With Nulla, New York based film Director Jean Claude Billmaier has produced a high energy dance film depicting the release of stress and anxiety through a carefully constructed study of movement, all set against an original score by long-standing collaborator, R&B singer and producer Toulouse. I spoke with Jean Claude about his use of VFX shots to create such a visually penetrating and surreal experience.
Where did the inspiration for Nulla and the idea for the shards originate?
Nulla was born out of a desire to explore the internal tension and anger stored within us in an energetic and uplifting way. We wanted to project the stress and anxiety accumulated daily in a movement projection that incited a release and left the viewer at peace. The concept came about organically as a result of the lives we were all having at the time – I was working on a couple of high-stress projects and in the interim decided to craft a passion project that would somehow project what my body and mind were going through. Loni Landon (the choreographer) knows quite well what I like. She was incredible in helping Evan Copeland (the dancer) create movements that felt natural to the space, but still bent the reality he was living.
As for the shards, it all came from the idea of having our bodies locked into glass boxes – we never let loose, never dance for the sake of dancing or simply just release. Especially in highly concentrated cities, we are always pushing for what’s next, what’s best, and forget that we self-impose these glass boundaries to bring us down and tie us to things we don’t need. From the very beginning, I wanted the movement to incite a breaking of the glass around us.
It all came from the idea of having our bodies locked into glass boxes – we never let loose, never dance for the sake of dancing or simply just release.
The piece is made up of over one hundred VFX shots. Can you talk us through your creative process in producing those and your use of colour to achieve the desired look and feel?
We tried different methods – first, we thought it’d be easy to just project the footage onto 3D models and create a mix of 3D projection and rotoscoping to accomplish this, but as we started working with that we realized some shots needed different treatments. We decided to test several VFX methods, from displacements to simple generations to create different versions of the effect. In the end, Justin Levine (the post producer) was able to create a somehow templated look that we were able to adjust and refine with each shot. The whole process took about three and a half months.
Nulla was choreographed without any music, what was the thought process behind that decision and what do you feel it added to the film?
This actually wasn’t originally the plan. We tried quite hard to find a music piece to work with but couldn’t seem to find something that worked the way we wanted. We had a set date for shooting the piece so we decided to embark on it without a set song – this actually became something that was quite liberating during the shooting process. I created what was a simple shot list to follow; we knew the order of the space and what energy levels to hit at certain points as well as how long we wanted those to last, and the remaining parts or transitions were all pieced together through different movements we played with during the production.
Editing the piece without a track was quite a challenge for Sascha Taylor Larsen (the editor) but it was also creatively freeing. He crafted a rhythm and was able to play with how to make the piece work without any sounds. When we eventually brought on Toulouse to compose the music he had quite an incredible base to look at. Working with Toulouse on the piece was so much fun. We played with the elements and energy of the music helping the narrative develop through sound as well as creating a piece that remains strong on its own. Overall I think that this was the right move creatively as it helped everyone involved sense the energy and develop elements that would increase the level of tension.
Have you experienced this feeling of overwhelming tension throughout your career? What message would you like the audience to take away from the film?
Well, with any creative endeavour you have a love and hate relationship with your career path – there are many ups and downs and a lot of the stress is self-induced. Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do and I can’t imagine myself doing anything differently, but I definitely think that anyone pursuing a career in the arts is prone to develop a thick skin to help combat the uncertainty of the career and the high stress that some projects bring on. I have had quite an incredible path to date and have found wonderful collaborators, but I’ve had many moments where I’ve wondered over the next best decision or project to take on.
I want Nulla to be something that projects into the viewer the stress and anxiety that an overworked body has. However, the message behind it is to filter these emotions and make them your own. Own the energy and bend it, let it fuel you and energize you and somehow use it to push you onto the next step.
With any creative endeavour you have a love and hate relationship with your career path.
You founded JCB Haus, a creative production co-op, at what point in your career did you make that decision? How has working out of JCB Haus affected your career?
I founded Marabigo, a traditional production company, a couple of years back. After working on that platform I understood that we live in quite a changing media environment, so I decided that I wanted something a little more malleable and non-traditional. That’s why two years ago I decided to found JCB Haus and make it a non-traditional company where we can morph into whatever each project needs and be quite versatile.
This move was definitely a risky one but I have loved the projects I’ve been able to explore, some of them solely film focused whilst others with some mixed media components like creative direction, photography, boutique production and post-production. I have consulted on many projects where I acted as a producer instead of a director and this has given me invaluable knowledge on seeing other artists’ workflows. Currently, I am talking to different houses in Europe, America and Asia that will help support my creative endeavours in the commercial and music video front and I believe that JCB Haus will always provide a backbone to the different undertakings I decide to craft.
What do you have next up your sleeve?
There are a couple different projects coming out this summer and fall. One of them is another dance film titled Dos exploring motherhood through contemporary dance and using a traditional Venezuelan folk song sampled into a modern piece. There’s also a fashion film featuring Valentina Ferrer, which can be viewed as five different vignettes, and one full piece titled xv.
I’m also exploring a couple different short and longer narrative projects – I’m shooting one of them this summer and hoping to get it ready for the festival circuit this fall. I’m very excited to continue creating pieces that lift people, that have them in awe and make them take a break from the hyper-quick digitally non-committal lives we are now experiencing. I look forward to continuing working with brands, artists and close collaborators that share the same values in storytelling as I do and are willing to bend the traditional form.