Reel Craft: An Interview with Andrew Thomas Huang
In this digital age, the post-production process is slowly overtaking the tactile aspects of filmmaking. CGI props have replaced actual objects, green screen backdrops stand in for multi-location shoots, and After Effects has erased the need for anything physically real, from rain to explosions to animals. But for filmmaker, sculptor, and craftsman Andrew Thomas Huang, working with your hands will never go out of style.
Huang, who has constructed mind-bending stop motion music videos for the likes of Björk, Sigur Rós, and Thom Yorke’s Atoms For Peace, along with advertisements and side projects, uses his craft-making skills to set his films apart from the digital herd. With a background in puppet-making, Huang combines the ultra modern world of moviemaking with the nearly archaic act of constructing; his costumes and landscapes are built out of anything from yarn and rocks to foam and feathers. By combining the two seemingly different worlds, Huang brings his sculptures to life through the motion of film.
What was your connection to art as a kid?
I always liked to draw and I was also a big dork. When I was a kid, I was part of this Jim Henson workshop. It was an experiment—the program came to my school and taught us about puppeteering and how to actually build with some pretty professional and toxic materials. I really enjoyed it and it got me into constructing puppets and things.
In the late 90s, the whole home video thing was really big. My parents were really supportive and I dabbled a lot in stop motion, making movies and editing them. When I was about 14, I brought my work to a visual effects company that my neighbor had a connection at and they were like, “Yeah, that’s cool, but you should look at the portfolios of the people who work here.” It was all these beautiful figure drawings and animal drawings and anatomy. She said: “The technology always changes, but your eye doesn’t.”
Did that lead you to making films?
I realized I was good at art, and since I wanted to work in film, having an art background meant I could do many things in film. So I went to USC Fine Arts to be near the film program but not in it. I started making my own movies and made a reel while I was there and it did well in the festival circuit. I also put it on YouTube when YouTube was only two years old. It got a lot of views and gave me momentum to sign with production companies. J.J. Abrams was one of the first ones to reach out to me once I had graduated.
It was rather scary because I didn’t know how this business worked and I was still an art student. The idea of directing didn’t occur to me—I wanted to do the work, not tell people to do the work. But now technology allows you to be more hands on. I did it for about four years, made some music videos and commercials, but then I decided I needed to restart. I needed to get rid of everything and start over and that’s when I made the short film Solipsism. That’s how Björk got interested, and then came Sigur Rós, and most recently, Thom Yorke’s band Atoms For Peace.
Your ability to bring these structures and creations to life really sets your style of filmmaking apart. How much is physical and how much is done in After Effects?
Both are equally important. More time is spent on the post- production, but without that physical shoot with physical objects it feels digital, it feels dead. It’s really important for me to film real stuff and use it as collage material for making the final image. I don’t want to be seen as a post-visual effects director. Even though all my work does use visual effects there is so much physicality to it. For example, in the Thom Yorke video, he was filmed with makeup on his face in front of a green screen. We all smell digital if it’s overused.
What materials do you usually work with?
I’ve always been into crafts. I was a big loser at camp, I didn’t like sports, I liked making stuff. I kept a giant drawer of crap that I would glue together. A lot of my work from a few years ago used yarn and rocks and random furry things.
There’s an artist named Marnie Webber from L.A. and a British artist named Spartacus Chetwynd, both female artists, who use a lot of costumes and are very theatrical, but fucked up at the same time. I like that type of childish, make believe aesthetic.
How is it working with a musician to make their video? Is it usually hands on?
I’ve been lucky to work with artists who are open. It helps to have a parameter to work with beyond the song. I’m not a lyrics person really, I tend to just listen to the sound of it. But in the case of Thom, I had to ask him what his inspiration was to really know how to express the song. He didn’t really want to share but I could pick up on some things. His last album, for instance, was so apocalyptic— about sustainability and the collapse of civilization. It reminded me of a poem that I read in middle school [“Ozymandias”] by Percy Bysshe Shelley about a statue in the desert. So I took that idea and married it with Thom’s legacy of work to come up with these images of rolling landscapes of apocalyptic L.A.
What are you influenced by?
I doodle a lot to get inspiration, but I love Aesops Fables or Grimms’ Fairy Tales, a story where there is a character and they fuck up. Or they pay a price. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a Christian household, so from an early age sin and punishment were ingrained. A contemporary example might be There Will Be Blood; I love P.T. Anderson. His characters are so flawed. Tim Burton’s early work. The Fifth Element. I like portraiture.
What’s next for you?
I’m focusing on some more ambitious personal projects, either longer format or installation-based. Maybe make a short film and an installation to go with it. I want to do strictly live-action projects but as a director you need to create your own brand. I want to make a feature that’s as visibly lush as The Fifth Element or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil—like a world. My work is so visual it’s hard to think of a contained idea that would be budgetable. I’ve always wanted to make big productions, but the stories I want to make maybe aren’t as marketable—but maybe that’s my own insecurity.
What is your WILD Wish?
I want to live in London for a little bit— like a while. But the emigration there is so difficult now. It’s like New York but a 9.5 instead of an 11. I love New York but I need a nap when I’m there, maybe it’s the L.A. part of me. But there’s something about London, that side of the Atlantic, I have dreamt about. I like the look of it, the international feeling. The culture of creating work there is different. It’s more sifting, smaller, the productions over there aren’t as big and bright as America. Sometimes it can be dull, but they are really thoughtful about work. Not that we aren’t, but the English care so much about their culture and I like that.￼￼