The MTV Video Music Awards are coming up in a week’s time. There’s always a lot of big names in the lists of nominees. This year, a music video from Australia did the unheard of. For a song without a major promotional budget, Natasha Pincus and her cinematographer collaborator Warwick Field conceptualized and realized a music video for Gotye’s “Somebody That I Used to Know” that has now been seen more than 300 million times, more than any video by any other independent artist.
Pincus, also a filmmaker, screenwriter and all around creative talent began her working life as an attorney, but with numerous awards on the mantle in Australia for music videos for the likes of Missy Higgins, Paul Kelly and Powderfinger, and now this breakout smash hit that propelled Gotye from an unknown to an international sensation, Pincus has been nominated for two MTV Video Music Awards including the huge VIDEO OF THE YEAR category that pits Pincus against videos for Drake, Katy Perry, Rihanna and M.I.A.
We caught Pincus for a few words just as she was getting ready to board the long flight to head out to Los Angeles to attend the Awards. Renowned cinematographer Warwick Field kindly supplied behind the scenes photos in the gallery below.
The music video has been viewed over 300 million times and became ‘THAT video’ over the summer… Did you ever expect it to get this big? There’s even a million satires of it.
Natasha Pincus: Not in my wildest dreams. And it still freaks me out when I think about it. Whenever you make a video, you work unbelievably hard to create what you feel is the most truthful visual expression you can imagine for the song, no matter what the timeline and budget. Sometimes that can result in 20 people seeing the finished clip, or 200 million – you can never predict that outcome, nor have a clue what caused it. That being said, this song is a wonder. The very first time I heard an early version of it I had an inkling that it would spread far and wide. And then when Kimbra came on board the magic sparkled even brighter. The whole process just felt like a perfect storm.
How did you go from concept to finished video?
Natasha Pincus: This was a deceptively difficult project to realize. It saw the coming together of various artists who are at the top of their respective fields – a body painter and a scenic artist combining their work with a cinematographer’s capturing of live action and stop motion animation.
It was important that I carefully ‘cast’ the heroes who would loan their geniuses to the project. I discovered Emma Hack’s bodypainting work and associated camouflage photography and found it to be breaktaking, so I hunted her down. She ended up coming over to Melbourne from Adelaide for the project. Howard Clark is a stellar scenic artist who had previously painted a 30ft mural across two planes for a Sarah Blasko video of ours in the past, and so he was my first choice to adapt Frank De Backer’s beautiful painting from A4 size up to a huge wall mural, and in such a way that Emma could then blend its colors and linework in her bodypainting work the following day.
Weeks earlier, Wally and I experimented with manipulating Frank’s painting in different ways, testing how to achieve the best effect of the paintwork visually, and positioning its colors in the way that would reflect the emotions of the two characters. Wally proved to be a whizz with Photoshop – he mocked up various versions of the artwork’s position using photos of him (playing both roles!) as a guide. Then it was up to Warwick Field (first class cinematographer) and myself to labor through a month’s work planning every shot and every still frame, devising where and how the stop motion elements should be realized in order to time sympathetically with the song’s musical progression.
The prep was very detailed mathematically, scientifically – it was really important to me to ensure everything was completely worked out before the shoot so that on the days of filming I could be totally available to work creatively with Wally and Kimbra on their performances.
We rehearsed before the shoot, going through acting exercises, filming tests etc. We reduced the lyrics down to ‘lines’ and played out the scene as dialogue between the two characters. We also developed and rehearsed the precise choreography (‘that’ shoulder roll!) and ensured every word of the lyrics was invested with meaning.
The shoot itself was incredibly arduous. We spent a day and night setting up equipment. Then a further day with Wally doing his ‘nude’ performance, painting the background mural and capturing all associated stop motion. On the third day we filmed both Wally and Kimbra’s performances and the body paint’s application – which was a 26-hour day, straight. It took 6-8 hours to paint each person with stop motion being shot during the process. Then, once all painting was finally done, we had a lot of performance still to shoot (obviously the clip was all filmed out of order). And of course I wanted to capture a guzillion versions of every part of the song to give me the most options possible in the edit. It was important to me to shoot several versions of the delivery of each line, so I could have the freedom to ‘craft’ Wally’s character and his arc in different ways later on, and balance and rebalance the evolution of the story.
For example, we shot approx 50 versions of Wally’s ‘somebody’ plea at the end, rifling through every emotion possible. Wally and Kimbra’s performances were so wonderful, I was spoiled for choice in the edit.
What were your biggest safety concerns on-set?
Natasha Pincus: Emma had said that models often faint during the process (fatigued by standing still for so long) so we were certainly watching out for that possibility. My biggest concern on set was keeping Wally and Kimbra as alert and as comfortable as possible through all associated aches and pains. Lots of music was played, stories were told, massages were given. It was a marathon endurance test for all of us. I have to admit to feeling pretty average for quite a long time after the shoot. The process took a big toll on all of our bodies.
You directed, produced and edited this video – is it hard wearing three hats at the same time?
Natasha Pincus: It can be, though those three hats are pretty fun to wear. It’s the other ones that can make the process unnecessarily tricky.
I had two wonderful helpers on the shoot – Rose and Rob – who assisted with everything from catering to general production and lugging gear. But because of the small budgets that music videos often have, you don’t have the resources to have regular crew numbers on a film shoot who would otherwise take on specific roles and so take some pressure off you – such as a first AD, camera assistants etc. As a result, you end up spending a lot of energy and brainpower on stuff you really don’t want to be thinking about when there are other important things you need to be doing. I do love editing my own work though. The edit of this video took me weeks to get right, working day and night. Having the luxury to work to your own rhythms is a real gift, and definitely has a massively positive impact on the final product.
What inspired you or your idea for the video?
Natasha Pincus: The song itself has always been the primary source of inspiration for any music video I’ve ever created. In a sense, music video is a process of ‘adapting for the screen’ so it holds all the answers, all the truth. At a song’s core – and that might be revealed in a specific lyric, or its overall thematic – is generally where its best visual metaphor lies. How a particular concept develops from there is then informed by the song’s music, its melodic progression, tempo, dynamic, and the emotions it evokes.
How were you approached for the job?
Natasha Pincus: I was approached directly by Wally De Backer (the man behind Gotye) via his manager at Eleven Music. Eleven were a wonderful label/management to work with, leaving me to my own devices and trusting me with the project. Wally is an absolute marvel, so the very idea of working with him was an exciting prospect in itself. Then I heard the song and just fell over.
What were the limitations you faced with in the production?
Natasha Pincus: There weren’t so many limitations so much as practical challenges thrown up by the extremely ambitious concept itself. The project brought together various professionals across several different media.
I had to facilitate the collaboration of various 2D artists – a graphic artist’s work painted as a mural by a different scenic artist whose own work was to blend with a body painter’s paintings across two performers. The artists all had their own methods and needs to achieve their work so negotiating those, while also subjecting them to the tedious, stop-start nature of stop motion photography, was tricky.
We were also integrating stop motion and live action photography, which provided technical and creative challenges. And the video had to be shot entirely out of order because of the timings of the various paintings/reveals, which was difficult both logistically and hard on the singers in terms of performance. They were also exhausted – the body painting took 7 hours per person, so we could only start some parts of the performance work 14 hours into the a day’s shoot…so human fatigue was a limitation! A 26-hour day is grueling, no matter how much you prepare and train for it.
What was the turnaround?
Natasha Pincus: The video took a few months of preparation. That’s a key benefit of an musician-driven clip – you are working towards the common goal of making the best video you can, rather than being forced to make decisions driven by an imaginary deadline made up by a business person you never even meet in the flesh. I edited the video myself over a couple of weeks. There were a lot of different ways to tell this story and it was important that the two ‘characters’ came across certain ways at certain times, and the right way on balance. We shot many different performance versions for each mini scene and because Wally and Kimbra gave such wonderful performances, I was spoiled for choice.
Photos provided courtesy of cinematographer Warwick Field: