Of all the tools that are required today in the marketing and promotion of an artist’s product, the promotional video is certainly one of the most powerful. Careers have been made and broken on the strength of them and in this age of visual as well as audio entertainment, the promo can be vital in raising and sustaining the profile of an artist. Consequently, conceiving and filming the video can prove to be one of the most stressful and demanding tasks and yet, at the same time, an extremely creative and fulfilling project for all involved.
You can see just how much work goes into a 4 and a half minute mini-film from our report on the making of the video for Recoil’s single, ‘Stalker’.
Pam Smith (Head of Video at Mute Records): “Once the single is chosen, I speak with the artist – Alan in this case – and get his thoughts on the track. Then I have to try to find some good directors who are like-minded. Working with Alan is great because he has a lot of strong ideas and his music has a great deal of atmosphere.”
‘Stalker’ is obviously a track whose very title conjures up an immediate and definite image. The mood of the song is clearly defined from the opening sequence and Alan was adamant that the film should reflect its atmosphere without degenerating into the macabre. A successful end result would exploit the uncomfortable elements of the track whilst perhaps throwing some new light on its narrative.
After some consideration, Pam sent Alan the showreel for a young and upcoming director, Alex Coburn.
“Every week I see about 20 different film makers, from different production companies. Alex came to see me about a year ago when he was still at college and I thought ‘there’s some real talent here’. He recently sent me a show-reel after he’d been taken on by a very good production company and I just thought the timing was right. He is young and fresh and he loved the track – which is really, really important. I just had the feeling that with Alex we were on to a good thing!”
Alan agreed with Pam about Alex’s ideas. “I also thought that his enthusiasm and relative inexperience could work in our favour. Generally, when considering collaborators, I like to choose people very carefully, who I think have talent in their particular field, and then give them a fairly free reign. In a way it’s similar to my approach on ‘Unsound Methods’ where I took a gamble on some guest vocalists that I didn’t actually know. I suppose I must get a kick out of that kind of risk.”
Alex Coburn (Director): “I wanted to work on ‘Stalker’ because for a filmmaker, it is the perfect record to create images for – atmospheric, structured and tight with a vocal that suggests a narrative. My job was fairly simple as long as I could capture the threatening and slightly oppressive atmosphere – I knew that if I sustained this, it would look good. This was my first video commission so I was pretty much making it up as I went along!”
Once commissioned, Alex sent his ‘treatment’ to Alan. The over-riding style and narrative of the promo was outlined thus:
Edgy, dark, noir-ish with muted flat neon colours picking up on the style of the previous video (‘Drifting’) and the artwork for the singles and album. Fast-paced and dynamic, blurred and scratchy; Use bits of old scratched film, some words/images possibly scratched into black leader and inserted to create a feeling of unease. White scratches over some colour frames. Semi-fish eye lens will create impression of a peep-hole slightly distorting the image. Addition of a mask over the lens will create the black circular frame – this will give a threatening POV type style. I envisage most shots being filmed quite tight, apart from certain establishing shots of the city (New York) and the hotel room (which should be red and warm with a touch of madness, compared to the cold threat of the city).
A man pursues & watches a strange woman in a hotel room. The characters will play parts as if there was a big plot that hasn’t been revealed to us. Possibly a man who has picked up a woman, had an affair and she now no longer wants to know – his obsessive desire takes over. There could even be a suggestion that he has or wants to kill her or himself. All the shots will tell us something about the story but not enough to know how it ends. Key elements could include a phone off the hook, a hand thumbing through a phone book, neon lights at night, hands on flesh, tube train at night, empty threatening corridors, peephole and the penetrating eye. Doug’s vocal to be sung in the same hotel room that features the woman, possibly with her lying on the bed behind him as if she is perhaps dead?
The main female role for ‘Stalker’ is played by Connie Chiu, a Chinese Albino with violet eyes who has appeared in several promos before:
Connie Chiu: “I found it quite easy to understand what Alex wanted…the piece is supposed to be like a trailer for a film so you don’t get the whole narrative straight away. There are many different dimensions within the one story, which I liked. You’ve obviously got the stalker looking at this woman in a hotel room but as the video progresses you realise that I’m the one that ends up almost stalking him – because he’s so obsessed. It’s to do with consuming one another and I especially liked that aspect of the track. It says something about power play rather than ‘oh the girl’s the victim’ and that’s the whole story. There’s also so much more than just a sexual or erotic angle.One of the main things that I like about making videos is that you get to play out those games that you cannot or dare not in real life – that was definitely the case with this one!”
Production company Activate utilise a wide range of directors. At one end there are those working with artists like All Saints, Blur and Echobelly and at the other, filmmakers who perhaps have little or no promo experience. Alex is an example of the latter, demonstrating the company’s reputation for setting new directors on their way. As Alan and Alex talked further and began to refine some of their ideas, Activate’s production team swung into action.
Isobel Conroy (Producer): “The producer’s job starts with preparing the budget and getting it accepted by the record company. Then the director, producer and anyone else involved will start to come up with ideas for locations, studios, cast – basically whatever’s needed. This is the time when everyone throws in their two cents.
The producer then collates all this input and sets up the shoot. This means booking in the crew, sorting out where we’re filming and, with the help of the director of photography, calculating film stock, camera equipment, lights and all the rest of it.”
The first part of filming for ‘Stalker’ involved a hectic trip to New York to capture the aura and ambience of the city although the experience, according to Isobel, wasn’t as glamorous as one might imagine: “We ended up in Harlem, in sub-zero temperatures, raining hail, sleet and snow in the middle of the night, surrounded by complete nutters – New York is definitely packed with lunatics! It got so cold that the cameraman’s feet started bleeding, his hand froze to the camera in Time Square and the gear got quite damp….it was basically geurrilla filming.”
Alex agreed: “There was definitely an element of chaos in New York – when I found myself on the streets of downtown Brooklyn at 4am, I must admit I started to wonder how we ever got there and what the hell I was doing.”
Back in London, the hunt was on to find an appropriate location in which to shoot the hotel scenes. Eventually, they settled on the recently closed ‘Clarendon Court Hotel’ on the Edgware Road in London.
DAY OF THE SHOOT
The exterior of the Clarendon Court Hotel, though run down and in need of a paint job, is as grand and as impressive as those Edwardian buildings that flank it, but once inside any similarities cease. In recent years, the hotel had been used by the local council to house some of its more undesirable residents and it now bore all the trademarks of their swift departure following a recent police raid. Speculation for this, and the hotel’s impending closure, ranged from ‘unfit for human habitation’, ‘infested with roaches and rats’ to ‘have you seen the top floor?!’ Indeed, wandering around the five floors was certainly an experience for the nostrils and any one of these factors could have easily been the predominant reason. For the purposes of the shoot, The Clarendon was perfection itself.
On the day of the shoot, the crew had been busy since 7.30 am and, amongst the half empty beer cans, had managed to set up the main bedroom scene in one of the more habitable rooms. By the time Alan and Doug arrived 4 hours later, filming was well underway and in spite of the cold, everyone seemed in good spirits. When not required on set, most people sat huddled around a motley collection of fan heaters bemoaning the fact that Alan always chooses derelict buildings with no heating for his promos!
“It isn’t really unusual to be doing this kind of maverick filming…” said Isobel when I asked her if she’d rather be working with The Spice Girls, “…you sometimes get more of a sense of achievement when you work like this with limited creature comforts. It’s actually more exciting than being in the lap of luxury – then again I’d still rather be filming in the Bahamas!”
There were three main scenes to film in the Clarendon – Connie’s hotel room, various interior corridor shots and, of course, Doug’s lip sync and body close-ups.
Douglas McCarthy (guest vocalist): “When Alan originally asked me to write the lyrics for ‘Stalker’, I had a decision to make – whether to be the victim or the perpetrator. Even though I recognised that the track shouldn’t be a one sided power trip, I decided it would be much more fun to be the perpetrator and to feel the injustice of not being allowed to do what you want to do…. i.e. mercilessly stalk young women and make their lives a living hell! That’s the wonderful thing about writing, you can really indulge your wildest fantasies. My wife gets really upset actually.
When it came to filming the promo, I actually found it enjoyable assuming a role like this and, apart from the fact that my fingernails were too clean and had to be ‘blackened’ by the make-up artist, I slipped into character without too much effort.”
Alex added: “It couldn’t have been that easy for Doug to know that he would never be seen properly but I’d been told that he’d be up for anything. He did extremely well in acting through his hands which is not an easy thing to do.”
At the end of the day, with filming complete and everyone well and truly frozen to the bone, we went home, leaving the Clarendon in the hands of a security man who had taken up residence inside the building. “Are you required to wander around the hotel at night and check all the rooms?” someone inquired, “No, but I do that for fun anyway…” the guard replied with relish, “…just think of all the stuff you could get up to – kidnapping, torture, murder, burying bodies in the cellar …….” Err….yes…. We left him to his thoughts and made a swift exit!
‘Stalker’ was shot on super 16mm – film stock designed to give a more cinematic look. With roughly 1 and a half hours of raw footage, the rushes were processed at a laboratory and then transferred to video format (TK-telekenetic transfer).
At this point, decisions are made as to the ‘look’ of the film. T.K. is an extremely sophisticated process which allows colour within the film to be saturated, de-saturated or even changed completely. Black can be ‘crushed’ to give a harder look, filters can be used to soften – there are a thousand different ways the raw film can end up looking.
With all the rushes now on Betacam video tape, the images are digitised and, once loaded into Avid (software which runs on Apple Mac computers), they can be accessed randomly.
Eventually, the off-line editing procedure can begin. This is one of the most exciting stages as the structure of the film begins to emerge. Alan spent some time in the editing suite to see how the overall picture was developing, knowing that at this stage it is not uncommon to find that a director’s original vision may have changed quite dramatically. Sometimes, during the editing process, you find that what may be great footage simply just doesn’t work in the way it was originally conceived. A good director must be bold enough to deal with this eventuality, be prepared to omit certain shots or even re-think his overall scheme.
Unfortunately, the off-line cut is not a broadcastable copy and so, one final procedure is necessary (the on-line edit) where the cuts are reproduced from the original telecine’d rushes using an E.D.L. (edit decision list) to bring everything up to broadcast spec.
Alan: “When making a promo, my primary concern is not with the commercial aspects but rather to create a credible visual interpretation of the music. Alex’s film for ‘Stalker’ achieved this as well as being dynamic and interesting. I’m really happy with the result and I’m sure he’s going to be much in demand as a director.”
Says Alex: “It’s like making music, a large part of the process is completely instinctive. People seem to think that a director has all the answers. For me it is the absolute opposite – I have all the questions and what the process involves is pushing, exploring ideas, listening to people’s responses to those ideas and then going with my instinctive feelings.
I thought my lack of promo experience would be a problem but everyone has been really supportive and encouraging which allowed me, I think, to create such a strong video. I’ve been very, very lucky to be able to make the film I wanted – working for Mute and Alan has been a totally rewarding experience.”