Gavin Strange takes us on set for music video P.O.S ‘Born A Snake’
Gav Strange takes us behind the scenes on set to film the music video for ‘Born A Snake’, by American rapper, producer and Doomtree Crew co-founder P.O.S.
G’morning all. I trust you’re well, happy and hydrated? Yes? Then let us begin… I was hoping you’d indulge me this week, as I want to be so bold as to write about one of my own projects. It’s a personal project that I’m mighty proud of you see, for its aesthetic, but also how it came to fruition and completion.
The project in question is a music video for American rapper, producer and Doomtree Crew co-founder P.O.S and it’s for a track called ‘Born A Snake’, from his new album ‘Chill, Dummy’. Before we delve into the nitty gritty of the beast, why not watch the video first, to get a feel for the whole story? (And if you think your computer is up to it, why not watch it in glorious 4K too!)
Let’s start at the beginning shall we!? Around 10 years ago, my buddy Sam made me a mix CD, like all good friends do. He knew I loved rap music and prided himself on being an all-knowing hip-hop Yoda (my words, not his), so he made me a double-disc mix CD of the best independent rap music around (He also called it “Jams for the JamFactory” because he’s awesome). On that mix were 3 artists he told me were part of a crew / collective called ‘Doomtree’. They went by the names Sims, Dessa and P.O.S. I fell in love with all 3 tracks straightaway and on the advice of Sam, went down the rabbit hole of the back catalogue of all the Doomtree artists and their individual releases. I was an instant fan.
A few years later and P.O.S. would tour Europe and, as luck would have it, came to Bristol. Of course we were going to go! Sam made the trip down to London to come see the show with us, but also to see his buddies – he was friends with P.O.S, his DJ Paper Tiger and the whole Doomtree crew as he’d spent some time out in Minneapolis with them. So going to a show ended up with us all hanging out and making friends. I even took the guys out for a classic British fry-up the next morning!
Fast forward over the years and I would often make graphics, just for fun, based on the musical output of the Doomtree crew. I was always inspired by their wordplay and so that’d always conjure up visuals which I’d excitedly turn into a bit of graphic design, simply because.
Whenever the guys would tour Europe again a bunch of us would go see the shows and then hang out, I even shot some portraits on film last time they were here:
Then, in 2015, myself and Merlin Crossingham were making a film together, the 2016 OFFF Design Festival Main Titles. We were making something that had energy and colour, heart and soul. We wanted it to be as sonically bombastic as the visuals, so I reached out to Stef (P.O.S) to ask if it’d be possible to use his absolute banger of a track ‘Get Down’ as the soundtrack to the film, as it had the perfect energy.
Kindly he agreed and we were stoked to have such a great track as our base… but because of Stef’s kindness we were inspired to go one further… I asked if he’d be up for rapping, over the top of an instrumental of ‘Get Down’, with the names of all 50+ speakers for the festival – creating a true rap video… Luckily, he agreed! So we all went on to create, what we loving refer to as our ‘Stop-Frame Motion-Graphics Rap-Video Title-Sequence’
Once that big project was wrapping up in May last year, I said to Stef “If I can ever help you out in any way to repay the favour, I’d love to make a music video for YOU!”, and so we left it at that, I owed a big creative debt to him for him giving us something awesome. After that, we all went on with our lives. Job’s a good ‘un, until early one October morning I get a very exciting message pop-up on WhatsApp “Hey man! Almost ready for video time!” – Stef was working on his latest album and was ready to start talking about music videos… DREAM PASSION PROJECT!
I was so excited, being a big fan of Stef’s and rap videos in general. It’s something I’d always wanted to make, and the OFFF titles had given me a taste. Excitedly I replied that I couldn’t wait to get started, there was just one small blocker… I was due to become a Dad for the first time in late January / early February, which, funnily enough, was when the deadline for the video was. But, deadlines are good, they give you a rigid framework to stay within, especially when that deadline coincides with the birth of your firstborn child. We know what to aim for!
So with that we had our timeline, and then I received the track, ‘Born A Snake’, the opening banger from the new album. I instantly loved it; it was dark and weird, glitchy and uncomfortable, perfect for quick cut visuals and something other-worldly. I couldn’t wait to get started. My only brief from Stef was music to my ears: “Just dark!”. It was what I’d always wanted to hear, people sometimes think all I can do is bright colours and goofy faces, but I love the aesthetics of darker stuff; from the symbology to the moody lighting, I couldn’t wait to make something dark!
I set off by drafting a treatment, a short document to piece together my concept and to have a cohesive vision for how it could be. I thought it’d be best to do a concept image, something to get the mood right, so I hopped into Photoshop, grabbed a hi-res press shot of Stef himself and set to work making it weird.
Another big challenge was the elephant in the room – Stef was 4,000 miles away so how were we going to address that!? Luckily, another of my favourite visual things came into play – masks! Not only would a mask offer us a way to get that unsettling feeling that was so important, it also removed the complication of not being able to show Stef in the video.
With that revelation also came a third challenge. If the artist wouldn’t appear in the video, then we couldn’t rely on a live-action performance to carry the whole video – it needed something else. That’s where the motion graphics came into it for a mix of live-action and animation. With the Serpent theme running through the track and the concept, I felt hypnotic and mesmerising graphics would be the perfect way to deliver the lyrics of the track without using synced dialogue.
So I set about getting all these thoughts into a finished document, which you can see right here:
Stef and his manager saw the treatment and were really happy with it, so it was onwards with production! This was a passion project for a friend, a repayment for a creative debt, so there was no budget to play with, but like all constraints, they force you to be imaginative. The setting for the shoot was a reptile enclosure, so for inspiration me and Director of Photography & Camera Operator Adam took a research trip to Bristol Zoo to get a feel for what it could look like (Thank you to them for letting us visit!) – another reason for the enclosure setting was creative constraint: a single self-contained setting is much more achievable! We could have shot at the Zoo itself, thanks to their generosity, but we opted to shoot in the studio back at Aardman, so we could have easier control over lighting and props.
We opted to shoot in the studio back at Aardman, so we could have easier control over lighting and props.
The lighting was key too, both to the progression of the narrative but also working to those creative constraints. Multiple lighting set-ups in the same space would help break up the fact the shots were in the same location but also reinforce the ‘reptile enclosure’ theme by moving from a warm lamp to a ultraviolet light look, finishing off with a demonic red heat lamp aesthetic.
With the look of the location set, we started to think about where we could do it – a quiet corner of the Aardman studio on a weekend – and then I walked past the lighting store room. It’s a small breeze block walled cube that’s totally unremarkable, perfect! We could simply move the equipment into the next room and then dress the space to match. After all, it was meant to feel cramped and humid, and with access to a smoke machine, we could do just that.
With our ‘set’ decided, it was time to concentrate on the look of the Serpent creature. The mask was the most important part that the film hinged on, it would give it it’s creepy look and keep viewers intrigued. I sent an email to my friend Jimmy, who’s a master model maker and side-project indulger. He was busy up the road at Aardman’s other studio, the big one, where he was working on Nick Park’s new animated feature ‘Early Man’. I asked him if he’d be up for working together on a rap-related nighttime passion project and, thankfully, he said yes.
I showed him the treatment and he wasted no time in sketching out some some examples by hand, getting stuck in. One for the first things I said was “Do you need me to buy a generic face mask to use as a base”, to which he replied “Oh no no, I’ve got a full-sized adult head cast that I use” – of course(!).
The mask needed to be incredibly primitive and quite ‘crude’; yet the process was no less intense than making something beautiful and ornate. Jimmy approached each part of the process with craft and care.
So what began was an incredible process with Jimmy, as I would receive these late-night WhatsApp messages of his progress. It was amazing to see the mask take shape, with each step getting closer and closer. For what needed to be an incredibly primitive and ‘crude’ mask, the process was no less intense than making something beautiful and ornate. Jimmy approached each part of the process with craft and care, and when I didn’t think it could get any better, he added another layer of finessing. Each WhatsApp ‘ping’ would make me grab my phone and exclaim “ZOMG!” as seeing something you imagined come to life way better than you ever expected is a real joy, and a real honour. It goes to show how important and special it is to work with great people, and I was very proud to be able to work with Jimmy.
You can see the process behind the mask right here:
With the location sorted and the mask underway, the next part was the clothes that the creature had to wear. I asked my friend Charlotte, who’s a brilliant costume designer for film & tv and she told me to head to Bristol Costume Hire, for it’s a treasure trove of all things costume and I could find what I needed there. She wasn’t wrong, it was a labyrinth of clothing. We scoured the aisles to find what we wanted – a modern but distressed leather jacket (to mimic the style that P.O.S. wears himself) but also old shredded robes and cloaks (the kind that the serpent would fashion himself to try and look human)
We came away with the perfect jacket and cloak, but still had to address the issue of how to cover the performer from head to toe, so as not to show any human features. My friend and colleague Keith had a great solution – a burka! It worked perfectly, underneath the cloak, jacket and mask, it would hide everything and partnered with bandages to hide the hands, that was the look we needed. It all required a bit of distressing though, as it couldn’t look clean or new, so I got out the sandpaper, bleach, teabags and a pot of jam to make the garments look (and feel) disgusting. They did smell nice though. Well, sort of. The jam was lovely. The old teabags and bleach, not so much.
With all that in place, it was time to actually shoot something. By this point it was mid-January and my wife was due to have our baby within the following couple of weeks, so we knew we needed to get it locked. We headed into the Aardman studio on a weekend and turned the previously unexciting lighting storeroom into a hot & humid reptile enclosure complete with foliage, mist and moody lighting.
My friend and dance teacher Wendy had kindly agreed to play the part of the serpent, as we needed the character to move in a specific way. The creature needed a subtle reptilian sway about its movement, and with Wendy being a professional dance teacher, she was perfect to be able bring that performance to life. Unfortunately for her, that same performance had to happen underneath a burka, a heavy cloak, a weighty XL leather jacket, a crusty wooden hood and then a thick heavy mask that had no eye holes!
She was an absolute trooper, she never complained, despite the awkward conditions. We shot everything in a day and it looked better than ever. Thank was thanks to our Director of Photography and Camera Operator Adam, who lit our set to give it those three distinct lighting states. Everything was lit from the top, to mimic the reptile enclosures we’d seen at the zoo, but Ads also had the genius idea to throw a strip of light on the back wall, through a hole in the lighting store roof, to give the impression of a beam of moonlight just piercing through to the enclosure. It lifted the whole scene and just have it that extra ‘something’. That’s what happens when you work with awesome people.
With the live-action shoot wrapped, it was time to get on with assembling what we had. We shot the whole thing in 4K resolution, (just because we could and I was curious to work with a big res on a personal project) but that meant a bit of data wrangling, making sure I could use the footage without it killing my machine. Thankfully, Adobe’s new auto-Proxy feature in Premiere sorted me right out. With that all in place, I could crack on with the edit. The Born A Snake track has got so many snare hits and bass drops, it came together really quickly. It just felt right to work with the beat and make the cuts quick and jarring, to make the viewer uneasy.
Not long after finishing the edit, the best thing happened – our son was born! So, of course, whilst I was away on paternity leave I downed tools on all passion projects. After 5 weeks off, I headed back to work at Aardman but also wanted to find a way to continue my love of side-projects – that’s when I discovered by 5am – 8am time slot whilst my boy slept (and what I wrote my very first Inkygoodness column about too!). Armed with my new schedule, I set to work on the biggest challenge of the video; the motion graphics!
Up until then, I only had a loose idea for how the graphics would work. I knew that they needed to be hypnotic and mesmerising, symbol-heavy with a reference to an ancient language, but that was as far as I’d got, choosing to concentrate on the live-action portion until then. So I just began sketching, scouring the web for reference of ancient symbols, runes and icons of the occult.
The graphics needed to represent lore of the serpent, to clearly show it’s not something we’ve seen before, it’s definitely not human, even though it wants to be. I got to go to town on this stuff, I’ve always loved symbolism and the graphics of the occult, even though I’m a massive scaredy cat and hate horror films, I’m still fascinated by the graphic design of it all. That was my starting point – subversive, strange and intriguing. So I set to work designing, cracking open illustrator and pretty much just free styling as I went along, moving and scaling primitive shapes, building up the detail as I went along. If it felt right, it was right!
I also had the idea that on every bass hit within the animated portion of the track, we would ‘zoom’ into the design to reveal yet another level of detail underneath it. It was one of those great ideas at the time which then quickly reveals just how work intensive that will be… good job I love working then hey! With the concept and idea in mind, I set about working them up in illustrator to get the design sorted before animation.
With the base design done, it was time for the final stage – the animation! The general idea was to have each design have it’s own symbols and runes animating around the frame, but within the centre there would be a main set of symbols that would animate in relation to Stef’s lyrics and would carry the viewer through the whole film. Because I wanted to animate each line stroke individually, I had to manually copy and paste every single separate line out of Illustrator and into After Effects, so I could manipulate it exactly how I needed. I also wanted to build on the look of symbols too, so I added animated noise, roughen and distortion, dropped the frame rate and generally make it feel unstable and full of energy with subtle movements in every single elements.
As well as the intricate designs, I wanted some ‘flash frames’ every now and then to break up the intricacy and add an element of subliminal symbolism! For those, I just made a big thick noisy brush in Photoshop and started painting using the Wacom, it was really satisfying.
After a few months of early morning occult-ish before work and in-between dad duties, all those separate animated elements were complete, and it was time to stitch them all together and integrate them with the live-action world.
There was just 1 final stage remaining – a colour grade! I got to work with my friend & colleague Chris, who loves a side project as much as I do. We’d worked together on a few films before, and he loves getting his grade on in the suite, so we worked together to build 3 strong ‘looks’ for the 3 different sections of the video. The ‘Warm’ opening, the ‘Ultraviolet’ middle and then the ‘Red lamp’ ending. Because of the tone of the film, we could really let rip with the contrast and punch of the colours, it felt good to be so dark.
Who would have thought, that 10 years on and 4,000 miles apart, I’d get the chance to collaborate with and make something for an artist and friend I hugely respected, with a group of people who gave it their everything, all in the name of making something from nothing. Awesome. Flipping’ awesome.
DOP & Camera Operator – ADAM COOK
Serpent performer – WENDY HAZEL
Mask build – JAMES ‘JIMMY 2 EGGS’ YOUNG
Colourist – CHRIS LYONS
Photographer – DAN PASK
Director, Producer, Designer & Animator – GAVIN STRANGE
THANKS: Stef Alexander, Mary Thayer, Aardman Animations, Bryan, Henry & Lucy @ Bristol Zoo, Charlotte Mitchell, Nat Sale, Jane & Sullivan Strange.jam-factory.com