Well, they did it. Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert, aka DANIELS, are Oscar winners! The celebrated pair took home statues for Best Original Screenplay, Best Director, and their film, Everything Everywhere All At Once, took home Best Picture at the 95th Academy Awards last night.
Having swept through awards season like brushfire, DANIELS were no longer quirky outsiders going into the ceremony but were serious favorites instead. Yet time has done little to dull the strangeness of this development. The Academy, decried in recent years for #OscarSoWhite, whose membership is still largely thought of as a bunch of old white dudes complaining “they don’t make movies like they used to”, was really going to honor a progressive, mixed-race, millennial directing duo? One of whom has ADHD and both of whom have a creative fascination with buttholes?
Other writers can examine and explain the logic or machinations behind the Academy’s shift, but the ascension of DANIELS to cinema royalty is special to us at Short of the Week. It’s not hyperbole to say that they represent an epoch of visual storytelling which is only now just distant enough to begin to define. Their career perfectly timed the DSLR video revolution, and, via their wildly inventive short film experiments—released directly online—they became the first home-grown phenoms of Vimeo’s golden age. Their present success symbolizes a coming-of-age for the initial cohort of creators of the social video era—talents whose work was primarily made for online audiences and who grew up in a hothouse creative environment where ideas were transmitted, iterated, (and yes, sometimes simply stolen) at a feverish pace. For the first time, the styles, techniques, and trends of the global creative community were shared instantly and with no friction.
Having ridden the same online video wave with Short of the Week, and having worked at Vimeo curating Staff Picks during DANIELS’ rise, I have had the privilege of a front-row seat to their creative evolution. So, I suppose I’m as qualified as any to contextualize their rise, which I will attempt to do here. If you’re an old Oscar voter, still somewhat confused by these events and wondering “what are these guys about?” here is your primer. If you’re a creator yourself, perhaps this deep dive might serve as inspiration for your career. And, if you are an EEAAO super-fan who just wants to know more about your new faves, strap on in for the first in a new series of Short of the Week retrospectives—The Story of the DANIELS in 10 (short) Videos.
1. The Origin: Swingers (2009)
As recounted in several recent profiles, (we recommend Bilge Ebiri’s recent in Vulture, or you can hear it here from the guys themselves) the two Dans were an odd couple when meeting at Emerson college. They shared film classes but didn’t hit it off at first. Kwan was a self-described introvert, a transfer student from the University of Connecticut who had thought about pursuing accounting, and Scheinert a boisterous Alabaman not shy about being the center of attention.
However, they ended up bonding over their shared juvenile sense of humor and worked on projects together. Neither stuck with the school’s film program—Scheinert moved to experimental media, Kwan to animation—but they stayed in touch even after Scheinert graduated. In the summer of 2009, going into Kwan’s senior year, the pair worked as counselors at a New York Film Academy Summer camp in Boston and they made their first official piece together—Swingers, a 55-sec comedy-vfx short that they put online immediately and which was made a Vimeo Staff Pick in Dec 2009.
Swingers is not high-art. But, it laid down a quick marker for what would become the DANIELS-style—short, hi-concept, and goofy, with some sort of metaphysical oddity brought to life via basic effects. It was a proof-of-concept, and the instant warm feedback from online audiences lent them heart in setting out on their path.
For Completists: There is a surprising amount of work still out there from the pre-DANIELS era: Campus Movie Fest entries, Kwan animations. They did a lot of competitions at the time. This spec ad for Old Spice might be their very first collaboration. Also, here’s a funny time capsule about Kwan winning $3250 in an Etsy contest. The highlight of all these is probably FAST, a silly Scheinert short starring Charlyne Yi that they shot in LA in early 2010.
2. The Breakthrough: Underwear by FM Belfast (2010)
Fast-forward six months to their first music video. It’s the medium that people would most associate them with (until the success of this past year at least) and it would prove to be a hit, kicking off a chain reaction of events. First, it garners the not-quite-official duo their first press—Stereogum hosted the premiere, and this Motionographer Q&A is a terrific artifact of the long-ago internet. Kwan is still an aspiring animator at this point, literally about to start an entry-level gig at Dreamworks animation in Los Angeles as his first post-college job, but only 1 month after Underwear premieres, the pair sign to PRETTYBIRD, Kwan quits Dreamworks, and the duo choose a name (”Criminalz” supposedly, but none of their friends would let them keep it). Newly minted as “DANIELS” they head out to NYC with a $12,000 budget for their first professional project.
Aside from showcasing Scheinert and Kwan’s onscreen charisma and demonstrating that Kwan truly does have media’s most powerful pelvic thrusts since Elvis, what is on display here is what would become their classic combo of simple practical elements paired with digital trickery. A smorgasbord of effects like timemapping and splitscreen intrigue, but then they just ram cuts of a fully clothed and unclothed Kwan together and expect that low-light and foreground dust will make it all work well enough. They were right of course, and the ingenuity plus the lo-fi, authentic, vibe resonate.
Completists: That first professional video, The Hundred in the Hands: Pigeon is arguably better. They turned it around in 5 weeks, and, saddled with the weight of expectation, the desire to please the client, and fighting imposter syndrome, pulling it off is an important milestone. There was also a second for the group.
3. DANIELS go Viral: Dogboarding (2011)
It was around this time that DANIELS first registered on my radar. I was pretty focused on short films, but online curation at the time was a lot of trawling Vimeo and paying attention to peer blogs. Michelle Higa, an editor at Motionographer at the time, first introduced me. She loved loved loved the DANIELS and would gush to me over their latest clips, like this goofy Christmas video, or this early commercial effort for Levi’s and cult brand Opening Ceremony (recognize that crash through the ceiling?).
This was a tough time for DANIELS. After The Hundred in the Hands videos they were in the music video scene but not making much headway. They had quit their jobs and were prepping and pitching treatments non-stop, but went 7 to 8 months without landing anything. However, remarkably, their brand kept growing despite not having new official work, because they kept releasing these comedic test ideas to an ever more adoring audience online. Dogboarding in a sense felt willed into existence—the online video community was ready to go completely nuts for a DANIELS piece and this fit the bill nicely.
There isn’t a lot to analyze about the clip, it pretty much is what it says on the package! Aside from being a smash hit (the original Vimeo upload is no longer online), it is the piece that first attracted the “third leg of DANIELS” (their producer, Jonathan Wang), and is notable to me for showing the importance of continuing to work even when not given “permission”. Speaking of permission, it was my understanding at the time that they didn’t have it for the song they used, Helena Beat. Better to ask forgiveness, or so the saying goes, and it’s not a surprise that two “official” videos for the band, Foster the People, quickly followed.
For Completists: The aforementioned Happy Holidays and Levi’s Chambray by Opening Ceremony videos, the short films PUPPETS, My Best Friend’s Wedding/My Best Friend’s Sweating (1st S/W appearance!), & Pockets.
4. To The Summit: Manchester Orchestra: Simple Math (2011)
Of the early DANIELS music videos, which is your favorite, and why is it Simple Math? Ok, ok, time and affection have made many of them into classics, each with its partisans. However, Simple Math symbolizes an early professional and artistic triumph. First, it was their breakthrough after that first tough stretch in the industry and not only did it establish them, it made them stars when they won the prestigious UKMVA Award for Best Video.
It would go on to win Best Music Video at the Vimeo Awards + Festival in 2012 too, which was where I first got to know both of them. I had been at Vimeo for a few months, having been hired to curate Staff Picks alongside Sam Morrill, and the festival was a joyous blur. However, etched in my mind was hanging out with DANIELS a lot and seeing first-hand the rockstars they were becoming. People were star-struck, and despite no lack of famous creators present, the buzz was highest for their events, which included this hour-long sitdown with Mr. Vimeo, Blake Whitman, and a brilliant creative workshop entitled “99 Secrets Every Filmmaker Should Know”. That one is lost to time, but one of the secrets was that “your ideas should be horny”, and the whole session memorably ended with DANIELS shocking everyone by smashing (sugar glass) laptops over each other’s heads.
My nostalgia trip aside, Simple Math is an extraordinarily complicated video, logistically and formally, forcing them to stretch themselves as image makers and storytellers (watch this terrific video of them pitching the band by explaining the idea beat for beat). It was also the first time the DANIELS allowed themselves to play in a different tonal register—risking sincerity and genuine emotion. Sure, a boy bursts through a girl like a bag of leaves and an airbag pops out of an old man’s chest—this is a DANIELS video still—however, this is where themes that will pop up in their feature films first surface: alienation, shame, trauma, and how connection can lead to healing and redemption. It’s a powerful mix and the video elicits a tear pretty much every time I watch it.
For Completists: Battles “My Machines” won the directors their first award, at SXSW 2012, and began the relationship that would result in them premiering EEAAO at the festival exactly a decade later. Chromeo impregnating women with his music is certainly a trip, and Foster the People finally allowed the directors to fulfill their oft-pitched idea of “killing the band”.
5. OMG Everywhere – Jack Johnson: Radiate (2013)
On the heels of Simple Math comes a murderer’s row of music videos. However, something interesting was happening too—DANIELS were collecting collaborators. It seemed that with every fresh video, they were adding a new crew member or craftsperson who would subsequently just become part of the family. Better than any creatives I’ve seen this past decade, DANIELS have brought their team with them on their journey, and have fostered an unusually fervent loyalty amongst their collaborators. Awards season is full of bullshit, but the way the EEAAO team has talked about each other these past few months isn’t exactly normal.
Some of this is just that DANIELS are good people, a quality that is still underappreciated when evaluating the makeup of successful people. But, the way their goodness combines with a sort of joyous, child-like sense of play and a sense of genuine generosity is a really potent mix when creating an environment for collaborative creativity. I’m convinced that it is a massive component of their secret sauce. To draw an example, let’s point to OMG Everywhere, a series of free music video creativity camps for kids that the pair contributed to for several years. Starting in LA in 2011 as a summer one-off run by Isaac Ravishankara, Matt Amato, and DANIELS, it quickly spread to cities like New York and London and attracted a who’s who of directing talent as mentors. One of the highlights of those camps was this piece that Scheinert was able to negotiate as an official video for Jack Johnson.
6. Going Out With a Bang: DJ Snake & Lil Jon – Turn Down for What (2014)
Right on the brink of quitting one of the most iconic stretches of music video-making ever in order to shift attention to narrative filmmaking (they had just gotten into the prestigious Sundance Labs to work on the script that would become Swiss Army Man), DANIELS left audiences with their most iconic music video yet. 1B views to date, you know it, you’ve got thoughts. I’ll wait.
If you’ve been combing through this retrospective carefully, you’ll recognize that Turn Down For What is in no sense a departure or an innovation of the DANIELS’ trademark style, it is instead a perfection: nearly every technique and stylistic quirk, every visual or thematic preoccupation got honed and polished to razor-sharpness.
Starring Kwan as a man with a rhythmic crotch, and Sunita Mani, who had been starring in the Dans’ videos since college, the hypnotic four-minute piece won awards at SXSW and MTV’s VMAs, before being Grammy-nominated. It wasn’t the directors’ last music video, yet it does feel like a capstone to that section of their career, a dizzying spell that didn’t even last 4 years but left quite a legacy.
For Completists: This NSFW Joywave piece was released after Turn Down For What, and The Sunshine, for their friends Manchester Orchestra (who were musical collaborators on Swiss Army Man) is their last official music video to date.
7. DANIELS Go Interactive: Possibilia (2014)
At this time last year, if you asked me what was DANIELS’ masterpiece, I would have named Possibilia. Made for Xbox Interactive and utilizing tech from the start-up Eko Interactive, the film was billed as “the world’s first narrative interactive film”. Interactive filmmaking was a big trend at the time, but it was largely restricted to the documentary space. This experience premiered as a non-interactive 2D presentation at Tribeca 2014 and I was in the audience. I talked with DANIELS afterward for quite a while—they were customarily modest about what they achieved, but I thought it was brilliant and arranged access to a dev release so that I could download it and play with it properly at home. I probably watched this “8min” short for 3 hours. It took over 2 years for the film to be distributed to the general public, but my ardor had not dimmed, writing about it in 2016:
“The theory of the multiverse, the mind-boggling consideration that there is an emergent potentiality in any moment, is a perfect pairing for what Interactive can offer that cinema cannot. DANIELS thoughtfully sculpt that experience, providing enough freedom to draw the viewer in, and implicate the audience in the development of this couple’s dissolution, but still provide a firm directorial hand, preventing it from overwhelming its audience.”
I ended up writing even more about it as the Winner of our “Short of the Year” Award a few months later. Obviously, we didn’t realize it at the time, but with this and the video next on the list, the duo was already test-driving the ideas that would become EEAAO.
8. Further Adventures in the Multiverse: Interesting Ball (2014)
From our review:
“A veritable orgy of insanity, Interesting Ball goes to places other directors dare-not (and probably wouldn’t want to) go and if you’re watching this short and you’re put off by the absurdity of the piece, just remember one thing – “if the universe is as infinite as they say it is, then these weird things that are happening aren’t just probable, they are inevitable”.
Possibilia had been mothballed, Swiss Army Man was calling, but DAZED magazine had given a bit of money to some great artists for short films and DANIELS and the world were to be the beneficiaries. Released near the end of 2014 and awarded a Short Award a few months later, the film is a hodgepodge of absurd sketches. The duo explained that they harvested “orphan” ideas from their community of LA-based directors and tied it all together in a multiverse conceit. Cameos from prior videos abound, “hey is that the girl from the Underwear video!?”
I just rewatched this on the big screen here in New York for the first time in ages, and damn, does this film slap! The move to features was on the horizon, and though this film, being made up of sketches, didn’t really lend faith in their ability to stretch a concept past the 2min shorts of their prior filmography, the balance of comedy and pathos is deeper, more mature, and more satisfying in Interesting Ball. Similar to how Turn Down For What felt like a farewell summation of their music videos, Interesting Ball feels that way but for their conceptual comedy shorts.
9. The Debut Feature: SwIss Army Man (2016)
Starring Daniel Radcliffe as a flatulent corpse, the DANIELS debut feature premiered at Sundance 2016, where it picked up a Directing Award, and then nabbed the Best Feature Award at Sitges. A feature debut is always a big deal, and the film would become a cult hit, cultivating the fandom that would lay the groundwork for EEAAO to become an uber-hit. Critically, the film also established DANIELS’ relationship with two of their most important partners, A24, who acquired the rights to the film out of Sundance, and Avengers: End Game directors, the Russo Brothers, who have shepherded their career subsequently.
For Completists: Scheinert’s solo feature, 2019’s The Death of Dick Long.
10. A bigger canvas: Nike: “Unlimited You” (2016)
Is ending on an advertisement anticlimactic? Perhaps, but indie filmmaking is not particularly remunerative (neither are music videos for that matter), so DANIELS’ commercial work is an important aspect to their story—especially these past several years where they toiled on EEAAO. In 2016, on a press tour for Swiss Army Man, the duo was “basically broke” and pitched on a big Nike campaign that they had no expectation of getting. For all their success, the duo had not done many of the big Super bowl level spots that their contemporaries had, so this Olympics spot was a big deal. Partnering with Wieden+Kennedy (Portland) and The Mill, the 2.5 minute film ended up having a budget 2-3 times as large as Swiss Army Man. DANIELS had formidable resources at their disposal and worked with huge celeb talent like Serena Williams and soccer superstar, Neymar. Many directors have told me that these sorts of gigs were critical for their skill and confidence in stepping up to studio-level productions in film and television.
For those inclined towards auteur theory, it’s interesting to see that the spot is preoccupied with potentiality, latent becoming, and characteristically is about simple actions and ideas taken to absurd lengths.
For Completists: Talk of DANIELS commercials must reference 2011’s Weetabix, but from this post-MV era check out this innovative GAP micro-series (2015), Apple: Fly Market (2018), and Facebook: More Questions, More Answers (2020)
Congratulations DANIELS, it’s been a privilege to know you, and to track your career from afar. You’ve been an inspiration to so many in this creative world, me included, and we know this is only the beginning!