Video Chats: Phil Mucci on "Sorrow" by Huntress

Posted by Caleb Jackson on January 30, 2016 in Interviews

Contributor Post

Phil Mucci is a filmmaker who has made a name for himself directing visual effects and animation based music videos for bands such as Disturbed, Pig Destroyer, and Torche, among other metal acts in recent years. His work is astoundingly innovative, and really pushes the limits of what can be done with a small amount of resources.

We recently caught up with Phil to chat about his most recent work, "Sorrow" by Huntress. We talked about why post production is more important than it's ever been before, and also got to discuss some of the filmmakers who influence him, and why they drove filmmaking to it's current state. Take a look!

IMVDb: You’re pretty influenced by older directors like Mario Bava and F.W Murnau, and more or less repurposed some of their effects that they used, but what directors are you influenced by in the modern sense? Who do you watch and who are you challenged by?

Phil: Guillermo Del Toro visually has been a definite influence. I don’t think he’s the greatest writer in the world, but he’s visually an interesting director. He’s along similar lines to me - but he’s much more a monster guy. And the Coen brothers, definitely were an influence in terms of the human elements in their stories. The fun characters, the zany camera work, and plot devices that they sort-of revel in. Sam Raimi was a big influence on me for a while, kind of in the same way as the Coen Brothers. I thought Evil Dead 2 was a fantastic movie when I was growing up. When I watch movies by Sam Raimi or The Coen Brothers, or Guillermo Del Toro, I can tell that these are filmmakers that love making film; that their joy is in the work, in a way that it’s not in a lot of other films. Those guys get their hands dirty on the films, and they just kind of reek of their involvement. That I find to be really inspiring. 

Soderbergh’s TV show [The Knick] he’s directing and shooting it all, under the name Peter Andrews. That’s his alias, but he’s the DP. If you watch the behind-the-scenes stuff about Soderbergh, and why he uses a fake name, he’s like “Eh, it think it looks dumb if you’re credited for everything” but it’s him. He likes to shoot like I like to shoot; to be right in the actor’s faces and be right there with them. I rarely use monitors when I shoot, unless I have to for some reason. I don’t get into that, I like to be in the action, I like shooting it. He does a lot of great stuff that reminds me of the Italians in the 70’s, where a lot of it’s handheld; they’re not gonna lay down the dolly track, but they do it in a way that’s not the shaky-cam. They’re trying to keep it relatively smooth, and I like that. It feels organic, and it feels real. I think that’s the kind of thing that us as filmmakers get off on. I think some of that translates to the general audience as well.

You kind of have a repertoire, and more or less an auteur status, as a music video director. In terms of your personal preference, how selective do you get to be with bands when taking on a project?

What I always say is you only get to pick the jobs you turn down, you don’t really get to pick the ones you get offered, other than to make work that draws those people in. But every time I’ve approached a band, which has only happened a few times, it’s like “Oh my God, we love your stuff! We have $2,000 for a video.” And then you’re like “UGHHH!!!!” because you love them and you wanna do it, but then you think to yourself, “I won’t eat, I won’t have any money, I won’t have enough money for rent if I take this job.” That’s kind of the catch-22, so when the jobs come in, it depends who they are. Five Finger Deathpunch approached me like 3 times to do a video, but I turned them down, because they wrote the projects themselves, and I wasn’t gonna get anything from it other than the money, so it wasn’t worth it for me. I don’t know why labels allow bands to write treatments, because they don’t know what it costs to make a video. You get handed this thing, and you’re like “Now I’m gonna develop your screenplay for you; What do I get paid for that? Nothing.” Or when they take the military and try to turn it into their song. I think it’s riding on patriotism, and it’s kind of bullshit. I get approached by bands that I love, but they just can’t come up with the money. 

Huntress is a great example: for "Sorrow," Huntress did a Pledgemusic campaign to raise money for the video, selling off old stuff, because they're smart. If there’s a band I want to work with, but they’re not well versed with how the system works, and the money’s not there, I’ll often say “You already know my work and your thing is definitely something I can get behind. You have $2,000 and I wanna work with you, but look at crowdsourcing, look at Kickstarter, look at Indiegogo, look at Pledgemusic.” Because they kind of have to do that now. A lot of them have to do that just to tour, because they’re not getting as much money from the label anymore either. It’s finding those people, and figuring out a way to make it work. That’s part of the job now. You can sit around waiting for the phone to ring all you want, but it is kind of a proactive thing right now. The rules are changing and we have to adapt. Because I do love working in music videos, I think it’s a great way to learn and you learn everything, I’ve learned everything on music videos. I learned a lot on two short films, but deadlines and budgets are what you need to crank something out. People talk about “pure creative freedom” but I think that’s kind of a joke. You need some parameters to work within focus your power and energy to get your shit done. I need a deadline, because otherwise my mind just wanders. I'll love this one thing, and then I get bored with that and go on to something else. I need that deadline to get it done. You gotta get it done and get that last piece of money.

Yeah I agree. Deadlines absolutely have to inform the project. And with [Adobe] After Effects, as with writing, the possibilities are endless. you can make anything you want, but if you have to make anything you want in 4 months, it’s like “Well I could put this extra space scene in there, but that’s gonna take me an extra week."

Yeah, you can’t be Kubrick, you can’t be Kurosawa, you can’t spend 5 years making one movie. I mean, I guess you can if you’re independently wealthy, but I also don't think that you would. I don't think you would bother. It’s hard, why would you?

Yeah, it’s kind of the “fine art” mentality that’s just not really practical.

That’s why I think filmmakers working in music videos is great training because you’re working on a project soup-to-nuts, which I don't think a lot of people really realize. They also think you’re rich, for some reason. You’re there from the beginning to the end. You’re writing it, you’re directing it. I don't know any directors who hire an editor right now. I know they’re out there, but who’s got money to hire an editor? I guess if you’re really busy and you’re really big-time, going from one set to the next, then you’d need to farm out some of that stuff. Part of it is it’s film school now. We’ve all got access to the digital media, and the Adobe Creative Suite. You can go from one program to another, and they understand each other. You can build in ways that it cost a fortune to pre-vis before, but now we can do pretty easily. We have the tools that were only exclusive to the studios, or projects with a much higher budget. That’s why I think that something smaller that you can make on your own could be unique, artistic and viable in the new VOD-streaming world. We can make things that were reserved to large budgets a long time ago. We can have more creative control without so many outside forces creating obstacles for us. The studios are more concerned with marketing, and commercially motivated, but they’re not about the work.

Something like Danger 5 is just Russo the writer/director just going brainstorm nuts on all this retro moviemaking stuff. Its all miniatures, and goofy stuff, like people wearing animal heads. That kind of stuff, I hope there’s gonna be more of that, more creative, imaginative stuff. And he’s not even using a lot of computer effects. I think that's where I wanna go, where my stepping stone is: to tell stories with dialogue in the style that I’ve already worked out through the music videos.

I wonder what it would be like for you to make a movie, because there’s so much packed into your stuff that it reads as “movie," but the format is “music video.” So if you’re able to take what you’re able to do with that and extend it three-fold or even ten-fold, then I think you could do something really amazing.

Thanks dude. I would love to work in longer form, maybe not so much in the animated style necessarily - maybe more like "Sorrow," because I don’t wanna be in post forever.

And there were still a lot of practical elements in "Sorrow," like the painting…

It was kind of a practical effect. I just shot the actors when they were getting their wardrobe fitting done on green screen in my apartment, and then just built the painting in Photoshop.

Well, for all intents and purposes, we’ll call that a practical effect, because you printed it and hung it on the wall. There's also the 3D printed model of Jill coming out of the blood, that was a practical element. And you shot in a real castle, right?

Yeah, we shot in the Hollywood Castle. It's this goofy castle that this guy built in the early 70’s. It sits up on the hill right across from the Hollywood sign. But in terms of the practical elements, we kind of had to. We had to shoot and deliver within a month. So there was not a ton of post. I mean, the castle landscape in the intro was built digitally before we even started shooting. The Hollywood Castle’s exterior is not good for shooting, because it looks like a theme park built by stoners. But inside, it was propped-out like a motherfucker. It was decked out with knights in armor and shields, and canopied beds, and it just had all this stuff that you’d never be able to afford to rent, and we didn’t have a budget for a production designer. We were like “we’ll just shoot all the interiors here, and build the exteriors digitally, with stock photography." I use Shutterstock and sometimes Pond5. I use Shutterstock a lot because they have a lot of epic European stuff, like abbeys and old castles. I love building this stuff in the computer, but it’s addictive. I love post for that reason, you’re like Dr. Frankenstein. When you put it all together, it’s like “It’s Alive!”

Do you have any advice for filmmakers who are trying to take the same route as you?

Learn Photoshop, even if you’re a filmmaker. A lot of the effects in [Adobe] After Effects are related to Photoshop. They’re brothers. It’s the same tools, and the same theories. The rotoscoping tool in After Effects is the same as in Photoshop - it’s the pen tool. And Photoshop’s got video going in it too now. You can build an entire matte painting in photoshop with layers, and get all that color correction stuff done. One problem that I ran into early-on doing animation that you don’t wanna fall into: Say you have a rough comp in Photoshop, and it’s got 10 layers but you have done color correction or adjusted them to match each other. If you bring them into After Effects, you're gonna load up each layer of your composition with filters to make it all look right, and thats just gonna slow down your playback, and you cant get a realtime preview of it in full-res if you do that. So it's better to get that visual worked out in Photoshop first, so when you bring it in maybe you gotta put one or two filters on a few things to get the blend right, but you’ve already done all the leg work in Photoshop, which is a much easier, faster way to do it in full-res, because you don’t have to wait for a preview.

Also, I think the obvious thing is to work with the newest machine with the most RAM as you can afford. Working with computers and the Adobe suite is a key to becoming a better visual artist in general. You get to see things immediately. You get to tone and tune an image to your eye in real time, right in front of you. I think that’s important for filmmakers, especially now. I think the luxury of just being a director who walks on set, picks up the bullhorn, and goes to work.. I don’t think that’s really pragmatic right now. The more you know, the more you can do, the better you're gonna be with the people you have to hire, and the more you can make out of your budget.

Caleb Jackson is a Tucson native, Los Angeles based writer and director who spends his time pretending he lives in any decade besides this one. He tends to enjoy music videos with a little bit of narrative and a lot of bright colorful lights.

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