Yesterday I put up some video work by director/photographer Timothy Saccenti, if you haven’t seen it take a look. He’s an artist of great depth and though he’ll lament how poor our internet bandwidth is and is fully on the digital cutting edge, his roots lay in darkrooms, covered in emulsion, with silver halide sprinkles. He’s working on a ton of stuff, and has his sights on a feature film, which I hope to have more on in the future. Here’s most of what we chatted about the day his new video for Chairlift came out.
BK: Tell me about your process, what do you do to begin conceiving of a video, is it headphones and thinking cap on in a dark room?
TS: Yeah. Basically I get the track and hopefully I haven’t heard it before, and I take it and go in a very dark room and play it really loud. Like 30 or 40 times. And then I do sort of free association for what I start to see, whether it’s shapes or colors, or an action scene, or protagonists, or antagonists, some kind of creature or whatever and I just fill all these notebooks. Then I go back and actually listen to the lyrics and see if any match what I was writing about. Generally the first wave is like synesthesia. Just really abstract, like does it feel fast or slow, is it aggressive or sexual. And then basically spend 2 weeks walking around with just that song in my headphones – which can sometimes be a pain for everyone else around me cause they end up having to hear that same song maybe 3 or 4 hundred times [chuckles manically]. Which is a good test… you know, you’re gonna spend 2 or 3 months of your life living with this song and living with the artist and getting into their psyche, so I have to feel personally some kind of connection to it and feel like it’s actually going to resonate with people and translate visually.
And then I sit with my collaborators and we see how everyone is feeling about what’s happening at that time. All the people I work with are very interested in experimental films, and art and fashion and there’s almost always some kind of synchronicity between what we’re all working on and we decide what we’re not going to do. Say for instance, this video we just did for Chairlift, most of the process was deciding what we were not going to do.
BK: What you’re not going to do. So how did that ipod nano commercial (which first featured the Chairlift song) factor into that or did it?
TS: Oh it definitely did.
BK: Is that the first time you’ve created work for a song that’s already been so commercialized?
TS: Yeah, it definitely is. And somehow I’d managed to never have seen the commercial. I’m not sure about you, but living in New York I tend to not watch that much television.
BK: Same here.
TS: Right, so I completely missed it. I’d never even heard the song before. When we met (Chairlift) a lot of the conversation was that they wanted to get as far away from the ipod nano, kind of brightly colorful, naïve positive feelings as possible.
BK: You were a photographer first, how do you think that shapes your approach?
TS: Well, right now I still do probably 50% still photography. Coming from that background has been really helpful for being able to execute these things as far as camera and lighting and all of those techniques go without relying on a whole huge crew. I can go in and say I know exactly how I want this to look, I know where I want the camera for that shot, and say, when we sat down with Caroline (from Chairlift) I knew how we should light her. Also, often with bands, when I first met them, it’s during a still photo shoot. There’s so much less pressure at that point, you can get to know the band, and they can get to trust you. It’s almost like going on a first date with them. And if it works out, and you know, everyone’s pleased with it, then you create a sort of energy and it helps to move things forward faster. ‘Cause there’s always fear when you’re going into making these. For the band it’s a lot of money, and you only really get one shot to make that one video for that one song.
The most difficult part is knowing you’re taking this piece of music that the artist has spent a long time and a lot of heart creating and you’re gonna tell them how it’s supposed to look and it becomes very personal. It feels very risky, so if you can do anything to gain their trust – being able to do a still shoot with them I’d say is one of the best ways you can do that.
BK: Sounds like you’re in the perfect position.
TS: Yeah, I’m extremely lucky. But it’s taken forever; I mean I’ve been working in the industry for almost 20 years now since I was like 15 years old.
BK: Ah, so your roots are as an old school photographer, film, darkrooms…
TS: Yeah, dark rooms and apprenticeships with some really big photographers and learning the ropes through that. Learning lighting, learning how to use film, and different kinds of lenses. Yeah, wet processing, with chemistry! Which I don’t really do any more but all of that is really good to have learned because we do apply it all the time, even now, as far as lighting techniques and aesthetics and things like that. Burning and dodging, and different color palettes and how to control saturation through lighting. There’s tons of dark room techniques that are much easier to apply now in computers but if you don’t know what the actual techniques are or why you would use them, you know, it’s kind of useless.
It’s easy now to show up with a few pieces of camera equipment and make something look very professional, very quickly and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, but I do think it maybe takes some[thing] out of the process. Say when you had to shoot a roll of film and wait two days to see what it looked like, maybe during those two days you were trying to figure something else out, and the film came back and you made small adjustments to it. I felt that lag in the time period made it so that you spent more time conceptualizing, or wondering why you were doing things a certain way. Also now because everything seems really immediate, even though it’s not, the clients expect everything to be finished in a ridiculous time frame. It used to be that we’d shoot something and the client wouldn’t expect to see anything for a week, and now they want to see it that night or the next morning, which ends up for making sloppy work I’d say.
BK: Are you a big Sci-Fi film fan?
TS: I think so. I like “Bladerunner!” I like a lot of different films, I’ll say that.
BK: I’ve been thinking about “Bladerunner” while we’ve been talking actually. Maybe I just do it all the time, but when you were talking about old school shooting, and you’d have a couple days to wait, I immediately thought about why “Bladerunner” looks so amazing. And it’s because, well there were amazing people working on it, but they had this built in time delay. For the same reasons, but also because the production went on hold, so some of those guys sat there for months longer than they’d normally have just conceptualizing an conceptualizing and adding to the set.
TS: Right and that texture comes across in every frame in that film. I think Ridey Scott at the time, when people were criticizing the story, he said well, “sometimes the design is the message.” Because they spent so much time designing it, and working out the textures and things like that. For me that’s extremely important. And I’d say for Sci-Fi, yeah “Bladerunner.” I hate “Star Wars.”
BK: Oh no.
TS: [laughs] I’ll watch it! I’ll watch it, but I don’t think it looks very good…. But of the films I’d say we watch here are things that are really esoteric. Like Alejandro Jodorowsky films (“The Holy Mountain”) or maybe Maya Deren (“Meshes of the Afternoon”) and things like that. Or Tarkovsky. “Solaris” that’s a huge influence.
BK: What do you think about Soderbergh’s remake?
TS: I did see it. I thought he was trying to do more like a Stanley Kubrick version of “Solaris,” it felt that way. You know I find the original one to be much more, sort of mysterious. I love Sci-Fi movies, there’re just not very many good ones. It’s so easy to do them poorly. And they play with the same themes all the time.
BK: You already got into this, but what other films inspire you?
TS: Have you ever seen [Sergei Parajanov’s] “Color of Pommegrantes?” It’s again, it’s more in the Jodorowsky range of things where it’s a lot of mystical symbolism and more visual poetry than any sort of story. I just find those films infinitely re-watchable. Or “The Planète Sauvage” also called “The Fantastic Planet.” That’s a Sci-fi influence. It’s a very surreal cartoon about this planet where there’re these giant aliens and they keep humans as pets. And the pets are tiny. [laughs] And then hilarity ensues. But I have a lot of friends who are very into films and they’re always introducing me to these sort of obscure things. And you know living in NY you have access to that stuff, you could go to Kim’s and find some of the strangest stuff you’ll ever see. I’d say conceptually that’s where some of our ideas come from. That and fine art books, and things of that nature. But then you have to turn it into like a pop video, so how do you do that. That’s kind of the fun part. You don’t want to just be esoteric and have your head up your ass and no one understands what the hell you’re talking about. Or being weird for weirds sake. Which tends to happen a lot right now. You see a lot of artists just trying to be really strange.
BK: Some one-upmanship going on.
TS: Yeah, and it gets tiring. There really should always be some story to it. We have this like “what the fuck” culture now where everything has to appear strange for people to think it’s deep. Even some of the things we do, I’m sure fall into that range, but there’s a concept behind it. It’s meant to be part of some story. That makes it re-watchable I hope. The whole point of doing any of these is for story telling, getting some kind of emotional message across… if you’re very lucky.