Three Exquisite Zombies
Eight years ago, YAK Films posted a video of four guys dancing on a rainy street corner in Oakland, California. Its raw style and subject matter—a testament to a brother who died on that corner—helped it go viral. Since then, the YAK production team has travelled the world documenting dancers. They’ve posted hundreds of videos to their popular YouTube channel and worked with brands large and small. But echoes of that first video remain. “We’re not interested in just creating entertainment for entertainment’s sake,” says director and filmmaker Yoram Savion. “We want to create things that make people ask questions and that make young people want to take on a role in their community.”
Project 1324, an Adobe initiative supporting young creatives working toward positive social change, has a similar vision. It seemed natural for the two to work together. “YAK Films provides a digital stage driven by younger artists that fuels creative innovation globally,” explains project director Lauren Stevenson. “That’s the essence of Project 1324.” In 2015, Stevenson and project creative lead José Vadi approached YAK Films with the idea to partner. Savion, Kash Gaines (YAK’s filmmaker, dancer, and street dance cultural expert), and Ben Tarquin (YAK’s filmmaker, music artist, and graphic designer) agreed enthusiastically, and the collaboration began.
So far, YAK Films have produced three videos with Adobe. All riff on Exquisite Corpse, a game where one member of a group of people contributes one part of a drawing or story without being aware of the other group members’ contributions until the end. Because YAK Films focuses on dancers, so do these collaborative videos. And since moving corpses are known as zombies, the series’ name followed suit.
Stevenson says, “Exquisite Zombies 1 emphasized the global nature of the hip hop community and of the emerging creators’ community that Project 1324 was connecting with. YAK Films captured dancers in seven cities—the ending movement of one dancer was picked up by another in another city.”
Exquisite Zombies 2, filmed last year, added transitional animations that reinforced the connections between the dancers. While the seven animators were from around the world, many of the dancers were filmed on San Francisco Bay Area streets.
The new Exquisite Zombies 3 is both simpler and more complex. Instead of the usual urban settings, a redwood grove is the only location, and all of the dancers physically interact in real time. The animations were created by one artist, Maria-Clara Santos.
“There’s always a tendency to want to do something bigger and better,” says Savion. “After travelling the world and then adding all this awesome animation, what could we do for the third Exquisite Zombies? VR? 3D? Drop someone from a plane?”
In the end, they went in a different direction. “Exquisite Zombies 3 was just getting a music artist, Troy Boi, who we love and respect, and an animator who we’ve learned to love and respect, and some dancers who we love and respect, and then bringing them all together for something more intimate,” Savion says. “That was challenging because you don’t get to lie as much. A lot of filmmaking is about—maybe not ‘lying,’ but it’s storytelling. It’s fantasy. But when you’re going for a one-shot approach with not much rehearsal, you’re going to the bare bones of the experiment. You have less room for error.”
“That’s a little more stressful,” he continues, “but it was the experiment we wanted to do. We didn’t want it to be too easy.”
Exquisite Zombies 3 was also the first time YAK’s process was documented by another film crew. Adobe videographers were in the redwoods, too, making behind-the-scenes and 360° recordings.
After the shoot, Ben Tarquin sketched animation ideas on top of screengrabs from the footage, and Maria-Clara Santos used those sketches as the starting point for her work. “It was very important that the animation feels purposeful, not like it’s just some drawings added on, and that it helps drive the story. In this case, it’s making little details about dance and freestyle dance more obvious to an audience who may not be familiar with this kind of movement. The animated white line shows the energy that takes control of the dancers, and the dancers interact with it: Sometimes they bend the line, and sometimes, the line bends their movement. And we didn’t want the animation to be too vectorized. It shouldn’t look too clean.”
“If you talk to a lot of the dancers we work with about their art and their craft,” Savion says, “you’ll learn that it’s not so much about getting the next biggest, most complicated move. It’s sometimes about making the simplest move look completely new and amazing. When you really break down what they’re doing, it’s a guy moving his arm back and forth. But the guy is doing it in such a way, with such body control, and to a specific song, reacting to parts of the beat that you might not even have picked out, like a low rumble or a special effect the beat maker added. And that’s going to create that next level that people love to watch online. That’s what we try to get at: Keep it as simple as possible.
“I came to the realization that I can probably never create something as raw as the first videos I did on the streets in Oakland because I was doing it with complete naivety and pure experimentation, with no thought of anybody watching it. We were doing it for us—the people in the room or the street. And, sure, if another human was willing to look at it, we were more than willing to share it. But there is a freedom that you can’t imitate once you have a budget, and storyboard, and camera gear, and travel dates, and hotel bookings.”
Savion is philosophical about the inevitable evolution. “Change is the only constant. To go back to the original concept of the Exquisite Corpse on paper, you can never recreate the same thing twice. The whole point is that you have no idea what the next person is doing.”
“I was talking with one of my long-time dance friends in the Bay Area, Chonkie F Tutz,” says Savion. “We were talking about whether we owe anything to each other when we collaborate with dancers and musicians without any financial motivation and the video blows up. Do we owe each other money or recognition? And he said no, we’re just opening each other’s door. When you collaborate creatively with someone, you’re not giving them anything, and you’re not taking anything. You’re just opening doors. And if you’re free to take on that opportunity, it can really change your life.”