Interview with Shynola’s Chris Harding
The following interview was a joint effort between Motionographer authors Lillian Darmono and James Wignall.
All your music videos seem to have strong, memorable storytelling behind them, yet many (as in this case), don’t seem to relate directly/literally to the lyrics of the song. Is that a conscious decision?
We’re traditionalists at heart, and the main thing we’re interested in is story, so the decision to tell a story was conscious, yes. As for the content, we just try to capture the mood of the songs as a whole, which seems a totally natural approach to us. People often ask us why we don’t follow the lyrics more closely, but to us it’s less interesting to show a literal depiction of what’s being sung.
How did the scriptwriting process unfolded for ‘Strawberry Swing’? What was your inspiration?
In the case of Strawberry Swing, we pitched several times, refining and modifying gradually. The first thing we sent was way different than what we ended up making, but the commissioner must have had confidence in us to get there in the end, because she kept coming back and saying “can you just change this, or add something here?” Often, if bands and commissioners don’t like the first pitch, that’s it—you’re out. But once we’d got to the nugget of the idea—that it would be drawn in chalk, and the story would be a super hero—it was just a process of filling in the blanks.
Technically speaking, this has been done before (Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” and Oren Larvie’s “Her Morning Elegance” music videos), but you guys managed to push it to create something that’s astounding. Can you share with us how you guys managed to achieve such a feat?
We’re aware of those videos, and I don’t wish to denigrate them, but we thought there was more mileage in the technique than they had explored. We never claim to be original, just rigorous. So we wrote a story we thought would be entertaining and went about making it. It was a lot of hard work.
What key steps/decisions were made that contributed to this pushing of boundaries?
Deconstructing our working process is quite hard for me, and I don’t know how anyone else works, so I don’t have a point of reference. As I said, we just try to make work that’s entertaining.
Were there certain “dos and don’ts” that were obvious from the start?
You’re really hammering me on this! ;) Er… Well, in the do’s list, we tried to think of all the different “camera angles” we could simulate by getting Chris lying, standing and so on. Also, we wanted to show as much interaction with the environment as possible, hence the umbrella, oar, cape etc. As for don’ts, I guess the main thing was “don’t let the action slow.”
Biggest challenges—technically and creatively?
Technically, it was all challenging! Creatively, the biggest challenge by far was that we were making our first video since our dear friend and collaborator Gideon had died. Apart from the fact we were lacking his considerable creative input, the process of working without him was emotionally very difficult.
We were all saddened by Gideon’s sudden passing last year. Our condolences go to his family and to Shynola. If it’s not too personal, could you share with us how the group got back together after he died? How has the work dynamic changed, and what were some of the toughest challenges you faced in that regard?
Thank you for your kind thoughts. Honestly, I don’t mind talking about Gideon.
I don’t know how much people know about the way we work—often we get show reels and C.V.’s from people who seem to think we’re a big animation company. The truth is, apart from a couple of times, it was just the 4 of us working in isolation. Old friends from art college who somehow managed to get bands to let us make silly animated films for their songs, a total cottage industry.
So, when Gideon died it wasn’t just a colleague that we lost, but our closest friend and an integral part of Shynola. Afterwards, we didn’t do anything for a long time, we couldn’t face it, but we knew he’d have wanted us to carry on, and especially to finish making The Red Men.
When we got back into it, I don’t think we wanted to admit things had changed, and we tried to carry on as before. In some respects, it led to quite a gruelling experience when making “Strawberry Swing.” We didn’t account for the practicality of having one fewer pair of hands, and I don’t think anything could have prepared us for the emotional experience of making a video without Gideon, but it was something we had to do, and difficult as it was I’m glad we did.
In terms of role breakdown and collaboration: How did you “divvy up the job,” so to speak? Who was responsible for what?
As with all our work, we each do the same jobs, and when it came to splitting the workload we just did whatever job was outstanding.
We have a particular interest in the illustration of the characters (Princess, Squirrel, Fish, and Cat). Can you share some background info on how they were made?
The princess was requested by the band, and her design was based on drawings by Winsor McCay. The squirrel was a stand in for a giant baby. The fish… I don’t remember why we put the fish in there. I think it was a quasi reference to the bit in Pinocchio when he was inside the whale, which would explain the cat as well. Sort of.
How much of this was entirely done in camera and how much was done in CG?
We did a shoot in L.A. with Chris. All the animation is hand drawn.
Did you use some kind of projection system to keep track of things?
No, we didn’t project anything on the floor. We had a grid marked on the floor just out of frame, plus a hand-held wireless monitor which showed us the view from the camera.
How many people were involved in the production? How long did the whole project take?
I honestly can’t remember how many people were on the shoot. Once there are more than ten, it’s hard to keep track. The production took around three months from when we were asked to pitch until the delivery.
What was it like working with Chris Martin and Coldplay?
Very pleasurable. The band had same goal as us: to make something interesting to watch—and Chris is a consummate professional. He is very easy to direct, he got what we were after instantly, and we got most shots in just one take.
Did he and the rest of the band have substantial input in the process?
Yeah, they guided us towards their vision, but gave us room enough to be creative too. They had lots of input early on, but once they were happy, they completely left us to our own devices.
There came a point on set when Chris first put the superhero suit on, he told us he was out of his comfort zone. He asked us for reassurance that it would work, and I think we all had a moment of doubt—but when we saw him through the lens it looked great, and after that he was really into it. He’s a great performer.
How has your collaborative structure evolved over the years? Now that you guys been in the music video business for a fair number of years, are there certain things that you have learned to avoid/enforce as a result of that accumulative knowledge?
I wish I could say we’d accumulated some sort of experience and our process was considered, but when we get commissioned to make a video, it’s still the mad rush it always was.
Going a step further–can you comment on how this project was different to something you’ve done earlier—for example, “Go With The Flow”—allowing for obvious differences in the process due to difference in style, budget, and client?
This video was pretty similar to “Go With The Flow,” in terms of our process. Both times we went to shoot in L.A. then came back to London to work on edit and/or special effects. The fact that one was chalk and one was CGI was superficial.
The squirrel has become a sort of trademark for us, but it wasn’t intentional. It wasn’t until we made the video for Blur’s “Good Song” that someone asked us about the squirrels, and by then it was the third appearance. It was totally subconscious, which I admit is weird.
The first time we used one was for a DJ character in an early video for Quannum, then there’s the naughty squirrel in Move Your Feet by Jr/Sr which blows everything up with dynamite. So I guess this time he got his comeuppance.
You always produce top drawer stuff in a field where most people would think budgets are minuscule. How do you balance this with the day-to-day demands of paying bills and making ends meet? Is there any particular secret to this?
Simple. We make music videos because we like them and we make commercials to pay the bills.
What are you guys currently working on? Any future plans that you can share with us, project-wise?
We have been working on a feature film adaptation of a book for a while now, and it’s nearly done—at least, the first draft is nearly done.
The book is called The Red Men by Matthew De Abaitua. It’s a sci-fi novel set in Hackney and around East London where we live, so apart from the fact it’s a great book, we were really excited about the prospect because we thought we could do something really good with the setting and subject matter.
Feature film making is really where we’d like to be now, and in fact we hadn’t intended to make any music videos at all. But when Coldplay asked us, we couldn’t turn it down.
Many thanks from us at Motionographer! And best wishes for the future, and best of luck with fatherhood—we continue to look forward to the next project from you guys!
Thank you! Funnily enough, animation (the way we do it) is a good training ground for fatherhood. Lots of stress and sleepless nights!