Ember Knight is an LA-based musician and comedian. They’re the creator of the webseries The Ember Knight Show, and a series of shorts for Adult Swim called Ember’s Etiquette. Their latest single, “Radio God,” is out now on Anxiety Blanket Records.
I was up late brainwashing myself with weird things on YouTube. I don’t know how it found me, but suddenly, I was watching this 2000s made-for-TV opera of The Little Prince. A child (the Prince) was sitting on a practical rotating planet set, singing to the stars. I stared at that massive, rotating set. Then I DM-ed the link to my long-suffering collaborator, Bobby McCoy, with the message, “Can we do it?”
“How do you do it?” This is what people ask me, and it’s a reasonable question. In the past three years alone, we’ve put out a five-part web series compared to PeeWee’s Playhouse, an orchestral rock opera, a concert film in the vein of Stop Making Sense, and a severely low-budget series for Adult Swim. Aside from that last one, it’s all been unfunded: no co-sign, no manager, no label, no rich daddy. How do we do it? My answer is annoying: You pay with your life.
Back to the story. First, Bobby and I tried to design the thing ourselves. But the idea of it being curved like a dome was throwing us for a loop, sort of like when you and your friends tried to build a half-pipe and gave up because that curved part was too tricky. It needed to be dome-shaped, weight-bearing, and, ideally, spin around. So, I did what I always do: I reached out to anyone I could think of who could help — in this case, production designers — and said something psychopathic like,
“Hey! How’s it going? I have a weird question — I want to design a massive rotating planetary set like this (insert link). How might one go about it, and would you want to help?
P.S. There is no money.”
Some people ignore me when I do this; some kindly take the time to explain why what I’m asking is impossible or unethical, provide me with a thoughtfully realistic quote, and say “Good luck!” And that’s fine. I ask someone else, until I hear what I want.
But why do I want this?
Even if there’s no budget, it’s never really free. I’ve found that you are always paying people — including yourself — in ether money, meaning, or clout. I am a deeply cringe person with no clout or money, so I’ve paid people in meaning. This can be incredible. I’ve met my greatest friends this way. It can also get dicey.
It’s no surprise to me that the person who ended up enthusiastically designing the moon set was another auteur. Ester Song Kim met with us outside Street Level Cafe in Echo Park — our classic haunt for drafting unhinged art schemes that deserve the It’s Always Sunny bicycle music playing behind them. It was there that she finally told me what I wanted to hear: it CAN be done, and she would do it for free! Why? No one asked, and she didn’t offer to explain. It’s an unspoken thing between people with our mental illness: if something is cool, we’ll bleed out to bring it into existence. If we like someone’s work, we want to be part of the world they’re creating. We shook hands, and then she furiously began sketching a bunch of triangles. I felt the rollercoaster going up.
I come from a family of musicians. As a kid, we drove around the country as a family band. People compared us to the Partridge Family, but I feel we were more of a one-to-one with that flashback in Arrested Development, Dr. Funke’s 100% Natural Good-Time Family Band Solution (my mom even had an auto harp!). Why we did this, I can only guess. I imagine it as an attempt to give glue to my parent’s failing marriage, or to express their artistic aspirations. I don’t know, it was never discussed. But whatever the reason, I learned very young that art is for its own sake (we were not paid a living wage). I also learned to go without — food, clothing, medical attention. And finally, I learned that an artistic project facilitates intimacy.
Our shoot date was set for two weeks in the future, when we started to build what would become our moon. A few days into the build, the platform Ester had designed was splintering. This wasn’t her fault: We had bought particle board instead of real lumber to save money, and it was just crumbling. I remember excusing myself to take a walk. I stomped around Burbank alone, powerless to fix the situation. There were no dollars for other wood. There was also no appropriate expression of frustration, as three unpaid people were waiting for me back on the sound stage, donating their time and labor to make a curved moon set so I could sit on it.
Why didn’t they leave?
Working on a project with no budget is a bit like being stuck on a desert island with anyone involved. Where the next meal is coming from is always in question, silently. Trauma bonds form, and feelings are easily hurt. If the project is worth this level of sacrifice, it must be VERY important to me. Therefore, if something about it isn’t quite good enough, I, personally, am devastated. There is a confirmation bias at play to justify the labor and resources being donated. There is a need to receive — as previously mentioned — meaning.
Is it for clout? For love? Approval? From who, our heroes? Or, are we so opposed to the culture in front of us, we’d rather slave over a miniature version of the vibe we do want? Are we so stubborn we would rather be King of a tiny hill of our own shit, than sit midway up on some other dude’s shit mountain?
Luckily, my work deals with interpersonal emotions. The Ember Knight Show is about good manners, and my music is about communicating difficult feelings. I’m basically interested in that magical space between mental privacy and human interaction. In other words, everything that is highlighted — and exacerbated — by DIY work. The process ends up informing the content. Therefore the past nine years have been a boot camp not just in the technical aspects of making stuff, but in human skills too: how to create boundaries before they are needed. Putting things in writing, to avoid confusion. Receiving — dare I say it — enthusiastic consent before getting in bed artistically with anyone.
We built the moon for a grueling two weeks. To say it was “free” is misleading — I ended up spending $1,200 (mind you, this is compared to an informed quote of about $30k). We bought and cut lumber, assembling our monster on the sound stage at Starburns Castle, where we were graciously tolerated during the pandemic. And here I will take a moment to admit that I misled them about the scope of this project — I think I said something like, “I’m just gonna build a little moon platform to shoot a quick scene, OK? Teehee!” And this highlights two points about paying with your life:
- Asking for forgiveness vs. permission is NOT enthusiastic consent. You pay with people’s trust when you do this. Trust takes a lifetime to regain. And,
- We never could have afforded to rent that space. Especially for two weeks of building. Spending a lifetime in the arts leads to resources in the arts, and the ability to ask for favors. It’s not really who you know, it’s who loves you.
I’ve thought a lot about why people have agreed to work with me. They almost always come in hot — a new, passionate elf ready to throw themself headfirst into this unhinged toy shop at the financial North Pole. After the first project, some are angry with me. They feel their time was wasted, they were misused, it wasn’t worth it. Others are inspired, having learned the ropes and ready now to execute their own incredible project. Very few stick with me for round two. It’s a rare breed, those of us who form [REDACTED] EMOTIONS. Who see a bigger picture. A long game.
A long game to where? Too long!
Unable to buy more wood, we abandoned the platform and moved on to the triangles. And they worked. My God, the triangles worked! Soon, our skeleton-moon looked like a big, 3D snowflake. Next, we connected the peaks with a wooden frame, circling the center like a spiderweb, and covered that with chicken wire. About this time we lifted the entire structure onto dollies, so it could be rotated. We were just days away from shooting when we started layering on paper mache. I remember it being a lot of fun, dipping big sheets of paper into big bins of glue. Ester showed us how to make craters, by crunching up sheets of paper to form circles and curves. I remember the sound this thing made after I turned off the lights to leave after a full day of work, nearly two weeks into construction — just the faint staccato of dripping glue, reverberating inside the dome of the moon itself, before echoing against the dark corners of the animation warehouse. I felt like a mad scientist. A dictator. Happy.
My pet theory is that we lack religion. Like it or not, it’s something fundamental to every human culture. We evolved to center our lives around a larger narrative, to be connected translucently, much like a spiderweb. Held to one another by so much dripping glue. Showing up to each day — and all the hard work it entails — with a communal purpose. Not having to ask why. Only recently have we dismissed this idea as outdated, but our brains evolved to congeal around something besides our own bellybuttons — and mark my words, buddy, they’re going to find SOMETHING to wrap around. So if I marched about saying my music or film project was a worthy endeavor, its own reward even, maybe some people bought it. And maybe it doesn’t matter what the project is, what it professes, what it’s about. Maybe doing something hard with a bunch of people IS its own reward. Confirmation bias. I’m going in circles.
We were so down to the wire finishing the moon that Ester was spray-painting the shading on the craters just fifteen feet away from where we were filming the naked scene in episode 4 of The Ember Knight Show. If the show wasn’t dubbed, you’d be able to hear her shaking the nicotine spray can in the background while Eamon is playing those bongos.
How could we afford the two weeks of time to build this puppy? You pay with your life. For the past decade, I’ve paid with a lack of privacy. Shared living. No insurance. I didn’t go to bars with friends. I paid by giving up the social reinforcement that comes with giving people you love presents at birthdays and holidays. I didn’t treat people to dinner. I didn’t keep my hair cut, skin moisturized, clothes modern. I did not meet friends at Six Flags or Disneyland, because such an expense was unquestionable. But. If you said I needed $400 to track a string section, so I could hear my song with real strings, I’d find it by the end of the week. This — and I mean this so seriously — has been a choice.
It worked. The moon was built, it rotated, and we shot it. And now it, too, can be found by anyone who is up late brainwashing themselves with weird things on YouTube. I got what I wanted.
This chapter is ending for me. Some people feel a lot of pride in sticking with DIY forever, man. Punk forever, man. Not me, man. I am interested in the equally fraught and unstable world of signing deals — and indeed “Radio God,” the song that features the moon set, is out now via Anxiety Blanket Records! It’s my first music that isn’t self-released, which honestly feels great. For me, exiting DIY breaks a generational curse. It’s not necessarily about “success” — that’s a word we all have to define very carefully for ourselves. (I know people with a lot of clout that can’t afford an apartment, this shit is not linear.) I’m just choosing to enter a chapter where projects are compensated with money. Where people involved are free to walk away, boundaries are clearer, and my concept of life can grow. Where what I am offering is not my soul, friendship, or a religion. I don’t want to pay with my life anymore. And that means I’ll have to find meaning in a new way.
At 10 feet in diameter, the moon was too large to be rolled out of the sound stage, let alone stored anywhere. So the day after filming, we returned to destroy it. Me, Bobby, and Mikey tore it apart in a couple hours. It all fit in one dumpster.