I met Olly Knights from Turin Brakes through twitter almost 3 years ago and we nattered for ages. Eventually a collaboration ensued with “Ascension Day”, my first “proper” music video. I haven’t done many. Most of my work is in documentary, but I loved doing this. I eventually did two more, one for Turin Brakes and one more for Olly for his solo single, which forms part of the documentary I have made of him recording his solo album. This comes out soon as does the album. In the meantime Olly has written a cracking guest post on how music videos have changed over time and how you must adjust accordingly…these are not my views but Olly’s!
It’s Four AM, I’m standing on the shingle of a freezing cold Dungeness Beach in Kent England, it’s pouring with rain and my musical partner and I are busy apologizing to various members of the large film crew assembled in a large white marquee, eating their hot breakfasts from the catering team and looking generally miserable. We are very sorry that they’ve all had to leave their warm beds for our silly video…
Sophie Muller who is directing beckons me over and quietly asks me what the hell I’m apologizing for? “These people live for this shit, not to mention you’re paying handsomely, now start acting like a rock star” she reminds me!
It was our first ever Turin Brakes shoot for a song called “the Door” taken from our debut album “The Optimist LP” in early 2001. The budget was a modest £60,000 – Virgin records wanted to start off gently with this first “taste making” single, so went with what was considered at the time a medium to low budget.
We were shooting on Super16mm film with two Arri SR2 cameras set up with Cooke Zooms so shots could be made quickly in a documentary style. With a crew of approximately 30 people, techs, make up, catering, label people, actors, dancers in animal costumes, kids, girlfriends, boyfriends you name it.
The shoot went well and later we would re-convene in Sophie’s flat where she’d hired an Avid suite to cut the video herself. We sat in on the edit for a few hours, had some laughs at our own expense and a few weeks later saw the graded and finished version being played on a steady loop on the then Indie friendly MTV2.
So how do budgets really work from a band perspective? Well it always seemed to be shrouded in mystery to us, but as far as we could tell we were appointed a video commissioner. This is the person who gets the scripts in from a pool of directors and production companies who’ve been sent your song, who helps the band decide the most suitable pitch or whatever you wanna call the idea, and then essentially holds everybody’s hands through the entire process, ensuring its safe arrival in TV land. The budget is cut up into various chunks, some for production costs and some percentage goes to the commissioner and production company who have their own deals with directors and producers.
We went on to make another eleven major videos with major label budgets before we parted company with EMI/Virgin. The highest being for a song called “5 mile” set at a cool £120,000 or around $200,000. Shot in LA where we had just finished touring and recording a new single, which the label persuaded us to conjure up in an effort to fuel the hungry radio pluggers who felt we needed something as catchy as our previous number 5 hit “Painkiller (Summer Rain).” This was the first and only time we’d ever get involved in the type of ridiculous genetically modified *hit’s by committee* situation the music industry is famous for.
We finished recording the single at 4am and were in make up for the shoot three hours later, armed with a rough mix of the song which would be used for playback as the finished version was nowhere near complete. We had a private jet, model actresses who were instructed to flirt with us for the video, an enormous crew shooting on 35mm film, our own trailer with our own hairdresser, it was without doubt our biggest moment of ‘BLING.”
We all valiantly attempted to make up a video to a half finished song on the spot, and the fact that the video is even watchable is credit to the director and crew, who were incredibly skilled and professional in the face of such absurdity perpetuated by our label. It went to show that even a giant budget and access to the very best gear and crews and directors won’t save you if you haven’t got a solid idea to build on. We simply didn’t have time to contemplate what we were doing as we were too busy doing it.
Now although we enjoyed the sheer madness that our lives had become, we had always privately questioned the true worth of these high budget videos that seemed stilted and difficult. As a band, we were constantly trying to steer them into deeper philosophical realms like our music, but we had to battle a label and a media more interested in how we looked and acted – it was all surface, it was the world of pop.
We did manage it some times, the video for Mind Over Money was a great example, a metaphysical fairy tale in the woods.
I’d come from a film degree at Central St Martins and already knew it didn’t have to be this way, that it was possible to grab a Bolex and some 16mm film and shoot something with a tiny crew which relied entirely on big ideas and tiny budgets. But while we were beholden to a major label and major investment, we knew it was futile to try and go against the grain of throwing money at something until it works, so we usually just made the best of it, and besides we were very lucky to have our art funded and to be working with so many enthusiastic & skilled people.
Eventually as our band’s commercial stock fell back down to earth in a perfect expression of Issac Newton’s theory of gravity, we began to experience a different angle on music videos. We used whatever budget scraps we could get our grubby hands on to fund films for our music by film makers we knew and respected as artists, the first real clear moment being the video for “Dark On Fire” by Shelly Love. It had a tiny budget of £5,000 and told the surrealist tale of a child’s experience playing Cowboys and Indians in the dark forest to dramatic and beautiful affect. It relied on volunteers and enthusiasm for fuel and answered our question, that given the opportunity, hungry and skilled filmmakers could use the lack of budget to good effect, needing a superb idea to drive a singular vision unruffled by groups of financial investors pecking it into a safer shape for the land of MTV.
We continued in this vein, enjoying the outcome with multiple videos for the single “Sea Change,” the highlights of which was an epic world-war-two battle story in miniature, shot on a Canon 7D for £5,000 and a model animation illustrating the ascent of man, the budget for which was £500.
Then we met Philip Bloom….
Along with the music, my interest in film making has never waned. I got just as excited about what DSLR video could mean for the low budget filmmaker as the rest of you (well most of you) And Phil was the first high profile user to truly break through online, so I followed his fantastic blogs from early on and cut my teeth on a Panasonic GH1, using it to shoot bits and bobs for my band whilst touring like the American travelogue “Perpetual Motion”.
Eventually, we met Phil who told us he would like to shoot our next video. It just so happened we’d recently recorded a song for a forthcoming Talk Talk covers album, and thus the video to “Ascension Day” was born.
This video truly proved to us how much things had changed. It was now possible for a band to have a video which could compete with the high budget stuff for virtually zero budget, provided they have a willing and hugely talented Director/DP and an enthusiastic crew who would work for passion and fun, perhaps as a refreshing change from their usual pay roll work.
As if I had any doubt, for me the ultimate moment of minimal perfection came shooting the recent video for “If Not Now When,” the title track for my solo LP.
We made this with a grand crew of just TWO people, Phil Bloom assisted by Sarah Estela using a lone non-pimped Canon 1DX, a tripod and a small selection of lenses in available light.
Once again, it came down to having access to an inspiring location and the ability to think on our feet without being slowed down by too many people. It was intimate, and I felt extremely at ease performing for the camera and saying whatever I thought needed to happen next, and the results were beautiful and totally in empathy with the music. I realize now that this was probably the type of scenario as a music artist I’d always wished for, and it’s credit to the technology available at such low cost to the filmmakers that it can now happen.
It also helps to be free from the pressures and expectations of commercial success. We as a band are operating in a unique niche where we have had a moderately large amount of success we may not have had without those early major label days and giant budgets, but I still believe that much of our experience can and does apply to other artists. We live in truly incredible revolutionary times as filmmakers.
When I read on forums of people moaning about what they can’t do with camera X and software Y, I laugh because a few years ago obtaining such cinematic and artistic control of the moving image was virtually impossible for anyone below a certain budget. We have the tools of our dreams without a doubt, but the skill and the ability to conjure up strong ideas and apply them remain as difficult and rare as they always were – that is something budgets cannot touch.
In this age of cheap tech and Youtube as king, there is no doubt a great video can be made for very little. With an ever increasing number of young and hungry filmmakers showing their wares on sites like Vimeo, it’s very possible for new (and old) bands to kickstart a relationship with them directly, no need for a label and a commissioner or even a production company’s involvement! I’m not suggesting they aren’t nice things, they are and can lead to top notch success, but they might come later, or they might not…
As we all know, the music industry has shrunk and so have the budgets. If ten years ago a moderately successful band like ours had access to big budgets, that’s not usually the case anymore. The budget for our last label commissioned video was £5,000, so that’s £115,000 less than our most expensive video, and I guess what I’m saying here is that as far as the end results are concerned, the videos we make now stand up as equals to the videos of our past, and that big money while making the whole thing feel sexier does not a great video make. In fact, it puts the band in debt with the label as it all goes against the band’s royalties and creates a myriad of other pressures, none of which serve the art.
I shall leave you with this little info nugget: Turin Brakes has sold around 1 Million albums internationally, we have made some companies a healthy pile of cash but we left our label half a million in debt! You can probably guess by now where most of that debt came from….
Viva La revolucion!