When making the White Stripes’ latest clip, director Michel Gondry found the hardest button to button wasn’t the stop-motion animation, securing a New York subway car or finding 32 identical amps — it was convincing frontman Jack White of his vision.
“Jack wanted to do something else, and I generally compromise a bit with artists, but this time I was so sure it would work that I said we have to do it this way, and I didn’t know for a bit if it was going to happen,” he said.
For “The Hardest Button to Button,” Gondry — who previously lensed groundbreaking clips for the Stripes’ “Fell in Love With a Girl” and “Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground” — imagined the duo strutting their way down the streets and through the subways of New York playing the grimy blues number on rapidly multiplying and receding sets of drum kits and guitar amplifiers.
Coming off what was essentially a performance clip for the first single from Elephant, “Seven Nation Army,” Jack White was not really feeling Gondry’s jamming in the streets concept. It didn’t help that the band’s singer/guitarist had recently broken his hand in a car accident and would have to wear a cumbersome cast on his left hand while pretending to play.
“When I heard the song, it was so incredible, I knew I had to do the video,” Gondry said. “It’s the shape of the song that gave me the idea. The pattern, how it goes ’doot-doot-doot, doot, doot, doot, doot, doot.’ This makes me think of 1, 2, 3, 4 … 4, 8, 12, 16 … 2, 4, 8, 16, 32.”
Gondry, whose videos typically involve creative camera tricks, pictured Meg White playing on a single drum kit, which would spawn a new set each time she hit a beat. At the same time, Jack White’s stack of amplifiers would keep up with the doubling drum sets.
This idea required that Gondry track down 32 identical Ludwig drum kits, as well as 32 amplifiers and 16 microphone stands. The crew would erect all the kits at once and Meg White would scoot from set to set as Jack walked in front of a new set of amplifiers for each shot. Each time the pair moved forward, the last set of instruments in line would be peeled off and brought to the front. The amps were rented, but the drum kits had to be purchased. (The band donated them to a music school after the shoot, fearing they’d end up on eBay if they got back into circulation.)
The laborious process made for three 16-hour days of shooting, all of which had to be completed during daylight hours, per Gondry’s specifications. “We didn’t hire any lights, so we had to do it all with natural light. I had it very carefully planned out, though I realized Jack was doing different expressions for each take and I didn’t correct him. I initially told him to watch it, but I realized the result would be very electric because each frame would jump around with different expressions.”
In the finished video, White’s facial contortions heighten the feel of a stop-motion nature documentary, even though the film was shot continuously. Gondry said the stop-motion effect was created in the editing room after the fact.
The pair seem to make rapid progress in the video — bouncing from a tunnel to the street, a field and a subway station — but in reality the shoot was confined to a small area in Harlem and Riverside Park near Grant’s Tomb. The three main locations were within 200 yards of each other because of the amount of gear that had to dragged from setup to setup.
And, luckily for Gondry, the folks who run New York’s PATH subway trains were nice enough to give him eight hours of access to a train, which was taken out of service for a day to accommodate the shoot. If you look closely, you can see commuters stopping to stare at Jack and Meg as they weave in and out of the train’s doors and up and down the platforms.
And if you blink, you might miss a cameo from another artist who has benefited from Gondry’s mad genius. The video’s only literal reference to the song’s lyrics comes during a line about a box with nothing in it, when Beck walks on to show Jack White a small red box. And Beck, of course, is wearing a white suit and with a red flower in his lapel in homage to the band’s signature color scheme.