Ric Serena is an Emmy-nominated director and award-winning editor whose experience in post production strengthens his ability to visualize an end-goal when it comes to directing commercials, promos, documentary, narrative and music videos.  His clients include CBS, NBC, ABC, Nickelodeon, Esquire, Freeform, Samuel Adams, Schick, Jack Daniels, Amazon, Gillette, YMCA, Chevy, Pampers, SoCal Edison.  He's represented by Moving Parts, Inc. for television promo and by Squint Pictures for commercial work. (www.ricserena.com)

KU: Ric, first of all, Let You Down is such a fun stop-motion film to watch. And unbelievably, your first foray into stop-motion! Tell us how you got into this project and what your inspiration behind it was.

My first professional foray into stop-motion.  I used to shoot it as a kid with my Super 8mm camera, using GI Joes and, funny enough, a city built of cardboard boxes (which I'd forgotten about until just now).  And I attempted a rudimentary stop-motion segment last year for a short documentary called, CZAPPA, which was eventually Staff-Picked on Vimeo.

The creative concept had been brewing in my mind for some time... two people falling in love from across the way, but hearing Opus Orange’s song, Let You Down, inspired me to adapt the concept to match the themes of that song: that love is not flawless, that we’re inevitably going to let down those we love, but the sooner we acknowledge it, the sooner we can transcend to a level of understanding and compassion that makes love truly special…and real.

This past April, my wife and daughter went away for a long weekend, and I thought to myself, “I’m gonna use this time to finally tackle that stop-motion animation idea I’ve been sitting on for the past two years.” The only thing I accomplished that weekend was building the main set, but it was such an encouraging process that I was motivated to see this through completion. 

Short BTS Video of the set construction.

I reached out to some talented folks to help me get this done. My good friend Vaj Potenza designed of all the main characters.  My wife and daughter created some of the ancillary shadow figures as well other set design ideas, joined me for some of the stop-motion shooting (Jen expertly pulled focus on the ice cream truck shot near the beginning), and helped me come up with other visual ways to demonstrate how we let each other down (fighting with ugly words, not talking, dying, growing up and leaving the nest). 

KU: What did you find most difficult during production of this film? I’m interested to know how you incorporated VFX with the stop-motion elements to add some really awesome texture.

Building the set was fun and tactile; but the most difficult component, trying to figure out how to accomplish what I was seeing in my head, also happened to be the most intriguing.  I knew I wanted to project the characters as silhouettes in the windows and I knew I wanted to employ the Kessler Second Shooter for camera movement, but I had to figure out how to accomplish both.  Ultimately, I landed on pre-building the character animations in After Effects as black & white hi-cons, then I rear-projected them in the windows using my laptop and Optoma home projector.  The pre-built animations timed out to match the duration of the shot (and number of frames) I programmed into the Kessler Second Shooter. As the Second Shooter triggered my Nikon D810 one frame at a time, I would advance my pre-built animation one frame at a time.  What resulted was a shot that included a camera move and an animated character in the window.  It's certainly something I could have composited in the window after shooting, but I enjoyed the challenge of making it a  real-time projection.

For the dream sequence, I had run out of time in my studio, so I had to compromise and make the characters digital cut outs with a paper textured surface. However, the environment they exist in were all practical elements (the sky, the clouds, the forest, under the sea, etc.).  That stage was probably the most tedious because I was having to do more work in After Effects, a program in which I only know enough to be dangerous. :)

KU: For the filmmakers out there, how do you go from producing an award winning documentary, Mile Mile and a Half, that’s to this date one of my favorite backpacking documentaries streamed on Netflix, to creating a stop-motion music video? They seem like such different disciplines.

Well, thank you.  We're all still very proud of Mile... Mile & a Half.

Over the past six years, I've been transition from editing to directing, and I'm able to make my living as a director now, with a strong focus on commercial and promo work.  But projects like MMAAH, this music video and other artist documentaries of which I've been a part... they are the projects that are good for my soul.  They're projects that I'm held accountable only to myself and my subject, not a client.  I can experiment, play, fail, succeed, and at the end of the day, I'm the one held responsible. 

KU: You mentioned that you used Second Shooter quite a lot during filming, what was your experience with the gear like?

The Second Shooter was a major player in this project.  I used it for 85% of the shots you see in the final piece.  In my opinion, the movement adds not just production value, but emotion to the music video. I had zero issues with the Second Shooter during this music video.  Pre-timing all the shots in an animatic helped me go into each shot knowing exactly how many frames I would need to program into the Second Shooter.  The programmable delay allow me to give myself enough time to move an item, or advance my character projection in the window.

KU: Any interest in doing more stop-motion?

Absolutely.  I loved seeing the shots come to life.  I'd like to try to get a little more complicated with some of the set ups, but for a shorter piece. 

KU: Did you take any special inspiration from other films or filmmakers when planning for Let You Down?

I've always been inspired by Henry Selick, the team LAICA, and a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Bent Image Lab when I directed the live-action portions of a CBS Holiday Campaign that celebrated the 50th Anniversary of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, so that was a lot of fun to see their work.  And in the past few years, the work of Jeremy Collins has inspired me to tap back into the creative realm not immediately associated with filmmaking, and yet those tools have affected my filmmaking immensely.

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KU: What’s in the future for Serena Creative?

In addition to the commercial and promo work I'm directing and the photography jobs Jen is shooting, we're heading into post-production on a new documentary we've be shooting over the past 6 months, featuring artist, Robert Townsend. 

KU: Any more outdoor adventures around the corner?

We hope so.  The Muir Project just released our most recent short film, NOATAK: RETURN TO THE ARCTIC, on which we also employed Kessler Crane products (The Second Shooter and the Pocket Jib Traveler), but since that is a collective of a few different filmmakers, each with their own side projects, it's a little trickier to coordinate.