Natasha Pincus Pt 1: ‘It’s Important To Have A Singular Concept’
She conceived one of the most watched music videos in recent memory, but Natasha Pincus is more than just a one-shot wonder, writes DOUG WALLEN. Part two here.
Even before a certain Gotye clip racked up 120-million views (and counting) on YouTube, every new music video from Natasha Pincus has been something of an event. That’s partly because she only makes a few each year, and partly because they’re so inventive and unfettered. Working with her partner Warwick Field as cinematographer, her approach has included animation of several styles, digital video as well as film, shadow puppets and even thermal photography. She’s shot Paul Kelly tied up in a vat of bubbling liquid, Powderfinger visiting Thailand, and – of course – Gotye and Kimbra wearing lots of body paint and little clothing.
Pincus won an Inside Film Award for Best Music Video with that Paul Kelly clip – her debut, in fact – and more recently an ARIA and several other awards for the Gotye one. Not to mention a slew of online imitators. In this two-part interview, the Melbourne filmmaker talks about catering to a particular song’s needs, the demands of pre- and post-production, the one video she has regrets about and the threat of repeating herself. What follows isn’t a director weighing in on technical specifics, but a sensitive, attuned artist outlining the philosophy behind her bravura work.
Gotye (Feat. Kimbra) ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’
Who came up with the treatment?
That’s my idea. Basically, you get a brief from an artist or a label – I prefer an artist – [and] you just get the song, more or less. Then they ask you to go away and dream up the best, most appropriate, most exciting, interesting, truthful, human concept for that particular song. Sometimes that takes forever, sometimes it never works, sometimes you get an idea straightaway.
With this one, it’s such an evocative song thematically and musically that I just had no trouble conceiving worlds for it immediately. I had two ideas, actually, which is unusual. The one you see is one of them and the other was just as powerful for me. Weirdly enough, I investigated the other one first to see if it was possibly achievable. After two or three weeks’ full-time working, I just realised it was beyond our means and beyond achievable. Which was devastating at the time, but then that gave way to exploring this concept in greater detail.
What was the other concept?
[Laughs] It’s so funny, I’ve never spoken about it to anyone. It’s hard to explain without visuals, but it was a performance to camera. So again, focusing on the emotions of the piece. Wally [De Backer] had certain patterning on his face. Not necessarily body paint, but some markings or tattooing in a distinctive way. In that single-shot video, over the course of it, his face very slowly transformed to being another face that had analogous markings that completed the first markings entirely. That was when Kimbra’s voice came through. That face became Kimbra’s face, but then lifted away from the original face and we realise she has the complementary markings to Wally’s. They became two and she floated away. She was coming out from within him and then floated past.
I went to all the post-production houses: “Oh, we love it. Great idea, great challenge. It’s gonna take like six months and a gazillion dollars.” [Laughs] So OK, maybe not that. They all just said it was very ambitious and not possible. So I looked within that to make sure I knew what it was inspiring, and then set out to reclaim the concept you see now. It helped the process, but along the way you get upset and frustrated. But then ultimately, the outcome is in your favour.
The final version doesn’t look overly ambitious. It has a homemade, DIY feel. Was that accidental or something you wanted?
I definitely wanted that. All the ones that looked the easiest are the hardest. This was a very, very, very hard video to make. It actually ended up being just as ambitious as that other concept, except in terms of achievability. It was three months in the making. I can see how it looks: “How hard could it be?” [It was] very technically difficult, but it was very important to me that it didn’t look like it was digitally created. The tremble of the stop-motion was very important to me. Getting that right was just as important as directing the actors: you have to direct the camera as well.
Why didn’t you want to do it digitally?
Oh, there’s so many reasons … When we listen to a song so many times, we become immune almost to how personal the story is for the singer. This song in particular is a very exposing and vulnerable piece. I said to Wally: “You haven’t been on screen before in a real way. I’d love to go in there and pull this performance. Are you open for that?” He was like, “Yeah, let’s do it.”
Everything had to follow from that: I couldn’t exactly have the audience watching something and asking them to engage with this human on a really truthful level and yet layer it with artifice. It all had to be part of the same organic process so that everyone felt they were involved in a very truthful way. That’s why there’s no clothes: just strip it all back to the core of what’s happening emotionally.
I think in videos and work in general, you find when those elements are battling each other … everyone’s got their two cents in, and maybe five different record label contacts and three different managers and 20 different publicists. Because they’ve all got their goals, they all mesh it into the one product. But then it just ends up coming out as schizophrenic. I think it’s important to have a singular concept and objective that the piece should serve, making sure that all the elements feed directly into that.
How did Wally and Kimbra feel about the nudity? Did they go along for the ride?
[Laughs] Yeah, they were amazing. That’s the thing: as much as you can have your ideas, you’ve got to make sure it matches what everyone else is prepared to do. Otherwise you’re just battling the whole time. And Wally’s like … I can’t give enough superlatives for that man. He’s amazing, and he’s extremely dedicated. He’ll do anything to create what it is that we all think is the right thing. So he was very cool about the whole thing.
And Kimbra, who at that stage didn’t really have the household name she has now, is just such a genuine and down-to-earth girl. She just turned up and was very relaxed. With women sometimes, you can expect different things about nudity. But none of those things presented themselves at all. It was a really small set. We shot for several days, but one of the days was 26 hours straight.
So Kimbra sort of fainted and everyone had their moments. It was no surprise: the body painter had advised me it would take between six and eight hours to paint each of them, and that’s without the stop-motion elements, which also take six hours plus the performance. We couldn’t wipe it off [for that reason], so we were going to have to just go through. So we were in training for it for a month. Still, obviously, you’re going to see the worst sides of people. But neither of them had a hissy fit, which was just amazing. (Laughs) We just played music and had chips and hung out and gave each other massages.
Was there a vibe in the air that this song was going to be huge?
No one could have predicted this kind of hit. Like, two amazing things happened the other night. One was that the video’s been invited to be featured in the World’s Best Music Videos DVD for this Danish magazine that includes videos from my heroes like Michel Gondry and Chris Cunningham. It was also in *The Huffington Post as one of the 10 videos “we can’t stop watching”. [But] my life hasn’t really changed. I ring Wally when these things happen and go, “Dude, what?!” And he goes, “I know! Oh my god!” We had no idea that either the video or the song would be [hits]. I mean, we loved them. But that can happen and nothing eventuates from it. This time it just had the perfect storm.
Have you had a rush of offers in its wake?
Yes and no. The video came out in July. We had a couple of pretty successful videos in the past, in terms of winning awards. There’s always a quick rush [of attention] from that, and kind of the same thing happened. But, especially in Australia, you get this negative [reaction] of, “Oh, well, we obviously can’t work with them anymore. They’re now too expensive.” So I do make sure people know the same filters are still in place, which is: really good song, really good artists, no dickheads and as much time and support as we need to make something good. It doesn’t really matter who they are.
Falloe ‘Science of the Heart’
The other video we did last year was for a band called Falloe, who are unsigned. We made a video for 5000 bucks and we loved every bit of it. I turned down lots of much bigger, famous people with lots of money to do that one. I got a whole lot of offers for things I wasn’t interested in doing, ‘cause they didn’t fall into those categories I mentioned. The song was average or the people were too corporate or something.
Was it Falloe’s song that really got you?
Yeah, the song. The band themselves I came across in the local music scene in Melbourne. I think they’re probably one of the best unknown bands out there. I couldn’t believe how amazing they were. They were kind of Augie March before Augie got famous. I independently had awareness of them and then, bizarrely, one of the band members contacted me as a fan, just through seeing my work on TV. It just happened to be the band I loved anyway, so it was too weird to say no. He gave me the whole album, which is the way I like to work: actually talk artist-to-artist. We sat down together and listened to the record. I told them the song I thought would make the best video, and that was it.
My partner [Warwick Field] and I went off as a crew of three [with] a film student. Took the band out to the country and made this video. We all stayed together in a house. I love that just as much as the Wally video. People ask what I think about all this amazing stuff happening with the Gotye video: I’m happy, but at the same time I just think there’s a massive [element of] luck in a way. Not in the song, because the [Gotye] song’s amazing. And I think the video’s good. But I don’t think it’s any better than the Falloe video. It’s just that some things break and some things don’t. I kind of feel bad for those guys that they haven’t had the same success with the video I wished for them.
Paul Kelly ‘God Told Me’/Sarah Blasko ‘We Won’t Run’
I’d like to talk about your earlier work, starting with Paul Kelly’s ‘God Told Me’. Do you try to get people’s attention in the first few seconds? Many of your clips have that initial hook.
It depends on what the song’s doing. Some songs have a slow burn about them, and you have to be sympathetic about that. I don’t really set out to do that, but we’re in such a short-term medium: it’s only four minutes or so you’ve got, so you don’t want to waste any time. That’s more the thing. It’s a painting-on-a-small-canvas thing: everyone thinks it’s easier, but it’s way harder because you’ve got such precious little material. You’ve got to be really in love with every single moment and make sure it’s perfect. That’s particularly true of the beginning and the ending, I suppose.
But it depends how a song’s built: you tend to really look for the turning points and the emotional trajectory of the melody to guide you. And if that’s a big opening, then definitely. But the Sarah Blasko video [for ‘We Won’t Run’] has got a really gentle opening, and there’s a 45-second bleed [into focus] we’ve got in there. I fought for that like anything. Some of the people overseas were like, “Oh, it’s too boring in the beginning.”
To me, that’s the hook: the fact that it’s out of focus.
[Laughs] That’s what I said. But some people might be switching [off] by then. I tend to have faith they won’t. Basically, the short answer is “not intentionally.” But I guess intuitively I’m aware “the curtains have opened; start the show.”
Did you find the Blasko clip similar to the Kelly one? Both do a slow zoom out.
To me they’re totally different. It’s like saying two action movies where the good guy wins and the bad guy dies are exactly the same. But what actually happens in the Blasko video, which to be honest is something that really disappoints me still, is there was one way I really wanted to achieve the shot. The Paul Kelly shot is a pull-out on the dolly: we’re literally close to him [with the camera] and we become far away. In the Blasko video it’s a dolly zoom, where the camera zoom and the dolly are going counter to each other. What it does is make the background change differently to the subject. If it’s done properly, it creates an optical illusion of them separating. And it does that very much in the video, but I wanted it 500 times more, which would have made that effect markedly more dramatic and therefore set it aside much stronger from the Paul Kelly video visually. Even though they’re one shot, they would look totally different.
The idea of the Blasko video is that an optical illusion is unfolding right before your eyes and you didn’t even see it happening. You’re looking back very closely to see how the world changed itself. So to me they’re so different. But I can see, looking at them side by side, maybe that doesn’t come across visually as distinctly. It’s probably the only video where I have frustrations about it.
As they are, they look more like similar approaches than you intended.
They probably do. And I get that sometimes: people will say, “Another one-shot video for Pincus.” Because I’ve also done a shadow puppetry video [for Lior’s ‘I’ll Forget You’] in one shot. And then obviously the Wally video is very front-on, performance-wise. I think, to be honest, it’s not a particular style choice. When you’ve done quite a few and you’re looking for the best concept, sometimes you put a concept down and reject it because it’s too similar in some way. But I think that’s unfair to the current artist, so I try to make sure I’m not censoring myself for my own needs. It it’s still current and true for this video and this song, I do it anyway.
[But] that’s becoming harder and harder. People say, “We really love that thing you do. Can you do it again?” Which I won’t do. But then you get people coming to you all the time – I’m not kidding – saying, “We really love all those interesting, crazy videos you do. Can you do one for us?” Then I give them a concept and they’re like, “Oh, that’s a bit crazy and interesting. Can you give us something more normal?” It’s like, don’t buy the dog and then wag his tail for him, man. (Laughs) Let me do what I do, and have a bit of faith that it’s going to be fine.
That Paul Kelly video blew my mind: it totally amplifies the conviction of the song. Had you done any videos before that?
No, that was my first.
“When we listen to a song so many times, we become immune almost to how personal the story is for the singer.”
I watched the making-of video for it, but what stands out to you about that experience now?
It was very ambitious. We shot it on 35mm film, which is not done anymore and at the time was also not really being done. We only had enough money to have eight takes and print and develop two rolls. There’s nowhere to edit [something] out, and if you make a fluff, you had to toss out the roll straightaway because they only go for four minutes. So if there’s a camera drop or a performance fluff halfway through a take, that’s one gone. Five hundred bucks in the bin. So looking back, I suppose my dominant feeling is “Jesus, I really had all my eggs in one basket.” [Laughs]
But look, you’re driven by so many different things. Paul Kelly’s a hero of mine. Having him have that confidence and faith in me just always puts so much more pressure and stakes on you to perform as best you can. You just do your best. I had the concept and I had a very, very, very small budget. I just tried to populate the clip with the best people I could possibly find in the country and convince them to come on board for nothing, basically. And making sure I could rehearse Paul enough to get the performance. Because you can have all the great trickery in the world and a great idea, but if the performance isn’t compelling and truthful – and the audience can see straight through that in two seconds – then you’ve got nothing. I suppose my approach hasn’t really changed since them. It’s just a lot of fear. [Laughs] And a lot of hope that you can make something meaningful.