Gemma Creagh spoke to director, writer and cinematographer Bob Gallagher about his approach to creating music videos.
Bob has worked with Le Galaxie and SOAK, amongst others and has recently finished working with Girl Band on their video ‘In Plastic’.
Bob is bringing his particular set of skills to Filmbase this month for a Visual Narrative Workshop
Images from the set of Girl Band’s video for ‘In Plastic’ by Colum O’Dwyer
Where do you begin when coming up for a concept for a music video?
I always start with the track. Sometimes if I know the band or the artist personally I draw on the actual relationship, but I always come back to the song and how I relate to the tone of it. If the music is good, it’s very easy because it immediately fills your head with images.
What are your own favourite music videos and influences?
I’d say still the biggest influences are the great music video directors of the ’90s. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham. There were a series of ‘Director’s Label’ DVDs of their work that I collected. A lot of those videos were on heavy rotation on ’90s MTV, for artists like Bjork and Beck and Radiohead, but I also studied those DVD boxsets. There was a playfulness and a sense of exaggerated reality in those videos that really appealed to me. They all hinged on interesting concepts and were very unique filmic pieces of work. I’ve tried to work in that vein as opposed to focusing on performance videos.
I don’t know if I have a favourite music video, there were a lot of influential videos on TV at that time and I think because I watched them when I was young, I was able to absorb the influences in a way that wasn’t stunted by critical thinking. It was pure enjoyment. ‘Losing my Religion’ by Tarsem was a video that really affected me. Again I was watching as a kid so didn’t understand it in a literal way but I knew there was power in the imagery. That video was a very direct influence on a piece I did called ‘Easter Morning‘.
I think right now there are a few artists who know how to really use the medium to its potential. MIA is an artist who always manages to do something interesting with her videos. ‘Borders’ was probably one of the most pertinent music videos of the last year. It used a pop medium to provoke discussion on a global issue. At the same time, you’ve got artists like Taylor Swift dancing around the woods living in a fashion film fantasy world, but it shows that there is room for political discourse in what is predominantly a light entertainment medium. I think MIA has definitely influenced me to think that a music video can carry a message or a commentary with as much weight as any other art form, and Borders was definitely an influence on me for ‘In Plastic’.
On the whole, I’m probably more interested now in influences outside the music video world. There’s a sculptor called Maurizio Cattelan who was a strong influence on me for tone. He’s got a sort of punk attitude to art that I really admire, and his work is dark but very funny and absurd.
I think music video really relies on free association and combinations of images and symbols to create meaning, so I find the understanding of dreams and the subconscious associations really feed into that. A friend put me onto the Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky a few years ago and his work had a big effect on me from that point of view of trying to understand the psychological power of symbols. He inspired me to buy a pack of tarot cards and start studying.
How do you think the format has changed in the advent of the internet?
The reason it was really an exciting art form in the ’90s was because it was still quite a new medium that had money being pumped into it, so artists could do really interesting big scale work. Now, it’s an exciting medium for different reasons, the creativity is driven in a different way, by a lack of resources. I’ve never worked with a huge budget so I can’t really compare the two ways of working, but I’ve always approached working on music videos by looking at what’s possible within a set of limitations. For example, I did a video recently with Saint Sister. It was very low budget so we decided to have one character, but then that limitation turned the idea into a clone genre-piece, a creative direction that probably wouldn’t have come about otherwise.
I think the internet and also the accessibility of cameras has really democratized music videos especially. I think the medium went through an awkward period when YouTube was basically a free listening platform that needed some nice images. I’d cite ‘Blurred Lines’ in particular as a an example of the medium at its lowest point. Gormless celebrities; shot against a white wall; dancing through a meaningless void, and that was enough to be on par for the medium then. I feel it’s picked up now and music video releases have become artistically credible events again. Look at Beyoncé’s ‘Lemonade’ release recently.
I think artists who maybe have less resources than Beyoncé have realised that an interesting visual can really capture people’s imagination and bring them in contact with a bigger audience online, so music videos have become a strong tool that’s very accessible. The new Aphex Twin video was just made by a 12-year-old Dubliner. I think that’s amazing. Your ability to make and display art isn’t limited by who you are or where you’re from. What’s great about the internet as a medium is that anyone can put their work up and has the opportunity to grab people’s attention.
What type of music inspires you the most creatively? Is there a genre you’d love to avoid/work on?
Different styles of music evoke different images so I’ve never really had a genre specific approach. I absolutely love Girl Band because the music is dark, dynamic, and complex but I also really enjoy simplistic, airy pop tunes. You need different types of music to reflect different moods. There are good people working in every genre, so I’d never preclude working on something for stylistic reasons.
I think the distinguishing factor for me is more about sincerity. When someone’s music is contrived and trying too hard to emulate something that already exists, it can be very uninspiring. Likewise, if music is knowingly being made to fit a certain commercial structure it can be very lifeless and transparent. You hear it a mile away. An act like Girl Band can really wake you up because what they do is so refreshing and it feels vital and honest.
I don’t have any musical training so I think vocals are often a point of entry for me to a piece of music. I can feel a bit lost in instrumental pieces whereas I really tune in to vocal delivery and lyrics. Irish music seemed to have a love affair with the over-earnest singer songwriter mauling an acoustic guitar. I’m glad that’s died down now. There’s a point where the attempt to be earnest and poetic actually becomes a performance in and of itself. It can be a construct of what someone thinks emotional honesty is supposed to sound like. I think solo songwriters like Myles Manley and Paddy Hanna are a welcome antidote to that recently in Irish music, they can work that genre to write in a way that’s actually emotionally honest, and I think humour is a big feature of that.
Is there any area thematically you would either love to explore or think is a no-no when it comes to the music videos?
I’ve run the gamut from flowers and snails to naked corpses so I think anything is on the table as far as me and music videos go. If the music conjures up the images and they fit, then I’ll usually just follow my instincts. I did once have to actually sign a contract to say I wouldn’t use any blood or religious imagery in a video, which I thought was funny, but otherwise I’ve been lucky to have the trust and support of the artists I’ve worked with to make some unusual choices.
As far as a no-no, I think that it’s maybe important to be conscious of music video tropes, that is images that are lazy shorthand for youth culture – bonfires, flares going off, animal masks, close-ups of a girl’s ass clad in denim. If they’re not justified in context they can be really crass and come off looking like a 3-minute H&M ad. Music videos can be uncomfortably close to advertising sometimes so I try to steer away from that, or subvert it in some way. Otherwise. I’d really just like to avoid repetition for myself, so I’m happy to explore anything once I haven’t done it before, even if someone else has.
What are your “do’s and don’ts” when it comes to filming a music video?
The demands of each video are totally different, so I don’t think I could apply any blanket do’s and don’ts. If I had one, it’s probably just be nice to people. There’s this bizarre phenomenon where people think that the job of a director is to shout and throw tantrums on set and it’s just generally accepted that this is how directors behave in that environment. You’re supposed to be a leader and someone who gets the best out of a cast and crew through active collaboration. I think this is best done by treating everyone with dignity and respect and making sure everyone is enjoying the process. Shooting a video can be stressful at times when it’s your responsibility, but you have to try not to contaminate everyone else with your stress, and make it a nice environment to be in.
How important is the relationship between cast and crew on a set?
Really important. You want everyone involved to get on well, do their best, be proud of their work and enjoy the whole experience. There can still be stressful moments because of time, and sometimes you have to be the person applying pressure to get things done, but you should make every effort to make it a good environment to work in. I tend to work with people I know, who are good at their job but also just have good personalities. A bad attitude can really throw the set off. Also, it sounds obvious but feed people well! You wouldn’t believe how important that is on set. Luckily we have a great caterer called Leda on our team and everyone on our crew is happy when her name is on the call sheet.
What are your own favourite stories to tell, and how do you know when a concept works better as a short film or a music video?
I guess I’m drawn to stories about outsiders, people looking for connections or else dealing with faulty connections. That’s what I see most prominently when I try to look for continuity in the work I’ve done. When I make something, I want to learn and try to understand some character or situation that’s beyond my experience so I try to set things in worlds that I’m not used to, with characters whom I don’t understand. What you learn is that fundamentally you can relate to anyone really, no matter how far removed their experience might be from your own. Ultimately, we’re all driven by very similar hopes fears and desires.
I’m working on something right now that I genuinely can’t figure out whether it would be better served as a music video or short film idea, but pushing towards a short because I’m really excited about the idea of working with a soundscape again. I love music videos but for storytelling it can feel like you’re missing a tool by not having sound design. It’s also nice to create the music cues to fit the story, rather than the other way around.
Tell us about your latest Girl Band video and talk us through the process of how you came up with it.
It’s kind of an exercise in anxiety and paranoia. It originated in a dream I had about airport security, but then that setting became a vehicle for a really general modern anxiety of being watched and judged, and how we seem to have deferred that power very unquestioningly. We live in an age of omnipresent scrutiny and paranoia, and it’s all carried out under the pretense of authoritarian protection.
I’d say, aside from the song itself, the biggest influences were binge-watching Adam Curtis documentaries, and a trip I took around Europe last summer where my friend Lewis and I discovered a Nazi flea market outside Budapest. I think that was the basis for a growing anxiety about the re-emergence of fascist rhetoric across Europe and in the US. What was a low level anxiety then has been brought to the fore recently by the refugee crisis and Britain voting to leave the EU. Combine that with a Trump / Clinton presidential race in America and you’ve got a world of very poor and frightening political options. You start to wonder if it even matters which wealthy elite gets into power anymore. The switching of the dictators in the video is equally inconsequential. The faces change but the dynamic of control is the same.
I’d strongly recommend recommend watching the documentary The Century of the Self which was a big influence. In it you see that the idea of projecting Nationalist anger onto an ‘other’ or ‘external aggressor’ in order to pass policy of nationalistic unification is a technique the Nazi’s learned from Freud’s nephew Edward Bernays and used to terrifying effect. We’re seeing the exact same thing being played out by Trump, Farage and other demagogic figures, dragging the world backwards in a dangerous, counter empathetic direction. That’s not the kind of world I want to see in the near future; so the fear of it has been very active in my subconscious, I think.
It’s still just a four-minute absurdist music video so it’s never getting that heavily into those matters, but there are allusions and its foundations lie in more serious concerns. The idea was pitched to the band as the fever dream Kafka might have if he ever read 1984, which was a good expression of what I was aiming for. It’s got that absurd, detached, bureaucratic anxiety of Kafka and the over-the-top surveillance and scrutiny of Orwell but in its own weird comedic Girl Band universe. In 1984 ‘unorthodoxy’ is the word used for behaviour that isn’t tolerated. Dara, the singer from the band, was showing me some paintings he’d done one day and I remember thinking how it’s interesting that in art your ‘unorthodoxy’ is a positive attribute. What’s of value is to be original, alternative and ‘other’ whereas a totalitarian society vilifies these qualities and uses them to make examples of people. I think you have to be wary of any society that tries to clamp down on art and freedom of expression, because civil liberties are the next thing to be eroded. That was the basis of the idea for me, how terrifying it would be to be punished for the act of expressing personality or difference.
The actual process of making the video really starts with me putting down the idea on paper and collecting images. I send the band a short treatment with text outlining what you’ll see on screen, some reference images and some video clips – Brazil was an important reference, and Bridge of Spies, which was set in post WW2 Berlin. We actually borrowed our colour scheme from the Stasi headquarters. The band are really trusting and they were enthusiastic about the idea, so not much changed from concept to execution. Once I okay the idea with them, then it’s just a case of figuring out what you can actually make a reality within the budget.
How did the shoot go?
Really well. I just moved into a new studio and we filmed the whole thing there. Building the set was tough work because we needed to construct a ceiling and a removable wall, on a tight budget. I have a friend called Paddy Cunningham who did some great work on it; we’d have been lost without him doing the build. It was great being able to control the environment and the colour scheme to add to the claustrophobia of the video. Windowless soul destroying totalitarian corridors are surprisingly hard to come by.
We shot it over two days and the cast were great. It was a lot of people so the logistics and scheduling are a bit tricky but really nice bunch of people and everyone basically committed to the whole shoot so it was nice being able to swap characters in and out as we needed. Some of the cast were people I’ve worked with a few times. I’d never worked with Will O’Connell before, who plays the lead, and he was absolutely brilliant.
It’s always hard work shooting in a short time frame, but when you’re surrounded by good people it makes it an enjoyable slog. If I was ever getting stressed out by the workload I would just remind myself that I get to dress up my friend Conor as a dictator, for a video for an incredible song, being released on a great record label, that people will be able to watch anywhere in the world. I’m very grateful to have a job that makes sentences like that possible so that really cancels out any of the difficulties.
What advice would you give someone looking to go into the area?
I would say just start making and uploading things. There are so many bands and artists that would love to have somebody making visuals for their music. Find someone who’s music you really care about and put your energy into that to start off with. If you’re passionate about it, and you put in the work eventually it will grab people’s attention. If you’re lucky, you end up working with artists who appreciate what you can bring to their music and let you express yourself with freedom. I think that’s the best thing you can ask for.
‘In Plastic’ backed with a live version of ‘The Last Riddler’ is available on extremely ltd 7″ from the 8th July – http://smarturl.it/InPlastic7
Check out Bob’s work at http://bobfilmsthings.com/
Bob Gallagher’s Visual Narrative Workshop takes place at Filmbase on the 30th & 31st July 2016.
Full details here