High school sweethearts turned Stink Films directors Jenna and Tripp Watt talk about their wacky filmmaking, being an octopus on set and their endless travels, writes LBB's Zoe Antonov
Bright, bold, and totally unforgettable. Those words almost totally encompass the vast world of the Watts' work. A pair of high school sweethearts - Jenna Watt and Tripp Watt - who make us all believe true love exists. Somehow the duo have the same knack for creativity and the same level of infectious energy running through their work. It could be a Big Mac love story, an insanely cool Sims world or Barklay’s bank shooting you off into an alternate universe where dreams do come true, regardless, the WATTS’ work will always stay at the front of your mind once you see it. A mix of live action and animation, production company and WATTS international representative Stink Films, describes the experience of watching their work as “getting spanked by the rainbow”. And for good reason.
But, as we mentioned earlier, Jenna and Tripp’s story starts way back - as early as their teen years. Jenna moved from South Africa to Brentwood, Tennessee when she was 17 and halfway through her junior year of high school. Tripp was already there and fate crossed their paths in English class, where she sat behind him. However, as Jenna remembers it, Tripp wasn’t in class too often because he was too busy doing what any self-respecting aspiring director would do at 17 - shooting skateboarding videos. “When he did make it to class, I would catch him up on what he missed and share my answers with him on pop quizzes,” she says. Besides his sparse attendance, Tripp impressed Jenna with his music video project for a recent class assignment - “It was by far the most creative one in the class,” she says. Even though it was only supposed to be a presentation or a poem, Tripp went all out.
After a while, the two started hanging out after school and Jenna showed interest in Tripps’ video making. While she had never touched a camera before, the idea of stop motion interested her, so they ended up making a bunch of silly stop motion films together after class. “During this time we also actually experienced our first argument because he filmed some of the animation without me one day when I couldn’t come over. I was like ‘This isn’t your project - this is our project’. But we figured it out and kept making stuff together.”
And while Jenna was getting her hands dirty with stop motion and was concerned about the equal split of the workload, Tripp admits: “I invited her to my parents’ house to ‘help me with stop motion projects’... But admittedly just wanted to hit on her.” Apparently that worked, because one thing led to another, and the two started dating. This is way before the names merged into what we know today as the WATTS, so while both were developing their respective interest towards creativity, they took separate paths - Jenna was more of an art department girl and Tripp was leaning into animation and editing. Oh, and before you ask, the animation that sparked Jenna’s interest in creativity and both of theirs in each other was about a bunch of frogs attacking dinosaurs.
After the frogs and dinosaurs project, Tripp and Jenna got stuck into creating a music video for a friend’s band at the time called Morning Teleportation, which was also the first project they officially put out into the world as a directing duo. This was also the first time they started learning how to roto (the process of drawing and cutting out objects from movie frames) and the first time they dabbled in media mixing, both of which are some of their signature moves today. “They (the band) were going on tour with the Flaming Lips and we scrounged together $1k that we had saved up and spent an entire summer in my dad’s basement animating it,” remembers Tripp. “It combined many different stop motion animation techniques stitched together into one seamless shot in After Effects. We kind of learned everything in the process. When it came out, it did well enough to give us the confidence to think about moving to a city to pursue directing.” That pursuit later led to work with miniatures, design and developing extremely technical camera work seen in films for brands such as The Sims, Barklay’s, McDonald’s and Apple, just to name a few.
Fast forward to today, after all the brand endorsement and hard work, their recent favourite project is a personal one. A short the WATTS wrote, directed, acted in and produced. “We played most of the characters, disguising ourselves in prosthetics,” says Tripp. “Jenna played an aged sex worker and I was dressed up as an old man (see below). It’s a culmination of all of our favourite things - strange, erotic, dark humour, kooky characters and miniatures. I’m also super proud of our commercial project for The Sims.” The short was actually inspired by a walk through the red-light district in Amsterdam.
The work with Sims, in collaboration with EA Games brought on the task to create a world inspired directly by the game. To really nail the aesthetic while still mixing it seamlessly with their own, Tripp says they had to design some sets in the actual game. “All of the wallpaper and light fixtures - down to the light switches - were custom built and 3D-printed to match the vibe. We were big fans of the OG Sims games, so we managed to sneak in some Easter eggs from those too.” That kind of attention to detail is no stranger to the WATTS, regardless if they have their personal history with the client. Set building and storytelling within storytelling is part of the onion of their work - the more you peel, the more you see.
But what is it that makes the amalgamation of Jenna and Tripp’s imaginations so special? Well, Jenna believes they have very different skill sets and different things that move them. While she leans more towards acting, art and wardrobe, Tripp drifts towards camera, VFX and editing. What matters, though, is for the final goal to be the same. “Being a couple helps us remove ego out of the equation when decision making,” Tripp says. “On set, we’ve been described as an octopus - we both bounce around and feed off each other.”
This is probably what helps them to not have creative disagreements that could rupture the idea. “Maybe it’s all about finding time for friends and family,” says Jenna. “Tripp and I both love our work and love that we get to work together. So sometimes after we’ve been on the work train too much, I burst and need to spend time with friends and family.” Tripp agrees that while on the creative side, it’s the more passionate one that gets the upper hand in the disagreement (usually Jenna), the fights come about when push comes to shove in the work/life balance. “We live and work together and we spend probably around half a year living in hotel rooms, so finding our own time away from work is often difficult. Jenna’s more proactive about making time for other things… I could be better.”
So when it comes to ‘doing’ outside of work, the WATTS admit they’re avid campers and Tripp also loves surfing, while Jenna is more into running and hiking - overall, the outdoorsy types. “A couple of years ago, Tripp and I did a 10-day backcountry hike through Yosemite National Park with a couple of friends. It was incredible and humbling to strip back and just walk through nature.” Tripp says, “When we’re home in LA, Jenna loves hiking and I surf. We both love camping and throwing parties - in fact, we’ve often been told that we have only two modes, extreme work, or extreme party. Every year, we throw an experiential, themed party for our group of friends in a wacky location. Last year we rented out a ghost town in the middle of nowhere in Nevada.” Now that you know that, you’ve seen the work as well as the inspirations for it, things start to add up.
Speaking about working with her husband, Jenna says: “Honestly, I feel so lucky having a partner to work with. We can challenge each other and make sure we are pushing in a different direction. It helps with not having tunnel vision and makes all the travelling and being away from home a constant adventure.” So, from dinosaur-eating butterflies to epic films for huge brands, from high school sweethearts to a married power couple, the WATTS have stuck together for good. Tripp leaves us with this: “Without a directing partner to experience all this with, I’m honestly not sure I would enjoy it that much.”