Stop motion, symbols and semiotics: Christophe Thockler

Paris-based director, DOP and editor Christophe Thockler ‘s experimental approach to filmmaking is seen in his commercials and renowned music videos. We spoke to this innovative artist about his work methodology, stop motion techniques, and finding an organic approach to projects.

You have collaborated with some music bands on more than one occasion. When it comes to working with them, who pitches who? Do you usually have the perfect video for them or do they have the perfect song for you?

I really enjoy working with musicians; music is an art I deeply respect, and when bands ask me to illustrate their hard work, it’s always an honor. I feel lucky because I usually have a “carte blanche”. Bands who contact me appreciate my work and often tell me to have fun. Basically, I ask them for some keywords, if they have a particular direction or something in mind. I then listen to the track many times to find inspiration and get back to them with a treatment. All the tracks I’ve worked on have been very inspiring, that’s pretty sweet for a music video director.

A lot of your videos feature practical effects and stop motion. Would you say this has become your trademark? What is it that attracts you to those techniques?

Stop motion is kind of my trademark, yes! I am in love with this technique, I find it fascinating. Stop motion can create eerie movements, strange effects, and at the same time it can express naivety and awe. To me, this technique can be a great diegetic tool to express feelings without the help of a true narrative format. I think I’ll still find more to explore in stop motion in the future. Nowadays, we see very polished CGI everywhere — that’s why I love the use of practical effects, and the organic feel that they convey.

Looking at your videos it’s clear to see the sheer amount of work that has been put into pre-production, filming and editing. How long does that process usually take, from an initial idea to project completion?

Thanks, I appreciate your kind words. I usually need around two months to make a music video, from the first ideas to the final product. I do everything myself; shooting, photography, editing and post production. I like to do things I haven’t seen done before, and it’s always complex to do. Sometimes the pain staking effects are done in post production. Like in Why Won’t You, the exhausting part can be the shooting. For Un Jour Comme un Autre, the shooting lasted 30 days, and I took more than 35,000 photos.

Where does your inspiration and creativity come from? Have you been influenced by any other filmmakers, for example?

I wasn’t really into making art during my childhood but I was fond of cinema, music, music videos and video games. These forms of media influenced me a lot, I could feel that when I was making my first video tests in my early twenties; it was like all of the things I watched were bursting out of my head.

Music is a great source of influence, it lets your mind wander and see things; landscapes, movement, scenery…I listen to a lot of the ‘classics’: Peter Gabriel, The Cure, Tindersticks, The Sound, David Bowie, Simple Minds, a lot of new wave and coldbeat too, but I really like ambient / trip hop / downtempo.

Some directors have not only influenced me, but shaped the person I am, helped me to see things in a different way and stay curious. I’m into original and often symbolical cinema — even if I am only doing small stop motion videos, compared to the astonishing movies of these directors, I’m sure you’ll notice some similarities with my work: Gabriele Salvatores, Shinya Tsukamoto, David Lynch, Takeshi Kitano, David Cronenberg, and John Carpenter, to name just a few.

Black Books: Favorite Place

Are your videos explorations of themes you are interested in? Is there always an aesthetic decision attached to the subjects you want to explore?

I must say that every video I make is a little part of me. I try to illustrate themes that haunt me, like the passing of time, the use of metaphors, semiotics and semiology, the celebration of the mundane turned into something uncommon, or pure and simple visual enjoyment. But each time, I really try to tell something in an extra diegetic way, with the power of interpretation of the images.

As I am working with onirism, aesthetics are very important. Decisions are always made to enhance the theme I illustrate. I’m Kin, by Colleen, is a very organic track. I tried to create a very organic video to match, with water, minerals, dead flowers, blood, lights, etc. But the treatment of the song is modern, almost electronic, that’s why I used sharp numeric images, chromatic aberrations and digital glitches in the video, in order to explore and emphasize this contrast while the imagery refers to the hidden meanings of the lyrics.

Another example is Black Books, Favorite Place. The choice for the artistic direction, using fabric and embroidery, emerged from only 3 simple keywords: intimate, colors, warm.

Is it important for you to keep challenging yourself? Any big challenges left to tick off your list?

Challenge is primordial. I am very selective when I watch movies, and always want original and creative things in them. So, naturally, when I create, I really try to do my best with what I have, and try to be entertained with what I do. If not, I try to do it again or in a different way. When I started making tests for Solid Gold, and managed to get the minerals to float in space like asteroids, in stop motion, I knew it was a new way to use this technique.

The thing is, I don’t have a challenge list! I (unfortunately for me) create them when I search for ideas and develop a video. I always say to myself in the middle of a video, “Chris… why are you doing this? You’ll never make it…”. For Favorite Place, it all started with 4 pieces of clothes and some reels of threads, maybe 15. It ended with 10,000 photos, 1 km of thread, 350 reels of thread, and 73,000 embroidery stitches…. yes, 73,000 embroidery stitches!

Your Victoria+Jean ‘Why won’t you’ video used; 8500 photos, 400 burning photo prints, 10 liters of gasoline and 1kg of powder. How did this recipe come about, and what was your main objective?

I had done a music video before with ice, ‘Cusp’, and immediately thought it would be interesting, one day, to play with fire. Victoria+Jean came to me with the perfect track to play with flames, sparks and smoke. I shot everything with a Canon 60D, protected with a simple window. I burned many materials and different types of fuels or powders to make interesting effects and flames. Everything you see is real — there was a huge amount of editing, but all the flames and other bursts of fire are real.

The main objective was to make a visual piece, but I also wanted to make a very discreet statement. It’s probably not noticeable when you watch the video the first time, but when you know the symbolical content, it becomes clear. I was starting to get a bit tired of the excessive use of sensual imagery in our society. My response to it can be seen in how the video is a metaphorically sensual piece. On a semiological level, the video is full of symbols; spherical elements that represent femininity (a trick used from the days of silent film movies like Murnau’s Sunrise, a beautiful film about temptation, women and urban life), flames dancing together, getting closer, mixing, explosions in bursts of fire, and also you can see sparks going inside tunnels and smoke that create lovely curves. You could say it’s a bit like an arty Rorschach test full of explicit content!

Victoria+Jean: Why Won’t You

Your music videos have turned a few heads and garnered attention. Has this affected your life as a freelancer at all?

Yeah, all those nice articles and exhibitions — don’t get me wrong, I know it’s not very big or impressive, I’m not famous or anything, but as a small self-taught director and graphic designer I was a bit proud of this attention. When IdN did 3 pages about my work, I could not believe it. As you can see in the behind the scenes pictures, I am more a handyman than a real director!

This also definitely helped me as a freelancer, I started to be a little more important here and there and collaborated with several labels and companies. What was also great for me is that it helped me to show to potential clients that I was able to handle these kinds of projects alone, and deal with serious companies.

What is it that interests you about Movidiam personally?

Movidiam is a great place to explore and find professional stuff created by talented people. I really enjoy the quality of the content here, and the design of the website. Just before starting to work, checking some projects here is always good to set the mood for the day.

How would you like Movidiam to work for you?

The website is already great for its inspirational content: I would love to see more tips and behind the scene things from directors, so you can get to know them a bit more.

Do you think it could change the way you collaborate with other creatives or film commissioners?

Of course! Look at this kind of interview…you are already helping me a lot here! Interactivity may be the key: here, it’s really easy to start a connection.

Michna: Solid Gold (feat. MNDR)

Find Christophe on the web: Movidiam / Website

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