interview by RJ Cubarrubia
Northwest hip-hop group The Saturday Knights are known for their often playful approach towards rhymes and beats; MCs Barfly and Tilson jump and jab on their lyrical jungle gym behind the bouncing beats of DJ Suspence. Taking it to the next level, the group recently collaborated with Seattle filmmakers Michael J. Mouncer and Travis Senger, collectively known as Lincoln Leopard Films, to create a children’s show themed music video for their single “Count It Off.” Filled with fun beats, cheerful raps, Muppet-like puppets, and lots of kids singing and dancing all filmed with vintage tube cameras, the video sparked tons of attention when it premiered at SXSW. I met with Travis to discuss the video’s distinctively vintage look, working with kids, three tube cameras, setmakers, animators, and puppeteers, and how they made a hip-hop Sesame Street a reality:
Whose idea was this? Did The Saturday Knights approach you with this idea or did you guys brainstorm this idea together having a relationship already?
We kind of had a relationship through their label, Light In The Attic, with Matt Sullivan there. He brought us all together and then we would meet at my loft with The Saturday Knights and we had met them when their EP came out and we were really excited about their music. They came by the loft and they said that this would be the song if they were going to do a video.
Where did you shoot the video?
Well, what we did is we would meet with The Saturday Knights and conceptualize the project at the loft. It was really a collaborate thing with the band, myself, Michael, and a couple other people and we came up with an idea and I developed a treatment and refined it and it kind of was an organic thing that grew and grew. We came up with that idea to do a sort of children’s show and it just evolved into this 70’s style Sesame Street spinoff. We shot part of it in my loft, which is in the Bemis Building, and part of it in the Hiawatha Community Center, and it was hard for us to find a location to accommodate a set that large. The set ended up being very big, especially for our shoestring budget.
Yeah, there are few things that really stand out in the video; first is the animation. What were your favorite children’s shows growing up and how’d you get that type of animation with that old school 70’s Schoolhouse Rock! look?
When I was young, I watched a lot of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse and stuff like that. Michael and I grew up together and became Lincoln Leopard Films so our memories go back deeply together with a lot of Pee-Wee’s and Sesame Street. To achieve the animation, we worked with an art collective, Monocol, and I had worked with them for a long time, particularly Tom Eykemans. Once the concept came, I started working with our Director of Photography Sean Porter. He’s the one that said,” You know, Travis, if you want that vintage look, you’re going to have to shoot with vintage cameras.” He went and found these three tube cameras and we had already used those cameras for the shoot. When it came time to do the animation, we felt the only way it would feel cohesive with that late 70’s feeling was by actually creating the animation with those cameras and it really turned out well; there’s a lot of weird banding and texture.
We haven’t seen this type of look in a while. How hard was it to track down all the equipment for the video?
It was pretty difficult; Sean and I worked together for a long time and one of them came from the University of Washington and the other two came from Marysville. Sean spent a long time tracking down those cameras and the reason why we ended with three was when we shot this, we actually did a live three-camera shoot just like how they used to do it on television. A lot of that was for our own fun, you know, just for the challenge. We had to live edit and switch and it was pretty crazy. It was something we had a lot of fun doing and I’m glad we did it, but post-production... [laughter]
I really enjoy the transitions between the animation and the live action. How’d you guys incorporate those transitions?
Originally, I had kind of written into the treatment places for animation and we were thinking of doing it more like The Electric Company. When we started doing it, we had a conflict with the footage that was like Sesame Street versus the stuff that was like The Electric Company so we had to scratch that idea. Then, I came to thinking that were places in the video I still wanted animation. In fact, when we sent our copy to SXSW, it just said, “Animation Missing,” with these slugs just plopped in there. I was really surprised when they were really interested and immediately they were like, “Can you send us something with the animation?” but we still had to shoot it. We ended up getting it together and putting it all together for them and plugging it in kind of based on necessity for the most part. All of those cameras are so old and they hadn’t really been cared for and technology has evolved so far past that, they haven’t even been looked at. One of the things we were wrestling with was calibrating the cameras to where they had sort of equilibrium where each camera could have a sort of voice, so to speak, with its own texture and its own glitches. Some of that we wanted and some of that we didn’t, so trying to make the video cohesive, we ended up having to edit out one of the cameras entirely and that partly made room for a lot more animation.
That set looks huge. You said you used the community center and your loft, but it really does come across as a full Sesame Street set. How long did it take you to put that together and make that whole idea with the puppets mesh?
Yeah, there’re a lot of components to the video and the set is a big factor. I’m really proud of the set. Etta Lilienthal, who does a lot of theater and film stuff around here, designed the set; she was our Production Designer. We also had a builder that worked with us and put it together. We only had the community center for a few days, so the design was built in two or three days. There were three different stoops, maybe twenty something feet wide, about eighteen feet high and then there was another set, the main stage, that was set up based off of Stevie Wonder’s “Superstition” on Sesame Street. A lot of what you see comes from a ton of research and both those sets were completed in two or three days. The puppets were something we got really lucky with; a woman named Elizabeth Westermann came in. We had put a call out randomly and we got really lucky because she works in an art collective that has puppet shows geared more for adults with some for children so she had an array of puppets. We chose the ones that were more kid friendly, more Muppet style. The other ones were too racy for us.
There’s a ton of kids in the video and the song itself. Was it a challenge
working with that many young children and were they the same ones on the recording?
Spencer [DJ Suspence], from The Saturday Knights, has two stepdaughters and they’re the twins in the video and they’re in there a lot because it’s really them on the song. A lot of the ideas came from the song, kind of like a script and directing where you dig in deep and try to pull concepts out. That’s what we did with the song, so those two were in right away. We wanted a really diverse cast, so we put different calls in for kids of different ethnicities and I’m really proud because we got a really diverse group of kids and getting to know their backgrounds, I was just blown away. Even with Sesame Street in the late 80’s, you wouldn’t have that much diversity, even in the sense of how many of those kids themselves were mixed, and in the late 70’s, there wasn’t as much diversity as we saw in the 80’s. They were a challenge though. There were like twelve kids and we had accidentally gotten too many. Some of them came from a Craig’s List ad where I was like, “Hey, come for a rap video at this location on Tuesday!” and I figured a lot of these parents would get sensible and not come. But then they all came and I felt bad, so we had to struggle to get all of them some screen time. Some of them were really young and would even start crying while we were shooting. [laughter]
With so many different parts, what was the most challenging part for you about this video?
I think the most challenging part was the post-production because there were so many elements, so many cameras, and we had a lot of footage and we knew we wanted to bring in the animation. But trying bridge the animation in with the live action footage, I would say for me, the most challenging part was post-production. We worked with two editors and an animation team, so trying to seek the best footage, bringing in the animation, and make it feel cohesive with color correcting and trying to tame those three cameras was difficult. There are things with two cameras; you’ll notice ghosting in the video where there’s a two on the door but you can see it through Barfly’s face. There are these things that you’re looking at in post-production like, “These cameras are totally crazy. I’ve never seen anything like it.” I think we ultimately achieved a cohesive video.
Yeah, I’ve watched it a bajillion times and I notice something new each time; it’s great. Thanks.
The Saturday Knights’ debut album, Mingle, is out now on Light In The Attic Records. For more information on The Saturday Knights, visit their MySpace page. For more information on Lincoln Leopard Films, visit their website.