Get the Promonews daily round up

User Accounts

Get the Promonews daily round up

Ja Humby on Yard Act's Live From Utopia: 'They wanted something inventive and striking.'

Ja Humby on Yard Act's Live From Utopia: 'They wanted something inventive and striking.'

Promonews - 28th May 2024

Ja Humby has established a reputation for directing live music videos driven by idiosyncratic concepts. Now he's made a superb live film for Yard Act, by exploiting the potential of virtual production to place the band's performance in an ironic, lo-fi animated 'Utopia'. We talked to Humby to find out more about the project. 

It's been the hallmark of James 'Ja' Humby's Molten Jets series to build a multi-song performance by a band around an intriguing, off-kilter concept. And that itself has usually pushed the artists he's worked with to new heights.

Like, for instance, King Krule performing in spacesuits on the Moon; or Franc Moody in the crowded 'lift to the stars' of a strange hotel, accompanied by aliens; or a mock-doc about Shame's return to action, where they play a show in the nearly empty Brixton Academy. Humby builds intriguing visual worlds around the bands' live shows - and draws out authentically great performances from them in the process.

He also takes great care about the recording of the music itself. It's so well done, in fact, that XL released the recording of his Live on the Moon film for King Krule as a limited edition picture disc vinyl LP.

Now Humby has welcomed the Mercury Prize-nominated rock band Yard Act into his Molten Jets universe - and pushed the envelope creatively and technically on the live video concept with Live From Utopia, a live performance of six songs from Where's My Utopia?, the band's acclaimed new album. 

It places the band within a version of the album's cover illustrations, created by artist Tom Robinson, which subtly changes through the course of session. Established with the first song, An Illusion, the band are caught between painted waves and an apocalyptic landscape - crashed plane, crumbled tower blocks, dead tree - against a blue sky, elevated above the look of a small theatre stage show with elements of animation, such as the motion of the waves.

With the next track Fizzy Fish, the sea in front of the band comes alive with flying fish; in Dream Job the sky begins to turn pink, with blue hands reaching out of the waves; then in Grifter's Grief the cartoon sun, sinking in the sky, gets ever larger, redder and angrier. In the confessional Down By The Stream, it's nighttime, and lightning strikes before falling into complete darkness, illuminating only singer James Smith's face.

Finally for Vineyard Of The North, it becomes a more benign illuminated nighttime scene where lighter flames illuminate the foreground and background. And none of this detracts from the performance itself, which captures a band at the top of their game, revealing the increasing sophistication of their sound and musical ambition. 

It was achieved by shooting the session on a virtual production stage, MARS Volume in West London, with Humby introducing new unexpected ways to utilize the state-of-the art screen technology, employing Unreal Engine for real time animation and a good old-fashioned studio set build, to create his own charming and leftfield version of Utopia.     

Yard Act - Live From Utopia has just been released in full, so we spoke to Ja Humby about the project, about the future of live videos, and more...

Above: Ja Humby (second right), plus crew and band, on the set of 'Live From Utopia'

I’d wanted to do a virtual production... so I attempted a modern twist on a DIY set build. 

How did the Yard Act project begin? What was the brief?

JA HUMBY: They wanted me to bring the Where's My Utopia? album artwork to life with a Molten Jets-style live film that was inventive and striking, but not overly polished. There was a suggestion of taking inspiration from early film set builds for a DIY feel. 

How did you end up using a virtual production studio? Tell us about that process.

JH: I attempted a 'modern twist' on a DIY set build, because I’d wanted to do a virtual production for a while. Rather than creating the photoreal environments conventionally displayed on LED screens, we applied slapdash 2D animation to illustrations pulled from the various forms of album artwork created by Thomas Robinson. He even gave up some evenings to do bespoke illustrations for our environment before the shoot.

Above: Production designer Lyndon Ogbourne's plan for the 'Live From Utopia' set

These artwork assets were animated in Unreal by my friend Tom Flavelle at No Ghost and printed for the physical set by production designer Lyndon Ogbourne. I’d already used Unreal Engine in a weird/wrong way for the backgrounds in a spoof Chabuddy G music video I directed for Kurupt FM with the guidance of VFX don Simon Legrand. He’s full time at a production company I work with a lot, but kindly gave up some free time to help me out as a virtual production supervisor on this one.

That’s how we ended up shooting at the MARS Volume, so it could’ve been entirely different without Simon. He'd never seen this much animation in a VP shoot before and that's down to our Terry Gilliam-inspired approach of simple jerky movement, allowing Flav to get loads done without trying to perfect anything.

Above: Yard Act frontman James Smith (right) with producer Rhory Danniells (second left), and VFX supervisor Simon Legrand (third left) on set of the 'Live From Utopia' shoot

It’s hard to tell where the physical set build ends and the digital world begins. Your art department and VFX artists must have worked closely together?

JH: Although they were using the same source material, they actually barely spoke. Flav is massively overqualified for this style of animation, but he had loads to do in just a few days. We’ve known each other since our teens, so to avoid dwelling on pointless nostalgia, I just tried to let him get on with it.

The set designer Lyndon had a clear vision and made clever use of limited funds to arrange the physical set in a way that really complimented the virtual environment. We knew any inconsistencies between the virtual and physical sets would help ensure it wasn't 'overly polished'. Colourist Adam Clarke did a great job of giving DoP Jed Darlington-Robert’s digital footage a warm 'film' aesthetic too.

Above: Stage at MARS Volume, shooting 'Live From Utopia'

There’s a very visual narrative happening around the band through the six songs, can you elaborate on what’s going on?

JH: The progression from morning to night informed the colour changes for each track. There’s also some album theme references within the virtual environment, particularly with stuff like the fire and the behaviour of the confident sun getting charged up and angry, while the anxious moon reflects on mistakes.

James Smith [frontman of Yard Act] wanted a glimmer of hope to remain, so I left one surviving leaf on the tree after it was struck by lightning. The sea is a bit like a festival crowd, with more hands gathering around the rocky beach stage as the performance progresses, although you might just think it's people drowning.

Much like the album artwork, it’s open for the audience to decipher meaning from it. But you're meant to look at the band anyway!

XR/VR seems like the future, with opportunities for more immersive experiences for fans.

How was working with Yard Act?

JH: They’re really friendly and easy to work with, exactly as you'd expect from [a band from] up north. James's lyrics are a treasure trove for music video ideas. But after slipping down an ‘ancient Greek orator's platform’ rabbit hole for a few hours, I had to rein it in and focus on the decent performance capture they were after.

Their mix of cynical humour and sometimes serious themes allowed contrasting looks throughout and the upbeat music was asking for an energetic cut.

Above: Still from 'Live From Utopia'

High concept live videos are a staple of the music video landscape now. What do you think the future of live videos is?

JH: XR/VR definitely seems like the future. It's still early days, but with real-time rendering offering the ability to broadcast VFX-heavy productions live, there's definitely opportunities for more immersive experiences for fans. The main hurdle is always budget. The possibilities are endless, but kids seem happy with TikToks, so I'm hardly counting on Elon Musk's investment. 

Your music video for Shame was brilliant and nominated for a UKMVA last year. Will we see you directing more music videos alongside live projects?

JH: Thanks a lot. Yeah I was really chuffed with that nomination. Music videos have a clear advantage over live films when it comes to storytelling. The Fingers of Steel vid allowed the kind of social commentary I can't quite shoehorn into a live performance, so I'll definitely be doing more of that. 

• Ja Humby is represented by Intergalactic Studios. Check out more of his work here

Featured on this page

Promonews - 28th May 2024


  • Behind the scenes
  • Interview/Q&A
  • Live
  • Live music video
  • Special projects

Popular content


Problem with this page? Let us know

Related Content

Latest Videos

Promonews logo

Music video creativity everyday.
Submit your video