Director Brett Simon Pushes The Boundaries With Polarbear “Belly”

Eric Avery was a founding member and bassist for Jane’s Addiction and for Dave Navarro’s solo album. Polar Bear has broken up, but the re-release of their album “Why Something Instead of Nothing” is slated for February 10, 2004. He is currently working on a solo project.

Comments from artist Eric Avery

MVWire: How did Brett approach you about making this video?

Eric Avery: We’re friends so it was real informal. We had been talking about doing something for his reel. He mentioned that he had made some images with a scanner that had a cool vibe. I just thought it would be a way to help him out.

Brett did the perfect directing job. His original idea could have been too high tech, but by paying attention to the texture and character of the music, he was able to convey the right feel on the video.

Brett Simon has worked with Fur Patrol, French Kicks and Thrice among others. His short films have been screened at Toronto International Film Festival, Telluride Film Festival and Resfest. His videos and installations have been exhibited at venues from Barcelona to Seoul.

Interview with director Brett Simon

MVWire: What was the developmental process to get to where you are at now?

Brett Simon: I studied literature and photography at Princeton. With both writing and photography, I enjoyed being able to create something by myself without a lot of materials. In retrospect, I may have spent too much time by myself; I wrote a really self-indulgent novel for my thesis and I went a little crazy in the process. Filmmaking seemed like a natural convergence of my interests, but I was intimidated by the idea of having to network with producers and wrangle a big crew. When I saw my first dv camera and desktop editing system, I realized I could make movies on my own, without much money.

After graduation, I received a Javits grant and I began studying and teaching in the film department at UC Berkeley. The school gave me access to my first digital camera and I started making short videos that fell somewhere between narrative and experimental. Filmmakers complain about the intangible aspect of video but for me it was liberating. I made something new every couple of weeks. The videos weren’t polished or perfect, but I would finish one and move on to the next. I understood that I was working with new tools and I didn’t want to be held back by “proper” filmmaking. I worked exclusively with video, partially out of necessity but also because it felt more like unchartered ground. I kept telling my students, and myself “We have to discover what kind of stories video wants to tell, and how these tools want to tell them.”

MVWire: Did you have any end in mind or did you just want to see what you could accomplish on your own?

Making was the goal. I really believe that making is a sacred activity. It is something I need to do like eating red meat or f…ing; it is physical. The particulars of what I make are always less important to me than the actual act of making. I feel awful when I haven’t been working; I ache.

MVWire: Why music videos?

Music videos are a perfect place to experiment. One interesting problem or idea can’t carry a feature film; it can carry a video. I like limits: budgets, labels, deadlines etc. Limits help me create; creativity is sometimes nothing more than problem solving. Limits ground me; they keep me from falling into the abyss possibility. My friends who direct commercials are always complaining about all of the limits imposed by the agency. I pretend to be sympathetic but I’m really a little jealous.

MVWire: Where did you discover Polarbear?

Brett: Polarbear is a solo project with Eric Avery. This was his 2nd solo project after Jane’s Addition. Eric and I are friends, and friends are my favorite people to collaborate with. He has a rare integrity and a curiosity about the world that’s contagious.

We had no budget for this project. I had just bought a flat bed scanner and I was really fascinated by it. I made lots of contact prints and played around with scanned physical objects. I wanted to explore the border between a still and moving image; this has been one of the obsessions of my work. At what moment does a still become a movie? And at what point does the movie break apart into a still? For me it’s a moment of awe and wonder. I went looking for it with the French Kicks video, the Thrice video and with Polar bear. I had the idea of making a movie entirely out of scanned images of Eric’s face. Eric lay on his back with the scanner upside down over his face raised by books on either side. First we shot the different mouth positions of all the vowels, then the basic consonants. You can animate a character speaking with anywhere from 2 to 20 mouth positions. We built a library of about 250 scans. For two days we experimented with different kinds of movements and textures. Eric was incredibly patient lying under the scanner. Each scan was around 30 seconds long and he had to keep still the whole time. Eric made the best of it. He came up with new ideas, new things to experiment with. After he saw a rough cut, Beau Leon at the Syndicate offered to color the video. During the session, Beau created a stunning but subtle way to underscore particular moments in the song with color and contrast.

MVWire: How were you able to create the “sound waves” in the video?

Those things that looked like sound waves are Eric’s fingertips moving over the glass while the scanner light was moving. I compiled a lot of waveforms and synced his mouth to the song, then synced some wave positions to the music. Our eyes are so generous they make us believe those waves are a visual representation of the music as sound waves.

MVWire: What are your thoughts about the song?

“Belly” is a song that gets under your skin. Its brevity, its simplicity, its powerful and beautiful lyrics, the song is a kind of pure expression. It forced me to hold back from throwing in a lot of gimmicky stuff and making it too showy. Even though it’s made entirely of stills, I tried to make the video feel like a single take, a continuous moment from beginning to end. I wanted the viewer to connect with Eric and his music, not with my tools.

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