May 19, 2010
Contributor Helen Schumacher speaks with Portland, OR based filmmaker Judah Switzer.
Judah Switzer is the 28-year-old director behind the esoteric videos for the most recent release by DFA recording artist YACHT. Fittingly for an album titled See Mystery Lights, the music videos contain the kind of mystic symbolism most often associated with tarot cards or Freemasonry. However, Judah is no crystal-clutching fanatic. His work has also been screened at several film festivals. Today, Judah explains what it is exactly a director does—besides calling “Action.”
Helen Schumacher: You went to college at the University of Oregon. What did you study there? Is that where you got into filmmaking?
Judah Switzer: I was fortunate enough to study the fine arts under some extremely moving and challenging people—talented artists and thinkers experimenting with ideas at a state school that weren’t really being explored at any of the more regarded arts schools in the nation. And yeah, probably a lot of their guidance helped me establish my own directorial sensibilities, but it was all explored through a fine-arts lens. The work was much more conceptual and procedural. I’d like to think that I engage this process in my current projects, that some degree of higher level artistic development is being applied rather than just making a wacky set and calling “Action.”
My school never had a “film school” so to speak. You could go the route of film studies (purely academic), or get into production through the journalism school, or study art and hope you had crazy professors who let you break free of the traditional drawing classes and other absurd requirements. I was lucky, and basically made bizarre Lynchian short films. Aside from my formal schooling though, I think primarily I became interested in visual storytelling around the third grade, when my friends and I began making silly videos and projects. In a sense, my upbringing as a so-called “digital native” also directly contributed to my own visual discoveries.
H.S.: More specifically, how did you get into making music videos?
I was called into a pre-production meeting in 2007 with a Portland-based animation studio called Feel Good Anyway, whom I had worked on a few projects with. The meeting was actually about making a music video for the band YACHT, and Jona Bechtolt was there so that’s when we met. The video never got made; I think at that time the animation budget was just going to be too high or something. But a few months later Jona sent Emma [Scout] Niblett my way when she asked him about Portland directors to do a video to accompany her “Kiss” single. She liked my reel and that was that, really. At the time I was still working a full time gig at an advertising agency, so I’d work 8-10 hours a day at my day job and then stay after hours and edit with Emma until, like, 3am in the editing suite, then wake up at 8am and do it all over again. I had a lot of fun working with Emma and Will Oldham, and the video was really well received, so it became a fun creative practice for me. And of course since then I’ve worked with Jona and Claire on several projects.
H.S.: I feel a bit silly asking this, but what is it exactly that a director does?
J.S.: Well, it can mean different things depending on the situation, but for music videos generally I conceptualize and pitch projects to bands that request treatments, then depending on the budget I hire producers and crew, help storyboard and art direct, and then finally work directly with the talent and everything during the shoot. It also involves making people comfortable and willing to experiment on camera, being able to communicate your ideas to people within an inherently vulnerable environment. And also, directing is about having an image in your mind profound enough to will it into reality, and then once you are in production and post-production mode, being able to have an open enough mind to accept or negotiate away from that original idea. A large part of the job is about coming to realize the loss of your conceived original image and instead refining and making it something even more amazing.
H.S.: Yeah, I always imagined filmmaking would be especially difficult because the level of collaboration required. Is that the case? Is it difficult to negotiate between your vision, the band’s, and others’ on set? In other words, how do you manage to be a part of a team while still retaining some level of creative control? Are there advantages to this collaboration as well?
J.S.: It is difficult, for sure, but I’d want it no other way. Having the opportunity to work with other artists is the most exciting and invigorating part of directing. I’ve been lucky enough to work with friends and clients alike who trust my own creative judgments but also aren’t afraid to explore other options. Working collaboratively will always solve more problems than not, and I think that if you believe enough in the idea you can convince other people as well.
H.S.: You’ve also done animation work. Is that something you’d like to continue to do and incorporate into your videos?
J.S.: Absolutely. I’ve loved getting into animation, and have been really lucky to have worked with amazing animators. Eric Mast and I are working on a second animated video for the Portland band White Fang; we’ve been tag-teaming on it for like a year now. And more and more I use animation in commercial projects, which is great.
H.S.: Most of your work so far has been shorter pieces, any ambitions for a full-length movie? Or are you more interested in the fine-art realm of video? What are your future creative goals?
J.S.: Yipes! It seems too early to talk about it yet, but yes, I have a couple of long-form projects in the works. I have an interest in continuing shorter video projects too though, especially with installation and performative pieces. Ideally I would love to be making and showing artistic pieces and still be able to support myself with commercial work.