Lewis Nicholson stepped into an unprecedented situation last month, producing two of the first videos to be made when lockdown restrictions on filming began to be eased.
Behind The Video: Sophia Ray & Mayling Wong on Ritual's Using
In the latest in our Behind The Video series, we look at the making of a video directed by Partizan/Darkroom director Sophia Ray for Ritual and Emily Warren that satirizes the modern obsession with social media and the intense pressures that can arise from it, all delivered via a riveting character study.
The video for Using is the story of Lily, who seeks fame as a social media influencer - and achieves her goal. But after the rise comes the fall, and Ray's video crams in this story and all the details that make it a credible allegory, in a world that teeters between believable reality and dystopia, and with a strong central performance by Cailin Russo as Lily.
We spoke to Sophia Ray and Mayling Wong, Partizan/Darkroom executive producer who also produced the video, about how they made it.
What was in the brief for the Ritual video that inspired you to do the story of the (wannabe) Influencer?
Sophia Ray: The brief was quite specific from Laura Clayton (the commissioner) and the band. They knew they wanted a narrative piece that ventured into the darker side of modern technology. The idea was for it to be more centred around youth culture, so an influencer felt in the right realm to me. I find it quite a fascinating subject. It’s such a modern phenomenon, a very new kind of career which is based a lot around looking good with your success dictated by complete strangers. There has to be a darker side to this way of living.
We’re increasingly seeing this kind of story, in everything from Black Mirror to other music videos. What did you want to achieve with your take on the issue?
SR: It certainly is! I do enjoy the themes in Black Mirror, and it was one of my influences for this video for sure. But I wanted to put my own spin on how it was treated. I was inspired by films like The Neon Demon and Nocturnal Animals - a lot of the themes in these films being about keeping up appearances, superficial social circles and ‘living a lie’ - with a little more focus on human emotion over the coldness of modern technology. I wanted to strike that balance between the two. Create a character who is yes, kind of crazed and really irritating, but also you can see beneath it all there is real person in there. Which makes it even sadder when she seems to push her real relationships away with her obsession.
I wanted the video to feel like it could be set today, and anywhere in the world, with the tone having that sympathetic-to-her-plight edge. I wanted it to feel like the addiction was almost out of her control; and quite believable that some existences right now, aren’t actually too far away from this.
Above (from left): Sophia Ray, DoP Alex Jamin, actor Cailin Russo, focus puller Max Beauquesne
She's a character who is kind of crazed, really irritating – but beneath it all, you can see there's real person in there.
The video's strong narrative arc is accompanied by lots of enjoyable details. How much of it was planned at treatment stage, and how much came later, when you were in pre-production?
SR: A lot of the general narrative arc was shaped at treatment stage. The finer details, like the boyfriend character, the crazed, OTT ‘face-app’ moment, and large scale, physical comments that haunt her.
However, it was quite a long time in pre-production as we were auditioning girls and trying to secure our lead actors, which gave me the rare luxury of time to think about playful extra details as my shot list took shape. Things like the artwork that dressed her room, I wanted subtle hidden messages placed here. The emerging from the phone screen came to me in pre-production, almost like a dark call back to the product she is selling in the bathtub.
The club scene was a new idea too. When we found the location for her ‘date night’ scene, we discovered it also had a little ‘club room’ - so it felt rude not to use it! It’s actually my favourite scene of the video, and also spurred the idea of the ‘verification tick’ moment. So I’m glad we managed to find a way to get it in!
What were the big challenges for you, Mayling, once the job had been awarded?
Mayling Wong: I think the major challenge, not only for myself but for Sophia, Laura and the management/label team was finding the perfect lead girl. It was something we definitely went around in circles on!
But we eventually came across Cailin with the amazing help from Camilla at Camilla Arthur Casting. She had previously worked with her in LA and thought she’d be perfect for the role with her influencer background. And she was!
Above: Cailin Russo
We wanted to get an actress who either had no social media presence at all, or someone who has lived this reality to some degree.
As you say, your lead actor Cailin Russo is (or has been) an Influencer herself. What did her experience bring to the part? Did her being cast in the role impact upon the story?
SR: The idea was to either get an actress who had absolutely no social media presence at all, or someone who has lived this reality to some degree.
Cailin was a good fit. In her audition tape, she even touched a little on mental health and how it is important to sometimes out the phone down and have a break. She is an artist herself, so said she sometimes needed that breather away, to get back on top of her mental wellbeing and creative practice.
Social media brings a lot of distractions. A lot of comparing yourselves to others. But of course on the flip side it is also good for her career - seeing it almost like a blessing and a curse. She has lived / and living that life (although not so extreme), so together we had a lot to cling onto when coming up with a character and a backstory for ‘Lily’.
How involved were Ritual in the creative process?
SR: Ritual were involved in the treatment process with amending and adapting ideas with me, and like I said, it was quite a detailed brief. They also had a strong vision with who they wanted to play our lead character. They had some great ideas and input on the comment copy and signage that we made both for real and in the graphic elements of the video. However they really did give me a lot of creative freedom in pre-production, my shot list and on set to let me shoot my ideas as I envisaged them. It was really rewarding to have that trust from the band!
Above: Tommy from Ritual (right), makeup artist Jess Clarke
Ritual had great ideas and input on the comment copy and signage that we made for real and in the graphic elements of the video.
What were the crucial elements in the planning of the video that gave you the platform you needed?
SR: It helps having such a supportive production team. Mayling was incredible, she was a great to bounce ideas off of as well as going above and beyond to secure everything that I felt I needed to execute the video to the standard I wanted. It’s so much easier to be creative when the process feels harmonious and you really feel that support.
Going over shots with Alex [Jamin] the DoP was also really refreshing. We went over the shots numerous times together, chopping, changing and honing the plans for our shots, coming up with ideas together as well as leaving room for those serendipitous moments and fluidity on the shoot day to try new things out. I wanted to make sure I had a plan B for those shots that we were a little unsure of how they would pan out until we were there! As there was so much to blast through and capture during the two day shoot, so we didn’t have the luxury of big chunks of time for each scene.
I also wanted a rehearsal day with Cailin Russo before we got on set. We did a day of rehearsals before our first shoot day, so we had a space to try different things improvise certain scenes and see what struck a chord with us both. In those rehearsals I also learnt she has a wicked sense of humour. She didn’t take herself too seriously at all, which really helped with injecting that little bit of a manic nuance to the character. It was important to me to have that little glimmer of light relief to our main character Lily, and those subtle moments of humour were very welcome!
Above: Alex Jamin, Sophia Ray
I like to have a keen eye on everything when it comes to production design and the way we dress a space. I like sets that tell you a little more about a story subliminally
What were the key moments in the lead up to the shoot, that meant it all came together?
MW: The dates constantly changed with this one – just due to people’s availability, flights changing etc. So there were so many components to line up before we confirmed. So, when we managed to secure our DOP Alex, it felt like all the starts came together! He worked amazingly with Sophia and was just as passionate about the project as she was.
Sophia, You started out as a graphic designer. How does that inform your visual style as a director?
SR: It definitely does inform my visual style as a director! Attention to detail is key for me, graphic design is all about colour, composition, different textures that compliment each other that also make sense to the message you want to convey with the work. Film making, creating moving images, although a totally different practice, holds a lot of similarities.
Colour is very important to me in getting across a message or a mood. I like to have a keen eye on everything when it comes to production design and the way we dress a space. I like sets that tell you a little more about a story subliminally, something you might need to watch a few times to gauge the hidden nuances that back up a story. Everything having a reason to be placed there.
Costume, colour and style is also really important to me, how it sits and lives within a space, what it tells us about that character. Obviously the graphics in the video were designed to suit each scene, and my design background helped a lot with this. I had a clear idea of how I wanted this to look, to compliment each scene.
I loved shooting the club scene, having all the extras around Cailin and music on full blast really helped her to get into the vibe.
How ‘hands-on’ do you get with the VFX elements of the production?
SR: Really hands on. Glassworks were such a dream to work with on the post for this. Leanne [Pletersky] the Flame op had so much work to do in the three weeks we had put aside for post. So I designed up the graphics and created the identity in a lot of the 2D places to ease the workload, and we bounced ideas together on the placement, interaction and animation style together. It was fun to try things and create a space where we could trial an error together.
Your recent video for Au/Ra had this dynamic going on between a girl’s bedroom and future tech. Was that an influence on how you approached the Ritual video?
SR: To some degree. Both videos definitely explore similar themes. The video for Au/Ra was definitely more contained, it was one location, one room, and it was all about a strange and metaphorical transformation. It was more in the sci-fi, surreal sphere. Both videos explore the themes of the unravelling of ones psyche due to the constraints of modern technology, but the ‘Using’ video has more realism to its depiction, it covers a wider time span. The ‘Using’ video is also my first total non-performance video, where the narrative arc takes centre stage, and Au/Ra was a great place to develop that from!
What were your favourite moments on the shoot - and what were the biggest challenges?
SR: I loved shooting the club scene, having all the extras around Cailin and music on full blast really helped her to get into the vibe. Josh Brooks (Steadicam op) alongside Alex really nailed all the intense swooping camera moves in this scene! These shots were probably the most constructed and choreographed from the shot list, as well playing with varying frame rates and portraying totally different moods in the club through shooting choices - isolation, boredom and then euphoria! It was really fun to see the plans we made here come to life!
We almost had too much footage to work from. We even cut a couple of scenes completely in order for the video to have the pace we felt it needed.
The biggest challenges were probably the Gym scene and also the Meltdown scene, mainly as they were the last scenes on each shoot day so we had quite a limited window to nail what we wanted. The Gym was a tricky space to shoot in and we had a ‘hard out’ time set there, so it was a lot of thinking on feet and combining shots to get across what we needed within the time. The Meltdown scene again had a big time constraint, also it was important getting Cailin into that good headspace to get across the crazed emotional reactions and inject them into her performance.
MW: I guess just keeping on schedule was the biggest challenge! The first day we had a big unit move across London in mid-afternoon traffic… But with the amazing team from Partizan and our lovely 1st AD George we managed to get everything done – just in the nick of time.
What were the biggest challenges in the edit of the video and in the delivery of the VFX elements? Were there any big decisions made regarding the narrative at this stage?
SR: James the editor helped to make the edit process pretty pain free. He is incredibly talented! For the narrative arc - I had in mind the edit structure before I got into the suite, but James really helped inject that second perspective and playfulness into the timeline, he had a strong voice that was great to collaborate with.
The biggest challenge was that we almost had too much footage to work from. We even cut a couple of scenes completely in order for the video to have the pace we felt it needed. We had more 3D built comments that Cailin interacted with, more moments with Felix Spooner the boyfriend character - which were some of my favourite shots in isolation, but the edit felt stronger without them.
Cailin didn’t take herself too seriously at all, which really helped with injecting that little bit of a manic nuance to the character
So I learnt from the process that sometimes you have to say goodbye to shots you love for the greater good of the edit! The decisions James and I made on this paid off as we got sign off from the client and band on the first cut we presented - which was amazing!
The biggest challenge with the VFX was the reflection scene where Cailin’s face distorts in post. My original idea was to have a deranged 3D style ‘dog filter’, mocking those snapchat filters that are plastered all over our feeds. I wanted it to look as though it was attached to her face for real. Seeing it in fruition didn’t have the same impact I thought it would. It was almost too comical - not the right vibe for the scene! So the face melting and facial features glitching away approach was again a new idea Leanne and I adapted away from our original plan.
• A Partizan/Darkroom and Promonews co-production. To find out more about being in a Behind The Video feature, contact at the email below.
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