Péter Vácz’s ‘Dear John’ Video Proves that Animation Really is Magical
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Picasso Picture's award-winning director catches up with LBB as his spellbinding new promo for James is released
“A year ago I had a chance to go into a musical instrument repairer’s workshop to get my cello fixed. I sat there and watched the process… it really was on the edge of magic.”
For Péter Vácz, the animation director behind the entrancing ‘Rabbit and Deer’ short (which has won over 100 awards) and the poignant promo ‘All I’m Saying’ for the band James, the wizardry and wonder of animation lies in its ability to take the dead and static and give it life. He compares it to the transformative alchemy of the repairer’s little studio as he slowly turned unremarkable hunks of wood into soulful instruments, curving and alive, just waiting to sing.
And that sense of magic permeates Péter’s latest project, ‘Dear John’, his second music video for James. It’s his grandest and most ambitious film yet, an eerily psychotropic story that sets the raw emotions of a break up against the backdrop of a sinister Wonderland.
The stop motion animation took three months to make and Péter, who is used to working alone, had to recruit animator friends to help bring the story to life. A painstaking director who loves the precision of animation, the process of delegation could have be a nerve-wracking experience, but as a patient filmmaker working with trusted friends the collaboration was, in fact, immensely rewarding.
“They brought in ideas about how to make things and brought in so many ideas that added to the visual feel of the film. If I was to make it on my own, I would have to deal with so many more limitations,” he says. “It was a really nice feeling that I was able as a director to give them tasks that inspired them and they could grow as well professionally.”
Trust and collaboration provided the foundation for the film – not just trust between Péter and the animators, but trust, also, between Péter and the band James, particularly lead singer Tim Booth. Péter’s first promo for the band, ‘All I’m Saying’, had wowed the band. The story about a wolf struggling with loss had been completed in two weeks and involved a close working relationship with Tim. This time around, the band were so keen to have Péter back on board that they gave him the choice of three songs to direct for.
“Of the three this was the one that I liked to listen to. It’s about the character of the music, I was listening to it all the time, when I was out walking,” says Péter of the track ‘Dear John’. “It’s not a cheerful, pop disco song and there’s a heavier meaning in the background.”
Though not the leading song from the band’s new album, ‘Girl at the End of the World’, it was the song that Péter felt he could give most too – not only because of his emotional connection with the music but because the longer deadline meant that he could give the band something truly epic, truly complex and truly crafted.
And that’s not all he gave the band. After his graduation film Rabbit and Deer triumphed on the award circuit, Péter had a pot of prize money that he could use towards a new project. The expiry date on the using the money was fast approaching and Péter decided to invest it in Dear John.
“They were truly touched, because the prize money was about making something personal,” says Picasso Pictures executive producer Sam Hope, of the unheard of gesture.
It also meant that Péter was more able to experiment with new toys and techniques that add depth and vibrancy to the film. For example, one of the notable elements of the film is the eye-popping neons that bring a voodoo intensity to its more psychedelic sequences. Péter was keen to experiment with black lights and neon paint in combination with stop motion techniques – and the result is a fresh twist on one of the oldest forms of animation.
The story itself is a fantastical, metaphorical of a relationship unfurling, the loss of intimacy – the song is largely about raw emotion so Péter had to build a world around it. “The song is really obvious, in a way. It’s a break up song and there’s not that much action in it, so I couldn’t necessarily know what the story was going to be from the lyrics, I was looking for something more substantial,” says Péter.
He took inspiration from all kinds of sources. A compulsive sketchbook keeper, Péter had all sorts of doodles to draw from, and among the pages, the image of a man transforming into an eldritch tree caught his eye. A chance encounter with one of Rankin’s bright and poppy photos of a pair of lips – which feature close ups of lips spattered with dazzling colours – left Péter obsessed with the idea of colour. He had recently been wowed by an interpretive dance performance that managed to convey complex emotions through movement – elements of this wove its way into the promo’s 2D sequences and it’s an area that he’s keen to explore in more depth in the future.
The final story and film evolved considerably from the initial treatment – but that trust between Tim and Péter as well as the generous deadline meant that he was free to push it further and further still. “With some of my films, because of the time pressures, I can feel like I don’t have time to really dive into it, so this was a very different experience,” reflects Péter.
While the time-consuming process of stop motion might send the more impatient of us a bit stir crazy, particularly on something as complex as Dear John, Péter was in his element. “When you’re in the middle of it, it does kind of click. But I have a really patient personality and I find real pleasure in making sure that everything is precise and correct,” he says.
For someone so clearly in love with animation in all its forms, Péter almost didn’t pursue it. With an artist father and a childhood love of the cello, as a teenager he knew he wanted to do something creative… though he wasn’t sure exactly what. When he went to art school in Budapest (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design), he initially enrolled in the graphic design course. Something, though, was missing. He found the medium ‘flat’ and uninspiring – and it was only when he happened to stop by the animation department where some friends were busy working that a spark ignited.
After class, he made his own puppet and late at night he started experimenting with a camera, and with a bit of trial and error (and a lot of the aforementioned patience) he found he could bring it to life.
And he never looked back. These days, as well as directing award-winning shorts and music videos and continuing to hone his craft, Péter also teaches classes at his old alma mater (this year he’s teaching the course in storyboarding). He runs animation workshops with kids and even holds animation screenings at the university.