Definitely one of the strangest coming of age films we’ve seen here at DN, Peter Collins Campbell’s Summer Vacation introduces us to a boy and his masked friend whose daily routine of watching TV and making beats is rudely interrupted when a series of freaky strangers show up at their door. Making its online premiere on Directors Notes today, we sat down with the Chicago based director to discover how this absurdist comedy became a cathartic release which paved the way for his upcoming debut feature.
Where did the idea for this very strange film come from?
Summer Vacation developed very quickly in my head, after a while of feeling frustrated doing music videos that didn’t live up to what I felt the vision for each project could be – never enough time, never feeling cohesive with the artist’s vision, etc. And when suddenly it hit to start focusing on creating something just as visual as the concepts I pitch for music videos, it got shot really quickly. Enormous shouts out to Erica Duffy of Camera Ambassador and David Holcombe of Soft Cage Films for producing this.
The inspiration for Summer Vacation was mostly just images and feelings that I’d had in my head for a while – the creation of all the characters and aesthetic took maybe a day or two, it was a very stream of consciousness thing that was then honed through storyboarding. In retrospect, I’ve been able to kind of figure out what each element correlates to as far as memories from being a teenager, or wishful thinking as an adult, or the feeling of being overwhelmed in my life at that point in time that led to needing to make the film. Without going too much into much detail, I’d just call it a coming of age story.
Summer Vacation has a particularly sparse yet distinctive look, how was that style developed and to what extent was it influenced by the tools and techniques you used?
For whatever reason, I keep putting enormous voids into things I make. Music videos, shorts, drawings, photos I take. The idea of negative space not just as an aspect of composition but as a real, tangible, physical space that people are in is something I (apparently) am obsessed with. And masks. I refuse to talk to my therapist about what my thing with masks is because I don’t really want to know.
My own limitations as an effects artist definitely influence the look as well – I have no skill as a 3D animator, so incorporating extensive 3D into real environments does not happen. Our minimal 3D elements (all of the “new” buildings are 3D dimensional, while the house is a physical miniature designed by Milo Krim and built by Nicole Cwiklinski) were made by the artist NICKVISUALS, who has a way more extensive skill set than what is in the film, but constructed an artificial city in Cinema 4D that I layered into After Effects comps.
The idea of negative space not just as an aspect of composition but as a real, tangible, physical space that people are in is something I (apparently) am obsessed with.
All of the people were shot on white backdrops instead of green screens, which made things a lot more difficult for us in post, but it did help with lighting and visualizing the white void, so hopefully, it was worth it. There was a lot of experimentation and lot of the lessons learned were applied to the effects work in my feature. Someday I would love to do way more extensive work with miniatures and stop motion animation.
Given the effects heavy nature of Summer Vacation how arduous was the post stage of production?
After it was shot, things slowed down a lot, which might be obvious from the amount of effects in the film. I had the house built in miniature and physical teeth created for the cop, which was an effect that probably took several months of trying different ideas out itself. It went from thinking we’d shoot the teeth stop motion on a green screen and comp it in, to going fully digital (that idea was actually fully executed, but I was unhappy with it), and then finally, we shot a friend in a green suit wearing the teeth and doing kind of a fake mocap suit performance, which was then lightly re-tracked to the in-footage actor. The effects and compositing were done by myself and several other more talented digital artists.
All told, it took about 10 months. I won’t deny that it probably would have gone a little quicker without bouts of depression and distraction. At one point during the winter, instead of working on effects, I organized and self-funded a project where I shot almost half a feature’s worth of footage with friends and strangers with no crew around Europe, left my laptop in Spain for 3 months, scrapped the project, directed a music video, got my computer back, then got back to work on Summer Vacation. However, the journey of it all ultimately led to focusing in much harder on what I wanted from my career, and shortly after this started going out to festivals, I wrote and directed Dimland my first feature film which is currently in post-production (and going a lot faster than this short film).
My own limitations as an effects artist definitely influence the look.
I love Summer Vacation and will always see it as the weird therapeutic Saturday morning cartoon that had to get out of me to work myself out of a multi-year period of lostness. My feature is kind of a spiritual expansion of a lot of the ideas started to be approached in SV.
How close is the final film to the initial idea you imagined?
I’d say it’s extremely close to what I imagined in the first place – there were definitely minor ways in which certain ideas developed or had to be toned down to do realistically, but it’s more or less shot for shot what the storyboard was. I actually have chilled out a bit on storyboarding since making this, I think it’s more interesting to have a more physical pre-production process, with rehearsals and test shoots. It’s a constant learning process, and I imagine that will continue with everything I ever do. Restlessness moves us forward!
The Kickstarter campaign for DimLand launches on the 30th July, could you tell us a little more about that project?
Yes! DimLand is my first feature film. I wrote and directed it last fall, immediately after premiering Summer Vacation at Cucalorus. It was a crazy coincidence that the film was written to be shot at a cabin in North Carolina and I already had a reason to be there the very same week we started filming. The film is definitely an artistic sibling to Summer Vacation. If Summer Vacation is a coming of age story, this is like a thematic sequel. Okay, you know the world is scary. Now what? For some people, the only thing that makes sense is to run away and find some solace in the past. This is a movie about that tension and whether it’s sustainable.
We shot the movie on almost no budget, all the money we used was raised from walking dogs and credit cards, and now that I’ve gone about as far as I can editing and doing effects without a budget, we really need to finish it off strong. We’ll be going live in the next week with a Kickstarter to raise money for post-production audio and color work, and any extra we raise will go toward festival fees. If you liked this movie, you’ll probably like DimLand. Check it out at dim.land!