ADVENTURES IN FILM : PERSEPHONE, NEW YORK

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“Gods are great, but the heart is greater. For it is from our hearts they come, and to our hearts they return.” 

– American Gods

 

To me “The Mother We Share” is an elegy for a female character, perhaps an old God in a young body, perhaps Mother Nature, who had lost her sense of kinship with what she saw around her. Irrespective of the supernatural or fantastical elements, I think to some degree, that’s something we can all relate to in a way - that feeling of isolation or loneliness amongst the great yawn of the physical world and the ever-changing digital sprawl - our constant fight to leave a mark or be a part of it. 

It was a weekend in Mid-June and I was stood at the counter in Aldi, instant BBQ kit in hand, thinking I had outsmarted the extortionate prices of the local petrol station (that turned out to be a mistake on my part, but that’s a different story), when an email came through from my fantastic rep, Alexa Haywood at FreeAgent UK, asking my availability for the following Sunday, and if I could shoot in New York.

Thus began the immensely enjoyable and equally hectic ride that followed.

Andy Galloway, the After Effects editor here at Chief - truly a one of a kind guy, and I would often discuss all sorts of vfx and special effects I yearned to incorporate into projects. There are plenty of half finished tests and ideas clogging up our hard drives. One of them, the idea of turning an entire city into wireframes, like a half finished CG build or those super cool, old school computer games with a grid system world, was one that we were aching to try out, and once I had written the script for TMWS, I realised that now was the time to execute this. Excited wasn’t the word.

On a very wet Saturday morning in Manchester, producer Nick Crossley and I left for New York, leaving Andy to tinker away at some vfx tests.

Welcome to New York

 

I knew New York was hot this time of year, but I really wasn’t expecting it to be like anywhere near what I felt when stepped off the plane. Panting by the steps of a subway in Brooklyn, the sweat engulfing my entire body was indescribable, and the realisation that black jeans were a terrible mistake. We could only look on with envy at all the fresh-faced locals as we dragged our sorry selves and luggage through the streets, feeling very much like British tourists.  

Almost as if it were a peace offering and a welcome to our time in New York, my first conversation with a local was with our neighbour, a local lawyer and avid music follower. We shared a cigarette as he talked excitedly to me about MONEY and PINS, two band from back home in Manchester, both friends of mine. It was amazing to know that they were reaching a global audience and that we had a music friendly neighour living below us.

Ursula and Nick sweating it out. 

 

Monday morning, first full day, we headed over to Heist, a great and super friendly production company who were facilitating us on this job. Ursula Williams, our production manager was the calmest person I think I’ve ever met, not one problem thrown up swayed her or Nick, they made a solid team as they ploughed through the production hurdles.

Davey Gilder, the exceptionally talented Director of Photography and my right hand man, landed that afternoon. Jet-lagged and hungry, I tortured him by proceeding to talk through every photographic aspect of the script the moment he stepped into the office. To his credit, he remained as ever, sharp-minded and keen-eyed, even if his face suggested otherwise.   

Davey channeling the spirit of the 80s

 

The shoot itself, although a little testing at times, went pretty smoothly. On the first day we were put behind by a good four hours by various setbacks beyond our control. However, we picked it up through the day at speed, everyone working hard. But ultimately what kept up morale was the unwavering banter and high spirits of our US crew, such great people. Brandon Barron especially, our excellent grip and someone who, used as a stand in, had the impressive talent of making any set up look like a scene from Spinal Tap. Sam Brown, undoubtedly one of the fastest gaffers we’ve ever worked with kept things fluid as we churned through our many lighting set ups. The band too, amazing people, so genuine and witty, interested in the whole process made life great on set, we even got Iain, a self-professed cinephile, to hold the camera for some sneaky photos, and I kick myself that we never thought to get him to shoot a take of Lauren performing.

As the first day drew to a close, we came to the last set up. This one, I was both excited and nervous to shoot. I am a lover of shooting something in-camera if there is time, and I wanted to try and figure out a way we could emulate multi-exposure photography as moving image, in-camera. Davey and I devised an interesting set up with glass panes and some expertly researched light placements. Up to this point however, we hadn’t been able to test how it would look on camera due to a very limited prep-time.

Glass reflections and overlays.

 

Blocking out the curious waiting crew, commissioner and management, my face glued to the monitor…down went the house lights and suddenly it as if by magic, appeared our multi-exposure. Relief was quickly replaced by excitement as I jumped around throwing in a strobe and grabbing the remote control off our AD Nick Schepisi, who had confiscated it off me earlier due to my uncontrollable urge to just fire it off at the most inappropriate moments during conversation. The camera rolled and Sam deftly controlled the lights as the band members appeared and disappeared, me firing that strobe to every percussive beat. For something so simple, it never ceases to put a smile on my face when witnessing an optical illusion, I had started out in moving image with hand drawn animation, that process never failed to amaze me as those drawings painstakingly drawn frame by frame take on a new life. Seeing this over-layed reflection, coupled with the fatigue of the day brought on those same feelings of ecstasy.

And so the first day wrapped on a high. We said good-bye to the band as they drove off into the night, on to the next show of their hectic US North American tour.

The second day reared it’s hot, humid head five hours later. As we drove towards our first location through New York City’s grid system, we passed the Rockefeller Centre, I caught a glimpse of the statue of Atlas caught in the shadows of the sandwiching skyscrapers and recalled the first page in my treatment -

“If you saw Atlas, the giant who holds the world on his shoulders, if you saw that he stood, blood running down his chest, his knees buckling, his arms trembling but still trying to hold the world aloft with the last of his strength, and the greater his effort, the heavier the world bore down upon his shoulder – what would you tell him?...I would tell him to shrug.” 

- Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand

 

This was the apathetic thought that would embody our lead actress, the beautiful and magnetic Alexandra Chelaru, a lost soul that wanders the streets, disconnected with what she sees, before throwing her entire being into the fabric of the city, a shimmer through its core, the organic against the digitalism.

Alexandra was amazing to work with, she had the kind of eyes that searched deep into everything you said, like she’d seen many things before, never saying much, but understanding everything on a different level. This was perfect for the character.

The job wrapped as quickly as it had started, and before we knew it, we were flying back to Chief, but not before I had a chance to visit the Edward Hopper exhibition in the Whitney. That was the cherry on the cake for me. My favourite artist, whose exhibitions had eluded me until now.

The edit began immediately. We employed the expertise of Simon Blackledge at Space Digital to begin work on our character’s special effects shots. I can never sing Space’s praise enough; Matt Nelson and Simon are two very talented and very modest guys. They not only helped me out of a tight spot on a previous video, but also went above and beyond what I was expecting, I knew they were just the people to really bring that extra supernatural element to this narrative. So, whilst Andy and Simon began to piece together our epic third act, Ian McLaughlin and I began to assemble the rest.

Ian "Rambo" McLaughlin - taken at 1am on the first day back.

 

Ian and I have built up this hilarious working relationship over the several months I’ve been at Chief. We’ve lost our voices and our minds many a time working into the small hours in the edit suite, but that’s where our best work happens. This job was no exception, Ian weaved his magic as per and we carved out the final cut.

Monday, 5th August. Driving back from work, I hear TMWS is Zane Lowe’s hottest record in the world. As the track began to play, I remember back to the first evening we landed in New York, Nick and I had taken the evening off and walked through the sleepy side streets, we found ourselves on the edge of the East River with an unobstructed view of Manhattan and the Lower East Side. As we sat down, Nick mentioned how, clichés aside, you can see where New Yorkers got their incredible sense of ambition and drive – all you had to do was look at the skyline, and that sense of human achievement was right there before your eyes. Whichever way you look at it, you have to agree. Even though I’d been to New York before, I saw it in a completely different light this time round. What a city, what a job.

WORDS AND PHOTOS: SING J. LEE

ADDITIONAL PHOTOS: DAVEY GILDER


 

CHVRCHES | THE MOTHER WE SHARE | DIR: SING J. LEE