March 3, 2016
SCA Alumni Stories: Philip Hodges
By Eileen Kwon
Beginning with his creative journey as an undergraduate at Harvard University, Philip Hodges ’11 has evolved into a multi-talented filmmaker, directing story-driven music videos and utilizing puppetry for effective storytelling. Hodges discussed the details of his filmmaking path, including how his acclaimed SCA thesis project landed in film development at Disney.
What led you to the cinematic arts? How did your Harvard education supplement your journey of pursuing a career in the industry? I grew up an illustrator, so when I got to Harvard I checked out the art department and started animating, scratching on film and shooting under a 16mm Oxberry camera. After graduating, I spent some time in New York assisting a music video producer, and that let me watch a lot of directors at work. I started to play with a video camera my brother bought me, shooting my trips across the Williamsburg Bridge from every angle, and learning to edit my experimental footage. I started to do a lot of writing around then, thinking about character and story. And I realized that to tell stories it helps to have a team, so I applied to USC primarily to meet collaborators and mentors, who would eventually help me write and direct my thesis DIG.
Give us the scoop on DIG. What initially inspired you to tell the story of how love ignited a young boy’s audacity to accomplish the impossible? You directed the short and now it’s in film development at Disney. How did this come about? When I was a kid I fell in love with a girl named Antonia, and when she moved across the world I would have done anything to be with her. In DIG, I wanted to paint a picture of the grief that a boy suffers when experiencing loss for the first time. The boy Doug meets Lia at his mother’s wake. He wants to be with Lia desperately, but what he really needs is to face his mother’s passing. Lia moves to China and Doug decides to dig to her. The story takes a couple of turns underground when he bumps into three unlikely creatures. At first I intended the underground animals to be animated, but then considered how important it is for his adventure to feel real, so I sided with puppetry, which felt more tangible.
My manager passed DIG along to some agents at WME; all three weighed in on the cut, and they felt I should shorten the film to 9 minutes. My editor Michael Lower ’09 and I got to work cutting it down—the agents were right, the movie kind of clicked at 9 minutes. They blasted the film out to a bunch of companies that I met within a whirlwind month. I teamed up with Adam Borba at Whitaker Entertainment on the Disney lot to develop DIG into a feature. He saw the film’s simplicity as a strongpoint and envisioned a feature still true to the love story while grander in scope during the boy’s adventure underground. I never intended the film to be a feature, but it came alive and I’m excited to watch it grow.
How did you come about directing Snapchat’s first original series Fritz ’n Friends? What were some challenges you confronted and how did you overcome them? I met Snapchat producer CJ Smith at a screening of short fashion films and sent him my work, he called me into their office the next day; we started brainstorming what show I could direct for Snapchannel, a channel for original content on their Discover platform. CJ was attracted to my work with puppets, and we honed in on a monster that was up for grabs from a previous music video – we called him Fritz and created a show around this sulky character and his upbeat friends, titled it Fritz ’n Friends. It’s about the small adventures that make up the day, like falling in love with your neighbor and disputes with a noisy leaf blower puppet. The challenge became filming the episodes in a vertical frame; halfway through the season Snapchat reconceived the format to an upright 9x16 frame, so we used a lot of split screens and focused on singles over wideshots.
What was your experience directing the music video to Shamir’s “Call It Off,” which was voted among the Top 25 Videos of the Year? I reached out to my friend Nick Sylvester, Shamir’s manager and producer of his album Ratchet. I let him know that I was dedicating my time to more puppet work. He responded that Shamir would love to be a puppet in a video production. At first we mapped out an unconventional short film that featured all of his songs, a narrative showcasing his work through ancillary characters, like someone passing in a car blasting Shamir on the stereo. Then Nick worked out a deal with the YouTube Music Awards and we followed suit, honing in on a particular song “Call It Off” to create a music video. It was a large budget and the biggest production I’ve been part of. I was able to focus strictly on the creative and let the production team handle the rest. The producer came from Disney, and he brought on his post team. Cam Leeburg oversaw VFX, we’ve worked together on a dozen projects by now. With many parties involved, from the label to the production company we hired, the message of the video was muddled and I ultimately had to step in and guide the project home. The editor and I isolated ourselves to finish the cut, we moved on to Technicolor and released the video to great success; the release coincided with Shamir debut album, and hand-in-hand launched his career.
You directed music videos for the Foo Fighters, DJ Tommy Trash, Boy Meets Machine, as well as other musicians. What is your creative process when creating music videos? The song inspires the story, and usually I draw these from personal experience. The most valuable moment is listening to the song for the first time; those initial flickers of inspiration often mirror a viewer’s first impression of the video. Then I internalize the song and live with it, building a story around the lyrics and song structure. So my videos are rather narrative, often with an experimental part usually during the bridge of the song.
I had won a contest to direct a music video for the Foo Fighters, but the band couldn’t be in the video so I had puppets created of them – the idea of Dave Grohl flying through outer space to save a girl from evil sock puppets stems from the lyrics. Tommy Trash’s head-banging is his signature move, which is not really marketable, so his manager Matt Sadie conceived of a plan to market Tommy through a character. I designed a blue monkey puppet and named him Kal, and we let him play. The video for Boy Meets Machine was a kind of love letter and visualized what it feels like to be bound by obsession.
What are your thoughts on the increasing availability of digital video content and its impact on the artistic freedom rendered by these digital video platforms? It’s great that so many companies are creating original content. There are only so many user-generated cat videos the Internet can handle. There has never been more artistic freedom in the digital space than now; when it comes to features, you think of an idea and then you’re paired with a company, but in the digital space, you meet with a company and brainstorm together an approach that will engage audiences. Surprisingly these short-form shows are story-driven and less commercial than you’d expect, and so storytellers have a lot more freedom to play than they would be confined by brand awareness. Companies are now working outside the box, some don’t want their product displayed and some just want a video campaign that people will share. It’s fun meeting with these newly formed creative teams, which are popping up in so many companies.
Any advice for SCA students? Don't worry about grades, agents or competition. Team up with the right people and work hard.
What projects are you currently working on/looking forward to? Where can people learn more about you and your work? Right now I’m working with Nickelodeon on a film about zombie puppets, a TV show about Detroit, and a commercial series for a sunglasses company. I just finished writing a short film, which will shoot later in the year in Mexico. I’ve got a couple of music videos on my plate right now and I’m also continuing to direct my own experimental work.
For more information, you can check out my website: www.philiphodges.com