots 138.

David Knight meets Sean Pecknold, a man whose methods are as quirky and brilliant as his work and include such practices as shooting dissolving clay in a fish tank and mapping out the world of his music videos.

As Sean Pecknold was growing up in Townsend, a suburb of Seattle, his dad used to bring home videotapes of Monty Python, featuring the iconoclastic animations of Terry Gilliam and Oregon-born claymation pioneer Will Vinton. And the originality and distinctive vision of the work of these animators struck a deep chord with the young Pecknold, and his brother Robin. “We were both into animation,” Pecknold recalls, “A lot of my favourite animators are lone wolf characters – its just them, and you can see that in the films. You see that every part of it was touched by them.”

Years later, Sean Pecknold is keeping the spirit of individuality alive, often in collaboration with his brother. Sean is known for his mixed media work, his stop-frame animations, and, above all, his superb videos for Fleet Foxes – the successful folk-rock band led by Robin Pecknold – the latest of which dominated more than six months of his life last year, as he toiled in a studio with paper cutouts to make the eight-minute epic for The Shrine/An Argument.

Doomed elks and dancing robots

The Shrine video encapsulates Sean’s uncompromising approach to his work with Fleet Foxes. It tells the story of a heroic elk who lives in a dark, enchanted forest and must battle fearsome, demonic creatures. The hapless elk is ultimately killed and then dismembered by a two-headed sea-serpent. It is a powerful, mythic tale, made in a pre-digital style resembling that of Eastern European animation from the 1970s. It is also a thing of beauty, attuned to the haunting track like few music videos you will see this or any other year. It nearly won the best music video prize at the 2012 Vimeo Awards in June (and it would not have been a surprise if it had).

“I’ve listened to that song more than the band has – it became my world,” says Sean. “We agreed on the character style, then the band went on tour, and I said: ‘I’ll have a video for you in six months’...” After that, he barely left his small studio in Portland, Oregon – working only with one other animator and an assistant.

The Shrine is the latest of his body of work for the band, which ranges from music videos to documentary footage, to visuals for their live shows. But there is also much more to Sean Pecknold than his work for Fleet Foxes, and more to his work than his animation.

Take his recent promo for critically-lauded indie outfit Here We Go Magic’s How Do I Know – a quirky, live-action video set in the desert around Palm Springs, featuring a bizarre love triangle between a late middle-aged man, his young wheelchair-bound wife, and their dancing lady robot. It’s as bright, uplifting and joyous (albeit with a certain poignancy) as The Shrine/An Argument is mesmerisingly tragic.

His new video for indie-rock stalwarts The Walkmen, The Love You Love, is also live-action, albeit including some rudimentary CGI work, which he shot once, then reshot on his iPhone. There are also his photography projects, his documentaries, and his esoteric low budget feature project – winningly titled The Internet– A Blog Cats WTF Universe.

And then there is his commercial work, including his new ad for IKEA, A New Kind Of Catalogue, for McCann-Erickson, New York. That takes the viewer through the 60-year history of the furniture giant, and then introduces the digital enhancements available with the latest IKEA catalogue – all in a sweep of a long tabletop. The brand is represented in familiar wooden shapes, the extra brochure content made visible with IKEA-customised smartphones and tablets.

Following father’s hip hop steps

Following work he has undertaken for BBC Knowledge, The New York Times and Nike, IKEA’s A New Kind Of Catalogue is Sean’s biggest commercial so far. “It’s a step up in the commercial world for sure, with the biggest crew I’ve had,” he confirms. “It was a really quick turnaround, but I had a big art department of eight people. If I needed blue boxes, they would make them in ten minutes.”

For Sean, now 31, this is still quite unfamiliar territory and in many ways he is still coming to terms with the typical division of roles in filmmaking. The fact is, he likes to do both – to direct and to “make stuff.” It is key to his identity as a filmmaker. As well as harking back to his admiration for the likes of Gilliam and Vinton, he sees it as a function of how he came to be a director. “I didn’t choose the traditional route, through film school, or even animating school,” he explains, on the phone from his home in Portland. “I always considered myself a filmmaker who used animation because it’s accessible and it’s fun. And I felt I had ideas that were larger than I could pull off in live-action, with a DV camera.”

In fact he started as an editor – following in the footsteps of his father Greg, who, Sean reveals, had a very cool job in the early 90s, when grunge made Seattle the centre of the music universe. “He worked at a post house and ended up editing grunge videos and then hip hop videos. He’d bring home Alice In Chains videos and A Tribe Called Quest videos, saying ‘I cut this today, check this out.’ When I was 13 I thought: ‘that’s what I want to do.’”

Subscribers can read the full interview with Sean Pecknold by clicking here or by picking up a copy of the latest magazine issue, out now.

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