Shan Phearon on Jazmin Bean's Carnage: "I feel like we cracked another code... nothing is impossible now."
Promonews - 16th Jan 2023
How did Shan Phearon make the remarkable CGI-fired ode to auto-destruction that is his second video for controversial alt-pop artist Jazmin Bean? David Knight quizzed the Greatcoat Films director to find out.
In making his music videos, Shan Phearon has become renowned for his drive for perfection for his music artists. It has resulted in a series of beautifully-crafted music videos for the likes of Potter Payper, Nines, Rimzee, Tiggs Da Author and Jvck James.
Often the videos of Phearon's featured on Promonews have been the Director's Cut - another function of his perfection. But late last year, his latest video arrived which showed Phearon reaching a new level of achievement, and also his vision fully aligned with that of the artist.
Phearon's video for Jazmin Bean's Carnage is a brilliantly conceived evocation of the dark fairytale world of Jazmin Bean, via Phearon's encyclopedic knowledge of music culture, and movies from blockbuster to arthouse, over the past 30 years. Crucially, the director has set the bar high - to somehow match the sensibility of one of those era-defining sci-fi fantasy blockbusters in a British music video. And he has triumphantly achieved his objective.
From Jaz and companion Lucy Loone speeding down a city freeway, to flying through the night, post collision, to arriving on a floating rock in space, Phearon places Bean's nihilistic rebellious tendencies in spectacular fantasy setting. It looks like a big, expensive production, as might be made by a top American star. And Bean is not quite that. So how did they do it?
The director and his team managed to achieve this by other means, including his vision, incredible dedication, and another valubable commodity - time. Carnage was the result of Phearon being on the Jazmin Bean project for a year. It was by no means all plain sailing, but as he points out, it may offer pointers in how British music videos can kickstart the creative juices in the important year ahead.
Above: Shan Phearon (right) with Jazmin Bean on the set of Carnage.
We need to work better - and this is down to the conditions given to work in - if we want world class respect.
PROMONEWS: So Carnage was your 11th music video piece in 3 years and part of a year-long project?
SHAN PHEARON: It grew to become a double-bill video campaign: first Puppy Pound, which led later to Carnage. A year invested, from 2021, concluded 2022. Ever seen ‘Heart of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse’? I’m joking. But it’s the end of one era, start of another.
What did you have to work with when you got the brief for Carnage?
SP: Jaz wanted to drive. They needed a car crash. And a flowery field at some point. Just top-line to decipher. By then, I’d spent months studying the artist and cult fanbase for Puppy Pound. Immersed like ‘method’ Christian Bale in the Jaz metaverse, I had enough to work with.
The label had set us up with healthy time to nurture artist-to-director creative rapport, where I could coach artist development, as well as develop the videos. Getting results, the very supportive Island label team (Holly Williams, Emily Jefferies, Max Creswell and co) and artist manager Donny Tourette, whom I worked closely with, trusted the process.
Now I had to bespoke tailor the next chapter in the artist’s arc and I could identify what was going on in their mind with all my insights as: an emotional joy-ride.
What was the key aspect in your treatment that Jazmin and the label loved?
I think they were surprised at how I’d become an extension of the artist’s psyche, maybe. I always try to respond to the interior of an artist. I want to understand them as human beings as well as a cultural avatar, so I show that.
The subtext and journey of this video... has been a redemption arc.
I’d written in solutions too for endless creative spec obstacles: car crashes (how the f*** we doing that?), flowery fields (unavailable in winter), lambs (unavailable in winter), out of this world fantasy road trip routes (ffs).
We’d used Puppy Pound to warm up and test CGI expansion of Jaz’s distinct world-build, but now we were really going to architect a whole metaverse beyond with Carnage.
What were the main references across the project?
A vast library. Like sampling culture almost, I view it like my fave music producers (i.e. Dilla, Madlib, Burial, Fly-Lo, Premiere, Timbaland, Metro Boomin etc.), that approach. Many cultural fusions.
It’s like crate-digging: David LaChapelle, Vivienne Westwood, TLC, Soundgarden, Slipknot, Nirvana, Busta, Portishead, Stefani, Gaga, Britney, Lil’ Kim, Devon Aoki in Fast & Furious 2, the Disney+ Channel, 1994’s Natural Born Killers, 1995’s Ghost In The Shell, 1996’s Twister, 2000’s era Zack Snyder, Frances Lawrence’s 2006 Constantine, Wachowski Sisters’ 2008 Speed Racer, Lars Von Trier’s 2011 Melancholia, Malibu Barbie, rap mixtape culture GOAT iconography, essays on BPD, bi-polarity, autistic savants, depression, suicide, nihilism, doomers, and so on.
Everything shares a dot-connection, even if unrealized before through other’s lenses. You layer the samples, sometimes in a single composition. Visual musicianship, visual symphonies.
No idea’s original. Originality is only a sum of its un-original parts. I think we’re all just striving to unearth something novel in that.
What attracted you to the song, and to Jazmin as an artist?
I actually DM’ed Jaz in Autumn 2019 after seeing their wtf video for ‘Saccharine’. Nothing, air. Understandable. Two years later a brief from an instinctive commissioner lands in my inbox… cosmic.
I admire what Jaz symbolizes, their composite influences, the freedom of expression. I’m magnetized to artists whose output and framework for seeing things is outside of the norm - outsiders, misfits, outcasts, outliers – new age thinkers offering to shift paradigms. Felt I was living my Bjork, Manson, Arca, Kate Bush, The Cure, Linkin Park fantasies.
True story… Jaz’s mum Angie, as a drummer, of Filipino heritage, was in a ‘90s all-girl UK Metal band called Fluffy – whose ’97 single ‘Black Eye’ is directed by Floria Sigismondi. Bloodline’s mad.
I’ve also done a few music video pieces that interplay with takes on psychological health, or mortality. Repeat motifs. I like exploring powerful ideas with my artists in unexpected ways.
Above: The Shan Phearon workstation, and creative inspiration.
Is it true you went into self-imposed exile for the Carnage post-production phase?
Sort of. I was locked away in a studio for a while, with limited outside contact, except my lead VFX Artist Gino Fernandez 24/7, and the artist/label remote.
To hibernate and meditate with the material, shaping step-by-step. Flow-state. Musicians do it whilst recording albums. Directors are kinfolk. Label, artist and management wanted to empower us, to trial more progressive processes. Everyone appreciated commitment.
Is it fair to say this is a departure for your work in music videos - both musically and in the style of the video?
Maybe. It makes its statement. But it’s probably also a spiritual successor.
I’m very proud of my roots, and my video foundations, in Alt Rap, R&B, Soul etc. I carried one ethos at the start of my MV journey – to help elevate the cultures I was codified by in youth. That’ll continue. It’s a Hip Hop-centred attitude and we carry some of that energy.
I did over a year of CGI VFX filmmaking historical research - the ‘90s, the ‘00s and in the ‘10s.
But I’m an eclectic head too. Always loved Electronic, Alternative, Experimental Pop, etc. Same with visual languages. Many others like me, yet they’ve become caught in the conditions of the current British commissioning glass ceiling, or stifled by their digital environments and own audiences.
So this video asserts for directors of similar heritage that they deserve a shot at other music genres too. Can cross-pollinate worlds. Bring alternate perspective.
There’s a controversial debate raging in our circles that the UK music video scene has been flat-lining in the last period. If stagnation and a self-regurgitative tribal visual culture, here’s at least one recipe to discovering innovative angles eventually. Eschew pigeonholes. Open minds.
There are some beautifully conceived and executed sequences in the final video. Can you explain how you prepared and then achieved the main set pieces in the video?
• The artists in the speeding car on the highway: Ghost In The Shell/Manga inspo. I devised a giant green-screened rotating turntable to put the physical car on. I did over a year of CGI VFX filmmaking historical research, the ‘90s, the ‘00s and in the ‘10s, three key eras of advancements, so I could better direct workflow. Think I picked this one idea up after watching some BTS for The Fifth Element (1997). It’s all exploration of artifice.
I’d been thinking about how people at times say some CGI “looks dated”. But I feel like, if the CGI in a 1999 film looks like 1999, that’s unavoidable for those people in 1999 – so really it’s part of the charm. Their CGI artistry is an endearing sign of those times.
This led me to thinking more about the idea of retro CGI nostalgia. To purposely have one or two elements feel almost like retro 2000s CGI VFX, because the 2000s decade was the first real era of CGI overload creeping into cinematic culture. Hypothesis test.
I got my team to build a big green screen trampoline and paired that with Phantom cameras.
• Jazmin and Lucy Loone floating, post-car crash: Melancholia/Watchmen/Donnie Darko/Portishead kinda inspo. I got my team to build a big green screen trampoline and paired that with Phantom cameras.
What’s mad is that I wrote this idea as a scene in an unrealized Pa Salieu/slowthai treatment a long time ago. Jaz’s chorus just hit me emotionally and all I could visualize is what you’re seeing. Lucid dreams recycled from the vault.
• The main tornado sequence with the falling car and the flying goat: Twister inspo. The most complex VFX and a few experimental touches. To me it’s the absolute power of CGI as an artform, one often maligned, disrespected as ‘low culture’, misunderstood. Some cineaste are caught in the ‘practical VFX’ myth - too many Chris Nolan YouTube fan essays.
When was the last time we saw a big natural disaster tornado going wild in a UK music vid?
Both practical or CGI can be respectable solo, or often ultra-powerful when combined. So that’s the moment I’m proudest of. Gino (proud of him too) worked on that for weeks, whilst literally on a Covid deathbed, as a bunch of other things were falling apart around us both in our lives.
I remember its earliest draft landing in my WhatsApp whilst I was flat-out on the floor and I realized we’d just reached transcendence. Eureka. Like, when was the last time we saw a big natural disaster tornado going wild in a UK music vid? Did they manage that in the UK MV scene during ‘90s / 00’s golden age? And we’re doing it now in these austere times?!
I hoped it would be symbolic, defiant and bombastic, lol.
Also, the flying goat easter egg is inspired by the iconic flying cow in Twister. No animals harmed.
The piece has a unique aesthetic. What’s the 35mm and digital image fusion idea?
I’d discovered over time that the theme of artifice – maybe response to the virtual simulation-style hyperreality of internet culture - is a big one in Jaz’s metaverse.
So I designed a ‘synthetic-analogue’ appearance. We formulated a special and more complex than usual process so the CGI became 35mm.
Modern CGI-driven videos are nearly always too polished. And most 16mm / 35mm-driven videos are aping a nostalgic / timeless simulacrum idea.
I wanted us to bridge two seemingly opposing schools of thought. Hyper-digital and analogue marriage.
Above: Shan Phearon (foreground, back to camera) supervises the positioning of Jazmin's crashed car, on set of the Carnage shoot.
What were the biggest challenges in making this?
Any project can have these if going in with ‘elite mindset’. We do our best to educate those around, to uplift them. We don’t try to encourage mediocrity. New worldviews, are the biggest challenge.
Some feel in our UK music video scene culture, it’s a more and more for less and less era. But if tight budget, offer time. If tight time, offer budget. Here Film Creatives are often denied both tools. Which is why many UK directors, EPs and commissioners are suffering, as is the art.
But label, artist and management equipped us more time to craft on Carnage, they believed in optimal. That super-powered us, over a common industry challenge.
Maybe there’s a 15 year old fan somewhere and we saved their life last night. That’s our hope.
We’re in a phase where even at our UKMVAs, parts of our scene get slept on. Output from international, outboxes ours. Briefs go to overseas directors and our UK pool of talent isn’t nurtured. We need to work better - and this is down to the conditions given to work in - if wanting world class respect. Reform and new frameworks are healthy convos for everybody’s benefit in ’23 on.
I guess tricky junctures included first draft with pre-viz jpegs keyed into backgrounds and everyone looking at it like “wtf is this Blue Peter sh*t”? Haha. And then it’s Director’s job to encourage imagination, combat over-thinking in the abstract. Delicate psychological processes that I’ve learnt to handle.
Also the artist wasn’t always in the best of health. With resources, we were punching above our weight. As well as over 100 shots of VFX to be crafted out and made fluid - an insane feat. But all of us together as a collective unit, we were on a mission for our artist’s next era.
In the end, everyone was overwhelmed, as were those most important that we all really do this for: the music fans.
And what was the most satisfying thing about making this?
Well, this is public info, but the artist sadly had to spend the summer in rehab for addiction. They’re very open about these things, it’s part of their art. We all had to manage that, with strength, collectively.
Addiction in a variety of forms is a deep-seated epidemic, especially amongst the creative community, exacerbated by this current socio-political and digital climate. Directors feel there’s a growing mental health crisis in the UK music video realm at the moment that’s going ignored and will reach a tipping point. Musicians I know are experiencing a similar epidemic in their scenes. Artists can understand each other.
So I feel like the subtext, as well as the journey of this video to release, has been a redemption arc.
We’re very proud of the artist, who is doing better. We’re proud of the video, because it’s healthy when this medium is an outlet for expressing the troubled weight of the creative psyche. Unbridled expression can save lives.
Maybe there’s a 15 year old fan somewhere and we saved their life last night. That’s our hope.
What were the key decisions that made the vision all come together as well as it does?
Translating the artist, playing the orchestra, incepting vision, etc. It was a coach procedure.
I give flowers to my holy trinity: DoP Nathalie Pitters approach with lighting, production designer Anthony Hensman’s practical art direction, and indispensably our ride-or-die Lead VFX Artist Gino Fernandez who saved my life. They lived on this whole other planet with me and Jaz.
Plus the whole gang: super-producers Mel Massey, Talor Hanson, Maneet Sandhu, legendary EP Simon Oxley, 1st AD Paolo De Battista, Becky Seager on Wardrobe and Sofia Sjöö on MU.
All were about craftsmanship and worked with heart, some for extensive periods. This lot were my heart.
It starts with character first, an assembly of people with it. If the assembly ‘believes’, the mosaic of creativity will follow.
What did you learn that you didn’t previously know, or your biggest take away, from making this video?
I feel like we cracked another code and Walter White formula.
Imagination… nothing is impossible now.
I’m thankful for everyone that has shown us love and support for our effort in these current bleaker times for the UK music video scene right now. Hasn’t been easy for some of our peers. We’re just trying our best to keep this culture and our people energized. Journey continues.
• Shan Phearon is based at Greatcoat Films. Watch more of his work here.
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Promonews - 16th Jan 2023