Animator and filmmaker PES likes to keep things short. Earlier this year he received an Oscar nomination for doing just that. His ninety-five second film, Fresh Guacamole, was the briefest film ever to receive the honor. We discussed what goes into such an achievement, as well as his new projects, which include a feature-length adaptation of the Garbage Pail Kids series. We also touched on his roots, stop-motion techniques, Italian cooking, Vine, but overall, we really just talked at length, about shorts.
Thought Catalog: How did you first become interested in filmmaking?
PES: I grew up as an artistic kid. I was always able to draw pretty well and by the time I was in high school I was experimenting with watercolors. Then when I got to college I decided to enroll in some printmaking classes. I fell in love with printmaking and studied that through all four years of college. When I moved to New York City after college I needed to just get a first job. So I landed at an ad agency called McCann Erickson. They saw my portfolio of etchings and they hired me based on that and gave me an assistant’s job.
At that time in my life I was really exposed to this kind of vibrant time in advertising in the late ‘90s. This was 1998-2000. I was inside the walls of an ad agency, which was intriguing because ad agencies, especially big ones like McCann Erickson, are almost like a vortex through which short films, music videos, commercials, all this creative media done in film comes through—because they’re constantly looking for inspiration to rip off for their next ads. Some of the ads were made by Michel Gondry, Spike Jonze, and David Fincher. One of my favorites was a Sweden collective called ‘Traktor.’ So I started being exposed to all of this short film content. And it wasn’t long before I was like… I got to do this.
I just started drawing sketches for my first film. At lunchtime, I would go downtown and shop for props. I learned how to use a camera by borrowing it from a kid at the agency who was too busy to use it, a 16mm camera. I just did whatever was necessary in order to prepare and shoot it because I didn’t have a lot of money. I started calling in favors from people that I knew from the ad agency. It was a pretty influential place for me at that time. It was inspiring to see all of this cool work happening, but it also gave me access to all of these production benefits.
Thought Catalog: It sounds like film school, but without all the debt.
PES: Exactly. That’s what it was. I had a good relationship with my boss so he let me come and go basically as I wanted. I think at that time he was just excited that I was this young kid that really wanted to make some films. I don’t think anyone believes that you can make a good film until you put one right in front of them. And then they’re like, “Holy fuck. How did you do that?”
I just started making my own stuff. I didn’t want to be pitching my ideas to clients asking for permission to make my ideas. I needed to be able to make an idea that I want to make and have no one stand in the way. I just couldn’t make a million dollar idea. I had to just make what I could make with stuff that was available to me at a low budget.
When I had the idea to make Roof Sex everyone at the agency thought I was crazy. ‘What he’s going to devote six months of his life to making two chairs have sex on a roof?’ I was always in the mindset of ‘No. I am writing my ticket out of here. I need to make something that will introduce me as a creative mind to the rest of the world.’
I just really believed that in the future original content was going become more and more important. I didn’t want to spend the next ten years of my life just in commercials, doing work-for-hire and stuff for other companies. I really wanted to find my own voice and live an artistic life. So I felt like I had no choice but to succeed.
I was exposed to the get Czech surrealist Jan Švankmajer. He made a series of films in the 60s, 70s and 80s. They made a really big impression on me. I never thought I saw anything cooler in the world than these films. I realized ‘Wow I love this. I want to make a film about objects.’ I was kind of searching my brain and the world for that kernel of inspiration. It came when I had the idea to have chairs have sex on a roof.
Thought Catalog: Where did that come from?
PES: There’s a combination of places. First of all, furniture pornography is a pretty old Victorian concept. There’s lots of anthropomorphism of chairs that dates way back in the previous century. At that time in my life, my parents ended up giving me a chair from their house. It was a particular chair that I wasn’t allowed to sit on as a child because it was a room that was off-limits to children. I just remember thinking what would this chair want to do? After being cooped up for twenty-five years in that awful living room?
I often have a single idea that I fall in love with in a film. So I think at the time what I fell in love with was chairs having sex, not just because of ‘sex’ and I thought that it was funny, the real idea there is that any chair you look at could be gendered. That to me was the biggest thing, that I could get people to think differently about this very familiar object.
Is it normally the object that comes first or the theme? In Game Over, was it that you wanted to do a film about ‘80s video games? Or was there an object that you started with?
PES: There was an object. I’m fishing around and I come across this interview online with the creator of Pac Man, Toru Iwatani. He said that he got the idea for the character of Pac Man from a pizza with the slice missing. So I was like what if you were to apply that logic to some of the other classic video games? And that was the idea.
Immediately I was like ‘Okay what are the games? How should I structure this film?’ Each sequence, I decided, should be a death sequence because that’s what you remember about arcade games. It is not all the wins that you had, but the awful losing, the player that gets you all the time, or the way that you do an amazing run and the last little bugger gets you. The whole thing is about dying; video games are about dying. So, yeah but it all came from that one idea, that spark.
Thought Catalog: In your films there is a lot of wordplay, even in the names like WESTERN SPAGHETTI, which is a play on spaghetti westerns, the film subgenre. You’ve compared the first shot in your films to a topic sentence. Is there any connection between your approach to filmmaking and writing?
PES: Yeah I like wordplay. I feel like my films are about uncovering hidden meanings and associations—the resonant similarities or connections to be made in an object. Bubble wrap, looks like boiling water—especially the way I thought I could bring it to life. It also has that association of bubbling right in the word. I feel like my films are crafted like little puzzles that way and they invite viewers to tease their own brains into making those connections.
There is a whole set of wordplay going on in Western Spaghetti that people don’t even get because the words aren’t, there’s no voiceover. I use the word tin foil for olive oil, and foil contains the word “oil”. At one point I played around with the idea of using a voiceover to incorporate the wordplay but it was pretty clear that I had to let the film be more magical and a mystery. Let audiences argue about it and figure it out and that would be more intriguing overall. It’s more powerful.
Thought Catalog: I think people are certainly rewarded for watching them again and again. These are short re-watchable works. What do you think of Vine?
PES: If I were just starting out I would be really into it. I feel like so much of what is available now would have been so exciting when I first started making films. A lot of my very early short-shorts they were all like 10-15 seconds. That was when people used to laugh me out of the room ‘You made a film? It’s in a film festival? How long is it?’
I still get old people saying that. I think it’s great that people are experimenting with these formats. Obviously we’ve seen a Renaissance of the GIF. This is all stuff that resonated with me when I first started making films.
I do want to point out one thing. It’s that no one new has invented the short film. For fifty years television has been showcasing ads in thirty-fifty second increments. This is a format that viewers—even viewers watching one-hour shows—immediately snap into for the commercial segment.
My favorite ads of all time were just great short films that had a product logo at the end. You could take the product logo off and they would still be entertaining to watch. It’s just that most people thought it was preposterous to make a stand-alone piece of video entertainment at 1-minute length—until viral video really took off.
Thought Catalog: You’re also working on some longer projects right? You’re doing a film version of Garbage Pail Kids?
PES: Yeah, I’m developing the Garbage Pail Kids movie right now. Obviously I grew up in the ‘80s, loved the brand. I still think the cards are really fun and cool and relevant. Especially, as we start seeing ourselves more like mutants every day [laughs]. They have a nice pedigree. Art Spiegelman created them and a couple great artists, like John Pound, designed them beautifully. I really like the whole cast of characters. So I approached the owner of the property who turns out to be Michael Eisner the ex-CEO of Disney. We’re in script stage.
I’m also prepping a third cooking film. I feel like I have to make a trilogy. It’s hard to just leave two cooking films just hanging there. There’s one other idea that I’ve wanted to make for several years. Again, it comes down to the images that I have in my head that I can’t shake until I make the film. They just sit there and hang there and say ‘What are you going to do about us?”
In order to free myself from these ideas, free up hard drive space basically, I need to make a film. Otherwise, it’s just an idea that’s sitting inside my head. Making a film allows me to share it with the world and all the people that could potentially see it in the future, which is a much more sizable audience. I like to think of that; there’s a certain timelessness I want to feel. I hope it’s right for the moment, but I aspire to making a great work of art. I believe that great works of art stand the test of time and that’s what I aspire to do.