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 new 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):
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 gorilla filming."
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
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
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 super16mm - 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
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
(go to collaborators for more information on Douglas McCarthy.