Welcome to the ninth edition of “Tell All Thursdays”, where we seek to go beyond the song and find out more about the artist. Through conversation with the artist, perhaps we’ll obtain more insight about the songs we enjoy so much.
This week, Christopher Ewing, a fantastic director who was recently featured on RollingStone.com for his “Teenage Tide” video, talks to us about his techniques and inspirations.
1. Do you go to bands or do bands come to you, and how does that relationship evolve?
It goes both ways, but when I started out it was all about reaching out to bands that felt compatible with my style and working with people who sparked to my short films and my writing. As my body of work has grown, I’ve started getting approached more and more by musicians that want to work with me.
Once that initial relationship is established and an idea is agreed upon, I work with the band to tweak the specifics, by discussing films, photographers, artists and other music videos that could serve as touchstones or inspirations. Then I usually write a detailed treatment that reads like a short story and is the basis for all our subsequent production documents, from shotlists to shoot schedules.
2. How much input does the band have during the process of making the music video?
It’s totally dependent upon what the band wants to do and what works best for the video. I usually figure out the basic idea, pitch it to the band and then we edit and mess around with the specifics until everybody is excited about it. Some bands I’ve worked with are very hands-on during the development of a treatment or during the actual editing process and others only send me a note or two here and there.
3. What are your career ambitions? Do you see yourself solely as a music video director or something more broad?
I love music videos and absolutely identify myself as a music video director, but my end goal has always been to write and direct feature films. I was writing features and directing short narrative films years before I started making music videos. That’s what I went to film school to study and I’ve just found that the feature film tends to be the medium that best fits the stories I’m most excited to tell, many of which have a heavy music component. Because the music videos are more contained and have a much shorter development period, I’ve been able to push myself technically and story-wise in a lot of ways that inform my screenwriting and have made me a better filmmaker.
4. What’s your first step in creating a concept for a music video?
I listen to the song a disgusting amount of times. I burn a CD for my car, load it onto my phone for when I go running and when I’m washing dishes, put it on iTunes in my office, etc… I surround myself with the song and then plow through every distinct image and scene that jumps to mind, fill my desk with Post-It notes and then dump those into a rambling, stream-of-consciousness Word doc. Then I compile bunches of images, videos and photos off the web and sometime around then a story or character will begin to emerge, usually in the form of a short story or scriptment.
I also keep an ever-expanding Word doc in between videos that has really weird, random video ideas – some are fully developed stories and others are just confusing half-thoughts. Here’s one random example: “Retro 90’s setting: pog championship + creepy puppets.” I don’t remember exactly what I was going for with that one, but it sounds like fun.
5. With the recent press surrounding your “Teenage Tide” video, most notably appearing on Rolling Stone’s website, do you feel concerned that if opportunities for more success arise (e.g. doing a music video for LMFAO), you’ll compromise your artistic principles (i.e. sellout syndrome)?
I think I’ve developed a pretty solid internal barometer to gauge what I’d be excited and interested in working on and I’m always looking for new challenges and ways to jump out of my comfort zones.
Because of the nature of music videos, you want to make sure you’re working with artists and songs that you can listen to constantly for weeks on end without going insane, but I’ve got a schizophrenically diverse taste and there are very few things I genuinely dislike when it comes to music. The directors whose stuff I grew up watching and falling for, like [Michel] Gondry, [Mark] Romanek, [Chris] Cunningham, Spike Jonze, Anton Corbijn and Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, put out work that was all over the map, from big budget commercials to smaller, more “indie cred” type projects and that’s the kind of diversity I’m hoping to get the chance to explore in my own career.
6. Do you plan on making all of your future music videos with dialogue after the successful experimentation on the Seasons and Thrushes videos?
I like writing dialogue because it allows me to interact with the song in a different way and create a parallel story to what’s happening in the lyrics, but I don’t think dialogue or subtitled dialogue is right for every situation. It was really challenging and fun to experiment with subtitling dialogue exchanges on “…Of Our Discontent” and “Trees” because it took a lot of tweaking to figure out where the subtitles needed to pop up in order to gel with the vocals and visuals and not overload the viewer’s brain. Having the subtitles allowed us to get a lot of information across in a relatively short time period, but those particular videos and the stories lent themselves to having that additional layer. With those videos I wanted to create something that felt like a part of a larger story, almost like you’re flipping channels in the middle of the night and you come across some strange foreign film that you dive into right in the middle of things and have to work to figure out who these people are and what is going on.
7. What do you shoot on, and what editing software do you use?
My most recent videos (shot by two super-talented cinematographers, Tyson Maughan and Layne Pavoggi) have been shot mostly on the Panasonic AF100, which performs incredibly well in low light situations or the Canon 7D, which is so portable and unobtrusive that it works phenomenally for gorilla shoots and those moments where you don’t want to get in the way of the actors. I also used my personal stills camera, a Canon Rebel XT for the stop-motion Family of the Year “Stupidland” video, but the thing would overheat after every thousand or so pictures. I’ve also used the iPhone 4 camera for certain things (like the film-within-a-film footage in “Light, Lost”) and use my iPhone cam and an old FlipCam for video storyboards and test footage. It’s so convenient to have an HD camera in my pocket during rehearsals that I usually wind up shooting a scratch version of my more complicated sequences, many times in our actual shooting locations, that I then edit together as reference for the crew on the day.
As for editing software, my editor Colin Brooker and I usually send edits to one another, alternating passes on any given vid (when scheduling permits). We currently cut everything on Final Cut 7 because I haven’t fully committed to FCP X or Avid, despite Colin’s best efforts to get me up to speed.
8. How do you plan a shoot for a music video, or do you plan at all?
I definitely plan a lot for every single video and generate a lot of documents and reference materials: from scriptments to storyboards to song breakdowns to detailed, location-specific shotlists. But the exact documents change depending upon the needs of each video and the parameters of our schedule on any given day. I usually board out narrative-based moments very specifically and then let a few scenes (like party scenes or something like the paper airplane fight in “Our Younger Noise” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q4IinOQF1KI)) play out organically with the camera going into documentary mode and just grabbing little moments and details as they happen. I love these sequences because you get all sorts of bits and pieces that you could never have planned for and it introduces some confined chaos into your shoot day. It’s nice to relax and just see what happens. A video like Thrushes’ “Trees” allowed us to take this looser approach to almost every scene just because we had a lot of freedom working with a very small crew using only daylight and bounce boards for our light.
9. If you could do a music video for any song, what would it be and what would you make for it?
I’d love to make a self-contained cyberpunk mini-movie for an extra noisy band like Sleigh Bells or Death From Above 1979 or Thee Oh Sees and use a lot of hands-on practical effects, shooting on 16mm film with vintage cameras. It would be amazing to play with all the old B-movie film techniques and turn the volume up style-wise to some majorly WTF? levels. Or it would be amazing to do a super literal translation of something like Pixies’ “Motorway to Roswell” because it would be such a fun narrative to recreate with actors or stop-motion.
10. What’s your personal favorite music video and why?
Such a hard question! I watch every music video I can get my eyes on and I enjoy the vast majority of them, but I’ll try to name just a few that have been important to me. When I was really little I remember being blown away by Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” A-Ha’s “Take on Me” and every single Talking Heads video. Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry were hugely important to me, especially the Chemical Brothers’ “Let Forever Be,” as was Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris’ “1979” for Smashing Pumpkins.
My current favorite is probably Spike Jonze’s “Scenes from the Suburbs” for Arcade Fire. The performances are gorgeous, the premise blends a very surreal, nutso alternate reality with intimate, painful coming-of-age stories and winds up really blurring the boundaries between music video and narrative film. The Beastie Boys’ “Fight For Your Right (Revisited)” is a very close second and does a lot of similar things, just with John C. Reilly, a DeLorean and an impromptu urine fight.
Well, folks, there you have it. This is probably my favorite interview that I’ve had the pleasure of conducting so far, so thanks to Chris again for agreeing to do this. We here at LifeAfterNirvana wish him best of luck in the future, and we all hope that you check out his music videos. Just to prove how much we like this guy, I’m posting one right here as a little sample: