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Behind The Video: Sam Pilling on DJ Shadow's Rocket Fuel

Behind The Video: Sam Pilling on DJ Shadow's Rocket Fuel

Promonews - 5th Dec 2019

Sam Pilling is mostly occupied directing commercials these days, and it takes a special project to lure him back into the world of music videos. But there is no doubt that he and DJ Shadow have something special going on.

Back in 2016, Pilling transformed Shadow's collaboration with Run The Jewels on Nobody Speak into one of the most enjoyably pugnacious (and arguably prophetic) music videos seen in years, as a UN-style summit of international leaders and diplomats descends from frank exchange of views into a chaotic free-for-all. 

Now Pilling is back with Shadow for what is something of a sequel, and certainly a timely companion piece to the award-winning video for Nobody Speak. In Rocket Fuel - featuring De La Soul - chaos reigns again with global implications, as Pilling dramatises the rumours and conspiracy theories surrounding the historic Apollo 11 moon mission.

It's a brilliantly executed combination of realism and high comedy, and we talked to Sam Pilling about how it came about - and how the idea of a fake moon landing resonates today.

PROMONEWS: Can you talk us through the process of coming up with the idea for the video? 

SAM PILLING: After listening to the track a few times, I kept coming back to the idea of astronauts brawling on the moon: “a close encounter of some kind…” It was just a funny image that I couldn’t get out of my head.

From there, I began exploring one of the most relentless conspiracy theories of our time: what if the Apollo moon landings were faked?! It’s no secret that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin didn’t get along and so putting two and two together (and getting a flat earth) I thought, what if Neil and Buzz’s petty squabbling ended up exposing the lie!

We never talked about doing a sequel. After Nobody Speak I was in two minds about doing another music video.

Has it been in your mind for a while to do a sequel to Nobody Speak? Has it ever been discussed with DJ Shadow?

No, we never talked about doing a sequel, and it wasn’t really something I’d given much thought to. In fact, after the success of Nobody Speak I was in two minds about doing another music video altogether, let alone another one for DJ Shadow! Hahaha.

Did you research any stories/theories about how the moon landings were faked, to get inspiration for your storyline? Are there any that suggest that Kubrick directed the Apollo 11 footage?

Yeah, totally! After coming up with the basic premise, I went down a YouTube wormhole of Moon Landing conspiracy theories, stumbling upon a load of interesting (if not ridiculous) arguments along the way. One of which, is the relatively widespread idea that Stanley Kubrick directed the moon landing hoax. He definitely consulted NASA scientists when he was making 2001: A Space Odyssey, but that is almost certainly the end of it!

After that I watched the Apollo 11 documentary (which is amazing!) and re-watched First Man – using both as visual references throughout the production process. There’re a few other Easter eggs in there for avid conspiracy theorists - if you know, you know…

I watched the Apollo 11 documentary - amazing! - and re-watched First Man – using both as visual references.

Is the Kubrick reference itself a nod to Nobody Speak - with its very Dr Strangelove-style conference room?

Well it certainly felt fitting to include Kubrick in the video! And the end title cards are an homage to Pablo Ferro’s iconic title design for Dr Strangelove. And as you said, Kubrick’s masterpiece was obviously an inspiration for Nobody Speak, so the two videos are definitely connected.

How long did you have to prepare between being awarded the job and shooting it? What were your biggest priorities in making sure that this was completely convincing?

I really wanted the video to feel ‘authentic’. For viewers to question (albeit for a brief moment) what was archival footage, and what was filmed by us. So, my biggest priority was ensuring that everything looked and felt as believable as possible.

When DP extraordinaire Rina Yang came on board we talked about the best way to achieve an authentic archival look. Rina suggested the idea of shooting with two different film formats; 16mm open gate for the mission control room (giving the imagery a textured feeling similar to the old stock footage) then 35mm for the moon landing film set, giving a slightly sharper, more cinematic look.

Rina Yang (above, second right) suggested the idea of shooting with two different film formats to achieve an authentic archival look.

Rina also suggested using older lights to light the set with, in an effort to keep the look in-keeping with our '60s era. The next step was finding a studio big enough to build a convincingly-sized Moon surface and to get our main light source as far away from our moon surface as possible, in order to emulate the elongated shadows synonymous with the moon landing.

We had about two weeks of preproduction before shooting and one of the biggest production issues was the actual design of both the Mission Control room, and the moon landing set. We worked closely with our amazing art director Vlad Rhyhikov, referencing Apollo 11, First Man and NASA’s iconic Hasselblad images of the actual moon landing (yep, it definitely happened folks!) – and we constantly referred back to these images throughout the process, trying to make each location feel as legitimate as possible.

When I landed on set the first day I was bowled over by the attention to detail and immense hard-work that had gone into both sets. Vlad has a real eye for detail and despite having an incredibly short window of time he worked set-building magic. I think the effort Vlad and his team put in really shows on screen.

Another key aspect of filming anything period is the wardrobe. It’s so easy for it to feel forced or over the top. So, when Mr. Gammon came on board it was a great relief. Again, his taste, attention to detail and passion for the project as a whole was truly amazing. He literally threw everything he had at it, ensuring our characters looked amazing and felt in-keeping with our era.

Our art director Vlad Rhyhikov has a real eye for detail and despite having an incredibly short window of time he worked set-building magic.

Despite our best efforts, when we got our rushes back, our imagery felt slightly too clean and nice to fit with the archival footage. Tom Mangham at The Mill coloured the job recreating a bleach-bypass look as our starting point. We both had to go against our normal aesthetic – giving a high contrast and slightly over-saturated look that almost felt technically wrong.

The last piece of the visual puzzle was put together by a crack VFX team at The Mill led by Bradford Wood and produced by Bruce Langfield, who all worked round the clock adding the visual cherry on top (if only it was that easy). They ensured that our moon surface and mission control room felt as authentic as humanly possible. Their VFX work really elevates the visuals but hopefully it’s hard to tell what they actually did (and I mean that as the biggest compliment!)

It felt like a nice Easter egg to use the same actor as in Nobody Speak - and Igor Tsyshkevich (above, right, with Sam Pilling) is such an incredible talent

Where did you shoot this? And what were the biggest challenges on the shoot?

We shot the video in Kyiv, with the amazing Radioaktive Film. Having filmed the last DJ Shadow vid there, we knew we were in good hands. Darko and the Radioaktive family really looked after us and gave everything to help make the video happen.

Emma Wellbelove produced the job – ferociously leading our conspirator troops to the moon and back! Whilst Rik Green, Maurizio Von Trapp and all the Pulse Films homies helped keep the ship on course in the darkest of black hole moments.

In fact, so many people gave up so much of their precious time, energy and resources to make the project a reality and I am truly grateful for that. To say it was a huge team effort is a massive understatement.

It was a logistically difficult shoot all round but the biggest challenge on the day was the stunt work. Buzz and Neil’s playground-style scrap makes up the bulk of the narrative and most of the sequences involved some kind of wire-work and rigging, which is time consuming at the best of times, but made all the more so by the large, cumbersome astronaut costumes they were wearing.

Our two astronauts were absolute troopers, giving great performances whilst being thrown around the set for 20 hours.

The great Illia Lurchyshyn was our stunt coordinator - who also worked on Nobody Speak. He and his crew worked through the night to create the amazing zero-gravity fight scenes.

Our two astronauts; Dmytri Savenko (Neil) and Maxim Gorovyi (Buzz) were absolute troopers, giving great performances whilst being thrown around the set for 20 hours, and always with a smile on their face and a yearning to make each shot the best it could be.

The American ambassador in Nobody Speak, makes a re-appearance in Rocket Fuel. Is he playing the same guy in this one?

Ha! No, in Nobody Speak he is simply ‘an American President’ but in Rocket Fuel he is President Nixon. Again, it felt like a nice Easter egg to use the same actor; and Igor Tsyshkevich is such an incredible talent, so it was a bit of a no brainer!

Although the video is set in 1969, I still wanted to make a commentary on the ‘fake news’ era we find ourselves in today.

This is a bit more screwball and less intense than your first DJ Shadow video. Was that always the intention? And what’s the thinking behind Brezhnev appearing in the US mission control centre? 

Yeah, after speaking with Shadow it was clear that his vision for the whole album was to shine a light on the darkness of the world we find ourselves in today, and to not take things quite so seriously. And despite the obvious connections between the two videos, I wanted to make sure Rocket Fuel was tonally slightly different. The idea is so utterly ridiculous that it felt right to lean in to the outrageous nature of it all and make it as funny and outlandish as we possibly could.

Although the video is set in 1969, I still wanted to make a commentary on the ‘fake news’ era we find ourselves in today. During the cold war America and Russia were in a race to reach the moon first, but I thought it would be funny to insinuate that neither country could actually reach the moon, and that they were both secretly working together to fake the moon landing. Not unlike the speculations that Russia was involved in Trump’s rise to power in recent years.

In the same regard, the ending came about because I liked the idea that Frances “Poppy” Northcutt - the only female mission control worker to work on the Apollo 11 mission (yes, there was only one!) got fed up with all the ineffective, egotistical men around her acting like children, and so decided to save the day herself!

• Sam Pilling is a director represented by Pulse Films. 
• This has been a Promonews and Pulse Films co-production. 

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