SOUND AND VISION:
RADIOHEAD REINVENTS THE MUSIC VIDEO
Chris Hopewell is in the middle of directing the video for “There There,” the first single off of Radiohead’s new album, Hail to the Thief, and his knees are sore. Hopewell’s been down on his hands and knees, scattering moss around the set of the shoot – a shoot he will only describe, at this early phase of production, as being loosely modeled after a Grimm’s fairy tale. But Hopewell downplays his own discomfort, instead commending Thom Yorke, Radiohead’s infamously intense frontman, for his dedication and good spirits. Again, Hopewell won’t say much about what, exactly, Yorke has been forced to do not surprisingly, perhaps, given the album’s early leak to the public via online file-sharing – except that it’s a kind of human animation that’s extraordinarily labor-intensive and not particularly easy.
“Thom was an absolute star, really, for a person of his stature,” marvels Hopewell. “He was so down to earth. He just wanted to get it right, and he did. We had very long days, very intensive hours under the lights, and he was absolutely amazing. I’ve done this type of human animation before, and it can be very difficult to pick up, but he had it down almost instantly, within the hour.”
It wouldn’t be the first time that Yorke has bent over backwards to assist in the creation of one of the band’s videos. In Grant Gee’s 1997 clip for “No Surprises,” Yorke was forced to sit with his head clamped into a custom-built fishbowl helmet that slowly filled with water, and then remain immersed, eyes open, for a full 50 seconds before it drained again. Meeting People Is Easy, Gee’s documentary about the band’s 1997 tour, contains outtakes from the shoot, showing botched attempts when a visibly annoyed Thom spits and splutters, gasping for air. There are no half-measures in the world of Radiohead, and the same goes for its videos.
IT’S HARD TO FIND A POP MUSIC ACT THESE DAYS FOR WHOM MUSIC VIDEO ISN’T A CRUCIAL COMPONENT OF ITS IMAGE.
But Radiohead’s approach is different. Not only has the band used video and graphic design to bolster its identity, it has tested the very limits of the form. For starters, the band has hired some of the brightest talents of the day – Sophie Muller, Michel Gondry, Jonathan Glazer, Shynola – often making these directors’ careers in the process. Drawn to a visual aesthetic as raw and restless as its own music, the group has tested a wide range of media and styles, from the digital 3-D animation of Shynola’s promo for “Pyramid Song,” to Muller’s pinhole camera lens for “I Might Be Wrong,” to the fixed perspective 35mm that Gee used to shoot “No Surprises” in one long shot, no edits.
And if this kind of stylistic diversity isn’t enough, Radiohead has also pushed outside the bounds of the three-and-a-half-minute promo. For the iconoclasttc album Kid A, the band foreswore proper videos entirely, instead commissioning dozens of 10-second “blips,” which aired not only on music video channels but also online. Johnny Hardstaff shattered the traditional autonomy of the pop single for his video to “Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors” and “Like Spinning Plates,” which fused the two songs, mixtape-fashion, in a haunting meditation on conjoined twins. Meanwhile, Chris Bran, who produced some of the shorts in the blips series, is at work on a series of cable TV broadcasts incorporating archived webcasts of the band at work in the studio; the edited programs are slated to feature animation submitted by fans, making the series a kind of portrait of a feedback loop.
Radiohead’s video activities constitute something of a cottage industry all their own, related to, but hardly synonymous with, the duties of a multi-platinum band renowned for filling stadiums and reinventing studio science. If Thom Yorke is the CEO of this enterprise, then its COO is Dilly Gent. Gent’s unofficial title is “video commissioner,” but she’s responsible for every aspect of the band’s visual representation (apart from Web site and album graphics). Gent first got involved with the band 11 years ago, when she was on staff at Radiohead’s label Parlophone; their first video together was “Creep,” a simple live show directed by Brett Turnbull. Since then Gent has formed her own production company, with Radiohead as one of her primary clients.
Gent’s job? Essentially, to read Thom’s mind and play it back for him in pictures. As soon as the band and label decide on a given single, Gent and Yorke trade notes on how the song should look, and with that, Gent is off and running. “Thom’s got a two-year old, and he’s been obsessively watching Bagpuss,” says Gent, referring to the classic BBC TV children’s show from the 1970s. “So for ‘There There,’ that got him thinking about fairy tales, and then puppets – so I spent about four months of last year traveling around the world researching puppets.”
The search keeps Gent “always moving forward,” she says. “I have gone back to a director once, that was Jon Glazer,” who directed both “Street Spirit” and “Karma Police.” But that repeat was an anomaly. She adds, “We very rarely go back to a director, because the music’s always changing.”
DIRECTORS WHO WORK WITH RADIOHEAD PRAISE THE BAND’S COLLABORATIVE SPIRIT.
“The band was very positive and encouraging from the off,” remembers Hardstaff of the “Spinning Plates” project. “I was entirely left to my own devices, and upon delivery, they were equally as supportive.” In contrast to what you might expect of working with one of the world’s biggest rock bands – and, by extension, a major record label concerned with its investment – a Radiohead commission affords a remarkable degree of artistic freedom. “Their commissioner is very good at deflecting the hassle whilst protecting the lads’ interests in the process,” says Hardstaff. “And because this was such an unusual commission, coming from the band directly, I think it was only the boys themselves and Dilly that I was answerable to.”
Gee’s experience making Meeting People Is Easy bears out this assessment. The director was initially brought on board simply to document the week-long press junket for the 1997 release of OK Computer “They were going to have all these cameras pointed at them, and they were quite keen to have a camera on their side of the divide, pointing back,” says Gee. (EMI was also “smarting,” as Gee puts it, from having just released a major Beatles’ anthology, al which point it realized that it didn’t actually own much archival Beatles footage.) “For the future, any band that looked like it was going to be happening, the record company wanted to own as much documentary footage as possible,” recalls Gee. “It was like, ‘We don’t know what this shit’s for, just go out, cover the week in Barcelona, shoot stuff, and then it’ll go into our archive should this band ever really become big.”
By week’s end, Gee knew that no matter how big Radiohead eventually became, the material itself was already huge: here was an immensely talented band, led by a personality who existed at an inhuman “pitch of self-conscious intensity... of hope and despair and frustration” staring straight in the face of a fame of almost inconceivable magnitude. The footage Gee shot over the next year and edited into Meeting People Is Easy makes the Beatles’ Hard Days’ Night look like a Keystone Kops episode.
What was most remarkable, then, was that Meeting People Is Easy was never commissioned as a documentary; Gee simply kept submitting proposal after proposal in order to keep the cameras rolling. In retrospect, it’s hard to imagine why the band would want to bring a filmmaker on board – just one more distraction in an already very messy existence. But if Radiohead ever grew tired with Gee’s probing cameras, “they were polite enough never to say it,” he says.
The band’s support for Gee came in spite of – or perhaps because of – his lack of traditional documentary credentials. “I think why Thom was interested in me doing the job from the first part was that I’d made an experimental film called Found Sound,” recalls Gee. It’s an animated short set to music by the London-based techno group Spooky, of whom Yorke was a fan. “I think that’s why people do such good work for them,” surmises Gee. “They’re very good at finding out who they’d like to work with in quite impersonal ways. It’s just based on work, then having a little tryout, and seeing how they gel on with the people, and then if they think that’s okay, then letting people do what they do best.”
RADIOHEAD’S VISUAL EXPERIMENTS DON’T ALWAYS PROVIDE A QUANTIFIABLE RETURN.
Indeed, part of the band’s charm lies in the way its ambition occasionally overreaches the limits of commercial feasibility. Gent and the band hit upon the blips campaign largely as a survival strategy for the exhausted band – how to create visuals for Kid A without having to make traditional videos. The problem was that at the going ad rates for prime time TV, “we could only afford to run about five” of the 70 10-second shorts, says Gent, laughing. (The campaign went on to win best marketing campaign at a UK advertising awards ceremony, despite the fact that “no one saw it,” says Gent.) And while Hardstaff saw nothing but green lights from Radiohead, getting his unconventional video shown was another matter entirely. “MTV just was not into playing it,” says Hardstaff. “I don’t think for a second it was the [11-minute] runtime, it was the subject matter. They wanted some kind of disclaimer run before it. They felt it was of a very sensitive nature. In the end they did manage to run it late at night with one of their presenters issuing some kind of ‘warning’ and ‘explanation’ beforehand. The irony is that you can’t move on MTV for bland R&B and the empty boasts of ‘artists’ effectively fixated with their own flaccid showbiz cocks, but any piece of film with an ounce of real emotion isn’t going to get seen.”
Still, “despite MTV, the film has in a way achieved a life of its own through non-traditional formats,” says Hardstaff – which makes sense, given Radiohead’s enthusiastic, even obsessive fan base. “All the big digital film festivals supported it, and I believe it has proved to be, like so many other Radiohead films, rather popular, despite the censorious moral judgments.” In fact, as cliché as it might sound, Hardstaff’s experience working with Radiohead underscores the way that the band has come to stand for creative freedom, unconventional wisdom and aesthetic integrity – in the face of crushing, corporate mediocrity.
In this light, perhaps it’s not surprising that Radiohead chose Hopewell and his Collision Films company to make the video for “There There.” Hopewell, an audiovisual autodidact who worked previously at the animation company Bolex Brothers, got his start booking the kind of North American punk bands whose fierce independence Radiohead has taken as its own model.
“I’ve written it around a Brothers Grimm-style fairy tale,” says Hopewell, who, inspired by the song’s forest imagery, went biking into the woods at five a.m. to scope locations. “They generally have a moral gist to them. Like a person gets lost, gets offered something or given something or takes something, goes a little bit too far, takes too much, is greedy, and gets punished for it. That’s the gist of most Brothers Grimm stuff.” It’s hard not to see Yorke’s suspicion of celebrity here, his disdain for hubris. The band is, in a sense, primed for a re-invention, having been out of the limelight since Amnesiac, an album that itself re-introduced the band after a series of extreme reinventions. Self-consciousness is a key part of the Radiohead mystique. What’s the moral to the story, then? Hopewell is mum; Gent is mum. Viewers will have to wait and see. Whatever the lesson, Yorke’s murky, unsettling chorus unwittingly underscores the band’s singular genius: “We are accidents/ Waiting to happen/ We are accidents/ Waiting to happen.”
1993 – PABLO HONEY
The central video for Radiohead’s debut album was “Creep”, not because it was dramatically innovative – in fact, it’s a fairly traditional performance video – but the tack was a hit, helping the album peak at number 32 on the US charts. The other videos for the album include “Anyone Can Play Guitar” (Dwight Clarke), “Pop Is Dead” (Clarke) and “Stop Whispering” (Jeff Plansker).
1994/1995 – THE BENDS
The breakthrough video for The Bends album was Jamie Traves’ “Just”, which was based on the script for a short film and borrowed its visual style from Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Conformist. Other videos for this album include “My Iron Lung” (Paul Cunningham, US version) “High and Dry” (David Mould, UK version), “Fake Plastic Trees” (Jake Scott) and “Street Spirit” (Jonathan Glazer).
1997/1998 – OK COMPUTER
Magnus Carlsson’s animated video for “Paranoid Android” is this album’s most notable, as it received tons of video-play in spire of its six-minute length. The character in the video is named Robin, although most people thought it was Thom Yorke. Other videos include “Karma Police” (Jonathan Glazer), “No Surprises” (Grant Gree) and “Let Down” (Simon Fulton). “Palo Alto” was a b-side, and the video came from Grant Gee’s documentary Meeting People Is Easy.
2000 – KID A
For Kid A, the band opted to skip traditional videos, instead commissioning a series of very short “blips,” which aired both on television and online.
2001 – AMNESIAC
With Amnesiac, Radiohead again released a series of blips, but this album truly showcases the band’s penchant for innovation. Shynola’s dazzling video for “Pyramid Song,” inspired by a dream of Yorke’s, journeyed through an ethereal CGI underwater world. Johnny Hardstaff called the high-tech video for “Pull/Pulk Revolving Doors” and “Like Spinning Plates” an “exercise in emotional extraction.” And Michel Gondry, describing the video for “Knives Out,” which is based on the game Operation, noted that it was quite personal. “Thom Yorke was not really willing to tell me the motivation for the song, so he asked me to put my inspiration or feelings into it. I had gone through a very difficult break-up with a girlfriend at the time. This was the first time I was only expressing my feelings.” Other videos for this album include “I Might Be Wrong” (Internet version, Chris Bran) and “I Might Be Wrong” (Sophie Muller).
2003 – HAIL TO THE THIEF
“There There” (Chris Hopewell), still in production as this issue went to press, was inspired by a Grimm’s fairy tale.