Zachary Alan Sonntag Johnston

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Zachary Alan Sonntag Johnston

Filmmaker / Composer

Los Angeles, CA

website: elderstudio.com
instagram: @toadarin

 

WHAT DO YOU DO?

I create short, charming videos for the internet. I conceive, direct, and edit them. I create motion graphics and titles for them and also sometimes create music or animation for them too.

They are often having to do with music: a music video or an artistic promotional bit for a record or single release. In the past I've written, directed, and edited short videos for comedians and awning companies and nonprofits and small businesses. But for the past 5 years its mostly been music-related, and I'm happy for that because its quite fun to give a visual interpretation to music. You can be very poetic.

I am also a score composer, a person who creates music for films. I have scored predominantly animated films but have done some advertising work as well. My ultimate dream is to write and direct films short and long. Score composing utilizes both my film and music brain at the same time, and satisfies me in a way.

While I am not an animator, I have been involved with animated productions large and small and I love them. I create simple, 2D animations with illustrator friends occasionally. I like to use animation for titles and minor motion graphics effects.

I also write songs under my own moniker as Sonntag. Songs are another way to make films, and probably why I don't make more films of my own, because they require less resources and can be finished fairly quickly. I used to play in a band called Phox, we were signed and toured and I also contributed songs within that space. Songwriting is just something I will do forever regardless if it is my career or not...although it has yielded some commercial opportunities.

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WHAT STEPS DID YOU TAKE TO GET TO WHERE YOU ARE NOW?

After film school I did website design and freelance videography for about 5 years in the Midwest. My career took a turning point when I moved to San Francisco in 2011 and made friends with lots of senior Pixar people who wanted to leave and start their own new studio. I befriended these people, helping them with motion graphics, music, and writing duties on pet projects of theirs. Eventually, when they all left Pixar and started their own studio and made their first film, I was hired to score it - and the short got nominated for an Oscar. I have scored everything for their studio ever since. They are called, "Tonko House." They are gearing up for a bunch of larger projects as of early 2019.

Around this same time, I joined a band back in Wisconsin with a group of small-town friends from back home. I moved into a house with them and created a thirty minute long experimental video-ep for the band that ended up getting us shows at South by Southwest, where we then found management, a label, and the infrastructure to be a band that toured for another couple years around the world. We played Coachella, Conan, and some staples of that world. I was an unofficial art director for the band. I tried to keep our t-shirts, website, music videos, short films, album covers, music all telling the same story...which is difficult with seven people in a band. That was a learning experience for sure. I believe in design by committee if everyone has the same goal. I don't so much believe in preference by committee.

Once that band ended, I moved out to LA to pursue film & music opportunities not present in the Midwest. I've been here for two years.

HOW DO YOU STAND OUT IN YOUR FIELD?

Prioritize narrative above all.

My work has a consistent tone.

I try to make each project personal somehow. I try to impress myself. I used to erase myself when doing work for others, which I thought was selfless, but now I know that its better to try to make things personal in some way, even if way, way hidden.

Like what you like. While I am aware of trends and topical narratives in the world (and I embrace a percentage of it certainly) I am concerned with a more long-lasting beauty ultimately. I seek to create things that will have legs in the years to come.

I'm very fast and friendly I always do what I say I'm going to do. And really trying to be a super mom about it rather than a busy dad.

WHAT ARE YOU WORKING ON RIGHT NOW?

I just finished scoring a pilot for a show called "Oni" by a studio called Tonko House. It's a Japanese-American stop-motion tv show. In talks with Netflix and Apple.

I am planning a music video for a single I released recently called "Slow Drive". I'm shooting the whole video on Super 8mm. The vibe is "Bavaria when it first got the internet," (a tribute to my German uncles and 90's technology I grew up with).

I am working on a 2D short with my girlfriend June Tate called, "Look Who It Is." I made the song for it.

I am writing a new record. Just finished one a few months ago but my mind tends to outrun itself if I do not write songs. They pin it down. I am working with different producers on every song rather than micromanaging every note myself. Shakin' it up. Getting outside myself.

Gathering small objects to make the house cuter, which surprisingly feels better than anything.

I am putting together a series of photo shoots for the new record that will be shot on medium format film. Really trying to up the quality of location, light, and wardrobe with the new series. Also having a custom typeface created for the record. I don't like to be photographed or filmed, I'm not very photogenic, but I realize if you are a songwriter it is an undeniable connection point. Also the challenge of getting over yourself is amazing for the soul.

WHAT'S YOUR STYLE/PERSPECTIVE/TASTE? DO YOU HAVE A PROJECT THAT REPRESENTS THIS?

Whimsical elegance - maybe both turned up so high that it turns into gorgeous comedy. I really enjoy romance and warmth and humor. Color. But an underlying moodiness. I enjoy minimalism and big pops of color against texture. I like cosmopolitan narratives and feminine energy. I like one thing that doesn't fit initially, but after a few moments the brain rewires its automated system to say, yes, those do indeed go together. I like contrasting metropolitan and nature themes together.

I like countries like Italy and France and Japan where in certain places the beauty just seems baked into life, rather than the American style of "look at this beautiful thing here now." I like it when its quiet, but everywhere all the time.

Vintage Disney. 40's Disney.

Illustators: E.H. Shepard. Sempe. Yori Yuki.

One instagram account I really adore is @mignonettetakespictures.

I also like this photographer and how she uses lots of color but still has this moodiness over everything.

A project that represents this: Little Palm Tree, a song of mine and I directed / edited the video.

WE ALL HAVE MULTIPLE SKILLS OR WORK IN VARIOUS INDUSTRIES, WHICH ONE DO YOU WISH YOU COULD FOCUS ON MORE?

I wish that I could focus on filmmaking and writing more. My opportunities tend to show up in the form of musical jobs, which I feel fortunate for, but I want to create a space in my life for filmmaking and editing more. Most of my peers are musicians and it would be nice to know more visual people.

WHAT IS FRUSTRATING YOU RIGHT NOW?


I think just limited resources. I often have to stall my personal projects to wait, save money, and then resume. I feel that I could move a lot quicker through productions if I had money to just get it all bought / rented, shot, and shipped. And I prefer to perform miracles with nothing rather than ask for $. Just the way I've always been out of circumstance.

Also, looking for new work is not something I'm good at. I generally busy myself with my own projects enough in between hired work that it often falls away from me. Hope this site helps :]

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IF YOU COULD HIRE SOMEONE FOR $20/HR, WHAT WOULD YOU HAVE THEM DO TO MAKE YOUR DAY EASIER?

Errands around town: go find me a retro accounting calculator at a thrift store, find me a black sequin jacket for less than $50, pick up the roll of medium format we shot, and can you pick up a thunderbolt to USB adapter and hi-chews?? thx <3

LET'S BRING OUT THE TIME MACHINE. WHAT DO YOU WISH YOU COULD HAVE TOLD YOURSELF, WHEN, AND WHY?

I wish I could have told my 20 year old self that it is not your job to make perfect work immediately. It is your job to simply make it, say it is done, and then get better. Put in your hours. Fail in public. Once you can fail in public, and see it as a learning experience, you have won.

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IF YOU COULD TALK TO AN EXPERT TO GAIN MORE INSIGHT ON SOMETHING, WHAT WOULD IT BE ABOUT?

I would love to learn about what agents do for young composers and directors. I would love to know how video editors get hired. I would like to know how to develop a relationship with an ad agency for music. I would love to know how to shoot on 16mm film and the Red One.

WHAT KIND OF OPPORTUNITIES/PROJECTS ARE YOU LOOKING FOR?

Firstly, I am looking for video editing work. Or anything to do with making videos. But I'm quite open to lots of things. I just like to use my creative brain and if I can find any job that I believe in I will do it. I am very computer literate and I am open to anything related to media, design, branding, photography, video, etc.


DESCRIBE YOUR IDEAL JOB/CLIENT/COLLABORATION.

I would love to develop an awesome workflow with a team that supports each other and pushes each other inside and outside of work to create more and more compelling work. I want to be with people that are kind and funny and capable. The details I don't really care about.

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WHAT IS YOUR HOURLY RATE, RETAINER, OR SALARY RANGE? 

I generally charge a flat rate when working for things in a freelance capacity. There are too many variables with each individual project to put a number down.

I edited a music video for Boy Bjorn "Anchorage" for $1000 - I assembled VHS footage of his childhood to the song.

I scored a pilot for a stop motion short that was three scenes for $3,000. $1000 / minute of finished score.

I shot a music video for a friend recently and charged $2,500.

WHO IS A CREATIVE THAT HAS HELPED YOU ELEVATE YOUR WORK?

Jesse Balmer. Storyboard artist at Cartoon Network. He was a background designer on Adventure Time and now storyboards on Summer Camp Island. He has wonderful taste but isn't an ass about it and I truly appreciate this.

His appreciation for rare children's books, the flawless storyboards from the film "Ponyo," the shop "The Good Liver," great food, and insane Japanese 80's ambient music have changed me a lot in recent months. It hasn't changed the aesthetic of my work, but it has encouraged me to not cut corners, and to just go for my ideal vision -- rather than prematurely settling due to lack of resources, etc. He has also encouraged me to live with my influences on my sleeve rather than coveting them. I've been doing it and it feels good. @jesse.balmer

HOW SHOULD SOMEONE APPROACH YOU ABOUT WORKING TOGETHER?

E-mail!

HOW DO YOU STAY CREATIVE?

Magical toads follow me everywhere.


This member profile was originally published in April 2019.