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Interview with Roos Mattaar, Key Animator and Puppet Maker on Music Video for Father John Misty's "Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution"

Donning a heavy winter coat, a young girl in a desert plants a protest sign among a forest of other such placards in the opening image of Father John Misty’s new music video, Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution. The words of her sign, “No big thing to give up the life we had,” – lyrics from the song – appear just as “Father John Misty” – the moniker of American singer-songwriter Joshua Tillman – sings the words, a motif frequently returned to throughout the video.

The stop motion music video, produced by production company Jacknife Films, creates an interesting and very unique tone, one that is the effect of the song and film itself, both of which are, in many ways, a celebration of a incredibly bleak future. This theme is one that is embodied throughout the film often in little ironies – a winter coat worn while romping in the desert, a skeleton rotting next to a sign proclaiming “life is sweet,” an enormous city populated only by rats and cockroaches.

The music video, even if it were devoid of its poetry, would still remain a stunningly beautiful technical masterpiece. Everything from the puppet and set design and fabrication to the animation – every facet of this little gem is incredibly well crafted and executed. Its beauty quite evident, it’s interesting to note that the music video took a mere three weeks to make, from first concept to final cut – a feat completed in warp speed in the context of the stop motion world and one that’s nothing short of amazing and a testimony to the technical mastery of the crew responsible for bringing the project to life.

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing one of the most involved members of the crew, Roos Mattaar, who has also worked as a puppet maker and armature engineer on the upcoming stop motion films Isle of Dogs and Early Man, as well as having worked as an animator and puppet fabricator for the outstanding music video for Sparks’s “Edith Piaf.” Her short stop motion graduate film, Moonbird, is another film well worth your time.

Photo by Jon Davey

Roos worked as a key animator on Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution as well as doubling as the puppet fabricator for the film’s star, a puppet whose name has been dubbed “The Girl.” In our interview, we touch on her working under the intensely short production schedule, creating the specific animated characteristics for The Girl, and animating on a set with five other animators all at once.

A.H. Uriah: Where did your work on the music video for Father John Misty’s Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution begin?

Roos Mattaar: The team at Jacknife Films were looking for a key animator available for the project, on very short term. I was recommended by an ex-tutor who had been in touch with the producer. Many of the best experienced animators in Bristol were busy animating on the new Aardman feature film or away on other projects. I had recently mostly been working as a model maker. So this was a great opportunity for me to get back into animating.

The whole project was an extremely quick turnaround. Everything from concept to final edit was completed within three weeks! When I got involved the rest of the team had already been working on sets and props that week. I got in touch with the producer, Rosie Brind, on a Thursday I think, and arranged to meet her and director Chris Hopewell on the Friday evening. They liked my showreel and gave me the job. Then when they found out I was a puppet maker too they asked me to help building the main character, starting the same weekend.

Photo by Mary Murphy

A.H.: What did your jobs as the key animator and puppet maker on the project look like from day to day?

RM: An intense project such as this does not really have any average days! I started out puppet making and then continued as animator. I did some of the puppet making over the first weekend from home and building the armature in the workshop at John Wright Modelmaking, where I had just finished some armature work at that time. John was very generous to let me use the workshop for this job. The first days I was still finishing some work at John Wright too. I made the puppet’s armature, foam body and hands and then joined the other model makers who were working on costume, head, and other details and made her little boots. After the main character was ready to shoot I was mainly involved as animator, while the other model makers continued to build all the other characters and set pieces.

There was a great team working on the video at Jacknife, and mostly the director Chris Hopewell would set up and dress the sets with DOP Jon Davey setting up all lighting and camera. As the animator I would come in some time before the shot would be ready to talk through the action with the director. Between shots I was taking care of any puppet maintenance.

Because of the super tight schedule there was no time for blocking out the action or re-shooting anything. Chris would tell me what had to happen in the shot, I’d check the amount of frames with editor Tom Weller, and was off to animate. Of course there were many challenges and problems to solve as always is the case with stop motion animation. Initially the plan was that there would be a second unit mostly for extra shots with the other characters, the freezing effects, etc. but soon it became apparent that we’d still need more hours in a day to get everything finished. More animators were called in to do extra shifts. At some point there were six people involved animating the big cockroach wide shot, which was crazy, but we got it done in a few hours. It was quite a challenge to get the hang of this fast paced animating approach. Eventually I think I was able to find the right balance between animating fast while getting a – hopefully – good performance, but not linger on getting every detail right.

A.H.: If you could get into some of the nitty-gritty details, what was your process for crafting the puppets for this project, from first concept to finished product?

RM: As mentioned previously I was only involved in building the main character. The costume, backpack and hat were made by the other model makers and the head finished by Chris himself. The 25 cockroach puppets and 3 rat puppets were completely built by the other talented model makers on the project. These puppets had more simple wire armatures inside, as they didn’t have as much screen time and didn’t require the walking and subtle character performance that the main character did.

The process of crafting the main character was quite unusual, in the sense that there wasn’t much time to develop and perfect the designs as would usually happen for a stop motion project. When I got involved there were no design drawings, just the description of the character in the treatment. Another model maker had already started material tests for a costume, and to make it easier to find props in the right scale where there wasn’t time to make everything it was decided to use the scale of a Barbie doll as reference. So I designed the armature to fit the Barbie doll proportions and scale. When I came in to design the armature, Chris pulled out a ten year old puppet from a previous project, which had a John Wright ball and socket armature inside. There was no budget or time for a complete new ball and socket armature, so the choice was either building a wire armature or re-purposing the old armature. I chose the latter and John was really kind to let me use the workshop on a weekend day. I designed and re-built the armature adding the foot joint and changing the proportions within a day…

A.H.: The process of animation is a really curious art form, for it is, despite its endurance, in many ways a bizarre concept from the start, as the whole process is founded on the idea of imbuing an inanimate, lifeless object with a life of its own – a final product accomplished by a transaction an animator makes by investing hundreds of hours of their life in return for a few minutes or seconds of finished animation. Something that’s specific to stop motion, however, is the tangible handcrafted realness of whatever it is you’re animating – in this case it just so happens to be a human character, a scavenger, whose movements are oftentimes very subtle. Do you have a specific method for getting “in the zone” in order to summon the patience and focus it takes to animate a shot as well as to imbue a character with your specific personality?

RM: The process of animating is a curious thing indeed. Stop motion feels very much like a performance, only a very slow one! In terms of practical preparation, often with animation there will be time to plan and block out the action of a shot. For this shoot there was so little time that nothing was blocked out. The only thing I worked out beforehand was the timing of the walk cycle. The character had to walk slowly and her steps landing on the beats of the track. That worked out to be a second, and as we were shooting on twos I knew each step from a walk cycle would have to be 12 frames. The character moves quite slow and ‘lifeless’ all the time. So there was no quick or dramatic character performance. Although that meant that the animation itself was relatively simple, it was also slow. Which, when working with a puppet that had to be made in a rush, and when needing to animate as fast as possible, wasn’t easy at all! For example the puppet had no real ‘tie downs’. The director felt that would slow down the process too much. So I used pins instead, pinning down both the puppet and the trolley. But it was really a balancing act with the puppet and the trolley. In a way it helped with her small and restricted movement perhaps, as she was literally restricted in what she could do. There is always lots of practical problem solving going on.

In terms of getting in the zone, I think I am just mentally preparing myself for being in that intense concentration space for the next few hours. I may act out the movement. Part of it I think is similar to an actor in a performance, you have to carry on, be sharp all the time. After a while the walking shots became quite mechanical, counting the frames, working out the distance covered, etc. Time seems to run different when animating though. It may feel like I’ve only been animating for half an hour and when I’ve finished four hours have passed.

A.H.: Whenever I talk to animators and creators who work on music videos, I’m always interested to learn how the music that they’re putting visuals to helps to alter and change the project along the way, in a sense channeling the creative voices of the artists working on the music video into a unique marriage which is the final music video. How did the Father John Misty’s “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before The Revolution” affect and relate to your work on the project? What did the song mean to you as you worked on the project?

RM: When working as an animator on a project, I mostly try to work to the vision of the director. Chris had clear ideas about the story to be told and the personality of the character on screen, etc.

I don’t think I had a real part in changing the project along the way in terms of content and meaning. The only way plans changed was sometimes out of necessity within the tight schedule, and these last minute changes meant I had some more freedom in what I was animating. An example is where the girl is rummaging in her trolley full of cables: this was supposed to be shot from a different angle with the sky backdrop behind her. The backdrop was being used by the other animators animating the cockroaches but we had to carry on shooting with the girl too. I think on projects such as this one there isn’t a lot of room for bringing in loads of different ideas, but often interesting ideas and changes to the project might occur out of compromises and when facing challenges from the constraints of the puppets and sets and time available, that may actually add interesting details to the project.

Photo by Mary Murphy

If you want to see more of Roos’s work you can do so by going to her website.

If you’re interested in learning more about Roos’s work on Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution, I would like to specifically point you to this post on Roos's blog, which features a beautiful slideshow of the progression of making the puppet for The Girl. You can also see several behind-the-scenes photos from the music video by going to the Jacknife Films Instagram page.

The song “Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution” is off Father John Misty’s new album, “Pure Comedy,” which you can go listen to on Spotify, YouTube, Father John Misty’s official store, Amazon, and iTunes.

Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution has recently received the prestigious UK Music Video Award for “best rock/indie video – international.”

You can go watch Things It Would Have Been Helpful To Know Before The Revolution by going here.

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