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FILM

Oh wow, I found a 2016 blog entry I wrote but forget to post! This concerns the EP In A Day 3 sequence, what ultimately became the grant-winning, NFSA-showcasing (and increasingly ambitious) This Band Will Self-Destruct.

Presented below for your immediate pleasure:

I said to Nick the other day – half-joking – these sessions have started to feel like The Five Obstructions, except we are now onto obstructions 13 through 20. There’s only so many ways to make a music video out of an in-studio band performance. To counter this, we’ve spent more time ahead of filming generating ideas to differentiate each song. In the first Ep In A Day, all the songs were filmed with an identical camera set-up; the challenge was making each unique via editing and post-production tricks. In EP In A Day 2, I went in with specific ideas about filming/framing each song differently – for instance, I knew I wanted to film only close-ups of each performer’s face in My Own Little Girl, and I wanted a single take for Song To Be Played In The Event Of My Death.

For EP In A Day 3, the point of difference is wardrobe, set design and lighting.  Nick engaged the services of Imogen Keen, one of Canberra’s best and most in-demand stage designers. I came in with some strong ideas, and over several meetings between the three of us, we hashed out four different set-ups.

At a You Are Here meeting a couple of years ago, someone said they always throw out their first idea because it’s invariably terrible or lazy. However, I remain a firm advocate in the adage ‘first thought, best thought’. Lightbulbs is testament –  literally, I had Nick hold a lightbulb. It’s not without precedent – I love concert footage of Tom Waits with a similar apparatus to what we used.

The remaining band is filmed (and lit) by a roving spotlight attached to the camera.  The song is lyric-heavy, and Imogen struck upon the idea to highlight the words – these hang in cut-up segments strung above the performer’s heads – a point of interest in the inky darkness. The band is in white, providing a unity and simplicity to the set-up  – it also helps them stand out against the background.

My one concern at the outset was length – at nearly eight minutes, I worried the lighting gambit wouldn’t be enough. Thankfully, Nick is an increasingly magnetic screen presence – the clip leans on his ability to deliver the song direct to camera.

My Captain Obvious tendencies also resulted in a warmer/brighter light each time Nick sung ‘sun’ (get it?). Aside from the lyrical connection, it gave needed variation to the palette.  Some makeshift strobe lighting at the end complemented the rhythmic change in the outro, serving as a adrenaline hit (and recalling the lighting in numerous metal videos).

When coming up with ideas for music videos, my process is to listen to the song a few times, writing ideas as they come. Most are junk, but rough diamonds always emerge. Typically, I get one strong visual, and then build outwards. In Lightbulbs, it was Nick holding the bulb to his face. In this case, I saw the band looking towards a camera above, spinning as if in a Busby Berkeley sequence.

It didn’t make it into the clip, but something Technicolor and Busby Berkeley inspired (albeit on a Playschool budget) was the genesis for this bright and camp video. The set design is an abstraction on an under-the-water theme – the blue balloons are the ocean, the green netting is seaweed, the pink metallic streamers are… I don’t know, coral? I don’t know if it’s because the song is the most up-tempo of the group, or if it’s because it was the last performance of the day, but the excitement and energy of the band is palpable. The last things we filmed were the band goofing around – this included everyone swapping instruments and miming along.  A special shout-out to drummer/bandleader Grahame Thompson for his fully committed lead singer performance – probably the funniest moment in a day full of them. One day the footage of that incendiary performance will emerge (slash be leaked by me) and leave all lesser front-persons running for their mothers.

My other idea for this clip – and one of my favourite things I’ve filmed – is a mimed story about a relationship played out through the studio window. I still can’t believe how well this worked out – in most art-making you aim bigger than you need, knowing you will fall short. This is the rare occurrence where reality exceeded my expectations – all credit should go to the performers Aaron Kirby and Fiona McLeod (and to Nick for casting them). I explained the concept to Aaron and Fi and then they invented their own routine, far funnier and personal than what I envisioned. It’s a mid-video Easter Egg and I love how it is not referenced or explained in any way – just a slice of vaudeville sandwiched into a live performance.

Talking with Imogen and Nick in our pre-production meetings, our most elaborate ideas were reserved for this clip. I remember looking over my notes and having a panic attack – if we’d proceeded with what we had in mind, this clip would have taken all day to shoot.

Essentially, our raft of visual ideas needed set-up and filming independent of the actual song recording. In many ways, this is the natural progression for the series (the closer the sessions move to full-blown music videos, the happier I am – it’s more my wheelhouse than documenting live performance). In other ways, it’s a digression (and a distraction) from the central premise of the project.

However, removed from these philosophical concerns, it remained unfeasible to add more set-ups to what would already be our longest and most exhausting EP In A Day yet. We did keep the coolest one though – the idea of opening on a wound bleeding through a shirt. Imogen came up with the apparatus (and brought the blood) – however, in testing we used up two of our three white t-shirts. We got the shot on our third and last try, but I think our second attempt looked better on film. Unfortunately, the second attempt was with cameraman/stand-in Shane Parsons wearing the shirt – this meant I couldn’t use it for the opening, but I did end up using it (reversed) in the closing of the clip.

Another high-minded idea was an overarching throughline across all four videos. Eyelash opens the sequence with the band waking up, beginning in a seated/static position, and with a desaturated palette. Deadly Game Of Cat & Mouse is the last video – thus we start with the least animated and conclude with the most animated (emphasis on animated, DGOC&M being the most cartoonish). We don’t integrate this throughline as successfully in the other videos but I like that we were thinking of these things, and it’s something I want to explore further in other sessions (and other projects).

When I heard we had a set designer, this was one of the first ideas I had – to dress two different spaces and have Nick perform in one and the band in the other, only revealing at the end they are performing next to each other. The rest built from ideas Nick and Imogen had about making one space warm and earthy, the other cool and silvery. Nick performs a series of costume changes while singing the song, which also must have come from him or Imogen – while Nick always rises to these challenges, it’s a big ask for a performer and not one I’d be inclined to suggest.

On the day, camera maverick Shane Parsons had the idea to film Nick’s section in portrait. It’s a novel (and cool) idea which also serves to further differentiate the two segments. Filmmakers rarely monkey with aspect ratios and split-screens (especially during a piece) – I think part of this is that it dates a film to a specific era. Knowing this, and still using it for aesthetic effect, is increasingly in vogue – Grand Budapest Hotel is one of the recent (and most successful) examples. More and more music videos are tinkering with framing (particularly portrait vs. landscape, noting their audience use smartphones to watch their content). Recent great videos from Chance The RapperPusha T, and Charli XCX all shirk from using the entire widescreen/landscape frame available to them. For Going Home, I wanted to treat the frame similarly – to not feel obliged to fill it up entirely and to mess with people’s expectations around size and spatial relationships.

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This is the second video I have done for Ups & Downs, following my video remix for True Love Waste. Darren – Ups & Downs drummer, alongside bandmate with me and Catherine in Faux Faux Amis – had heard about our Cell Block 69 Dance Off exploits. He thought the whole thing sounded like a great music video concept for Ups & Downs song Disco In My Head, right down to the 80s costumes and the venue (the Polish Club). The Ups & Downs would begin as judges, then be judged themselves performing the song on stage, and finally everyone would be up and dancing at the end.

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With all that already in place, as director I had to have it make visual and narrative sense (well, narrative for a music video).

I added a meta-textual element to mirror the lyrics and provide a structure to the role reversal. I like the idea of the lyric ‘when you go there’s no disco in my head‘ being about how other people can affect our mind and mood, and wanted to play with how the mind can scramble our thoughts and memories. To do so, I introduced another character – an actor in Tudor garb (he’s holding a skull so we infer he’s delivering the Yorick monologue). The dancers and the band thus represent parts of the lead singer’s mind in conflict with each other, but by the end of the song they are working in harmony. The Tudor actor represents Freud’s concept of ego, trying to restore balance. I sent a breakdown to the Ups & Downs, who loved the concept.

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Schedules meant Catherine wasn’t able to get all of the original Cell Block 69 dancers together for the shoot, but herself, Gem, Cris, and Hayley knocked it out of the park. All of them brought surplus energy and a ‘try anything’ attitude which made the shoot a breeze. The Polish Club was a perfect venue to film in, and already came with the lighting rig and smoke machine (we made liberal use of the smoke machine).

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The Ups & Downs were really good sports as well and indulged all of my directorial whims and requests. Cameron Thomas was the true star of the day, turning up in his full Elizabethan garb, and even bringing two of his own skulls for me to select from! He brought a much needed pathos to balance out some of the ham and goofiness of the rest of the set-ups. He’s a tremendous talent and I wish he was already starring in a Netflix series. disco pic 1

The band and I went back and forth on the edit a few times, and a lot of my story work (as in the above breakdown) got cut or truncated. That’s part of the nature of being a director-for-hire, but they were some of my favourite bits, so I was disappointed. Looking at it now (the video was released in February), I’m a lot less worried – it holds together and the energy is retained.

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Coolio approached me to direct a clip for Infinite Pandits. The track’s underlying sample is from Falco’s Der Komissar, and he thought it would be fun to also reference the clip (multi-level sampling).

A lo-fi greenscreen clip is just something I needed a good excuse to give a crack – like most of the video assignments I have taken on of late, if I haven’t done it before, that’s what I want to do next.

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Also, it goes without saying that Coolio & Housemouse are one of my favourite acts, and Infinite Pandits is an undisputed masterpiece. Of course I said yes!

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A good location is worth thousands in production value, and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of including Canberra’s own NASA base in the clip. Coolio and Housemouse loved the idea, and Lou and I did a reccy a couple of weeks beforehand – Tidbinbilla Tracking Station is a hidden gem, with a cool permanent space exhibit and rolling hillsides dotted with satellite dishes.

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I used Tidbinbilla to add a bait-and-switch beginning to the clip, the long, quiet intro and title screens suggestive of a pastoral indie flick more than the subsequent bangin’ sci-fi comedy. It also bookended the clip well, the final shot static and turning to sepia, setting in amber the gallant space crew of the HMAS Solid Rolled Gold.

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The nature of greenscreen means the majority of the work is in post. Once you have edited the clip – the point you’d normally finish – the work starts. It was time-consuming sourcing appropriate backdrops, but thankfully there is a great community sharing free greenscreen elements (including the inside of space carriers!), and I eventually found everything I needed.

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This is the most effects-and-automation heavy clip I have done – my next challenge should be adding in more interactive greenscreen elements rather than passive backdrops.

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The clip was timely as Nick soon approached me to do a fun karaoke video for Adelaide’s birthday – I took what I learnt this time around and we shot a high-energy dance-a-thon, with several ideas I am definitely going to re-use for future videos (shout-out to Yen Tso who suggested making the Fleetwood Mac segment resemble the cover to Rumours).

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This is the second time Coolio and I have collaborated on film – expect more!

 

I’ve been kept busy with some interesting video work of late, not least of which was the opportunity to edit Julia Johnson’s amazing debut video.

Julia shot it with my fellow EP-In-A-Day alum Shane Parsons, but with Shane’s hectic filming schedule and a release date looming, she asked me to try my hand at the edit. Unlike many filmmakers I’ve spoken with, I enjoy editing (far less stressful than filming!), and so was keen to be involved. Shane’s colours and compositions were a dream to work with, and Julia had a precise vision for the unfolding narrative which I did my best to execute.

Listening to it now, it’s strange and unworldly to my ears – the result of the footage being shot at 1.5x the normal speed of the song. Consequently, I spent hours listening to a sped-up-on-red-cordial-and-gummy-bears-version – that’s the version that sounds ‘normal’ to me!

Faux Faux Amis’ drummer Darren Atkinson is also a founding member of Oz-rock royalty The Ups & Downs. The Ups & Downs have re-formed after 30 years, garnering great reviews for their new album The Sky’s In Love With You, and prepping for an upcoming tour with The Sunnyboys. Darren hit me up to do a video for the band, for which I am now finalising the edit. However, late last year, their record label was undertaking the international launch of the album and was desperate for the band to have a video immediately.

In a moment of either inspiration or lunacy, Darren asked if I could re-work the video for Faux Faux Amis’ Holiday Inn into a video for The Ups & Downs’ new single True Love Waste. It is definitely the oddest video request I’ve ever received – and I’ve filmed Nick in a droog-fireman’s outfit rowing a boat

Firstly, I wasn’t sure if the rest of the Ups & Downs would be comfortable having a hand-me-down video. Darren assured me they were fine with it, and after I pondered it, I realised it presented a unique opportunity. It reminded me of when Brendan McCarthy re-coloured an issue of Paradax, calling it a remix – I treated this as the film equivalent of the same concept. Everyone knows how dramatically music can change the perception of visuals – there’s a whole subgenre of Youtube videos where trailers for horror movies have been remade as rom-coms, etc. heavily reliant on their altered musical cues. I was curious to see how the visuals of Holiday Inn would be perceived with a different score – I changed the colour grading, added different footage for the song’s breakdowns, and removed a couple of the sillier visual gags and graphics, but the majority of the edit remained the same. It works surprisingly well!

The second video I shot for The Ups & Downs should be released soon – it’s drastically different, literally an all-singing, all-dancing affair.

Lastly, here’s a sneak peak of the space odyssey I shot for Coolio & Housemouse’s brilliant song Infinite Pandits (that’s the ‘teaser’ above). More to come!

PANDITS - Coolio 

 

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I started this website to document ‘process’, but my efforts have been slipshod this year. It’s partly that I’ve been doing a bit less (certainly less directing), partly that many projects are stretching out over many months (such as the pending Faux Faux Amis album; I mostly write following a project’s completion – maybe I need to write more during), and partly the reduced time available to a new father.   

But sometimes I just plain forget to write about something. To be honest, I thought this video might never be released – Lou and I filmed it on 17 January 2016, and it didn’t drop until 16 months later, on 18 May 2017. Looking at those dates, perhaps it’s oddly fitting I’m writing about it five months later.  

Emma approached me with the concept – the band performing while a forest is painted behind them, before the band is covered in orange paint. I took that concept away and fleshed out a treatment, including the idea of the band ‘disappearing’ into the painting by the end, and filming in an actual forest.

crackenback 4We were fortunate to film at Gorman Art Centre – their kitchen, in fact – and just down the hall from Tara Bromham’s studio (who alongside Pocket Fox’s Nicola Menser Hearn was responsible for the amazing painting). Emma and Luci are both great on camera and alongside the steady stream of extras that rocked up (everyone’s favourite being Ted Conrick’s talented dog), the one-day shoot was a breeze. I need to single out the catering provided by the band – Turkish pizza in a range of vegetarian options – which has set the bar hopelessly high for all subsequent shoots.

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Despite the many hats Lou wears on a film shoot – from gear wrangler to producer to camera operator to impromptu extra – she often laments she feels like a third-wheel on set. I imagine getting to fling orange-dyed yoghurt at the talent was both a rewarding and cathartic experience – only bettered if she could have thrown it at me as well (I read this sentence to her and she said, ‘that was my favourite shoot ever’).

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I think we really stepped up our colour palette game on this one – the strong orange and white, against the browns and greens of both the forest and the painting – even the pre-painted canvas is a perfect shade of wholemeal. It’s remarkably consistent and allows the other small bursts of colour to really pop.

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The merging of real and ‘created’ spaces, the crossing over of real and fictional worlds – such as the band disappearing into the painting, and slowly having the ‘worlds’ bleed together, like when the band’s instruments are replaced by branches and acorns – is a (sometimes unconscious) preoccupation of mine.

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I’ve written about this kind of thing before, but just realised I’ve also employed a similar conceit in an upcoming video for Oz-rock royalty The Ups & Downs. In that video, a group of dancers and the band similarly merge piece-by-piece into a cohesive unit, the whole scenario revealed to be warring factions inside the lead singer’s mind. Why I enjoy playing in this realm so much is a question for another time.

crackenback 8This is the second video I’ve done with Luci – we also filmed a video for Pocket Fox’s Cigarette, which is yet to be released. That video is my favourite film clip I’ve shot so far and vastly different in style to anything else I’ve done – hopefully I can write more about it soon!

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The great thing about launching 12 narrative-linked music videos is that there’s no Actual Way to do that. So for instance, setting up a gallery installation where each video sits within it’s own ‘set’ incorporating materials and visual themes from the making of said videos- well that can’t be less wrong than any other way of doing it.

Often once I have to explain something to an audience, that’s when I realise what the thing actually is. So it goes with This Band Will Self-Destruct, which it eventuates is An Album That Is A Room That You Can Walk Around In. Duh.

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(The installation was basically lit 100% by the video screens so these room-lights-on photos by Imogen can only do the best they can to communicate what the audience was seeing)

The idea for staging the work this way came of some great advice I got from my long-time band-mate/mentor Julia Johnson, who pointed out that a gallery-style engagement with the videos might give an audience license to take their time and engage with the videos as the One Big Piece that they actually are.

I pitched the idea to Art Not Apart, the annual one-day festival that has steadily grown out the strange mists of the developer-funded-arts-and-culture experiment that is New Acton. In a huge piece of fluke-y luck it turned out that they were using the National Film and Sound Archive as their main venue for the festival, and within seconds my ambitions for the work had quadrupled. The totally rad selection of vintage screens and TVs in the NFSA collection allowed for 12 individual AV set-ups with their own aesthetic pop, and as we looked at the available selections we were blown away by how many natural resonances between the videos and the gear presented themselves.

By ‘we’ I mean installation producer Nick McCorriston and TBWSD Designer Supreme Imogen Keen. The over-the-top tech demands and space design reqs, not to mention the absurdly tight time frame, were almost 100% outside my skill set. I was so so lucky that NickMc was free and keen to put it all together, his extensive experience at You Are Here festival (among many other things) has made him an elite-level creator of weird tech-heavy shows on limited resources. Of course it was amazing to have Imogen carry her fabulously coherent and rigorous design parameters from the videos on through into the final exhibition space, she really made it sing as if all was planned from the start. My favorite parts of what she did were the totally whimsical touches like having one video presented in a portable back-pack and having a display case set up with costumes from the shoot.

We took care to try and have each video presented in a way that resonated with their form and content. For instance, you had to watch Lightbulbs inside an isolation booth that made your surrounds as claustrophobic as the band was in the vid. The soap-y teen-pop aesthetic of Doomed was ramped up by having it playing on a kids’ laptop covered in stickers. The late-night-public-access-am-I-really-seeing-this of Anywhere was shown on a tiny CCTV screen that you had to kneel down and peer at.

 

One of the vintage TVs could only play black-and-white, so Luke did up a black-and-white version of Save My Brain, the video that had been working least well in the edit. Turned out it was meant to be a black-and-white vid all along. So much of this project has been defined by these happy accidents, or maybe they’re just the natural emergent outcomes of collaboration.

We had dozens of people through on the day and it was a real thrill to see them work slowly around the room, taking headphones on and off. The fact that this version worked so well on such short notice makes me very optimistic for what version we might do now with a bit of lead time. It’ll be hard if not impossible to find screens as cool as this version had though.

 

 

 

 

 

Regular readers know that Luke and I have been juggling our usual foolhardy amount of different projects over the past year. Well, lurking behind all of those projects was perhaps the biggest thing we’ve worked on as a team, something so sprawling and multi-pronged that we’ve waited until every part of it was done so that we can now launch it with an obnoxiously strident three-month rollout.

It started with me applying for an ArtsACT grant to fund three of my ongoing EP-In-A-Day series, where I create a band for one day and arrange then record four live versions of four original songs while Luke shoots a video for each song. So I got the grant, and that shot of encouragement was all I needed to instantly decide that the whole thing has to be bigger, weirder and again I say weirder.


Maybe there’s someone else making full-blown narrative music videos where the sets, costumes and performance are created and captured at the exact same time that the final live take of the song is arranged and performed for posterity. I don’t know that there is but their might be. Either way, that’s what we did, twelve times across three days across one year. We roped in a raging house party’s worth of incredible musicians, producers, actors, dancers and filmmakers. The core team of myself, Luke, Sam ‘Eardoll of Millions’ King and Adam ‘Recorder of our whole lives’ Thomas was completed by Imogen ‘really maybe the best production designer alive’ Keen, who I will be aiming to have at the centre of all my projects for the rest of time. 

As a team we made four complete and distinct units of Music Video in three 14-hour sessions, an effort that took incredible goodwill, cooperation and skill from all involved. The narrative of the videos started as a loose thread of existential angst and ramped up into a starkly-rendered character sketch; one man’s doomed attempt to defeat his own mortality through pop music, and his loved ones’ attempt to snap him out of it, help him calm down or maybe even enable him further. 

At heart it’s me presenting songs to you so there’s all the usual attendant nervousness that comes with that. Still, so many wonderful people did so much good work on this that  I can’t wait for you to see the results. The first video drops this week, and announcements about the live launch event will be right on it’s heels!