EK Interview: Jean-Paul Frenay

Art Blog - Jean-Paul Frenay - Empty Kingdom

Jean-Paul Frenay is a visual artist currently based in Brussels, Belgium that has touched upon a healthy palette of media bases such as: film, VFX, performance pieces, interaction installations, experimental video, photography, and even music (I, The Phoneix). With such a busy schedule, we here at EK were more than appreciative to have him take the time and divulge us about the mindset behind his varying projects, and what continues to artistically drive him forward to this day. Check out the full spread of Q&A after the jump. Enjoy!

EK: Hi Jean-Paul, thank you for contributing your time and patience to do this interview with us. It means a lot to us here at the Empty Kingdom team and our readers. To get things rolling, how about you give a little introduction about yourself. Like what you do professionally, where you’re currently based out of, what kind of schooling (if applicable) you had, and so forth?

JPF: Thanks to you, Empty Kingdom, for this invitation. I’m a Belgian director and visual artist based in Brussels. I mostly work in advertising but I also do music videos, movies, installations and music. I’ve studied directing and cinematographic technics at a Film school in Brussels.

Art Blog - Jean-Paul Frenay - Empty Kingdom

Snapshot from MV Radioactivity (by KYASMA).

EK: Why did you choose to go into VFX? And seeing as how those aren’t the only titles under your belt, what made you want to become a director and a musician?

JPF: Now I really stumbled into VFX by needs during my studies. I was always interested in creating visuals so that lead me naturally to software like Photoshop and After Effects. I needed a lot of VFX for my short film at the end of my scholarship. So I decided to ask some post-production facilities if I could do my VFX for free on their machines during my internship.

After my studies, I immediately worked as a smoke / flame artist at this facility. During 5 years or so, I worked for agencies [and] production companies doing VFX on other directors’ works, which was great. It gave me a lot of opportunities to learn on the field, working on so many different types of productions.

One of the directors I worked with gave me the chance to direct my first music video, which was followed by my first commercial. The post-production company was a sponsor for the Film Festival Ghent in Belgium. Every 3 years we created the trailer for this event. I had the chance to direct one of them, which lasted 3 years and was screened before every movie to introduce the sponsors in a creative way. I had total freedom while creating this piece, that was really the turning point of my career. I had to make a choice. Continue my VFX path or choose to go for what I was actually planning to do since a long time: directing.

Music on the other hand was always my first love. I mean I’ve [been] a musician since I was a teenager so I never had to choose to become one. It grew with me and I developed this skill to play in different bands until I decided to create my own: I, The Phoenix.

Art Blog - Jean-Paul Frenay - Empty Kingdom

Still from Artificial Paradise, Inc.

EK: As noted on your site, you deal with personal projects and also commercial work. What makes up the major differences between these two creative processes? Major similarities? For instance the STYLE AND CITY ad you did for PEUGEOT versus your DESTRUCTIVE OSCILLATION piece for the RESONANCE Project. Does being both the director and visual effects artist facilitate with the workflow for each case? In your opinion, which scenario feels more rewarding? More restraining?

JPF: I guess it’s a healthy balance every artist needs to have in his life. It’s not a secret that generally the main difference between commercial work and personal projects is the budget. It is always the same thing, more creativity = less budget (there might be exceptions), [and] of course to pay the bill you need to accept commercial projects. But my challenge is always to go further than what is expected. It’s always a struggle because so many people are involved but when I’m pitching for a job I tend to create something within their boundaries to make it my own. So if the job is awarded you know you’re going to create something you like and have a good time doing it.

Now to answer your questions I think both are rewarding in their own ways. Of course you need to deal with restrictions on commercial projects because you have a lot of expectations from the client you’re working for. This might lead sometimes to stressful situations but on the other hand personal projects might also give you a kind of stress to make them happen.

It helps to know about the craft especially in visual effects. As a director you’re dealing with a crew and knowing their work helps a lot with the communication. I sometimes work on the post-production of commercial work myself depending on the projects.

The Resonance Project was something else, as it was part of a collective experiment to bring visual artists and sound designers together on [the] same project. Of course seeing the impact a piece like that can have on the web community is awesome and really rewarding.

EK: Media is obviously a very collaborative effort, taking for example the directing work you did for KYASMA’s RADIOACTIVITY music video. Could you take us through a brief walkthrough of how that particular piece went from idea to reality? What were some memorable challenges while working on this MV? How did you go about overcoming these hurdles? What are the biggest differences when combining live action and VFX compared to just solely animating computer graphics?

JPF: Now this was purely one of these projects where you feel happy. It’s a music video so you know you are not going to make any money. It’s all about having fun.

The band saw my short film “Artificial Paradise, Inc.” and contacted me to direct their first music video. The first thing that [was] important for me before I accepted the job was the quality of the track. The song really inspired me. I had a chat with the band on Skype and I immediately told them about the story I had in mind. It was clear for them not to appear in the video and to create a more cinematographic movie telling a story on their sound.

Once the idea was clear I put everything on paper with some reference pictures for them to understand the mood I was looking for.

The main challenge for me was not to disappoint them. When a young band comes along and ask[s] you to direct their first promo, you want to make sure they are proud of it at the end of the process. I mean nowadays in the music market the music video defines the visual of a band so it was important they were on the same track, which they were.

On the production level, it’s always a challenging thing to bring an idea to life with a minimal budget. You need to find the cast, crew, locations, post-production etc. within this budget. As I say, working in commercials and doing music videos is a good way to change the air.

On the post-production side, it’s the same thing. When you are used to bringing some commercial projects over to a post-house, you can always count on them when you need some vfx done for smaller projects. I don’t know if I can talk about the differences between a live action / vfx project and a fully animated project. It’s a different kind of project, when you are dealing with live action, there is always the fact that you need to track and light your scene as the live footage. Especially when you want the VFX to be photorealistic. On an animated project you still can create your own world without really having to stick to a certain background plate. It’s also easier to create multiple points of view of the same animation or actions.

But on the other side, mixing [these] techniques is always rewarding when you can add augmented reality to an actor’s performance. That’s what really nails it for me.

Art Blog - Jean-Paul Frenay - Empty Kingdom

Snapshot from MV Radioactivity (by KYASMA).

EK: Your most recognized work seems to be the ARTIFICIAL PARADISE, INC short, which depicts a dystopian forecast about memories. What was the inspiration behind this piece? Was this a continually evolving work that started off as a complete stranger compared to its end result? Or was this a detailed idea set into stone that you thoroughly executed once the window of opportunity was available? What do you want the audience to take away with them after watching your short? What kind of message are you trying to convey? I am very curious to know what referential subject matter you used to construct the design of the main organic-mechanical character of your story (is there by any chance a nod to jellyfish?)

JPF: I wanted to get away from the advertising world for a moment so I decided to create a short film without any budget. I wanted to work on an experimental project closer to poetry than a typical storytelling movie without boundaries or any deadline issues. I created an opportunity to dive into a project, and lose myself in my imagination.

I asked some friends of mine if they would help me out on this and they immediately jumped on board.

The story behind the film came from a thought I had on memories. Memories, questioning reality, conspiracy theories, altered perception and parallel universes were a part of my daily obsessions I guess. Today, we are all interconnected and linked with easy access to our data and our memories somehow. Technology gives us the possibility to store our own flow of memories. Maybe I’m wrong but people are more or less counting on this data to remember their life stories. I feel mankind is more and more relying on technology to remember and less on their brains. We feel closer to our memories than before because we can easily access them anytime.

One day I had a total crash on my computer without any backup and I felt completely devastated at the idea of loosing a part of me. I took this feeling further to create the story. What would be our future if all memories of mankind were erased and forgotten?

I created this idea of a multinational organization called Artificial Paradise, Inc. that conceived a digital environment based on a brand new technology called Organic Virtual Reality.

It’s sophisticated software whose main purpose was to reconstruct a visualization of those memories. This was possible through the gathering of binary data collected throughout the world. This digital DNA opens the possibility to recreate a memory through algorithmic regeneration.

The movie illustrates the log-in of a user into this database. I voluntarily chose not to show the user. He appears as a reflection two times in the movie. I wanted the film to be an immersive experience where the user could be you. The word he is typing into the search module shows the gravity of oblivion.

Visually I always was interested in the fusion of mechanical and organic elements creating mutations between technology and the living tissue. This was the starting point for the creation of the different modules present in the movie. Aquatic monsters and creatures from the abyss were a huge inspiration for the characters of API. The abyss is still a place of discovery. It has as much creative impact on me than space.

I’m pretty sure once the technology allows us to discover, in more depth, those underwater grounds we’ll find inexplicable treasures of our world.

Basically the idea of the story was clear from the beginning. We started the process by developing the animatic, placing the camera, defining the rhythm of the edit and so on. At that point, the duration of the movie and the storyline was pretty clear.

As I referred earlier, this was an experimental movie so it was important for me to leave some things to chance. The basic shapes were always defined at the beginning of the process but when you create characters based on simulations, which, was partly the case in API, you can also mould your vision around the lucky results you get while simulating interactions of liquids for example. The basic shapes were always defined at the beginning of the process.

Art Blog - Jean-Paul Frenay - Empty Kingdom

Still from Artificial Intelligence, Inc.

EK: Music is also a big chunk of your creativity, as seen through your band I, THE PHOENIX. What kind of genre do you see yourself fitting into? Is your music an off-shoot of your visual imagination? Or does your own music become the inspirational beacon to your next VFX idea? How does one influence the other?

JPF: Music is really important to me since I was a little boy. I grew up with music way before being interested in movies. Music is and will always be the rawest of all artistic expressions for me. When you are composing and then have the chance to play your material in front of an audience. It’s the most rewarding art as you can directly feel the impact your music has on people.

After playing in different bands, I decided to create a band with a friend of mine, which would work as an artistic platform for us called “I, The Phoenix”.

What genre we would fit in? I mean we would definitely be on the dark side. But you could fit us in experimental, progressive, noise, industrial, rock I guess. I mean this is more a question I would ask our listeners, as I’m really bad in categorizing things.

“I, The Phoenix” is in a sense related to everything I create as I’m also creating all the artworks and visuals for the band. The music and visuals are always feeding each other like a hungry beast. Sometimes the music or lyrics leads to visual ideas and sometimes the visuals are flashing waves of music at us.

EK: By being versed in directorial work as well as technical production, how does knowing both benefit you in the long run? How does it affect your thought process when working collaboratively with others? Do you believe that knowing more than one artistic field is a necessity in today’s art world?

JPF: I don’t think it’s necessary. I actually always admire people that are just dealing with one artistic field. Because they know when they wake up the kind of things they are going to do. You can really excel at your work when you are doing the same thing over and over and getting better at it each time.

On my side, I’m a sort of media junky. It’s not the craft that has my interest but what I want to communicate. So when I wake up, it’s all about the idea and the momentary envy.

Knowing different types of techniques helps me a lot in my creative process, as I’m not limited in the tools of creation. I wouldn’t be afraid in working on purely mixed live action, stop motion, 3D animation, interactive installation or photographic projects. I’ll never be a master in anything I do but I will hopefully get better one day.

Art Blog - Jean-Paul Frenay - Empty Kingdom

Still from CM for Peugeot // Style and City.

EK: With a variable network of knowledge across a handful of artistic fields, I am curious to know some of your favorite aesthetic influences? Whether they are your muses / lifelong role models, or specific films, literature, and the like (a max of three would suffice).

JPF: That’s a tough one. I wish I could have a joker on this one. I don’t have role models. I admire a lot of people in different types of art. The things I see daily always inspire me unconsciously. 

If I had to chose 3 per category:

Photography: Désirée Dolron, Floria Sigismondi, Kim Keever. Illustration: Mark Ryden, Trevor Brown, Dave McKean. Music: Nine Inch Nails, Einstürzende Neubauten, The Young Gods. Art Installations: Bill viola, United Visual Artists, Norimichi Hirakawa. Writer: Philip K. Dick, Stephen King, a lot of comics. Cinema: Darren Aronofsky, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch, Chris Cunningham, David Fincher, Gaspar Noé, Lars von Trier…

Art Blog - Jean-Paul Frenay - Empty Kingdom

Still frame from Artificial Intelligence, Inc.

EK: Have any memorable dreams / nightmares that you would like to share? Are your dreams coated in VFX as well?

JPF: Dreams and especially nightmares are a huge part of the creative process. I can sometimes really remember the details of my dreams. Some of them will lead to some kind of communication being music, still or motion.

EK: Again, we here at EK cannot thank you enough for doing this Q&A. It really means a lot to us and our readers. I extend my hand to you sir. Before we sign off, are there any potential projects or ideas-in-the-works that you would like to share?

JPF: I’m still working on commercials right now but I’m preparing a special project for the end of the year. It’s a photographic series with a soundtrack by I, The Phoenix. It will be released during the exhibition as a limited edition vinyl + book. On the other hand, I’m preparing another short film, which will hopefully get in production next year. I’ll keep you in the loop.

Thanks to all the team at Empty Kingdom for showing so much interest in my work.


Experimental short for DESTRUCTIVE OSCILLATION.


Jean-Paul Frenay