Watch the World Premiere of "The Tale of Hillbelly"
Among alpine pastures, a rural young man performs advanced yoga. He meets a fragile fox and communes with it. He journeys to high peaks and attempts to reach further enlightenment through deep meditation. However, his own physical hunger prevents this and drives him deeper into nature than he could have ever wished for.
This is the synopsis that the directors of "The Tale of Hillbelly," gave us before we watched an advanced screening of this incredibly intricate and ode to old-school children's books with a more adult-themed ending. Created by Encyclopedia Pictura, a film and animation studio led by directors Isaiah Saxon, Daren Rabinovitch, and Sean Hellfritsch, "The Tale of Hillbelly" has been years in the making, and in-between projects with the likes of Bjork and Panda Bear, they created this masterwork with all the tools and tricks and inspiration they have gathered making some of the great videos of this era.
“The parable form is a lost art, or at least one relegated to children’s picture books or cartoons. With a love of those art forms, we set out to make something that was similar, but uncharacteristically tangible, tactile, and real. We wanted to create a world that felt real, but did not have the same air as we breath," director Daren Rabinovitch says of Hillbelly. “We wanted to express humans’ complicated relationship to wild things.”
Of course, watch this film above, and read our interview with the directors about the making and what went into Hillbelly.
Evan Pricco: For you guys, when did you start working on Hillbelly?
Daren: In 2007, the three of us were living in an artist commune in San Francisco. We were exchanging a lot of ideas through osmosis about filmmaking. I was working as a special effects artist and using those techniques to stage surreal fine art photos. Sean and Isaiah were making music videos, which I helped on. Collectively, we had an agenda to make imagery that I would describe as living cartoons. They helped me make my first film, called Tactical Advantage. After that, I had an idea for a film about Hillbillies doing yoga. I had no idea what it meant, but it made Isaiah laugh, so I presented a rough storyboard, and they suggested changes. While they went off to make a video for Grizzly Bear, I was going through the process of building the costumes, puppets sets, etc. for Hillbelly.
Isaiah: Sean and I came in just before production took off. We had just done the Grizzly Bear video with Warp Records and I scared us up some money from Warp Films - their offshoot cinema shingle. They wanted this to be like the next Rubber Johnny DVD (Chris Cunningham’s short film that was sold by Warp with a fat art booklet). We ended up co-directing the film with Daren and completely investing ourselves into the world he’d already dreamed up.
What other projects sort of came up that delayed the project? Or was it something that, as you worked with, say, Bjork, you got ideas for Hillbelly?
Isaiah: Hillbelly took us so long in part because we had no masters - no client with their own impatient schedule. We were free to make it as good as we wanted for as long as we wanted. That was a blessing and a curse because it was always deprioritized as we made, in order of creation: Bjork’s Wanderlust, two TV commercials, several houses, a farm, our first feature screenplay, and an educational kids organization called DIY.org. The one thing that did help with Hillbelly is that we got super proficient at photoshop painting and compositing while developing artwork for our feature and that made the backgrounds and comps in Hillbelly way tighter than they would have been.
Daren: If anything, the way we used miniatures, paintings and costumed actors in Hillbelly and, of course, the previous music videos, gave us ideas for how to make Bjork’s Wanderlust video. It was the very first day of the Hillbelly green screen shoot that Wanderlust was finally greenlit. To be honest, at that time I was both excited and disappointed by the news because I knew Bjork was about to take precedence. We did plan to finish the two films at the same time, but Wanderlust was very labor intensive, especially for Sean and Isaiah. After the three months of production – where I was the practical effects supervisor – they had to spend 6 more months doing the post-production full time. I was just beginning to teach myself digital painting, editing, and compositing and when I saw the first production stills from Wanderlust, I realized I still really needed them to bring it together properly.
When they finally finished Wanderlust, they were exhausted, and we were all broke. So we collectively pulled up roots with a few of our San Francisco friends and started a homestead in the woods of Santa Cruz, where we grew up. This was a three and a half year adventure, and when we weren't planting and building and milking goats, we whittled away at painting and compositing Hillbelly.
The soundtrack then took Jeremy Harris a couple of years to execute. It sounded really good, though.
The whole film features not only puppetry and prosthetics, but painting and an original score as well. How did each step come to fruition? Or did you set out with the idea of combining all these different art forms together?
Daren: The idea behind building everything ourselves was that if we made everything by hand – costumes, backgrounds, sound, and even the face of the actor – we would really be able to art direct it into something unique. This is the way big budget fantasy films are made, but very few indie films - it's a very labor-intensive approach. But we are illustrators at heart and we wanted to see a painted world come alive.
There is a very specific sort of feel to Hillbelly, like a fairy tale meets Tarantino. Did you have a specific sort of fairy tale-esque idea that you wanted to capture?
Isaiah: The narrative simplicity and potency of fables and fairy tales have always appealed to us. They are distilled, they are direct, they are timeless, and they deal with big things like morality. It’s so depressing as an artist to make ‘fashionable’ art that is immediately dated and out of touch - so the timelessness of fables is like the antidote to that. The downside is that your work is completely unfashionable and doesn’t benefit from plugging into the zeitgeist of the day. Hillbelly is hopefully equally unfashionable today as it will be in 30 years and therefore will not feel so dated in the future.
We wanted to go all-in on each drastically different emotion. If there is a tender moment - try to make that completely unironically tender. If there is a horrific moment - make it the most horrific thing possible. When you say fairy tale meets Tarantino I think that’s what you’re referring to - the film doesn’t have one consistent point of view - it’s point of view adapts to the emotional moment.
Daren: Fairy tales are embedded deeply, maybe genetically, into our unconscious mind. And there is a rawness to original fairy tales and early cartoons. These stories are not bloody, just visceral. The innards and guts we show are also maybe a tip of the hat to films like The Thing and The Fly - modern fairy tales, where prosthetics and puppetry are used so well.
What did you learn making Hillbelly that you will apply to other EP projects?
Daren: I wanted to go without dialogue because it always seemed like it would ruin the vibe somehow to have Hillbelly talk, make him seem less mysterious. When he does vocalize he makes very deep, monosyllabic sounds – he sounds like a friendly giant. So, the challenge was to make a character that doesn’t speak be interesting to watch, and I think we did so by altering his appearance and by directing the actor to pantomime in a Kabuki Theater kind of way. I think we succeeded, but I also think that choosing to go with a silent character was an expression of concern I had about getting just the right voice from the actor and about writing just the right dialogue. Now I want narrative films I do to have lots of great dialogue and voices.
When we shot the Hillbelly character, I planned to composite him into a miniature set. But in the end that only worked for one wide shot – the one where he’s climbing up the mountain. The other shots didn’t look detailed enough, so Isaiah and I ended up painting over the background plates almost entirely, using traditional movie matte painting methods. Classic Disney and Ghibli were a big inspiration. I have now come around to background painting in a big way. My most recent project, "Fly Robot Fly," featured costumed actors on a full scale set that merges with a painted background and I think Hillbelly was a project where I began to understand how this works.
Hillbelly has a number of otherworldly moments: highly detailed cutaways of the body, shots looking out from inside a character’s head, the landscape changing during heightened moments. I look forward to making more films like that. With the fields of Animation and Special Effects continuing to merge, we should be able to make live-action film look however we want.
A film by Encyclopedia Pictura
Directed by Daren Rabinovitch, Isaiah Saxon, and Sean Hellfritsch.
Encyclopedia Pictura is a film and animation studio in Los Angeles.
The film was produced by Warp Films.
Written by Daren Rabinovitch.
Starring Mark Stuver.