For his directorial debut, Claudio Salas took on an ambitious challenge: a 2-minute visual essay for the philosopher Alain de Botton’s School of Life project. 

What began as a simple Twitter exchange snowballed into a massive collaborative effort involving over 30 people. Their disparate styles and techniques combined for a whimsical “variety show” aesthetic that’s full of surprises while still feeling coherent.

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Claudio answered a few questions for us about the project, sharing some useful wisdom in the process.

Q&A with director Claudio Salas

Were you familiar with Alain de Botton before this project?

Oh yes! I’ve been a big fan of Alain since the first time I saw his TED talk on Atheism 2.0 in 2011. Since then, I started to stalk him and became super interested in watching his talks and interviews, and reading articles about his life.

And when I found out that he co-started The School of Life, I started watching all of their Sunday Sermons on Vimeo and short videos on their Youtube channel.

How did this project come about?

It all started on Twitter. One day, Alain posted a tweet saying he was looking for animators. I replied, and soon after we were emailing back and forth.

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The brief he gave me was really open. He gave me a script and complete freedom to do whatever I wanted, which to me sounded amazing!

At what point did you decide this would be an exquisite corpse-style collaboration?

After reading the script, I realized this was going to end up being over two minutes long. And since this project had a very small budget, I only worked on this during nights and weekends.

At first, I was planning on doing it all myself, but after generating ideas and splitting the film into about 40 shots, it sounded like I was going to be working on it for quite a while. So I decided to make this into a collaborative piece instead.

How did you find your collaborators?

I started out by asking some friends in London (including Moth Collective, Johnny Kelly, Mikey Please, Bee Grandinetti and my wife Emily Suvanvej) if they wanted to help me design and/or animate one shot each.

But then I started reaching out to a few of my old Buck friends (including Daniel Oeffinger, Yker Moreno, Tuna Bora, Ege Soyuer and Yuki Yamada) and other talented people I’ve always wanted to work with (like Brian Gossett, Stephen Kelleher and Jay Quercia).

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Obviously, these are only a few of the awesome artists that I asked and, for some reason, most of them said yes! The list kept growing until the very end when I reached out to David Kamp to see if he could tie the whole thing together with his mad sound skills, which he did!

How did you manage so many people? Any tips you can share?

Before reaching out to everyone, I put together this shot list where each artist could go in and pick a shot by putting their name next to it. This made it really clear to me who was doing what and how far along they were.

(By the way, I did not invent this doc. I customized one that Jorge and Jay at Giant Ant made. They rock.)

Some friends wanted me to be pretty involved in the process but some just completed their shot without any check-ins. Both ways worked great!

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In my invitation email, I also included a moodboard, color palette, boardomatic, and references, which helped to set some rules and structure for the project.

Were you all working from a shared set of storyboards?

Yes, before reaching out to my friends, I also put together storyboards for each shot. I told my friends to use it as a rough guide and encouraged them to do whatever style they wanted — change sizes and camera angles or even come up with a new idea. It’s pretty cool to look back and see how some frames are still pretty similar to the storyboards.

One thing that made things easier, was that before reaching out to my friends, I had already put together a boardomatic with rough timing so people could see how long each shot was supposed to be and how much was needed to be done.

Storyboards vs final design

How much was Alain involved?

This project was the first time I’ve gotten complete creative freedom. After sending my ideas over to him, I asked how often he wanted updates and he said: “No need for updates from my side – just whenever you feel there is something you need from me.”

That was pretty awesome.

Did you hit any roadblocks or problems? How did you deal with them?

Yes. At the very end, when I showed Alain what I thought was going to be the final version of the film, he decided we needed to switch out one shot (see below).

This was totally understandable since most of their audience is from the US, he wanted to avoid offending anyone. I asked Stephen Kelleher again if he could find time to make a meteorite hitting earth instead of my initial idea. Luckily he found some time in his busy schedule and saved us!

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How long did it take, start to finish?

I got the script from Alain at the end of May and rendered the final film in early October. So about 4 months from start to finish.

I asked Alain early on if I could take my time to make something that I would be proud of, especially since I needed to make money on other projects on the side. I started by generating ideas with my wife one weekend but had a big gap before starting to make storyboards.

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It took me about one month before I started reaching out to my friends for help. And most of the team other jobs on the side while they were working on the film. So this was all made for the love of animation!

Was working on this project important for you personally? Why?

Yes, for many reasons. Here are some:

  • I love what Alain de Botton and The School of Life stands for.
  • I love philosophy and the topic of being a “good” pessimist. I’ve always been a pessimist. Now I can be a good one!
  • I’ve helped many talented directors over the years but never directed anything myself. This was the perfect opportunity to finally make something cool.
  • I got the chance to collaborate with so many talented artists.

What would be the best possible outcome from this project (in your opinion)?

  • The best possible outcome for the world, that we get more good pessimists out there.
  • For the industry, that people get inspired to make more fun collaborations without the need of a big production company behind it.
  • For me personally, that I can continue to get fun briefs like this and hopefully one day be able to only work on these kinds of projects

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