My sister Helen Penelope Gazin just animated a music video for White Mystery and it’s blowing everyone’s minds. She spent this past winter working on the stop-motion video and it just premiered this week. White Mystery is a ginger-haired brother/sister rock duo from Chicago who have been catching some hot buzz these last couple of years. Alex, the older sister, plays guitar and her brother Francis drums the drums. They’re pretty good friends of mine and we like to joke that someday we’ll have a double marriage where I marry Alex and Helen marries Francis that ends with a three-legged race to the altar.
The video, which you can watch above, is a real corker and I wanted to ask Helen about the video and share it with all you nice folks.
VICE: Tell me about the process of making this video.
Penelope Gazin: Mom would come outside and find me on my belly in a bush and I would come out with scratches all over me. Also sometimes she would bring the dogs out and they would stampede the puppets and mess up my shot. Once Garth actually lifted his leg on Francis but I pushed him before he had a chance to pee on him. The cats would wander over and sniff the puppets and monkey was always hissing at them.
I shot it in three-hour installments about two to three times a week for two months. By the end of the shooting the puppets had basically fallen apart. It was a lot of fun because it felt just like when I was little when I would take my Barbies in the backyard and enact fantastical adventures and I would pretend little shrubs were giant trees and rocks were mountains. When I was trying to figure out where I wanted to shoot my next shot I would crawl around the backyard and pretend I was tiny to see how parts of the backyard could translate to create the illusion of a different scale. It made me really happy to work on because I was tapping into something that I used to love to do when I was very young and parts of my imagination that I hadn’t used in 18 years. I looked ridiculous after an afternoon of shooting because I would have scratches all over me and I would be covered in mud.
I think one of the coolest things about this video is that instead of trying to use a controlled setting, you did an outdoor stop-motion piece where it’s impossible to control anything. The grass and plants move but the most beautiful effect is when you see the light moving across the grass at high speed. What made you decide to shoot it outside?
I shot it outside because to create a fantasy world on the same scale would have required a lot of money and time to make the sets. I also had never shot outside before and I thought it would look really interesting to see these little dolls running around the real world.
Was it hard to get the dog to do what it was supposed to?
It wasn’t hard to get Lucy, who plays the dragon in the video, to run around with the puppet because I had my friend William and mom offscreen beckoning her with almonds. I stuffed her with a whole bag of almonds in one hour while we shot those scenes. A lot of the scenes were moving shots so I was screaming “RUN RUN!” while mom and William tried to run out of the shots while Lucy sprinted after them.
How’d you get the idea to use sparklers in stop motion? Has anyone done that before?
At first I planned on doing simple special effects in Adobe After Effects (lasers, smoke, swirls) but I realized that crude special effects have completely lost any charm they once had since they are so easy to make now and we see them all the time. I thought it would be so much more interesting if I didn’t add any computer effects and did everything by hand. It’s a similar approach to stop motion as Henry Selick who didn’t use any CG or computer effects in Coraline (that means creating the effect of smoke, rain, and liquids by hand with solid materials). Any obvious presence of technology taints the charm and novelty of a truly handcrafted animation. Stop motion kind of reminds me of a magic trick in that in makes the viewer wonder how something was done and there is none of that with computer animation and effects. I have never seen sparklers being used in a stop motion but I actually got the idea from Matt Caron’s short he did where his sister goes to the moon. I thought it was such a charming, simple, yet effective, effect. I bought a little “fireworks” set online from China and the packaging looked like it was from the 70′s and was made by a company called “Safe and Sane Family.” My 11-year-old cousin Fanny helped me with those scenes and we had a lot of fun doing it.
How’d you get the idea to animate the rock patterns?
Those are actually rose petals. I had just finished mauling mother’s rose bush to achieve the “flower growing” effect (I just plucked the petals one by one and then reversed the footage) and I had a pile of beautiful flower petals that I figured I should do something with. Having a pseudo-homosexual father who wished it was the 30′s, I watched lots of Busby Berkeley films growing up. I enjoyed the formations and patterns he created so it’s something I have fun doing with stop motion.
How long did it take to make the little puppets?
It took about 12 hours to sculpt, paint, and sew little clothes for each doll.
Side Note: I once caught our very innocent 11-year-old cousin Fanny peeking down puppet Francis’s pants. She blushed and said she wanted to know what I had made his penis look like. I told her I just made him look like a Ken Doll down there but maybe made it a little bigger. She said “Yea. Hippie’s do have big penises.” I was really confused what she meant at first and I realized she thought that because “hippies” tend to wear tighter pants which makes their packages much more pronounced than others people’s.
Is there anything you tried that didn’t work?
A lot of the effects didn’t work as I had planned. My camera couldn’t take pictures fast enough to capture the sparklers and smoke bombs properly so those shots are a little choppier than I had liked. Also the scene in which she “dives” into the ground I achieved by digging a hole in the backyard and basically shoving the puppet down farther and farther. I originally wanted her to make multiple dives and appear to be jumping and moving in and out of the earth as though it were water. I hadn’t anticipated the soil to be as dense and rocky as it was so it took me an hour to dig one eight-inch-deep hole. I had blisters on my hands so I figured one hole would have to do. I never filled the hole back up and I later learned that Lucy’s little legs fell in that hole while scouring a place to take her afternoon dump.
Also the area of rock clusters in the “mountain scenes” is technically an old “Chumash kitchen.” My Mom is legally not allowed to alter or build on that part of her backyard and supposedly there had to be a special Native American chief present during the entire building of the house to make sure the kitchen was not disturbed (which the owner at the time had to pay for). I liked to imagine the field I shot in right next to the rocks was an Indian burial ground and that I was going to be cursed for degrading the Chumash people by shooting a silly animation that involved a pug pissing on their graves in a dragon costume. I also peed on their graves a few times because I didn’t want to go inside and I didn’t want my bladder flow to interrupt my creative flow.
What are you working on now? Where is your career taking you?
I just contacted Mark’s assistant and asked him how much I could say and he said that I could say that I was “about to start working with Mark Mothersbaugh (and his company, Mutato Ent.) to help develop some of Mark’s ‘art and animation concepts.’”
I am also going to do an apprenticeship this summer in the puppet-making department of a stop-motion studio (I don’t know which one yet—I was offered one but I am waiting to see if this other studio I want to work for more will accept me) so I can finally learn the proper way of making stop-motion puppets instead of just making up my own cheapo method. I hope to work in both the field of stop motion and also TV animation. My silly dream is still to have my own Adult Swim show on Cartoon Network with my brothers or to somehow be in a position where I could hire you guys and collaborate.
Way to work with my hero. It’s like my dreams are coming true, but for you.
Check out Penelope’s other stuff here:
I also asked Alex White from White Mystery a few things.
VICE: Tell me the story of this music video.
Burger Records, who makes White Mystery tape cassettes, posted a demo reel by Penelope Gazin that looked incredible. She animated an entire video with redheaded puppets and a cartoon dream sequence, complete with a fight scene and real magic! White Mystery releases new music every 4/20 and it’s the fantastical visual accompaniment for 2012. Tune in here
What’s “Rapid Overdrive” about?
“Rapid Overdrive” is a chant inspired by colors of the rainbow and printable hues. “Rattlesnakes, Orangutans, Yardbirds, Gwar, Bees, Intravenous Vampires.” It’s the kind of song you can play CMYK hopscotch to.
Can you tell me about what happened at the Airheads factory?
Airheads invited the band to visit their factory when we played Cincinnati and said, “We have had you on our radar for a while…watching your progress.” They had a welcome sign prepared for us, goodie bags full of candy, and adjusted their production schedule so they were making White Mystery candy the day we arrived. It was amazing to see the mysterious process! The photo Airheads posted of us eating a giant glob of goo garnered a lot of attention
Can you tell me about visiting the Stern pinball factory?
Stern introduced a new AC/DC pinball game that I had the pleasure to preview. I’m a ball junkie so it was really cool to see their laborious, start-to-finish assembly line of design, wiring, toys, and flippers. The main designer regaled me with tales of the Led Zeppelin machine that never got approved by the Jon Bonham estate and Axl Rose refusing to say “balls” for the Guns ‘n’ Roses game.