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Channel Frederator Blog

Director Alexi De Campi

January 21st, 2010


Alex De Campi is a writer, visual artist, and film director (also director of this week’s Channel Frederator vid “Raindrops Keep Falling on the Dead”). Here, the investment banker turned jack-of-all-trades tells us about the journey to her current state of happy artist and her upcoming work.

Channel Frederator: Where did you study art/animation/film?

Alex De Campi: I have zero film, animation or art training, beyond some amazing middle and high school art teachers and a summer at RISD. Everything I know, I’ve learned on set, or by just closing my eyes, bracing against cold water and jumping in. I’m lucky to come from a very technical/mechanical family (my father and grandfather were great tinkerers, and were both still photographers) so the technical side of filmmaking holds no fear to me - in fact it’s probably my favourite element. I have a ridiculously nerdy love of old film cameras… my dream is to buy myself a 2C converted to Techniscope/2-perf and PL mount.

I’d always worked with animators rather than doing my own work: “Raindrops” was done with Ryan Parker; my “Evelyn Evelyn” video with Jorden Oliwa; the Stucklike and Dogboy videos with Duncan Brown; claymation in the second Forget-Me-Nots video with Anna Benner. But recently I’ve started noodling around on my own. I did a claymation ad for Etsy, and am doing a completely hand-painted animation for Flipron, the same band which recorded Raindrops. Tip from the top, kids: a 3min45sec video at 12s hand painted is a BAD IDEA. 2,200 frames. Ugh. It’s a very zen thing, though… and looks ace.


CF: Who are your favorite artists and filmmakers?

ADC: In no particular order and bearing in mind that objects in mirror are subject to change without notice: Jean Cocteau, the Brothers Quay, Jan & Eva Svankmajer, Jean-Pierre Melville (the noir poet of silence), Sam Peckinpah, Jonnie To, David Lynch, Max Fleischer, Fritz Lang. I’ve also been influenced a lot by modern Korean and Japanese noirs (and noir-comedies such as Sabu’s work) but can’t necessarily pin a favourite. I adore Bollywood films, because Bollywood is the only film industry in the world which has maintained a sense of spectacle, and the cinematography/production values are often spectacular.

Busby Berkeley is one of the most technically amazing filmmakers you will ever see, especially when you remember he was doing everything with cameras that were the size and weight of small refrigerators. I have a Takashi Miike / Peter Greenaway axis of adoration where I will sit through the 90 minutes of wank for the 10 minutes of TRANSCENDENTALLY AMAZING. Favourite film of 2009 for me was Roy Andersson’s YOU, THE LIVING. Favourite author is Thomas Pynchon, except for the detective novel he did last year which was pants. Read AGAINST THE DAY instead. Favourite visual artist is Jan van Eyck.


CF: Animated music videos are fascinating - what about the song influenced you most while putting “Raindrops” together?

ADC: A great deal of the charm and humour of the “Raindrops” music video comes from Ryan Parker, who designed and animated it. I want to say that up front because I am only about 50% responsible for that puppy.

I work a lot in music videos, mainly because I love silent film. Yes, I know that sounds like a contradiction, but I love expressing stories through means other than dialogue. I think that’s another reason I’m so attracted to animation (aside from the ability to blow up the world on a low budget). The way I make a music video is I listen to the song dozens of times. I am a musical ignoramus so I listen to the song looking for patterns and sound effects that create a story. Words, not so much. The visuals from the video come directly out of what the collection of sound effects and patterns tell me. I’d always had this image of the angel spitting the watermelon seed and accidentally exterminating the dinosaurs, and it was always in glorious Fleischer-vision. The rest came from a need for circularity of story and from what the song told me to do.

Music videos are a disorganised and last-minute business, and their budgets literally drop every month as the music industry craps its pants and goes into brace position. That’s why good animated music videos are few and far between - there is both no time (videos are usually commissioned only a month before they’re needed) and no money to do a proper animation. We were lucky with “Raindrops” that it was my first music video and I did it on spec, and even so we took about nine months to do it around other, paying gigs.


True fact: I got into music videos after watching Spike Jonze’s vid for Wax’s “California”. I thought, “man, that Jonze guy has a career where he gets paid to set people on fire and then film it, and not get arrested! I want that job!” Then I found out after bitter experience that music video directors don’t really get paid. Oh well. Still get to light people on fire, though, and have never been arrested.

CF: I read that you used to be an investment banker - what drove you from that to your more artistic pursuits?

ADC: Oh, I always wanted to be an artist. But I was an only child of very middle-class, conservative parents, who were like, you’re smart! Get a real job! If you become an artist, you’ll starve, and not be able to have nice middle-class things! So I got a real job for about eight years. Didn’t stick.

I am now an artist. I starve, and cannot afford nice middle-class things. But I am very happy.

And as a result of the years being an investment banking analyst in Hong Kong and elsewhere, I am also not afraid of numbers, contracts, stupid white men who think they can tell me what to do, or being assertive. So the journey was long and somewhat more roundabout than it needed to be, but it was a valuable one and I wouldn’t go back on it one minute.

CF: As a writer, visual artist, and filmmaker is there a one medium you are drawn to more than others or would like to work in more often?

ADC: It all comes from the same well. It starts with a story, and the story tumbles around in my head often for years at a time, then I sit down and write a draft of it. Another couple years pass. I find the draft again. I figure out what the story is - a screenplay? A comic? A cartoon? Then I start to make it happen. Really, my home medium though is the moving image. Everything else comes from that. I think in terms of pictures, and those pictures move.

CF: I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but has being a woman in a male dominated industry (in your case, across several male dominated industries) created any obstacles or changed the way you approach your work?

ADC: I shamelessly use the fact that I’m a woman when it’s advantageous to me. I’d be a fool not to. I’ve not consciously changed the way I do things because I’m a woman, though. Also, frankly, most people assume I’m a man because my name is Alex and my work tends to involve violence. But really my work is very much centred in the female gaze, not the male, and that’s really wonderful - it makes some people very uncomfortable when watching my work, because they are presented with tropes they think they understand, that a male director uses regularly, but the angle on them is skewed - the hero/heroine relationship goes off in odd directions; violence is committed, but against the wrong person, and so forth. And a lot of my inspirations have been male directors so I’m filtering, say, Peckinpah or Melville through a female consciousness and presenting a version of that which is at heart very personal and feminine.

And although I’ve smacked up against sexism in the past (o hai, investment banking world!) I’ve not really come across it in film. A set is a very meritocratic place. If you know what you’re talking about, and can make your day, crews will like you. The feminine tendency to do things collectively and seek compromise is a double-edged sword in film. On the one hand, things don’t devolve into stupid dick-measuring contests on set: I remember a 1st AD telling me how one director he worked with demanded to call everything (Roll Camera, Roll Sound, Mark, etc). Dude, my name is on the film. I don’t give a crap who thought up the good ideas on set, I’ll take them all, because at the end of the day my name is on the film. So my sets tend to be very collective, and everyone feels like they have a voice and are on the same team.


The downside of this is you can’t go too far in that direction otherwise nothing gets done and your vision gets torn apart as strong personalities smell blood. A director is basically a general and after a certain point you have to say, thanks, I’ve listened to what you have to say, but for the best interests of the film, we have to do it *my* way, and this is why. I’m also old (37) and very comfortable in my own skin. I’m strong technically - I know my cameras, I know my lighting, I’m experienced with FX - and I also have no fear of turning to someone and saying, “I DON’T know how to do this shot/effect/get this result. Here’s what I’m thinking. Does that make sense? Or is there a better way?” People love giving advice, and being made to feel smart. And it makes the end film better.

Women *are* desperately under-represented in film, especially in more technical jobs and in the upper echelons (DoP, Director, etc), and it would be nice if there were more. But then people of colour are also desperately under-represented. It’s one of the reasons that mainstream entertainment is the way it is, with white women presented as interested only in shoes and dates, and black men being cops or gangsters. (The black woman? She’s the white woman’s best friend, unless she’s been beaten to it by Token Gay). I’d love to see the DGA start an active mentoring scheme for promising female directors and directors of colour. Things will not change, and films will not really be about us (as opposed to stereotypical straight-white-male assumptions about us) until we are making them. I always joke that my goal in film is to be the first woman to win the Best Director Oscar (but I think Katherine Bigelow is going to beat me to it)…

CF: Are you working on anything new you can tell us about?

ADC: I’m always working. I’m like rust; I never sleep. Right now: finishing a music video for a British band, Gyratory System; pegging along on the hand-painted video for Flipron; working on a bunch of comics projects including my 14-language, all-wireless-platforms (iPhone, Android, Kindle, eReader) action/thriller comic, Valentine with illustrator Christine Larsen. I’m also about to go out for funding on my first feature, an urban teen thriller called BULLY by an amazing writer named Aurin Squire. We can do it on $1-2m in New York; hopefully this summer although time is short.

I also have to work at a day job four days a week because I’m unsigned and nobody gets me work but me. If I could just go full-time art, I could get so much more done. There is so much creating to do! Attn: world: you owe me a living. Hurry up with it.

Oh, my video for Los Campesinos!, “Romance Is Boring“, has just come out, too.

CF: Favorite dinosaur?

ADC: Clearly the Triceratops, because it’s a cross between My Little Unicorn and a Sherman tank.

CF: Best question you’ve ever asked a Ouija board?

ADC: Would you believe I have never - that I can remember - asked a question of a Ouija board? I am obsessed with tarot, though, from a visual/artistic point of view. When I’m a rich and famous artist, I’m having Anil Gupta tattoo full-size images of The Magician and The Fool from the Rider-Waite deck onto my forearms.

-Bailee DesRocher

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