Jodeb (Jonathan Desbiens) is a director based in Quebec. Throughout his career, Jodeb has created content for notable brands and artists such as Zedd, Jack White, Adidas, and Imagine Dragons. We had a chance to chat with Jodeb and learn more about his career to date.
How did your interest in directing begin?
I think it came quite naturally to be honest. Sounds like a lot of directors my age went through that though. I’d say that legos, movies, and video games to me was all the same thing until I was like 12 years old. I feel like making videos started really young because it was sort of an extension of that, an interest in building things, building worlds, doing whatever the hell I wanted. When I began editing, I was using Premiere—probably version 4 or something like that. I would just film my friends doing stupid shit and put it together. So, honestly, I think I’ve always been into creating—it’s just that it evolved into something more social and professional.
Then, by the time I was 20, I started making money off of it. I got turned down for film school, so I went to art school because I didn’t have to apply. They would accept anybody at the university I lived close to back then. I’ve always wanted to make films, but I always liked to tried new things. I like to edit my own work, I like photography, I like painting, I used to like drawing a lot as well… Cinema is just a blend of everything I like, and that’s how the passion started. The other thing is, when I was 18, I was getting directing gigs. So I never really had to be a PA and work my way up because right out of the gate I was shooting, directing, and editing my own stuff, and I never stopped.
All of your work is gorgeous. It looks like you have a liking for CGI and green screen - can you explain more about your liking for this?
I think it goes from what I was saying previously. In order for me to create, it was necessary for me to learn all the software and when I started, digital video was new. I also think my passion for synthesizing different things led me to digital creation and 2D animation. I never really did any 3D, I’d always hire somebody when I needed it. To be honest, I try and avoid it. I don’t do CGI anymore, because I find it really difficult. I’m more into compositing now when I do VFX, because it’s easier on my back. I’m not in front of a computer, and in my opinion, it’s more effective for storytelling. CGI and all that stuff came out of necessity, because when I was younger, my thought process was: if I can do everything on my own, I won’t need anybody else. It’s not that I don’t need anybody else, I need people to help me out, but I’m never going to be limited by asking for favors or money or knowledge. It was really hard for me being labeled as a VFX director for a long time, but now I get hired on my directing skills, and people don’t even notice I do my own post-production. Before, people would go to me like, “Oh, you do all your own post-production? I’m going to hire you.” But it didn’t leave the best work.
Do you like having complete creative control on your work?
I like that having a lot of creative control can allow for, sometimes, the best work, but it can also cause a lot of problems. Mentally, it’s really heavy to have a lot of creative control and it can potentially create a lot of anxiety. I think creative control is awesome when it goes well, but I do think that when things get more challenging, it’s exponentially difficult. My personal goal is to surround myself with more creative people. It’s expensive to have assistants, and I’m not there yet, which means that you have to keep your collaborators close to you and you have to treat them well. You also need to compromise and listen to anyone else’s ideas. So… that’s my personal struggle - getting maximum creative control, but not doing everything on my own on my computer, alone at home. I’ve been doing that for 15 years, and it’s hard. It worked well in the beginning, but over the years, I try to rely less on post-production, and try to actually get help. I started out as a guy doing everything in his basement, and now I’m gradually growing into a “real” director, who has a lot of support from the people around him.
What has been your favorite project to direct thus far into your career?
Usually, I’m not the one to pick that, because the goal is always to be on the next thing, and forget about the previous one. It happens sometimes that I look back at my work out of nostalgia, or out of lack of inspiration. But, it’s a painful process to do. It’s like having kids and having to pick your favorite. Yeah, it’s a cliché, but that’s what it is. I would always say naturally that my last piece is my favorite, but my head is so into looking at the next thing, that it’s hard to say. There are things I know that work better than others. Maybe my Skrillex film and my Jack White video, although they didn’t get a lot of views. I have work that has gotten a lot of views, especially EDM music videos, but it didn’t make me progress as much as the Skrillex film, Jack White, and Point Point did. I think these three together really make me proud, because those projects allowed me to evolve. That’s when I decided to focus on character development and less on the visuals.
What do you think are the biggest challenges a director has to face?
All of my projects. The thing is, the only way I can be proud of a project is if I go through crazy hurdles. That Jack White video was super chill in post-production, surprisingly, but the shoot was a nightmare, I wanted to quit. Two days before the shoot, I was talking to my producer, and trying to figure out how to pull the plug. I was asking how much money it would cost me to pay back the production, but when he said $70,000, I was like, “Fuck no! I gotta do it. I don’t wanna spend $70,000 just to go back home.” I was in tears, man, it was really bad. But, somehow, I expressed that fear and anxiety to my team, and everybody made a really great team effort to get me back on my feet. They worked extremely hard to make the video the best that they could. It’s really a touching story for me. Not that it was interesting in itself, but it was really hard, you know, to go through this roller coaster of emotions just for a fucking music video—that was hard.
When I was doing Skrillex’s film in Thailand, we were threatened to be sent to prison. I don’t know if you’ve heard of the Thai prisons, but it’s not good. We really would have never gone to prison, but when the Thai producers told us, “If we do this, we go to prison.” We’re like, “Fuck, what? It’s in the treatment, it’s what I promised my client, I have to shoot it. So you can’t tell me that I’ll end up in prison because I need to shoot this particular scene.” Sometimes, these jobs can get really hectic. You’re like, “Shit, I want to go back to my girlfriend, and just watch netflix instead of doing this crazy shit.”
What scene was it that got you threatened to go to prison?
It’s complicated because I still don’t even know what the real story is behind it. What I understand is in Thailand, I think, you can’t really have foreign productions come in and do what we did—especially with only five days notice. The only way to do these productions is to do it illegally, without proper permission. We never had the right papers, but the thing is, all production companies in Thailand have to go through that process. It became the norm to film illegally, basically. We were supposed to do the film in English, but the actors were so bad at it, that we had to do it in Thai. Then, the Thai producer’s problem was, “Hey, you cannot speak Thai, because people will understand we are in Thailand.” It was fucked up, I had no chance to do dialogues, and I was freaking out. So I had this long day of realizing, “Fuck, we’re shooting tomorrow, and if we shoot dialogue, we’re going to prison.”
Going off of “Still in the Cage.” Can you explain the creative idea and process behind the video?
Well, about 7 years ago, I was doing work that I wasn’t really happy with. I decided to shift from that and take it to the next level, the project was working more on myself in a way. What it also meant was I was only suggesting crazy ideas. Ideas that people read and were like, “Shit, how are they even going to do that?” And that’s very stimulating. The problem is that it’s hard to sell. Skrillex was tough for everything, because first of all, the client had no idea I was going to make a 20 minute film, they thought it would be more like 3. When I told them there would be dialogue, they were probably thinking, “Okay, music video dialogue is like 5 seconds, and then you get into the song.” I kept that away from them, and kept it as a surprise in the edit because I knew they would’ve never allowed it. When Skrillex saw the 20 minute piece, he hated it - he actually wanted to shelve it. I think somebody at the label said, “Hey man, it’s actually cool, you know? Probably should reconsider it.” So there was a long month where I was on standby, not knowing if that project would still survive. One month later, he [Skrillex] calls me directly at 3 AM on Facetime, and says, “Dude, I just had a vision... We’re gonna make it a film, and we’re gonna do a premiere in LA…” And I’m like, “What? Okay.” I was on the edge of giving up, and then he comes back super excited. One example out of many.
Jack White “Corporation” was also incredible. How did the idea for it come about? What’s was the most challenging part of this project?
I keep my story ideas simple. For me, it’s all about the irony of having motivations that are novel, but doing something stupid to solve them. The Jack White idea came to me exactly a year ago, while I was at a coffee shop that overlooks the St. Lawrence River. Winter made everything look awesome --just enough to be inspired and relaxed. Before that, I was on the way to shoot a TV show for a company that I’m not sure exists anymore called “Black Bills.” I was supposed to do a remake of Spring Breakers. I worked really hard on the treatment, but nothing panned out. Then when Jack White happened, I just used ideas from that and put it into a seven minute music video and I already had the world and characters in my head. It’s very different from the Spring Breakers idea, but the core ideas were the same thing. I had written the whole fleshed-out idea in an hour but it took me a day to put the treatment together. Usually I go through five different versions before I send it to the artist, but I sent version 1 as is, not even proofread.
How much or your work comes through your agent, and how much comes from you going out and getting these projects?
Truth is, the best projects are initiated on a personal level. All of the projects that I talked about earlier, the ones I’m really proud of, all came from personal conversations I’ve had with people that knew somebody. Advertising is different. Even if you create relationships with ad agencies, at the end of the day, it’s really my agents and my reps that do the work for me. It’s a crazy world, and there’s a lot of politics. But, for music videos, it always depends. Jack White started with the commissioner at Quality Records. We met in his office randomly five years ago and he remembered me as the guy who wanted to make feature films. Jack White wanted to make a very special piece that would allow a director to express his voice. For some reason, he thought about me and called me directly to say, “Hey, I’m not giving you the job, but get a good idea and you have the job.” Skrillex was different because they asked 100 other directors, and they thought I was expensive, so they didn’t even bother with me. But then they said, “Okay, you can do it, but keep the costs down.” I think when you start projects at a personal level, it really is amazing. I have agents, I have reps, and they try to get work going for me, but to be honest, 99% of the time, projects start on a personal base.
How do you think your directing career has evolved from making your first video to now? What’s the biggest thing you have learned?
Well you learn a lot, such is the nature of cinema. The one thing I’ve learned, and I don’t want to sound corny, is being able to trust yourself. For me this is still the biggest challenge, even after all these years. A friend told me, when you think you are working hard, you aren’t working hard enough. Sometimes when I’m not happy with something, it’s probably because I didn’t work hard enough. It’s tricky, because that’s something you can’t really see coming, and we all have our limits. You gotta sleep, eat, sometimes you wanna go on vacation, and you gotta make sure you don’t fall into depression - something very real around creative people. It’s easy to fall into depression, and easy to not notice that you’re falling into it. I haven’t experienced it myself, but I see a lot of people with it around me. The reason I still have this job is because I’ve learned to survive and actually enjoy it. Hard work is easy to overlook. When you just completed a project or got an award, people will tell you you’re the shit. At the moment, you’ll think you’re good, and you have to struggle less. But the struggle is always the same, and will get more difficult as you go. Work hard, it’s the only way to happiness.
Where do you think you’ve made your biggest stride?
The precise moment I think is when I made this video “Life in Grey” for Point Point, a french electronic band. Before that, I wasn’t happy with the work I was doing - a lot of EDM videos, but they really lacked depth. Something was off. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I was really going nowhere. I was like, “Oh shit, am I still going to be doing this for the next five years?” I was making good money because the DJs had a lot of it, and they wanted to please their audience so they never wanted to take risks. Artistically, I felt like shit. So I took the gamble of doing a $5,000 music video, and do exactly what I wanted to do, which was that crazy story of the girl with the blades dancing, and it’s something I’m super proud of. I did something different than anything I’ve done before, it was a big leap for me. The video was tough, the band was really difficult, and in the middle I had a video shoot with the Weeknd. But after the small Point Point video, people started taking me seriously as a director. I went from a guy who did EDM videos, to a guy who could do David Lynch and Tarantino. It was like, woah, people see me differently now and it will affect how my next project goes. Then all of a sudden, Skrillex and other people who wanted to make riskier projects showed up. So that was a big change for me, and thank God that happened because I would still be making projects I’d be unhappy with.
What inspires you? Do you have certain pictures, stories, art, that influence you work?
It goes back to the legos. It’s a mechanism, it’s hard to explain and everyone has their own ways. Anything can trigger ideas. I was doing this Imagine Dragons video, and I beat out a lot of directors for that spot. I had to submit a treatment on a Friday, or something like that, and I had writer’s block. So I drove back to my hometown to get inspired. I remembered how my city is all built on a hydroelectric dam. What if somebody fell into that and died? The Hoover Dam is in Vegas, and I remembered they wanted to do something there, so I built my idea around that. Other times it’ll come from a movie I saw the day before, but really it’s about the characters and what they go through. It’s a feature film narrative approach, I don’t look at music videos from a visual standpoint anymore. A lot of directors will get a rapper and put them in a warehouse or whatever and add some crazy shit to that idea, but I really try to make my videos more narrative based. Who are the characters and what kind of events they go through - that’s what matters to me now. That’s my personal process, and it’s awesome for me, but makes it difficult because a lot of artists don’t care about that. They just want nice visuals to go with their songs.
Any upcoming projects you would like us to know about?
Sadly, I wish there was one. There were a couple things that could have happened, but didn’t. I have been developing a feature for the past year, and it’s going really well, but i don’t necessarily want to talk about it because I would jinx it. Not for chances, because I haven’t even brought it to anyone yet, it’s just still at home. I have 80 pages of that idea and I’m still in that process of working hard to make that idea great. Still along the same lines as Jack White, Skrillex, and Point Point though.