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Q&A: The Perfect Worlds of Karni & Saul

// Featured, Interviews


Earlier this month the UK-based directorial duo Karni & Saul – AKA Sulkybunny – launched their animated music video for Katie Melua‘s Perfect World, taken from the singer/songwriter’s latest studio album In Winter.
The pair have been producing work since 2002, with previous projects spanning photography, illustration and films including the Will Self adaptation Flytopia and their BAFTA-nominated short Turning. Previous music videos include the BAA and Annecy-winning Float (Flogging Molly) and Winter Trees (Staves), which picked up the Best Promo award at Encounters. In Perfect World their combined efforts have yielded a beguiling work of CG in a world whose environment and inhabitants are made of sugar, evoking the distinct aesthetic and atmosphere of specific 3D-printed stop-motion techniques. We got in touch to learn more about the duo’s approach to what they have termed ‘casual fantasy’.

Having somewhat disparate creative backgrounds, how did the two of you come to work together initially?

It’s a long story but, in short, we made some short films shot on a primitive mobile phone for Nick Knight’s Show Studio on the theme of circus. Then Virgin Records saw some potential in them (actually K.T. Tunstall gave them the films after we gave them to her at a show) and we made our first music video, a strange but original piece we still love made with an SLR camera. After that we got signed as directors and that was that. Animation and fantasy work very well with photography and beautiful live settings, it sort of grew organically. It’s a strong mix.

When breaking down the production/labour of each project do you have specific areas of interest each or does it vary?

Well, Saul is an animator originally and Karni a photographer, so we tend to lean toward those directions. But over time we also drifted into each other’s territory. It’s just natural to be interested in all the aspects of the film, but we respect each other’s space and try and make it fair and equal on the decision making. We are each other’s first critique and audience, so we are tough on each other but we also know when it’s good. It goes both ways.

Katie Melua: Perfect World (Dir. Karni & Saul)

Katie Melua: Perfect World (Dir. Karni & Saul)

Some of your recent standout work has been music videos; has this format – or music in general – always been something you’re particularly enthusiastic about?

Yes! Music can fuel an idea, it can inspire you…it can also carry a story. Music and visuals are a great mix. And when you have a good video for a good song it’s magic. Also with music videos you can pursue your own ideas…and experiment a little more. It’s a great platform and we’ve made some of our best work in this way.

Having also produced short narrative film work, what would you say are the main pros and cons to working within the ‘confines’ (for lack of a better term) of a film set to a music track?

They’re very different beasts. With narrative film we have so far worked on adaptations of short stories, which leads the tone, together with our imagination. Also then you have ten or twenty minutes to grip the viewer’s attention, which is harder to do. You need to use what we call ‘the relief of narrative’, drawing the viewer in with a story and then drifting away a little and bringing it back; having breathers in the story and visual pleasure; playing with their attention span. With music videos it’s one short fast ride, but very playful and open in narrative. Anything goes. As filmmakers we like to push the limits of narrative anyway and be playful and experimental as much as possible. Otherwise it gets boring and predictable. Nothing is worse than that!

How had Katie Melua come to know your work?

Sumit, who is Katie’s manager, commissioned The Staves’ Winter Trees music video from us, and when he needed a video for Katie he showed her our work. They called it ’emotional film-making’ and they may be right.

Katie obviously liked what she saw and so it felt like a good fit for them and for her new album. We obviously got to listen to the music and had lots of ideas based on them…it’s a very intimate and personal record for Katie, so we felt at ease with the tone and style. We like emotional, open-hearted creations, with some grit and realness too. We had some chats and meetings and it all went smoothly from there…

Generally speaking the final look of your projects tends to evoke traditional/analogue animation process (cutout animation, stop-motion, rapid-prototyping) yet you work primarily using CG. What has been the main appeal of this visual approach/production process?

Well it’s Saul’s tool of choice…but it’s just like any other tool, you need to tame it and make it your own. We use mainly a photographic approach and CG animation to create landscapes of real-feeling things or places, with some fantasy. ‘Casual fantasy’, we call it….but we have also used stop frame and 2D Photoshop and After Effects.
Really it’s about the eye and heart after all, the rest is just to bring it to life, make it happen.

Katie Melua: Perfect World (Wire-frame to final shot comparison)

Katie Melua: Perfect World (Wire-frame to final shot comparison)

In the case of Perfect World in particular, the animation itself has a distinctly non-smooth quality that, combined with the granular, ‘sugar-sculpture’ look of the characters, many would be forgiven for confusing with 3D printing. Can you talk through some of the processes and softwares used – and considerations when approaching the animation itself – to achieve this effect?

It is always our ambition to achieve this kind of confusion, to give a material to the CG. And a material has an effect on every aspect of the film making, from the way you frame, light, shade, animate and composite. Our process is pretty much standard, we do a lot of hand sculpting in Zbrush, to get away from perfect curves and smoothness. We pay a lot of attention to the design of the characters in relation to the material it is made of. It is very easy to break the bounds of materials in CG – you would not be able to sculpt eye lashes in real world sugar, so we don’t try to do it in CG. This principle echoes through animation, you’ve gotta sit down and think, and sometimes try and animate your material. What would you be able to do, and what are the limits. The software is pretty basic – Maya, Zbrush, Arnold, After Effects.

Did Katie Melua have any hand in the concept of the video, either from a visuals or story perspective?

Of course. We came up with the sugar idea being white like snow (winter album) and sweet, for a feeling of comfort to go along with the lyrics and vibe of her song.
But Katie wanted a story of a mother and son, a more narrative tale perhaps than what we planned originally, but very heartfelt. We talked it over and came to the final story of peril, then comfort, to work with the way the song is written and plays out. So definitely it was a collaboration – but then all the best things are.

Katie Melua: Perfect World (Dir. Karni & Saul)

Katie Melua: Perfect World (Dir. Karni & Saul)

In a similar respect, in what ways did the track itself determine the visual development/story of the piece, if at all?

See above 🙂
We basically wanted to convey the idea that it might not be a perfect world, but a hug and sweet tea with sugar might make it a little better. Emotionally we kept the rhythm on the song trying to reveal the story in small episodes. Danger and relief.

What has Katie’s – and indeed, her audience’s – response been to the final piece?

We have had some great responses. Katie and her label and management were very pleased with it, which is a good start.
And then all the fans were very excited and seemed to love the mix of her song with the video. They are both quite fragile and delicate we guess…songwriting and sugar animation 🙂 as well as a mother child relationship. We had lots of coverage online and a Vimeo Staff Pick which is always nice.

Were there any specific filmic or cultural influences unique to the production of Perfect World?

Well, only our usual. We are originally foreigners and so is Katie, coming from a Georgian background. That’s a connection to being fragile and also strong at the same time, we are survivors but also very attuned to our surroundings and to emotions. As for film influence nothing stands out in particular, but we have many, many filmmakers and artists we admire and that probably effect all of our work in some way. Just to name some, we love Edward Gorey, Phil Mulloy, Pina Bausch, Miyazaki, Tove Jansson, Frida Kahlo, Francis Bacon, Woody Allen and many, many more!

Katie Melua: Perfect World (Dir. Karni & Saul)

Katie Melua: Perfect World (Dir. Karni & Saul)

Has your work in photography informed your approached to animation and films (photorealism certainly seems to be an area to which special consideration is given)?

Yes! We won’t compromise on a good frame and emotionally stunning settings just to make the animation work or make it easy, we are relentless on creating a strong visual and narrative – after all, it’s a visual medium. There is no room in our eyes for mediocrity. Not to say you can’t have imperfections – we love those, they make it more emotional and real…and that mimics photography, in real life nothing is perfect.
But that’s the magic.

By contrast the illustration work the studio has produced is distinctly stylised (something that pairs very effectively with the photoreal environments of Winter Trees, for example) – is reconciling the real with the fantastical something you strive for?

A 100% yes. In everything we do we try to find an excuse to being in fantasy. It’s easier when you shoot live-action backgrounds, but in animation it’s more about setting a world which the viewer feels is “real”, and then bringing in elements that are widely fantastic in that world.

Are there any future projects on the horizon you’re able to discuss?

We are currently working on a commissioned film for Nowness, a platform we love which supports great filmmaking and creativity. This will be more live action based but with lots of fantasy. It’s around the concept of parenthood but not as you know it, obviously. Quite a dark piece. We are also developing a kids’ animated series, something we are very passionate about. As well as writing our feature projects. And raising our two kids…the biggest project of all, and no pay! 😉

For more on the work of Karni & Saul visit sulkybunny.com

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