The God of Small Things
By: Jim Hanas | June 1, 2006
Adam Pesapane’s apartment is neat. Neater, perhaps, than one would expect. Pesapane, or PES—it’s a family nickname that also happens to serve nicely as an artistic conceit—creates big ideas out of tiny everyday objects: peanuts, matchsticks, skeleton keys, candy corn, toy football players. You might expect the hardwood floors of his Harlem apartment to be cluttered with such things. But they’re nowhere to be seen.
So where are all those tiny everyday objects? PES opens a shoebox and pulls out a clump of dried grapevines. He opens another box to reveal antique Christmas ornaments. In a PES film, these vines and ornaments might serve as landscapes or explosions. In another room, he keeps a fastidious collection of antique illustrations, which he alters and uses in his films, on his website, and on his business cards.
PES—everyone calls him PES, even Sarah Phelps, his wife and energetic manager—leaped onto the animation scene four years ago with Roof Sex. The minute-long stop-motion-animated film, in which two armchairs enjoy acrobatic lovemaking atop a Manhattan building, quickly became a sensation in 2002, winning the Best First Film award at the prestigious Annecy International Animated Film Festival and finding itself featured in the Saatchi & Saatchi New Directors Showcase at the International Advertising Festival in Cannes, France. “From the very beginning,” he says, “I’ve been obsessed with ideas that could run as both commercials and miniature films. You can put either a logo or a credit at the end—they’re still self-contained things that feel complete.”
In an age of branded content and proliferating platforms, PES, 33, is an artist of his time, zigzagging fluently from art to commerce, from entertainment to personal statement. “It’s a great challenge and a real interest of mine to merge popular entertainment and package it in a highly artistic format,” he says. Not quite a commercials director, nor a traditional filmmaker, PES is something we didn’t have a name for five years ago: He’s a viral artist.
A native of northern New Jersey, PES studied English and printmaking at the University of Virginia. After helping to design Icon Thoughtstyle, a well-wrought, short-lived magazine, he parlayed his portfolio of undergraduate etchings into a job as a personal assistant to a creative director at the ad agency McCann-Erickson in New York. “I saw advertising as this place where I could hide for a couple of years, and that’s how it worked out,” he says. He made his first film while at McCann: Dogs of War, a sepia-toned live-action short in which fighter planes drop hot dogs directly into buns held out by a pair of Cold War–era children.
PES stayed at McCann until, he says, he realized that he needed to work on Roof Sex full-time. Nina DiSesa, then chairman and chief creative officer of the agency, remembers PES well: “He was a lousy secretary and a brilliant filmmaker.” This assessment, she admits, is “a little harsh—but so much better than if it had been the other way around.”
PES credits his McCann years with introducing him to both Phelps—whom he met at a focus group on pizza—and to the world of commercials, especially a spot for jeans marketer Diesel, directed by Swedish collective Traktor, that featured a surreal rendering of an Old West gun battle. “I was inspired by the potential for the short format to be tweaked a little and be more art or entertainment, rather than just commercials,” he says. “Some of my favorite commercials from the mid- to late ’90s were essentially just short films.”
It’s hard not to wonder what PES sees when he looks at things. He is compact and baby-faced—a fact not quite concealed by dark stubble—and he is at once serious and excitable when he talks about objects. (At one point, he fishes a corkscrew out of a kitchen drawer and demonstrates how it would behave if it were a jellyfish.) In the narration to a mini-documentary about the making of KaBoom!, a one-minute 2004 film commissioned by Diesel, he parses gift bows, which stand in for explosions: “Gift bows are really just a single ribbon held together by one staple in the back. It’s actually quite a beautiful object, but it’s incredibly wasteful. Almost 40 feet of ribbon goes into every bow.”
PES learned about stop-motion animation by studying the films of Czech surrealist Jan Svankmajer, who, like PES, uses objects in his animated films—a technique animators call “pixelation.” Svankmajer gained some notice in the U.S. in the 1980s, when he made two short promos for MTV. “He’s a true genius, and I was very inspired by his work,” PES says. “It opened a door of perception, as I like to think of it.”
Filming Roof Sex, in retrospect, seems like a foolish undertaking. Although he had taken film classes at New York University, PES had no animation experience and no money.
He maxed out his credit cards to shoot the $20,000 film, and he made it in natural light, a tough task for an animator. He was forced to base his shooting schedule on the weather; getting 20 shooting days took three months. But the gamble ultimately paid off. After Roof Sex was honored at Annecy, PES returned to New York to find his fax machine jammed with licensing requests. “When we came back here, there was a business,” he says. “There was a business—oh my God!”
Megan O’Neill, an exec at online video portal Atom Films—among the first to license PES’s work for the web—says Roof Sex has been a perennial favorite. “As soon as I met PES, I thought, ‘Wow, this guy really has something,’ ” O’Neill says. “I thought the work was so clear, and dazzling, really. And I knew it would be a big hit.”
Watching one of PES’s films is like going on a visual scavenger hunt. Synthetic and organic objects—from watches to cupcakes—are pressed into service to represent objects completely different from themselves. In Wild Horses Redux, a parody of a Nike ad, plastic players from the classic tabletop game Electric Football charge into the sleeve of a fur coat lined with meat. In KaBoom!, a toy plane fires matchstick missiles tipped with cotton on a city that defends itself with anti-aircraft explosions whimsically represented by plastic clown heads.
“What I had realized through Roof Sex is that something that really fascinates me is using a piece of film to alter people’s perception of the world,” he says. “Film is a powerful thing. In the space of 10 seconds, you might have an idea that if someone sees it, they literally will not think of peanuts the same way when they see them at the baseball game.” Peanuts, in particular, are an obsession with PES. In Kaboom!, a peanut stands in for an atomic bomb; other shorts depict the legumes drowning, crying, and, in one case, urinating.
In the last four years, PES has created ads for Bacardi, Coinstar, and U.K. mobile provider Orange. And this year, Atom Studios, a division of Atom Films dedicated to developing content for the web and mobile phones, commissioned two short films, the first recreating a series of classic video games out of pizzas, rocks, cupcakes, and entomological specimens. “My first call was to Sarah and PES, because PES gets the Internet,” O’Neill says. “He completely understands that it has to be entertaining, and all his stuff is really viral.”
Some films PES makes just for fun, although almost everything he makes finds a market as licensed content for the internet or mobile platforms. His latest project, due this fall as a self-released holiday DVD, is a PES-ified version of TV’s Yule Log loop. PES’s rendition, naturally, is composed of pretzels and candy corn and consists of only eight frames in fluid repetition. He calls it his purest, simplest idea to date.
“I certainly don’t see myself as just Mr. Stop-Motion Animation, although it seems that the advertising agencies keep giving me more and more opportunities in that realm,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of ideas about objects. I’m going to continue making them. I love stop-motion, but at the same time, it’s not the only thing I ever want to do.”
Still, he’s not sorry to have his credit cards paid off. “Yeah, it’s nice,” he sighs. “Thanks, Bacardi.”