Ethan Young on Creating the World of 12 Little Spells

Welcome Back! CFILM has been on a grading vacation between semesters but with the start of Spring Semester 2019 we can’t wait to start blogging and casting again. Today Wes Alum Ethan Young offers an in-depth look at the making of his visual album Esperanza Spalding’s latest release 12 Little Spells. Ethan is an independent film and media maker living in New York. He visited campus last year to show and discuss his stellar (and terrifying) senior thesis film with my class on the Horror Genre. We hope to lure him back soon to screen and listen to 12 Little Spells. In the meantime, you can read about its genesis here. 

The process of creating a visual album for Esperanza Spalding’s newest release 12 Little Spells was unlike any other I’ve experienced so far or will likely experience again any time soon. The unconventional manner in which she approached the writing, recording and rollout of this project, as well as the consistently genre-bending style of her songwriting pushed me to challenge my calcified creative habits and explore visual territory altogether unfamiliar to me. Unlike other music videos I’ve made where I write a detailed treatment with reference images before pre-production begins in earnest, the visual style and choice of imagery for 12 Little Spells was largely dictated by the production process itself. So throughout this rundown I’ll be focusing more on that process than trying to describe the specific creative inspiration behind each video.

I was first approached by Esperanza in February of last year with an open invitation to collaborate on something in the near future. One of my best friends (and fellow Wesleyan ‘13 alum) Zain Alam, who releases music under the name Humeysha, was attending a Harvard Grad program and struck up a correspondence with Esperanza while she was a visiting professor there. Zain and I had done several music videos for Humeysha songs in the past and he was preparing to release a new EP at the time. He shared a handful of his work with her, including my music videos. They struck a chord and she reached out to me about working together. Although I was very enthusiastic about the prospect, our schedules did not line up for quite some time.We finally found some schedule availability overlap in August. I got on a call with Esperanza and she pitched me on the idea of doing twelve videos, one for each song on her new record. Each song and video “spell,” as she called them, would correspond to a different part of the body and was intended as a healing force for the elements of the human spirit associated with that part of the body.

The catch was that the songs were not yet recorded (and in some cases not even written), I would be working with an extremely limited budget, and all twelve needed to be released a little less than two months from that point. The idea behind this incredibly strict timeline was that she wanted the album and all the pieces of visual art surrounding it to be as spontaneous and reactive as possible, embracing coincidence and providence wherever possible. Regardless, I was a big fan of her music, eager to collaborate, and willing to take the dive and really challenge the limits of how fast and how well I could work under these constraints. We all have a tendency, when given the time and space, to nitpick and over-analyze a work in progress until we lose track of what excited us in the first place. But when you’re staring down a rapidly approaching release date, your only concern is to get the ideas on the screen in a form that’s visually and emotionally legible. Fortunately, Esperanza was very open about the creative direction of the videos and willing to invest sight-unseen confidence in my instincts.

At the outset, the photographer making the album art, the costume designer for the tour, and I were only given the titles of the songs, their associated body parts, and a few notes from Esperanza about the “effect of the spell.” Esperanza would not be entering the recording studio until mid-September and I would not have finished mixes until a week or two before the first video was set to be released. Since I had to figure out how I could start shooting video material without any music, I decided to treat the shooting process like foraging: I’d shoot a wide range of images without an agenda and then let my findings determine the direction of the videos.

I wrote down a huge list of images, shot ideas, subject ideas, and location ideas that felt like they could be potentially interesting and set out to shoot as many of them as I could. We didn’t have the budget to rent a proper gear package, nor did I have the budget for a crew to man such a package. So I borrowed my partner Julia Rich’s Sony A7SII mirrorless camera — the workhorse of micro-budget filmmaking these days! On past music videos I’ve mixed A7S footage with Alexa / Amira footage and most folks can barely tell the difference, which is remarkable given that the A7S costs around 5% of a what an Alexa does. Using a camera of this scale also ensured that I would be able to shoot solo on the days when Julia was unable to assist me.

A7S mounted on a microscope

After the first few days of shooting I started to target my efforts more on small details of objects. I began focusing on textures and capturing incredibly close-up macro footage instead of larger scenes, which would have had more of a sense of space and environment. Not only did the limitations of the production lend themselves to shooting on a (literally) small scale, but I found that there was something thematically resonant about the idea of focusing in on the textures of objects as though they were the ingredients for each spell — combining physical materials that we would not typically associate with one another, but which, when abstracted through the lens, become part of a bizarre organic patchwork.

I shot a wide array of such materials using macro filters and zooming-in to the point where these objects were just barely recognizable: vegetables, wood, peeling paint, fabric, water droplets, house plants, fish, insects, fur, oil on a hot skillet, vinyl records, human skin, etc. I then took this idea one step further and figured out a way to mount the camera on a microscope and shoot materials at the molecular level: river water, cheek skin, a fruit fly, grains of salt, etc. Again, at this point, I had no idea what songs these images would be associated with or how they might fit together. I was just following my visual intuition/taste and a general thematic/aesthetic mindset with the faith that the structure of each piece and connections among the footage would become apparent at a later stage.

A grain of salt and a fly, under microscope

Given how forefronted Esperanza’s presence is in all of her music, I knew that we’d need her on camera for most if not all of the videos. However, we could not begin shooting her material until she had finished recording the record — we’d need the rough mixes for accurate playback on set. Additionally, her schedule was so packed due to the imminent release of the record that we could only get her for 1 day. Shooting Esperanza’s material for 12 different music videos in a single day meant that we would not have time to change locations, do any sort of meaningful production design work, or even moderately complex lighting; we would need to average about 1 hour of shooting per music video.

So I wanted a location that would have some built-in visual personality and a range of different looks.  As it happened Esperanza was about to begin an artist residency with the beautiful Andrew Freedman Home in the Bronx. The AFH was initially built in the 1920s by NYC business magnate Andrew Freedman as a retirement home for formerly wealthy individuals who had lost their fortunes — i.e. an insurance policy on the dignity of your high social standing regardless of actual means. At some point in the mid-century it evolved into a more traditional  retirement home and then around 2007 became an artist residency. So we reached out to the AFH about shooting our videos there and they were extremely receptive. I was able to tour the location and was struck by the third and fourth floors of the building, both awaiting renovation in the near future. The textures on every wall in every room were completely different and in various states of organic decay. It immediately felt visually akin to a lot of the macro/microscopic textures that I had been capturing. In addition to these un-renovated spaces, there was ample office space for us to set up a sort of black-box environment for the videos where I knew I’d want Esperanza set in more of a void. 

Andrew Freedman Home, exterior and interior

At this point I enlisted the help of my good friend and fellow Wesleyan alumnus Albert Tholen (‘15) for this marathon day of filming with Esperanza, along with my partner Julia and our makeup artist, Marcelo Gutierrez, who we were able to bring in for half the day. Esperanza had been in the studio for the past two weeks recording the record and the rough mixes were finally sent to me two days before our shoot. I took this time to sketch out some basic ideas for what locations in the building we’d use for each song and roughly how we’d approach shooting each one. I knew we’d only have time for two or three camera setups on each video, so I focused on creating simple compositions that felt distinct enough to differentiate the songs from one another and would allow Esperanza room to play and experiment with her performance as we shot. These two days of brainstorming were the closest I ever got to a sort of “treatment” phase for the videos – i.e. a pre-planned structure and shot list based on ideas inspired directly by the songs.

The shoot with Esperanza went wonderfully: she was incredibly flexible and gung-ho, fully down to jump into the rushed insanity of it all. And her presence as an on-camera performer was really something to behold. Every take of every performance was exciting, engaging, and really locked-in. We’d do a few takes of each setup, usually for sync issues, camera issues, or if we wanted to try a slightly different approach to her performance. But I always had the sense that if I was forced to use only the first take in the edit, I’d be fine. Our 12-hour schedule slowly stretched into a 16-hour day, but we were still somehow able to shoot Esperanza’s material for all twelve songs. By the last video of the day, which I believe was The Longing Deep Down, we had a total of thirty minutes for the whole thing! Again, none of this would have been possible without the incredible hustle and fantastic attitudes of Esperanza, Albert, and Julia.

Esparanza, Albert, and Ethan

The very next day, Albert and I hopped straight into editing. The videos were set to release one-per-day for twelve days beginning on Oct 7th and we were about a week and a half out at that point. Our approach was to spend the first few days getting as much material into the timeline for each video as possible, so that we’d have at least a basic sense of which ones were in good shape and which ones were going to need some extra attention. For the majority of the videos, Albert would sketch out the structure and then pass his project over to me. I’d take it from an assembly or a rough cut to a final cut while he began working on the next video. This was the first time I’ve ever worked with another editor on one of my music videos, but I honestly don’t know how I could have done it otherwise. Even beyond the time constraints with this volume of material, it would have been so easy to lose perspective and get really off course trying to keep everything in my head at once. Having Albert next to me at all times allowed me to constantly check my work against his discerning eye. And the process of watching Albert’s cuts and giving notes forced me to think hard about what I wanted and to get specific enough that I could articulate that vision in clear, prescriptive terms.

We discovered the real idea of each video during this editorial process. In some cases, I had a notion going in of what non-Esperanza material I wanted to pair with what song (i.e. the macro footage of skin for Touch In Mine) or how I was going to visually structure a video (the mirrored dancing feet for You Just Have to Dance); but for the majority of the videos it was about stringing out the sections of Esperanza’s performance that we really loved and then experimenting with weaving in different non-Esperanza imagery, seeing what felt right, and then building a visual arc around that material. I had shot 70+ hours of footage (a lot of it was slow-motion) for this project, so we had a tremendous amount of material to pull from. The question was always about finding the imagery that felt as if it spoke to the tone of the song in some way, no matter how abstract.

For example, in The Longing Deep Down, the spell associated with the abdomen, I ended up using a lot of microscopic footage of the interior of a fruit fly. While filming this material, I shifted the focus on the microscope in and out rhythmically so that it pressed on the glass slide and made the interior of the fly look like it was pulsing. But taken totally out of its original context, this footage could look like endoscopic footage inside a person’s gut, moving between the organs as they expand and contract. I additionally cut in macro footage of oil bubbling on a hot pan and paint peeling on a wall, and before you knew it we had a full-fledged emotional inferno — all contained within the mid-section of a human body.

The process of getting notes from Esperanza was also incredibly smooth. Every once in a while I’d send her a batch of edits and get her thoughts. In one or two cases we did substantial changes based on her comments, but otherwise her notes consisted of little more than enthusiastic approval. And given how little runway time we had between the first cut of a given video and its release date, I’m not sure we could have made it work any other way. The final video for the album (With Others) was cut from concept to completion in 72 hours, with the finished version delivered only a few hours before its release. It remained a sprint to the last minute!

While this production process is not one I’m necessarily looking to repeat any time soon, I still feel that I learned a tremendous amount about the benefits of filmmaking under serious time constraints. In other projects I’ve had a tendency to let things drag out needlessly while I indulged little perfectionist whims to little noticeable effect. So this was certainly a therapeutic splash of cold water in the face and a reminder that sometimes going with your first impulse is better than ruminating on every choice for hours. As anyone who was living with me during this period can tell you, I did my fair share of squirming and hand-wringing and hair-pulling about whether any of this would work out or if I would simply lose steam and fail to deliver. But I’m proud of the results and of myself for having met this challenge.

Silent Storytelling

By Ben Model

You will need both sides of your brain for the course I’ll be teaching this spring, “Silent Storytelling”. You use both anyway, but it’s that right brain of yours that is more engaged in the silent film experience. That’s more of what’s at the core of the trajectory we’ll cover.

The course traces the development of film’s visual storytelling language, from the early 1910s all the way through the end of the silent era. What we’ll see, experience, and process – and with live piano accompaniment at every class! – is the gradual decrease of onscreen information being spoon-fed to the audience so that more of the storytelling is assembled out in the theater by the movie-goer.

In my work as a silent film accompanist over the last 35+ years, I go on each film’s journey right along with the audience. Silent film accompaniment is about taking in both the film and the audience. I use music to synthesize the two so that the audience is able to connect emotionally with the drama or humor of the film and engage in that pure cinema dream-state. Doing this has for thousands of films at thousands of shows made me much more aware of the language of cinema and how it’s “spoken” to and understood by an audience.

Silent film didn’t know it was missing anything at the time. Until talkies ended the medium in 1929, silent movies were just called “movies”. Silent cinema utilized every element at its disposal to tell stories, entertain, and move people, and every bit of film language was developed and used to a poetic maximum during the silent era.

We’ll get to see how this was put into practice by many luminaries and pioneers of the era: D.W. Griffith, Lois Weber, Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, Vsevelod Pudovkin, Douglas Fairbanks, Oscar Mischeaux, Buster Keaton, William S. Hart, Laurel & Hardy, Erich von Stroheim, Ernst Lubitsch, King Vidor, and more.

Kevin Brownlow, the Academy-Award-winning silent film historian, archivist and restorationist, wrote that with silent film, the audience is the final participant in the filmmaking process. That’s the right-brain part of silent film I was referring to. We’ll explore this during the course, right along with all that historical information and factoids that’ll go into your left-brain.

The CFILM Podcast Episode 13! Jaws the Third

This week, CFILM continues its exploration of Jaws with Michael Slowik. Professor Slowik, whose body of work includes After the Silents: Hollywood Film Music in the Early Sound Era, 1926-1934, naturally tackles how the film uses sound. In particular, of course, he investigates that score, and how to approach soundtrack as a film scholar.

The CFILM Podcast Episode Eleven! More Jaws

Welcome back to the Jawsverse! This week resumes our lecture series on the classic film. Scott Higgins discusses Jaws’ history, meeting film on its own terms, childhood trauma, Dutch elm disease, and of course, SHARK MOVIES.

Pick of the Syllabus: Robin, Marian, and Technicolor

Take a dive into the vault with this Wesleyan Magazine article by Scott Higgins.

I regularly return to  The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938) in my film courses, and so it is a delight to see the film finally available on DVD in a restoration that does some justice to its grandeur. Robin Hood provides a glimpse of classical Hollywood’s formal perfection and insight into the popular imagination of late 1930s America. Much of film’s appeal derives from the fact that it was produced by Warner Bros., the studio of hard-hitting, topical Cagney gangster pictures and Busby Berkley musicals. Robin Hood, one of Warner’s few costume prestige-pictures, and only its third Technicolor production, was a departure. It cost the studio an unprecedented $2 million, but it moves with the speed of an inexpensive B film. Prince John (Claude Rains) announces his villainous coup with the simple declaration, “I’ve kicked Longchamps out! From now on I am Regent of England.” Moments later, Robin (Errol Flynn) storms into the hall, lays a deer’s carcass at John’s table, and announces “From this night on I use every means in my power to fight you.” Prince John attacks, Robin escapes and, amid a hail of arrows, Maid Marian (Olivia de Havilland) flashes a concerned glance. In trademark Warner’s fashion, the game is on with a minimum of fuss.

The narrative compression helps bring the genre’s politics sharply forward. The adventure genre has always envisioned a world where people are judged by their abilities rather than class, and where determined individuals can change government for the better. In Robin Hood these ideals forcefully resonate with 1930s concerns. According to the film’s rhetoric, a just government, in Robin’s Sherwood or in the late-1930’s America, should not squander resources on the rich, nor on international affairs. When the good King Richard returns to Sherwood, Robin chides the leader “whose job was here at home protecting his people instead of deserting them to fight in foreign lands.” Though topical, the film never slackens the pace to deepen characters or advocate an agenda. Instead, again in the Warner Bros. style, Robin Hood does everything at once. Distinctions between romance and politics collapse when Robin tenderly declares to Marian, “Normans or Saxons, what’s that matter? It’s injustice I hate.” Produced in the late Depression and, eerily, at the bring of the war against Fascism, Robin Hood is oddly relevant without betraying the genre’s escapist roots.


Robin Hood is also an aesthetic milestone in Technicolor design. Introduced in 1934, “three-strip,” Technicolor was a complicated and expensive system that used three negatives to create a full-color image. Technicolor films were painstakingly designed works of art. The Technicolor Corporation, in concert with the major studios, developed “color scores,” planning a film’s palette around the drama, much like a composer might create a musical score. Where earlier films had subdued Technicolor to make it an unobtrusive adjunct to the story, Robin Hood gleefully puts a broad gamut of red, yellow, green, violet, and blue on brilliant display. Like a musical, it weaves in big “production numbers,” like the dizzying archery contest, that dazzle with an intensity that must have overwhelmed viewers raised on black-and-white.


At its best, Technicolor filmmaking was the art of a million details, and it is in the dense texture of its costumes and mise-en-scene that Robin Hood distinguishes itself. When Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Basil Rathbone) is introduced in the cold hall of Prince John’s palace, his back is to the camera so that his rich blue cape contrasts with deep velvety red accents stretched across the composition; he is set like a blue sapphire in a band of rubies. Suddenly, Sir Guy turns, the gold lining of his cape flares, and he reveals the brilliant yellow emblem on his chest. The flourish is only momentary, but it completes a visually arresting primary triad of blue, yellow, and red. Technicolor boldly punctuates our first glimpse of Robin’s arch rival.


After countless viewings, Robin Hood still astonishes with its deft mosaic of color. If the care lavished on the film seems inordinate for a simple adventure yarn, it also reminds us of the strength of the Hollywood industry and its importance to American culture in the studio era. With each return to Sherwood we relive the basic pleasures of innocent adventure, but the journey also affords fresh discoveries.

What’s Steve Collins Up To? THE CFILM PODCAST EPISODE TEN!!!!

The ONE AND ONLY CFILM PODCAST is BACK for episode TEN. This episodes begins a series of lectures on Jaws, a film we all know and love. Today, Professor Steve Collins walks us through the aesthetics of the film’s opening sequence. DO NOT miss THIS ONE!

What’s Steve Collins up to?

By Steve Collins

This Fall I’m teaching two sections of our introduction to film production course, Sight and Sound. Every year I see something that surprises me. It’s a class where we make a series of small exercises and one of the advantages of this is that we can focus on doing something truly cinematic with absolute precision and not have the burden of an entire film to finish. We put all our energy into doing a small thing very well and year after year, I find the profound in these little bite-sized films the students make.

As I’ve been preparing to return, and finishing up work on my own film, I am reminded again, how maddening the filmmaking process is. The pursuit of a film where everything is exactly in its place, every composition, every movement, every cut, every sound, and to have all that in place without sucking the life and spontaneity out of the work, it’s can make you drop your head and bang it on the editing table. And yet… I would do it again, and again, and again.

Filmmaking is hard, and I think our job as teachers (in whatever our subject) is to present students with an impossible task and say, here are some tools to solve it; you are going to fail in some respects, but you are going to move forward. We have to learn to embrace impossible tasks, tasks that test our whole intellectual and emotional being. How else can we deal with the world we live in – its beauty, grace and promise, tangled up in injustice, tragedy and suffering?

I try to focus on what I can do to help. I prepare my lectures on how complicated it really is to get across the feelings and ideas in your head onto that screen. Art is about connection (artist to audience) and connection is our only refuge from a broken world. In class this semester, we’re going to struggle and sweat and try, and every year I get to bear witness to the beauty of growth, progress, change. I do not care if it is perfect, I’m hooked.

CFILM Podcast Returns with Sadia Shepard!

The interminable wait is over– we’re back with the CFILM audio content you’ve been begging for! This week, Sadia Shepard and Scott Higgins discuss last year’s screening for the documentary filmmaking students. Shepard is teaching this freshman-level course again this year.

The 45th Telluride Film Festival with Wes Students Abound

Contributed by Richard Parkin

In 2005, as an undergraduate, I had my first experience attending the Telluride Film Festival as a member of the Student Symposium, a rigorous four-day screening and seminar program for students from around the world. I was completely unfamiliar with the festival and had no idea what to expect. This is partly by design. Telluride does not announce its program until the day before the festival begins. As I made the long journey into a remote hamlet in the Colorado Rockies, the sense of anticipation kept building and the festival did not disappoint. I participated in seminars with Michael Haneke, the Dardenne Brothers, and Don Delillo; caught U.S premieres of contemporary classics such as Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Three Times; and formed lasting friendships rooted in a shared love of cinema. It was a formative experience that has become an annual retreat for the past thirteen years. Attending the festival now as a staff member, the highlight for me is to cross paths with Wesleyan students and witness their own unique festival experience.

Shortly after arriving in town, I happened upon Ezra Scott-Henning (’18) at Telluride’s Elks Park and caught up on his post-graduation endeavors. Across the street were Minu Jun (’19) and Ruby Lanet (’18), fresh from their Student Symposium orientation. They shared their upcoming schedule of filmmaker seminars which included discussions with Hirokazu Kore-eda and Werner Herzog. We snapped a quick photo on Telluride’s historic main street with its old mining town flare. Justin Kim (’19) joined us for a screening of Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. During my post-screening walk down Colorado Avenue, I crossed paths with Ryan Gardner (’15) who assists with the Festival’s Development team. I then rushed to catch Karyn Kusama’s Destroyer, a gritty LA noir starring a near unrecognizable Nicole Kidman in a superb performance.

I began the second day of the Festival with a 9am Tribute to Alfonso Cuarón followed by a screening of his excellent new film Roma. Cuarón discussed the autobiographical nature of his 1970s Mexico City set drama that draws on his childhood memories. Later that day, Justin and I made a failed attempt to attend a sold-out screening of the Palme d’Or winning Shoplifters, although Henry Kinder (’17) was fortunate enough to gain entry. We instead sprinted across town to an archival screening of Douglas Sirk’s The Tarnished Angels. A special selection by Festival Guest Director Jonathan Lethem, The Tarnished Angels quickly became my favorite screening of this year’s program. Silvery black-and-white Cinemascope paired with dynamic camerawork, all in service of a William Faulkner based script. It was a cinematic delight. After the film, Lethem took the stage for a conversation with Christopher Olsen who played Robert Stack and Dorothy Malone’s son in the film. Olsen shared behind-the-scenes stories with Sirk and accounts of Vincent Minnelli, Nicholas Ray, and Alfred Hitchcock from his brief yet prolific time as a young actor in Hollywood.

After the screening, Noah Sellman (’17) joined Minu, Ruby, Justin and myself for a late-night meal and conversation. Joe Garrity, a longtime festival friend and lead editor on Watergate – Or, How We Learned to Stop an Out-of-Control President, dropped in and shared his experience cutting the 261-minute documentary.

The rush of a four-day film festival can feel like a blur and it wasn’t before long that I found myself on the flight back to Connecticut filled with the memories of films, warm encounters with friends, and – of course – a long list of titles that I missed (Cold War, Birds of Passage, Non-Fiction, and Shoplifters to name a few). The brief yet enriching visit to Telluride is a wonderful way to rediscover the power of cinema alongside a community of like-minded cineastes. The perfect mindset to begin the academic year at the Center for Film Studies.