Thomas James on Bring Me The Horizon's sTraNgeRs: "It's what inner demons might look like, beyond the confines of your skull."
David Knight - 24th Aug 2022
The new BMTH video uses extreme imagery to highlight a real social problem. Director Thomas James takes us through the process that led to him creating a tour de force of body-horror.
As he has shown through his career as a music video director, Thomas James (above, centre) is fascinated with exploring the deeper recesses of the human psyche, and the darkness that lies within. For the likes of Hurts and Sam Fender, James has told stories where vulnerable souls suffer torment, struggle against malignant forces, both manifestly real, or strangely uncanny.
James's more recent work in music video has seen him hone his darker sensibiilities, taking a more experimental approach to the dark and oppressive nature of existence, such as in his two videos for Ghostpoet in 2020 - Concrete Pony and I Grow Tired But Dare Not Fall Asleep - and last year's video for Lucy Blue's Taxi Driver.
Now he has directed a video for Bring Me The Horizon, the UK's pre-eminent emo-rockers, led by charismatic frontman Oli Sykes. The band's angst-ridden anthem sTraNgeRs has given James the opportunity to take its main preoccupations - alienation, loneliness and fear - into an entirely symbolic realm. The result is a virtuoso bombardment of extraordinary imagery that appear to derive directly from a nightmare.
With scenes of prone figures hooked up to wires and pipes, turned into giant insects, or individuals stalked by their döppelgängers, it is a brilliant realisation of unconscious fears that echoes the visual allure of some classic Nineties music videos, but also with a modern, 'Gen Z' sensibility.
We talked to Thomas James about the video, the ideas behind the visuals, and how this bold, nightmarish vision came into being for one of the UK's biggest rock acts.
There’s a crisis with people’s mental well-being at the moment - within our industry, and in the wider world.
How did the project start? What was in the brief (beyond the subject matter of the lyrics) that led you towards your ideas for the video?
Oli’s brief was looking at ideas of rehabilitation, of mental health issues, of things that perhaps people keep inside, or are forced to share institutionally. Things which are intensely personal, but crawl under the skin, not on the surface. So I looked at the horrors of this, of what inner demons might look like if they were haunting you beyond the confines of your own skull.
I think there’s quite a clear crisis with people’s mental well-being at the moment, both within our industry, and in the wider real world. So it was something I took quite seriously, but also wanted to create a very separate, whole other world for the video.
Labels and artists seem less keen now to make these sort of videos - so this brief felt like quite a special one.
I didn’t want it to feel too on the nose, or exploitative of very real issues, especially with things that I know friends are going through. But I also wanted to create a space for the piece to be grotesque - because ultimately what the track’s about, is a pretty fucking horrific thing to experience.
It might seem like just a surreal, aesthetic nightmare of sorts - but a lot of work was placed into the research. We had thousands of questionnaires sent out, and interviewed people with certain mental health conditions, and with psychological situations of struggle. Within the horror of the whole thing, I was keen for there to be a seed of reality amidst the fleshy grimness - but perhaps one that acts more of a dog whistle, rather than a neon sign.
What were your main references for the video? Did it come from classic music videos, from movies - or both?
For me, given the band, and the almost sonic nostalgia of the track - this was a great opportunity to lean on the 3am bleary-eyed MTV2 sessions of my teens. I suppose the videos I was brought up on. The sort of gritty, bat-shit promos that are so rare now. A place I feel very much at home, but it’s not really a place you get to visit unless the stars align.
Labels - and artists to an extent - seem to be less keen to make these sort of videos, when people have a choice to scrub or scroll through. Which is why this brief felt like quite a special one.
There’s obviously some Cronenberg in there too. All the good greasy stuff that makes your mum question how she brought you up when you show her your latest work.
There’s some Cronenberg in there... all the good greasy stuff that makes your mum question how she brought you up.
Unless I’m mistaken, BMTH have never attempted this type of imagery in their videos. Were you surprised that they went with your idea?
They’ve definitely delved into horror before, and maybe more genre-based ideas. But I suppose I was surprised with the level of intensity we were allowed to push the promo to. Oli, much like myself, was keen for this to be an almost unpleasant experience as a viewer. So I really was allowed out the gates on this one. He is keen to constantly develop their visual world - which is amazing when you’re working with an involved artist.
With a lot of my work, there’s always a point in the process where there’s a frantic Zoom call, with marketing shitting their pants, and we invariably have to tone things down. It was the opposite with this - which I relished. And props to Oli for pushing for that.
Because its quite abstract, there wasn’t so much an idea of character, but a concept of feeling.
Once the job was awarded, how did you prepare for the shoot? What was the key to having such a range of highly considered visual ideas in the final video?
As always with promos, prep time is a total luxury that never really seems to happen. So it was much longer working days crammed into less working weeks, with lots of support from production. Craig Dixon was a stoic angel, and Sam Holmes as ever was a bastion amidst the chaos.
There were actually numerous iterations of the video, all of which were boarded within an inch of their life. Because there were so many moving parts, it was key everyone knew what was happening at every turn. So many shots were a true melding of each department. The key was making sure this was communicated, with chicken scratch drawings of cockroach humans, and absurd Zooms discussing in detail just how wet we wanted the tentacles.
Above: On the sTraNgeRs shoot, with DoP Adam Barnett and Thomas James (back to camera) filming cast member. "Adam captured it with a real haunting atmosphere, with images you can almost smell."
Can you talk about some of the sequences and how they were devised and created?
All the sequences stem from a mental health issue, or a struggle of sorts. Albeit with an abstraction to set it in a surreal, distorted world; but one where the horror is founded within a reality. A kernel of something.
For example, the guy who slowly turns into a Kafka-eque insect, is built from ideas of addiction. The IV’s he’s hooked up to, filled with the strange larvae he is consumed by. For the girl who is chased by a horrific doppelganger - we cast twins for this - we looked at ideas of self destruction; of constantly running from yourself.
The girl who morphs into abstracted versions and multiples, we spoke to people about ideas of body dysmorphia, of your self-image becoming completely unrecognisable - almost being haunted by a grotesque self-depiction. So we ran with a strange and haunting version of that.
The body dysmorphia section... was briefed to be almost like a Francis Bacon painting.
When it came to the cast, did you spend time with them to make sure they were ‘in character’, or did that become obvious once they were on set, and put through their paces?
The cast were all mind-blowing to be honest. I talked through the concept of each scene with them, letting them know what each tableaux was dealing with; and then it was just a matter of intensity.
Because it is quite an abstract piece, there wasn’t so much an idea of character, but a concept of feeling. It was amazing to see people make it tangible if that makes sense. And there was also a fuck-tonne of screaming. By day two, the crew were all wearing ear plugs.
How much of what we see in the final video were you able to see on the monitors during the shoot? Did you have a really good idea about what the VFX on certain shots was going to look like?
Because we’d boarded everything so thoroughly, we were pretty good on what needed to be shot. But as always when you’re filming VFX it was still a case of reminding everyone on the monitor to not worry, that there would be a weird gloopy thing ripping from his chest, or something of that ilk.
There’s usually a point where there’s a frantic Zoom call, and we have to tone things down. It was the opposite with this.
There were some pretty hard elements to get though. For example, the insect's face - I believe we spent about two hours trying to convince a larvae beetle to keep still; and the squid against the glass, which was more due to the smell, rather than filmic intricacy.
Who were your main collaborators in creating the look of the video, and what did they contribute?
I mean - everyone really. The team was comprised of all my ride-or-die colleagues, who all bring their own talent to each project they do.
Adam Barnett, DOP, as always, captured it with a real haunting atmosphere, with images you can almost smell. We talked for days about this; how the frames would either be unsettlingly personal, or competely isolated, with non-human, sickly tones, and just a visceral, tactile feel to everything. Either letting the subject almost fight with the lens, or to be completely alone within a wider frame.
Finn Sullivan, the production designer, was as always completely open to the ideas and keen to figure out how we achieve them - no matter how fucking nuts they sounded on paper. He always brings a reality to ideas, design you can see breathe in the image, no matter how surreal, and I think that works beautifully across the promo.
Ellie Walker's styling was also key to this. With such big visual ideas across the video, we wanted to make sure the look of the clothing maintained a bite, but didn’t distract as such. Ellie spent many an hour looking at medical corsets, strange bandages and custom pieces, which had a subtle institutional feel - I think we coined the phrase 'medicinal S&M' - and dyed them, so we had a lovely uniformity. She’s amazing at giving flair and individuality, even across this project where subtlety was important.
And editor Jake Armstrong, who I’ve literaly worked with from day squat. He’s my good time cheese. My rotten soldier. We talked a lot about the intensity of the edit, and from memory there are 512 cuts in the film. It was a pretty brutal process - but as usual, he nailed it - helping me kill my darlings quickly and painlessly.
Finally, when it came to the VFX work, The Mill were excellent. They were pretty open to things developing once we had stuff in the can, bringing more to each shot. The body dysmorphia section in particular - the girl who organically warps with multiples of herself - was briefed to be almost like a Francis Bacon painting; and the artists got this straight away. It was amazing to see it come together, with so much work put in by the VFX team. Utter magical troopers.
• Thomas James is represented by OB Management. Watch more of his work here
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