interview Jeff Desom

Luxembourg filmmaker Jeff Desom graduated from the Bournemouth Arts Institute in 2007. His senior project featured the experimental pianist Volker Bertelmann, a.k.a. Hauskchka. “Morgenrot” is an animated short film about a composer who’s plagued by writer’s block. Desom uses the image of a burning piano dropping off a building to serve as a recurring dream of the composer. The animation is reconfigured from early twentieth century photographs from the vast collection of the Library of Congress and old postcards of New York purchased at a Parisian flea market. “The grainy, smoky, memory-laden and exquisite short film unveils evocative, slightly ominous imagery of Manhattan. It breathes with an air of poetic déjà vu, like a dream you’ve just been jarred awake from and, even though you know you’ve jus t experienced it, you can’t quite remember the outcome.” (review extracted from http://www.current.com)

For this edition Jeff Desom developed a unique project together with Hauschka, commissoned by Plazaplus. The Ghost piano show merges old and new techniques like ‘projection mapping’ and projecting on transparent mirrors. Find out more about Jeff and his amazing work here. Be sure to book on time for their unique show during Plazaplus festival..


(still “Morgenrot” by Jeff Desom)
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How did you get started as a filmmaker?

We never went on holiday as a family, which didn’t bother me but I always envied the kids whose parents had one of those HI8 camcorders to film their vacations. I could never understand why those other kids wouldn’t try and shoot a film for the heck of it. So when I finally got my hands on a camera I would film my model train which started to bore me soon enough and let to more elaborate plots.
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Where/how do you get your inspiration?

I wish I knew where that place was. I should hang out there more often.
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Why did you use existing photography in “Morgenrot”, as opposed to recreate a mis- en-scene from scratch?

I wanted it to look authentic in the first place. Like you could almost believe this was some found footage from a useless experiment. You see all kinds of silly things when people get their hands on slowmotion cameras. It’s quite a childlike fascination to see water filled balloons, bullets or even atomic bombs explode. Of course those films are made by adults under the umbrella of science, but I can imagine the broad smiles on the faces of their inner child when they watch the footage back.
Anyway, to create this realism a certain amount of real textures had to be used. I found these textures in photos and postcards from early 20th century New York. In the end I didn’t just take the photos and pasted them into the film as they were. A lot of work needed to be done to get them the way I needed them for the shot. For example one of the shots has a background which is a 2 centimeter wide section scanned from a postcard.
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Most of your work seems rather nostalgic; not only the aesthetics but also the themes you explore. Can you explain your fascination for this nostalgia and old film, especially in the digital age?

Nostalgia is one of my favourite feelings indeed. It´s like warm water running down inside of you. If I could, I would bottle it. I guess all my efforts so far have only led to the few films I made. It’s like those mad scientists who build time machines or create zombies. I guess we’re all driven by similar motives to relive a certain moment in time or to beat death in a way.


(still by Jeff Desom)
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What kind of relation do you create between the visual and music/sound. How do you connect both elements in your work?

When I have an idea for a scene I often find myself mouthing the noises that would come with it. It looks ridiculous when I do it, but it helps bouncing sound and vision off one another to create momentum. I don’t think that either one is more important in the spectrum of a film’s experience. In terms of filmmaking, they’re both a science of their own, but a lifetime is barely enough to specialise in a single one of them. Most of my studies so far have panned out with a focus on the visual side of things. I will always be happy to count on the help of a musician or a sound designer.
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How do you feel about the increased use of digital tools by artists? Is technology overrated? What’s your general feeling about emergent technology in film, media art?

Since quite a while we have computers that can help you find a more sophisticated synonym for any word in a text you write. But if you are not careful, the text as a whole might not make any sense after you’ve let the computer replace that single word. It’ll stick out like a sore thumb. I feel that the use of any new technology needs thorough supervision. I believe there is this trap of automation, which I can understand for practical reasons. But computers work unaware of any context. It needs an artist to place the computer’s part into context.
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Do you often collaborate with others or prefer working on your own? How do you maintain the collaborative aspects in your work, for example with Hauskchka?

I switch between both ways of working. When you work with a team, it is a very enjoyable experience to have this sense of family and support. When you work alone you have greater freedom and flexibility in the choices you make, but since you’re alone, it will take much longer to execute them.
The projects I have done with Hauschka so far were very different. There was the short film in which I had to direct him as an actor and as a musician. In the following music video “Morgenrot” it was his music guiding the images. And this time it’s a whole new area for me altogether. We’ve talked very little prior to the show. Since Hauschka always improvises when he is live, I have to stay very flexible which is why I have decided to work pretty much solo on the visual side.
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Can you explain more about the ‘ghost piano’ idea that you are currently creating for plazaplus?

At the basis this is an optical illusion I saw as a child and almost made me believe in the existence of ghosts. It’s a simple trick really, but a hundred years ago it must have genuinely scared even adults. As I was developing this one idea, I came across some videos involving projection mapping and architecture. And that’s when it struck me that, since Hauschka wasn’t going to be sitting physically at the piano, I could project straight onto the piano. In the end It brings together this hundred year old technique with an emerging one. Now that I’m not a child anymore it is the live projection part that scares me the most. The old analogue technique is definitely more reliable than my computer which can crash at any moment.
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Watch “Morgenrot” by Jeff Desom with music by Hauschka:

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Interview for Plazaplus 2010, by Olga Mink (videology.nu)

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