Behind Phantasm Collaborator’s Music Video
After catching viral music video “Her Blood Is Poison” I repeatedly thought about its stark black & white images. I didn’t have to look too far to track down the man responsible - director Justin Zaharczuk was 2nd assistant camera operator on “Phantasm: Oblivion”. A brief background, he had been in contact with Don Coscarelli since 1992 when he was lucky enough to catch the creator’s attention with his Phantasm-centric paintings, action figures and storyboard concepts. By the time he was hired by Coscarelli and Roger Avary to concept-design the ill fated “Phantasm’s End” in 1996 it was clear that Coscarelli had huge confidence in the Philadelphian’s level of artistic skill. Since then, from time to time Coscarelli has hired him as a concept artist and supported his projects like the two hundred or so “Phantasm Artwork Trading Cards” that he hand-made one at a time, over the course of two years.
If bringing many rich personal touches to “Phantasm: Lord of the Dead” and Oblivion’s concept/pre-production art as well as Bubba Ho-Tep’s sets and props (along with the actual mummy-cowboy title character) wasn’t enough; Zaharczuk then blazed his own trail with “Her Blood Is Poison”. It began life as a conceptual short entitled “Encephalon” in 1999, which he sat on for several years. This was mostly due to his apparent stubbornness not to water down the film’s dark sub-text or the not-linear story telling. As is so often the case in life, just when it looked like there was no immediate hope for the project and after many stops and starts, in the summer of 2007, the pieces all came together. The incredibly offbeat, cutting edge and risk taking musician Otto Von Schirach as well as editor, Alex Burkat came on board to help supervise and shape Zaharczuk’s short into a music video.
Spoiler Alert: Be sure to view Her Blood Is Poison (the below embedded video or @ here.) before reading any further if you want the storyline to be a surprise. It is not your standard people lip synching to pre recorded lyrics type of thing. Be warned, those expecting a linear story may be disappointed. The key to decoding the video, I fathom, is accepting that each scene has something to say and may not correspond to the preceding or next moment. It plays with time displacement and therefore shuns a traditional narrative framework.
While Phantasm takes a rest, this is the perfect opportunity to spotlight its collaborators as they graduate to other projects. So I contacted Zaharczuk about the video – which I like to think of as “Phantasm on Crack”. I had a million questions but tempered myself to select five scenes that stood out as particularly uncanny. We quickly began a back-and-forth correspondence about my theories on them through both phone and email during January 2009. He would never say if I was right or wrong, preferring instead to share his thoughts and memories on each of those shots.
Zaharczuk: Before I comment on the stills John selected below, I’d like to give an important mention to two unbelievably talented artists, Miami born and based musician, actor & DJ, Otto Von Schirach & editor Alex Burkat. Her Blood is Poison is bizarre, to put it mildly. They had the rare ability to spot my film’s potential. More importantly, they possessed the intuition and guts to turn my film into a music video. They saved my project from becoming just another unreleased experimental film. Heartfelt thanks also go to the surprising amount of viewers who went to Myspace, YouTube, Fangoria, Vimeo, and XLR8R.com and embraced our efforts. I am still surprised at the amount of support the video is getting.
I also wanted to mention our 2nd assistant cameraman David Gechman -the only crewmember to sit and view all of the original “weeklies” fresh from the film lab. This was years before the song Her Blood Is Poison was written or the film short’s title Encephalon was even decided upon. Dave was there from the very start. He always stopped what he was doing just to be there when I would hurry the latest footage into our closet sized screening room for viewing on the 16mm projector. Lastly, of special note has been the eagerness and curiosity on the part of John Klyza. He was the first serious film reviewer/writer I told about Encephalon. I gave John only the briefest description of the plot and maybe two or three production stills to view at best. That was 9 years ago…. For whatever reason, he was engrossed immediately and is one of the reasons I knew I should keep pushing until I got this oddity noticed. Thank you.
Klyza: The black & white may have been a budgetary and/or stylistic choice, but what embellishes your little monochromatic world on film are the periods of animated color, usually reserved for the appearance or deeds of the story’s mental or metaphysical (take your pick) phantoms.
Which brings me to one of my favorite sequences where a glowing white stone statue comes to life, turning into a ghostly apparition. The stationary statue (which appears to be of religious origin) is soon born or “zapped” into unearthly life by a smattering of strobe like lights which bombard the central character (and viewer):
Zaharczuk: This segment of the short film originally ran much, much longer before being reformatted for Otto’s music video. Actually, the screen-cap you chose is from what was the most popular shot in the film. The test audiences (we only had two small screenings) loved it but jumped from their seats when the glowing white statue stared into the camera while laughing uncontrollably. The animated statue scene required more prep time than all of the other scenes combined. Filming time, on location was at 1:30 pm but I had to have the actress who played the character in our makeshift make-up room at 7:30 am. I designed and built the statue costume and its facial appliances over the 4 week span of time leading up to the day the scene was to be shot. The actress could not see whatsoever. Her actual eyes were closed with the permanently open statue-styled foam latex eyes glued over top. She ran around performing her scenes completely without sight from 1:30 pm all the way until dusk when we finished filming.
Klyza: The video is a constant assault on the senses (your eyes and your ears) so one viewing might not be enough. I mainly watched it twice – once with sound, once without. That’s because the first viewing, the pictures flew by so fast, punctuating in concert with the sound. Silently, you get a better idea of all the things going on up on screen. Though I’ll concede that with headphones, the video takes on an epic quality.
An instance of the subliminal imagery would be the recurring motif of the doll, specifically the repeating shot of it spinning in short bursts – it seems like it could possibly be the engine of the man’s mania, rotating and powering the chaotic shifts in his reality.
Zaharczuk: XLR8R Magazine refers to this character as a relative of Bob’s Big Boy in their recent review of the Her Blood Is Poison video. Bob’s Big Boy was a somewhat large sit-down fast food restaurant enterprise in the U.S. until just a few years ago. Nonetheless, it was surprising to see a big, mainstream magazine like XLR8R give us such encouraging press. By the way, Big Boy is the name of the restaurant’s mascot and looks pretty similar to our video’s character (minus the baseball cap). Although somehow, I doubt the owners of that family restaurant chain would want HBIP’s Doll anywhere near one of there Ad campaigns (laughs).
The animated doll/puppet shots started off rather simple. The first scenes entailed only a few static close-ups to be inserted at a later time when I had the story more figured out. However the original little doll is honestly not too foreboding or ominous in real life and filming him statically did little for the video. I had zero money to do anything about the dilemma but I had taken several successful courses in various forms of animation while attending Art College back in the early 90’s. Out of curiosity, I attempted to stop-motion animate just one shot of the figure turning slowly - and very steadily to the right. When we got that footage back from the lab and screened it for the small but dedicated film crew for the first time, it was clear that the innocent looking (in real life) barely seven inch-tall toy went through an interesting transformation whenever he was animated. The extreme lighting and angles we chose upon setting up the stop-motion elements were a big factor in the doll’s newfound malevolent look. The positive crew reactions to those scenes led me to experiment with various filming speeds and exposure settings to complete the rest of the doll segments.
At one point I became so desperately hungry to give the video’s viewers something distinct, something that stood out, that I started hitting the Big Boy doll with my hand at the very second I would film each frame of stop-motion. Tapping the doll at that exact point of frame exposure became very noticeable when we sat down and reviewed that footage fresh from the lab. Our little, zero budget toy doll danced, spun and streaked in a way that was not the clumsy, robotic or mechanical look stop-motion tends to have. The oddness of those shots set the tone for the rest of the film and helped put the more pessimistic/critical members of the crew at ease in regards to whether or not I had a clue as to what I was trying to achieve.
Klyza: Working within the confines of music video running time - which is even more brutal on time than a short film (which comparatively can play fast and loose with length) – HBIP gives scant few chances for the viewer to be coaxed into a new storytelling sequence – you are simply dropped into each scene, experiencing it as the character does.
Even the most laidback scene ramps up at a breakneck pace – like in this next example where the man takes a casual stroll but soon finds himself in the company of another. This seeming doppelganger echoes his run on the other side. The man seems victorious in getting ahead, but he falls to the ground in exhaustion. He is losing the battle for control over his life.
Zaharczuk: This segment reminds me of setting my alarm clock for exactly 4:25am on a late winter’s Saturday morning in Philadelphia, PA. I used the shown location for the feeling it gave me when walking along the lonely property as a teenager. Because of the vast length of the gate and the bleak terrain on just the other side of it, I had been wanting to capture this unsettling environment on film for years. It was one of only a small handful of segments requiring more than one crew person to successfully shoot. This involved J.J. O’Kane in the lead acting role, Joe Browne III as the untitled figure mirroring the lead actor’s movements on the other side of the gate, 1st assistant director John P. Begley to drive Joe’s car (which doubled as our dolly for several shots), myself to operate the 16mm film camera and visual consultant Michael Narren grasping me by my belt to prevent me from falling out of the car’s passenger side window. I was basically standing up with my upper body leaning out of the open window.
Since we had no real film equipment whatsoever - and although most of the car’s tracking shot was edited out - it was a must from the very beginning for us to achieve the rapid flickering and undulating movement of the gates’ bars. I don’t know why that was so important to me but having those bars travelling behind the actor in rapid succession was always key. The strange black-to-white scrolling effect reminds me of the spinning shutter blades on a film projector. Especially the over-pronounced, slightly exaggerated flicker of the old silent film projection units. There’s something hypnotic about the effect – it mostly has to do with the strobe being produced. We go for that effect subtly and not so subtly throughout Her Blood Is Poison.
Klyza: It’s dangerous to try to sum up a video so bold, but if I had to nail it down to one image that’s representational of its whole, it’s the doll. The antagonistic relationship between the man and doll is mostly one sided. The doll seems to conduct the adversarial business between them while the man mostly suffers the results, eventually attempting to break free.
But… we don’t know that they are separate entities. The doll’s face in the ECU next to the tormented man hints at the possible duality of two personalities. The human side is mentally hanging by a thread, and the darkly playful side is smiling, confident in its firm plastic or wood encasing.
Zaharczuk: This is the one shot created in the computer. It is of special note because the short film that Her Blood Is Poison was culled from was purposely made void of computers in any way. All FX were done traditionally via chemical process, double exposure, stop-motion, etc. and the first round of editing was done via half-broken Moviola using adhesive tape splices. When Otto Von Schirach and Alex Burkat came on board, the rules of the game changed just a bit. Computer software was brought in to digitally edit the video. That software was also used to enhance the story in many ways including compositing the shown ECU close-up image of the doll’s face with actor J.J. O’Kane looking into the camera. I was not too happy when I saw the first rough cut. I was specifically going for a hand done, old style feel. The feel I wanted had no need for digital manipulations. That being said, you can’t tell it’s a digital shot whatsoever and it turned out to be one of the video’s more effective visuals.
I’m not certain of what the editor meant to imply by compositing those two images specifically but I’ve had fun asking people their opinions. My guess is it suggests the lead actor being trapped in an isolation unit, deep inside the belly of the building. The unnamed man is looking up, into the face of the doll - and in return - the doll is observing everything the man does - not just in the isolated room - but most likely throughout his entire life.
Klyza: A side-effect of online videos is that you can’t control the playback in slow-motion like you can on DVD. You have to choose between play and pause. That lack of middle ground is especially useful to this video’s impact because you see things that you just cannot comprehend, and the tools to rationalize or dissect them aren’t present. Like with this- you have a shot in there that catches my eye every time:
It’s dark - something rough-looking with facial characteristics (?) flings upward like gravity has suddenly reversed - I don’t know how else to explain it. This is exactly why I wanted to conduct this Q&A.
Zaharczuk: Most people don’t realize what these segments particularly show until the video is on pause. Originally, people were not pleased because they couldn’t tell what they were seeing. Was it a shoe falling off? A levitating pancake? Or some sort of alien saucer? I was advised by several people to cut this section of film. Unfortunately, that dislike only caused me to add more. Letting me know you don’t like a scene because you are confused by it - and you aren’t sure what you are seeing - will not make me want to cut it out. Not when the video is intended to be strange and different. The ambiguity of the decapitating/spinning mannequin head (that’s what it is) ended up intriguing the majority of our viewers - I’m glad none of it was cut.
I think diehard film and music video lovers get a big kick out of not having every damn plot point and visual image spoon fed to them. It gets insulting. Anything we can think of can be created via CGI nowadays. Because of that, I think we are all becoming pretty bored whether we know it or not. I’ve become absolutely desperate to find new films/videos that let me do a little reading between the lines on my own. My intent for Otto Von Schirach’s video was to keep the sense of open interpretation alive. I’d rather try to thrill with imagery that strikes a personal chord in as many people as possible…
…not just imagery set in stone.