Exploring the nuances of gender and sexuality, Crowns & Owls make a most welcome return to the music video realm with the otherworldly Omnion for dance outfit Hercules & Love Affair. Intrigued about how they brought the skills honed in the world of fashion to bear on this beguilingly abstract journey of rebirth, DN caught up with Crowns & Owls to discuss this impressive mix of practical effects and imagination.

It’s been over a year since you last put out a music video, is the music world losing you to fashion?

We absolutely love music videos and always will. As is the case with most directors, they’re one of the biggest avenues we have of venting the things we’re inherently interested in, so we really value them as a medium. We were in a tricky position as we were desperate to come back to them, but we knew that because it had been a while we had to get a track that was right for us to reinstate ourselves as music video directors. Once Omnion came in we knew we were on.

Fashion is a huge element of what we do now as we’re shooting cinematic fashion photography as much as we’re shooting moving image, and Hercules & Love Affair provided an opportunity to work with synergy between them as Andy Butler is so embedded in both of those worlds. Omnion is the perfect example of the type of work we want to be known for, from the set design, to the lighting, to the casting and most importantly the tone – it’s been so exciting for us.

How did the commission from Hercules & Love Affair come your way?

We’ve been with Iconoclast for a little while now, and they knew that getting the right track was really important for us and the stars seemed to align when Omnion came in. Andy was really intrigued by the ‘rebirth’ concept in our treatment so we had a call with him and there was a really good vibe between us from early on. On paper, the video really required a lot of imagination to grasp as it’s such a conceptual idea but Andy got it from the offset. He’s a very creative person and was brilliant to work with – it was a pleasure to work with an artist who has such a passion for their visual output whilst being so respectful of our vision and ambition.

This is a much more abstract piece than the previous projects we’ve spoken to you about. Where did this netherworldly exploration of gender and sexuality come from?

Otherworldly atmosphere is something we’ve strived to capture in our work for a while but it’s only really been in the past year that we’ve developed a lot of the technical skills that we needed to execute some of our more conceptual ideas. Learning to work with large scale set builds in our more commercial work gave us the ability to take on ideas we wouldn’t have known where to start with in the not-too-distant past. When a song as personal and weighty as Omnion comes in, we knew we had to dig deep and deliver something different using that new knowledge.

You called in the talents of MADE Workshop for Omnion’s powerfully minimalist set design. What references encapsulated the look and feel you wanted to attain and how did the practicalities of shooting featuring into the sets they created?

The MADE guys are absolutely incredible. James Hamilton grasped exactly where we wanted to head from our initial treatment with the look and feel of the sets. It was all about the clean, graphical minimalism that could be manipulated and transformed under the saturated light we knew we wanted to implement. This aesthetic allowed us to contrast with the more ornate propping we wanted to feature in the rooms.

We looked at the work of iconic light artists such as James Turrell who uses minimal architectural elements so brilliantly in his pieces. Turrell has had some heavy referencing in recent years, most notably the Hotline Bling video, so we knew we wanted to take our design in a more theatrical direction. This lead us to Robert Wilson, who Andy also happens to be very passionate about.

Omnion is the perfect example of the type of work we want to be known for.

MADE did an amazing job at recycling elements of the set, particularly the rooms, adding different openings and apertures every time we shot them to give a feel of progression throughout the video. We shot in a studio that was about half the size of what would have been ideal, and the MADE guys did such an amazing job at making so many sets workable in such a small space.

You were keen to use practical effects for Omnion in lieu of CGI, how did you pull that off on set?

We knew that to make the stairs feel infinite we were going to have to not cheat, and really show the scale of them. We built the biggest set of stairs we could physically afford to build, and then a miniature version of them, along with the exterior of the ‘rooms’ that we see throughout – we shot these in one of our living rooms a few weeks after the day in the studio. In our wider shots you’re seeing our large scale set mixed with the miniatures. Lighting has always been a massive part of what we do as we shoot our work ourselves. Our fashion work has really given us confidence to embrace that as a big character in our work. We’ve learned the importance of lighting in ‘bedding in’ post production elements, so we put a lot of work into making sure we helped that along as much as we could, projecting caustic ripples over the stairs and adding textures to the air to get that sub-aquatic feeling.

The day on location was quite gruelling. We shot it with a skeleton crew that consisted of the three of us and our producer Luke Plaister on a micro budget. We knew we needed the reveal at the end to be a ‘wow’ moment but couldn’t afford to take a big crew up to that location with us as it’s pretty remote. It felt really good to get back to our DIY roots and get our hands properly dirty – that’s what we’re all about! A massive thank you again to our producer (Luke Plaister) for getting stuck in that day – there’s not many producers out there who will carry a heavyweight tripod up a mountain on a music video and we’re very lucky to have him!

Clearly, the practical elements you shot required seamless compositing to fully realise your vision, could you explain what steps you took the film through with Smoke & Mirrors to achieve those stunning images?

Smoke & Mirrors were so enthusiastic about the project from the get-go. Because we tried to create a purely fictional universe in which the video takes place in, the opportunity to create our own rules of how that should look seemed to really interest S&M and we had a lot of fun shaping the video in the Flame suite with Rory Whittle. They were so helpful throughout the process, guiding us throughout the process of shooting the miniature elements. Rory brought a lot to the table in adding texture and mood to the elements, as we realised the miniatures were almost too perfect once they were composited in and actually looked like they’d been build in 3D – it was fascinating to watch him work. We’re so humbled by Smoke & Mirror’s involvement in the video.

What’s next?

We have some more fashion stills work coming in, and we’re hoping Omnion will provide us more opportunities in the music video world! We also have a longer form project in its very early stages that we’re not allowed to talk about yet! We’d like to take this opportunity to thank all of the people that made the Omnion video possible – we really couldn’t have asked for a better team. Also, a huge thank you to Andy Butler for trusting us with the visuals for such a stunning track.

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