It’s always impressive when an artist envisions how their art can expand beyond its initial medium. Take Andrew Jim Gannon, AKA On Man, for example who in creating his debut album sought to create a visual counterpart to the entire project. Gannon has directed three of these videos, with the remaining three directed by Ian Roderick Gray (whose video for Worse Than It Seems was recently featured on Directors Notes). The result is a connecting visual universe which takes the themes explored within the music, in Gannon’s case the themes of trauma and surrealism, and manifests them to create something bigger than any one medium on its own. On our pages today DN is featuring Gannon’s video for United (Why Can’t We Say Enough), a single-shot psychical horror which features a couple fixed in a never-ending, violent embrace. It’s a great example of just one facet of Gannon’s thematic vision as it particularly highlights the strange precision that permeates all his work. We also joined Gannon for a conversation you can read below where he breaks down the structure and intent of this video in addition to its place amongst his wider canon of work.
What is your vision for the visual world of On Man’s music? From speaking with Ian Roderick Gray and now yourself, it seems like there’s a real interest in bringing the music to life through an aesthetic.
I knew quite soon into recording the On Man album that I wanted a rich visual world to accompany it and I’m grateful to all involved that we ended up with just that. There are six videos for the album campaign in total, three directed by Ian Roderick Gray and three directed by me, plus an animated visualiser for each song, created by the digital artist, Salvi De Sena. So… a lot of visuals!
Although the narratives and aesthetics differ between each of the videos and visualisers, I wanted to give the feeling that they could all, in some way, belong in the same universe. There are some recurring themes that permeate all the visuals: mutations, often some kind of strange, unexpected violence; people or not-quite people finding each other in some way. A lot of the music in the album explores notions of grief and the disruption of the sense of self when you experience trauma; I think the mutations, violence and surreality that shape the videos represent that in different ways. But hopefully, buried within all that, there is still some hope!
Where do you see the video for United fitting in amongst those themes?
United (Why Can’t We Say Enough) is probably the least ‘mutation-y’ of all the videos, with the characters themselves not growing any strange appendages or body parts in awkward places. However, I do like to think of the room the characters are in as a kind of mutant space: the inhuman scale; the absence of a way for the humans to get into the room. And then the action itself is also not quite human, that they are locked in position at the macro scale but you can still see them breathing, blinking.
Although the narratives and aesthetics differ between each of the videos and visualisers, I wanted to give the feeling that they could all, in some way, belong in the same universe.
The song only has one line “why can’t we say enough” and it was written as a non-dialogue between two people who have found themselves in a position they never expected, both of them trying, and failing, to communicate, both of them asking the same question over and over again without getting an answer. I took this theme and ran with it for the video. I imagined the characters plucked from the life they knew and waking up to find themselves in this strange space, facing each other, connected, united, in a violent, mutually destructive position, through love, history, and blood.
The visual construction of the couple in the video is almost akin to a painting, was there any specific imagery you drew on when orchestrating how they would look?
The imagery was inspired by a page in the collage book, Une Semaine de Bonté (A Week of Kindness) by Max Ernst, which is this incredible, surreal dreamscape of a book that he created in the 1920s. It doesn’t have a narrative as such but could maybe be considered the first graphic novel, with hundreds of incredibly vivid pictures organised by themes and symbols. The page in question has a half-bird-half-human man stabbing a naked woman in the foot. It’s an arresting image. I wanted to even out the power balance somewhat, so I decided to have them both stabbing each other.
I sketch a lot and find it a useful process to work out ideas and themes for any of my visual work. My long-suffering neighbours, Anthony and Jane, were my models for an afternoon as I sketched and put them in different positions to work out which would make the best combination of stabbing.
The location is key too. The couple are in this isolated space where they’re forced to face each other. How did you find it and what were you looking for from your location?
We knew location would be key for this to work and scouted various places, including a town hall, an old paper mill and an oil refinery. The space we ended up using, an ex-meat-packing factory, happened to be located right next to the recording studios where some of the writing sessions for the album took place, in an old industrial estate in Kings Cross. That seemed like a good sign. It had the blank look I was after but it also had intriguing details and the hint of a forgotten ‘function’ about it. It was clinical but also derelict and characterful. And absolutely huge. That also meant it was absolutely freezing, as we shot this at the end of November on a bitterly cold day. There was no heating or power, apart from the overhead lights. We were very grateful it was a relatively short shoot!
How was the casting process with your actors, was there anything from them that you were particularly searching after?
The first person to be cast was the incredible Keeley Forsyth. I’d seen her in Happy Valley and so knew that she could bring the intensity and stillness that the role required. She is also a brilliant recording artist in her own right, having made two beautiful albums herself, and that innate understanding of music only helped in the process. I’m so glad she agreed to get involved. It took a while to find the right person to match with Keeley but I eventually found him in Martin Edwards who, like Keeley, has a fantastic ability to project an intense stillness. He is also a writer and educator and was incredibly helpful when discussing and developing the backstory to the characters.
Who did you work with for the visual effects of the stabbing? It looks so natural in the frame but achieving that level of simplicity is often not as easy as it appears.
Unsurprisingly, neither actor wanted to be stabbed for real, so we set about developing the props and special effects. I was lucky to have this overseen by Aaron and Maralyn Sherman who, between them, have worked on some iconic projects including Brazil, The Northman, Captain America and World War Z. Even though it’s a simple-looking effect, there was a lot of discussion in pre-production of what would be the right approach. What size knife? Should it drip blood? If so, we’d need a blood rig, which, as we were circling the actors, would be tricky to hide. Should it have plates to hold the knife sections in place?
There were various tests done but we went for a simple glued-in-place approach in the end. This had a slightly higher risk of failure on the day but, with budget and time considerations, it made sense. It also meant we didn’t have to make a cast of Keeley’s hand. It took a few takes on the shoot to make sure the blade coming out of the hand was perfectly aligned with the handle, as they were completely unconnected, and there were some issues with the fake blood interfering with the stickiness of the glue, but we got there in the end.
Similarly, the cinematography is very acute and controlled, what was the thought process behind it?
In terms of cinematography, there wasn’t much the DoP Pablo Rojo could do with the lights. I didn’t want any direct lights from behind the camera, so all of the lights were just the overhead fluorescent lights in the ceiling. It was more about the positioning of the actors to catch the light as best we could. Pablo decided to shoot on an Alexa Mini with an 18mm Cooke S4 lens, which was wide enough to take in all of that cavernous space. It was on a Steadicam piloted by Jess Doxey and we did a number of test runs from different angles and different heights as the camera snakes towards the couple. We deliberately played with the focus as we approached the subjects to keep that long push-in dynamic and interesting.
I animated the shape of the mask in After Effects to dynamically reflect where I wanted the focus to be, like a constantly changing aspect ratio.
We shot at 2.5k and 50fps as I wanted the flexibility to play with the timing in post, slowing down the action to linger on any specific expressions or details, speeding up for the long approach or to hit a musical mark. I never took it to full speed though. At its fastest, I limited it to around 40-45 fps, to give it a hyper-real quality but without that typical slow-mo music video effect.
I wanted to ask about the ever-changing frame too, was the idea to use it to focus in on certain moments as the camera glides closer?
Although I loved the big space, it was so huge that it was actually swallowing up and drawing focus away from the characters. I’d recently come across an old German expressionist film Die Bergkatze (The Wild Cat) directed by Ernst Lubitsch which uses brilliant multi-shape frame masks. I took that approach but, as it is a one-shot with a constantly changing focus and composition, I animated the shape of the mask in After Effects to dynamically reflect where I wanted the focus to be, like a constantly changing aspect ratio. Hopefully the viewer is still aware of the space but with the mask in place is more able to focus on the characters. I also wanted the mask to contribute to the sense of pressure and intensity that the characters are under.
It’s so fascinating to hear about all these artistic choices and the time and effort that went into the look of United. It highlights how much work goes into executing something so seemingly minimal that is actually a work of great precision. Were there any other final touches that went into the edit?
Puff Pisanwalerd, who did an amazing job on the VFX in Worse Than It Seems, and who has since gone on to work on Dr Strange in The Multiverse of Madness and Ms Marvel, came in to delete the doors and some other small touch-ups to create this subtly surreal, entry and exit-less space, locking the characters into their confinement. And finally it was graded by Jonny Tully, who pushed the blues and teals and cropped the dynamic range to give it an oppressive feel. I wanted the imagery to feel as cold as it actually was on the shoot day but still see that the characters are sweating from the intensity of the situation.
What’s next, both musically and film project-wise, for On Man and yourself?
The main focus right now for On Man is the release of the album, which is coming out today. It’s been a long time coming, so it will be great to see it out there. There will be some follow-up films post-release and some other music stuff that I can’t spill the beans on right now but I’m pretty excited by it all. I’m seeing how a live show could work, and I also have some production and writing for other artists on the slate, which will be fun. Other than music, I’m working on some visual art and small film-based projects that have been on hold while I’ve been focused on the album, so I’m looking forward to having a bit of time to develop those.