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Dougal Wilson on Morris dancing with Stealing Sheep: "I was trying to say ‘Isn’t this cool?"
There's been a big Dougal Wilson-sized hole in British music videos for more than five years. With the exception from a collaboration with Adam Buxton for his TV version of BUG, Dougal Wilson's last proper music video was for The Temper Trap's Love Lost, that came out in early 2010.
In the meantime, he's kept himself busy by dominating the world of commmercials with his era-defining ads for John Lewis, 3, and others. So he's not been doing too badly. But the director who made his name with his great videos for the likes of The Streets, Coldplay, Dizzee Rascal, Bat For Lashes, still holds a candle for the music video and the relative creative freedom it affords. The surprise is the music industry have not found a big commission for him in all that time.
At last, there is a new Dougal Wilson video - and perhaps surprisingly it's for the up-and-coming band, Stealing Sheep. But for the Liverpudlian all-girl indie-trio's Apparition, from their second album Not Real, Dougal has revisited a subject that's clearly close to his heart.
Back in 2003, one of his earliest videos for Four Tet featured the ancient English tradition of Morris dancing. Now, over a decade later, 'Morris' gets the full Wilson treatment, involving the Stealing Sheep girls in a traditional Morris dance, taking place in a quaint Engish village that's also bursting with deliciously strange details. And to mark the auspicious arrival of Apparition, we asked Dougal all about it.
DK: It's been ages since you made a video. Why now, and why for Stealing Sheep, who, quite frankly, are not very well known?
DW: I’ve been a fan since their first album came out a couple of years ago. I met up with them when I was visiting Liverpool - it's where I grew up – but it was too late to do a video for that album. Jack Whiteley had made some quite ambitious videos for the first album, up in Liverpool, outside of the whole London production establishment. But I stayed in touch with them, we became quite pally, and then two years later the new album came out.
Apart from that, although I haven’t done a video in a while, I have been pitching [for videos with other bands]. I just haven’t gotten any of them! I’ve been wanting to make one for ages, and I pitched on some good stuff. But I think my brand of wacky idea isn’t always what people are after, despite the fact they ask me to pitch in the first place. There have been a couple I’ve really thought ‘argh, that would’ve been awesome to make that’. But sometimes the way the artist perceives themselves and the way that you perceive the artist are different.
"Although I haven’t done a video in a while, I've been pitching – I just haven’t gotten any of them!"
So were they more of a blank canvas, or are you able to impose your ideas on a band like that a bit more?
Well, I’d seen them live a few times since the first album, and one of the shows was a New Year extravaganza concert at The Kasamier in Liverpool – a brilliant place. I was so impressed with how much creativity was on display. They’d made all these crazy costumes, and had a kind of psychedelic variety show, with lots of characters, that went along with the performance of the whole of their new album. And I thought ‘if there’s anyone that’ll be up for doing something y’know, a bit fun, it’s probably them’. What I liked about the show was their enthusiasm, and that it looked like they weren’t concerned too much about what people thought. That was very refreshing so I thought ‘right, finally some mugs who’ll like my idea.’
And the idea is a reprise of your Four Tet video?
Absolutely true. I did the music video for As Serious As Your Life by Four Tet from their LP Realms, in 2004, I think [we think it's 2003 - ed]. It was very simple, and very low budget, and it involved simply cutting existing Morris [dancing] footage to the track. I always thought it was an interesting form of dance, because without the obvious ‘look at these funny-looking characters from Middle England’ aspect, I felt it was beautiful and mathematical, and it had all these patterns in it. We were obviously limited in our budget [with the Four Tet video], but I thought 'wouldn’t it be fun if we got a band and put them inside a Morris group - just played it absolutely straight, and rehearsed it and tried to do a whole Morris dance?'
But I thought I shouldn’t do it too soon after the Four Tet one, it would feel like I repeated myself too quickly. So hopefully I won’t get too much of a slagging online for the fact that I did a similar idea eleven years ago. I wouldn’t be surprised if I did though! I checked with Kieran Hebden [Four Tet] if it was okay with him. He was slightly surprised I even asked him, but he appreciated that I did. He said 'Of course… the more Morris music videos the better!' And Stealing Sheep were very aware of it, and there’s also an acknowledgement of that video in this video. One of the extras is wearing a Four Tet T shirt from that album, if you watch the video carefully…
Going through the process from the beginning, your storyboard looks very close to the finished video, and it goes from being all-drawings to mostly still photographs. What's that all about - and do you do the storyboard all yourself?
The board and the video are almost exactly the same because it was one of those videos you can’t really draw. I started off doing lots of detailed pen and ink drawings. I find the act of doing them quite nice. It takes ages, but by drawing you can put one square of the board per bar of the song. The tempo of a pop song is between 100 and 130 bpm, so one square per bar usually works. The process of actually thinking in those small units really makes you try to put as much as you can into the story.
I started off trying to break it down like that, but soon discovered that trying to draw Morris dancing was quite difficult. You would draw 8 frames where the line of dancers were simply crossing over each other and you had to draw 8 human bodies in costume every time. It wasn’t long before I got frustrated and realised I should probably just work this out on video rather than trying to put it on paper first.
"I started off doing lots of detailed drawings...the process of thinking in those small units really makes you try to put as much as you can into the story."
Meanwhile I was doing rehearsals with this Morris group called Abingdon Traditional Morris and two other mixed groups in Oxford. I happened to see a clip of Abingdon Traditional Morris online while I was researching and they seemed bang on. They had this dance that seemed to be a nice basis for the whole video, and they were based in a place where I knew there was probably going to be nice locations.
So we got them on board and started to do these rehearsals in basically little village halls in the Abingdon area. I just let them do some dancing and worked out how to link bits of the different dancing together. I think the video is about 3 or 4 traditional dances that are hybridized to go with the song – and obviously have the band inside them.
How old are these dances?
Abingdon Traditional Morris themselves go back to the 1700's. They have evolved, and they do work out new ones each year, but I think the ones we used were quite traditional. We just had to customize them so it went with our track. I decided quite early on, maybe unwisely, that I’d try to make it feel like one continuous take, only because all the footage of Morris dancing you get on the internet is usually just one camera position. I thought it would be fun to take that and add the camera movement.
It’s quite nice with dancing when you don’t do many cuts. You let the dancing just fill the frame and the camera repositions itself to find the nicest vantage point for that bit of the dance, and so the camera becomes a participant in the dance itself - which I’ve done in a few things before.
So that’s how it evolved and then the girls then came to do the final rehearsals and they had to learn -particularly Emily, who’s the main vocal in the song, had to learn – Morris dancing. To my great relief she seemed capable of doing Morris dancing, cause if she hadn’t been…
There’s something about the dress as well as the dance. When you start looking at them properly, they actually become fascinating…
Exactly. Obviously there’s an affectionate humour to the whole thing, but at the same time I was trying to say ‘Isn’t this cool? This is a lovely subculture.’ And it is lovely. The guys and ladies of Morris sides – they’re called sides not groups – were all charming, very cooperative, tremendously excited to be involved, dedicated and conscientious to learn all their steps. They got quite frustrated with themselves when they got it wrong, and were always coming up with suggestions. They never got suspicious that we were doing this in a mocking way. A lot of these guys are musicians. They play fiddles and accordions and flutes themselves, so they have a great interest in traditional music and it’s a wonderful sociable thing.
Where did you shoot it – In Abingdon?
No, we shot it in a little place called Turville. It’s been used for quite a few bucolic English settings [in films and TV]. There’s a great wartime Ealing film shot there called Went The Day Well, which is about Nazis who masquerade as British troops to stage an invasion of England from the inside out. And also Chitty Chitty Bang Bang was shot there – the windmill was featured in it – and more recently, The Vicar of Dibley and Midsomer Murders.
"The video is about 3 or 4 traditional dances that are hybridized to go with the song – and obviously have the band inside them."
In fact while I was doing a tech reccie at the location, a minibus showed up and a load of tourists came out with cameras and started taking pictures of the buildings. I asked the driver what it was and he said ‘oh it’s The Vicar Of Dibley and Midsomer location tour!’
And the town does have that slightly sublime feeling to the picturesqueness. You do feel that there’s probably something ancient and weird lurking there. Something Arthurian up the hill somewhere. It was odd the way that windmill was just in the gap between those buildings - like it was trying to say ‘look, I’m over here.’
And while we were there old planes kept passing. RAF Brize Norton was nearby and while we were reccing we kept seeing these planes either test flying or going off to all these celebrations for VJ Day. It sort of had this undertone of what the village had been through…
What about all the characters that pop up - the horse on wheels, and the straw men?
The characters are all inspired by traditional Morris things. The hobby horse, is a thing they have, and the weird thing with the horns is based on a character called the Cerne Abbas giant. The straw bears are a traditional thing they have all over Europe actually, it’s a harvest symbol. Its supposed to be a bear but it’s a man, obviously. So I started to weave all those in and then tried to get other bits of English iconography, like the windmill…
I know it’s funny but I planned it out so carefully that when I watch it now I wish I’d put more in. I did have quite a lot of other ideas but it got to the point where the animatic was so complicated. And there was so many captions on top of the Final Cut Pro project that were really badly rendered I just thought ‘this has got to be enough!’ But yeah if I’d had a chance I probably would have stuck more characters into it…
Did you do all of it there at the location?
DW: Yeah, it was all there, but there were various plates to do things like the telephone box shot. MPC did me a lot of favours putting it together.
How different does it feel making a video now? Obviously you have more experience as a director, even since your last one.
DW: There’s a difference from, say ten years ago, because I wasn’t as established in commercials. You really wanted those videos to be impactful and for people to find them interesting. And I wasn’t quite so neurotic about how much prep time I’d get. Sometimes there'd be only one or two weeks, and you just had to get on with it. And the budgets weren’t negotiable, so I was probably a bit more spontaneous – and probably a bit braver. Now I’m so used to plotting every moment out and explaining to agencies exactly what’s going to happen. So when I did this one, maybe I wasn’t as gung-ho as I would’ve done back when I was doing a Dizzee Rascal video or something.
"It's funny - I planned it out so carefully but when I watch it now I wish I’d put more in."
I think I’ve probably become a bit more timid in terms of I do like everything to be plotted out first now. I’m not fraught with anxiety, but in a weird way I find experience has made me prepare more rather than less. It makes you more aware of what you have to pay attention to, and what may not quite work.
That may account for my decreasing productivity. I would’ve done more videos, but people didn’t like the ideas. But in terms of commercials I find that I do about four a year, whereas I used to do about eight a year. They were probably smaller projects, with less prep and shoot days. But in between those four things I’m not sitting around twiddling my thumbs. I find it takes three months a project, on average, because they are shoots that give you a few days to shoot so you have to prepare and you have to nail down everything. I took a similar approach to this because that’s the process I’ve become accustomed to now.
That said, I still really enjoy that approach. A lot of directors like leaving it to the mystery of the day, and the light and the performance. They’re a lot more confident in how they work. But I like planning things the same way as you build a Lego model or something. I like knowing exactly how many pieces I need and how they fit together and taking it from there. I’m fascinated what the ultimate outtake is going to be. If you plan every single piece and put it all together, will it make you feel like you thought it would make you feel, or will it be different? That’s the hardest thing to predict, I think.
Because previously you had very good feelings about things after you’d done them and sometimes you haven’t?
Yeah, you can’t predict whether something will work or not. Sometimes they work a bit, sometimes they just don’t work, but sometimes they resonate. We’ll see what people make of this one.
And despite me saying all that stuff about trying to prepare it the same way as commercials, you do have to go into another frame of mind for videos. It's definitely a refreshingly different headspace to get into. And no matter how much you prepare for something, you never really know exactly what’s going to happen on the day in terms of the weather, or what the feeling is when you’ve done a take. Is it exactly what you imagined, now you’re seeing it through the actual lens, the actual light with everyone in costume and the exact choreography and someone’s steadicam…
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