The Animated Life & Work of Jeff Scher

Jeff Scher: I Got My Job Through the NY Times. Short Documentary by Reid Rosefelt.

Jeffery Noyes Scher was born in 1954 and graduated from Bard College in 1976. He has since then made well over one hundred films, mixing both painting, typography, graphic elements and film to create beautifully vibrant and emotionally charged works. Scher draws inspiration from everyday life, he is a poetic observer, a modern day Baudelaire enjoying the limitless boundaries of experimentation. To watch his films, is to engage in a moment of pure emotion and a visual spectacle that has you eager to repeat.

I personally was introduced to his work back in 2007, at the outset of his project for The New York Times. At that time, Scher had been asked to do a series of works in which he was to create one film every month for the TimeSelect column. His first piece, ‘L’Eau Life’ is a colourful display of the pleasures of water, full of joy and utterly playful. Each frame is a painting in itself, 2,141 in all make up the short film.

Twenty four films on, the collection is testament to his untiring ability to express beauty and emotion through the medium of motion. For the release of his latest work, ‘The Shadow’s Dream’, I decided to catch up with him and ask a few questions about the project, his process and his love for early experimental film.


Interview with Jeff Scher

What was your initial interest in making your paintings move?

It actually always struck me as odd that paintings didn’t move. Paintings, I think originally did move; cave paintings when viewed by torch light flickered and jittered when viewed. Painting on flat surfaces always struck me as frozen. Dead. The lack of motion being a contrived artifice and without life. How magic it is when they “come to life” by moving… or animation. Motion is the strongest indication of life. Motion captures time, a still image is such a narrow slice it seems like a microscope slide, a transection with a very narrow context – frozen and flat- only the most limited view. Time and motion; that’s where the action is!

How many films have you made now? And how many for the NY Times?

Actually that’s a hard question. I shoot all the time. 16mm until a few years ago and now mostly digital. I’m not sure if all my footage is one big film or a real lot of little ones. The number of films that are “finished” – with titles and credits… I guess it must be well over a hundred… There are about a dozen films I finished but never really showed anywhere, and then there are the commercials, about fifty or so? Show openings, another dozen there, trailers another dozen… Films I shot for other people as DP, maybe another dozen there. Films I acted in, three or four… and I “produced” a few other films too with other people “directing”. For the Times it’s been about one a month, or twenty four as of this October.

For the NY Times series, were you given any specific brief?

No. Kind of an incredible deal. The op-ed Art director Brian Rea, had seen a bunch of my films at an AIGA conference and a little film festival I used to run with Kurt Andersen upstate, and then later at a gallery in Chelsea. He basically wanted more of the same. The idea was to make something extra for Times readers online, back when they had to pay to get the editorial sections. Also it was to replace Maira Kalman’s column, as she was in need of a break after her run. Maira’s work is lovely, intimate and personal paintings and text. They were a big hit with readers and they were looking for something to plug into the spot she’d created a sizable following for.

It was like Hans Richter used to say about his montage and title work; “they wanted a little flower in their button-hole”. In the two years since I’ve been associated with the Times I’ve never had any editorial direction of any kind. And I get the editorial talents of my editor George Kalogerakis for the text I write to accompany the films. I really just have been making the kind of films I want to. Although I have learned a lot about who is watching and what works in this context. That has influenced the films in some ways, but all of them good I think. They are shorter, and more thematic then the bigger montage films I’d made in the past. But I am really enjoying the focus this has brought to the films.

What techniques are you using to animate your paintings?

I guess the signature style is traditional rotoscope. But I’ve been working with lots of other techniques too. Fly By Night was just charcoal of paper, Yours is splatter paintings layered up via an Oxberry shooting through mattes, Trigger Happy and Paperview were stop motion, Grand Central was live photography shot through prisms, etc… And then there’s a batch of live action, including the current one. It’s live action… but it’s like rotoscoping only with the sun on pavement instead of paint on paper…

Where do your initial ideas come from for a film?

From looking at everyday things with a sense of mischief and awe.

What are you looking to express most in your films?

The sense of wonder at how complex and beautiful life in this world is. And I want to do it with emotion, not intellect. I always felt the intellect was the place where the lawyers live and if you can break through it or sneak around it you can have much more impact and deeper resonance. I think what I look for is emotional truths.

What are the essential elements that help you in gaining that goal. Put differently, which elements (graphic, sonic, technical…) serve best in expressing those qualities?

It’s always motion. It’s how things move. Paper can become fireworks, ink and paint can become emotional truths. It’s all how it moves. The motion signature of anything in motion carries with it instant recognition. The manipulation of that motion impacts on the emotion. A line shot across the screen in four frames is an arrow. A line that limps across the screen is old and tired, mortal and sad. I am a fisherman for modes of motion.

You describe yourself as an experimental film maker. In what way is it experimental, rather what are you experimenting with?

I like “experimental” because it frees me from most pre-existing categories. They are also genuine experiments, sometimes for techniques and sometimes for content. They all start with a “what if…” So in that sense they are a series of exercises on a theme that are all answers to questions… “What would it look like if I…” And sometimes it’s just a color combination – like mixing colors in cinema time by progressions of different tones and textures… And sometimes it’s a bigger technical question, like in YOURs, where the question was what would happen if I replace a conventional film with layers of abstract images… That film was in fact a test that turned out okay. The test was the finished film.

Could you explain a little about your interest in early experimental film? What is it that fascinates you in this more experimental approach as opposed perhaps to mainstream cinema and animation?

I grew up on experimental film, but was always drawn to the more polished filmmakers like Warren Sonbert, Kenneth Anger, Peter Kubelka, Hans Richter, Oskar Fischinger, Walter Ruttman, Muphy/Leger and Vertov.

Early experimental film is just wonderful. I have 16mm prints of many of them and watch them all several times a year. I like to use them in teaching, as I find I always have some new insight into what’s in them. “Ballet Mechanique” and “Ghosts before Breakfast” for example contain all the seeds for almost every experimental film made since. When I watch a Hans Richter film, I get the same feeling that you might get listening to a great Rolling Stones song. I think a good experimental film is like rock and roll for the eyes.

Mainstream cinema is in the straightjacket of narrative. The big problem with narrative is that the story telling grammar has such strict rules. Dialogue is really a bore to shoot. There’s a right place to put the camera and then it’s up to the actor. It’s less filmmaking then framemaking. When you toss the story and the actors, suddenly the whole world opens up as your pallet. And you don’t have to get anyone’s permi$$ion to make a film. You just get a camera and see where it takes you. I also have come to dislike scripts.

I’m an okay writer, but I’m a terrible reader. I write and make notes for and about films constantly. I fill about four substantial notebooks a year with this sort of stuff, but I never ever read or refer to them. I think it’s the act of writing that helps me muddle ideas around. But the product is always in my head and the notebooks are a kind of graveyard of process.

When I start a film I usually only have a place to start. The film itself only emerges as I work on it. I build the films brick at a time, and the form usually emerges as it develops. I guess it’s more along the lines of how a painter might work. Making my own rules as I go is the best way for me to work.

If I had to explain what I was doing as I did it, or worse, before I did it, it would be death. When I talk to Shay (Shay Lynch) about the music we almost always talk about the emotion of the film, and the tempo. Subject too, of course, but that’s even less important than the emotion. I generally have a good idea of what the feeling of the film will be.

You have also worked on commercial pieces. How is this different, from your experience, to working alone?

Commercial work is kind of fun. And there are all different degrees of “commercial”. When I make a trailer for a festival or museum I generally have a lot of freedom anyhow. The IFC trailer was actually an experiment I had in mind for a long time, and the budget for it let me work with top of the line people and equipment that I would never spend my own money on. So it was like a corporate experimental film. The “Real Sex” open was a spin on a film I made with Cecily Brown, so it was like getting paid to make a sequel.

The more commercial commercials, like the spots I recently did for St. Mary’s Hospital were much narrower in freedom content-wise, but a wonderful opportunity to explore over the top realism in rotoscope. I like the challenge of commercial work, and I love the opportunity to be “professional”. It can also be refreshing not to have to carry the invention of content over a film and really revel in pushing technique.

Because I keep such a small studio, a commercial job brings with it months of subsequent economic freedom. The commercial sponsors are my Medici’s. I’ve always been kind of an odd choice for commercials, when I get them, they tend to want me to do something along the lines of what I have done or am doing, so it’s really not such a stretch. I should add that I have a lot of “repeat” clients, so it’s a nice excuse to work with people I’ve become friends with. Lately I’ve had a lot of help from assistants too. On the bigger jobs it’s just not possible to do everything myself and it’s always nice to have other voices in my studio.

>>> Jeff Scher’s Site

>>> The Animated Life–His NY Times Project