Going Deeper: Modest Mouse “Whale Song”

Nando Costa, director with Bent Image Lab, recently filled us in on the multi-faceted production challenges that went into the creation of Modest Mouse’s “Whale Song” music video.

CONCEPT

How did this project come about?

When I moved to Portland back in 2006, I met Isaac and Jeremiah (singer and drummer respectively) through a common friend. Then, over time we had a chance to hang out here and there, but the actual video opportunity happened very casually. I mentioned to our friend and also musician Darrin Wiener that I was interested in working on a music video this year and it just so happened that the band was about to release their new album and was also seeking a director for a new video. I got to listen to the EP right after it had been mastered and “Whale Song” immediately stood out to me.

The description of the video says, “The story progresses to reveal that he is divided between two worlds, one of dull reality and the second of warped memories. In the process of finding a way out of his consciousness, he is trapped between the two competing spaces, which eventually inflict lethal damage, acting as metaphors to self-destruction.” Where did this narrative idea come from?

This was my personal interpretation of the song. I basically listened to the song over and over and started writing a very lose script based on my first reactions to the track. I did this over a two-week period and it gradually evolved into a more intricate script that ended up being our guide for the entire project. It contained notes for Isaac’s actions, notes for the DP and stage crew, details for the art department as well as for compositing / CG teams.

I was really interested in extracting a narrative out of the song as opposed to just visually illustrating it. The theme of the lyrics inspired me to portray an aimless person. Someone lost and frustrated with his own lack of direction. The scene at the beginning represents reality, where a person uses a drawing machine to self-medicate. A therapeutic way to extract his thoughts into a physical element, in this case the yarn. But in the character’s mind, the yarn takes a much more active role. It takes life as a maze within his mind. Eventually, the same thread from the therapeutic exercise changes over to an aggressive and self-mutilating tool.

I love the dark, grungy ambiance throughout the video. What were some of your inspirations for the look of this project?

There weren’t many influences that can be clearly seen in the finished piece. But when referencing photography and illustration I looked at Polish artist Zdzisław Beksiński, some of the sculpture work of Donald Judd and definitely some of the desolate scenery of the southwestern part of U.S., as well a lot of photography from all sorts of people like Eva van’t Loo, David Emmite and Yann Orhan.

The grungy texture you refer to was a mixture of various digital effects and image sequences I photographed on a down-shooter. I used dirty glass surfaces that were gradually scratched or rubbed on with metal and dirty chunks of rubber. I added this effect because I wanted to illustrate the idea that the memory scenes were degraded, that they felt use by the character going back again and again to them.

How much planning went into pre-production? Were you working from a script? Storyboards?

Although there was a very detailed script with in-depth notes on both technical and creative aspects of every shot, there were no storyboards. So much of the final look and storyline were only in my head. We didn’t go this route purely by choice. We just didn’t have the time to spend on that preliminary phase, so instead we focused on the script and on at least 3-7 meetings for each one of the six live-action shoots we had. That alone was an intense process, and since I was the main editor and compositor on the job, I knew if the footage we were getting was going to work for me or not.

Did you bounce ideas off of Modest Mouse? Were they involved at all in the ideation phase?

Although I had met most of the other band members at different occasions, my only contact during the whole production was Isaac, the singer. At the very beginning, we shared a quick motion test as well as a condensed version of the script with him and he really liked the idea. I really appreciated that he completely trusted us to run with the project without scheduled revisions, although I often shared stills and motion tests with him during the shoots, which were usually scheduled with 2-3 weeks apart.

PROCESS

It’s difficult to discern which elements are analogue and which are digital. It seems like you used many animation and film-making techniques. Could you elaborate a little on your approach?

The bulk of this project uses live-action and stop-motion elements, but there is a healthy amount of photo collage that aims for a similar richness. The footage ranges from time-lapses that were shot at a rate of 6 stills per minute, all the way to high-speed shots of 1000 frames per second, for which we used a Phantom HD camera. So there was definitely a combination of staccato and fluid rhythms.

In addition, a lot of the camera moves were shot on motion control devices, which feel very different when compared to some of the hand-held and tripod based material. In the end the speed differences between shots helped enrich the concept of “materialized memories” and dream-like sequences. The digital effects added in post helped blend them more seamlessly.

nando-paper02

Here is the back of the sheet of paper being secured by the armature which was later removed on another frame once the paper was laying flat.

There appear to be several stop-motion sequences. If they are (in fact) stop-motion, was this the first time for you to work in stop-motion?

Yes, we used stop-motion techniques in various scenes throughout the video. My favorites were the sheet of paper at the beginning of the video, which was actually made out of two sheets of paper and cinefoil in the middle for better animation control.

Also, the guitar that plays by itself in the desert scene was actually a miniature replica of Isaac’s guitar. We created string replacements that were animated in sync with the guitar solo. We had a similar process for the ivy playing the drums in the desert.

Another special one was the skull at the end, which we used a replica of a lion’s skull layered with maggots, muscle and fat layers made out of modeling clay and silicone. All of which were later pealed off, frame by frame, as the maggots animated over it. This was my most significant stop motion project, although I had already done directed smaller and shorter stop motion projects both at Nervo and Bent.

This video is definitely rooted in live action, which is (in many ways) a big departure from the mostly digital approach I’ve seen in your previous work. Do you feel this video signals a new direction for you?

I have always been fond of live-action, but at the beginning of my career I was more in love with pure graphics. I started as a graphic designer and my career become more serious at the time when flat graphics were in high demand. It was all rooted back into my close relationship with Adobe Illustrator.

I began flirting with live-action back in 2002 when I shot a little piece for the Nike Presto campaign. Later after starting Nakd, I also worked with quite a bit of live-action, but it was mostly 35 and 16mm. One of the many exciting aspects about joining Bent is the infra-structure that we have here. Aside a number of traditional film cameras, we have 3 RED One digital cameras and a wide array of lenses, including the really amazing RED Pro primes, which we used for some of the shots in the video.

As far as it being a new direction or not, I am not sure. I like being challenged and trying new things so I am sure I won’t stick to the same process if I have a choice. But I am definitely excited to have partnered with Bent and being exposed to other director’s processes.

How many people worked on this project? For how long?

The number in the complete credit list is 40, but a big part of the crew came and went during the shoots. The post process had a much slimmer crew so I handle most of that along with a few of the guys at Bent. We began shooting on April 14th, but since the shoot dates were spread wide apart, I had time to be involved with other projects. We had a pretty healthy schedule.

What was the most challenging sequence in the project?

We had all kinds of challenges in the production, but it was all under control and in the end everything came together quite nicely. If I had to pick something I would say that the series of scenes that were the most amount of work were certainly the stage sequences where we see the whole band.

Essentially, what we did to achieve that was to build a stage floor that was actually perpendicular to the ground. Amplifiers and musical instruments were attached to that wall and the musicians laid on boxes on the ground. I wanted to add a certain odd quality to the musician’s movements, not as comical and exaggerated as Fatboy Slim’s “Yo Mama”, which is still a favorite of mine, but something that would make you want to watch twice and that would expand on the idea of feeling tied up, restrained and stuck in place. I think that effect was successful.

We shot these scenes at 4K resolution so I could animate the camera digitally. This is more obvious in the last scenes of Isaac against the galaxy textured triangles. These by the way were meant to represent different dimensions.

nando-mic01

We built this microphone for the stage scenes with Isaac. It was designed in such a way that new parts could be added incrementally to simulate a more elaborate and potentially powerful mic as we moved from scene to scene.

Another detail that is rarely noticed is that we built a custom microphone for Isaac’s stage scenes that became incrementally more complex. When Isaac first appears singing there is a single plain mic. As the scene evolves, more mics, lights and cables are added to the stand.

And last but not least, there were the CG snails that were added the end along with the transitions, light, dust and depth of field effects.

What’s your favorite sequence in the video?

I have many scenes that I am very content with but one of my favorite is still the sequence at the very beginning. I finally had a chance to complete a project with kinetic artist and product designer Ben Hopson of NY. We have been in touch for about 3 years now and have been a fan of his work for while so it was great to be able to do this together.

I gave Ben some basic parameters and a description of the main function of the machine and he took it from there. It turned out great. I also really like the color palette of that scene, which is thanks to the DP Bryce Fortner.

BEYOND

What’s new with you? You’re at Bent now, right? What are you doing there?

On January 1st of this year I joined Bent as a Partner and Director. I brought over all my resources, portfolio and staff from Nervo to intensify Bent’s capabilities on the motion graphics front. However, since then I have been inspired by other more practical techniques that Bent was already famous for. That has opened up my mind a lot more than I thought it would, which is probably why I’ve used so many different techniques in this video.

My wife and I had a child earlier this spring, which I am very excited and happy about, but for a while my energy level wasn’t the same. Just recently I finished working on a campaign for the new Lexus Hybrid and completed spot for Scott Paper that is all CG and will be released in a few weeks. I’ve very much looking forward to directing another music video, but also still very excited about commercial work, so lets see what happens first.

So is Nervo no more?

Bent is my new home and all my efforts are now there. My partners are very interesting and well accomplished people, so it’s a big by positive change from Nervo where I was making all the decisions on my own. I feel like Nervo still lives within Bent and we hope to expand more of the motion graphics front.

Credits

Music: Modest Mouse
Animation Studio: Bent Image Lab
Director: Nando Costa
Executive Producer: Ray Di Carlo
Senior Producer: Tsui Ling Toomer
Producer: Kara Place
Production Coordinator: Ryan Shanholtzer
Director of Photography: Bryce Fortner
Motion Control Operator: Jim Birkett
Gaffer: Adam Burr, Jim Birkett
Phantom HD Technician: Benji Brucker
Production Assistants: Andrew Ellmaker, Charlie James, Esa Di Carlo, Morgan Hobart, Samuel Moyle
Kinetic Sculptor: Ben Hopson
Set Designers: Nando Costa, Solomon Burbridge
Set & Prop Fabricators: Daniel Miller, Eric Urban, Greg Fosmire, Jamie Hanson, Jen Prokopowicz, Justin Warner, Kimi Kaplowitz, Marty Easterday, Sarah Hoopes, Solomon Burbridge,
Art Department Coordinator: Evan Stewart
Art Department Intern: Jessie Weitzel
Carpenter: Drew Lytle
Graphic Designer: Nando Costa
3D Lead: Fred Ruff
3D Artists: Eric Durante, Shirak Agresta
2D Animation & Compositing: Brian Kinkley, Brian Merrel, Jay Twenge, McKay Marshall, Nando Costa, Orland Nutt, Randy Wakerlin
Rotoscoping: Ben Blankenship, Randy Wakerlin
Compositing Intern: Dustin Dybevik
Stop-Motion Animation: Jen Prokopowicz, Marty Easterday
Still Photography: Jared Tarbell, Nando Costa
Processing: Barbarian Group
Behind The Scenes Photographer: Ben Blankenship
Special Thanks to: Isaac Brock, Darrin Wiener, Linn Olofsdotter