Who loves clowns? Anyone? Anyone? Well, the guys at American Horror Story: Freak Show, which premiered last night, are super into them, as evidenced by the amazing mostly stop-motion opening sequence from the show. And Kyle Cooper, director of the Los Angeles company Prologue, told us where the clowns came from, who inspired the three-legged woman and why the deformed balloon animals didn't make the final cut.
Prologue has done all four opening sequences for the show (see the videos below), and he knows quite a bit about hooking the viewer in a minute with suggestive surrealism. He doesn't know what's giggling under your bed, though.
Adweek: This is so disturbing. Where did you start with it?
Kyle Cooper: We always start with a concept. In this instance I wanted it to be a stop-motion thing. We just did it downstairs in the garage of my office in Venice. I brought in a guy who is a stop-motion cameraman, and he did some of the shots. Many of the characters aren't stop-motion, but the environments are all miniatures. It's kind of a mix-and-match production methodology. I wanted it to feel like stop-motion, but I didn't have time to build all the environments in a 3-D situation.
Did you guys construct all of the figures or are some of them found objects?
Let's see … there are clown heads and a monkey with cymbals; those we rented.
Where do you go to rent a clown head?
There's a circus prop place here in L.A. There's a few, actually. The producer went and took pictures of a bunch of things. I thought about having large-size sets. We found a miniature Ferris wheel from somewhere else. We used a Ferris wheel as a cucalorus to have the shadows moving on the side of the tent. A couple of the little clowns were rented from a guy in Ohio who collects those kinds of things. The two babies who trade heads were toys that we bought. I like [Wladyslaw] Starewicz and those guys, so I wanted it to be something like that.
Oh—there's a clown with a black face and dreadlocks, and there's a clown with a smile face on one side and a frown face on the other side; those clowns were kind of big. We also had a real clown come in. I had him make balloon animals that were freaks—we had a two-headed balloon animal and a balloon animal with no arms and legs, but we didn't use them in the edit. We started to like the stop-motion creatures better.
I'm ashamed to admit this, but you've just used two words I don't know. What's a cucalorus?
It's a rig you cut shapes in to create shadows. We didn't particularly like the way the Ferris wheel looked, but we liked the shadows that it cast.
Got it. And who's Starewicz? Is he like Jan Svankmeyer?
Yeah, he's a stop-motion animator. I think he was before Svankmeyer.
Why did you decide to go the stop-motion route here?
The thing is, when you look at the reference, for me these images of people with physical deformities are more sad than creepy. I thought it would be more creepy if we made everything a little more toy-like. The last three that I did were all live action—the Coven one had more animation in it—but I wanted to do something that wasn't straight-up live action this time. I wrote a treatment saying the music should be more carnival-like, and Ryan actually did have someone change our music to be more carnival-like.
I love the skeleton bicycle. Where did that come from?
Well, that's a 2-D animation. I mean, I don't want to give away too much of my inspiration, but it's maybe a little Joel-Peter Witkin. He's a dark guy, but at least he's earnest in what he feels like making.
Oh, that makes sense, actually. He does a lot of portraits of people with extraordinary bodies and so on.
Yeah, they're a lot of his models, people that have these kinds of deformities. There's a picture that he took of a guy with a nail in his nose (a common sideshow performance). His work is so dark—I've looked at it before, but I wanted to maybe dial it down a little bit.
Where did the idea for the woman with the third leg come from?
There's a little girl from history who's exactly like that. She was pretty controversial (to include in the sequence). There was a lot of talk of having her wearing something. There was also the thought of having all of them have clown faces.
People always talk about picking apart the credits sequence to find plot points—do you deliberately obscure things to keep from giving stuff away?
Everyone thinks there are all these Easter eggs and secret things! I'm just trying to be influenced by what the script is. I don't think we give anything away. Everyone thought the first one gave things away, but it came before the principal photography was shot!
What's your lead time like on these?
Two months. There's maybe four or five edits, but [American Horror Story: Freak Show co-creator Ryan Murphy] always let me try things. Ryan's a good client.
Did you ever watch Tod Browning's great movie Freaks? Seems like a pretty clear touchstone for the whole project.
Somebody said to watch that, but I didn't watch it. I like the beginning of The Wizard of Oz where there's this tracking move; I wanted it to be a continuous tracking move through the circus. Maybe even in Freaks they have that. I did go to a small carnival in Santa Barbara, and they had a small freak show where there was a guy who does the nail-in-the-nose thing and there were of course cabinets with three-headed cats and stuff like that.