Mesmerised: When Life Needs A Lightning Strike

“Directing is like sex. You can’t know if you’re any good because you never see how anyone else does it.”

That above sentiment is why I wanted to start a blog where I spill nearly all the beans about a job I’ve directed. The internet is full of fantastic craft articles on cinematography, editing, and numerous other film disciplines. But I have found very little content about what professional directing is actually like from the inside.

So that’s the aim of this blog – to post-mortem jobs by going over how I directed them. Expect treatments, shotlists, storyboards, moodboards, schedules, collaborations with DPs, colourists, editors, production designers – the works. Hopefully this will be of interest to anyone starting out as a director or anyone who wants to know more about directing.

First up – Mesmerized. A mildly pornographic, seriously weird music promo for haze-pop streaming sensation XY&O, a properly digital band recently featured on ITV and Wales Online. The concept? Action Man and Barbie toys take a pill called Mesmeril which makes you fall in love with the next Barbie or Action Man toy you see. They hook up pretty fast but then all goes wrong when Barbie sleeps with the plumber, Action Man shoots him before he seduces the cleaner and Barbie burns the house down. You can see the whole video in all its dissolute glory here: 

Getting the Gig

I had already shot an XY&O music promo before for their track One More Night (Lemonade), featured on David Reviews. So this time round I had the luxury of knocking around ideas with XY&O front man Skip Curtis before opting for our final concept. Previous ideas included a drug infused trip in the Amazon with a jaguar lady and a love story between dogs or turtles. We finally agreed on a toy love story, which I liked a lot since it had a really poppy, self-aware and mesmerizing feel to it because it was so damn odd that I think complements the track well. I made the below treatment which is slightly unusual in form since it was much more of a brief to crew than the normal sort of pitch document I would write to get a job.

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Art Direction

A huge part of this video going well was down to art direction, so I asked production designer Maria Araujo to work on it. I had done two jobs with her before, and she was fantastic both times. Maria immediately figured out what I was after just off reading the treatment and came up with the perfect reference for that poppy, processed vibe– Miles Aldridge. We loved the bright colour palette, the artificial feel, and surreal sexuality in his work. Maria compiled a design moodboard - see still below. We then went over which sets and props we’d need based off that document.

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She then set about ingeniously building the sets, hand-making the majority of the props herself, and even finding a vintage flexible Barbie on eBay so we had some control over her movements.

Making the Look

I asked DoP Charles Heales if he’d be interested in this one since we’d shot one piece of work together before that had gone well and he is the kind of person who likes a challenge – lighting miniatures isn’t easy! Charles dug the reference and generally went for a high key look in the lighting similar to Miles’ fashion work. He’d approach most of the lighting set-ups by first creating an ambient level of light on set and then keying through one of the windows before creating final touches with a practical miniature light. Maria’s set had 3 walls to it, all of which were removable, so we had a large amount of flexibility with camera positioning.

We shot everything on a Red Helium in 8K, which was essential as we only had two macro lenses for this job so cropping in and zooming in post generated a huge increase in shot choice. On set we also opted for a 4:3 crop, since we felt it suited a lot of 70s and 80s Barbie commercials filmed in that aspect ratio, and this was the period our ebay toys were from.

As always, a tremendous part of the final look we went for came from colourist Peter Oppersdorff at MPC. I think Pete’s final grade had a smooth vintage feel to it. He really got our fashionista colours to pop and accentuated Charles’ high key lighting with numerous shapes to achieve the really processed fashion look I was after. It was also especially useful in the grade that everything was static for once as this made it very easy for Peter to really control the colour of individual elements in frame. 

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Last but not least, the workflow was also an interesting one. There was a fair amount of VFX to do and no-one wanted to work in 8K for obvious reasons, so once we had locked an offline edit I conformed a 1080p DPX sequence in Resolve which was then supplied to Pete with mattes on certain VFX shots and text in alpha channel. He then graded this sequence before I rendered a final master by adding a 4:3 matte and all the text.

Picking The Shots

I wanted a storyboard for this job since there wasn’t much prep time before the shoot so I thought the clarity boards would bring would save a lot of prep & shoot time. I ended up changing what I had boarded a lot, but I think they were mostly useful so that Maria the production designer had an idea of what was happening in each shot as she had so many props to make by hand.

I hired Cong Nguyen to make the storyboards, which he did in one day, and you can see some of the results below. 

Overall I wanted to make a virtue of the piece having a static feel, suggesting two characters trapped their own loneliness. I also felt the whole thing was so intentionally artificial anyway that a static camera would help this by making it feel all the more staged, as would quite geometrical, aesthetically straightforward compositions of the kind found in so many vintage Barbie commercials that provided another frame of reference for this.

The main challenge with this piece though was telling the story in few shots! Although we didn’t have any actors on set, there were a lot of lighting and set changes to get through in one day. Mostly due to a lack of time before the shoot, I ended up purposefully putting far more shots than I knew I could film in the storyboards knowing that I could cut this later.

The Shoot

As expected I had to cut dozens of shots on set but that wasn’t too much of an issue. Gaffer Simon Battesnby worked fast, often using precise dedo lights to pinpoint details on the miniature set and even constructed some tiny lights himself. Once we were lit and actually shooting things it was much easier to figure out which shots were really necessary but it was still useful to check the storyboards for missing shots. As always they significantly speeded up communicating to crew about what to film next since I could just show everyone one image and that was that.

As always there were unforeseen issues… It was bizarrely difficult to make Barbie and Action Man kiss each other since the toys (hilariously) didn’t like staying still when in close proximity to each other, no liquid would emerge out of the toy petrol can, and the non-flammable smoke turned out to be flammable.

Thankfully these were all easily resolvable… We shot Action Man and Barbie tremulously shaking next to each other and then just pulled a still frame from this, slapped grain on top and used that as the shot since nothing else was moving in the image. The VFX house fixed the petrol and the spark blew out the smoke before things got really bad (disclaimer – we did have lots of fire blankets).

The Cut

Louise Robinson @ Work Editorial cut this and did an excellent job of handling an edit with an oddly limited number of decisions. Since so much of what we shot was still, there were unusually few cut points… Whereas normally you can cut at various points in a clip dependant on the motion within the clip – i.e. cutting on someone lifting an arm – since the action was the same for the whole clip it didn’t really matter at all where you cut. So in essence there was only ever one cut point per clip. Additionally, there were hardly any ways to change the shot order on this piece since it had been semi-carefully storyboarded with a clear narrative, so the edit was determined entirely by the duration of each clip rather than how they cut together, which was unusual.

VFX

This job went through Electric Theatre Collective (ETC) for some simple but well-handled VFX. We shot numerous blue and green screens for sky backgrounds, added 2D heart effects in post, amped up some of the fire and burn damage to set with footage of fire from the ETC elements library, and ETC shot a plate of pouring amber liquid that they then comped in for the petrol. Interestingly, for one of the green screens standing in for a corridor in the house we simply shifted the hue to yellow so that it matched the other halls in the house. It looked like a corridor and this was much simpler than comping in corridor footage.

Overall the workflow was quite straightforward – ETC worked on a single clip DPX sequence which was then broken up into individual shots and supplied to MPC with mattes for the hearts and blood splatter and text in alpha channel so that they could be graded without affecting the rest of the footage.

That’s it for this one! Next stop is going to be this piece for The Fratellis https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aB461MqhrI8.