Creating a film which places an audience in the headspace of someone with a condition like ADHD is no easy task but, with the guidance and intimate collaboration of rap artist Säye Skye, Director Sina Dolati does exactly that. Skye, a unique transgender Iranian artist and activist for the LGBTQ community, challenges deep rooted stereotypes in his rap and when Dolati was looking for his next filmmaking challenge he was immediately drawn to the chance to work with him. Dolati wanted to both highlight the taboo of mental health issues in the Iranian mainstream and draw in new audiences for Skye’s work. The resulting music video ADHD is an impressively creative endeavour, blending reality with science fiction, abstract imagery, the mundanity of a doctor’s office and much more all within a jam-packed 4.5 minutes. Originally conceived as a VR/360 experience, Dolati later meticulously recrafted the video into the frenetic 2D version you can watch below – a feat made all the more impressive given the project’s humble $500 budget. DN invited Dolati to join us for a chat about making the first ever 360/VR Iranian rap video, why he chose to later mould the project into a more accessible 2D version and how the intuitive, neurodiverse observations of Skye in the edit room made the project exactly what it is today.
How did you come to be working with the astonishing Säye Skye?
I wanted to find Iranian musicians and artists to collaborate with on a music video as I wanted to touch base with my own Iranian roots and also bring some creativity to the Iranian music video market, which I found stale and mainstream. I had found out about Säye Skye through his music video TNE, his vision was fresh and his lyrics were socially conscious and unlike anything else I’ve heard in the Iranian music market. I thought working with him would be a great opportunity to help strengthen his voice within the Iranian community as well as make something creative enough to be noticed beyond Farsi speaking audiences. With both of us being based in Toronto, I messaged him on Instagram and it all flowed from there.
Säye played me a few of his upcoming songs and ADHD in particular grabbed my attention. It was fun, upbeat, and the subject matter was untouched in popular Iranian media. We discussed so many different ideas, and after unfortunately missing a grant opportunity we realised we had a budget of roughly $500. This made it difficult to create anything substantial enough in terms of production value and execution to stand out from some of the amazing work that’s coming out from other emerging directors but, why not?
He always spoke about it as a superpower which quickly became a recurring theme in the video.
Where did the process take you after your initial idea brainstorming to arrive at the concept for the video we see now?
From the very beginning we had one main concept in mind, to have multiple versions of Säye performing the song around an imagined central point of view. So much of the concept was derived from Säye’s own experiences with the condition so we wanted lots of camera movement portraying the difficulty in focussing which is a common symptom of the condition. He always spoke about it as a superpower which quickly became a recurring theme in the video.
At the time, I was fresh out of my Masters in Media Production program, where I had focused on 360 video and VR filmmaking. I learnt that in 360 filmmaking you strip away a lot of the machinery that’s involved. There isn’t as much room in the physical space to create immaculate lighting setups for each shot and so camera movement is replaced by viewer agency which we tried to use to our advantage. We decided to create a 360 video allowing the viewer to embody that perspective either with a VR headset or by moving their phone or computer cursor around. I didn’t want a single point of focus in the video, there is constant action happening around you and Säye’s performance energy, sense of style, and energetic choreography also played a major role in creating something special. We decided later to convert it into a 2D flat video to allow for more innovative cinematic angles in post.
I didn’t want a single point of focus in the video, there is constant action happening around you.
With your limited budget, how did you go about shooting everything you needed for the project?
Säye took on a producing role and friends gave us a hand on set. Much of the production was improvised as we went along. I owned a very basic 360 camera at the time, the Samsung Gear 360 (2017 model) which is by no means a professional industry standard 360 camera but we went for it anyway. I also owned some small LED lights, and we were able to rent a few Astera PixelTubes at a discounted rate (thank you Canada Film Equipment), and that was all the equipment we had.
We had to plan out the video’s narrative, which essentially came down to thinking of what locations we could access at little to no cost and we ended up with four sequences at four very different locations with their own set of aesthetics. The idea was to have Säye perform different sections of the song in different spots around the camera, and I would stitch the footage together to create one long scene that looks like a single shot (so in reality each location had 5-6 shots, and a few takes were done for each). All the production was done in 2 days.
Do you think you lost anything when converting the 360 video into a 2D version?
The original 360 version was an immersive experience, while the 2D version is a cinematic one. I don’t think anything was lost necessarily, each are two very different videos. We had to sacrifice certain elements in the 2D version since we had to choose where the camera lands at any given point. In the VR version the viewer can look around and discover something new on every viewing because we planted so much in each scene. The 2D version is a more unified experience, although there is still a lot going on and I think people would want to watch it multiple times.
The original 360 version was an immersive experience, while the 2D version is a cinematic one.
We got a lot of great feedback on the VR version but there were people who couldn’t figure out the 360 aspect on their phones or computer. Since many people don’t have VR headsets at home the 2D version solves this problem and takes you on a journey while you can sit back and enjoy. I think both Säye and I ultimately like the 2D version more; it feels like the final evolution of the project, and we’re really excited about what it achieves in terms of cinematic innovation.
Your scenes are absorbingly chaotic and you can really see the consideration behind each one. Can you highlight one scene for us and the method behind it?
The scene highlighting Säye in all his different forms splitting up in a room was probably the craziest scene in the video that took the longest to finalize in post. With this scene I wanted to create something that was close to modern music videos with PixelTube lighting and stylish aesthetics, but with our own twists. Every version of Säye takes on a different mood (amped up, anxious, distracted, etc.), most of the lyrics are acted out comedically and on top of that, we have an entirely different sequence playing on the TV.
Between the 1960-70s, some of the most prominent Iranian filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami were making their first short films and cartoons as part of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults which had a major cultural impact at the time in Iran. Much of this content is lost but a lot of low quality segments can still be found on the internet. Before the shoot, I spent a good week hunting these films and collected a few hours of footage. I chose a few minutes of the best footage and planned certain angles for Säye to perform the song in front of a green screen, to later insert into the short films. These segments were also shot on the Panasonic GH5 by Shaq Hosein. A montage of Säye performing the song inside these short films was then masked onto the TV, both as a homage to an older generation of Iranian artists, as well as a way to convey a taboo-breaking rendition of these children’s cartoons with modern themes of dealing with mental health.
Considering what you were aiming to do by showing all the different sides of Säye and then later converting the VR/360 into 2D, how did your editing process work?
Given that the project was produced on a very low budget, I had to edit it part time in my free hours which took over a year and a good 250-300 hours. All of the editing and VFX were done in Premiere Pro, except for a few additional elements that were created in After Effects by Hamed Gholinasab. I was learning as I went along. In the beginning, I didn’t have a full image of how the video was going to look like by the end, and we were working on it until the video felt complete.
The first task was to stitch everything together and create the illusion of multiple Säyes all performing alongside each other, which was a big challenge in itself. Despite our efforts on set, there were still a lot of moments where two shots would be clashing (as in two Säyes overlapping each other in the image) and I would have to spend a lot of time manually rotoscoping those shots to create a clean overlay. Once I had that in place, things got interesting.
The next phase was a lot of experimenting to make each scene stand out, and since this was all initially created as a 360 video, that was a whole new process. Simple elements like having the UFO appear from the sky with realistic movement and dimensions without distortion would each take many hours to figure out. It’s noteworthy that the film grain layer that I placed over the video, and color grading choices such as the first scene being in black and white really helped in covering up the low fidelity of the video footage shot on a consumer level 360 camera. These gave the project a purposeful vintage look in its final form.
The project was very collaborative between us and it taught me a lot about finding creative intersection with other creative minds.
Once I had the basis of the video in place, Säye and I would often sit down together in the edit room as we pushed to complete the project. Säye would watch the video and his ADHD mind would often point out sections that were too slow or a little boring. So many of these final polishes and details made the video what it is and they are the result of meeting Säye’s craving for a constantly moving fast-paced video. All in all the project was very collaborative between us and it taught me a lot about finding creative intersections with other creative minds and discovering a result that’s greater than the sum of its parts.
We had submitted the project to film festivals that accept immersive work over the course of 2021. In November of that year we had our festival premiere at the Geneva International Film Festival (GIFF), where hundreds of audience members had the chance to experience the piece with a VR headset. The feedback was fantastic and it was a great experience, but we felt that because of the VR format, it was alienating many audience members and the project wasn’t getting the attention it deserved at more festivals.
Around that time, I was experimenting with the GoPro FX Reframe plug-in, which allows you to add keyframed animations to 360 videos with many different parameters. After GIFF, I tried out the plug-in with the 360 version of ADHD for fun and created the opening sequence of the 2D version, (with a tiny planet shot expanding and the canted angle of the UFO arriving). This blew me away and I thought we could simulate a lot of different cinematic camera angles and movements, almost as if we were using a game engine but with live action video. A 2D version would be much more accessible for audiences to access online and at film festival screenings. Over the next few weeks, I continued adding keyframed animation and camera movement, which was a lot of experimenting to see what feels aesthetically pleasing while emphasizing key narrative beats. On some level, these added animations hide the fact that the video was shot on a 360 camera, which I think added to the magic. A lot of interesting canted angles, dolly-ins, whip transitions, and so on, while in reality the camera is just sitting there.
Finally, I’m sure people will be keen to find out if you were able to stick to your incredibly ambitious $500 budget?
We pooled our resources together to make it happen, and shooting on a 360 camera actually helped with this, providing us with an innovative and alternative way to add production value. The budget went towards renting a few additional lights, a few props, food, transportation, and renting the green screen studio, which was located at a co-working space where I had a membership all of which helped offset the costs. On top of the $500, additional funds were put into submitting the project to festivals and online platforms later on.