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Dom & Nic on Chemical Brothers' Wide Open: "People are unconsciously becoming cyborgs"
They were one of the biggest directing teams of the Nineties, making videos for Supergrass, David Bowie, Smashing Pumpkins and others, but there's only one outfit that can lure Dom & Nic back to music videos.
Dominic Hawley (above left) & Nic Goffey (right) have been working with the Chemical Brothers now for two decades. They are increasingly occasional projects, but when they happen, usual stunning fusions of creativity and technical wizardry. That's definitely the case with their beautiful offering for Wide Open, starring actress/dancer Sonoya Mizuno (above centre) and choreographed by Wayne McGregor.
It's a one-shot video capturing Mizuno - who starred in the 2014 movie Ex Machina – dancing in an open space, and gradually undergoing a physical metamorphosis, from organic to synthetic. Her transformation into an artificial 3D version of herself – composed of see-through mesh – is a brilliant technical feat that looks more impressive with every viewing.
So we asked Dom & Nic exactly how they managed to do it, without resorting to using motion control. Not surprisingly they describe it "an immense undertaking" - and they also explain how the whole idea is a commentary on how technology is transforming humanity in all sorts of ways.
Promo News: Incredibly, it's nearly 20 years since you directed your first video for The Chemical Brothers, for Setting Sun. How would you describe your relationship with Tom & Ed - and how its changed down the years?
Dom: From a work perspective it hasn't really changed. It's always been the director's dream. They send us brilliant inspiring music and then we come up with an idea we'd love to do, and if they like it and give us the go ahead, they give us the freedom to get on with it.
Nic: They trust us to get on with it without interference once they approve the idea. They are very approachable, knowledgeable and lovely chaps too. We are the same generation of movie fans and music fans as them, which helps keep us all in tune.
"[Chemical Brothers are] a director's dream. If they like the idea, they give us the freedom to get on with it."
It's been a while since the last one, so have there been other attempts to do something together between your video for Midnight Madness in 2008 and Wide Open?
Dom: Go [released last year] was the first track we wrote for since Midnight Madness. We had an idea we loved but it was another big one, and I'm not even sure they liked the idea as we told the label up front it couldn't be done unless there was more time. It was a great idea though, so maybe it could resurface in the future!
We were disappointed to have missed out, so we were more proactive with Wide Open. We loved the track and took a punt that it would be a single. We wrote the idea and sent it to them on the off chance. They got back to us saying they loved it and it was going to be a single so they wanted to make it.
Were you inspired by the song, or was it an opportunity to try something you’ve had in mind for a while? Did you have an inspiration for the figure into which Sonoya Mizuno transforms?
Dom: We did already have the idea of someone transforming into a 3D printed lattice work version of themselves as a visual idea we were keen to explore. So when we heard the track the idea formed quite quickly. The song is beautiful but sad, and feels like its about loss and change. So a beautiful piece of dance in which the dancer loses herself and physically changes seemed to make sense. We were inspired by the use of 3D printing for prosthetic limbs and body enhancement.
"The song feels like it's about loss and change, so a beautiful piece of dance in which the dancer loses herself seemed to make sense."
The idea that the human body is going to become more and more enhanced by new technologies is a theme, as is the idea that the majority of people are unconsciously becoming cyborgs of a type – not through physical alterations but through a constant 24/7 reliance on computers and smartphones to enhance their knowledge, memory and ability to communicate. So there is an idea of loss through change in there. Ultimately we thought the idea would be compelling to watch as a piece of dance that could only exist in the medium of film.
"We knew Wayne McGregor was the right person to choreograph this and hadn't really thought what we'd do if he said no!"
How long was it in the planning? What were the stages you went through?
Dom: Once we knew Tom and Ed wanted us to make it we went straight to Wayne McGregor. We are big fans of his and had wanted to work with him for a while. We knew he was absolutely the right person to choreograph this and hadn't really thought what we'd do if he said no! Thankfully he wanted to do it. We talked through the idea and he came back with a few suggestions for dancers that he felt would be good based on what we were looking for.
We all felt Sonoya was the perfect combination of dancer and actor. Amazingly she had four days off between movies she was shooting in the US and agreed to fly back to the UK to do it. Whilst this was going on The Mill were trying to work out whether it could be done in the time. Very bravely they agreed to take it on as it was a massive commitment from them, not just because it was going to require them to break new ground, but also because they were going to have to invest financially to do it.
"We wanted it to be one continuous steadicam shot so motion control was just not an option for us."
Once everyone was on board we started working with The Mill on the design of the mesh and looking for a location. Wayne was away for a couple of weeks working with Jamie XX in New York and when he got back we met up to talk through ideas about for the choreography. Sonoya arrived and we did a full rehearsal day with her and Wayne in the location and we blocked out the camera move as part of this. The next day we refined the camera move with Rick Woollard the steadicam operator and then we started shooting.
"Sonoya had four days between movies she was shooting in the US, but agreed to fly back to the UK to do it."
Did you have the camera move all figured out by then?
Dom: We knew from the start we wanted it to be one continuous steadicam shot, that was really integral to the idea. We didn't want to join takes together or do invisible wipes. We wanted the film to have an authenticity to it from a dance perspective.
Nic: It was interesting to talk to Wayne about how Sonoya could express the idea. We wanted her to be very aware of it and emotionally involved in what was happening to her rather than scared or freaked out by it. She drives the transformation somewhat, playing with the sensation of touch and experimenting with her mesh body.
The song is mournful and concerns loss but there are also moments where she is feeling the transformation, running her fingers across the floor or her own transformed body. We wanted the viewer to share the experience with her to ask themselves "what is she feeling". Wayne created a dance that expressed that brilliantly and beautifully.
"The Mill proposed we scan the location and rebuild it in 3D."
Most importantly, how did you do it? It’s such a fluid move, but motion control played a part, presumably?
Dom: We wanted it to be one continuous steadicam shot so motion control was just not an option for us. We wanted the camera to be involved in the dance. It is really another character and for it to respond to the dance which although tightly choreographed would undoubtedly have natural variance. This obviously posed a big problem: how were we going to create a clean plate?
"We basically had to do a full frame-by-frame motion track of pretty much her whole body."
The Mill proposed we scan the location and rebuild it in 3D, then once the camera was tracked a 3D version of the room could be projected through the mesh. This was an undertaking but it was only part of the fix. What about Sonoya's real leg when the mesh went in front of it or her face or her T-shirt? We basically had to do a full frame by frame motion track of pretty much her whole body and then create CG elements for her unchanged body as well as her 3D printed mesh body. Both for the moments where we see her through the mesh but also for the shadows cast through the onto her unchanged body. Once her head changes to mesh she becomes full CG but matches exactly what Sonoya did in the take.
Where did you shoot it - and how did you light the space?
Dom: We shot it in an old taxi workshop in East London that was being used as a location whilst developers were waiting to come in. It's all natural light and that's one of the reasons we chose it – we loved the look of it but also the light. The take we used was the final one of the afternoon. It was Sonoya's best dance and also the sun came in and out in beautiful way as if it had been cued to do so.
How long was the post production, and what was the biggest challenge you faced in making it work? Were there any worrying moments?
Dom: The post took around 14 weeks I think – so long I can't remember what date it started! It ended up taking an extra two months. It was just impossible to accurately predict how long it was going to take before starting and we were optimistic. The biggest challenge by far was the body tracking. Pretty much every frame of Sonoya's dance had to be hand tracked by a team of animators, every joint. This was just an immense undertaking and the rig needed to be constantly reworked as the animators and riggers discovered Sonoya's limbs could move and stretch beyond the norm.
"We were worried that The Mill would say they couldn't do it. But they shared our commitment to make the film the best it could be."
There were a few worrying moments. The first was when we discovered that 10 of the 13 witness cameras set up around the room to help the animators with the body tracking hadn't triggered on the hero take. For us going with the second best take or combining two takes wasn't an option so we were worried then that The Mill would say they couldn't do it. But they didn't. They shared our commitment to make the film the best it could be.
In what ways do you draw on your filmmaking experience to make this?
Dom: We have drawn on all aspects of our filmmaking experience to make this, but the first and most important thing we know is that it all starts with a great idea. With all the will in the world, great production value and execution, a bad idea will always be bad. Music videos give us the freedom to come up with our own ideas and then our experience helps us to realise them as closely to our vision as possible.
"The idea is quite simple at heart, but it has layers and layers of complexity and detail and keeping a handle on those details is a tough challenge in a film like this."
Nic: We worked with the same DoP from the first video we did with them in 1996. We knew we needed a great steadicam operator to capture the choreography and performance of a great dance. We knew we needed The Mill to commit to it. The idea is quite simple at heart, but it has layers and layers of complexity and detail and keeping a handle on those details is a tough challenge in a film like this.
Presumably there’s no realistic relationship between the time, effort and ingenuity put in, and the actual budget. But you’ve made a habit of these VFX spectaculars for the Chems. How does this rate among your labours of love?
Nic: "They are all our children now", as The Chemical Brothers would say...
Dom: Believe, Salmon Dance and this one were all huge undertakings, requiring great generosity from the post houses involved and the crews we work with. Having said that Wide Open has really taken this to the extreme in terms of the amount of work involved from a post production company in relation to moneys available. We knew it was a massive ask of The Mill up front, but we had no idea it was going to be so colossal. So thanks so much to them and to everyone that takes on creative projects for the sake of creativity.
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