Butterflies: Creative Cross-Pollination Under the Whitehouse Roof

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Saatchi featured Butterflies in the New Director’s Showcase this year at Cannes. If you’ve seen this short, odds are good that you still find yourself thinking about it. To answer your questions and give you some behind the scenes insight on Butterflies, we’ve grabbed Sandro (director), Josh Bodnar (editor) Gentleman Scholar (VFX).

“The direct inspiration,” explains Sandro “came from friends who are being let go, turning 50 and finding it nearly impossible to get rehired for more than a quarter of their previous salary. They lose their souls and their identity. To deal with this loss of job, family, and life, John [Malkovich]’s character collapses into drugs, alcohol, and pornography to escape his seemingly inescapable pain…eventually contemplating suicide – a very real issue as mid-life suicide rates rise.”

“John did – as always – an amazing job of translating this story,” Sandro explains. “I give him a little inspiration and he just transforms into character. He’s no longer John – truly, he can make the crew almost feel like they’re seeing a transformation while they watch. 15-20 minutes later, everyone is clapping and hugging – he could have the smallest part and alter the whole dynamic.”

“David Lynch was a huge influence,” adds Sandro. “Blue Velvet – the character he created in Frank (Dennis Hopper), how he transformed Frank into evil – evil that made your hair stand on end – this was definitely an influence with John. Frank was a man we feared, while John is more afraid of himself and we are afraid of becoming him.”

“The visuals were obviously an important part of this story,” adds Sandro. “Angela Finney built this beautiful cage-like set in my studio. I told her that we needed to be able to smell the beer, the cum, the smoke, the scum – how he lives in the chair to the point that they almost become extensions of each other…then Josh and Gentleman Scholar really polished it all and brought it together.”

“In fact,” adds Sandro, “Josh was the most important part of bringing me into motion – he really challenged me and told me that it was time that I got into this world. Josh really got me involved and began editing everything I was doing. Our communication was so clear and powerful and he got what I wanted.”

“When, for instance,” says Sandro, “I introduced Butterflies and the idea behind the graphics, I told him that I wanted it to look like the beginning of Seven – that I wanted to take Seven and multiply it by 10 and really go dark and evil and gritty with it. I wanted to bring something eerie and revolting to the piece.”

“I gave Josh around 150 still images and about 15-20 minutes of motion, captured simultaneously on two cameras running next to each other,” continues Sandro. “Josh edited that down to 1:20 and sent it to Gentleman Scholar. Josh communicated what I wanted and Gentleman Scholar blew it out of the water. Josh has been nuclear in the creation of Butterflies.”

“Sandro and I have been friends for several years,” explains Josh. “We’re very much alike creatively and I think that’s one of the reasons we work so well together. We were finishing up a Nikon piece Sandro had directed with McCann Erickson New York, when Sandro tells me ‘Hey I’ve got this live action footage I shot of John Malkovich with a whole bunch of stills – I’m thinking we can do something really cool with it.’ So I took a look at the footage and said ‘Yeah, I’ve got some ideas of what I can do with this.”

“The first thing I did,” explains Josh, “was call my composer Matt Hutchinson. Matt and I have worked together now for over 10 years. Matt’s a talented guy and we speak the same language. He knows my style and how I like to work and we feed off each other’s creative ideas. I sent him some of the stills and said ‘make something fucked up and really cool.’ That was the creative brief. Matt came back with a really twisted track with all these layers of manipulated sound, it was fantastic. Then I began editing.”

“The interesting thing about this piece,” explains Josh, “is that I had two angles of essentially a wide shot. One angle was straight on lock off of live action; the other was slightly off center lock off of for still shooting. So, right away I needed to creatively figure out how I was going to edit these two similar angles. The beauty of stills is that I was able to blow into frames almost 300%. I ended up using the live action as the master layer and the stills helped me move around the master when I needed it. Since the sills were also shot in sequence it was easy for me to do lots of little frame edits of the stills to create a faux motion. It was tedious, time consuming editing, but the result was super cool.”

“My main interest was to give it a very staccato editing style,” continues Josh. “I also wanted to lure you into the environment and not give away that it’s John Malkovich. I tried to save some of the close ups of John for later in the piece.”

“Maybe because of my own roots in visual effects, I saw a really cool opportunity for a design armature,” explains Josh. So I approached Will Campbell and Will Johnson of Gentleman Scholar to see if they would be interested in doing some creative design and visual effects on this piece – and they knocked it out of the ballpark.”

“Sandro gave us lots of really amazing footage to work with,” explains Will Johnson, Gentleman Scholar Creative Director. “We had photos of John in the chair, toying with all the different props and just generally being John Malkovich. We sat with Josh and went through everything – we just played off the vibe and went super crazy. We were pulling images and adding them to a reference folder of frames and stills.”

“We tried a new process with this one,” explains Will Campbell, Gentleman Scholar Creative Director. “Usually each person serves one purpose – lighting, color, character animation – but this time we broke it into frame ranges, say 1:20-2:15. We wrote all of these on the wall and people would just go up and write their initials next to different sections. So it was really interesting because we had all of this creative freedom, and yet we wanted to make sure that the piece was fluid. We work with really talented people, so they stuck to the style matches, which helped maintain cohesion – we just had so much liberty, which ended up creating lots of ideas.”

“In fact,” adds Campbell, “we had a little healthy competition that grew out of this approach. As it progressed, everyone started to try and outdo each other. Since we were all working on it in our free time, the artists would submit their sections and inspire each other. We’d have people submit sections, and then we’d see each other’s work and redo the pieces ‘Oh, she used a skull? Well, now I wanna go back and add this…’ Sandro had given us these inspiring photographs and been really generous with the freedom he allowed us – he said pretty much, ‘Do whatever you want,’ so it was really free form and open in style. It was very liberating…it gave us room to thrive.”

Josh agrees, “I think it’s that unobstructed creative freedom that really made this piece something special. I think we all wanted to play with new creative techniques and have room to be wild and chaotic. Everyone involved really had a hand in making it great. And even today I watch it and see something new.”

“It’s really great to see Butterflies getting so much attention,” says Josh. “I’m excited to continue this collaboration with Sandro and Gentleman Scholar, both now working with Whitehouse’s partner production company Cap Gun alongside awarded director Alex Fendrich – all now working internationally with Cap Gun’s recent expansion to London. The guys at Gentleman Scholar are on top of their game, the Cap Gun team excels at production and storytelling – it’s great to be surrounded by such talented, dedicated people.” Sandro adds, “We want to put that attention to use and create some really, really interesting work…work about the big idea and the imagery and motion that moves us.”

While everyone is sworn to secrecy on upcoming projects, there is a lot of excitement in the air. “I’m always enthusiastic for the next project,” says Josh, “There’s never a dull moment in this business, and I like that – it keeps me sharp.” Gentleman Scholar plans to use the piecemeal system they discovered during Butterflies on their next project, “that’s one of the main tenets we took from this project – how much creativity thrives in freedom. We’re really interested to see how this approach influences our future work.” “It’s all about the big idea,” says Sandro, “thinking outside the box, a willingness to create something wonderful.”

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