When Buffalo Ink approached me to make a music video for their second single Your Head is My Head, they gave me complete creative control. This was a dirty move and they should have known better. I was stumped for ideas (and cash). The band - drummer Caragh Campbell and guitarist Nick Powell - peddle a noisy New Cross avant-pop sound that is difficult to place. Lyrical but loud, danceable but dark, their music is unique in a way that makes them both a great act and a tricky challenge.
After mulling over the track for a few days, I consulted my DVD collection. Combing through shorts by pre-music video animators, I hit upon the cheap, DIY solution: pixilation (the use of photographs to animate live action). Technique decided, the concept would emerge from another, more sophisticated sphere of animation: Tom & Jerry.
Tom & Jerry is, undoubtedly, the best source of inspiration for anyone looking to make a music video. Free of dialogue or complex stories, the show is concerned only with synchronicity between music and image - just slapstick and rhythm. So, we made an easy transfer: Tom & Jerry became Nick & Caragh. The pair would simply have an inexplicable, inconceivable fight. Like Buffalo Ink themselves, it would be speedy, shocking and silly all at once. Even better, we could film it in my flat and avoid spending money. All that was left for me to do was to think of ways they could hurt each other for three minutes straight. We had started making our very own action film!
Needless to say, we fell at the first hurdle. On day one of shooting, I clutched a scrawled storyboard that didn’t amount to much more than a list of imaginary injuries. We took a slapdash, half-improvised approach, but I was positively sure of where we would start. The idea: two close-ups, Nick and Caragh, staring down the camera, both staggeringly angry. Bold! Punk! Iconic! The problem: Nick and Caragh never, ever get angry. Especially with each other. Balls! Crap! Dammit!
Look at Caragh’s placid, phlegmatic face in the video’s opening. That is, in response to my direction, “the angriest face you can possibly pull.” This is Caragh Campbell, the drumming dynamo once described to me by a random punter as “fucking savage?” Nick was no better - at one point (and you’ll see it if you look for it), he actually fell asleep. It’s not hard to spot other moments in the film when, like psychopathic toddlers, they are giggling amidst concussions. I bet this never happened with the cat and mouse.
Tom & Jerry is, undoubtedly, the best source of inspiration for anyone looking to make a music video.
Before I’m accused of criticizing musicians for not being actors, I think the band’s relentless loveliness actually gave us a better film. It takes away any threat of rockstar earnestness, yes, but it’s also in keeping with the rest of the video which is, let’s face it, about to fall apart at any second. This was the stringiest of shoestrings, and the film is a shambles. A lot of it is horribly out of focus. My flatmate has an accidental cameo in the background. Even the tripod was broken (here’s a fun game - count the even shots!).
As far as I can remember, the only money we spent during the shoot was on biscuits for Nick. For everything else, we quite literally grabbed whatever was at hand. All of the ‘weapons’ just happened to be lying around my flat: a plastic fork, a hand drum, a tea cup. We snatched props off-screen in the same desperate, flailing manner as the on-screen Jackie Chan might (or, on a bad day, Jason Bourne). The shoot itself took on the scrappy nature of a fistfight, the three of us throwing whatever we could at the screen and hoping it would do some damage.
Still, I’m pretty proud of this video. I could claim that it’s a punk throwback, or ironic kitsch, but making a film up as you go is just FUN. Where shall we go from here? You can do a handstand? Great, action. Okay, you’re upside-down. Where shall we go from here? We had a song, a camera and three days off. We created a world where a kick to the back of the head pushes your brains out of your mouth. Where your dreams are made visible in tiny dancing patterns. Where you can rip your enemy’s heart out and shove it down his throat. And, most importantly, we created a world where you can accomplish all this without wires, CGI or any budget to speak of. Money alone has never made a film better. It has made many worse.
Music videos, especially, are a unique opportunity for filmmakers - a popular art form that encourages free-range experimentation. Three minutes for whatever you want! You practically have a responsibility to be interesting. Slow or quick, scrappy or slick, just for God’s sake don’t make it boring!
Just pick up a camera and go. Take hundreds of photographs where you might have taken one. Grab what’s within reach, and each time you’ll reach a little further.
I’d like to quickly dispel the persistent myth that animation is an expensive, time-consuming process that demands an anorak’s obsession and mammoth patience. Those things do help, but all you really need are ideas. Just pick up a camera and go. Take hundreds of photographs where you might have taken one. Grab what’s within reach, and each time you’ll reach a little further.
I was lucky - my biggest asset was the band themselves, and their inimitable readiness to look stupid. They cheerfully lay down in the street, shuffling along half a foot at a time while I stood in my living room (ostensibly for a better angle but actually so that the neighbours wouldn’t see me). The ‘unconscious traveling’ sequence often gets the response “How long did that take?”, to which the answer is about as long as you’d expect it would take to inch your way down a small bit of road. Account for giggling time.
Some people don’t like the film. Maybe one thing money gives you is license to get away with more things. The sharp absence of an SFX buffer tends to make the violence crunchingly tactile, and the humour, such as it is, can be too black. Audiences wince, tut, and murmur disapprovingly. It is violent, yes, even cruel, but - well, have you watched Tom & Jerry lately?
By far the most common response I hear, though, concerns Caragh’s climactic flight through the park: “How did you do that?” My reply is invariably, “Well, how do you think we did it?”, which sounds impertinent, but the best present a no-budget film can give is an invitation to work it out yourself. After all, the one thing everyone shares as a filmmaker is no money. A magician explaining his trick is boring, but it’s a thrill to see how it’s done and still enjoy it. If you notice the dove up his sleeve, don’t pout about being fooled, say Oh, what a good use of a sleeve! Even better - What might I do with my sleeves?
If something is done cheaply and it thrills you, then there’s no reason you can’t do it too, and better. What I really mean with my answer is, “How would you do it?” That’s the question posed by animation, that infectious do something I got when I looked through my DVD collection in the first place. And if you don’t find the way to do it, you’ll create a new way. Look at that! Say, I know how that’s done! In fact, I could do it. Where shall we go from here?
Your Head is My Head is available on iTunes.
Buffalo Ink are currently recording a new EP, and will be supporting Nine Black Alps at the Ruby Lounge in Manchester on 19 October.
Joel Blackledge’s blog is thegreatdamfino.tumblr.com
Other recent stories you might like…
Click here for more articles about TV and Film in Sabotage Times
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Twitter
Click here to follow Sabotage Times on Facebook