In the years since we first encountered Encyclopedia Pictura, the trio comprised of Isaiah Saxon, Sean Hellfritsch and Daren Rabinovitch has made short films and music videos for the likes of Grizzly Bear, Björk, Panda Bear and Metronomy, with animation skills and craftsmanship far exceeding that of their peers. Famed as much for their kind-natured creativity as their alternative lifestyle, the collective resides in Trout Gulch, a Santa Cruz community of hand-built huts full of tech-minded futurists.
“I think our collective strength has to do with us getting really excited about similar things and then getting maniacally focused on making those things happen,” Isaiah says. “We each have nicely overlapping skills, but really I think the key is in just how much fun it is to get each other pumped. The collaboration is more about friendship than necessity I think.”
“We’re all just really good friends with sympathetic sensibilities,” says Sean. “Our individual interests overlap, but they also vary enough to keep us perpetually inspiring one-another.” Inspiring each other has led to inspiring work and a heap of incredible moving image projects. We asked the boys to talk us through six of their best…
Björk — Wanderlust
Back in 2008, Björk described her new single Wanderlust as being about “the state of looking for something and almost knowing you’re never going to find it.” The now-legendary video for the song features a felt-costumed Björk being set upon by mythical creatures in a battle with nature. It’s certainly one of their darker films. “We were in some deep artistic psychosis when we wrote it,” Isaiah says. “I remember trying to channel feelings of being simultaneously overwhelmed and afraid of the power of nature, but also disgusted with civilisation – left only with the choice to dissolve one’s ego by submitting to the massive beauty of nature, dark side and all.”
“Also the song is really relentless,” Sean adds. “Once things get going, there’s no break. We had to match that sustained overwhelming intensity with the visuals.” And what visuals; particularly the enormous, mystic yaks that Bjork rides down-river towards the terrifying stone river God. “They were the biggest challenge.” says Daren. “I sculpted the faces with clay and then cast with foam latex. That was then mounted onto a fibreglass frame which was rigged with puppet controls for the eyes, mouth, hairs, nostrils and eyelids that two puppeteers could operate from inside, while wearing giant cast-foam woolly boots.” The characters wouldn’t look out of place in a children’s feature film, but set to Björk’s howling song of sadness and desperation, they make for a very unsettling watch.
Metronomy — The Upsetter
In 2014 Metronomy released the second video from their album Love Letters. The debut music video was directed by Michel Gondry, and the second for the lo-fi ballad The Upsetter was Daren’s responsibility. The video takes place in the redwoods of Humboldt County in California, a place where Daren was immediately taken by the size of the ancient trees; “When they fall over they’re like whales – splinters as thick as your leg,” he says. “The Upsetter sounded organic. I didn’t know this at the time, but the band wrote it on a camping trip in the woods. It sounds swampy, like something could crawl out of it, so I thought this was a chance to build a character like Swamp Thing, which I love.”
The video follows a bearded woman of the forest who, in a bid to find companionship, fashions a lover from moss and soil. “She’s made a life for herself in the woods, but she’s lonely. She’s a restless creative type. She creates a partner for herself but when it comes alive she’s freaked out by the weirdness of it, so she transforms herself into something weird too.”
The visual transformation of bearded feral woman to swamp goddess is remarkable, and was no easy feat for Daren, who created most of the video in-camera save for some minor After Effects. “I went into the project swearing I would do no post-production because I thought that would be the most zen. Plus sculpting and building things is easier for me. The two costumes each took about a month to build. I built them in my living room onto a pair of mannequins. There were about 20 people that came to help me because there was just so much to carry into the deep woods. It was a mix of pros and bros.”
This 30-second animated film captures the panicky, clicky, infinite nature of the world wide web perfectly – all dubbed over with a soundtrack by Dan Deacon. “The internet has always felt like a continuation of my home-schooled youth,” says Sean. “A place to find the answers to my questions. I think if you’re using it to better your real-world pursuits it’s invaluable, otherwise it’s a time-suck.”
Isaiah agrees: “The internet can be great or shitty depending on the user’s motivations and the motivations of the people building services. It’s been amazing for us because we’ve largely taught ourselves everything we know from the internet – from how to build houses to how to make animation to how to raise goats. The optimistic side of the internet is so amazing and the narcissistic side is so destructive, and it’s hard to navigate that. There will be a time when ‘the internet’ is a meaningless term because it will be so embedded into nearly every experience of anything.”
Back in 2008 gamers all over the world wrung their hands together in anticipation of the launch of Spore, a Will Wright-designed god game. The premise was for players to create unique species and guide them through a seemingly endless evolution from tide pool amoebas right up to space-dwelling extra terrestrials. Post Wanderlust success, the boys were tasked with creating the trailer. “We needed some money and EA Games and Wieden + Kennedy approached us with what seemed like a golden opportunity because we were Will Wright fans.”
The trailer, seductively titled How Will You Create The Universe? is an animated film of characters that Sean, Isaiah and Daren made using the in-game Creature Creator. The team played the game for a week straight before starting work on the trailer, and it was the Creature Creator that they felt was the real deal-breaker in terms of the game’s success. They worked with famed animation studio Tippett (responsible for special effects in films like Robocop, Honey I Shrunk the Kids and Jurassic Park) to put the final trailer together. “Working with Tippet was amazing,” Isaiah says. “Up to that point, we had done nearly all our special effects physically in a DIY way; stop motion, puppets and all kinds of crazy rigs. We dealt with Murphy’s law constantly for years and it was brutal and stressful. At Tippett, we were handed a laser pointer and had 40 artists all working to achieve our ideas – it was as close to Hogwarts as I could imagine.”
Grizzly Bear – Knife
Knife was arguably the moment the world sat up and paid attention to Encyclopedia Pictura. In October 2007 Chicago music website Ghost Media interviewed Grizzly Bear’s Daniel Rossen about the latest video.
“It was so weird because it almost looks like a really well done B-movie. Or like an instructional video,” he said “Something about it is so bizarre it’s creepy. I can’t even really describe it.” Eight years on, Isaiah agrees: “Ed Droste [Grizzly Bear’s founding member] is a mega sweetheart, but at the time I think Daniel Rossen was super sceptical of us because we were barefoot hippies asking to dunk him in a vat of fake quicksand in slow motion on the first day of shooting. When we finished it they were all really stoked and we’ve remained friends.”
Although Grizzly Bear were kind of weirded out by it at first, Devendra Banhart told Pitchfork soon after that he thought it was one of the best videos of all time. In 2015, Sean and Isaiah struggle a little to recall just what it was that inspired them. “I think we were watching a lot of Barry Lyndon at the time – those long zooms and square framing,” Isaiah says. “The rest was sort of tapping into my family history. My mom is a crystal healer and my grandpa was a famous geologist that helped develop plate tectonic theory. My family has always had this science vs. mysticism battle raging on and this is a story that explores those themes – through geology.”
Panda Bear — Boys Latin
The rousing, repetitive, friendly sounds of Panda Bear’s Boy’s Latin combined with the visual beauty of Encyclopedia Pictura’s accompaniment is almost too much to bear and has actually made me blub on more than one occasion. “The larger story is about two people meeting and starting a family,” Isaiah says. “The woman and then the man each struggle with being overwhelmed by their emotions. They find a way to manage them and to have them flow with each other. They discover a child unexpectedly, in the way that sometimes when a couple has a child it can feel like this cool character just showed up in their lives – like meeting a very young stranger.” For Sean, making this video was a chance to gain some new friends and skills: “We were able to recruit an ace crew of animators and modellers for this. Eran Hilleli is a total wizard and was invaluable in helping us realise our vision for the dynamic forms that flow all over the characters. I learned Cinema 4D and became a digital landscaper. I spent a lot of time planting foliage and blowing it around with simulated wind." The promo coincided with the formation of EP’s new venture. “We’re trying to change Encyclopedia Pictura from being a directing team to a studio.” Isaiah says. “Then we can build a larger team of friends and even have other directors come in to drive when we are writing or adventuring or not actively directing something. For this project we set up our own 3D animation studio, to begin building the team that we hope to work with for years.”