Here at DN we’ve always been big fans of Director Ian Pons Jewell’s continuously ambitious music videos. We’ve spoken with him on a number of occasions to discuss how he approaches the process of visualising the music of an artist. He’s also often talked about how he’s not afraid of working with those who may be deemed controversial in the public eye too, demonstrating an eloquent perception in separating his role as a director from the viewpoint of his clients. This approach is apparent in Blasphemy his latest music video for Coldxman (the musical alter ego of Podcaster Coleman Hughes), an artist whose outspoken opinions have garnered much discussion. DN caught up with Jewell to discuss the thrill of recreating a heated political environment, producing work that conveys both sides of a discussion, and his ongoing battle to improve music video contracts for filmmakers.
What intrigued you about working with Coldxman and particularly his song Blasphemy?
He told me he was making music, then sent the track and I was really amazed by it. For one, it was directly related to his congressional hearing talk. I’m fascinated by politics in general, so making a video that was spun out from that was a rare opportunity. But also the fact that he includes his critics’ point of view with the opposing debater. I felt this was important so it wasn’t just a video about his own point of view. Obviously, it’s mainly coming from his camp but having a segment that includes opposing thoughts to his makes the track and the video a snapshot of its time.
I was also drawn to the fact this video is his transition from one world into another. I knew it would take a lot of people by surprise, him being seen as a podcaster/writer/polarising figure, to music artist. I think I’m particularly drawn to making an artist’s first video for this reason, it’s a completely different experience than doing one that will be added to their existing collection.
Obviously it’s mainly coming from his camp, but having a segment that includes opposing thoughts to his makes the track and the video a snapshot of its time.
How did you look to replicate the setting of a congressional hearing on a production level? Who did you work with in bringing that environment to life?
This was always there from the start, the challenge of representing this very particular space. Initially, I tried to find generic official looking halls, but it was tough to find something that would work. If money was no issue, I could get a big enough space and fill it with hundreds of people. But it had to be a space that would work for the number of extras we could afford. In the end, the locations manager sent this incredible Circus location as an idea and it was perfect. It had a central area where I could have Coleman and his opposite, plus a central area where we could build the politicians area. Then the fact it has the steeped chairs for the audience, made it far more powerful of an image than if you could only see a few rows deep, which is the case on flat ground. It was also a great space creatively, to have the circus of politics happening in an actual circus.
Similar question, the visual effects are outstanding. Was it always on the cards for those VFX moments to be a major part of the story you were telling?
VFX aren’t something I think of as “VFX”. Though they are quite prominent and your mind goes toward them being VFX, it’s just a tool with which to make the images I can see in my mind when I watch the video. VFX is sometimes invisible, the crowd for example has been tiled in various shots, as we didn’t have enough to fill the space for real. There’s then also visual effect work done cleaning up some sheets that were on chairs. If we take the bullet, it is the scene I could see in my mind as I listened to the track, but it’s an image that I couldn’t do justice with an in-camera technique, so it happens to be a full CGI moment.
How was it working with Coldxman on set and collaborating with him as a performer?
An absolute pleasure. He is incredibly respectful, but most importantly had total trust in me and my team. I didn’t need to constantly update him on every detail, such as why a shot needed to be changed. We would just talk about the overall essence of the video. In terms of performance, he was superb and also able to keep working through the literally freezing cold weather in Kyiv in December.
You’ve spoken very eloquently about the potential controversy of working with an artist like Coldxman and creating work with people that don’t completely align with your own political viewpoint. How do you personally manage the passionate reaction some of your work has garnered?
I’m well aware of how controversial he is and had my fair share of anxieties about what the reaction would be. But I approached it like any other project, to embody the artist and the music. In music videos, I give a lot of myself, but lyrically I’m not involved, my job is visualising or worldyfying the artist’s song. I’m definitely drawn to his independent nature and I think the idea of Blasphemy isn’t only related to the topics he tackles. This really drew me. There is literal censorship now during this pandemic. People who speak their minds that aren’t aligned with the dominant narrative can get a heretic-like status. Information that isn’t WHO aligned will get removed from social media platforms. There is a stranglehold on discussion of these policies, caused by fear of social reprisal for speaking out, or literal censorship by the state/big tech. The idea of Blasphemy is a strong one that can reflect many different topic areas and the normalisation of censorship of various forms. Be it self-censorship or the literal form.
In music videos, I give a lot of myself, but lyrically I’m not involved, my job is visualising or worldyfying the artist’s song.
In terms of potential negative reactions toward work for controversial figures or work that is generally ‘controversial’, I don’t generally think about this, or it would stop me in my tracks. I don’t make things in order to be controversial, but there’s always potential to look like it. I’ve made a commercial that caused a client to lose their job, another in which the ad agency had their account threatened to be taken away, some Nike spots that ended up being canned due to their graphic nature and my first ever music video had me receive accusations of being a satanist by a tonne of French commenters on DailyMotion. If I thought too much about viewer reactions, much of my work wouldn’t exist, but I also have a wide range of wonderful supporters who like my work. So far, the reactions have been incredible toward this video, but I’m sure there will also be people who won’t enjoy it at all. I completely understand the opposing views on Coleman, in the same way I understand Coleman and others who share his views. My focus was on making a great music video that would capture his music.
DN has spoken to you a number of times about your work, which ranges from shorts to music videos to commercials, do you think you have an approach to filmmaking that overlaps in each of these forms?
Whenever someone tells me they saw something I made and knew it was mine before I posted it myself, is always a big deal for me. It is a really magical thing to hear. That I communicated myself to someone through the multitude of variables in film like shot angles, edit pace, tone, etc. is the dream. So I guess this is my approach, not compromising and feeling free in each medium to approach it in the way I would any piece of film.
Was there anything you specifically learned in making Blasphemy that you’ll take into future work?
To keep making music videos! It had been a while, they really take every inch of you, but it’s nearly always worth the blood and sweat. Impossible without my insanely talented crew.
That I communicated myself to someone through the multitude of variables in film like shot angles, edit pace, tone, etc. is the dream.
You’ve recently been vocal about the need to update music video contracts to be more in favour for creators like yourself. What are the issues found in current music video contracts?
Contracts for music videos aren’t dissimilar to contracts for commercials. They both assume similar things, the creator has no ownership, they are paid for their services in creating the video. The problem is that on the budgets music videos have, often 10K-15K total, the creators of these videos are working for free, pulling favours and often investing their own money into the project. So this needs to have some sort of reflection in the contract.
As an example, one of the videos I did for a major label had a budget of 25K. Me and the production company then matched this with another 25K. The service company added 10K. The VFX company that I have a great relationship with brought 200K’s worth of VFX labour for no charge. Then the team working on it did cut rates, some of the heads of department not even taking a fee. So to summarise, that’s 25K from the label, for a video with a true cost of about 350K, 35K of which is actual hard cash investment. The video is then owned by the label and I can’t even upload it to Instagram as I don’t have that right. This is normal, but it shouldn’t be, it’s absolutely insane. You can then argue that the label didn’t require me, my crew and the VFX company to invest, but that is just the nature of music videos and the hunger directors have to create great work and the benefits that videos bring them. If I didn’t work on that video, someone else would have and at the very least brought a tonne of free or discounted labour.
What changes would you like to see implemented?
Crediting isn’t currently contracted, so despite the investment you might bring, the video can go out without credit cards on the front or back of the video. For me this is such an important change, to have crew credits normalised in the video as cards on the back at the very least. It teaches the music fans that a filmmaker and their team made what they’re watching. If you ask a regular music fan how they think a video was made, they’ll often think it’s the artist’s team, they have no idea there are music video directors.
Another thing is use of footage. Let’s take the previous example in which me and the production company put in 25K on top. We should have at least a 50% right of ownership to the footage in the case of the video not being used. That would mean our investment is safe in the event of the video being canned, I could repurpose the footage. I have a friend, James Lees, who made a stunning video years ago, the band canned it and the label/band wouldn’t even allow him to re-use it with another track despite his investment, free labour, etc. This beautiful video I got to see, doesn’t exist in the world and never will, due to the contract.
If you ask a regular music fan how they think a video was made, they’ll often think it’s the artist’s team, they have no idea there are music video directors.
Another thing in the contract update is director’s cuts, ensuring a director can make one. Ultimately the label owns the video and can end up doing all sorts in the edit, though for the most part everyone is trying to make a great video, things can happen and a video will end up different from how it was planned. If a director and production company invest, they should be able to show their original vision which is what they initially invested in.
Lastly, we have a clause in there which allows for a director to show the video in the event of the release being delayed. This will be a contentious clause, probably one that won’t be adopted on all projects, but there are people who have made videos that aren’t officially canned but end up not releasing for such a long period of time that they become useless to the creator as their reel has grown already since the video happened. For example, imagine a director/production company investing into a video and it then ends up not releasing for a year. They have spent a couple months on a project, invested money, used up all their favours for a while, then have nothing to show for it. They are then without a new piece of work, in a fickle industry that has a goldfish like memory. It can burn a director and put a huge brake on their momentum. Also, a label could say the video isn’t canned, to avoid the footage being used, but just never release the video, keeping it in a forever state of non-release. The Ye video I did isn’t officially canned, but hasn’t ever released, who knows if it’ll come out. But, I was paid half-decently, so it’s different. I’m still in hope it will one day release.
What will you be working on next?
Feature films. Have one written already, but don’t want to put too much down here in case I jinx it. I think I once confidently talked about making a feature in one of our interviews and the film didn’t happen in the time I imagined, haha! But that is taking my near full focus this year, along with a bunch of other things. Quite a lot on, I need a break honestly, I’m my own worst enemy in that regard. But I have a short film and another music video finished and out soon…