Interview with Joseph Wallace, Director of Spark's "Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me)" Official Music Video
|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 Billboard.com calling it ‘Incredible,’ Aardman Animations co-founder, Peter Lord, ‘Impressive,’ Oscar-nominated director Barry Purves, ‘Gorgeous,’ Videostatic.com, ‘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 (https://youtu.be/v5jtqCo43WM) 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 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!
Was a pleasure to have @sparks_official visit my studio yesterday to shoot the behind the scenes for our new video 'Edith Piaf (Said It Better Than Me). Making of coming soon! Link to video in bio. #makingof #behindthescenes #bts #process #production #music #musicvideo #sparks #ronmael #russellmael #ronandrussellmael #josephwallace #josephwallaceanimation #animation #puppet #puppets #meetyourmaker #doppleganger #puppetanimation #models #edithpiaf #stopmotion #animationprocess #comingsoon #bmg #cardel #hippopotamus
Here are the Ron and Russell puppets on display at the @sparks_official album launch at @icalondon last night. We also screened the #edithpiaf video. Great to raise a glass with everyone and thanks to all who came and said hi. #sparks #ronmael #russellmael #album #albumlaunch #hippopotamus #instituteofcontemporaryarts #music #musicindustry #party #display #art #installation #exhibit #exhibition #gallery #puppets #set #decor #animation #puppetanimation #stopmotion #illusion #process #josephwallace #josephwallaceanimation #bmg #cardel
Animating the final shot from my @sparks_official music video for #EdithPiaf. This one was incredibly complicated to do using a home made rig which will be revealed in the making of coming soon. Link to video in bio. #animating #animator #animation #bird #puppet #puppets #puppetanimation #models #stopmotion #makingof #behindthescenes #bts #process #production #music #musicvideo #sparks #josephwallace #josephwallaceanimation #animationprocess #comingsoon #bmg #cardel #hippopotamus