Making of 7x6x2, Part 4: Co-Directing and the Director’s Responsibilities.


Part 1: The Beginnings.
Part 2: The Monsters.
Part 3: The Machines.

To watch the film in its entirety, click here to go to the Tribeca Film website.

Before I get into more details of how we made 7x6x2, I wanted to discuss a little about the role of the director. One of the most common questions Paul Pope and I got asked about the film was what it was like to co-direct. I think people were interested because individually, we’re both kind of control freaks, we’ve always been in control of our visions from start to finish. So what happens when you put two of those kinds of artists together?

We had immense success as a co-directing entity, and a lot of that success I feel stems from our personalities, but also in that we clearly defined our roles from the outset, and we gave each other input on what we were tasked with.

In order to do this, we had to do two things: address where we would be most useful and productive to each other, and then really break down what it meant to direct. The latter seems almost nonsensical, but it is essential for any director to understand, be they solo or co-directing.

Paul had asked me to come on board as a co-director largely because he’d never directed before, and being the humble giant he is, he wanted to have someone he could trust by his side during the entire process. We’d established our collaborative chemistry during the development of The One Trick Rip-Off, so it seemed the natural choice. Once we sold Tribeca on the idea, we had to figure out who was going to do what. It would be counterproductive to have us do the same work, and having two minds chime in on every single decision would be incredibly inefficient. We had to decide where our strengths lay, and go from there.

Paul is one of the great visualists of our time, his aesthetic has earned him honors and accolades, and he’s been recognized as one of the true masters of his craft. He builds worlds from the ground up, and infuses them with genuine heart and sensitivity. It made absolute sense then that he be in charge of the design of the film - the art direction and production design, costumes and visual effects. We would be remiss if we didn’t build a Paul Pope universe.

Paul’s got a brilliant knack for production details. Check out the Thing’s texting tools.

My strength is creating strong visuals, and doing them very efficiently. I can make something look insanely expensive and beautiful on a pittance and incredibly fast. I would take Paul’s ideas and designs and map them out, block the action and work with our DoP Jesse Green on getting the images and coverage we needed. Paul and I would both collaborate on the performances.

By separating our work, we were able to work brilliantly together. Paul would complete designs with Mike Conte and he’d ask my opinions. I would storyboard the film and consult Paul on angles and movements. We’d make adjustments and discuss our differences in opinion. It worked exceptionally well.

But this was all pre-production, and the crux of our work was understanding what it means to direct a motion picture. I always break down the directing responsibilities into three categories, and this is what I shared with Paul before we got into principal photography. The three responsibilities of directing are:

1) To Hire. A director is only as good as the people around her, and she has to have a keen ability to interview, assess and hire the best collaborators. There are many things to consider when hiring, but the most important thing to assess is chemistry. This applies to both cast and crew.

What is chemistry? Chemistry is a connection that you share with someone, when wavelengths are harmonized and honesty is enabled. It’s when someone intrigues you and makes you want to know more about them, when they bring something to the table that you’ve been dying to discover, and they’re willing to share it. Chemistry is ease of communication, of someone you’re clicking with. As hard as it is to describe, the beauty with chemistry is that you’ll know you have it once you experience it. But in order to get to that point, a good director has to be able to ask the right questions of candidates. A good director finds out what makes her collaborators tick, what makes them scared and what makes them exited. A good director makes challenges for their collaborators and takes notes on how they respond. A good director knows what they want and must be able to determine if their collaborators are willing to work to get there, and if they have the wherewithal to do it.

Paul Pope, Jim Pascoe, Paradox Pollack and producer Gary Krieg (foreground) during a production meeting at Native Films in LA.

2) To Convey. Every director, if they’ve done their homework and put in the work, will have a complete vision for their film. A complete vision is not every minute detail, although many directors (myself included) try to get down every detail as possible in our heads. It really depends on the individual, as some will have a greater holistic vision and others will be far more lucid and detailed. Each end has their particular advantages and pitfalls. Either way, a vision must be had.

But a vision in your head is useless if you’re not able to clearly describe it to your collaborators. I find that directors who are unable to clearly convey what’s going on in their head are the ones who scream and become belligerent. If you see the top kitchens in the best restaurants, you’ll find that the atmosphere is calm, relaxed and efficient. Every chef in the kitchen knows what they need to do, they are fully aware and understand the executive chef’s vision. Ever wonder why Gordon Ramsay shouts so much on Hell’s Kitchen? It’s because his chefs don’t get what he wants. He could easily remedy that (which he does in his own restaurants), but if he did that on tv then it would be the most boring program on Earth. The man doesn’t have multiple Michelin-star restaurants for no reason.

Paul and I had to be exacting and extremely clear with our team as to what we wanted, and we had to put our desires into objectives that not only conveyed what we wanted, but allowed our collaborators to bring their talents to the forefront. This is the difference between directing and micromanaging. A director will ask an actor to reach a place after giving them an actionable objective, a micromanager will act the sequence out for the actor and tell them to exactly replicate it. The latter will always result in uninspired work. You can give examples, you can interact physically, but you can never, ever do their job for them over their shoulders. Fail to communicate clearly and you will build only resentment and contempt, and you will lose control of your show. Clarity is confidence, and you must have conviction behind your words. People will trust you if they feel you know what you’re talking about.

And what if you’re stuck? What if you run out of ideas that work? Then you clearly ask your collaborators. It’s as simple as this: “nah, this doesn’t seem to be working, what do you think?” You’re being honest and clear, and you will get some good ideas in return, some bad ideas, and some things that you can work with to create a solution. That’s collaboration, and it only happens when you are able to clearly and calmly explain what’s going on in your head.

3) To Observe and React. As your vision comes together, you have to be able to take notes and process everything that’s unfolding. Sometimes it’ll go exactly as you envisioned, other times, because the millions of moving parts in making a film, you will get something different. You have to be able to see those shifts, observe them, and react accordingly. Reacting could be making corrective measures or it can be seeing where these changes are taking you. During this entire time you must keep a running log in your head or even on a notepad of how this vision is evolving. You must let your instinct react to these developments, and trust your gut. Sometimes your gut leads you astray, but more times that not your instinct is correct because your instinct is the real you, and you want the real you represented on the screen. If you feel the real you is not being represented, make the changes accordingly, give objectives to your collaborators that will push in those directions, and see what they give you. If the chemistry is right, if the objectives are clear, then you will find that things will appease your instinct or challenge them in beneficial ways because your collaborators trust in you and you trust in them.

Note that all three of these responsibilities apply to every facet of filmmaking, because the director is responsible for every facet of what makes it into the final cut.

Paul and I adhered to these responsibilities religiously, and it not only made our collaboration seamless, it made the shoot fun for all involved. It was brutally hard work but I can say with absolute honesty that I enjoyed every minute of it. Every film should be that way, where even the problems are welcomed as challenges and not as affronts. Filmmaking is nothing but solving problems and creating new solutions, and the more fun you have creating, the more your problems will seem like opportunities do do something crazier.

Making of 7x6x2, Part 3: Machines and Ephemera.


Part 1: The Beginnings.
Part 2: The Monsters.

To watch the film in its entirety, click here to go to the Tribeca Film website.

In the six days of preproduction for 7x6x2 we had the arduous task of building an alien landscape and the sci-fi elements that were commonplace in Paul Pope’s work. We’d already begun the work on the seven rock people, and we’d turned our attention production design and art direction, which included a desert campsite that had one very specific distinguishing feature: a giant mek.

Meks in Paul Pope’s universe are far more than just robots, they are extensions of mankind’s ambitions and flaws. They are sentient beings with attitude problems, they are guardians and killers. Paul’s THB contains the greatest of all meks, the eponymous THB (aka Tri-Hydro Bi-Oxygenate), and the graceful and liquid lines of THB are tantamount to the very essence of Paul’s Meks. They are insectoid, organic and fluid.

From THB.

Paul’s original script called for a massive terraforming mek that was downed in a barren wasteland, large enough to form a shelter for a lone repairman surrounded by seven creatures. Paul’s concept art shows the intended scale:

From a production standpoint, on a four-figure art budget with less than a week to build, replicating the mek on that scale and form would be an impossibility. We had to strip things down, but not lose the essence of Paul’s signature meks. We brought in art director Mike Conte, who’d done some crazy throwback sci-fi work for music videos and television. Also a bonus, Mike is the frontman and lead guitarist for one of my favorite metal bands of all time, EARLY MAN. You might say it was a match made in heaven.

Mike really starts killin’ it at 2:30

Mike not only had to build the mek, he was also responsible for all the sci-fi gear for both Bryce and Swanson, the young surveyor. This included laser welders, the camping gear, and the electronic workbook used by Swanson. The script also had a buggy transport for Bryce, but our budget and timeframe didn’t allow for it.

Mike started putting concepts together right away, because he had to source materials and start building in his workshop. One major consideration would be the transport of the mek - it had to be easily disassembled to be placed in a truck and reassembled the desert location. It also had to be designed to not just look like a pile of junk sitting in the desert, it had to have indications of a fallen robot.

Mike put together some initial concepts that were based more on Paul’s observation of lunar landings and early NASA concepts. He did 3D breakdowns for scale and measure:

It was a good starting point, but it needed to be bulked up and placed with a personality, hence it needed a face. Paul like the idea of a wasp / bumble bee, and Mike built a ‘face’ with dimmed eyes. The idea was to have a mek that had some power still left in it. Mike took two opaque domes and coated them in the luminescent liquid found in glow sticks. Low-tech solutions to high-tech problems.

With the mek and gear taking shape, it was important to Paul to ground all the elements in a tangible reality, and he wanted all the items to have brands and logos that signified an authentic and identifiable world. We employed the services of our longtime friend Jim Pascoe, who hands down is one of the most talented people on Earth. I’m not exaggerating. Besides being a design genius, Jim is also an acclaimed published novelist and international man of mystery. And he’s funny. And a great father and husband. We should all aspire to be men like Jim Pascoe. Seriously.

In true 7x6x2 fashion we asked Jim to create iconic brands and labels for the mek, for Bryce’s manuals and references, and for his provisions. Paul created space foods that were prevalent in his graphic novels, including things like PRO-JAK, PROACH and fruit hybrids. Jim belted out some awesomely hilarious labels that we affixed to tin cans:

Tribeca was concerned with Sony having modesty issues, so Jim modified that last label.

Jim also created a manual for robot repair and logos for Bryce’s gear and for the mek itself:

While a lot of this would never be seen in the film, it added a layer of authenticity to what we were doing, and helped create an atmosphere that we could all immerse ourselves in. I’d written about this some time ago when we included a copy of ZORD magazine in the film, ZORD being a tip of the hat to Blade Runner. The magazine was illustrated by cartoonist Sam Hiti and designed by Pascoe, and it’s a thing of beauty.

Put it all together, and you’ve got a believable alien world on film.

With production design chugging along, we turned our attentions to the human elements of the film - our three leads and their corresponding looks. We weren’t even halfway there, and we had four days to hold auditions, rehearse and source and fit costumes. It wasn’t getting any easier.

Making of 7x6x2, Part 2: Monsters

For Part One of this series, click here. To see the film in its entirety, click here.

We didn’t waste any time once we got into Los Angeles, the clock was ticking and we now had six days to design, build, dress and cast the film before shooting. We were met with many skeptics and naysayers, but we plowed ahead with aplomb and confidence.

It’s impossible to say our “biggest concern was” with this production because everything counts, but we knew the component that would likely require the most time and resources would be the seven monsters that surrounded the campsite, and the downed mech robot that would comprise the campsite itself. We started with the monsters.

The word “monster” itself is a loaded word, and we didn’t want to create one-dimensional baddies. All animals are complex, with social structures, languages and rituals. Our script revolved around a pack leader and his clan, so our first goal was to find our leader and then design everything around him. Our good fortune and friendships brought us to one Mr. Paradox Pollack.

Paradox is a fight and motion design maestro - and founder of LA’s brilliant Alien Fight Club - who has worked on the highest profile films imaginable, from Thor to his playing the lead vampire in I Am Legend. Paradox is aptly named, as he is one of the most gentle and generous artists I’ve ever met, and yet he has an uncanny ability to tap an inner rage and ferociousness that gave both Paul and I chills. We brought Paradox aboard and he immediately went to work, bringing in six of his colleagues to complete the tribe. Within 36 hours, Paradox and his tribe, beyond designing motion choreography, had created an entire goddamned culture and language of the Rock People, bringing Paul’s two-dimensional illustrations to vivid life. Paradox had given each member a name, a skillset, a backstory and a series of hand gestures that served as battle communication. They operated as an organism, feeding off of one another, moving in concert like a tightly wound coil. It was simply brilliant to behold, here’s a little video I shot of Paradox and his tribe interacting with Paul in Griffith Park, in character:

While 99% of these details would never be seen onscreen, they manifested themselves as true menace from the characters. Our screenplay had a much more complex interaction between the Rock People and Bryce, but our shooting schedule would not allow it. Because the majority of the film took place at night, we basically had two nights and a few daytime hours to shoot - about 18 hours in total. Factor in time to get the Rock People made up and prepped, we really had no choice but to strip them down to their bare minimum. But the characterization was key - these creatures had to be a real threat, and this is where Paradox and his tribe’s preparation really shone through. I am forever indebted to Paradox for the sheer amount of heartfelt work he put in, and I look forward to working with him again in the near future - he’s got some amazing, world-altering, magical ideas up his sleeves.

With the Rock People actors and performances taking form, it was time to turn our attention to the design and look of the creatures. We enlisted the talents of creature company MORB-X, headed up by Eric Fox, who has his own SyFy show Foxy & Co and was a much loved winner on Face Off. We called Eric and he was on board immediately - he had to, because we basically gave him a 48 hour deadline to create seven creatures on a vaporized budget, and he went to work in his studio. We sent him Paul’s original concept drawings:


And 24 hours and 500+ lbs of clay later, this is what Eric came back to us with, which blew our minds:

photo 1

We gave Eric the green light to build the seven creatures, including their hands, feet, and radio controlled faces. Despite the level of insane detail Eric was putting in to the makeups, we also knew that our Rock People, because of our budgetary restrictions, would also have to be built up in post-production, specifically CGI and sound. I’d never done CGI work before save for basic plates and mattes, and we’d referenced the creatures in the brilliant film Attack the Block as our desired effect, where bare minimum highlights would be made. This was our way of working around our budget to create the effects we wanted, the effects we could achieve within our limitations. We took the footage to Platige in New York City, and they darkened the creatures, lit up their eyes, and added small but powerful facial movements to the creatures.

Chris Stangroom, my Director of Sound on Lilith, went to work at Howard Bowler’s HOBO Studios in NYC on manipulating the original creature sounds that Paradox and the Tribe were making, and added more layers of animal sounds to the Rock People, including his own voice (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve made Chris scream into a microphone). In our edit we limited the screen time of our creatures to very brief, quick extreme close-ups, which allowed us to highlight Eric’s sculpture work with punctuated emphasis. The final combination of character, performance, image, sound, music, edit and VFX helped us create a threatening sevenfold antagonist that was believable and palpable, all on a four-figure budget, all done in six days.

During this week we had to also bring our human characters to life, and before us stood the daunting task of building a giant robot in the middle of a desert. We hadn’t received our prototype camera from Sony, which was being shipped in from Japan. Every night, after an 18-20 hour day working with Paul, Gary, Elisa and our core team, I put my head to my pillow, trying desperately to figure out the puzzle of what lay before us.

To be honest, I was scared. More to come.

Short Film: The Naked Zinester (NSFW)

Wanted to give a shout-out to Jon Nix, one of my insanely talented collaborators on Lilith who just released his short film 'The Naked Zinester' this week. The film’s got an astounding 14,000+ hits in just a few days, which is a testament to Jon’s skill as a director and the craftsmanship of his team at Turnstyle Films. 'The Naked Zinester' is a fun and witty look into the mind of an artist (photographer Aaron Tsuru) and his muse (Cherry La Voix), tinged with an air of what it means to reach one's limits and trying to move to the next level. There's a ton of honesty in this little film, and the characters are “naked” in more ways than one.

Definitely NSFW, but in the most fun and gorgeous way possible. Help show Jon some love by watching his film!


Soft Moon


Played 1,229 times

Music for the Weekend: Machines by The Soft Moon.

Finally, it’s done. My short film - titled '7x6x2' - was delivered a few days ago and was screened at a special event on the Sony lot in Culver City, CA. The screening went very well, the film was universally lauded, and we’re moving on to the release strategy. I initially thought it would be available to release today, but Sony’s got a new release plan and we’ll get it all out soon for everyone to see, and at that point I’ll be able to discuss it in far more detail. In the meantime, here’s a sneak-peek still of the film:

So after five weeks nonstop on the road, I’m officially out of gas. I’m taking the weekend off to recuperate, kicking back with a copy of Alexis De Tocqueville’s 'Democracy in America' and listening to the new record by friend-of-Lilith band extraordinaire, The Soft Moon. (Their track ‘When It’s Over’ is featured on the 'Lilith' trailer.)

In the meantime if you haven’t already, make sure to pick up the ‘Lilith’ DVD or download it for a fun weekend watch. We’ve been incredibly thrilled with the show of support so far, but we still need your diehard support to make this little indie film that could a success. Spread the word, pick up a copy for you and your friends, and be a part of a true-blue grassroots indie film movement. I can’t do it without you!

Order the Lilith DVD and Download by clicking here!

Have a great weekend!

Post-Production in NYC.

We’ve been feverishly plowing through post-production on our short film, which has tentatively been given a release date on November 28th. Yes. That’s less than two weeks from now. We’ve locked picture at Final Cut Studios in Chelsea, NYC and we’ve still got to color correct, VFX/CGI, compose an original score, sound design and final conform. Lots to do.

To call this little movie ridiculously ambitious is a massive understatement. To complete a 10-minute science fiction film - done on a desert location shoot, with hybrid practical/ CGI creature effects and an original score - all within four weeks from greenlight to delivery is completely absurd. Nobody in their right mind would even take it on, but nobody on my team is sane. We’re all incredibly stoked to be working on something so weird and wild, and we all believe we can do it, and do it well. We’ve called in a ton of favors from some of the best people working in the business and the generosity to make this thing a reality is humbling. I’m genuinely amazed.

Wish I could tell you more about the film but I’m under orders to keep things on the DL until the premiere on the lot in LA on the 28th. After that it’ll be available online for everyone to see for free, and I’ll really get into the nuts and bolts of what went into making this film.

Back to work!

Swimming Pools (Drank) [Explicit]

Kendrick Lamar

good kid, m.A.A.d city [Explicit]

Played 539 times

500th post!

Music for the Weekend: Swimming Pools (Drank) by Kendrick Lamar.

After a week of intense prep, we’re ready to shoot tomorrow. Actors rehearsal is tonight, creatures are choreographed, costumes completed and production design miraculously put a 2-ton mecha together out of scrap metal. We’re ready to make something really amazing. Will surface again on Monday morning.

Also a shout out to all my NYC friends and readers for surviving Sandy like the warriors they are. My heart and strength out to everyone without power and facing difficult challenges. You will make it through like you always have.

Be strong, and have a wonderful weekend!


Bat For Lashes

The Haunted Man

Played 499 times

Music for the Weekend: Lilies by Bat for Lashes.

I’ve hit the ground running as we gear up for our two-day shoot next week. Crew is locked, camera tests on Monday, casting and storyboards will be done by Tuesday, creature effects and production design done by Friday, and then out to the desert to shoot Saturday and Sunday into Monday morning. Somewhere in there I’ll find time to sleep and dream a few dreams.

There’s something exhilarating about shooting a picture without the benefit of time. A lot of our calls are on gut instinct simply because we don’t have the time for analysis. This is filmmaking by doing what simply feels right. It’s a new way for me to work, and I’m enjoying every moment. But then any time I get to create, I’ll enjoy it with all my heart. We’ve got some truly amazing collaborators on this project, artists who are willing to step up and help out because it’s just a really great script and high concept. And we all believe in it, wholeheartedly.

Have a safe, wonderful weekend!

A new short, and Festivus news!

So I’m off to India next week, and in a bout of midnight inspiration, I’ve decided to shoot a short film whilst there. Two days, two actors, a vague concept, and a ton of improvisation.

My forays into particle physics and mathematics have inspired a short story about what it takes to leave our galaxy. There’s a huge spiritual component to it, as the energy required to transport an entire human being to a distant, habitable planet in another galaxy (see the exciting news regarding the Kepler Planets) is something short of a supernova. We’d need to travel at the speed of light (or faster, like a neutrino or tachyon) to cover such distance, and to do so would require us to relieve ourselves of all mass. Hence the importance of discovering the Higgs Boson, which is a theoretical particle that has no discernible mass.

Believe it or not, I’ve concocted a very sweet love story around this concept, the base idea being that the only thing that can match the energy of a supernova is a first kiss. I know, I’m a hopeless romantic.

When universes collide.

I’ve packed up my 7D, a Zoom H4N audio recorder, two lav mics, a portable handheld mount, a gorilla tripod, a small, battery powered LED panel, five 32gb memory cards and a 1TB external drive. That’s it. Fits nicely into one little bag, and that’s all the infrastructure that I’m taking with me. I’ve already corresponded with a few actor friends in Mumbai and they’re up for the challenge. Zero-budget filmmaking at its finest.

This is exciting. Like shooting Lilith in Cleveland, I’ve got the entirety of India as my location, as I’ll be in Delhi, Mumbai, Hyderabad, Chennai and the Maldives. The beauty of the 7D is that I can shoot on the fly, and even in a pickle I can shoot on my cell phone if need be.

So now I need to hunker down and hammer out the basic skeleton of a script, and get it to my actors as soon as possible. I’ll keep updating the progress.

Also, tickets to see the world premiere of Lilith at the Festivus Film Festival have gone on sale. If you’re going to be in the Denver area on January 14th, stop on by. The festival is also going to be doing a cool giveaway of one of our beautiful Lilith posters. I had it giclée printed on museum quality, heavy-stock art paper and signed it. And it’s HUGE - 30x40. Definitely a keeper. Find everything you need here.

The unfortunate news is that I will not be there for the screening - I will indeed be in India - *sigh* - but the much better result of that unfortunate event is that the lovely and talented Julia Voth will be at the screening and handling the Q&A. I’m pretty sure people would rather see her than some nerdy Indian director…

My Top 10 Greatest Short Films.

Let listmania continue on! It occurred to me that in my posts regarding my Top 30 Greatest Films (Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3) I had promised to put together a list of my top short films. Since there are so many, I’ve truncated it down to ten films.

I had written some time ago on the importance of short films, and why we need to continue making them. It is without a doubt that the short film is one of the ideal forums for experimentation. I derive tremendous inspiration from shorts - they expand the narrative by working with less, they are often visually stunning because energies and resources are committed to a shorter time span. They can be the gateway to further career success - the Academy Awards for Best Short Film is a reality for many.

I find it interesting though that so many of my short film choices are animated films. I find that animation thrives in the short film format. Again this may be due to expense - it’s better to produce high-quality animation for ten minutes than stretch that out to 90 minutes at a mediocre quality level. But in the end it boils down to the story, which has to always capture the imagination. These are the films which have enthralled me the most, and to which I return over and over again.

Most of the films are presented in their entirety on this page. Take your time to view them. Watching them all will probably take an hour or so, so think of it as a free feature film.

10) La Jetée, Chris Marker, France, 1962.

As you might tell from my previous feature films I’ve loved, I really shine to films that are able to execute high concepts through low budgets, applying the tools of screenwriting, performance and in-camera effects. Perhaps the king of this methodology is Chris Marker’s La Jetée (The Jetty), which famously was the inspiration for Terry Gilliam’s wonderful 12 Monkeys. Marker tackles time-travel and future dystopia through the use of photo-roman, which is a fancy way of saying he used still photographs set over a narration. I was so inspired by this method that I used it in my thesis film, Abstract Origins, where I used still photographs of a lonely man wandering the barren streets of New York City. It is a technique that is startlingly effective, and I’m shocked why more filmmakers don’t use it more often.

The entire film can be watched here.

9) Wasp, Andrea Arnold, UK, 2003.

Andrea Arnold has inherited the throne of British socio-realism from Ken Loach, and has emerged as one of the UK’s most bold and daring filmmakers. Her films - Red Road, Fish Tank, and the upcoming Wuthering Heights - have already been given the title of a “canon,” and her subjects all universally revolve around young women trying to find meaning and liberation (both spiritual, sexual and financial) from the dregs.

All of these roots can be found in her Academy Award-winning short, Wasp. Brutal and unflinching, this is Arnold at her most raw and angry, and the double-edged title mirrors the scathing sociological criticism and environmental horror of the British tenement. Ferociously performed and effortlessly photographed, the film is about as subtle as a baseball bat to the neck.

The entire film can be watched here.

8) Mothlight, Stan Brakhage, USA, 1963.

I’ve written about Mothight before, and it was the first film I dissected when I was in undergrad, where I was fortunate enough to learn and be mentored under the late Stan Brakhage, widely considered one of the greatest avant-garde filmmakers of all time. Brakhage was an amazing teacher but he was also a stubborn, curmudgeonly old shit, and perhaps it his his defiance and bitterness with the norm that led him to create such astoundingly original and groundbreaking works of art. Mothlight was the first time I had ever heard of the concept of making a film without a camera - Brakhage assembled the remains of actual moths and sandwiched them inbetween two pieces of perforated tape, which was then run through a projector. The film is a marvel not only in its engineering, but in also its commentary on cinema and art - the living creature sacrificed in its attraction to light, literal death/ suffering for art. It is a remarkable milestone in our understanding of film as a medium, and is relentlessly beautiful.

7) Rubber Johnny, Chris Cunningham, UK, 2005.

A long-form music video (music videos are shorts, in my books) set to a delirious Aphex Twin track, Chris Cunningham’s short is a retina-searing explosion of body horror. Assaulting us with mutilated flesh and sexual vulgarity, the film is repulsively gorgeous, pushing us away with fetid grossness, and yet drawing us in with fascinating details of the human body. The film is the dangling carrot to Cunningham’s career - after a stunning collection of music videos and commercials, capped by Rubber Johnny, the world awaits his feature debut, which has been in the on-and-off works for more than a decade. I suspect when it does happen, it will be well worth the wait.

6) Paris Je t’aime, 14 Arrondissement, Alexander Payne, USA, 2006.

In the wildly uneven collection of shorts Paris, Je T’Aime, Alexander Payne’s contribution is the one that stands head-and-shoulders above the rest, a film that is deserving of its own feature greater than being in the one it is a part of. Payne has long been the king of the miserable and rudderless, but in this portrait of Carol, a mail-carrier holidaying in Paris, Payne perhaps gives us his most enigmatic character since Reese Witherspoon’s Tracy Flick in his brilliant Election.

Carol, who speaks in a nauseating American-inflected French, narrates her emotional experience of being in Paris, presumably to a French class or club. Her droll enthusiasm captures perfectly what it means to be an American abroad - delightfully embarrassing and yet endearingly complete and authentic. Payne shows the love affair between a mind discovering itself and the environment that catalyzed such a profound event. The film is dichotomous in multiple layers - it is shot simplistically and yet its compositions are highly calculated, its delivery is banal and yet its content is esoteric and complex, and the character of Carol is on the surface the epitome of mediocrity, and yet her grasp of the French language and her own psychological awakening suggests a woman of tremendous depth, compassion and curiosity. An absolute gem, and one of my favorite characters in all of cinema.

5) Ryan, Chris Landreth, Canada, 2004.

Canada is the gold-mine for the animated short. The Canadian Film Board’s progressive program of developing home-grown animators of limitless imagination and artistry is legendary. From classics like The Cat Came Back to modern marvels like Madame Tutli-Putli, there is simply no shortage of great animated shorts from Canada, two of which made this list. The first is Chris Landreth’s Ryan, an animated documetary that combines live interview with CGI and archived cell animation. Ryan is the real-life story of Ryan Larkin, a down-on-his luck animator who was nominated for an Oscar in 1969 for his CFB film En Marchant. Larkin, interviewed by Landreth, has been beset with chemical addictions that have rotted and fractured his brilliant mind, a condition that is literally etched into the faces and bodies of the CGI characters. The film is a fascinating exposition on addiction, celebrity, and the desires of the artist to be both anonymous and recognized. Heartbreaking and perfectly executed, Ryan ironically won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short.

4) When the Day Breaks, Amanda Forbis and Wendy Tilby, Canada, 1999.

The other animated Canadian short to make my list, When the Day Breaks was nominated for an Oscar in 1999. It is a true work of fine art, as each frame of the film was meticulously hand-painted. Pause on any frame and you will see a painting worth hanging in any fine art gallery. The film takes on an Orwellian-tone with its allusion to Animal Farm, but rather than a political omniscience, the film emphasizes the connections that all creatures share, bound by events and phenomena both mundane and galactic. A gorgeous meditation on mortality and happiness.

3) An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, Robert Enrico, USA, 1962.

"Lynchian" before David Lynch even got into film, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is perhaps the most chilling and macabre short film I’ve ever seen. Plastered faces with permagrin smiles, tortured and manipulated audio, and a dream logic that served to plant the seeds for future classics like Carnival of Souls, The Others and even The Sixth Sense.

Based on a short story by Ambrose Pierce, the film begins on the lynching of a civilian spy by the Confederate Army off a bridge suspended over a river. The man is pushed off the bridge, the noose firmly around his neck. What happens thereafter is a journey through the surreal, particularly a chilly and horrifyingly odd reunion between the man and his regal wife. The scene still haunts me to this date, and I don’t think anything creepier has ever been captured on film. The film won an Oscar in 1962, and was later featured on on both The Twilight Zone and Alfred Hitchcock Presents.

2) everything will be ok, Don Hertzfeldt, USA, 2006.

Don Hertzfeldt is the Walt Disney of his generation, except that he’s not a Nazi-sympathizing asshole. He’s in fact one of the notoriously most soft-spoken and kindest filmmakers working today, and his short film everything will be ok embodies his sensitivity, humor and candor perfectly. While one might think that animating a bunch of stick figures would be a piece of cake, closer examination of Hertzfeldt’s technique reveals an insane meticulousness. There are minuscule movements in the characters that take them from being simple caricatures to almost life-like people, and it is in this link to humanity where Hertzfeldt’s genius resides. The story, like so many other films in this list is a meditation upon mortality, but Hertzfeldt’s wry humor - based primarily through observation of small insouciant details of humanity’s fuck-ups and perplexities - is what separates this work from the rest. There is an endearing sense of humility in this film and the rest of Hertzfelt’s work, something which has become exceedingly rare for any film made in the aughts. Of note too is the film’s gorgeous use of music, especially in the ending. A special, beautiful film.

1) The Street of Crocodiles, The Brothers Quay, USA, 1987.

I’ve written extensively on The Street of Crocodiles and it, along with La Haine, remains as the most influential film in my life, and not just in my career. In this film I discovered my taste and aesthetic, and it was one of those moments when several different ideas, schools of thought, and conflicting moral choices comes to a beautiful amalgamation and forms a cohesive whole. I was thirteen when I saw this film, and at the time I was processing Sartre and Camus (yes, I was a nerd), my love of Gothic and industrial music, the sexualization and contextualization of random objects and substances, and my leanings towards artists like Goya, Munch, Egon Schiele and Marcel Duchamp. There are elements of the Brothers Quay in everything that I do, and it is highly prevalent in Lilith. A classic that spawned a million imitators, and truly one-of-a-kind, never to be captured again.

With this, there’s only one more list to be made, my Things I Liked This Year segment. Happy viewing!

p.s. I couldn’t help but put a strong runner-up in this list, which is Le Grand Sommeil, one of the funniest short films you will EVER see.