What do you get when you cross a clown with a filmmaker? The wholly original, whimsical films of Jeff Seal.
Take one look at his blown-up face on his tiny body in a train-hopping video he made for Gothamist and try not to laugh. With a Go Pro attached to an orange helmet, Seal hoists himself up onto the back of a freight train headed for Montauk, his friendly voiceover taking shots at the stupidity of it all.
“I’ve wanted to hop trains since I was a kid,” Seal told IndieWire by phone from Paris (“clown mecca”), where he was vacationing after performing a month-long run of his one-man show at the famed Edinburgh Fringe Festival. He shot the gorgeous train-hopping footage over the course of many years, but stopped short at using footage from his childhood. “My dad was a huge rail fan, he worked in transportation,” he explained. “The joke in my family was that he would shoot the trains more than he shot us.”
Much like Internet filmmaker Casey Neistat, Seal stars in most of his videos, venturing daring feats most people would never attempt — and they shouldn’t. “Even though I feel safe train hopping, I really do not want to encourage anyone who isn’t experienced to try it,” Seal wrote in a somewhat frenzied follow-up note. That said, train-hopping is a past-time as old as trains themselves. “The amount of people thinking this was totally crazy was surprising to me,” said Seal. “It was surprising to me how surprising that was to everyone.”
Seal does not have a huge online following like Neistat, but his films are more artfully done. Seal admires Neistat (“he doesn’t take himself too seriously”), and marvels at his prolific output. Seal handles every aspect of the filmmaking, and by his own admission, takes a long time with edits.
“I edit most of my stuff mainly out of necessity,” Seal said. “I can’t imagine handing it over to someone else — especially something comedic. It’s like writing, essentially.”
It pays off — his films are engaging and funny from first frame to last. That, says Seal, is the key to making Internet films. “Each moment has to be like — you have to keep watching this. If you lose their interest, they will stop watching,” he said. “It’s just cutting and cutting and cutting. You have to kill a ton of babies.”
Seal’s comedy background sets his films apart from typical adventure documentary fare. In an earlier film for Gothamist about dumpster diving, Seal was consciously playing a character. “There are a lot of people who have made documentaries about dumpster diving and they take themselves very seriously,” said Seal. “It’s usually white guys with beards reveling in how dirty it is. It makes me think of the saying, ‘only a rich man can afford to look poor.'”
Seal pokes fun at himself in both videos, bemoaning Trader Joe’s for donating their leftovers to a food pantry, and throwing up a #WhitePrivilege hashtag when he gets to pose for pictures with his handcuffs. “Yeah, I know,” the voiceover cops. Seal’s voiceover narrates the action naturally and jovially, as if he is talking to a friend. “I recorded it at my friend’s house so I could talk to him, that helped the performance,” said Seal. “If you’re just recording in your room, you lose the sense of what you’re saying. It’s like having someone off screen to act to.”
After directing a short documentary on urban explorers, Seal bristled at the attention paid to his subjects. “I was very happy for them, but there was part of me as a comedian that wanted to be onscreen,” he admitted. Seal said his regular scripted comedy films have not earned as many views as his documentary shorts.
Seal’s clown training comes through in the physical comedy on display in his videos, and his willingness to make fun of himself. (“Look how stupid I look when I know I’m about to get caught”).
With his charming onscreen persona and knack for cinematic storytelling, Seal is definitely a filmmaker on the rise. See for yourself: