‘Whorl’ dir. Anthony Austin
A cinematic journey into Joshua Tree with electro-pioneers Simian Mobile Disco, as they record their fifth album live under the Californian stars.
Director: Anthony Austin
Producer: Dan Keefe
Editor: Fabian Peters
Visuals: Hans Lo & Jack Featherstone
C8: How did you first get involved with the project? What was your mindset going in?
AA: I’ve been friends with James and Jas for a long time, and one night in the pub James told me about their next project, a live album recorded in the desert in California using no computers, only these incredible bespoke synths they built themselves. It sounded like a real challenge, a way of giving themselves a set of limitations around which they had to work to create the music. I was then chatting to a friend Dan Crowe who is launching a new magazine in the spring, Avaunt, whose focus is adventure in all its forms. I immediately thought of SMD and within a week I was on a flight to California with the band.
The nature of the challenge SMD had set themselves, meant that each time they play the music, they essentially have to recreate it from scratch, and each performance is unique. They had also always intended to go to the desert to perform and record the album. I wanted my film to be a record of that time and place, to capture that unique moment as it happened. I also wanted to communicate the unique atmosphere of Joshua Tree itself, and the alternative spirit that seems to result from living among those ancient boulders.
C8: ‘Whorl’ is a very unique concept. How did you initially set out to try and capture it for film?
AA: James and Jas’s intention for this album was very clear from the outset. They wanted to break down the process of making electronic music to its most basic ‘analogue’ form. Essentially, what is the least amount of kit they could get away with that would allow them to make the music? So they built the synths: these unique boxes that house modules with very singular functions. The other important element was making the process as ‘live’ as possible. The synths make sounds, and the sequencers allow them to build the tracks, but there’s no way to record. Each time you play it, you have to build the music from the ground up. This was a very real challenge for them – for example the synths needed time to warm up and were affected by ambient temperature, so when they went to play the gig at Pappy and Harriet’s, the cold desert night had detuned them all. Something they only discovered as they began to play the set.
I approached my film with those two concepts – ‘analogue’ and ‘live’ – at the heart of it. So all the footage and visual effects are as analogue as possible – either in camera or through post–production technique. I also wanted to capture the action as it happened. This was not a contrived shoot but a documented account of the amazing adventure we had out there in the desert.
C8: Tell us about the crew you took with you. Did you try and keep it as minimal as possible or did certain locations require a lot of hands for equipment?
AA: I actually shot it all myself, I was keen to keep it intimate, and as far as possible not turn the entire trip into a extended film shoot. My mate Pete Everett was there taking pictures so he helped out on occasion, as did SMD’s manager Luke Williams and James’ wife Sereen. We all mucked in, basically.
C8: What did you shoot on and what was the reasoning behind this choice?
AA: I shot on two Canon 5D MkII’s and a Canon 60D. Shooting DSLRs allowed me to be light and carry what I needed in a single bag. Helpful when scaling rocks in the desert. The 60D was there so I could shoot 50 fps, for some of the more atmospheric shots. I also used a ‘free-lensing’ technique on some of the desert portraits removing the lens from the body of the camera, and holding it in front creates some really strange visual effects. I love it as you get some crazy aberration in the image, and it also allows light to leak behind the glass for some really nice flaring.
C8: What was the thought behind the visual effects and how difficult were they to achieve?
AA: The guys who I did the visuals with, Hans Lo and Jack Featherstone, are the ones behind all the visuals on the album ‘Whorl’, from the album cover to the track promos. They devised an amazing technique to tie in with the analogue intention of the music that involved running video footage through an oscilloscope and then filming the screen – while tweaking various parameters. We decided to send my entire edit through their process, and then overlay the resulting visuals back over the footage. So the graphics are the result of this analogue process, utterly bespoke but also unique and unrepeatable.
C8: If you did the whole process again what would you do differently?
AA: Clip mics.
C8: What had you done in your career up to this point?
AA: I run a production company within an advertising agency, so I tend to do a lot of commercial work as a day job, mainly shooting online content for the likes of Stella Artois, IKEA, Coca-Cola among others. The work I am more proud of tends to be commissions for magazines and online publications, where I can have more of a free rein. My real passion is in documentary, but with a strong visual aesthetic.
C8: How did your preparation for this project differ from others that you have directed?
AA: This process was much more raw and hands on than most projects I work on. I usually have a crew of talented specialists, and it’s much more of a combined effort. This film was a chance to get back to good honest filmmaking. Just me and the camera, with no-one to lean on or hide behind. It’s a challenge, but really liberating for it. I did shoot loads and loads of rushes however, so I have to credit the editor Fabian Peters who did an incredible job of weaving a narrative through hours and hours of footage of rocks.
C8: You also run your own production company, BOSH. Has running a production company changed your perspective on filmmaking?
AA: This may sound obvious, but running BOSH has given me a really good understanding of what is needed to make a film. I have to wear many different hats as I switch between Producer, Creative Director and Director, so I am forced to look at film production from every angle. Purists would argue that a Director shouldn’t have to think about money, but I think that some amazing creative solutions come out of limitations – be those temporal or financial or whatever. By applying creativity to all aspects of the process (even budgeting), it’s amazing what you can achieve.
C8: What advice would you give to emerging filmmakers wanting to get their start in documentary films?
AA: My advice would be to get out there and start shooting. Every time you go through the filmmaking process you learn something valuable, every job an opportunity to find out something new about the kit, working with talent, yourself. Be prolific – practice, practice, practice. You’re going to make some mistakes, but dust yourself off and move on to the next thing.
C8: What makes for a good collaboration?
AA: Most directors are control freaks, and I’m no exception. You want to be in control of every last detail so the film can be as close as possible to your original intention. But the trick is to recognize each person’s talent and use them to the best of their ability. It’s when you let go a bit, that people really have a chance to make things amazing, and surprise you.
C8: What is next for Anthony Austin? Do you have any exciting projects on the horizon?
AA: I’m starting a new production company in the New Year, Black Sheep Studios, working out of the ad agency BBH. They are an amazing place with real attention to the craft of filmmaking and this is their first foray into actual production. I’m very excited to be leading a new team of filmmakers, animators and editors and creating work for their clients. Hopefully I’ll still find time to work on projects like this one, but I’m not counting on it.
The EP is available to stream on Spotify here.