You guys are in for a treat.
David Wilson is the man responsible for gracing our eyes with music videos like The Maccabees’ “Pelican”, Metronomy’s “The Bay”, Keaton Henson’s “Charon” (co-directed with Henson and John Malcolm Moore), Moray McLaren’s “We Got Time,” and last but not least, Tame Impala’s “Mind Mischief.” He’s definitely got an eye for creating psychedelic worlds that reflect the cycles of life and death. So in case you haven’t noticed, David is one of the most accomplished and talented music video/commercial directors working today and he’s a filmmaker you should look out for in the future.
I really can’t articulate how excited and grateful I am for this email interview that I conducted with David a couple of days ago. I’ll admit, some of my questions were underprepared, but I was surprised at how quickly David responded to my request for this interview, considering how busy he is. Here, David talks about his experiences with working in the industry and his creative process with such insight and sincerity, which leads me to believe that he’s awesome as a human being as he is a filmmaker.
So without further ado, please enjoy!
According to an interview you did at the The Loft about 3 years ago, you got your big break after assisting directors for a year at a production company called Blinkink. You also got recognition from your animated shorts that you uploaded on YouTube. What would you say was the more helpful in getting your career started?
I would say that joining Blinkink was more helpful in getting my career started. But then I wouldn’t been able to join Blinkink if I hadn’t have made those animated shorts. It wasn’t something that I was doing in tandem, at the same time. I did the animated shorts, they got me noticed, I got signed with Blinkink and then we started making films together and that got me more recognition.
How difficult was it to get representation?
I guess I was very fortunate in the fact that everything happened very quickly for me. The main thing that I found when I was studying was about half way through the second year, I had this sinking feeling and realization and reality that this amount of creativity may not last forever and probably wouldn’t last forever. And so I should try everything in my power to start working professionally, but without any kind of weight on finance. I only take on projects and competitions that I got excited about. Some of them paid, some of them didn’t. The competitions didn’t pay, obviously, but it was making sure that I was doing something that wouldn’t just sit in a portfolio and never been seen, that it had it kind of had a wider reach. That’s why competitions are important to me, but at the same time, I wouldn’t be doing something just to tick boxes. I’d wanna do something that excited me, and it was doing those projects that excited me that people kind of acknowledged and kind of took as something that was very exciting about what I did.
So in terms of getting represented, [Bart Yates] from Blinkink found my work at an exhibition that I did as part of the University of Brighton when I studied illustration, and so we started talking from there. And it was more that I was invited into the building at Blinkink and decided to never leave. I just started showing up every morning and then when you’re around, people consider you for these little jobs and then you start doing all of these little jobs because often with production companies, commercial production companies, they like to help their friends out at advertising agencies who are doing small, little personal projects or small projects that need a director to further their thoughts. So they can’t afford big directors, but maybe they can afford a little assistant or the little assistant would love to help them out and that’s essentially where I started until it developed into me making music videos. Sorry, that was a long winded answer because it wasn’t straightforward representation. I didn’t find it that difficult to get represented, but I never was a full-on director from the get-go. I got brought in to the Blinkink office for about a year, a year and a half before I got officially represented by them.
The music video that you did for Moray Mclaren’s “We Got Time” was an amazing piece that used praxinoscopes throughout the video. What was the idea/inspiration for using praxinoscopes?
So again, going back to doing these competition things, I got asked by the YCN, the Young Creative Network, to be involved in a project they were doing for the beer company, Beck’s, where they got different young illustrators, recent graduates, to create a piece of artwork live on webcam within the length of a song. And with a whole variety of different songs, but they’re all 4 minutes long, and so I decided to be a part of that, but I was so into creating moving images and making my drawings move, that I didn’t want to be pigeonholed by just creating a static image. So I researched what would be the best thing I could make to make a moving image that could be seen on a webcam. So my immediate thought was zoetropes, but they’re so difficult to see sometimes, and then found the praxinoscope […] Bart from Blinkink saw that and was like, “Oh! I wanna be making a music video for my brother in law who’s getting married to my sister, and I love this idea of the praxinoscopes and can you do a music video based around that? And I will fund it and pull strings to get the best DoP I possibly can and the best crew we can possibly assemble to make this a reality.” So it all sprang from doing that little competition, but you know, being friends with Bart at that time and being in the Blinkink office and him paying attention, I guess.
You were able to shoot Metronomy’s “The Bay” and Tame Impala’s “Mind Mischief” on 35mm film. How did you convince the music labels and the production company to shoot the video in that format?
I won the “Best Budget Video” at the UK MVA’s in 2009 for Moray Mclaren’s “We Got Time,” and with that, I won this little voucher that meant that I was allowed to shoot a project of my choice on 16mm film, whether that’d be music video or a short film, and so I had that in my back pocket for about 2 years waiting for the right project and then when Metronomy’s “The Bay” came in, I decided that was the one to use it on. We got in touch with the guys that gave us the voucher and what we found was like cashing in the voucher and then using the money that we would’ve paid for hiring a digital camera, we could upgrade to shooting 35mm film. So that’s what we did there, which was amazing and it completely transformed that project.
I love shooting on film, and it really lifts anything. I was just watching my Lady Gaga O2 piece the other day, and as much as I like it, that piece would’ve been so much more beautiful shot on film, especially when you’re dealing with beauty work. It just needs it. The camera sees the image like your eye does and the depth of the colors is exquisite.
Tame Impala’s “Mind Mischief”… This is a kind of weird story because I wrote it into the treatment. I was very excited about it. Also, half the video is animated, so in terms of film, the real expense comes from the amount of film stock that you burn through. We didn’t burn through that much because we were only shooting 2 1/2 minutes rather than 4 minutes of film. And then I had to be very frugal with what I shot, but also, it was at the time when Kodak was shutting down and so we were able to get a deal on the film. As the film department was being shut down, we were able to get a deal on the film itself, which was wonderful. I didn’t need to convince the record labels of this at all because they were into the idea. Metronomy, it didn’t cost them anything and Tame Impala, we had a few other costs like animation costs a lot as well. And so we actually ended up collaborating with Ubran Outfitters to get the extra money, something I was very happy to do. All they wanted was to create a “making of” to go alongside the piece, which we did. And that was the result. There was extra costs on “Mind Mischief” anyway, that little bit extra for film didn’t end up being the straw that broke the camel’s back, so that was fun.
How often do you shoot on film and how difficult is it when it comes to convincing people to shoot your videos in that format?
The answer is, I don’t shoot on film as often as I would like. The reason being is that I think it’s ridiculously difficult to convince people for something that is proportionally not that large a cost. It does cost more, it is more expense, but what you get from it is worth its weight in gold, in my opinion; both through the discipline of shooting and through the quality of the image. On my last commercial project, we ended up being in discussions over that budget for 2 and 1/2 weeks until it got to the stage where I was gonna lose the job unless I step down from shooting on film, which was very frustrating. And it’s especially frustrating when, you know, say you have to fly somewhere or you have to be put up in a hotel.
From my perspective, I’d be more than happy to sleep in a campsite rather than a hotel if it meant that I was able to shoot on film. And it’s frustrating when you work on projects when financiers don’t work like that when it isn’t just getting a big pot of money and you shifting the money around to make it work the best way for the project. Music videos work like that, which is great and it’s the way that things should. Other projects don’t, but there’s pools of money assigned for different things and it isn’t so fluid. And I find that as a director very frustrating, but that’s another discussion.
Going back to “Mind Mischief,” it was one my favorite music videos of last year. I understand that the video was inspired by the image you had of a bum walking down a hallway. What were your other influences in making that video, if any?
For the animation, it was hugely inspired by this fantastic animation called “The Oriental Nightfish”, which was a music video for Paul McCartney and Linda McCartney and it was directed by Ian Emes and that had a big inspiration on the look of the animation that actually came after I wrote the script. The rest of it, I was inspired by the fact that I spent a few weeks out in America and then when I came back, the crack came in. I was hugely inspired by the freshness of seeing what was on our doorstep in England and often how that isn’t used to its full advantage of us having these unique places of natural beauty and these wonderful public schools that are these ridiculously grand buildings. So that all merged together.
“Mind Mischief” had a lot of sexual and psychedelic imagery. How difficult was it in getting the band or the music label to agree with your artistic vision?
I wrote the treatment, I sent it off, and I said to myself, “Well that’s another music video treatment that I’m gonna lose.” I didn’t actually think it was gonna win because of the sexual content and the drug references, and then much to my surprise, the band came back immediately and said that they loved it! Didn’t need any convincing at all, weren’t concerned about anything. Pretty much gave me free reign to do stuff, which was great.
Since some of your music videos feature animation, how flexible are the music labels when it comes to submitting those types of music videos as quickly as possible, given the amount time and effort that it takes to get them done?
There’s a reason why last year I only made one music video. I kind of classed last year as making one music video because we finished Tame Impala so early in 2013 by the middle of January. And the other one was for Arctic Monkeys. Arctic Monkeys was a specific request for having animation in there, but the main reason why I haven’t done any more was because I’m constantly writing. I’m constantly writing ideas and because of the quick turn around and sometimes the budget issues. I write the ideas with the best intentions of going, “Right we’ve got two weeks to get this done.” But I’m gonna submit this treatment and say, “Please give us three.” And if we don’t get three or, you know, sometimes I’ll say, “Please give us four” because sometimes it needs that extra time. And if we don’t get that extra time, c’est la vie, that’s it, never mind.
It’s much better to go into a project with a very clear vision of making it absolutely awesome and losing it than going in with like, “Well, I had to water all this down in order to get it done in two weeks and make an average video.” I just don’t want to make an average video to the extent that I prefer to lose a video than make an average one. That sounds pretty ridiculous, but especially financially when music videos do not fund you, you kind of get a token that can pay your rent, but especially now I’m working in commercials, I feel I’m more in that privileged position of being able to go, “It’s all or nothing,” which I feel very lucky to be in but also it’s a formula that’s worked for me so far, I guess. I always stick to the guns of “it’s better to put out two music videos in a year that kick ass rather than four that are just average.”
When you do hand-drawn animated films, do you do all of them on pen tablet or do you sketch them out and scan them?
I used to do my personal work all hand drawn and then scan them in. When I do animated films, I work with a team. I’m a director, so the majority of those are all done on pen and tablet. I just acquired a tablet called a Cintiq 13 HD which allows you to draw on the screen, so I’m starting to do some animation where I draw straight on to the computer screen, but it’s kind of killing me. A part of the big appeal of animation to me was actually the contact between pen and paper and even though it’s long winded it’s very therapeutic. It’s very good for the mind. So I may well go back to getting a lightbox and pens and paper for my personal work soon.
How long is the post-production stage for you when it comes to making animated music videos?
That’s kind of saying how long is a piece of string […] Arctic Monkeys, we were able to turn around reasonably quickly because of the amount of coloring, because there isn’t that much coloring. But then Tame Impala has a huge amount of coloring. And so even though, we were able to create pretty much double the amount of content for Arctic Monkey in half amount of time for Tame Impala. It’s a balancing thing because also we had more animators on Arctic Monkeys. It’s a weighing balance and a financial one at that. And usually it’s going to the record label and them going, “Okay we need this in three weeks.” and we go, “Okay, well in that case, we need to hire 10 animators.” And it costs a lot to get 10 animators, but maybe if you got 6 animators and gave us an extra week, that could be financially better. So there’s a big weighing scale thing that goes on between time and money.
Your music videos are highly conceptual. Do you look up to any directors or other artists for inspiration?
Of course! The reason why I joined Blink in the first place and reached out to them was because of Dougal Wilson and he’s been a fantastic mentor to me through my career so far, which is wonderful. [Becky Sloan & Joseph Pelling] constantly blow my mind. Their music videos and short films such as “Don’t Hug Me I’m Scared” and Tame Impala’s “Only Going Backwards,” I just think they’re some of the most exciting music video directors in the country at the moment. Same with [Casey Raymond and Ewan Jones Morris]. Casey and Ewan are miles ahead of others. I think they’re fantastic. It’s all about concept and having a strong concept. It’s the conceptual directors that I look up to. I’m actually living with another music video director in L.A. right now, a guy called Ellis Bahl who has created some fantastic conceptual videos from Alt-j (∆)’s Breezeblocks to Walk of the Earth video for Red Hands. Oh no, hang on. It’s a video called Red Hands for a band called Walk off the Earth. Concepts are hugely important and fun like The DANIELS’ work as well. As wild and ambitious and crazy as they are, they’re always keyed in to a nice concept, especially a piece like Manchester Orchestra’s Simple Math was an incredible concept to watch. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that it needs to be based around a short film concept.
Which is more fun for you, directing narrative-driven music videos, performance-based music videos, or concept-based music videos?
I would say I’m pushing way more towards the concept-based music video at the moment. Just in the fact from that term I think you mean creating an idea and running with it whether that’s shooting something backwards or something like The Maccabes where it’s splitting objects. It’s not necessarily a technique basing. It’s more kind of creating a visual and making that the kind of visual stamp as a piece. I think that’s a way of using music videos in a way that’s truly unique to music videos, so I’m very into embracing that. I really like creating iconic images and I want people to walk away from my videos with a very clear image. If you’re to look at the still, it would summarize a lot about that video or allow people to walk away and talk about that video and go, “You know it’s that one with the squiggly line on black” and people know it will be the Arctic Monkeys’ video. I think that’s something that’s very important to music videos and something that should be really embraced.
I feel that the narrative-driven music video is kind of reaching the end of its lifespan in music videos at the moment and there is a shift towards making more iconic images and striking images that stick with people. But having said that, performance-based music videos, unless I’m working with an extraordinary artist, don’t excite me that much. It’s like casting a fantastic actor. There are some fantastic performers out there and if you get the opportunity to work with one of them, I think it’s a crying shame for you not to dive head first into doing something that fully embraces what they can give to the camera.
How involved are the music labels when it comes to directing music videos?
This is all from personal experience, and every label is different. I really like working with people where there’s a mutual trust. I have a huge admiration for some music video commissioners and some labels and I will bend over backwards to work with them because I know that working with people that give you that breathing space and that trust makes the whole experience a pure joy. So there’s no set rule. Every label works differently. But I also feel very honored that the people that I’ve worked with so far in my career have all been wonderful people. So that’s great.
Is it easy for you to choose the bands that you’d like to collaborate with instead of vice versa?
If music excites me and I want to work with the band, then I’ll ask either the commissioner directly or I’ll ask my representation to get in touch with them and see if we could do something. That’s exactly what happened with Tame Impala. I was in love with their music and so I reached out to Modular Records and they allowed me to do a treatment for them, which was great. Usually, I tend to find asking to write a treatment on something is never going to be that much hassle because essentially, it’s just having another option on the table. But then also, I know commissioners like to keep the amount of people writing to a minimum because otherwise, there’s just too many kicks, there’s too many things to look at. And it’s a waste of other people’s time as well. I really like writing on something when, say there are like 4 other directors. That would be a nice level. Sometimes it’s way more, and that’s a bit soul-destroying. But other times, you get a direct link, which is wonderful.
Every project is purely unique. Sometimes it’s a track being sent to you. The majority of the time it is because of the contacts through the representation that I have at both The Director’s Bureau and Colonel Blimp. But other times, say with my most recent music video for Hercules and Love Affair, that was through a personal connection. But then I made that personal connection through doing a previous job for Channel 4, which I got through Colonel Blimp. So I guess it’s just that fact that when you work in the industry, and especially as I’ve been in the industry for 5 years now, you get to know people. And then things start to flow a bit easier. It’s certainly hard at the beginning because you’ve got none of those relationships formed.
If you had to pick, which other bands would you like to collaborate with someday?
Well, it’s less about the bands. It’s that thing of saying “Oh, I love that band’s last album! I would love to work with them on their new album!” And then their new album could be awful and you’re stuck with doing an awful song. It’s always a fictional question to ask. I mean, I’d love to work with Tame Impala again. Working with their music was fantastic. Arctic Monkeys would be great as well. I really enjoy working with rock music. Just the dynamics and the energy involved in that music. I really connect to it from the way that I shape my visuals way more than dance music. Although from a personal perspective, I’m way more into house music and techno than I am listening to rock music. Though I listen to a lot of rock music as well. I guess some of the best music videos are short at 2 and 1/2 minutes and it’s getting those quick chapters and keeping the attention span. I’d much prefer to create a music video that’s like a sharp, quick punch in the face than one that’s 8 minutes epic. I’m really really sold and passionate about making music videos. Not short films that pose as music videos. But sometimes they turn that way and certainly for the next project I’m doing, it’s a short film/music video. So I guess sometimes you get turned on to making something that’s the opposite of the current project that you’re working on.
Have you ever had any rejected treatments for other music videos? If so, for which videos for bands were you planning on directing, but ended up not working out?
Countless. Countless treatments have been rejected for music videos. I have a few saved on my computer. I’m just looking at them now and I’m gonna count how many there are there. Here we are. (browses on computer) There are 65 treatments in my folder and I think that’s probably about 3/4 of the treatments that I’ve written. So it’s probably safe to say that in the past 5 years, I’ve written about 80 treatments and have created about 8 music videos. So it’s a success rate on average of winning 1 in 10 treatments. So there you go. There are some videos that it’s fine that I didn’t win. The odd few times, it’s extremely heartbreaking when you don’t get to work on that project, but it’s all part and parcel. And also every time you write, it just makes you stronger in your thought processes and sometimes it’s just not meant to be. I have a big faith in life taking its turns and also a big faith in the commissioners. Good commissioners do have an eye for a treatment and also will not hold it against you of like, “Well, they just had a bad few days or didn’t connect with the song.” Because the majority of directors you can see, they’re capable of good ideas, but sometimes they don’t gel with the song and they’re just trying their best and they don’t want to leave a commissioner empty handed without options. But the majority of the time, I work my arse off and go without sleep in order to get the best idea I possibly can and submit it. Sometimes it’s like hitting your head against a wall. Other times, it just flows. You can never tell.
What cameras and lenses do you prefer using for your live action music videos?
My music videos tend to be completely varied. Going from having a Red camera on a drone helicopter going through Philadelphia, to shooting in black and white with the camera spinning around on steadicam, to long static shots of Metronomy. It’s dependent on the project just ’cause the look of my films tend to differ quite wildly. But I do always have a soft spot for that filmic look and just getting that softer image rather than it being crisp, sharp and harsh on the eye. Therefore, if I’m shooting digital, I’ll always wanna find a way if we can shoot anamorphic. If we’re shooting on film, I’d prefer to shoot on film and with vintage lenses as well. I guess it’s that thing of putting vaseline on the lens or getting an image that’s more forgiving and a lens that can add to the piece. And I especially like the look of anamorphic and the way that it focuses the eye. So yeah, I’m a big fan of anamorphic lenses, I guess.
What advice do you have for anyone who is trying to break into directing music videos?
My advice would be, in the most optimistic way and truly this is from an optimistic way […] Don’t make music videos your sole source of income. In that way, you’ll become more obsessed about winning the jobs than doing the right job. There’s a lot of risk taking involved in music videos, especially from a label point of view. I found that we’re not living in the 90s when music videos would be churned out and risks would be taken. They’ve become a lot more formulaic recently. And so actually creating more creative music videos has become a challenge in itself. But in order to get those ones, you need to establish a level of integrity. So it’s working with the right people that understand that and it’s also making sure you have other pots boiling like whether it’s making “making of”s or doing little corporate films. That’s essentially how I started out so that they would fund me and they were little projects that I could dip into for a week or two so I could get the money to pay rent. And then I’d work evening, weekends and whenever I had time free on the music videos. Integrity means everything and getting what you want from a music video means everything. The majority of the time, asking for favors from other people, not just yourself, to make music videos happen, you owe it to them, you owe it to yourself to make sure the music video you’re creating is the best thing it can be. That’s my view. Other people do music videos as a living and I respect that, but it’s such a creative art form for me. I’ve never felt comfortable working in any other way. And slowly, but surely, things develop so that you can get paid and create those creative music videos in tandem.
Now that you’ve directed a lot of music videos and commercials, are you planning on doing a feature at some point?
So there you have it. To all video commissioners out there: PLEASE HIRE DAVID WILSON FOR YOUR NEXT MUSIC VIDEO/COMMERCIAL.
A million thanks again to David and Sue Yeon Ahn from The Director’s Bureau for making this happen. You can follow David Wilson on twitter @hidavidwilson and see more of his work at thisisdavidwilson.com.
Oh, and I also forgot to mention, this is the first interview conducted for This Week in Music Videos, so if you guys like it, I’ll definitely have more of interviews in the future. Please let me know!