While we here at DN may have been remiss in our return invitation to hands-on filmmaker Craig Murray, he as always has remained busy bringing ever ambitious practical effects storytelling to bare on a succession of arresting music videos. In a long overdue catch up with Craig, we dig into the labour-intensive and physically challenging techniques behind his apocalyptic, past future lovers music video Unarm, created for post-everything electronic-rock outfit Ghost Against Ghost.
You’ve always been a filmmaker who experiments with techniques extensively, how easy is it to incorporate that method of working within the timescales imposed by music video deadlines?
Well I try to make things easier but as things become more ambitious things actually get more difficult. Budgets are getting higher but that means more toys and experiments. I’m not the sort of filmmaker that just pushes the films out quickly to make some money. I’m always trying to make something new so I’m trying to constantly push the boundaries but I’m well aware that my stuff is not completely original, under these timescales and budget restraints you have to sometimes borrow elements from the past. Growing up I watched tons of horror and sci-fi films so it’s kind of about recreating things and testing myself to make them work after rewinding to try and work out how they did it.
I think there needs to be a barrier in between the film and the audience to make it more filmic and less real.
I’m making music videos at the moment so I don’t actually see them as fully mine. I have to adhere to a song, a set period of time and a tone but I try my best to make it as much of an experience as possible. People don’t realise how difficult it is to make a narrative music video without foley and a score. If you watch a ‘film’ film with the sound off it’s actually hard to tell what’s happening some of the time, particularly in action sequences, which adds shots in a music video shooting schedule to describe what you can’t hear. So the downside is that I have to make my music videos more literal then I’d really like them to be.
Both the abandoned factory and underground cave locations are really impressive, how did you scout those out? Were there specific challenges to filming in those locations?
The factory location I found online and managed to secure it after a few emails and calls. We had to pay a fair bit but I think it’s worth it. Many projects have been shot there actually (Homeland, Mission Impossible, Hunger Games, Enemy at the Gates) so it’s kinda fun to see all the fake walls and rubbish left over.
The cave was outside Berlin, great location but a nightmare to shoot in. It’s a real cave and logistically very tough with our make up and green room a good 5-10 minutes walk away – depending on how much gear we carried – through more cave, although we did have power. It was also cold. Maik (the actor) really had to dig deep going into the rock pool and Virginia also for having to stay in position nude for a few hours. It was also unfortunately our first day of shooting due to it not being available another time in our schedule. I had originally planned it to be shot at the end and so it’s probably the scene I’m least happy about in the film as we were unable to get the coverage I wanted. A really rushed manic day.
We also shot in a studio to pick up some of the cave bits we missed and also in our DoP’s garage in Berlin to pick up some of the factory location as it was around -2ºC/-3ºC when we shot there.
What are you shooting on nowadays?
We shot on an FS700 with Odyssey recorder to bump it to 4K for more adaptability in post, although we did shoot a fair bit in 2K. Personally, 4K is too sharp for me so I actually down res’d some of the footage. I think there needs to be a barrier in between the film and the audience to make it more filmic and less real. 4K just looks like cheap TV for me sometimes. We shot with Canon FD-L series vintage primes and a Blackmagic Pocket for a few shots. I shot most the animation on a Canon 7D and when that broke, I ended up shooting some of the space practicals actually on my iPad 🙂
Once again your actors were willing to make themselves vulnerable, giving their all for the project. How did you cast this and what are the conversations you have ahead of shooting to convey what’s required, particularly when it comes to on screen nudity?
Virginia actually came forward as one of the model non-actors I had put out a call for when looking for the temptations but when receiving her message I just thought that this was our lead female. She hadn’t had much acting experience but I trusted her to be able to do this. The nudity aspect was mentioned in the first contact and she told me this was not a problem. Maik said the same and was my first choice for the male lead. They were willing to do anything and it actually felt like they were a couple.
As I said, it was very cold through so this was problematic at times but we just had a ton of blankets and metallic marathon sheets. It actually got too tough at times so in the end we settled for some pick ups a few months later. I had had some experience with shooting in the cold in the Lake District for Converge so some core body temperature techniques were employed by the actors.
The practical nature of your effects bring an organic quality that’s hard to replicate digitally. Could you enlighten us as to some of the techniques at work here?
Yes the film is about 90% practical and literally a test of patience. I’m no computer wizard so all the animation is just done by key framing in Premiere – yes frame by frame. I shoot the elements and then move them. The vortex was create by a load of rocks I found at the beach shot frame by frame on a turntable – I use this process a lot in my films. I then kept multiplying and rotating. All the explosions were lens flares I shot and then animated, it took months to do these sequences. The leaf veins were just moulds of interesting leaves I found, shot with soy sauce. I’ll keep the liquid iris a secret 🙂
How long did it all take to complete?
I started pre-production is Paris in February 2016. We built and shot in Berlin in April for 4 days with the actors at the locations and studio. Then we did pick ups with Virginia and Maik in August. I then continued to edit and do all the animation through the autumn and winter, finally completing in March 2017…but I don’t actually see it as taking a year as I also worked on about 6 other projects just to get by financially.
The film is about 90% practical and literally a test of patience.
How’s that minimal dialogue, 10+ hour film coming along? What’s up next for you?
Haha… Who’s gonna fund that! One day… I’m in pre-production of my first short film which is very exciting, although I think I’ve made quite a few already even though they are music videos. It’s a UK/US production and an Arthouse horror film. I’ve just completed a new film for Mogwai and I’m also preparing to launch an online shop of my artworks.