Josh Thornton-Allan's new video for Emily Burns skilfully combines two seemingly opposing forces - radiant happiness and wanton destruction.
Behind the Django Django's Spirals and Shame's Nigel Hitter videos with Maxim Kelly and Charlie Reddie: "They're products of the pandemic"
It's not ideal trying to launch your directing career during a pandemic, but that is what Maxim Kelly has managed with notable success in the past few months. And teaming up with editor Charlie Reddie on the videos for Django Django and Shame has proved to be a crucial move in that respect.
The usual obstacle to creativity on any indie rock video is the budget, but Covid has added a whole new layer of difficulty to proceedings. Kelly has responded to the challenge with two videos that would be thoroughly enjoyed on their own merits in any other year - with sterling help from Reddie.
In Spirals for Django Django, the pair rigorously explored the potential of a pre-cinematic, 19th century visual device called the phenakistoscope; in Nigel Hitter for Shame, Kelly transformed the South London band into convincingly serious white-coated medical researchers from the 1950s. Both could be described as 'lockdown videos', but both have transcended the circumstances in which they were made.
"Both these films are 100% products of the pandemic," says Kelly. "But yeah, that’s the challenge. How to continue making work and not have people realise that they are a product of lockdown. Because that would date the video and you want the work to be timeless."Above: Maxim Kelly: "I always start with a blank slate on every pitch."
We spoke to Maxim and Charlie about the videos, while the UK is in the grip of its third lockdown and nearly a year into the coronavirus crisis. And first of all, we asked Maxim Kelly whether these were ideas that had been floating around before lockdown...
Neither of these videos feels like products of lockdown, however both achieve a lot with what seems like minimal shooting and a dose of manipulation in post. Had the ideas been floating around for a while?
MK: I’m frequently asked if there are any ideas/concepts I’m desperate to make. But I always start with a blank slate on every pitch. For me, the music is the essential part of producing a music video. I can’t begin generating ideas or find inspiration without the song or the stress of a deadline.
What influenced the visual aesthetic running through Spirals?
MK: It was the psychedelic experience that influenced the Django Django video. What’s interesting to me about psychedelics is that they can show you the world through the eyes and wonder of a child again. And the phenakistoscope was a Victorian children’s toy. It’s also confusing to the mind and eye; so naturally or inherently the phenakistoscope is a total trip.
And of course in order for the animation to function, each frame needs to be arranged into a spiral or circle and then spun. So it’s an obvious idea when you think about it. But it takes a lot of work to get to where you’re asking yourself, 'why didn’t I think of that sooner?'
I’ve never had to do maths to make an edit work, but just getting to the point where you could start editing was a challenge.
The visuals are so hypnotically soothing and easy to take in, but I’m sure they weren’t so easy to pull off - how much of this was achieved in the edit?
MK: Depends on how you’re defining the term 'edit.' Because it was the most unorthodox edit ever. My lasting memory of that film will be staring across at Charlie, whilst he sits editing the film on a calculator.
CR: This was definitely the weirdest and most challenging edit I’ve ever done. I’ve never really had to do maths to make an edit work but just getting this to the point where you could start editing was a challenge in itself. Nearly every shot had to be split into 12, 10 or 8 frame circular animations before we could even start working on the edit.
Once we’d figured out this hurdle we ran into the next one which was the spinning of the circles. Because of the type of animation, different speeds animate the frames and completely change the look of it. It took a lot of experimenting before we landed on the right hypnotic feel. Whilst there were hurdles to overcome it was a really exciting challenge to be involved in.
MK: I got extremely lucky getting Charlie onboard. It was the first time we had worked together and I think he’s the only editor in London who could’ve pulled this job off. Charlie can recite Pi (π) from memory to 137 decimal places and he had enough experience in After Effects and Nuke to get us over the line and save my backside.
Charlie can recite π from memory to 137 decimal places - and has experience in After Effects and Nuke.
Any other technical puzzles trying to bring the idea to life?
MK: The entire thing was a massive puzzle. Avid doesn’t work with spinning circle timelines. So from the get-go there were so many questions. And even after having made the film, I still couldn’t answer most of them. But, I’m only excited by ideas where there’s an element of risk because if you’re not putting yourself on the line then you're just making a music video.
In retrospect it is painful to get sign-off on a film when your final cut consists of a mock-up and an Excel Spreadsheet. Fortunately we had an amazing commissioner, John Hassay who understood the process and could see the potential of the final piece.
Is there anything about this 'mathematical' way of editing that you think you could apply to future projects?
CR: Definitely not. I don't really want to have to get the calculator out for any future edits. It was a challenge that was good to overcome and I learnt a lot along the way. I think by the end, both Maxim and I wanted to do something very different on the next job which was why Shame's Nigel Hitter was so refreshing afterwards.
I realised I had to have babies singing. I just needed to find a means of making that happen.
How did you come up with the idea for recreating the mid-20th century child psychology clinic for the Shame video?
MK: The idea came from the lyrics of the song. If you take each line and then imagine it coming from the mouth of a baby, they suddenly take on a second meaning. So once I realised I had to have babies singing, I just needed to find a means of making that happen with the budget and during a pandemic. I started searching for archive footage and it all fell in to place from there. The band called the song Nigel Hitter because they thought it was a ridiculous name. So I resolved to give him an identity and invented the character of Nigel Hitter M.D., and then got the band to play his faculty.
Did you have fun sourcing this bizarre footage? Where did it come from?
MK: It was more worrying than fun. I was in the Travelodge, Stratford at the time. I had just returned from working on another film in Barcelona and I had to quarantine. I was petrified that any minute the hotel staff were going to knock on my door and say 'Excuse me sir, have you just downloaded another video of a naked baby having its rectum stimulated with a safety pin?' I’m pretty confident that if the police are doing their job right, that I am now on some sort of register or watchlist. Unless I was already on the list...
Was it a challenge bringing all of this together in the edit to create an authentic document of a fictional experiment?
MK: At first you do not know where to start, and that’s what’s wonderful about working with Charlie. He has a knack for uncovering connections and organising footage in a way that makes sense. And then it’s easier to get things clear in your own head once everything is arranged intelligently.
CR: Early on in the edit Maxim and I talked about where we wanted the video to land. Some of the stock footage was difficult to watch, so we had to be really considered about how we repurposed it. Maxim wanted it to feel authentic but not too serious. Once we knew we could ‘deep fake’ a monkey to get it ‘singing’ the track, we knew we were heading in the right direction.
We had to be really considered about how we repurposed the stock footage.
MK: Our primary worry was that all the footage came from different decades. But once you put the band into it, and grade it all to match you kind of overlook it, or at least you forgive it. But it’s just a process, you put something together, sleep on it and look at it again in the morning.
And there’s always an 'a-ha' moment, and for Shame it was the monkey. We were searching for suitable shots to use for the baby lip-sync and Charlie dragged out the monkey and asked 'baby lip-sync?' as a joke. But that clip unlocked everything for us. Once we had that, we had the obvious progression taking us into the last half of the video.
I'm sure finding a rhythm is especially important when cutting music videos, is that a more difficult process when working with stock footage?
CR: Rhythm is definitely important and I guess the tricky thing with stock footage is often you're locked into the length of the shots of the original footage. It was a balancing act when we put the edit together to make sure we were using stock shots that allowed for the rhythm that we wanted, whilst also telling the story the way we wanted it to be told.
I wanted to create something uncanny like an early David Cronenberg movie.
There seems to be a range of post-production approaches taken here. Have you noticed a rise in these kinds of techniques in the past year, with limits placed on production?
MK: For me and everybody else at the moment, it’s just about wanting to keep working. So everyone is trying to identify innovative ways to still produce entertaining work. So you just play the cards you’re dealt and try to find alternative ways to produce a film. I think it’s a positive thing. It’s forced people to not tread the same well-worn paths. And as a result there’s been some fascinating work made. The one that springs to mind is Keith Schofield’s Mesmerize. It’s a stroke of genius that might never have been done in that format without the pandemic.
What techniques and applications were you using to merge the band in with the old footage? There's lots of talk of 'deepfake' these days. What does that actually entail?
MK: There’s Deepfake in there, but that was simply to make the babies lip-sync the song. Face Swapping Deepfake is a different procedure. There’s less technical skill required with Deepfake. You leave that part to the algorithms and A.I, but it’s hardware-intensive and therefore can be pricey. We went the traditional route for the band. We just filmed them in a green-screen studio and then cut them out and dropped them in. It’s harder than it sounds though, but Franklin Dow did such an incredible job matching all the different lighting set-ups it made it simple. Although Rob Chandler, who did the compositing might tell you differently...Above: Charlie Reddie: "Maxim always wants to push boundaries with his music videos, both creatively and using new techniques."
CR: The Deepfake process could be a little frustrating at times as you were never really sure which shots would work and which wouldn’t. We spent a lot of time recutting sequences until we found shots that worked best when we ran them through the Deepfake software. The results are great though and really help make sure the video didn’t take itself too seriously.
Medical professionals play a key role in the video. Was this a conscious reaction to the past year?
MK: It wasn’t a conscious decision. But everything in your environment influences you. When I looked for archive footage, medical footage wasn’t the only material I found, but I was drawn to it. So it could be. I suppose it’s like when a woman finds out she’s pregnant and then she spots other pregnant women everywhere. Somewhere in my subconscious it led me down that path. I guess I wanted to create something uncanny like an early David Cronenberg movie. I suppose that could be seen as a sign of the times.
The situation has forced people to not tread the same well-worn paths, leading to some fascinating work.
Charlie, the past year has changed the way a lot of us work, are there any ways you adapted as an editor that you'll take with you into a post-pandemic world?
CR: It's been a weird year, and remote editing has become the norm. Obviously nothing beats being in the room with a director working on the edit together and that's been the biggest change. We've got a good setup for streaming the output of the Avid remotely so we can still work together. It's not the same as being in the same room but it works pretty well and may still have a place when we're out the other side of this. In the future, if there are only small tweaks that need to be made quickly, I can see a Zoom and Avid setup being really useful for quick feedback.
How has it been working with Maxim on these projects?
CR: I really enjoy the way Maxim always wants to push boundaries with his music videos, both creatively and using new techniques. There have been moments when they're challenging but those challenges make them exciting and interesting to work on and I'm really proud of the final pieces. I'm looking forward to working on the next mad idea Maxim has!
Finally, and this is obviously entirely hypothetical, but if we weren't in a pandemic situation, would you have made different videos for these tracks?
MK: When I get a brief in, I’m already conscious of all the limitations like the budget and pandemic. So I try to come up with something that’s realistic and achievable within all those restrictions. So without the pandemic they would be different films. No idea how, though. It would be hard to say.
Without the pandemic they would be different films - no idea how.
I think it’s more straightforward with my next video. I pitched one dancer in a studio, but that turned out to be impossible. So then I shifted it once they commissioned it. It’s a similar concept but now done in 3D. And it’s very different to how it should’ve been. Once it became a CGI film, I thought, what’s the one thing you can’t shoot during lockdown? Vast crowd scenes. So that’s what we ended up doing. It’s an anti-lockdown, lockdown film. But it’s still good. Who knows, maybe even better?
• Maxim Kelly is represented by Caviar, and Charlie Reddie is an editor at Stitch and its music division, Homespun. Special thanks to Georgie MacErchern at Caviar and Martin Macnamara at Stitch/Homespun.
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