Skip to main content

Interview with Joseph Wallace, Director of Spark's "Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)" Official Music Video

Neon feathers fly and a midnight chase ensues in a 1930s’ Paris imagined by BAFTA Cymru nominated director Joseph Wallace, traversing through streets, cafés, and across rooftops sporting tilted chimneys and scaly shingles in the music video for legendary American pop-alternative band Sparks’ latest hit, “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),” praised by the band as, “Perhaps Sparks’ best video ever.”

Puppet immortalizations of Ron (left) and Russell Mael (right), as seen in the final video

The video is a gorgeous and somewhat psychedelic romp through the stylized 1930s’ Paris cityscape – “Piaf’s Paris,” as dubbed by Wallace – through which we follow stop motion versions of the Mael brothers, Ron and Russell, whom together comprise Sparks, as they follow a large, neon-colored bird – a sight that provides a stark contrast to the otherwise moody, muddy color palette of Wallace’s Paris, composing a beautiful and exciting ambiance of 3-and-a-half-plus minutes of pure cinematic bliss.

The world of the film was built primarily using cardboard, the backgrounds were painted panoramas, and the characters had armatures made of a mixture of wire and brass-tubes, the costumes for whom were crafted out of various materials, and the heads of the puppet Mael brothers were carved out of cork, an interesting and unique choice, one that’s rarely utilized in stop motion.

“I didn’t want to illustrate the song too literally,” says Wallace, “as the lyrics were fairly clear and the sentiment was really strong for me, so I tried to create a metaphor that would almost visually score the music and hopefully enhance the meaning of the song. I’ve always had a great fondness for Paris and Parisian culture after having studied and worked there, so the video was a chance to explore that world and create something surreal and intriguing in which Ron and Russell could adventure. The brothers really trusted my vision for the piece and consequently gave me a great amount of creative freedom which meant I could create something as detailed and as synthesized with the music as possible in the time I had.”

To bring the project to fruition, Wallace, Edith Piaf’s auteur and a polymathic creative in his own right – a critically acclaimed animator and filmmaker behind more than a dozen short films across various mediums, puppeteer, theatre actor and aficionado, and an animation teacher and lecturer hosted by many prestigious universities and festivals – was accompanied by several other remarkably creative stop motion filmmakers – animators Roos Mattaar and Aiden Whittam and several puppet and set designers/makers, including Aiden Whittam, Katrina Hood, Heather Colbert, Roos Mattaar, and Mary Murphy, with the retouching done in post by Milán Kopasz – all of whom it took to complete the film on their incredibly tight schedule of six weeks.

Concept art by Joesph Wallace

Upon premiering back in August, Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) has received a virtual torrent of praise, with calling it ‘Incredible,’ Aardman Animations co-founder, Peter Lord, ‘Impressive,’ Oscar-nominated director Barry Purves, ‘Gorgeous,’, ‘Chasing artistic beauty in an otherwise grim world,’ and AEG Presents, ‘An absolute masterpiece,’ with the band’s Californian Mael brothers themselves, “Perfectly capturing the mood of the song ‘Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me),’ the video is also a rapturous work of art in its own right. Perhaps Sparks’ best video ever.” The music video was also featured at PIAFF, Festival International du Film d’Animation de Paris, France, and was nominated for Best Animation in an International Music Video in the Kinsale Shark Awards in Ireland.

Spark’s latest album, “Hippopotamus” – their first album in eight years – was released on September 8th to subsequently win instant critical and commercial acclaim, its track “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” topping the charts in the UK shortly after its release.

I recently had to pleasure of interviewing Joseph Wallace about Edith Piaf, his collaborative process, his career, and many other things, all of which you can read about below.

A.H. Uriah: The design aesthetic of Edith Piaf is an extremely unique, seemingly singing with a voice of its own, adding to the song in such a glorious way – everything from the minimalism of the puppet versions of brothers’ likenesses to the use of materials such as cardboard and cork to the phosphorescent light emitted by the bird character and the many signs around the stylized 1920s Paris cityscape to the cityscape itself. What was your approach to the design of the film and what creative choices led you to the final product of the visual aesthetic of the film in its current state?

Joseph Wallace: The design process for the video was fairly instinctive as the project had a rapid six week turn around. I established the initial aesthetic in the treatment that I sent to the band and then expanded on that during the first week of production. The visual world of the video came from a mixture of sources, one being the tone and sentiment of the song, then this notion of ‘Piaf’s Paris’ of the 20s and 30s and then the material aspect really came from tactile experiments I’ve been making in my studio, mostly revolving around development on my new short film.

A set made out of cardboard featured in the film and reference material exemplifying "Piaf's Paris"

A cardboard Paris set from the music video

"Piaf's Paris" - a still from the final video

One of the main challenges was trying to capture the likeness of Ron and Russell (Mael, the brothers from the band) in sculptural terms. I wanted them to look recognisably like the brothers but I also didn’t want them to be too naturalistic, but rather representative and essentialised. That mostly came about through the process of carving and painting the puppets, I worked fairly quickly and instinctively and tried not to get absorbed in too much detail.

Ron Mael's puppet likeness next to a photo of Ron Mael

Early conceptual sketch of the Mael brothers puppets by Josepeh Wallace

Head of the puppet version of Ron Mael, one of the Mael brothers

Two variations of the Russell Mael puppet face

Final Russell (appears on right) and Ron Mael (appears on left) final puppet faces compared with earlier designs

Final versions of the Ron and Russell puppets

The neon visual language was something that I’d touched on with my Hungarian colleague Péter Vácz in the video ‘Dear John’ that we made for the British band James last year. In that, we played with neon paint as a way of emphasising the ‘otherness’ of some of the characters and I expanded on that notion in the Piaf video for the bird, which had to feel very exotic and almost of out place in the muted Parisian surroundings. The neon also threads through the feathers and the signs as you mention and, in general, the painterly aesthetic helps hold all the elements together. Everything is painted, from the puppets and props to the décors and backgrounds and I spent a lot of time on the painting and getting the textures and colours right.

The translucent neon Bird, as seen in the final film

A.H.: Can you speak a little to the timing of the characters and content of the video in relation to the song. How did you go about achieving this effect?

JW: For me, animation is really a medium of timing. And so with a music video the components are really focused on music and movement as there is no dialogue or sound effects. So you have this opportunity to synthesise, in a detailed way, the movement and the music. In live action this is often achieved by cutting to the beat, but in Piaf I tried to create a choreography with the puppets, gestures, walks and camera movements to all come together and forge a more tangible relationship with the music. If you watch the video closely you’ll see that almost every gesture or footstep or impulse is somehow linked to a beat or a flourish of the piano or, for example, the feather falling to the melody of the horn at the beginning.

The footsteps of the Mael brothers and the Bird are timed to the musical beats of Spark's Edith Piaf - gif made in Giphy, sourced from Edith Piaf official video ( by Cardel Entertainment

To achieve that and get the detail of the timing exactly right, I broke the song down into sections and stepped through it frame by frame to work out how many frames apart, say a beat or a bar was and then with each shot I’d either do thumbnails of the movements or we would do blocking to work out the choreography and how we’d time the elements. Sometimes I had a very clear idea of what I wanted and sometimes I would discuss options with the animators Roos Mattaar and Aiden Whittam and listen to the section over and over to get the rhythm and movement into our bodies and come up with ideas. I like to work in a way where I can mix having a specific vision that I want the team to execute and also having moments that are more open and collaborative and spontaneous.

Joseph Wallace animating the Ron Mael puppet

A.H.: For this project as well as for earlier creative endeavors of yours, what methodologies of collaboration have you found have made for the best final product in approaching a collaboration with other creative individuals 
 in this case the Mael brothers, animator and puppet maker Roos Mattaar as well as the crew of several other outstanding animators set dressers, and also the Hungarian animator Milán Kopasz in the post-production process? What communication takes place between you and your collaborators along the way that proves to be the most beneficial towards developing a creative collaboration?

JW: Collaboration is a hugely important aspect of creative practice for me. I know a lot of animators who work alone and I have a great deal of admiration for that but don’t think I’d be able to work like that myself. I really value having other artists around me to help realise my vision and to bring fresh energies, methodologies and ideas to a project. I talked with Ron and Russell a lot at the start of the process and they were incredibly trusting in me after having seen my pitch and my vision for the piece. We had many similar references in regard to films and photographers; they went to film school and are also in production on their own films at the moment so they have a lot of creative empathy for the process. They were also genuinely fascinated by how stop motion animation works as they’d had animated videos in the past but never puppet animation, so you can see in the behind the scenes video where they visit my studio, they are genuinely interested in how everything was achieved which was a great energy to have feeding into the project.

Edith Piaf storyboards by Joseph Wallace

I’ve known Roos for a few years but we’d never worked together and for this I wanted fairly complex puppets and costumes so she came in and worked on the puppets and then also stayed to animate. In fact nearly everyone on the project, apart from Milán, were new collaborators. There’s always a period at the beginning where everyone has to tune in with each other but I try and be as open and honest as I can at the start about how I like to work and how the style should feel so that everyone is on the same page. I talked through the storyboard a lot and I like having people around me so even when I was making the animatic there were model makers who I’d talk through the storyboard and the animatic with and include them in that process because it helps problem solving and ideas generation.

Roos Mattaar animating the Ron and Russell Mael puppets

Milán and I had worked together on the ‘Dear John’ music video in Budapest. On that video Milán was making all of the models and I’d actually asked if he’d come to the UK and work on the model making and animation of Piaf with me but he was already busy with something in Hungary. Whilst we were making ‘Dear John’ Milán also did some post work cleaning up shots and removing rigs and they worked perfectly so, as a way to still have him on board, I sent him a lot of the effects shots from Piaf to clean up. There were a a number of shots with rigging elements that needed painting out as there is so much falling, floating, running and jumping in the video. He did a great job, although the shoot schedule worked out that the most complicated shots (Ron and Russell chasing the bird across the rooftops and final shot where the bird grabs Ron and Russell in the cage) were left until near the end and I had to do all the clean up myself but it wasn’t as horrible as I thought it was going to be!

A.H.: As well as being known in the animation medium as incredibly prestigious and well-accomplished as a director and animator, you also have an extensive background in theatre and puppetry. What skills and techniques have you learned from you work in theatre and puppetry that you feel you would have never learned if you had worked only in animation? How has your work in theatre and puppetry most affected and shaped your philosophy to stop motion filmmaking?

JW: I wanted to work in animation since I was a child but I actually trained as an actor and physical theatre performer before I had any formal training in animation. I think the collaborative nature of theatre has really informed the way I direct, how I work with actors and also how I approach storytelling on screen. Both mediums borrow from each other, I often make theatre which is very cinematic and paced with dynamic ‘cuts’ and transitions, and conversely, the films I make are often ‘theatrical’, in terms of the performances, the stylisation of space and the suspension of the audience’s disbelief. They’re very different mediums but I think there are a huge amount of similarities in the processes and I approach both of them in similar ways.

The café set seen in Edith Piaf in the midst of being animated

In both puppet animation and puppet theatre you have the possibility to build the world from the ground up. You design and sculpt every element and that design can have meaning through its colour, form and materiality; every element has the potential to speak of the themes of the piece. The theatre I’ve made has always been very physical and visual and exaggerated aesthetically where I’m often stylising the way actors look, through make-up or costume or physicality, to push towards more of a painterly or animated quality. Animation is very intimate and quiet and precise and theatre is more spontaneous and quick and high-energy but there are definitely methodologies that I have drawn from each medium that I feed into the other.

A.H.: Along with your extensive work in the animation and theatre industries, you’ve also taken time to teach technique in animation, puppetry, and theatre through countless workshops, lectures, and talks. Through these various teaching opportunities, what lessons have you found are valued the most and are the appreciated by students of animation? What have these teaching opportunities taught you about yourself and the craft of animation?

JW: I’m really passionate about the appreciation, teaching and championing of animation and over the years that has led to me writing, lecturing, curating and speaking at festivals as a way to engage audiences with animation and for me to share my processes and theories. I’ve just got back from a month in Hungary and Romania where, amongst other things, I was running a stop motion workshop with my colleague Péter Vácz.

Birdcage and lighthouse sets

We had twelve participants of seven different nationalities and four days to introduce them to our ways of working; from how we design and create puppets, to how we analyse films that inspire us, how we light and shoot our films and how we approach the style and quality of our animations. One of the main things we were emphasising in the course was how simple the participants approach can be. Sometimes, a puppet under a single lamp can be the most dramatic and effective way of telling part of a story. In my work I’m always interested in elevating humble materials into a cinematic realm so I gave the participants a masterclass in lighting for stop motion and how to achieve a cinematic and striking look with simple equipment. The feedback from the students was phenomenal so I’m hoping to do more of these intensive, guerilla-style bootcamps in the future. Every time I teach and lecture I learn something new, either about my own work through the process of outwardly presenting that, but I often also learn from the students themselves and their ideas and approaches.

Next week I’m heading to Manchester Animation Festival in the North of England to speak on a panel about Ivor Wood who was a French/English children animator who created many iconic programmes from the late Sixties to the Nineties including The Herbs, The Wombles, Paddington Bear and Postman Pat. This is the other side of what I do which relates more to bringing new audiences to animation and highlighting the work of certain individuals who have either been forgotten by the history books or should be profiled more widely. With Wood, I wrote an article about his work about seven years ago and then in 2015 curated the first ever retrospective of his work for the Bristol Festival of Puppetry where I was responsible for the entire film programme. I’m constantly researching and writing about animation history so lectures at universities and speaking at festivals are a way of sharing all this information and inspiring people to delve into the rich international history of stop motion animation.

Joseph Wallace modifying the Ron Mael puppet

If you would like to delve into more interviews with Joseph Wallace concerning his work on Edith Piaf, there are two excellent interviews that I would like point you in the direction of – the first of which is with the site Skwigly and the second of which is with the excellent filmmaking-interview-site Director’s Notes.

If you’re interested in learning more about Joseph Wallace and his work in everything from stop motion to puppetry to theater, you can do so by visiting his website, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Vimeo, Pinterest, and Instagram.

If you’d like to learn more about the band Sparks, you can go visit them on their website, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. You can also go listen to and purchase their new album, “Hippopotamus” – “Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)” being just one of many of the songs on it – by going to the Sparks store (where you can also buy other Sparks-related merchandise), iTunes, and Amazon.

If you’d like an extended look into the behind-the-scenes process on Edith Piaf, you can go here to watch the excellent 11-minute behind-the-scenes video, which features Joseph giving a tour of his stop motion studio to the Mael brothers, Ron and Russell.

You can watch Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me) by going here.

This article is the first in a series of accrued Edith Piaf behind-the-scenes content and interviews from the folks who made Edith Piaf, future installment for which are to be released on Stop Motion Geek over the course of the next several weeks. Next week, our interview with Edith Piaf’s Aiden Whittam – a very talented stop motion creator who, on this project, wore the hats of both “animator” and “set designer” – will go live on the blog, another conversation for which we are very excited to share with you, so stay tuned!

You can stay up-to-date with Stop Motion Geek by following us on Facebook @Stop Motion Geek or by visiting

Popular posts from this blog

Interview with Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter, Directors of Oscar® Nominated Stop Motion Short Film, "Negative Space"

Across the Baltimore-based director-duo Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s Oscar® nominated short film Negative Space’s 5 minute runtime, rooted in the profoundly emotional soil of the film’s essence, an extraordinary spectrum of deep themes are explored – death, grief, what one’s childhood means once one has “grown up” – yet perhaps none are as front-and-center than that which binds all of the film’s themes together: that of the relationship between father and son.

Negative Space, a film inspired by a 150-word poem of the same by Ron Koertge, is, at its heart, the story of Sam, a young man, as he internally processes his relationship with his father throughout his life as well as the grief and emotion that come with the loss of his father as he travels to his recently-passed father’s funeral.

Undoubtedly the primary visual motif as well as the crux of the film – both visually as well as thematically – is the practice and veritable art of packing a suitcase. The film begins, appropriately, …

Interview with Samuel Lewis - Animator, Character Designer, and Sculptor on Stop Motion Short Film, "Lost & Found"

“If I had to pick a starting point for my career as a stop motion animator I would have to say it was my obsession as a six year old with a book called ‘Playing with Plasticine’ by Barbara Reid,” Samuel Lewis – a London-based stop motion and 2D animator and director, whose most recent labor of love can be seen in his contribution to the Australian stop motion short film, Lost & Found – tells Stop Motion Geek. Upon reflection, Lewis explains that his love for the medium of stop motion began very early in life, and has merely managed to burn ever brighter in his fervor to master the craft.

“I would spend countless hours fixated on sculpting tiny snails, fruit bowls and dinosaurs to the point where I would stay inside on family holidays sculpting a surfer in a beach scene rather than going to the actual beach that was only a short walk away,” Lewis recalls wistfully. “Eventually this, coupled with a healthy interest in Sesame Street, Trapdoor, Pingu and Wallace & Gromit lead to …

Interview with Hans Weise, Director of National Geographic's "A Fearsome Fleet: Secrets of the Vikings"

More often than not, manmade beauty, art in general, and stories themselves make very little practical sense. For art, like beauty, is subjective. More often than not, if we are truly honest with ourselves, our art, our stories will not stand the test of time. Thus, art, stories, and beauty do not provide one to leave very much of a legacy – at least an infallible one – through using it as a means. Often, manmade beauty, stories, and those daring choices we make in putting pen to paper, brush to canvas, camera to subject, more often than not can only be justified for the sake of beauty, the sake of telling a story, the sake of art, whatever “the sake” of something actually means.

It seems paradoxical, though perhaps it is not: Perhaps, innately, we as humans need stories, need art, need beauty. Not for any utility they propose, but simply so that they can be, quite simply, exactly what they are – flexible mediums of expression that, in their lack of practical utility, like a clear gl…

Interview with Bram Meindersma, Composer and Sound Designer of Oscar® Nominated Stop Motion Short Film, "Negative Space"

Unlike practically every other medium, film has the unique aesthetic of being composed of the elements of sound and image, and, curiously, whenever watching a film, the two blend together into something of an impeccably hybridized concoction.

With as much influence as sound has over the audience’s final experience of any given film, composer and sound designer Bram Meindersma’s work on the Oscar-nominated stop motion short film Negative Space – directed by Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter – proves an endlessly fascinating and extraordinary case study, as it uses sound – both its soundtrack as well as every other element of sound design – only sparingly and in subtle ways, one that could almost be called conservative. Yet it is perhaps just that component of its sound design that, at least in part, makes the film such a powerful one.

Perhaps the reason why Meindersma’s delicate work on Negative Space is so powerful is its thematic resonance with the film’s subject matter. The film poignantl…

Interview with Zélie Durand, Director and Animator of Stop Motion Short Film, "Sahara Palace," Incredible True Story of Loss, Dreams Unfulfilled, and Middle Eastern Cinema

“The only things my grandfather left behind were dozens of 35mm film reels in my grandmother’s basement, which ironically took up a lot of space compared to the fact that nobody seemed to talk about him, and that he was noticeably absent of every family album,” Zélie Durand, a French director and illustrator, tells Stop Motion Geek about the very personal tragedy that inspired her most recent film, Sahara Palace – a transcendent, nine-minute long stop motion short film that realizes and further explores the greater themes of an unproduced film script entitled “Sahara Palace,” as well as the life and legacy of the script’s screenwriter: filmmaker Hedy Ben Khalifat, Durand’s grandfather, a man she never met.

“I was not allowed to touch the reels,” Durand continues. “When I started to ask questions three years ago, my uncle gave me a suitcase he inherited from Hedy, telling me he had no idea what was inside. Right after that, I spent a week alone reading the three versions of Sahara Pal…

Interview with Bradley Slabe, Co-Director of Stop Motion Love Story, "Lost & Found" (Part 1/2 of Interview with "Lost & Found" Directors)

The true essence of art – a reflection of life itself – is very much akin to the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi-sabi”: it’s imperfect, impermanent, and, at times, profoundly...incomplete.

It is both at once a fundamental truth, and, curiously, more often than not, a thing incredibly hard to acknowledge, to make peace with. Yet perhaps our resistance is justifiable, for once we admit that the world is full of unknowns – unknowns that aren’t ideal, that aren’t perfect – we are just as soon confronted with the actualization of a deep, intrinsic, and very human fear: the fear of a future full of...unknowns that aren’t ideal, that aren’t perfect. Yet it’s the confrontal of that fear that is the most terrifying reality of all, for the moment we make peace with it we have just as soon have acknowledged that our paths in life aren’t in our own hands, or something we can control – a terrifying reality, yet one that’s nonetheless fundamentally true.

Yet, in art as in life, it is in this very plac…

Interview with Edwina Liard, Producer of Oscar® Nominated Stop Motion Short Film, "Negative Space"

For Edwina Liard, producer of the Oscar®-nominated stop motion short film Negative Space, a career in the film industry was by no means a childhood dream. In fact, as she tells Stop Motion Geek, the first kindling of her desire to explore the industry came about well after graduation from business school. “It came about as I was studying cultural management, after graduating from a business school in France,” says Liard. “A friend of mine was an intern in a production company and told me how diverse and interesting it was, and I thought ‘ok, let’s try that!’ That’s how I got caught!”

Soon after this revelation, Liard began to dedicate herself to becoming involved in the filmmaking industry, at first starting to work as a production assistant in France for two years, before then working for two more years in Spain at a medium length film festival. After her work in Spain, Liard returned to France in November of 2011, at which point her now-business-partner, Nidia Santiago, asked Liard…

Interview with Andrew Goldsmith, Co-Director of Stop Motion Love Story, "Lost & Found" (Part 2/2 of Interview with "Lost & Found" Directors)

The true essence of art – a reflection of life itself – is very much akin to the Japanese aesthetic of “wabi-sabi”: it’s imperfect, impermanent, and, at times, profoundly...incomplete.

It is both at once a fundamental truth, and, curiously, more often than not, a thing incredibly hard to acknowledge, to make peace with. Yet perhaps our resistance is justifiable, for once we admit that the world is full of unknowns – unknowns that aren’t ideal, that aren’t perfect – we are just as soon confronted with the actualization of a deep, intrinsic, and very human fear: the fear of a future full of...unknowns that aren’t ideal, that aren’t perfect. Yet it’s the confrontal of that fear that is the most terrifying reality of all, for the moment we make peace with it we have just as soon have acknowledged that our paths in life aren’t in our own hands, or something we can control – a terrifying reality, yet one that’s nonetheless fundamentally true.

Yet, in art as in life, it is in this very plac…

Interview with Lucy J. Hayes, Producer of Stop Motion Love Story, "Lost & Found"

Ever since her childhood, Lucy J. Hayes – the producer of Lost & Found, an extraordinarily beautiful short film that make for a profound mediation on the impermanence and imperfection of life and beauty – she’s wanted to play some part in the creative industry, in some way, shape, or form. For Hayes, that dream went unquestioned. However, the challenge turned out to be figuring out quite where she belonged in the creative industry.

“I dabbled in acting and directing, however, I was terrible!” Hayes tells Stop Motion Geek. It wasn’t until she began to put on plays with her friends in her adolescence and early adulthood that the answer to her search dawned upon her: All that Hayes found came innately to her – everything from her ardor for creative work to her love for working with creatives to bring an idea, the kernel of a story, to fruition – she found in the title of “producer.”

Although being a term often thrown around colloquially, the actual responsibilities helmed by produce…

Interview with Sylvain Derosne, Lead Animator on Oscar® Nominated Stop Motion Short Film, "Negative Space"

If there’s one steadfast truth about the medium of animation as a whole and about the inspired act of animating, it is that the probability for novelty is infinite, the possibilities boundless.

In animation – unlike in the medium of live action film – the laws of physics don’t apply – or at least they don’t have to. The potential for strange new worlds to be conceived of and explored has no ceiling, nor does the expressiveness with which characters walk, talk, and emote. So whenever an animated film – particularly a stop motion film – of artistic excellence is released like Ru Kuwahata and Max Porter’s Oscar-nominated short film Negative Space – which is a film that explores a father-and-son relationship and the burden of grief through a lens that is, more often than not, grounded in a reality not unlike ours – it should imbue us, the audience, with the ardor to observe, and the attentiveness to ask the question that is immediately provoked in the back of our minds: Why?

In regards …