Artist to Artist: Alex Epton and Clayton Vomero

The director and composer behind docufilm 3OHA pick apart processes and the relationship between music and image...

Artist to Artist: Alex Epton and Clayton Vomero

The director and composer behind docufilm 3OHA pick apart processes and the relationship between music and image...

Clayton Vomero’s 3OHA documents the outsider lives of young people in Kiev, Moscow, Vladimir and St. Petersburg, exploring soviet culture and history, through the lens of those who were able to understand Western culture and embrace change at the time.

The narrative of the film is heavily inspired by Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation philosophy, which looks at the relationship between reality, symbols and society, particularly how media and culture are involved in building an understanding of a shared existence. This played heavily into Vomero's vision. "In the sense of my film 3OHA, the Zone has come to represent the thin vapor of consumer culture that allows people to live a fantasy of their own life and to eventually become a full simulacra as they simulate different versions of themselves until the original no longer exists."

These images were scored by classically trained jazz musician Alex Epton, with cellist Lucinda Chua, and recorded in close collaborration with Vomero. Comprising sounds from ambient to abstract IDM and otherworldy avant-garde, the haunting compositions enhance the film's montage, paralleling the contrasts and contradictions that emerge throughout its duration.  

Here Clayton and Alex, director and composer, discuss their routes into film and music, the process of working on 3OHA and how the visual can give its musical counterpart a totally new meaning...

Alexander Epton: I know early on, when we first met, you were pursuing a career in music and DJing. when did you start getting interested in making films. was there a transformative experience that led you to believe that it was something you could do? or was it more of a natural progression?

Clayton Vomero: I don't know if a career in music is how I'd describe it, more like just surviving. I always had a hard time being productive in making music, but DJing came very easily and was a nice way to make money back then. It was kind of whatever you could do that someone would pay you for that you didn't hate. I loved DJing though on the good nights. It felt really special to share the good nights with people, and I miss that collective sense of having a party where dancing and being emo coincide. But films were always something I loved. My dad had tons of VHS tapes and would get CDs from the like publishers clearing house page on the back of magazines and stuff. I would always make cassette mixes that were imaginary soundtracks to films my dad had like Deer Hunter or taking the soundtrack to Menace to Society and then adding other songs to it on a mixtape. I really liked making mixtapes which you know and I think I adapted that process to making films.

As for getting into it, I had a few opportunities that fell into my lap while hustling up some music jobs and just ran with it as fast and as hard as I could. I never went to college and my parents didn't have any money to help me make films so I had to take a commercial route to get into making things. And that was really difficult to navigate to now. It's hard to do your learning on someone else's dime. Film is a tough business to be creative in.

But back on the mixtape thing, that's what I always loved about the music you guys were making is that the mixtapes were like little films for your headphones. Tracks you love, weird dialogue, moody parts, nostalgia, new new shit. I don't think we would know each other if you didn't make those.

Alexander Epton: That’s a cool observation I definitely miss that era of making mixtapes and making music from samples and all that stuff. I think I got scared away from samples a little as I started depending on music to make a living. We took it so seriously and put so much effort into those mixes though. They took weeks. It was crazy difficult to do pre-ableton. I definitely try and put that audio scrapbooking mentality into it when making albums now. Once you have a bunch of pieces of music and are picking stuff for a record, there’s always cool little leftover bits you can pop in here and there that’ll add an extra layer of meaning to the overall body of work.

Clayton Vomero: Yeah I think that's how we still work except now I'm making images and you're making sounds. It's interesting to think that before we were sampling pieces of movies and now we're able to sample our own movies. In a sense.

Alexander Epton: Give me the breakdown on simulacrum / simulation and how that relates to 3OHA. It’s not something we spoke about explicitly during the scoring of the film but it was clearly on your mind when you were putting the film together and structuring the narrative in the edit. 

Clayton Vomero: I wasn't really that aware of it before editing the film. I had heard the terms but then started seeing it referenced more in various things I was reading at the time. Once I finally read the actual essay it was already there in the first edit of the film and it just became about honing and sculpting that theme in every edit after. The books I read before shooting were Generation P by Victor Pelevin and Secondhand Time by Svetlana Alexeivitch. One being about the dawn of capitalism in Russia and the other being an oral history of the transition from Soviet Russia into the 90s, which was mainly people recounting their memories of that time. So really the juxtaposition of the themes of those two books was the narrative of the film and then when you follow the echoes of culture and history and capitalist archetypes it kind of falls into line around simulacrum and simulation. Which is really just these ghosts that haunt us that are warping and mutating in meaning in every repetition.

But musically, I remember years ago before this film you and I talked about the nature of tape loops and analogue drones and how in each repetition there's always a slight difference even if they're not consciously perceptible. I thought about that in the Swan Lake thing a lot. How that could mutate and always be new and old at the same time. What was it you were telling me though? Back then? Like digital loops are so perfect that your brain tunes them out but analogue loops change enough that your brain keeps hearing them regardless of how small the change? As people told me the story of Swan Lake over and over it was always different too. No one had the same exact memory of it.

Alexander Epton: Right! it’s a filtering mechanism in the brain. Basically we’re bombarded by so much stimuli constantly that in order for our mind to make sense of things, mechanisms have evolved in our brains to filter the inputs. When the brain recognizes a perfect pattern it can tune it out to a degree where, for all intents and purposes, it’s not there. Then when we hear something that breaks the pattern, even if it’s barely perceptible, like a tiger rustling a bit of grass behind us, our brain all of a sudden wakes up and says “now hang on what was that!?”

I think that’s why I’m drawn to the analog sound sources, even if they’re going to end up heavily processed in the end. Simple repitition with them is just so much more engaging when there’s that subtle random variation happening. That’s kind of what I took away from the Swan Lake thing too. It was like this massive cultural boulder that dropped into the collective consciousness and then every once in a while a ripple from it still rolls by or something.

You have a distinct visual aesthetic in all your work. I can’t pin it down to the DPs you’re using because it remains a thread across multiple projects and different DPs and your personal work as a photographer. Is this coming from the editing / selection or a certain format you’re shooting on? Please explain a little about the visual process, how it evolved and what the influence was...

Clayton Vomero: I really don't know what it is actually. Like in the sense of how I see these films, they all look messy and random and I feel like there's nothing consistent about any of them. I always feel like I try to put a really strong visual language together but then I get to the end and I'm like wtf is this. It just feels like chaos. It's really hard to enjoy the sausage when you're the one who makes it, and grinding up all this footage through the edit process makes me really anxious and stressed. It always feels so close to being terrible all the time. Until all of a sudden things click in ways you couldn't predict, sometimes with music, sometimes by taking out all the music, sometimes by using that thing you didn't even see when you were filming. I guess maybe it's just knowing what to put in the toolbox while shooting and then having as much of it there when you edit.

But yeah I think my visual style is just anxiety driven. I'm always taking photos or thinking of where to get something in each room that serves the story more than the style and I guess just trying to get better at knowing how to visually communicate the events as they happen so there's a dimensionality of meaning. I'm getting better at being happier while shooting and knowing what's working a little faster. I think that's why I'm always asking you for music before shooting starts so I can be a step removed from naked reality and have a sense of mood as we start to make images. And I think you and I have always had a really good idea of what the tones and moods of the film would be for the final pieces even before we start. Are there things that you know I'll like now at this point? Like do you make something sometimes and flag it as "oh that will be good for whatever's next"? 

Alexander Epton: Not really! every time I say that to myself, when I’m making something, it always ends up not working out in the end. I’m always surprised at the stuff you end up putting in the edit. Some of the really avant-garde stuff I’ve sent you, that I never thought would get used in a million years, ends up being prominently featured. Other pieces where I’m saying to my self “this is really emotional and it’s pushing all these buttons in the right way,” sometimes those ones are too strong when combined with the image, or too saccharine. Mostly the things that seem to work really well are just the simplest little ideas done really fast. When I see those matched up with the right piece of footage it validates it in a way where I realize that it was actually a good idea. Before I see it that way it’s hard to imagine it as anything special. There does seem to be some logical continuity that has emerged throughout our work together though

Clayton Vomero: Yeah I guess the more emo pieces that are stronger in tone end up being useful while filming but then after it's like stripping things back seems to make a better piece of the overall puzzle...


Buy the 3OHA soundtrack.

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