Why Brandon Dickerson Did It the Hard Way

When last we spoke to director Brandon Dickerson, he had just finished a Web campaign visualizing Microsoft's "People Ready" slogan, shot in 35mm and featuring elaborate speed-ramps that required an unusual level of planning and attention to detail to execute in camera. Now, he's just finished a Switchfoot music video that featured painstakingly realized "photomation" scenes – created by inkjet-printing 1224 separate frames of HVX200-captured performance footage, hand-tearing the band members out of each frame, and then re-photographing the performance, frame by frame, on a cardboard-box stage. The lo-fi results – Dickerson says the aesthetic is akin to "sophomore friends ditching school and messing around with someone's dad's camera equipment in a garage" – are in rotation on Fuse and are a bigger hit on YouTube. We asked Dickerson about his P2 workflow, the rise of Final Cut, and the appeal of doing it all in camera.

When we talked to you last year, you had just finished a Microsoft Web spot that had some complicated speed-ramping shots. And now you’ve done this Switchfoot video that gets a stop-motion effect using inkjet printouts of the band performing. In both cases you could have approximated the effect in post.

It’s true. But I tried to do things to make certain it couldn’t be done in post. In terms of the organic quality of the cutouts [in the Switchfoot video], if they were done in post – I didn’t want it to look too good.

Why not?

There are so many people right now with a lot of free time and a lot of hard drive space doing a lot of work in terms of taking things, technically, to the next level on computers. I always gravitate toward doing things in camera because they’re not as repeatable. They’re going to have an originality you wouldn’t find in post. Also, we had a limited budget.

And for me, because I don’t work in After Effects, it’s probably a control issue, too. Doing it in camera puts it in my hands. I have great post facilities, but once you get into heavy effects, that’s another artist’s involvement. Maybe it’s just that I don’t have a relationship like that with my post guys. Not like Fincher, who’s always reinventing things in post-production.

How closely involved were you with the execution?

Very. At some points I was the only one left after we had burned through everybody else. On this one I did a lot more than I usually would. I actually DP’d the whole thing. I went up to Toronto and filmed the band, literally just me and an HVX200 HD camera. That’s new to me – it’s the first time I’ve shot digital. I almost always shoot film. I worked with the guys at Plaster City Post, but it was crazy. Just me and a camera, no AC or anything. I flew up and shot the band on P2 cards, which was completely unnerving to me. When you come back, there’s just this data that you download to a computer.

Then I shot the stufff with [actors] Tony Hale, Jayma Mays and Adam Campbell in Los Angeles, again with the HVX. We edited the his whole video at Plaster City, with placeholders showing which part of the performance would be photomated so we didn’t overdo the animation. We got sign-off on the concept for the video. That’s when we bought the five printers and printed for 24 hours. It took 10 people 16 hours to cut out all the cutouts, and those were put into envelopes by timecode. So you had 1200 envelopes. My art director Debbi Andrews and I built a box, the performance box. From that point it wound up being 36 hours of photography. I was actually the one shooting each frame with a Canon digital still camera.

How many people were manipulating the paper figures?

By the end we had three guys changing each one, and I would fine-tune them as well. I did the Lite-Brite light show myself. They have a small insert studio at Plaster City, so I would shoot every frame and turn it into an HD-sized QuickTime image sequence. In the last few [shots] we ended up double-shooting frames, because 24 for 24 was overkill. There’s one where you see a really nice rack-focus and everything’s perfect, but it’s too much. The more jittery it was, the more it looked hand-crafted.

But you went to the trouble of doing the whole thing at HD quality.

And then the thing that’s crazy is it’s biggest home has been almost a million hits on YouTube. I could have taken one image and shook it. It looked so digitized. But I’m proud of the fact that every shot is completely in sync. Everything is the actual performance.

Was the YouTube distribution a deliberate marketing decision?

Yeah, there was a discussion of that. With the talent involved, had we done big-budget gloss it would have lost its charm. Right now, music fans turn on YouTube because a band like Switchfoot has a strong, loyal fan base that’s interested in seeing a keep-it-real mentality from the band, and that’s what we were trying to accomplish. It was intentional that this would feel hand-crafted, and that the band’s involvement in the concept would be higher than in previous videos. It was all calculated in that way.

And are you happy with the results?

I’m thrilled. If you’d asked me a month ago when we finished, I would have just needed some time to get away from it because it beat me up. I underestimated it. I had never done animation before, other than as a kid with a Super 8 camera. But I’m thrilled with the end result. Especially considering the limited resources we had. The best part was getting to work with those actors. That was a blast for me.

What did you think of the P2 workflow?

I had enough cards to shoot all of the performance in Toronto, but then on the long shoot day with Adam and Tony and Jayma, we had to actually – and this is the part that freaked me out – you had a P2 card, and you downloaded it to a computer, and you erased the card and started over. That just freaked me out. I had to be the one to actually do it, because there was no way I could trust someone else to do it. Working with that format again, I’d hire someone to manage the media. That’s all they’d be doing. It’s such a different workflow from film. Being a film guy, I was like, “You’re kidding. We’ll wipe it out and start fresh?” But from a budgetary standpoint, it was cost-prohibitive to rent more cards. So we used each card twice, and each card got dumped to computer halfway through.

It’s a transformation a lot of filmmakers are going through.

This was cut on Final Cut, too. I’ve worked with Michael Cioni at Plaster City Post for years, and he’s always been an advocate of digital and I’ve always been an advocate of film. I’ve been Avid and he’s been Final Cut. He’s starting to win the battle. I used to really die on the Avid hill and the film hill, and here I am now, saying Final Cut is starting to kick Avid’s butt. This was a digital product, finished in Final Cut.

I’m always going to love film. It’s like your first love. But I’m getting more openminded about the realities of projects for which digital makes sense. The biggest issue has been depth of field, and as that gets solved and people start using 35mm lenses, it makes it all more interesting to me.