Meet Ani Acopian, Winner of the First Ever GIPHY Film Fest
Interview by Mike O'Donnell / Editor of the WNW Magazine
This year, 900+ creators across the U.S. submitted microfilms (of 18 seconds or less) to Giphy. From that list, over 100 finalists were chosen and screened at the first ever GIPHY Film Fest at New York’s Metrograph Theater. It’s part of Giphy’s mission to celebrate the art of concision and direct, compelling, and professional-grade storytelling.
After featuring WNW Member Dark Igloo and their branding for the GIPHY Film Fest, we were quietly hoping that one of our own would take home the top prize. We’re now excited to introduce you to WNW Member Ani Acopian, who did us proud and won the Grand Prize for her microfilm “Washed Up.” Here’s the reaction from David Lee, the CCO of Squarespace and one of GIPHY Film Fest’s judges: “Ani’s ‘Washed Up’ is both meditative and mesmerizing. Her simple and somber aesthetic translates well on film, yet any frame could stand alone as an oil painting. In such a short amount of time and without any complication, Ani is able to take the audience on a profound journey.”
Watch Ani’s mesmerizing, prize-winning microfilm below and then check out our interview, where Ani and I talk about everything from the art of concision to freezing Icelandic water to the enduring benefits of getting scrappy and going it alone early in your career.
Mike: After featuring Dark Igloo’s branding for the GIPHY Film Fest, I was hoping that a Working Not Working member would win. So it’s amazing for you that you won, but also for us. So to kick things off, can you talk a bit about what gave you the brilliant idea to submit to this festival?
Ani: For sure. I have a large library of short videos that may or may not repeat. The video I submitted was a clip that was shot on a drone in Iceland. It’s one of my personal favorites, which I created with my friend Cody Guilfoyle while we were on vacation. It received a lot of good responses online. So I thought, why not just submit it? I've got nothing to lose, right? A bunch of my friends had already shot me texts like, "Oh, GIPHY's doing a film festival; sounds like it'd be up your alley."
Mike: And is it up your alley? Is short-form content something you've been working with for a while?
Ani: Yeah, definitely. Most of my past work has been done in the short-form style. Whether it's for brands or artists. It originally started in 2015. I was one of the first content interns at Snapchat. I started experimenting on that platform and got nominated for Snapchatter of the Year by the Shorty Awards through just making short stories and having fun. After that I started experimenting with making videos on other platforms, most recently Instagram, where I’ve been experimenting with drones, 3D film cameras, and more traditional filmmaking cameras.
Mike: It's been really interesting seeing how different WNW members are embracing the technical limitations of Instagram stories to play with and subvert them in really fun ways. And a lot of them aren't coming from a film background but have instead discovered this different avenue into filmmaking, music video making, and content creation. Do you you have a background in film?
Ani: I do. I grew up making short videos, and uploading them to YouTube. And I did go to film school. I went to Wesleyan University and majored in Film Studies, but it was mostly theory-heavy, which fueled me to make a lot of personal work out of antsiness.
Mike: Is that scrappy spirit something that you choose to embrace as a creative style, or is it more just taking what you can get your hands on?
Ani: I definitely embraced it. I actually thought it was easier to make things on the fly than to spend a week planning and organizing rentals. I think it went with my personality better. But as I get older, and as I have more job experience, I am slowly getting less scrappy out of necessity and out of desire. But I think there's something to be said for the power of being scrappy.
Mike: It probably helps you even as you move onto bigger-budget projects. If you started just immediately having all these different resources at your disposal, then when you would have to make adjustments on the fly, you would be less prepared than you probably are now.
Ani: Totally. One hundred percent.
Mike: Back to the GIPHY film fest. What were the other submissions like? Were people playing into some of the comedic elements with what you can do with gifs, or were they approaching it in more cinematic ways?
Ani: That's a good question. I honestly didn't know what to expect, because I had never before heard of, let alone been to, a gif festival. A lot of them were not the traditional reaction memes you see on the internet, and I think that’s because those sorts of gifs wouldn’t play as well with an audience in a cinema. Instead, they were more artistic illustrations, or really funny super-short stories, all 18 seconds or less.
Mike: Were a lot of them built to be loopable?
Ani: Yes, but they didn’t loop at the screening. It honestly went by so fast. We sat down in the cinema, and the screening was maybe an hour total. The gifs were split up into a few different categories. Each category was 10-second video followed by 10-second video followed by 18-second video and so on. The categories were broken up by hilarious commentary from the two comedian hosts hired by Giphy, Kate Berlant and John Early. GIPHY also commissioned some of their artists to make special gifs for the festival. My favorite was probably Lil Miquela’s submission.
Mike: In making your microfilm “Washed Up”, what were some of the challenges and breakthroughs?
Ani: So, last September I took a trip to Iceland with my friend Cody. We spent a week driving around the whole island and sleeping in our car. One of our stops was the famous Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach. When we got there, we noticed, A: it's a really, really cool place, and B: white water brushing up against the black sand created an extremely striking contrast, unlike anything we had ever seen. On top of that, we had these yellow rain suits that we were wearing the whole time. I had a drone in my backpack, because I always travel with a drone, and I had Cody fly it while I went and laid on the shore and let the water hit my body. The most challenging part was that the water was 43 degrees Fahrenheit.
Ani: So it was freezing, and I didn't let my body move. I just held it really, really still, so that it looked like I was a rag doll getting pushed around by the water. I wanted the video to be conceptual. Everyone goes to Iceland and takes the same sorts of photos and shares them on Instagram. How can we do something a little bit different, and take advantage of this beautiful place that has infinite ways to be captured?
Mike: Was this the kind of thing where you knew ahead of time what concept you were going for, or was it just thinking, when you were in the moment, "Would it be cool if we did this, and this?"
Ani: Honestly, it was totally in the moment; I didn't know what would inspire me until we got there. We had vague concepts of walking on moon-like surfaces with those outfits, and when we saw the beautiful beach we got exciting and started shooting. It wasn’t until we watched the clip back that we knew it was something special. I later learned that you're actually not supposed to swim in that ocean because the tides are super dangerous.
Mike: Good to know.
Ani: Actually good I didn't know, because I probably wouldn't have done it if I knew.
Mike: (laughs) When you're creating some of this content, do you give yourself personal requirements like, "I want to hit a certain number of photographs per day or shorts per week"? Just to hold yourself accountable as a freelancer, do you subscribe to giving yourself certain boundaries and rules to keep yourself creating?
Ani: I should be better about that, but I don't really do that. Instead of quantity, I focus more on quality output by trying to make sure that everything that I make, whether it's for a client or for myself, is always something that makes the viewer go, "Wow." Whether it's a surprised wow or an impressed wow or so on. What I mean to say is that what excites me most about creating is putting a unique spin on a traditional concept or making something new and timeless.
While I don't want to do stuff that's been done before, it definitely happens and is a part of the process. I’m a perfectionist and I hold myself to a high standard, which makes it challenging to create freely, but I’m actively working on navigating it. I’m grateful to have friends who push me to create and share new work.
Mike: In finding ways to consistently excite the viewer, it feels maybe like doing longer-form stuff gives you the time and space to do that. But watching “Washed Up”, it was crazy that in 12 seconds, in combination with that strangeness of your movement in the water against the black sand, you can actually have much more of an effect on the viewer using short-form than if you were to build an entire narrative. You go in, you hit them with this emotional jolt, and then leave, and the viewer has the experience of piecing it together in an unadulterated way.
Ani: That's exactly it... that's really why I prefer to work with short form rather than long form because with long form, I would just be building the narrative to eventually lead to the same 'wow' moment. If I can accomplish that same moment in a shorter amount of time, why wouldn't I do that? Because then I'd have more time to do it again, and again, you know?
I think the traditional filmmaker's goal is to make a feature, and then another feature, and so on, but that's not really my goal. I'm way more influenced by the commercial and music video careers of directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. I just love the way that they think about grabbing attention.
Mike: Thinking about your Venice Skate video and the Madame Gandhi cover in particular, I was really struck by the editing techniques but also the camera movements. Is cinematography and editing something that you had any past experience with, or is it something that you're learning on the fly with your personal projects?
Ani: I started making little documentary videos in grade school and in doing so I taught myself how to shoot and edit. I feel totally comfortable both shooting and editing. I actually love photography and cinematography a lot, almost as much as directing and concepting. And thank you!
Mike: So you mentioned that your drone is something that's always in your bag. What are some other products or tools that you feel like you can't create without?
Ani: Definitely my Mavic Pro, which is the portable drone that “Washed Up” was shot on. I also usually have my Sony Mirrorless camera, the A7S II, a few lenses, and my laptop in my Peak Design backpack so I can shoot, edit and respond to emails from anywhere.
Mike: Are there certain things that you don't own but you feel would help elevate your craft in a certain way?
Ani: Honestly, I think I have everything I need for right now. I’ve got a pretty solid kit. When I do more commercial and music video shoots, I'll definitely rent a Red, but I don't see the need to own one right now.
Mike: You said you were working on some music video projects next. Is there a certain direction you want to head in? Is there a creative mission you have at this stage, something that you're not seeing out there that you want to see more of?
Ani: I think it goes back to what I try to do with any project that I take on, which is make people go “wow.” If I've learned anything from creating for social media, it’s that there's always a way to twist something to make it more engaging. With music videos, I want to challenge myself to not only use beautiful visuals, but to also consider the “why” when concepting. It's really easy, for example, to make a beautiful video of spilling colorful paint on someone in slow-motion. But, why? What will make that memorable? How can you tie it into something that contextually makes it more interesting and timeless? These are questions I like to ask.
Mike: Circling back to the idea of concision in your work almost makes you consider the why, right? If you are creating a 10-minute short, maybe you can get away with not asking why on some things, because there’s space to indulge. But when you are operating in a 3-minute music video or a 12-second microfilm window, that kind of short form encourages interrogating the “why am I doing this?” Like you said, it's cool to pour paint on someone, but it’s cooler to have a reason to be pouring paint on someone.
Ani: Right. Beyond eye candy. I love cinematography, but the reason I'm not only a DP is because I am so fascinated by the concept behind everything and am obsessed with asking how to take really dope images and make them even cooler by putting interesting concepts behind them. I think that's what social media taught me: it feels like marketing, advertising, and everything performs better if it has a why.
Mike: Definitely. Do you have a collaborative team that you work with pretty regularly to achieve that "why”? Or are you looking to find a creative community?
Ani: I have a handful of friends who I trust and who inspire me; I like to chat back and forth with them about ideas. Every project I’ve done recently has been a different collaboration, but the meat of the work is done alone. I always run ideas by my friends and family to get feedback and inspiration. I love working with different producers, VFX editors, and pretty much anyone I feel comfortable with.
Mike: Do you feel like LA is a good city for that?
Ani: I think so. I mean, I'm still new here, but I’m loving it so far. I've brought different people on every project to feel out a good fit and figure out how I work best. I’ve found out I don't need five people around me to do what I can do by myself.
Mike: Does it feel like getting the right people around you is sometimes primarily a productivity blanket where if you have five people, you'll take it more seriously?
Ani: Totally. Also, I think something that isn't talked about much right now within the creative community is that the environment you are working in for a gig can majorly affect the quality of your work. I make my best work when I’m most comfortable in an environment. Sometimes on gigs you aren’t given time to get acquainted with a space or the people in it. Taking a little time in the beginning to find commonalities and make sure you’re all on the same page makes a world of difference. If that doesn’t happen, both parties might come away unhappy.
Mike: You almost feel like you’re trying to cater your creativity to them as opposed to feeling the confidence of “this is a collaboration and they brought me in to be myself”?
Ani: Yeah. When I'm working on the fly, I need to be able to ask, “Can you do this? Can you do this?” And often I’m asking that to people who didn’t sign up to be on camera. I definitely prefer to do projects where I can control the environment, but at the same time, something magical happens when you establish enough trust with a complete stranger to get them to execute your vision.
Mike: With five other strangers, you have five more sets of hands to help, but you also have five more sets of eyes to feel critiqued by. It's sometimes better to just remove all of those variables and go the route of “I've got these two people I trust and I can manage the rest.”
Mike: Putting your creativity out there requires a lot of vulnerability. Some people overcompensate by just faking it that they’ve got it all under control, even though people would likely be more appreciative of a sentiment like “I’m a little lost right now so let's brainstorm because I could use the support.”
Ani: Definitely. I didn’t make the Iceland video alone. I brainstormed with Cody, “what would be cool?” When you’re in situations where you’re supposed to know it all, like on a job, you can’t really ask too many questions without looking dumb or like you don’t know how to do your job. But that's really not the case. It's just a process, and asking people around me for feedback or input is part of mine.
Mike: Well whatever your process, it sounds like it’s working for you. Congratulations again on the win. This is exciting.
Ani: Thank you. It's super exciting.
Mike: Did you have to go up and give a speech?
Ani: Yeah, they were like, you have 18 seconds. My speech was actually pretty funny. I just said that when I graduated from college, I applied for a job with Giphy and I didn't get it but here we are today, so it all works out.
Mike: Wow, that sounds like a great speech.
Ani: It was a little savage but it's okay.
Mike: I think Giphy can handle it. They'll be alright.
Ani: I think so too.