Born and raised in New York, Chris Milk funded his student years at San Francisco’s Academy of Art College as a freelance Avid editor. After graduation Milk moved on to making commercials and founded his own production company, Spoon Fed Films. He won a Gold Clio while still a student, the Oscar of television advertising, and was one of six US directors to be honored at Cannes in the Saatchi & Saatchi New Director Showcase. Milk moved to Los Angeles after signing with Radical Media in 2000. Since then he has used his creativity and dark humor to create ads for high profile companies like Sprite, Nike and Nintendo. The Chemical Brothers “Golden Path” is Milk’s music video directorial debut. The song tells the simple tale of a man coming to a fork in the road where one path leads up the corporate ladder and one path leads to a colorful world of 60s style fun, and of course, only one is golden.
Interview with Radical Media director Chris Milk
Music Video Wire: What was the process in writing the treatment for this song?
Chris Milk: It was a difficult song to write on because the lyric is so narrative that you have to incorporate it into the visual concept or else you’re going to fall flat on your face. It’s almost spoken word, like someone telling a story which is very specific. There was an obvious “see-say” way to go with it, in which you write a story showing exactly what he’s talking about. It was very hard to get away from that since the vocal is so prominent. I figured the record company would probably be inundated with those types of treatments though so I really tried to steer clear of being too literal with it. I wanted to do something interesting and surreal yet still do the appropriate nods in specific places to the lyrics so it all stayed somewhat cohesive. Also, I am big Chemical Brothers fan and I’ve noticed that their videos are almost always some kind of journey. Whether it be a journey that is personal, physical, psychological, or just by train, it always seems to be a thread. I decided to try to do a journey that was spiritual.
MVW: How did you bring the two stories together?
CM: The lyrics center around “a golden path,” which seems to be toward the promised land of a higher plane, whether that be consciousness or heaven though even the song acknowledges that the path might not be all it’s cracked up to be, with the word “supposed.” I wanted to twist it into more of a social commentary, with the golden path being toward power and riches, paved by the “greed is good” corporate American ideal. The song has a very Sixties melody and instrumentation, so I thought it would be interesting to try and recreate that era. The main character is the one kid in the free love generation who chooses the path of riches and power over freedom and love. The date on the check in the video is 1970, the free love decade is over. People are having to get jobs and start working instead of just dancing around in fields. The video’s protagonist is the first kid in the free love generation that goes and gets a job in corporate America instead of rebelling against it. But the life he’s passed up haunts him still. His delusions of redemption begin to manifest themselves through antiquated office equipment and chocolate covered doughnuts.
MVW: How did you accomplish the moves going thru the computer screen?
CM: I shot a computer monitor screen with a 24-frame signal generator through it that showed 0′s and 1′s but in the end it looked like shit and we replaced it in Flame. The final 0′s and 1′s seen in the video spell “the chemical brothers” if put through a binary code translator. The transition was a Flame effect that Simon Scott (who’s incredible ) at a secret company called “Process”, created. He also did the chocolate donut with eyes, and the shot coming out from the giant shirt and pants.
MVW: It looked like you used two different types of film for the shoot.
CM: All the office world stuff is 16mm color reversal and the hippy paradise world is 35mm negative. You have years and years of research, development, and technology in the new Kodak Vision negative stocks, but the reversal stock is basically the same old technology from the 60′s. It’s not widely available and we had to search hard to find all we needed. We actually shot one stock that was the last bit of that particular reversal stock that exists in the world. We used the reversal because you get a texture that is very different from negative. Negative is really, really sharp and fine grained. In fact, for most things it’s too sharp in my opinion. That’s why a lot of videos and commercials, especially in Europe, end up shooting negative then printing to film and transferring from their print. It’s a softer more beautiful look I think.
MVW: Did you do anything special with the reversal stock to specialize the look of the video?
CM: Yes, we pushed the reversal stock one stop. It makes it look even grainer and fuzzier. The blacks kind of bleed a little bit and the grain is really chunky. I’m in love with this look. It was all in an effort to try and replicate the film look of the 70?s. The office is supposed to be the miserable reality of this poor drone so it?s got that green, yellowish tobacco tinge to everything. It is not a happy place to be. Matty Libatique was the DP and he did a great job with it.
MVW: And how did you use the 35mm for the “hippy world” ?
CM: The hippy world is straight pristine 35mm Vision 250D negative stock transferred by the illustrious Mike Pethel at Company 3.
MVW: Were those the only two stocks you used?
CM: There is one other shot in there that is super 8 that was done out of necessity for the size and weight of the camera. That?s the shot where they are swinging each other around in a circle and it cuts between the girl and guy?s POV looking at each other. The girl and the guy actually held the super 8 camera out in front of them and then spun around in a circle.
MVW: I understand that you had a bit of a disaster when the film was processed.
CM: Yes, we finished the shoot and after developing the 16mm reversal footage we went to telecine. We?re watching it and then all of a sudden it gets shittier and shittier and then it just turns to solid shit. There is literally solid brown film going through the telecine. It had gone through the chemical lab process incorrectly apparently. We had negative insurance which paid for a re-shoot. We ended up having to re-shoot about two thirds of the office day. That was incredibly painful, trying to go back and re-create performances that you were very happy with the first time. It took us a full day to re-shoot everything.
MVW: I’m sure you had to psych yourself up for the re-shoot!
CM: It was really difficult to do that. Usually on a shoot you?re running on pure adrenaline and everything is moving very fast. On this re-shoot it was such a downer I was drinking red bull so I could stay up. I was miserable. In the end though, I was far wiser than when I had shot it six days earlier because I had already started editing what I had and I knew exactly what I needed. At the end of the day I probably got a better video from doing the re-shoot, but it still didn’t make it any more enjoyable. Lesson learned, there are no bargains when it comes to processing your film.
MVW: Where was the location of the field for the hippy world scenes?
CM: It’s a kid’s baseball field out in Calabasas, in the west end of Los Angeles County. That time of year grass is completely dead unless it has been watered and the only places that water are golf courses, which are difficult to get on, and the movie ranches, which are incredibly expensive. Disney, Paramount, and Universal all have ranches and they are great, they look like a lush green valleys, but they want many thousands of dollars a day, and we just didn?t have the money. This was a difficult shoot because we never had enough money. I waived all my fees and put it back into the budget, as did Radical. Everybody else worked at reduced rates. It was the only way to get the video made. So we found this little park with a baseball field in Calabasas and it was perfectly green with these strange rolling yellow hills all around. It was interesting and kind of surreal having the drastic separation between the green field, the yellow hills, and the blue sky. You can see it in a couple of the wide shots. We also decorated the trees with bright streamers and I think all and all it came off pretty well for no money.
MVW: What was your experience working with the band?
CM: It was sort of a dream experience as far as dealing with a band and record company was concerned. I wrote the treatment, the label loved it and got it to the Chemical Brothers. The Brothers said ok, great do it, and make it wicked. I was like, are you sure you don’t want any changes, or I can send you e-mails and pictures as I go thru the process. They just said, no it’s cool, just make it really fucking wicked man. The band and the label were in England and there was not the budget to be flying them back and forth so it was just me alone on the shoot. No band, no label. It was great to feel that trusted by them. I’m eternally grateful to them for that.
The guys are really not that interested in being in their videos tough. They’re just looking for a cameo. I put them in as conjoined twins on the employee of the month wall. The subtext of it is that they win every month and they can’t be beaten because they are conjoined. They count as one employee, but they rack up the phone sales of two people. It’s really all quite unfair.
MVW: Did you edit the video yourself?
CM: No, I worked with an editor named Livio Sanchez who is at the White House. He?s actually an editor that I have worked with before in commercials. He is an amazing editor and an incredibly astute storyteller. This video really required someone who had a great sense of storytelling since it?s really more of a narrative short film than your typical performance driven music video. It?s not about finding the best cymbal smash, it?s about crafting a little narrative and making it all flow together.
MVW: How extensive was the storyboarding?
CM: I had every single shot, and every beat of the song storyboarded. If you look at my storyboards they’re almost exactly the video. I had the video edited out on paper long before I ever shot a frame of it. I needed to do this because, first of all I didn?t have enough time, and secondly I didn’t have enough money. You only have a set amount of hours of the day you?re allowed to work before you get into over time pay and quickly blow the budget. This budget could not be blown because certain people (i.e. myself and radical) would have to start paying out of pocket. There was literally no margin for error, and consequently no margin for extra shots either.
Another reason for the extensive storyboarding was because there was such a specific linear storyline I was trying to tell. Every shot depends on the shot before it to live. You can’t get to the computer curser shot unless you show the guy in the computer room, you can?t show the scene with him pulling his head out of the copier unless you show how it got in there. The shots all rely on one another to make the story work cohesively and if you don’t get one shot the whole thing begins to fall apart. I know because I tried to cut my shot list down (about 80 shots spread over two days), usually you can, but in this instance every single shot was critical to tell the story.
MVW: What’s different between directing a performance driven video and a video with a linear storyline like this one?
CM: Well, I speak to this with the authority of having done only one music video. But, with a performance driven video you have the luxury of cutting back to the band if your narrative gets in trouble. If you’re doing a performance video and you don’t get the shot of the guitar solo in front of the waterfall, it’s all right, the guitarist might be pissed, but the video still makes sense. In this video there is no performance, so if you don’t get a shot, you’re missing part of the story, and the whole thing starts to fall apart. Also, if you have two specific actions that synch with two specific moments in the song you have to have enough story to fill up the in between part. A good example is one where I actually screwed up. The copier machine opens on a “Roar” in the song. The coffee pot overflowing hits on the line “like the mouth of a volcano”. In between those two points is about 7 seconds. I messed up and did not have enough shots for those 7 seconds so I had to linger on the copy machine room forever, waiting for him to walk in. It sort of works, accentuating the banality of this guy’s life, lingering like that (we did it a lot intentionally at the beginning of the video) but that shot still bugs me.
In the end, I really wanted to match each musical moment of the song with a specific visual so the whole narrative sustains and complements the music. That’s what the great videos that have really stuck with me in the past have done. It’s basically reverse scoring. You’re scoring picture to music. Guys like Glazer, Romanek, and Cunningham are the masters of it. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the band didn’t actually score the director’s visuals in some of their videos.
Label: Virgin Music UK
Commissioner: Carole Burton-Fairbrother
Production Company: @radical.media/music
Executive Producer: Scott Spanjich
Producer: Kyra Shelgreen
DP: Matty Libatique
Off-Line Editor: Livio Sanchez – The White House
Telecine/Colorist: Mike Pethel – Company 3
Special F/X: Process
Flame Artist: Simon Scott