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3rd April 2012
Hello little fella
Title of film: Herman Dune - Tell Me Something I Don't Know
Director: Toben Seymour
Toben Seymour's feel-sooooo-good video makes us want to curl up and purr. Here he talks about working with puppets, yeti and Jon Hamm

We’ve had bit of a roll on sex and violence recently so we couldn’t help think that disaster was going to befall our protagonist. So (spoiler alert!) what joy to have a happy journey and ending to boot. Did you create the narrative and how did the idea come about?

David ‘Yaya’ Herman Dune and I wrote the video / concept together. Yaya has been drawing these blue yeti creatures for a while now and I have always loved this character. Yaya and I have a fluid creative relationship where we share random ideas and concepts for upcoming videos.

It’s always nice to have a consistent collaboration with someone like Yaya. I have been making all of Herman Dune’s music videos for the last seven years or so. These friendships are the best part of being in the music video biz. I appreciate the trust he puts in me when writing and executing these ideas and I love his music and art. Sometimes Yaya will send me a brief idea of what a song is about or what he would like to have in a video and I shoot back an email with a lot of possible ideas, rough script and/or treatment. This narrative evolved out of a lot things that Yaya and I like.

Yaya particularly wanted me to watch ‘The Little Fugitive.’ This became one of my favorite films. I wanted to make a film about a young yeti that decides to leave the forest and venture off into the unknown human world. It’s a subtle and simple narrative that Yaya and I wanted to make.

I think a lot of people were expecting a violent ending but that seems to be the trend with kids my age who grew up loving the Muppets. They want to see puppets involved in sex, drugs, violence and other adult situations because it’s funny. We wanted to keep this a charming and heartwarming story about friendship. No cheap gags or raunchy humor. It was about a yeti becoming man’s best friend. Much like finding a stray dog you might take in and care for. This is the story that worked best with Herman Dune’s music and Yaya’s yeti character. To be honest I’m a bit tired of all the raunchy puppet stuff out there at the moment. I really enjoy using puppetry as a form of animation in my films, and I think there are a lot of captivating and moving stories that can be told this way.

And how did you cast the, ahem, male driver?

I sent the script and concept to a number of producers and people I thought might be interested. Mike Farah at Funny or Die suggested that I reach out to Jon Hamm. I was literally in the middle of a Mad Men marathon and thought that he would be perfect. I wanted someone recognizable to be the driver that picks up the hitch hiking yeti. I wanted it to be unexpected and random. Similar to the celebrity cameos in old Muppet movies Jon was perfect for this. At the time they were a bit swamped at Funny or Die, so Mike suggested that I reach out to Jon’s manager.

A week or so went by without any response. I was literally about to cast someone else when I got an email from Jon’s manager saying he loved the idea and the music and wanted to do this. I think we were all a bit surprised. Funny or Die jumped on board to help fly Jon to Austin and take care of everything he needed. Jon was really easy going and fun to work with. Looking back on the production of that video I’m always amazed at all the things that came together to make it happen. We were blessed to work with so many talented people. Not only is Jon an incredible actor, but he is also really down to earth and extremely funny.

And was that a little fella inside that blue furry suit?

Ha! Really? That is a nice complement. It’s actually a hand and rod puppet that was built by Furry Puppet Studios. Another amazing thing that happened in this production was that puppeteer Paul McGinnis got involved. He flew out from NYC to let his arm play the role of the yeti. The yeti was a hand and rod puppet, similar to something like Kermit or Grover or most Muppet characters. For the full body shots we had the puppeteers dressed in green suits so we could erase them in post.

Was the shoot and production as easy going as the result? What were the main challenges?

Actually it was a pretty laid back and easy going shoot. There are always challenges but everyone seemed to have a great time making this video. Let me think of challenges…

It was difficult to hide the puppeteers in these shots. It was important to me that we shoot this in a realistic manner instead of a studio or green screen. This means that a fully-grown puppeteer man had to stuff himself into the passenger seat foot well below the glove compartment. Puppeteers are an amazing breed who will find a way to fit into the most ridiculous places, and they keep such a positive and playful attitude about it all. It makes me think of those ‘If I fits, I sits’ cat memes. Another challenge was that in order to see the monitor and action happening I needed to be tethered to the camera or hiding in some of these shots.

One thing I love about Texas is that it is legal to ride in the back of a truck bed. It might not be the safest thing, but I love that it is allowed. So we shot a majority of the driving footage from the back of a truck bed. I had Jon on a walkie talkie so I could give him actions and cues. We shot outside of Austin on country roads without much traffic, so this could all go down in a safe manner. We sort of played leap frog with our cars passing one another. I made it clear to Jon and our truck driver to only pass if the road was open and safe. So, Jon would pass and we would get some nice side shots of the yeti and Jon driving together.

It was a challenge to coordinate all of this while trying to frame around the puppeteer hiding in the passenger seat well. It was a bit dangerous and I worried about everyone’s safety. It would have been a disaster if something happened to the most handsome man in America on my watch. I wasn’t going to let it happen. I was really impressed with how Jon managed with all the challenges we faced considering the budget we had to work with.

But overall I’d say the main challenge was the budget. It’s always difficult to find a way to shoot what you imagine when there isn’t much money to do it, but overall I’m happy with what we created.

Any other fun facts about the video?

The little child at the gas station was my girlfriend’s nephew Lincoln. It’s always amazing to watch kids interact with puppets. They become so fascinated by the puppet that they don’t acknowledge that the puppeteer is there.

It was funny driving through downtown Austin, TX during SXSW. I was in the back seat with the cinematographer, Ross Riege, and the puppeteer was crammed in the passenger seat well so it would look like Jon was driving around with only the yeti. You would hear people from the sidewalks say, “Sweet ride!… Whoa puppet!…. *#%@ that’s Jon Hamm!”

Jon cruised out to my buddy Craig Thibaudeau’s place after the shoot. We had a little wrap party in his garage with some homemade beers and we passed the guitar around playing folk music. I love playing folk music. I think we were all talking about Segway’s when we heard a loud pounding on the garage wall. It was Jon saying, “Hey nerds, where’s the beer!” It was a fun wrap party. My buddy Craig and Jon played hockey in the middle of the garage while we played music and hung out. I’m surprised no one got injured. Jon won the match. He’s a great hockey player.

We get the feeling that your work is rather playful – we particularly like Keep California Beautiful. It’s a film about cleaning up rubbish but it’s a delight. How did this come about? Did you pitch the idea or did the client come to you because of your directing skills?

Yeah, I like to keep things real, playful, funny, fantastical, creative, inventive, imaginative, among other adjectives. I also have a serious and dramatic side to my work, but I have set that aside it seems lately.

Keep California Beautiful was something I made and shot myself. I went to a miniature train store and bought a bunch of those little people and started imagining what they could be doing in the real world. I wanted the concept to deal with litter because I had seen someone litter a gum wrapper earlier in the week and thought how lazy and ridiculous it was to see a grown adult throwing trash on the ground. Then I thought about the difference it would make if everyone in the world picked up one piece of litter.

I thought about how even the little pieces of litter can be a big problem. I looked at the sand along the boardwalk in Venice and it was peppered with small pieces of trash. I went around collecting little pieces of trash and built little scenes with these miniature figures and shot them there and then. I glued the little scenes to the concrete but they were destroyed or stolen within hours. I’d love to revisit this idea with a proper budget and film tools. I really think it could be an incredible piece. I’ve been spending more time making short content and really enjoying the simplicity of going out there and shooting something by myself.

What’s the best advice anyone has given you about film making?

This is a good question. I can’t recall anything at the moment. I always seem to agree with artists who are prolific. I feel it’s most important to keep producing things you want to make. To know what you love to do and be prolific at it. For myself it’s not to worry about getting to the point where I am a filmmaker, but actually practicing it constantly and remaining a filmmaker. What fascinates me about the creative fields is that many of these ideas, visuals, and experiences don’t exist until you dream them up and literally create them. I am most happy when I am building something and creating these thoughts and ideas I have.

Apart from film making have you any other creative pursuits?

I love to.. play old folk music with my friends, sing, whistle, cook, build puppets, puppeteer, sculpt, paint, sew, draw, invent, make up games with friends, play soccer tennis, among many other things…

I’ve recently made the effort to play pick up soccer games in every city I travel to for work.

Out of all the music videos and films you’ve shot , apart from Herman Dune’s Tell Me Something I Don’t Know, what are your favourites and why?

It’s usually the most recent project I completed or the one I’m currently shooting. As stated above, I had so much fun making this video.

Islands, Hallways

This project was an interesting challenge. Full body live action puppet animation is difficult. It’s choreographing three to four puppeteers to bring one character to life. I liked this project because I got to study the human body and how it moves. It’s not easy to make a skeleton dance like this and I learned a lot from this video. I’m happy with how it turned out. A lot of people think those skeletons were animated in stop motion.

Alphabeat, What is Happening

I love Alphabeat and this track. This was my first shoot in London and have a lot of fond memories making it.

Norah Jones, Young Blood (See Related Content)

This was a fun and challenging project. I basically tried to illustrate each idea or lyric in the song. Both literal and figurative. It was like a scavenger hunt. None of this is stock footage. Either myself or a friend shot each shot in this video. I highly suggest creative exercises like this to all filmmakers and visual artists.

Herman Dune, 123 Apple Tree (US region only. RoW hold tight).

I felt like I was living the dream when I was shooting this video. I was both directing the video and also the puppeteer for the Yaya puppet. My buddy Ross Riege was the cinematographer and puppeteer for the Neman puppet. Ross and I have known each other since preschool. We started building puppets and making short films in middle school and high school. It’s great that we still work together on various film projects and continue to build puppets and puppeteer together. After high school Ross focused on Cinematography at NYU and I studied film at USC. It’s pretty great to work with someone who understands and knows you so well.

LINKS:
www.seymour.tv

Credits