It’s about this time of year that my thoughts turn towards Notting Hill Carnival, and more specifically, the ridiculously awesome (and frustratingly exclusive) party thrown annually by the Red Bull Music Academy Sound System. When it came time to promote the Willie Bouncing, Big n Nasty affair, the brand wisely turned to UK director Shan Phearon, who had already proved an adept hand at capturing the kinetic joy and passion of dance in last year’s Boy Don’t Break documentary. We invited Phearon to take us through the moves he pulled throughout creation process of his hybrid dance/music/promo film.
The premise was derived from about five Carnival themed treatments I’d shared with the brand over Summer. Some were more elaborate and edgy, others more minimal and mainstream in their sensibility. As an independent, when finding microbudgets subject to streamlining and tight turnaround time, taking a minimal concept and making it maximal is often the best course of action. The concept very loosely parodies trends in online dance tutorials and ‘public participation’ videos. Whilst it would have been desirable stretching budget to sound/dialogue emphasis, its moreover visual nature was spurred by some love of Jared Hess’ work. The minimal production design took on a kitsch sentiment. In my head I saw transplanting Caribbean exotica to some crappy community hall in a dead end English town where you might have some camp yet hardcore OAP reggae dancehall class happening. It may sound like a piss-take, yet that in itself is a sign that something has truly crossed over and become culturally ubiquitous.
Asked to tap into the de rigueur online format of ‘dance video’, I offered to take format and casting in a tongue-in-cheek direction. Not overtly attractive types. Not models. Not dancing models. Not models playing normal people passed off as the marketing bod’s everyman! Casting a cross-section of 20 real London characters thrown in with 4 or 5 rising British bashment queens served up the juxtapositions needed. It’s cool when an audience can view you one way with a preconceived societal notion, but watch your body attempt to move in another – I think that intrigues the psyche and I’d love to have done even more of it. Born and bred as a Londoner where Caribbean culture is strong, the clip is more about reverence than just straight vacuous irony. I often enjoy seeing urban or minority cultures shown through a peculiar lens, apparent in pieces from early Hype Williams to contemporary Vincent Haycock. It can feel almost like the product of that odd kid bathed in rap, pop and prog culture, too tenacious to fit into middle class yet too cosmo to fit into ghetto, so it ends up touching on a unique plain.
Everyone left their politics and sensitivity at the door and followed my keyword: ‘Fierce!’
I’d originally wanted to situate the clip in a large set-build space/warehouse with everything you see in the final clip super-sized for max hyperreality. To reallocate budget elsewhere on production, we thankfully were given a free location that was in turn a small, basic room and had about 10 feet of space to work with – so we adapted. Filling it with about 25 cast members, our fab production designer helped realise the self-reflexive backdrops and we shot this enthusiastic bunch in rota over 8 hours. Everyone left their politics and sensitivity at the door and followed my keyword: ‘Fierce!’
I normally shoot off storyboards, shotlists or edit together video mood boards, but here with lots of directed improv / movement yet no time afforded for rehearsals, a freer approach fit. Our top UK dancehall choreographer helped bring a sense of structure to the dancing and I would envisage this structure in acts, energy progression and spatial relationships against the guide music track within the confines of our minimal narrative premise. I’d requested a video edit of the track with 15-20 sec progressions mimicking a mental timeline for how I view one such commercial structure and took our 25 participants through their paces with zippy thinking from everyone on the team. This includes the poor DP at whom I mostly wailed “the arse, the arse, tilt down for the arse”.
With about 4 hours of footage, our lead editor at Final Cut smashed the bulk out in a day to bring it under 3 mins. Having once come from a documentary background, I love working with people who can help enforce narrative in off-the-cuff moments during these types of edits. I wanted our DP to pair the Arri Alexa 4:3 and with some Hawkes anamorphics for capturing in ArriRaw. Whilst I don’t recommend this for lower budget work as it’s quite consuming, we made it happen because our aesthetic motive was to tie in with the clip’s sense of contrasts. So our Colourist at Electric Theatre Collective punched as much contrast into the images as technically possible. Even in the red taped world of advertising, that age old adage of a creative’s actions dictated by their theme, it can still be relevant when applied with the product and audience’s best interests at heart. There are lots of lovely videos taking advantage of modern sensors for a husky look like some Ingmar Bergman hangover, and whilst it works awesome on some pieces, here I felt we needed to go the other way for light comic value and in boldness.
From shoot through to edit and grade to finally laying down motion graphics, the majority took about 4 days. Prior to this was three weeks development, planning and correlating schedules for over forty people. If you’ve ever handled both independent Director (creative) and Producer (logistics) roles simultaneously on brand projects, the process wolfs your life down 24/7 whole and you’ve little support unless you can hire that cooperative support in. During these instances your backbone has to be experience-and-results-driven-confidence, remembering you know better, even if keeping humble for diplomacy as filmmaking is dearly collaborative between everyone involved. It’s also vital to source the best and trust the people you hire, but yeah, that’s obvious.
Deep down, the creatives are as much the story as the stories they create.
When you finally produce results a client is really happy with especially within certain parameters, it’s very satisfying to know your own capability. It’s also great when you can build a relationship with any brand to the point where they can comfortably put faith in you. Deep down, the creatives are as much the story as the stories they create – they have an objective, they’re always against the odds and they make shit happen. The final clip hybridises a lineage of formats I love, whether it’s taken as a wry tutorial, a music video, a dance video, a homage piece to Carnival or a long-form commercial for Red Bull Sound System, it’s a simple bit of fun and I’m glad viewers can engage with it and join in the frolics. See you all at Carnival, I’ll be the geezer in the middle trying to bust my Top Shotta. How about you?