Justin Lacy gets to play with his dream band Thursday at Bourgie Nights: a 10-piece folk ensemble, made up of LaRaisha DiEvelyn Dionne (vocals), Hillary Flowers (cello), Billy Heathen (mandolin), Jon Hill (drums), Annie Jewell (violin), Nick “Bear” Loeber (bass), Farrah Roberts (vocals), Brent Trubia (viola), and Laura York (clarinet, bass clarinet).
“I can’t overstate how amazing it is to play with these musicians live,” he tells encore. “Sorta like a cross between Leonard Cohen and the Talking Heads.”
Lacy has assembled this iteration of a somewhat revolving lineup to celebrate the release of his first stop-motion music video, “Weeds.” He is going to live-score his animation at the Bourgie show.
“The band is the real reason to check out the show,” he says. “The music video is just an excuse to try to get people out. I can’t thank everyone enough for jumping on board and helping me achieve my weird musical vision time and time again over the past year.”
A DIY artist, Lacy’s has controlled his own graphics and poster art for shows. For years he tapped his artistic friends to help where he didn’t have knowledge or experience. Fast-forward to 2018, when Lacy spent hours upon hours constructing a whimsical scene of a bike without a passenger, rolling over hills, roaming through seemingly endless brush and trees, which popped and sprouted along the musical path set by “Weeds.”
“When I finally started to animate the bike, I had no idea where it was going,” Lacy admits, “or what a riderless bike with a mind of its own would even be up to. I did the math to calculate how many frames were in each measure of music, so I knew exactly when actions had to happen to synchronize with the music. I wrote out a big chart so I wouldn’t get lost, and I began to develop a basic idea of what I wanted to see happen in each section of music. Then the bike took me along from there.”
Goldielux will open Thursday’s show and the live-score of “Weeds” will be followed by a set composed of Lacy’s “Overgrown” (2012), his 2017 release, “Control Burn,” and at least three new songs. encore picked Lacy’s brain about “Weeds” and his first attempt in stop-motion animation.
encore (e): Where did the inspiration come from to do a stop-motion project?
Justin Lacy (JL): The idea started when I made a show flier for a performance at Gravity Records in the spring of 2018 with Goldielux and Moon Racer. I was trying to come up with something simple, textural, and spring-like, and I thought about how Emma Nelson, the singer-songwriter behind Goldielux, recently spent a few weeks cycling across the country.
So I formed a bike out of blue and brown construction paper and a little bit of mirror material. At first I thought it might be a little too cute for a show flier, but I loved the way it looked when I photographed it: very three-dimensional, seeming to pop off the paper background.
e: How did you get the scene we see played out in “Weeds”?
JL: I played around with the image of the bike in Photoshop, and wound up inverting it so everything that was white turned to black, and the shadows below the bike now appeared to glow yellow-white light. That got me thinking: If I shot a stop-motion animation with the intention of inverting the entire final product, I could use shadows and black paper to essentially create light. A white, back-lit paper background with black circles would become a nighttime sky with illuminated moons; shadows beneath the moons would create moonglow halos.
I also realized, if the bike’s tires could move, it’d be an incredibly simple character to animate. I had been working on another stop-motion music video, one that was more three-dimensional, but this seemed like a much easier project to tackle. I could just ever-so-slightly spin the bike’s spokes on each frame, and use a piece of yarn to imply the slope of the road the bike travels on. Trees and fog and cornstalks could slide above and beneath the bike to imply lateral motion. In reality, the bike was mostly sticky-tacked to the same spot of glass for 2,609 frames, but it appears to traverse on this long journey past farms, oceans and forests.
The first step was to build a “multi-plane down shooter,” a workstation used by some stop-motion animators. I learned about it when I watched director Clyde Petersen’s film “Torrey Pines” at Cucalorus. It’s essentially a stand with multiple panes of glass. The camera points down at the glass, allowing you to animate multiple layers—background, midground and foreground—on each plane.
e: Tell us how your experience in art and different mediums came into play.
JL: Well, I haven’t always made my own graphics. In college I would sit with my old bandmate Ryan Spooner as he fiddled with posters in Photoshop for hours, neither of us having any experience in graphic design. After he moved, I relied on friends and my ex-girlfriend for anything image-based.
Eventually, I felt like a nuisance—the frugal musician pestering his graphic designer girlfriend for help every time a show came around, so I taught myself some Photoshop basics. That got me by for a while, but the big turning point was actually when I lost access to Photoshop. In 2016, I had a show coming up and I didn’t want to spring for Adobe Creative Cloud’s monthly subscription or bother anyone to make a flier for me. So I decided I’d just Photoshop by hand.
I took an old 11-inch-by-17-inch flier and I layered construction paper onto it, cutting and pasting all the letters by hand. I then took a photograph of the final layout. It had a very rough-hewn, childlike aesthetic to it, and I loved it. I felt it worked really well with my music.
I learned video editing in a similar way. I did a Kickstarter campaign in 2011, and the guys from Blueberry Creative volunteered to shoot it for me, but I had to find someone to edit the footage. I wound up doing it myself, learning as I went. I found it to be very similar to editing audio while producing music, and I enjoyed the process. In 2017 I wanted to put out a video to help promote my second album, “Control Burn.” I wound up chopping Jonathan Guggenheim’s album artwork into individual Photoshop layers, importing the layers into After-effects and animating them into a short clip. That’s what really got me thinking about stop-motion.
e: Did you go to school for art or music, or is everything self-taught?
JL: On the visual side, everything is self-taught. I went to UNCW for music and English. My only background in visual or mixed-media art—other than what I had to learn to make my own show fliers and videos—is when I was really young. I used to draw all the time when I was a kid. I went to an after-school art club in elementary school, and I remember wanting to be an “Imagineer” after visiting Disney World. At some point, I stopped drawing. I took band in middle school, and so I haven’t had any art instruction whatsoever since fifth grade.
I did, however, begin writing about visual arts for the StarNews in 2011. I kinda thought I’d be writing about music after college (hence the degree in music and English) but when I met with John Staton about freelancing for the paper, he was like, “Mmm you’re a little too involved in the music scene. What do you know about visual art? Have you been to any galleries?”
I was like, “You mean Bottega?”
“Yeah, that’s one of them.”
I didn’t know anything about the scope of the visual art scene here; at first I was a little intimidated to talk to visual artists about their work. I quickly learned it was a lot like talking to musicians about music. Over the past eight years, I’ve written over 500 articles on artists and art exhibitions in Wilmington. Seeing so many of my favorite artists in town work just like children at play had a huge part in giving me confidence to try my own hand at visual work: all you gotta do is play!
I think my distinct lack of experience is kind of a blessing, because I want this stuff to look like a child made it. I guess I’m picking up where I left off at age 11.
e: All in all, how many hours do you think you spent on this video? Would you do it again?
JL: Oh, I have no idea. Every scene took longer than expected. Hurricane Florence really screwed me up, and so I had to animate a big chunk of this in October, working around the clock before and after teaching music lessons to try to get it done before Cucalorus. I guess it would add up to hundreds of hours; it felt like thousands.
But, yeah, I’d totally do it again! I need to find a balanced way to incorporate it into my life, but it was so rewarding to get to see these little scraps of paper, cotton and yarn come to life.
e: What were some lessons learned with “Weeds”? Were there any hiccups—a scene or part of the project that just didn’t turn out and had to be scrapped?
JL: Lessons learned: Plexiglass builds up a lot of static electricity, and static electricity will give a scrap of paper a life on it’s own, and you don’t want to be chasing around little dancing scraps of paper all day. Probably should of used actual glass.
A little relief is so important when you’re in the muck of manic creativity. There were nights when my brain was so numb, but I stepped away to try to meditate, and then felt better continuing. Walks help, too. I say the hurricane cost me a lot of time, but this would’ve been a completely different film if I didn’t have to take off three weeks from animating to evacuate to the mountains and reassemble life after the storm.
I know there are moments when I could have made the bike’s motion more believable, but, other than that, it went surprisingly smooth. I scrapped one scene, which was hard—knowing how much time went into it. I was happy with how it looked but it didn’t do much to move the story along, so I came up with another idea that should give the video more foreshadowing—raise the stakes a little.
e: What was the reception like for “Weeds” when you screened it at Cucalorus? Obviously it went over well at Denver Underground!
JL: It got a really big applause, at least I think it did; I was pretty nervous. The film is essentially one long bike ride, so I think it’s pretty good at pulling the viewer along on this adventure, and when it finally ends, it feels like you have to catch your breath.
e: What’s the next project to come? What would you love to do next?
JL: There’s an album by my other project, Slow Dance, in the works. I’m directing a music video for it that combines live-action with some stop-motion creatures, creating a sort of old-school B-movie sci-fi feel. It’s mostly done and I’m really excited about the results.
After that, I’m thinking about, instead of diving into another 4-minute video, producing a series of short, Instagram-ready animations set to improvised music, with the idea of keeping everything really simple and as organic as possible. I think it’d be a fun project just to get some ideas going and gain more animation experience, and the musical improvisations could lead to full-fledged songs.
I really like the idea of continuing to create multimedia projects that combine visuals and music. While rehearsing for this live-score performance, the band and I practiced “Weeds” in sync with the video, and everyone in the band was freaking out, seeing our bass runs and drum hits lining up perfectly with explosions of color and paper. I’d love to be able to curate an entire live experience like that—performing, rather than recording, is my real passion—but that would probably take a decade!