Fan mail: An animator's tribute to Phish

by Sarah Lang / 06 October, 2018

Nick Setteducato in his Wellington studio, holding a model he built for his first stop-motion Phish tribute video, Flight of the Mockingbird. On his computer screen is a still frame from an episode of an Phish-themed animated series he makes called Dr. Gordz. Photo/Nicola Edmonds.

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Nick Setteducato spent three years of weeknights and weekends creating animated tributes to his favourite band.

Nick Setteducato can hold an entire conversation in movie quotes. “Well, an entire monologue. I could probably act out Goodfellas, Ghostbusters, Rushmore, The Goonies, Three Amigos and The Big Lebowski from beginning to end. It’s a pretty useless talent I haven’t yet monetised.”

The self-deprecating animator, photographer and short-filmmaker spent a decade as a guitarist in two US rock bands. Based in New Jersey, he fitted weekend gigs and tours around a six-year job as digital preservation photographer at New York’s Gilder Lehrman Collection, an archive of 70,000 items reflecting American history.

In 2008, while holidaying in New Zealand, Setteducato landed a job in Wellington as archival photographer and imaging specialist for Peter Jackson’s WingNut Films (and landed a girlfriend in his boss, Amy Brennan). There he photographs, scans, digitises and archives Jackson’s extensive collections of film, military and aviation artefacts. He also contributed historical research and visual elements to Jackson’s The Great War Exhibition, working alongside Weta Digital to develop techniques to colour black-and-white photographs.

Could the 38-year-old also be US rock band Phish’s biggest fan? Over the past 35 years, Phish has gained a cult following for its extensive touring, extended jams and tangential lyrics. In 2014, Setteducato taught himself everything from storyboarding to editing to create a two-minute animation, Flight of the Mockingbird, in which the faces of four US presidents carved into Mt Rushmore are replaced with the faces of Phish’s four band members. Brennan helped him build the puppets, props and sets. Using the “stop-motion” technique, he moved objects in small increments between individual frames, which were shot on their dining-room table. 

After favourable feedback from fellow Phish fans, he began making the polished, five-minute stop-motion animation 2016: A Space Oddity. Loosely inspired by the band’s song “Colonel Forbin’s Ascent”, and set to a montage of Phish tracks, the film follows the colonel as his rocket launches into space to destroy an Earth-threatening asteroid. Its four characters resemble Phish’s members, and there are nods to Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Posted on Vimeo, the clip earned praise from music and pop-culture websites JamBase, The A.V. Club and Relix, and got 20,000 hits in three weeks. Viewers are encouraged to donate to The Mockingbird Foundation, which provides children’s music education and is supported by Phish. “I’ve never heard anything directly from Phish, but friends who know band members have suggested they’ve enjoyed the videos,” says Setteducato, who’s planning a visit to the US with Brennan in August. “Obviously I’ve timed it so we can catch four Phish shows, which puts me at 40.”

It’s not all about Phish, though. His 23 videos on Vimeo span everything from a Taranaki-based, Wild West-influenced epic saga starring two dogs, to a series that summarises books using animated figures, backgrounded by pages from the featured book. Meanwhile, his animation of a man dragging a rock across a beach and up a cliff was one of six (from 1200 submissions) featured on Radiohead’s website and social media platforms to promote a new album. Recently, two US bands commissioned him to make music videos. “I’m no Walt Disney, but he started out doing little animations,” says Setteducato. “And I like telling little stories.” 

This article was first published in the August 2018 issue of North & South.

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