AN INTERVIEW WITH JESS COPE
WRITTEN BY STEPHEN HUMPHRIES
In Jess Cope’s world, a minute feels like a lifetime. It took the stop-motion animator 8 months to create the 9-minute music video for Steven Wilson’s “Routine.” Working with a crew of three animators, Jess bought Steven’s story of a bereaved mother to life through fractional, infinitesimal movements of a solitary puppet. On a good day, they’d notch up 12 seconds of footage. You’d think it would make an animator contemplate a career change to the fast-paced world of snail racing. But Jess, who describes herself as an impatient person, gets so immersed in her creative world that each day whizzes by. She’s driven by an obsessive compulsive desire to get everything right. Her four music videos for Steven—“Routine”, “Drive Home”, “The Raven that Refused to Sing” and the Storm Corrosion song “Drag Ropes”—are testament to the painstaking excellence of her creative vision.
Chatting via Skype from her home in North Yorkshire, Jess explained how she met the considerable technical challenges of each video and why she feels a kinship with Steven’s music.
You grew up in South Africa. Can you tell me how you became a professional stop-motion animator?
When I was 11, my dad got us a video of “The Nightmare before Christmas”. I remember thinking, “That’s what I want to do.” I didn’t know what exactly it was that I wanted to do on a film such as this, but I knew I wanted to one day work on a Tim Burton film. I decided, “I can do animation because nobody has to look at me, or know who I am, and I can hide behind a camera and make other things move.”
Outwardly, I seem like quite an outgoing, happy personality, but there’s another part of me that I can never express in real life and the only place I can do it is in my work. It’s always been like that. As a kid, I designed characters. I had a character called Mr. Pokey Eye Man—he’s a guy who stuck his finger in his eye and pulls his eyeball out. It’s a weird thing for a child to draw, I know… I did another one about a beautiful girl with curly hair that based on one of my best friends. It was like a poem. At the end she went bald and was miserable!
Searching for a university, I looked for a course where I could do stop-motion animation. I found the Edinburgh College of Art. For my degree film, I got the highest mark of my year and I got an award, which was great, but it’s so difficult to get into the industry. My mum sent me an email about how you could apply for funding from the arts council to do a short film for Channel 4. I spoke to Simon Cartwright, one of my friends whom I met on the course I did at ECA, and he wanted to do it with me. We spent a year making a six-minute film called “The Astronomer’s Sun”. Through that, I got invited to go work at Mackinnon & Saunders. They made the puppets for Tim Burton’s “Corpse Bride” and Wes Anderson’s “Fantastic Mr. Fox”. I got invited to build the puppets for Burton’s “Frankenweenie” and did that for about eight months. The whole time I was there, I thought about asking if I could do some testing [to be an animator]. I had only ever animated on my degree film and the Channel Four film. I did a two-day test and I got the job. The way that I did it was just intuition and plain determination. I muddled my way through and hoped it would work and somehow it did!
The first music video you worked on with Steven was “Drag Ropes”, the Storm Corrosion song. How did that come about?
When I finished working on “Frankenweenie”, I went to South Africa for holiday. My sister Lisa, who worked at Roadrunner records, got in touch and said, “Jess, we’ve got a band that need a 10 minute video, do you think you could do it?”
One of the things Lisa mentioned is that the band wanted a scene of a witch being hung. I said, “I’m in!” Then I thought, “How am I going to do 10 minutes and also meet the deadline they had?” We decided to use shadow puppets to speed up the filming time.
Do you recall talking to Steven and Mikael Åkerfeldt about what they were looking for?
I knew of Opeth, but hadn’t heard much of the music. I hadn’t heard of Steven Wilson at that time. This helped though when making the video, as I wasn’t scared about doing it because I wasn’t overawed by them. That allowed me to talk to them as other artists rather than famous folk. However, I soon realized the magnitude of what I was doing once I researched and found both of them had a massive fan base. I had no idea that we’d get over a million views on YouTube. Not knowing probably worked in my favour while I was making it.
Mikael said they wanted it to look like the kind of stuff they watched as kids that made them feel really creeped out. So by that I deduced that they wanted it to look very handmade. I spent about two weeks going to sleep with the song just playing on repeat. Then I played the ideas out in my head with my eyes closed. That’s pretty much my process. I listen to a song over and over again and then ideas start to form. Then I start to structure a narrative. So it was their music that guided me really and gave me nightmares to boot!
You’d never actually worked with shadow puppets before “Drag Ropes”. No pressure there, then.
We made it in our garage in South Africa by converting half of it into a film set. We didn’t exactly stick to health and safety regulations!
Making it at home in South Africa, everyone in my family was able to help. My mum is a painter. My dad is an interior designer. My brother is a product designer, so he is constantly solving problems and finding ways to do things. My brother and my dad helped me make the sets and the screens. You know the bit where the character is running through the woods and we see the trees passing by? They made a really cool pulley thing. The trees were painted in acetate and they were just winding it from one end to another into a roll. My mum helped me to devise ways of wiring the puppets and we figured out how we could move the heads and jaws.
Steven then hired you to make a video for “The Raven that Refused to Sing”. Can you describe how you conceived the look of it, which is similar to what Hajo Müller created for the illustrated version in the hardcover book version of the album.
I remember the first time I met Steven in person. He asked me to go to his house in Hemel Hempstead. It was very relaxed. He sat me down in his studio to play me the song. I was sitting there thinking, “Oh shit, I hope I like this song,” because I didn’t know what to expect. I just sat on his couch and closed my eyes. From the moment it started, I immediately had a flood of ideas.
Steven said, “You can do this in your own style or use Hajo’s.” I said, “Why would I use my own style when we already have Hajo’s? This is a package.” It felt like we were a team and it would have been weird to veer away from the book. All of Hajo’s characters were really chunky so his style just lent itself to making really good puppets.
I had to go away for a few days and sit with my sketchbook and think about it. This was the same time as I was working on a children’s television series called “Postman Pat”. It was difficult to work on “Postman Pat” while I had these dark ideas. Every lunch break I’d sit and try to get into a really dark head space…it was hard then to get out of it.
The video for “The Raven that Refused to Sing” was the first time you’d worked with cut-out puppets against panes of glass. You really throw yourself into the deep end of projects!
I don’t know why! Steven likes to say, “Ok, we’ve done that. Now we’ve got to up the bar a bit.”
It became obvious when we were doing some shots on “Drag Ropes” that they would have been so much better if we were animating it on glass. So we read up on how to design a multi-plane, a frame with loads of slots for glass. It had five or six layers of glass and those would create depth of field. So the camera would be literally looking down on the glass.
We converted my parents’ house in the UK into a studio and blacked out all the rooms. We had pieces of scenery on different planes. We used sugar for snow. If you focus your camera on the top layer of glass with your character on the top, everything in background will be slightly soft. You get a beautiful depth of field so that you are looking into the set. What happened was, when we had to light the character on the top layer, it would create a shadow onto the lower layer of sugar, which was not a good thing. If you are lighting the character from the left and the right, it tends to create two shadows. That is something we had to learn the hard way. Don’t ever animate with sugar because it moves and it melts! So we had all these problems while we were filming that you can’t fix in post-production.
On “Drive Home”, you had leeway to develop the story to make it less of a ghost story like the original and more of a psychological horror. How did you develop that?
We didn’t want to create another ghost story because we didn’t want to repeat “The Raven” and what we’d already done. That’s when we thought we should do something psychological in the main character’s head. We decided to tell the story in two different time frames, past and present, and use two different styles of animation to signify the difference between the two. My forte is stop-motion animation and I thought this was the perfect chance to get little bit of stop-motion into the video.
Can you describe how you exactly match the frames in your animation to sync with moments in the music? For example, in “Drive Home,” the character falls smack into the water at the exact moment when the outro guitar solo begins.
We use an animatic, which is a storyboard timed to the music. I had to trust my editor, Topher Holland. An editor has a whole different way of putting a narrative together. On all three films, some points didn’t hit at the right time with the music. We overshot. You do a longer version and the editor has got to make it work. I don’t know how he did it, because he had to chip tiny frames from all the previous shots to make it work perfectly.
With “Routine,” how was the story developed? The video reveals how the woman lost her family, which the lyrics don’t specify.
When we chatted about the idea with Steven, he gave us an article about a woman who lost her entire family to a school shooting. When I listened to it, the first thing that I heard was seagulls. So I thought, “This woman lives on a cliff.” The beach house is based on our beach house in South Africa. The house from “Beetlejuice” also influenced the look.
What, technically, was the most difficult aspect of making the “Routine” video?
We had hired a studio. Unfortunately, the floor moved every time we stood near the set. It moved the camera and it moved the set. We had signed a lease for this studio, so we couldn’t drop it. We had to hire another one which had a solid floor. But, even then, we had lighting flicker. When you do stop motion animation, there is so much fluctuation. You need to black out the room. Any light leak can mess your shot up. That’s why stop motion is such an unpredictable process. It took us 8 months.
Can you tell me the stop-motion tricks behind scenes such as the one in which the character drops a plate?
We rigged it. We’d glue aluminium wire, which is rigid enough to hold the plate. As soon as the plate hit the floor, I had to break the plate up and then rig another three wires to each piece of plate and animate the bounce. When you’re animating with a rig, you also have to take a plate shot, which is a shot where you remove all the wires. So, for every frame, you have to remove everything that you’ve animated so that you’ve got a clean plate between every shot. Then, at the end, you use photoshop. You’ve got the background, because you have the clean plate, so you make two layers in photoshop and paint out the wires.
With stop-motion animation like “Routine,” there’s no facial movement except for the eyes. Does that make it even more challenging to convey a range of emotion and, importantly, to make viewers feel connected to the doll on screen?
You can tell a lot from somebody’s eyes. On “Routine”, there are two subtle changes. She has a sad face and a happy face. The happy head was only used for a fraction of the film at the very end when the character reads the cards that she hadn’t opened. It’s so subtle, but there’s a change and the colours are brighter.
When I originally set the brief for Beth Jupe, who made the head, the eyes were difficult thing. I got the head cast with eyes that didn’t move but we were going to put pupils on them. I knew straightaway that the only way that she was going to tell how she’s feeling is through her eyes. I needed to give her eyes depth. So I cut the head apart and I had to drill out the eye because she just had solid eyes. I brought dolls eyes that had depth. I made her blink with eyelids. I set the eyes in silicone and then we could inject glycerin into her eyes so that it would give them a shine and also allow them to move. We could move them with a toothpick. That made all the difference. If they were just black pupils, you wouldn’t get that feeling. That literally set us back a month but it had to be done.
You don’t need a character to have dialogue. It’s all about how you convey a feeling and emotion in the character’s movement. That’s the biggest thing I’ve learned in animation.
Can you describe the experience of watching your videos screened at Steven’s Royal Albert Hall shows?
Steven said, “I’d really like it if you could come out and take a bow.” The night before, I could not sleep. I thought I would walk out and trip or I’d just stay too long. But Steven’s fan base is so kind. The majority of the comments online—I do read them, because I’m sad—are so lovely. It was fine. I walked out. I didn’t fall over. I whispered in his ear, “Tell me when I need to leave.” I also said, “Hug me so that I don’t fall over.” I was meant to come out for the second bow at the end but I ran away.
What makes me laugh, is that because I am so close to it, the only time I ever felt anything watching “Routine” was at the Royal Albert Hall. Whenever I watch it, all I can see are the mistakes. Nobody else can see them…well that’s what I hoped until fans started pulling out mistakes that I hadn’t even noticed…doh. Out of all the videos that I’ve done for Steven, “Routine” was the one that almost broke me.
Steven said to me, “It’s a real big deal when you look out into the audience and you seeing people crying.”
Are you a fan of Steven’s music?
As soon as I started making music videos for Steven, it opened my eyes to a whole different kind of music—like progressive rock. Every video that I’ve done for Steven, I’m not sick of any of the songs. That usually happens when you work on something for long amount of time. When we were making “Routine”, it would get stuck in our heads. I remember going in to see our prop maker Alison Cross and she was humming something and I said, “Are you seriously humming ‘Routine’?”
I absolutely love “Ljudet Innan” on “Storm Corrosion”. That song, I cannot get enough of it. I also really like “Happy Returns”. I would’ve loved to have done a music video for that.
What do you admire about Steven as an artist?
He’s very open to developing somebody else’s vision without hindering it. I think he chooses the people he works with for a reason. So instead of trying to dictate what they do, he allows their creativity to mold to his own. He’s chosen really well. When I first met Hajo, we clicked—we all come from the same crop. Me, Hajo and Steven created something really beautiful together.
On Facebook, you once said the following about your work, “I spend most of my time trying to make people cry.” Like Steven, you’re drawn toward creating melancholy work. Why is that on your part?
I find it easier to make people cry than to make people laugh. Maybe my next project is to get a laugh? Who knows?
When it comes to my work, I find it easier to get into that other zone that Steven does. I think that’s why Steven’s music allows me to make visuals that go hand-in-hand with his music. There is something that Steven said, “Happy music makes me miserable and miserable music makes me happy.” I find myself listening to music that is the saddest, most depressing stuff. It brews something in my brain creatively. I think that’s why Steven and I work so well together. We are definitely going to do collaborate in the future because we are a good team.