Inside the World of Stop-Motion with Chris Ullens

One of the breeziest tunes to have blessed us this past summer was undoubtedly Rex Orange County’s “Loving is Easy”.

The smooth track from young London musician Alex O’Connor is one you’d happily kick back and put on continuous loop—which is exactly what stop-motion director Chris Ullens did for two weeks straight. Charged with creating the cheeky visual through his prefered medium of stop-motion film, Belgian native Chris brought his characteristic attention to detail, musicality and humour to “Loving Is Easy”, an approach that’s seen him working with London Grammar, Kill The Noise, Fergie and more. We caught up with Chris to find out about the technical challenges of miniature worlds, the one tool he can’t do without, and his dream act to work with, below.

How did this music video initially come about?

The video commissioner, Chris Abitbol, and I had previously worked together. We then met with Rex Orange County (Alex) and we clicked straight away. He had a reference drawing for the room and said he wanted himself and Benny Sings to be performing in stop-motion. Then I let my mind run away with it by listening to the track over and over again. I had written the shot list for the video a few days later and Alex loved it. It’s really great to work with such open-minded artists.

The miniature powerpoint on the wall, the record player, the lamp… who makes all of these incredible tiny props?

It was the work of mega talented and hard-working art directors Jack Needell and Will Hooper. We bounced so many ideas back and forth with them and with Jamie Durand, my DOP (he’s a long time friend and literally worked on all my shoots with me, he’s ace) about the objects in the room and how they would be animated.

Two weeks of long nights and many meetings later, the whole set was ready as well as the animation replacements. Alex Williams created all the characters, we were so fortunate to have her on board! She had a single week free from working on the latest Wes Anderson film (Isle of Dogs) which she used to make our two miniature Rex and Benny characters. She did such a top job in so little time! Really amazing team.

What are some of the biggest technical challenges in making a stop motion like this?

Making a three-minute solid stop-motion animation in a month with a tight budget. The crew were really there out of pure passion. Passion for making and creating animation we love, and passion for the track that we all enjoyed from the start. More surprisingly, a track that we all still love at the end of the project after hundreds and hundreds of plays! That’s quite rare on music video shoots.

What initially drew you to stop-motion and what was your first foray into it?

I think it’s completely to do with my childhood and the way I played with my toys as a kid. I would always have epic stories and adventures going on in my room, or even sometimes in the garden or lakes to have different settings for my stories (when Belgian summers were kind enough). In many ways, it’s pretty much the same as me animating—I used to make stories with my toys and now, I make stories with objects and characters I’ve chosen. Basically, I’m still a kid and I like it!

It took a while to really get into it professionally. I dabbled with animation at uni in Brussels, but it was only after a workshop during my masters at Central St Martins in London that I truly fell into animation. During a workshop by director—and now a great friend of mine—Chris Cairns, I had a revelation: “What? You can earn a living having so much fun?”

And that was it, animation had to be my career. Chris let me shoot a 3-second test for a section of a Coca-Cola shoot, and two weeks later he employed me as an animator. I was so fortunate that our paths crossed liked that, plus I made a great friend. I was then an animator for other directors for three years, learning the job on shoots, before I had the confidence to believe I could do a good job as a director myself. That’s how it all started for me.

I watched the making of “Hey Now” by London Grammar and was surprised at how big the set actually was. What were the dimensions of the room in “Loving Is Easy?”

Very true, the London Grammar set was big as we needed it to be big enough for the string installations by Sebastien Preschoux, and to give a true feeling and depth of a forest. But we had a whole month to prep that shoot and a bigger budget.

This was a much smaller set, which meant that all the animated paintings and objects on the walls were smaller and therefore faster to make, as there were so many replacements to be made. There were hundreds of hand painted frames for the paintings to move the way they did. The room for “Loving is Easy” was 70cm deep, 50cm wide and 40cm high. The small size also meant that when I was animating I could have the computer next to me and reach almost anywhere in the room from the front opening of the set.

From watching “Loving is Easy” and also the other music videos you’ve done, I can see that you place a huge emphasis on the way in which the music and the graphics interact with each other. Are you a big music fan yourself?

Yes, yes, yes! I have music from the moment I wake up to when I go to sleep. I like music working, commuting, dancing with my wife in the living room, walking my dogs, and so on. And that’s all kinds of music: electro, easy listening (which shouldn’t be called that way, as it’s not easy), reggae and dub, Chinese music (that’s vague, but I don’t know enough to know how to classify it better), drum ‘n’ bass, film music, punk, interesting pop (a lot of it isn’t very interesting), techno, rap and trap, jazz (as long as it’s not too free), and so much more. I daydream about music all the time, I see things with music. Therefore, I love to illustrate tracks and to find images that will emphasise them and the feelings they give as much as possible. For the music and the images to marry, feels so natural.

Is there a tool or program that you couldn’t make your films without?

One thing in particular is a program called Dragonframe. Older guys doing stop-frame such as Švankmajer or the Brothers Quay were legends as they were doing it all on film with no means of preview; it was all gut-feeling and imaginary previews.

But nowadays, Dragonframe allows you to preview what your camera sees, play the frames you’ve already taken, draw markers, grids or increments on your screen to know where things need to go, and control lights through the program or your motion control rig. It’s a truly incredible tool and they keep on updating it by asking stop-motion animators and studios for their feedback, it’s really good.

What’s the most frustrating thing that’s ever happened to you in the making of one of your music videos?

Having a gorgeous film that you’ve poured so much sweat, love and passion into, going much further than the budget you’ve been given, pulling favours all over the place to make it better… all for it to be binned. We talk about one particular project at least two to three times a year and are still so sad about it sitting on a hard drive. We’re contracted by a client and they own the right to the images so that’s the game we play, but it’s still so painful. So every once in a while, we watch it.

Dream band or song to produce a music video for?

Being a big fan of electro music—which lends itself so well to ever-evolving playful animation loops—and being Belgian myself… I’d have to say Soulwax. I’ve been following them from the start and they keep on killing it, so I’d be very proud of that.

To see more from Chris, check out his Vimeo or website.

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