By Champ Ensminger, Summer 2015 Emerging Artist Fellow03.02.16
Last week, Champ Ensminger, premiered his incredible and much-anticipated music video, Us. Champ was the Summer 2015 Emerging Artist Fellow here at the JBFC. The video is currently enjoying an international release online through well-known music-magazine, The FADER. Us was created in close collaboration with Westchester resident and musician, Zach Cooper. It was Champ’s headlining project while he was in residence here at the JBFC, and much of it was shot at the Media Arts Lab. Read below to get Champ's behind-the-scenes scoop on the creation of Us.
I met Zach Cooper in early 2012, when the independent record label, Styles Upon Styles asked me to put together a short documentary on their new vinyl imprint, Bangers and Ash. For each release, SUS musicians were asked to create downtempo music for side A (ash) and more uptempo tracks for side B (the bangers). The documentary followed Zach as he prepared BASH003,which was split between two of his projects: side A was the work of King Garbage, an avant-soul duo with singer Vic DiMotsis, while side B was released as kuxxan SUUM. I got to know both sides of Zach’s musical approach through his work on this release, and our collaborative spirit grew from there.
Fast forward three years. Zach and his wife had left New York City for the peace of Black Mountain, North Carolina, and I had spent a few years halfway across the world in my native Chiang Mai, in Thailand. No doubt our separate but parallel experiences gave us a perspective on our respective crafts – music and filmmaking – that, away from the rush of the city, grew and transformed our vision as artists. After all of the serendipitous meetings and coincidences familiar to any traveler, I left Thailand in 2015 to accept the Emerging Artist Fellowship at the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, New York, an hour north of New York City and practically next door to Zach’s hometown, Croton-on-Hudson. We reconnected and began to talk about reviving an old idea we’d had for his upcoming debut LP, The Sentence.
Over a spotty Skype connection, Zach and I created the world of Us: a place where disparate spiritual concepts of ritual, sacrifice, transfiguration, stillness, and ephemera converged in a visual reinterpretation of his musical arrangement. Visually and tonally, we drew from films by Jonathan Glazer and Daniel Askill; Powell and Pressburger’s Black Narcissus; Peter Weir’s Picnic at Hanging Rock; and atmospheric video games like The Dig and Dear Esther.
We were lucky to work with Lindsey Jones, a dancer/choreographer who had collaborated with Zach for her senior solo performance at SUNY Purchase. I knew I wanted the effects to be as practical as possible, and to emphasize Lindsey’s movements as she transitions from state to state. For this we used a technique inspired by NYC-based filmmaker Paul Trillo. Lindsey performed in a blue suit on the Burns soundstage in front of a green screen, then smoke and dust effect recorded in the parking lot were layered with keyed passes of Lindsey’s figure and outline. Then the outdoor portion of the video was filmed even further upstate, in Cragsmoor.
I like to think of Us as the cinematic equivalent of a sand painting. Particularly in Tibetan Buddhism, sand paintings are meticulously constructed over a period of months only to be ritually brushed away shortly after they are completed. For monks, this meditative practice of creation and destruction is an affirmation of the impermanence of all things. The sounds and pictures that flash through our phones and on screens in dark rooms will last only so long as the technology necessary to access them does – and then they will disappear, leaving only the subtle impressions they’ve had on their creators and audiences, who will themselves disappear one day.
But Us is as much about transformation as it is about impermanence, from the shock of transition to an awareness and acceptance of the new state. The result of Lindsey’s ritual dance is not what she expects, but it is a new state of being, somehow both less fragile and more ephemeral. Like a rock that turns into sand, she’s not gone. She’s everywhere.
The Valentine and Clark Emerging Artist Fellowship is made possible thanks to the generous support of the Westchester Community Foundation, a nonprofit community endowment for the benefit of Westchester County.
Applications are now being accepted for our Summer 2016 semester Fellowship. Apply today!