Jesse Damazo was going to be a lawyer until he became acquainted with some people named Fanny and Alexander.
“I was in law school in New York. I wasn’t very happy, so I started going to movies all the time,” says Damazo, now an MFA candidate in film and video production at The University of Iowa. “One day I skipped class to see Fanny and Alexander in Greenwich Village. That film is so rich, with a world of Swedish bourgeoisie characters in really complicated relationships. It has all these moments that seem transcendent, using a visual approach that produced such rare beauty.”
He was hooked. Goodbye, law school. Hello, filmmaking. Damazo has since worked in varied styles, ranging from a sensory-rich documentary on Bay Area swimmers to charming (if not a bit bleak) stop-motion animation tales of castaways and space exploration.
Damazo sat down with fyi to talk about the reward of tedious stop-motion filmmaking, his experience cooking for a bunch of surfers, and his recollection of swimming out of a wicked whirlpool.
You diverted from a career path in law to make films. What do you want to do in this medium?
That’s a good question—I don’t know, basically. (laughs) That’s an advantage of going to grad school: we have the freedom to try so many things. I’ve made a documentary about people in the San Francisco area who swim in the bay; I’ve done pieces that are projected as part of theatre productions. I love the grad student experience here—we have many opportunities here, both in the Graduate College and the University as a whole. I like being a teaching assistant, too, as there’s no shortage of really good student work here.
I’m open to the idea of becoming a professor. I also wouldn’t mind managing a movie theater—I do that here at the Bijou. Everyone thinks I should move to L.A. I don’t think so.
Your portfolio is quite diverse. Do you have a favorite style?
I particularly like working in animation. I don’t ever see myself working exclusively in that style, but I definitely like the end product. By and large, the process of creation is enjoyable, but about halfway through the shooting, things get tedious. I set everything up, take a picture, adjust things slightly, take a picture, repeat, repeat, repeat. I shoot at five frames per second; some people shoot as high as 24 frames per second. I like the way things move at five frames per second—there is a jitter effect that plays well with my intent for these films to be a little rough around the edges.
Two of your stop-motion films, Adventure and The Idea, (spoiler alert!) don’t exactly end well for the main characters. Do these films reflect your general outlook on life?
No, no. I simply like the idea of telling stories about futile quests or bad ideas. These are strange, almost childish tales played out with paper images shot on a web cam. Rather than expressing my take on the world, these films are simply things I find humorous, and they provide ways to rebel against the cliché Hollywood endings. They’re funny/tragic, I guess.
(Adventure can be seen at the bottom of this article.)
Let’s talk about The Bay Swimmers. How did this film come about, and is it tough to go from stop-motion to documentary style?
I was living in the Bay Area, and went on a swim with this group of people who commonly swim to Alcatraz and back. I found the experience interesting. The movie tries to re-create for the viewer the actual physical experience, rather than just present information. That idea led to shooting with a camera that could go underwater, and interviewing people in a segmented fashion. It was like making a collage.
A few of my favorite things…
John Updike’s Rabbit Run
Rock ‘n’ roll music
Law & Order (the episodes featuring Jerry Orbach)
The University of the Pacific swim team
See Damazo’s work at vimeo.com/user1528182
Making this film is obviously different from the animations, but it didn’t feel that different. Each project feels natural, even though there isn’t a lot of consistency between projects.
Do you have a favorite movie?
Terrence Malick’s Days of Heaven. Famous cinematographer Nestor Almendros shot this film, just before he went blind. Everything was shot at “the magic hour,” right after sunrise and right before sunset. The light is golden, lending a magical effect to the film.
What’s the biggest risk you’ve ever taken, and did it pay off?
I was swimming near a waterfall in Washington state. I got sucked into a whirlpool—there were waves everywhere, and I nearly drowned. I went into this area knowing there was a current, but I was arrogant enough to think I could swim out of any danger. I ended up swirling around for a half-hour until eventually I got in the right eddy. It brought me close enough to shore that I could swim out.
Did it pay off? Well, no, aside from survival.
Have you worked any odd jobs?
I was on this traveling surfing camp, and I accidentally left my backpack with all of my stuff at one of the stops. I asked the camp organizers if I could work for them to earn my keep until we were able to get back to that cabin. So they put me in an assistant chef position. It was great! I helped make breakfast, sandwiches, and some dinner stuff. I worked a couple of hours each day, leaving six to seven hours for surfing. We eventually made it back to the cabin where I had left my backpack—everything was still there—but I stayed mum about it for a couple more months so I could keep surfing.
Did your cooking go over well with the surfers?
Yeah. When you’re surfing, everything tastes delicious.