CANADA's Callum Harrison: "Each music video should be a step-up for the director."
David Knight - 19th Aug 2022
Callum Harrison has produced some iconic videos. Now he has a big new job - Head of Music Videos & Content at CANADA. We talked to him about his achievements so far, and his main objectives in his new role.
From working with Oscar Hudson on groundbreaking music videos for Radiohead, Loyle Carner and others, and with the likes of Yoni Lappin, and Zhang + Knight, Callum Harrison has produced some of the most impressive work in British music videos of the past few years.
Harrison was also involved in the start-up of Ground Work, a production company that has since gone on to make award-winning and commended videos too. It was that background that made him the compelling choice to become the new Head of Music Videos & Content at CANADA, the production company based in Barcelona, London and Los Angeles, earlier this year.
Harrison is now EP of CANADA's music-based content, working mainly out of the company's London office. He is tending to a roster which contains directors of various nationalities, but also retains a distinctly Barcelonian identity - epitomised by Lope Serrano and Nicolás Méndez - aka directing duo CANADA - who co-founded the company with head of production Alba Barneda, and gave the company its name.
Whether that proves a cultural or even a linguistic challenge, Harrison's reputation as an effective collaborator of top directing talent comes from years of first-hand experience. Harrison, 32, is from North London, and in tried-and-tested fashion, he got involved in filmmaking early, before making it his career choice.
One of the most important things is to create an environment where talented people can have fun and express themselves.
"I’ve never really been one to get behind the camera myself," he explains. "But I was surrounded by people with cameras, so there was always someone filming something. I grew up in the era of Jackass and Dirty Sanchez, so we were often trying to recreate stupid stuff like that."
As his original ambition was to be involved in recording music, his first serious involvement on a film set was as the sound man - until he realised that being a producer put him at the heart of the creative process.
A few years later he was working with Oscar Hudson on some of his innovative music videos and also his daringly-shot short film Joy In People, which involved secretly filming actor/comedian Meredith Colchester among groups of testosterone-pumped males, mainly England football fans, but also at a far-right political rally.
Harrison's producing credits also include videos for King Krule, Sigrid, Ashnikko and Jeshi, and commercials for Adidas, Levi's and Google. We asked him about some of this memorable work, and also what he now wants to achieve in his new role at the company which won Best Production Company at last year's UKMVAs.
Above: Callum Harrison, Head of Music Videos & Content at CANADA
How did you get your start in filmmaking as a career? And what was it that prompted you towards becoming a producer?
I have a bit of a funny path into filmmaking. I studied Sound Engineering and Music Production [at Point Blank Music School]. I wanted to get into music studios and record bands. At the time a lot of my friends were making films and they needed someone to record sound. I happened to know how to use a microphone and a mixer, so I got roped in. I used a broom as my boom on those early shoots!
I also started working with Tim & Barry TV on their live stream show JUST JAM. That is actually one of the only times I’ve picked up a camera. I was shit at operating, so I got moved to the sound mixing desk pretty quickly. I have incredible respect for sound mixers, but I found it quite a lonely and thankless task. I wanted to be more involved creatively. The producers looked like they had the director's ear, so I chose that.
We all just hustled to get these videos made any way possible.
From that point I just got on any set I could get access to to get experience. There was a good group of us all trying to get things made any which way possible. It helps to have that support network.
Not that you asked, but my advice to people starting out would be to try and attach yourself to a group of likeminded filmmakers and just make stuff. That way you can all help each other learn and grow. Don’t let budgets or not having access to ‘premium’ kit stop you. People will take notice of good ideas.
What was the first music video you produced? Was that with Oscar Hudson?
The first music video I produced was for one of the blips for the Radiohead album Moon Shaped Pool. It was indeed with Oscar Hudson. Like many of my early projects this was a steep learning curve. The budgets for those blips were £5K, and somehow we managed to pull it off. We were all just super eager to make films, especially one for Radiohead, so we threw everything at it.
I did the catering on that shoot. And I also had to drive all of the sand to a local school for them to use, then we all swept up the remaining sand for what felt like an age. We all just hustled to get these videos made any way possible.
Name a video that was really important in building experience to becoming a good producer, and why?
I’m not sure if there is one specific video that I can point to but I always try to take something from every shoot I do. I’m still learning now of course and it’s a pleasure to get to work with incredibly talented people that I can learn from.
One of the most important things for me as a producer is to create an environment where all these talented people can have fun and express themselves as best as possible.
Tell us about Oscar Hudson's short film Joy In People that you produced. How did that project come about? How difficult (and how nerve-wracking) was that to make?
Very nerve-wracking, very difficult, but also very fun. This is still one of the most enjoyable filmmaking experiences I’ve had. It was such a different way of working. Oscar came to me with the script, and we had about two months to get everything in place before Euro 2016.
We needed to be as inconspicuous as possible, so we kept the crew to an absolute minimum: Oscar, myself, DoP Ruben Woodin Dechamps, soundman Luke David Harris - and of course our actor, Merry Colchester.
The far-right Pegida march with Tommy Robinson was particularly nerve-wracking.
The script had narrative beats that we needed to hit, and we sent Merry out into crowds with that in mind. But the best stuff we got was not scripted. As a result, the script continually evolved whilst we were filming.
There were a few hairy moments when we were nearly rumbled. But overall we were far enough away from the action so as not to rouse suspicion. The far-right Pegida march with Tommy Robinson was particularly nerve-wracking.
You produced Yoni Lappin’s influential Mura Masa video for What If I Go? What do you remember from that production?
This was a wild one. We were super-ambitious... or perhaps naive? There was way too much to shoot in two days. We used my small fourth floor flat as a unit base for cast, crew, equipment - and I laid on the catering again. I think I cooked a massive veg curry.
It was amazing and strange to see the ripple effect this video had on wider culture.
It was a stressful shoot. We set off the fire alarm at the Ace Hotel and then we got kicked out of another location so we had to improvise that set up.
But after all that... incredible respect to Yoni for putting together that great music video. It was amazing and strange to see the ripple effect this video had on wider culture.
What was the backstory of Zhang + Knight's film for Eden about a vintage plane being transported across Kazakhstan? What were the challenges on this job?
I had worked with Zhang + Knight on a Sigrid video earlier in the year so it was great to collaborate again. I suppose there are a few ways you can read this film but for me, it is about people and things (inanimate or otherwise) that have passed their prime and as a result society has cast them aside. These subjects still retain an element of beauty but it is clear the weariness and repetitiveness of life has worn them down. I love how Z+K can create so much emotion and empathy for an old piece of metal.
In terms of challenges, it is always a bit of an unknown filming in a new country but the Kazak producer, Ali Beisekov, did a good job and managed to find us that beautiful plane. In general the crew were good and Kazakhstan has some incredible locations to offer. One of the main challenges was shooting everything at either sunrise, sunset or night so we were operating on minimal sleep. We nearly missed our plane home - airport security did not want to let us through with the 35mm rushes.
Jamie Whitby's video for Glass Animals' Your Love mixes thermal imaging with motion control. The effect is very cool. How did you manage that?
We had a motion control move mapped out, which we repeated on a 'normal' camera and then a thermal camera. The set, and a few other elements, were captured on the normal camera and the band's action was captured on the thermal camera.
As the camera move was the same it meant each shot could be layered on top of each other*, so you get that cool effect of thermal imagery on top of normal imagery. *Not actually that simple in practice, lots of fiddling around in post to be honest.
Tell us about the challenges of Loyle Carner’s Ottolenghi. Brilliant video - how did you do it?
Sadly, I didn’t do the catering on this one, but despite that, we still managed to pull it off.
This was such a fun shoot to be a part of. Everyone on set was fully behind the idea and pulling in the same direction. Oscar does a great job of getting everyone involved on some level.
It’s all practical, so as you can imagine, there was a lot of meticulous planning in the pre-production and build stage. We had a big printer on set, and we would choose a frame from the rushes to print, and this became our edit point into the next scene. There was no going back once we had made that decision. It was a really interesting way of working.
Loyle Carner is a dream to work with, so that helped as well. But the studio actually had a massive power cut just as we were about to turn over. So after much waiting around we had to leave and come back the next day to start filming. That was fun…
But we got there eventually, and the end result is that beautifully hypnotic video. I love in-camera trickery and practical effects. I'm looking forward to doing more of that with CANADA.
You co-founded Ground Work. Did you start it with a specific idea in mind of what it should be or stand for? Name a production from the early days of the company that is special to you, and why?
If I was to give one specific idea it would be a love of the craft. We all enjoy technical shoots that involve puzzle-solving. This ethos shows in Will Dohrn’s award-winning video for Idles.
I could tell CANADA has the same ethos - that is one of the main reasons that attracted me to this position. Lots of love to Aaron and the rest of the Ground Work team. I’m excited to be up against them on pitches and awards.
You got back together with Oscar Hudson to produce the Slowthai video for Feel Away. What were the challenges of that project?
This is another one that involved quite a lot of puzzle-solving and in-depth planning during the pre production phase - which is one of my favourite ways to work. It was a struggle to fit prosthetics, set build and hyper realistic cakes into the budget but we had a lot of the same HODs and crew from the Loyle Carner video which helped things move smoothly.
At the time it had just been my birthday and my girlfriend was pregnant with our son - so I couldn’t help but feel Oscar was trying to mess with me! We actually tried to use footage from one of our ultrasound scans for the James Blake singing section, but sadly it didn’t quite work.
Directors have my full attention when developing ideas - one of the real pleasures of this job.
What drew you to your new job as head of music at CANADA? How do you see your role - and are you still producing?
I have always admired CANADA. They are one of the best in the game when it comes to music videos, so it is a huge pleasure to be here. It’s a privilege to join an outfit that won Best Production Company at last year's UKMVAs.
I'm not producing anymore. I’m fully focused on my role as an EP, and I’ve adapted pretty well to the change. I want to be creatively involved in the projects I do and being an EP allows me to do that. Not producing the jobs means directors have my full attention when developing ideas. That is one of the real pleasures of this job, I get to work with our wonderful roster of directors and help them fully realize their ideas. I’m excited to be a part of their journey.
Alongside music videos I’ll also be heading up the content department, so I will oversee all non-traditional commercials, narrative and docs – all the fun stuff basically!
What are you hoping to achieve?
Our philosophy when it comes to music videos is definitely quality over quantity. Each music video should make sense for CANADA and be a step-up for the director. We wouldn’t want a director to be churning out music videos for the sake of it.
Having established ourselves in the UK, our reputation means we can aim high with local names.
We are looking to add a few names to our roster. Having firmly established ourselves in the UK, our reputation means we can aim high with local names - as well as looking to nurture up-and-coming directors that we think have something really special. CANADA takes pride in the longevity of our relationships with directors, so I’m looking forward to continuing that with some new additions.
There are always challenges when working in music videos. The ideas are always bigger than the budget allows. It is such a creative and exciting space to be working in, but hopefully one day budgets will fall in line. Watch this space for exciting videos to feature on Promonews!
• Check out the showreels of CANADA directing roster here.
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David Knight - 19th Aug 2022