A couple of weeks before animator Kelly Sears's semester of teaching ended at the University of Colorado Boulder, she got a call from the management of legendary riot grrrl band Sleater-Kinney. The band wanted her to create a music video for its latest song, "High in the Grass," the second track to debut off the group's upcoming record, Path of Wellness.
The timeline: a few weeks...painfully short for an animator.
But Sears, who walked around blasting the band's tapes on her headphones in high school, was happy to take on the project. She's only made a few music videos during her prolific career, and she was eager for the opportunity to collaborate — particularly after COVID-19 had kept her cooped up in her Berkeley neighborhood home.
She spoke on the phone with singer and guitarist Carrie Brownstein, who told Sears that she admired how her films were dark, funny and tactile. Brownstein described the new song, her ideas for the music video, and what it's like coming out of the pandemic. Sensing true camaraderie, Sears took a break from working on a series of short animations about collective resistance, sound, landscape politics and development, and agreed to the project.
"When I heard the song, I thought about us coming out of the pandemic a little broken, but maybe a little more open to being a new version, other versions of ourselves," she says.
While Sears, who typically animates archival films and images, had not shot performers since she was an undergrad, she decided that the fastest way to produce the project would be to film live footage of dancers in front of a green screen. She put together a crew of colleagues and friends from the university.
Fellow filmmaker Laura Conway produced and shot the project, and Madison Palffy directed a group of dancers that included Rick Manayan, Brittney Banaei, Constance Harris, Keith Haynes Jr., Jesus David Muñoz, Michelle Ellsworth and Uli Miller. Mariah Diaz, from the university's cinema studies program, served as production coordinator and COVID-safety officer, ensuring that the team stayed healthy and that performers and crew were comfortable.
After shooting footage of the dancers, Sears began hand-painting and scratching the film. "I animated for like two weeks straight," she recalls.
The song had plenty of rich material to inspire her work, with both brooding elements and plenty of joy.
"I love genre films, and I heard the song, and it starts off really kind of more aggressive," Sears explains. "And I'm like, 'Oh, that feels more like a horror film.' And then the rest of it's just really soothing and ecstatic, blissful, and quickly put together. I had an idea of a distressed, headless body running through this woods and coming to this magical grasslands and having other people come and take care of them."
As she worked on the project, she was thinking about "these larger systems that have failed us over the past year, like health care, institutional racism on every level, and thinking about ways that we could create new care networks to care for one another," she says. "And also, maybe if we did lose our minds, maybe it's not so bad."
Path of Wellness drops June 11 on Mom + Pop.
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