Imagine getting your first shot at working with an artist you grew up loving. The one thing you don't want to do is blow it. Here's a hint: avoid the urge to suspend him in midair by his crotch.
Just a thought.
"Our original idea was to have him held aloft by five or six people who would carry him in midair and move him around the camera instead of the camera moving around him," said Gideon Baws of Shynola, the British collective that directed the crudely animated video for Beck's "E-Pro."
"But we realized how naive we were because it would be too exhausting for people to hold him up for that long," he said, "so we put him in a harness and had five puppeteers moving his limbs, which was still ridiculously hard."
Shynola — which also includes Chris Harding, Richard "Kenny" Kenworthy and Jason Groves — are known for filming innovative videos for artists such as Queens of the Stone Age, Blur and Junior Senior that often include playful, if slightly menacing, animation.
"E-Pro" is no exception. Using day-glo line drawings that look like something out of the early "Battlezone" video game, Shynola plopped a rag doll-looking Beck into a world of dancing skeletons, spiderlike bicycles and attack birds that rip off his head and deposit it in a washing machine.
Shynola almost had to pass on the job because of their work on the upcoming big-screen version of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy," but Baws said it was worth pulling double-shift days to work with Beck.
"We told [our agents] not to bother us with anything, but when this came up it was irresistible," Baws said. "Kenny came up with the technical idea of suspending him in midair to make it look like the world is moving around him. ... Then I had a story that was kind of [an] underworld Mexican Day of the Dead thing with some 'Wizard of Oz' added in. We just tried to think of the most ridiculous stream-of-consciousness bits that we could to fit in there to fit his style."
The shoot was physically taxing for reasons Beck could never have imagined. "The camera never moved," he said. "If it looked like the camera was flying above me, I had to go forward. It was definitely the most difficult video I've ever made."
But, always up for a challenge, Beck put himself in Shynola's hands — literally — and went with their somewhat hard-to-articulate concept. "I think being born in a family where there were artists or musicians gave me the idea that it was valid, that there was something important about expressing these sorts of things," Beck said. "It never felt like something foolish, because this is how we survived, this is how we lived. ... It's not choosing something more safe, so I think I learned that taking a challenge or a risk is healthy."
The crew gathered in October on a Los Angeles soundstage for an exhausting 10-hour shoot that required Beck to hang around in the flying harness and have his limbs and head manipulated by unseen puppeteers. "They treated him like a marionette," Baws said. "But he seemed really into it and he was remarkably hands-off with suggestions on the story line."
Even with Beck's approval of the concept, there were things that just didn't work. "We had it very tightly animated," Baws said. "We built a simple version of him and animated it in 2-D, then in 3-D, to show him exactly what to do on what beat. And then we tailored it to what he could physically do."
Beck riding on a black bicycle while the puppeteers moved his limbs? No problem. The bit where he jumps up and down with a shovel? Originally, Shynola wanted the singer to do a high kick and an elaborate tap routine while pretending to bounce on the garden implement, but "once we suspended him in the wire rig, it would have meant hanging him by the crotch, at which point you would have no willingness to dance around," Baws said. "It would not have been very elegant."
Also tossed out the window once filming started was the ambitious plan to do the whole thing as a single take. "Just couldn't be done," Baws said.
Luckily, prop dog Sunshine was remarkably well-behaved during the shoot and Beck was more than happy to be blasted in the face with compressed air to mimic being shot out of a cannon.
Once Beck shot his bits, Shynola had eight weeks to add in the animation, which led to the shoot's second crisis. Based on the rough demo of the song, the group came up with a classic ending in which Beck bounces across a series of springy music notes in Super Mario-like fashion, only to stop dead and almost lose his balance on the final one as the music abruptly runs out. The only problem was they had no idea if that was how the final mix of track would actually sound.
"The music notes at the end were out of sheer desperation," Baws said. "Like, 'How the hell can we end this video?' We only had the rough mix, so we were hoping it would really cut out like that because we kind of banked on it to make this iconic image in the video. But it worked out, and it's cool because videos rarely end so definitively like that."