Director Sean Pecknold tells Addison Capper about utilising stop-motion animation and a multiplane camera in his latest collaboration with the band
For Fleet Foxes’ latest single ‘Featherweight,’, director Sean Pecknold has crafted a world of struggle and hope brought to life using stop-motion animation and a multiplane camera. The evocative and visually striking film follows a young hawk as he struggles to fly with a broken wing, the successes and bitter failures that come from his attempt, and the second chances that life will sometimes offer – even when all seems lost. The video premiered on September 21st at the GRAMMY Museum as part of a retrospective featuring Fleet Foxes’ music videos with a conversation between Sean and his brother, band frontman Robin Pecknold. It has also just been selected as a Vimeo Staff Pick.
Since 2008, Sean has crafted the visual narrative behind Fleet Foxes' songs, frequently shifting between stop-frame animation and live action. To bring ‘Featherweight’ to life, Sean joined forces with animator Eileen Kohlhepp (Robot Chicken, Anomalisa). The project also allowed Sean to continue his collaboration with another Sean – Toronto-based artist Sean Lewis, whose character designs and landscapes are fundamental to the world of the short film.
‘Featherweight’ is not the first time Sean (Pecknold) has combined stop-motion animation with multiplane down-shooting for one of their music videos — the award-winning music video for ‘The Shrine / An Argument’ also used a multiplane camera, a technique that Sean first saw in early Disney films like Bambi and Pinocchio, then later when he discovered Lotte Reiniger’s and Yuri Norstein’s films, being very drawn to the texture, depth-of-field and parallax inherent in the technique.
Addison Capper picked Sean’s brains for a few soundbites on the process of making this gorgeous piece of filmmaking a reality.
The narrative is inspired by the importance of asking for help when we need it
“The story is about an injured hawk attempting to find a new home. It takes place in a world where the sun hasn't risen in many months which has cast an eerie darkness across the world. For me the story is a symbolic representation of attempting to overcome the anxieties and fears of the last year-and-a-half. I was also thinking a lot about the importance of admitting when we need help, that we should be able to reach out to people around us when we are struggling and in need of a lift.”
The end of the song felt like a moment of resolve and peace
“I was inspired by Robin's lyrics ‘May the last long year be forgotten’ and ‘We only made it together’ and those inspired the story. The lyric ‘One warm day is all I need’ also sparked the myth of an injured bird trying to raise a sunken sun. I was also moved by the uplifting rise in the vocals at 2:50 and thought the image of the bird soaring up from underwater with his last bit of energy matched the feeling when I listened to that part of the song. The end of the song felt like a moment of resolve and peace that resulted in the visual of the sun finally rising again and the feeling like tomorrow will be better than today.”
The stop-motion animation and entire production took around five months to complete
“We used a stop-motion technique where we animate on a down-shooting multiplane table consisting of about four layers of glass. We printed the large digital art backgrounds from Sean Lewis (who was in Toronto) and Eileen Kohlhepp (who was in Los Angeles at our studio Sing-Sing) animated the paper puppets on the higher layers of glass above the backgrounds. We started with my simple script, and then did some sketches with Sean Lewis, which I then created a rough animatic to show the basic animation and edit timings. Sean (Lewis) then spent a few weeks going back and forth with myself on character designs and backgrounds for the first scenes. Sean (Lewis) would paint each part of the Hawk and different angles and poses, and we would print these, and our art assistant Cody O' Neill would back and hinge the puppets and prep them for the table. Eileen and myself would then talk through each scene for the action, timing and emotion, and she would then bring life to the paper puppets. Then I would take all the sequences, remove rigging, and then continue the edit, until we had everything animated, which took about two-and-a-half months. The entire production was about five months from the initial treatment through till the final delivery. Whew!”
It was an arduous but very rewarding experience
“Overall it was incredible, but also very challenging. It was similar in ways to the story of the Hawk; arduous, long, and needing to overcome many technical challenges and setbacks. But that is usually the case with stop-motion. In the end it was a very rewarding experience. I had been working with Sean Lewis for many months last year on concept art for a feature film, and it was a dream to be able to collaborate with him on a multiplane animation. Eileen was a dream to have animate the characters, and had a great attitude no matter what we were trying to accomplish. Robin Pecknold and Aja Pecknold (Fleet Foxes manager) were very supportive and open to the unique challenges of stop-motion. And Dropbox, who partly funded the project, was also very encouraging and supportive throughout the whole process.”
Why the project was a more a marathon than a sprint
“It was tricky figuring out the best process to get the digital paintings out of the computer and onto the multiplane. For previous animations I've done on the multiplane we usually just paint the sets on paper and there they are. But we had to do a few weeks of testing large format prints at different print shops and figuring out the right combination of adjustment layers and tweaks to prep the files for print to maintain their clarity, contrast and saturation once placed on the animation table. But once we had our recipe figured out we were off the races. But stop-motion is more a marathon than a race. So the second trickiest part was keeping energy and momentum up through the five months. Luckily everyone on the crew had the best attitudes and talent to keep things moving forward till the very end.”
The promo serves as a prelude to a feature length film
“I (along with Sean Lewis the illustrator, and Eileen Kohlhepp the animator) have been working on a feature length animated film for the last year-and-a-half, and these two injured animals are characters in that longer story, so this is a simple prelude to that longer story that is still in the works. My brother Robin of Fleet Foxes is creating the score for that film too, so it will be a nice way to continue the world that we've started in the music videos. This is officially the 11th video I've made with Fleet Foxes, so I'm very excited to make a longer film next with the same team from Featherweight.”