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Femi Ladi on Stormzy's Toxic Trait video: 'We could be playful while still saying something real.'

Femi Ladi on Stormzy's Toxic Trait video: 'We could be playful while still saying something real.'

David Knight - 8th Aug 2023

After a run of critically acclaimed projects, Femi Ladi (above right) has teamed with Stormzy (left) to make his most ambitious video yet. We talked to him about mastering motion control and talk-therapy with the UK's biggest grime stars.

In a relatively short period, Femi 'Ladi' Oladigbolu has shown he's destined for big things. Videos for Pa Salieu and Chase & Status, content for Adidas and others, and BFI-screened short film Oba, have all demonstrated Ladi's ability to get up close and personal with his subjects, using all tools at his disposal to grab the viewer's attention.

Now one of those big things has happened - a video for the UK's biggest grime star Stormzy, featuring fellow grime icon Fredo, which gives full rein to the British-Nigerian director's ability to connect viewer and artist in a meaningful way. And for Toxic Trait, Ladi effectively combines two different filmmaking styles, using the magnetism of the artists as the glue to bring them together.  

I was invited into the Def Jam UK offices without knowing what artist the briefing was for.

For one half of Toxic Trait, Ladi creates a world for Stormzy that is rooted in classic art - and employs motion control to have muliple versions of the superstar exist in one space, acting out lyrics from the track. It's a development of Ladi's breakthrough video for Pa Salieu ft Backroad Gee's My Family, which used the impact of a programmed motion control rig to capture a performance, but this time with added VFX complexity.

Then Ladi switches things up to someting akin to straight drama - like a therapy scene in The Sopranos - with Fredo confessing his bad habits to a therapist played by TV host Alison Hammond, intercut with a shared performance by the stars, and then a group therapy session with a number of other grime artists.

In the use of different styles, Ladi enriches the viewer's perception of these huge stars without compromise - a notable achievement. So we asked him how he it all happened.         

PROMONEWS: What was the starting point for the Toxic Trait video? What kind of brief did you have?

FEMI LADI: It was all quite secretive and exciting, to be honest. I was invited into the Def Jam UK offices without knowing what artist the briefing was for. Once we were in the label they told me it was for Stomzy and then I heard the song a couple of times in the office.

When I mean I heard the song, it was just a snippet - mainly the Stormzy verse, as the guest feature hadn't been decided yet. Then I had the link to listen to it, which expired after a certain amount of hours. Fortunately, the idea came to me pretty quickly so I just developed it from there.

Stormzy and Fredo found creative ways to show their toxic traits whilst still flossing.

The theme of Toxic Traits is reflecting upon one's failings, being self-critical. Is that a tricky subject to address in a music video? Or offered more opportunities? 

I think it offered more opportunities. The thing I enjoy about rap music in general is the braggadocious nature of the lyrics and both Stormzy and Fredo found creative ways to show their toxic traits whilst still flossing. This allowed us to exaggerate some of the scenes and be playful whilst still trying to say something real. 

The original music video for My Family you directed has the same dynamic camera move created by the G6 Moco. Have you been looking for a new opportunity to explore its potential?

Yeah for sure. [I've been] working really closely with the G6 Moco team. They often provide great solutions to my creative ambitions.

For this, we didn't necessarily use the concept of motion control in a new way, but we used one of the largest arms in the country. This allowed us to capture all our scenes without cutting, while also being fast enough to move around keeping up with the pace of the track. 

We were still swapping things around and creating new scenes as we were programming the move.

How did you go about the process of planning and constructing your motion control move?

In terms of planning the motion control move it was a bit of a maze. We had to figure out all the moves but also have in mind how this looks in the final image when we zoom out, and if we can capture the Renaissance-inspired painting at the end of the video.

Myself, my producer Tom Gardner and my DOP Ruben Woodin Dechamps travelled up to Manchester to the G6 offices, and started working out the moves on the software that G6 had built. Here we decided on lenses, aspect ratios, and how the camera will move on the robot.

It was quite touch and go as some scenes weren't approved yet. So we were still be swapping things around and creating new scenes as we were programming it.

In terms of getting it approved, did Stormzy need convincing that he needed a wardrobe change for nearly every line of the song? 

Haha, nah. Changing for each line wasn't a problem at all. He has a great stylist in Melissa [Holdbrooke-Akpose] and all the changes looked cold, so I think he probably enjoyed it.

Above: On the set of Toxic Trait video with camera on motion control arm shooting Stormzy's archer sequence

Using one of the largest motion control arms allowed us to capture all our scenes without cutting.

There’s a reference to the Muhammed Ali cover for Esquire Magazine in 1967 - which itself references a Renaissance painting of Saint Sebastian. Are there other references included in the video?

Correct! Yeah, originally there were a lot more 'traditional' art references. But as mentioned the scenes were changing all the time, so not all of them made it. The only other one that did make it was in reference to Kehinde Wiley's Ship of Fool, which is on display at the Queens House of Greenwich. 

It feels seamless, and less complicated than it probably was to shoot. Was there anything really tricky that you needed to fix in post?

Yeah, it was quite tricky to shoot. But I had a great collaborator in Coffee & TV. They did a lot of cleaning up and added extra bits like the dark sky. Also the end image putting together all the scenes we had to move just a few scenes around.

The fix that really helped was making the monkey grind, as she struggled to do the action on the day, haha - not entirely sure how but they made it work. There were a fair amount of post overall within a tight turnaround and I'm really grateful to the VFX team on that. 

We built in the therapy scene to inject a bit of humour... Alison [Hammond] really took on her role well.

The break of the therapy session adds another dimension - Fredo comes across well, and Alison Hammond is a great piece of casting. How did this get to be included in the video? Who wrote the dialogue for that section?

I thought that maybe keeping Renaissance creative throughout might be a bit much and thought it would be nice to have a bit of respite. So we built in this therapy scene to inject a bit of humour. I liked the idea of Fredo rapping these outrageous lyrics to a therapist and sharing it with other rappers confessing their toxic traits. 

I would absolutely love to take credit for that line about the toenail clippers, but Fredo just made that up on the spot, with a completely straight face. They were both excellent. Alison really took on her role well and gave us the best facial expressions. The outtakes of that scene were hilarious.

How did the other stars - Ivorian Doll, Wretch 32 and Specs Gonzalez - get involved? 

I pitched that we cut into a group therapy scene with other rappers and Stormzy's team made it happen. We all saw his incredible pull from his Mel Made Me Do It video. I actually didn't know exactly who was coming until the last minute, but I was very happy with what we got.

Alison conducted a real session and asked everyone to express what their toxic traits were - which was funny but also very real. These were the final shots of the day, so it was nice to finish on a high. 

• Femi Ladi is based at Somesuch for music videos and commercials.

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