SING J. LEE TALKS BIRDY + RHODES – TEXT LUKE BATHER
Sing J. Lee is one of the most consistent, and seemingly prolific, young music video directors working in the UK at the moment. It seems like it was only last week that his brilliant sci-fi clip for Muse was released and already he’s back to wowing us with a new video for Birdy & Rhodes. Sing’s talent for creating distinct visual worlds really shines through in this video. He spoke to us about creating a world where pink trees feel natural, surviving a plague of midges, and dealing with a rogue horse.
Word Is Cheap: The Birdy video looks incredible – what inspired you to create this very distinct, dreamlike world?
Sing J. Lee: Thank you! It all came from the song and the desire to strip the elements of performance in my videos back to something a little more intimate, something that allowed the emotions of the artists to be a dominating feature in this video. This earnestness from Birdy and Rhodes was important, as the song is very sentimental and heartfelt. At the same time, I always imagined this duet exchanged like a dialogue between a couple who are separating, and this conversation triggers huge washes of emotions in their minds, all these abstract memories and feelings becoming overwhelming as they speak to each other. In our video, it manifests itself in the environment around them, they talk of a time that was once theirs, and so this world should feel like no other, but darkness and turmoil rolls in. When they conclude their conversation and finally move on from one another, this world they inhabited eventually fades away into a normal, quiet place.
WIC: How did you approach achieving the look?
SJL: I started with thinking about real world locations we could perhaps set this video in, places that we’d rarely see ourselves. But getting out to places like this wasn’t just a budget concern, but probably a logistical one. So I retracted and began thinking about processes we could do that would give us something unique. There are mountains in the Gansu Province in China; these formations are full of unbelievable colours from the minerals in the sandstone. We needed something like that. Then I recalled an enormous Cherry Blossom farm in Beijing I visited once, if you walk through the troughs in the ground, the sky disappears and the light under the branches is a soft pink glow. The mist in the air diffused all the light too – it looked and felt so surreal.
These were the inspirations behind the landscape I wanted to create. Several people have asked if Richard Mosse was the inspiration, and his series is truly unbelievable, something that will always be remembered. Perhaps that’s why people make the connection as we rarely see that aerochrome look. However, for all the effects and stylised ideas going into our video, it was extremely important to me that what we create and change should feel real and natural, like it was a place we actually visited. The colours had to stay muted, the sky had to feel like a late summer in Scandinavia. Just like the artists’ performance, everything needed to come together, sit in harmony and feel real and delicate.
Imagining an idea is one thing, executing is something else entirely – I would have never submitted this idea if I didn’t have the team around me to help me create this world. I work with colourist Lewis Crossfield regularly and even before speaking to him, I knew that he would be able to find the balance in the colours. It wasn’t just switching the hues; it was also applying a subtle day for night grade to the overall picture too. We spoke and worked on tests and references right the way through pre production.
Again, with the vfx, I was confident that Gloria FX (whom I worked with on Muse) would understand the delicacy of the skies, before I submitted the idea, I had a dialogue going with them about what we can and can’t achieve, and exchanged references on what we needed to create.
WIC: Although this was a collaboration between Birdy and Rhodes, the two never interact or face each other throughout the video. Was it important for you to maintain this divide?
SJL: Before this video they did a live performance where they played piano back to back. It was touching as it felt as if they knew their words would wound one another, and they didn’t have the heart to witness that. That discourse would become an important element in our video to maintain the heartbreak.
WIC: It seems like the locations were meticulously picked and are themselves quite remote, was this a difficult shoot in that respect?
SJL: The locations needed to have a huge varying shade of green to create that impact once we turned it pink. The location we chose had an amazing estate, the symmetry on those ground felt like a beautiful contrast to the wilderness as they walked away from each other. It was a little tough shooting out there, 2 hours from any city. Not to mention a plague of midges that really tested us along with the weather. But we soldiered through and captured everything we needed to.
There was also a rogue horse that had been dumped in a field we were about to shoot in. Imagine walking up a hill to hear galloping hooves, then seeing a pissed off horse thundering towards you over a ledge. I know what the hobbits felt like now.
If it wasn’t for Claire (Stubbs) acting horse whisperer and getting some reins on the spooked animal, then we would have been in a bit of trouble.
WIC: Do you think that there’s more room within music videos to experiment with colour and aesthetics now that artists seem more willing to take risks visually?
SJL: I do, and we see that month-by-month, to the credit of everyone involved in music videos, from the artists to the filmmakers.
I think it’s all about trust and knowing what’s right for the artist and the song.
As long as you can back up whatever you’re aiming to do and be clear about it, then artists, commissioners and label can have the confidence in backing the idea.