Music video week | “It can create results that no other way of making film has created” | The PPH interview | David Wilson

Despite being only 26 years of age, the University of Brighton graduate has built up an impressive CV, with videos for the likes of Metronomy, David Guetta and The Maccabees under his belt. He can also count KanYe West among his fans. We caught up with the talented young director in Blink Productions’ plush Soho offices to discuss his inspiration, his exciting career to date, and going on sushi benders with Adam Buxton.

PPH (in bold): Hi David. What is your artistic background?

David Wilson (in regular): I studied illustration at Uni Brighton, and taught myself animation there on After Effects and Hand Drawn Animation, and started making my own little films while I was studying. I found that I got a really good response to the films that I made from my peers, and other people on the internet. That encouraged me to make more. I moved to London and started showing people my work, people started to get into it. I got commissioned to do music videos and some work for MTV, and then I got signed really early with Blink Productions. I sat with them for about a year assisting other directors but also on small projects that never went out into the public domain, but really helped both my confidence and my knowledge of the inner workings of commercials and music videos. So when I put out my first public facing video in 2009 (‘We Got Time’ by Moray McLaren) it was my artistic schooling reaching its pinnacle, and my break into professional life.

What kind of feeling did you have when you saw your first piece go out into the public domain?

Really exciting, but at the same time what was great was that I’d already got my next music video job. So on the day it went out into the public domain, it went really mental, people liked it. It went on this blog called Motionographer on the day it was released. That was a really big deal for me cos it’s the most widely read blog for motion graphics in America. KanYe West put it on his blog as well! That film went down extremely well and I don’t think I’ve had a film quite like it since. I was already on set shooting my next music video so although it was going down well, I never had that pressure of going “How do I follow this up?”, I just kept going. It was fantastic to see it come out, and it opened so many doors for me. Thankfully it wasn’t as daunting as it could have been.

Do you feel that you have been chasing that initial high in any way?

To a certain extent, yes. It’s been great for me in that a lot of people have seen it, and like it, and it’s got me admiration, but at the same time it’s a film that I did over three years ago and I’ve moved on a lot as a filmmaker since making that piece. I animated it on a praxinoscope and I guess there’s always that thing of people going “Yeah, it’s good, but I still prefer that thing you did three years ago!”, and I’m really trying to move on. It’s a blessing and a curse.

Some of your work has a very DIY aesthetic. Is there a particular part of your creative process that you enjoy more than others?

My creative process is always changing, and I enjoy challenging myself. My challenge with that project was that there was no money. I did everything myself. I made the praxinoscope myself, did all the hand drawn animation myself. From there it’s evolved from “Right, I know and feel comfortable with animation, but what I don’t know or feel comfortable with is working with actors”. Last year I undertook that challenge and went to acting classes, learnt about directing. I then started doing a puppeteering job with this guy called Keaton Henson about a suicidal puppet, and it ended with doing this music video for David Guetta, which is a drama-led piece. Being able to feel confident in directing actors, and getting what I feel was a performance I was happy with out of them was really beneficial. Against the work of a lot of other directors, they don’t really stand out as being anything special, but for me and my journey it’s a milestone; personally it could be seen as more of a milestone than the Moray McLaren one because that’s the territory I’m familiar with. Especially at the stage I’m at, I want to keep that learning and excitement going, and use these skills and synthesize them so that I can combine all these different elements together, do a technical piece that’s heartfelt.

With BUG, Adam Buxton’s really been flying the flag for music videos. How did you get involved with him in the first place?

We have a good relationship with Adam and the team at BUG. There’s a site called Promo News that David Knight runs and BUG is run by David and a producer called Phil Tidy. Adam started out as the host but has become an integral part of it with his films and how he reads through the YouTube comments. He needs to approve the videos that they show because it represents him so much; it’s almost like you’re round his house and he’s showing you his videos. David and Phil curate it and then Adam nitpicks from the things that have been pulled out.

And did they like your work in particular?

David was a really big fan of my Moray McLaren video, we got it into BUG straight away. That was amazing. Then BUG started to tour festivals like Reading and instead of doing what they do at the BFI which is the most recent videos, they’ll show a selection of their favourite videos, which included the Moray McLaren one. Adam’s been a real supporter. They’ve shown other films of mine. It was about two months ago they asked me to appear live on stage to be interviewed by Adam at the BFI. That went down well because I did my demonstration with the praxinoscope and at that same time they were preparing to do their Sky shows. The Sky execs were there, so they said “Let’s get David to go and be interviewed for the pilot”!

You’ve done a music video with Adam all about sushi. Can you tell me a bit about that?

Adam prolifically writes all these songs, he’s a little audio wizard. He wanted each song to have a new music video done for it, for each BUG TV show. The producer approached me, I got sent three different songs, and I picked the sushi one because I really liked the drum n’ bass ending. The song is about Adam going on a sushi bender, stuffing his face with small bits of rice and fish and Asahi beer. Adam’s always been a fan of my work wherever it’s shown ladylegs, and more provocative imagery – like some of the stuff in my advent calendar and my Metronomy video. Because the whole thing is this fantasy of him being on a sushi bender, I thought I’d combine ladylegs with fish and make something completely ridiculous that would never get commissioned in a million years. I wrote a script with no holds barred. I know the more ridiculous it was, the more Adam would want to make it. There’s a lady with fish coming out of her underpants onto Adam’s face. We’ve got a naked lady with sushi on her. We’ve got Adam going around the whole restaurant on the sushi conveyor belt. The whole thing’s really silly. We even had a dance routine which we never got to film, sadly. It’ll be out in October.

I wanted to talk about your video for Metronomy’s ‘The Bay’. It was shot in the ‘English Riviera’, and it has a very ‘Rio’, Duran-ish quality, but with lots more irony.

What they wanted was to paint the English riviera as being as stylish as the French riviera, and have as much cool as the West Coast of California, where there’s all these musicians that hang out and jam on the beach. I really tapped into the French Riviera thing; the video for Elton John’s ‘I’m Still Standing’ was shot by the same person that shot ‘Rio’ for Duran Duran. There’s the judge from Strictly [Bruno Tonioli] in it. That was perfect as a reference point. So I said why don’t we do this… but with you guys. We’ve got helicopter shots and glamorous ladies, and the whole thing is a bit surreal, but if we say “Torquay is like this”, that could be pretty hilarious. But we’ve got to play it completely straight. Otherwise it becomes too jokey, that’s why it’s so deadpan.

My favourite bit is when bassist Gbenga Adelekan just straps his bass on from out of nowhere when he’s sat in the back seat of the car…

I was really happy with that, that was a last minute decision! I was looking at the four of them sat in the car and I felt that it missed something. Because it was Torquay, and there’s a bit of a drinking to excess on a Friday night/girls in miniskirts kind of vibe, there’ll be a lot of kids with pimped-up Peugeots, with bass thumping from their cars going around town. So we thought if you were hearing these noises from a car, which instrument would you physically be playing? It’s gotta be the bass!

Do you have any particular music video heroes that you look to?

Yeah, I doubt I’d be here in Blink if it wasn’t for my admiration for Dougal Wilson. I fell in love with his work when I saw LCD Soundsystem’s ‘Tribulations’. I found out his name and his other work, and found him on MySpace, when MySpace was big and then just got talking to him, and found out that he was a really cool, down-to-earth, supportive guy. Then when it came to sending my reel to production companies, Blink was top of the list. There’s a lot of big directors that a lot of people with my aesthetic reference as people that opened up their eyes to the possibility of music videos. The obvious ones being Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. When those Directors Label DVDs came out I was 18, they were doing the rounds at Freshers’ Week at Uni and so that opened my eyes to how creative you could be with contemporary artists.

There’s that, and now it’s evolved into the people that I admire are contemporaries. There’s a close-knit group of directors where the guard has been put down. We’re a lot more sharing. My age group of directors have come from the background of learning After Effects because people have put tutorials up on YouTube, and that whole mentality of being open and sharing is beneficial and makes the whole industry a lot less daunting. People that I really admire are the DANIELS, who have really blown up over the past year, we’ve become really good friends. Even though they live in L.A., whenever they come over to England we hang out. I admire them, and draw inspiration from their energy, enthusiasm and their lust for just doing something.

You’re in a community where you’re driving each other on…

That’s it, we get excited for each other. We have whole evenings of sitting down together and sharing our treatments that never got made. That’s really nice! To go, “Oh, you wrote all those and only three of them got made? That makes me feel better because I wrote exactly the same amount and only three got made.” It can be disheartening sometimes.

To what extent has this notion of a “digital revolution”, Vimeo, YouTube etc., facilitated the vibe you’re talking about?

Oh, massively. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for YouTube. It started in my second year of university, and it was really weird because people couldn’t get their heads around it. The internet was slow and video was pixellated, people were watching it at 240p. Essentially, what helped was that I did a video for Metronomy when I was at uni, and they’re a Brighton band so I knew one of their girlfriends. I asked if I could use it for one of my university projects and they said sure, just don’t put it out as an official video. That got seen by their management, which is Stephen Bass who’s the head of Moshi Moshi records so he commissioned my first music videos from that and there’s no way he would have seen that work if I couldn’t have put it out on YouTube. There is now this community, especially on Vimeo, where it’s very sharing and very open and in comments people are complimentary but in a constructive rather than a gushing way; they’re all from video makers. I get messages every now and then from people saying “if you ever need help with post-production or editing, I’d love to help!”.

There’s a cliche that music video directors are looking for a calling card to get in the feature film industry. Is that something you’d like to do in the future?

Yeah. When I started to get excited about music videos, I was always obsessive about music growing up, so it was this perfect combination of doing what I loved with visuals. I saw it as an end goal. I didn’t know about the huge lack of money that there is in music videos. It’s impossible to earn a living from music videos at the moment, and whenever I say that it seems whiny or as if I’m putting money in front of creativity which of course I don’t. It’s just a practicality; you’ve got to put a roof over your head. The majority of music videos that I create, I don’t get paid. I’ll put the money into the job to make it the best that I can, or there is no option but to do that when it’s really low budget. In essence, music videos by their very nature have got to be a calling card for something else, whether that’s commercials or else. That’s one of the things that’s really shaped music videos recently.

So there are a lot of passion projects happening?

Yes, many people are doing things as passion projects, and there are less and less videos where people are happy to go “so the band stands there, and we’ll put a light on them, and we’ll shoot around them”. When you’re not getting paid, you’re just burning your time and your money for someone who’ll be quite ungrateful for you doing it. There’s been a massive shift to music videos being more filmic, and that’s one of the reasons why. But also because music videos live a lot more online, they go viral and people want to watch something that takes them on a journey or makes them laugh, or it’s stupid. There are less and less restrictions. It’s more important to get your video spread virally than it is to get it on MTV now, so the TV-safe element is not there anymore. In terms of the “calling card”, to make something bigger, a feature film, that certainly makes sense.

So it’s a testing ground for directors in essence?

Yes, and it’s a very good testing ground: you’re on a project for three or four weeks and then it’s done. You write the script, you win the job, you shoot it, you do the post production, and it’s pretty much done within a month. It’s a fast-paced testing ground working with – at some point – big crews and a good amount of money for the amount of screen time that you’re actually producing for. If it’s a 30k music video for a 3 minute piece of movie then you’re looking at 10 grand a minute which is pretty good. You can test out those ideas which you’d only ever be able to achieve with the same amount of creative freedom on a feature film set, because you certainly can’t test that much when you’re on commercials. Someone is paying you to do the job you know you can pull off.

Music videos, in all sorts of ways, are a testing ground. If there’s a bad music video but you can tell they’re pushing for something different, it’s not worthy of slating because you tell they’re using music videos properly. That unsettles a lot of music video commissioners to hear that, but I truly believe that’s one of the most wonderful things about the medium. It gives you that breathing space to be ambitious; it can create results that no other way of making film has created. You’re doing something that doesn’t have to tie into a narrative, it lives in its own little world.

You can view more of David Wilson’s work on his website. The BUG TV show will be broadcast on Sky Atlantic in October.

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