Interview with Music Video Director Chris Milk

Over the past year director Chris Milk has made his mark in the music video world. His most recent music videos, Courtney Love “Mono” and Kayne West “All Falls Down” reveal his ability as a filmmaker to create a story that brings out the artists talent. We spoke to Chris about working on these two musically diverse music videos.

Courtney Love “Mono”

*read the Courtney Love “Mono” treatment

MVWire: What was the process of being awarded this video?

Chris Milk: Virgin Records had seen the Chemical Brothers video I did and asked me to write on the track. Randy Skinner the commissioner at Virgin was very cool and supportive even though I only had one music video on my reel with no performance. I am very grateful to them for taking a leap of faith with me.

I wrote probably 5 different concepts for the song over a few months per the request of the label. They were mostly these fractured twisted fairytales. Towards the 3rd or 4th I started getting feedback from Courtney’s camp of specific things she wanted. She asked for a rap video set and wanted to wake up in a forest. In one of the earlier treatments I had her being buried alive in a glass coffin so that got morphed into the beginning waking up section. She loves CG and wanted to incorporate it into the video somehow, so I wrote in the CG fairies, which actually helped the narrative. It sort of ended up at Sleeping Beauty vs. Alice in Wonderland in Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome. She also wanted the video to end with her nursing Eminem in her lap, that scene sadly never made it in however.

MVWire: How was it actually working on a big budget music video vs. trying to figure out ways to make the shoot work with very limited funds and calling in favors?

CM:Even though the budget was big on this it was still under funded. The producer still had to make a lot of deals and ask for favors with people. It was no cakewalk. The biggest problem was the scale of how much needed to be shot and how to consolidate that down into 3 days of filming. A number of scenes and prop fx gags had to be cut because of budgetary constraints. In the end, I had to make just as many compromises as I did on Chemical Brothers.

MVWire:This is your first music video with extensive visual effects (firefly’s, pixie dust). Who did you work with on the effects and what were your concerns?

CM: I didn’t really have many concerns. I’ve done a lot of fx work in commercials and I’m pretty comfortable with them. I learned Flame while in film school, so I’m comfortable with the process and with what needs to be shot to make every think work cohesively. I love doing things with tons of effects in them because it gives me the opportunity to go in and tweak all the little other nuances that are keeping me up at night.

A company called Mac Guff Ligne in Paris did the CG work. I’ve been a big fan of theirs for a long time but this was the first opportunity I’ve had to work with them. They are one of the most amazing groups of artists I’ve come into contact with. My eyes and ears on the ground there was the Flame artist, Simon Scott. Simon is LA based and did all the fx work in my Chemical Brothers video through his company, Process. On “mono,” he went to Paris right after I finished shooting to act not only as Flame artist but as the fx supervisor as well. I trust his taste implicitly and he sort of acted as my in-house, English-speaking liaison while I was in LA doing the Avid offline. I went to Paris for four days at the end of post production to supervise the completion of everything. Everything up to that point was done completely over the web through quicktimes and high res stills between Simon and I.

MVWire: How was the opening scene with the glass casket set up and how did you accomplish the look for her close up?

CM: I filmed the shot flying through the forest coming up to the casket off a steadiecam with a ring light and camera running at 12 fps. The casket was on legs that Simon removed in Flame. Mac Guff tracked multiple tracking points in the scene to create a virtual 3D version of the camera move in the computer. They then animated the CG fairies into that virtual environment. Last, Simon composited the CG fairy elements into the live action background plate.

Courtney’s close up was basically just me on a ladder over her finding the angle. There is really barley any clean up work on that shot at all. Simon added some subtle moving purple and green light across her face to simulate the fairies flying over her.

MVWire: Where did you get the idea for the little girls coming out from Courtney’s dress with power lawn tools?

CM: In the original concept the little girls all pulled out buzzing, smoking chainsaws from underneath their dresses. There was concern that MTV might refuse to air it that way (because kids might try to imitate it) so I changed them to the more ambiguous and less offensive WMD’s you see today.

I guess the little girls concept came out of the old Hole “Miss World” video in which Courtney plays a beauty queen. There seemed to to be something interesting in giving tiny pageant princesses the tools to rise up against their oppressors. I’m not really sure. Most of my ideas come out of me sitting around with writers block for endless nights and then taking the least shitty ideas at the final possible hour and trying to turn them into something halfway presentable.

MVWire: Courtney and the girls elude the security guards by jumping into the couch and onto a music video set was a lot of fun to watch. As with Golden Path, the main character is able to escape reality, danger etc. by going to “another place”. Could you expand on this concept?

CM: I like the idea that you can get from one place to another by just bounding through some unexpected portal. I guess that comes out of playing with my friends when I was a little kid. Those things still stick with me. I try now to think as best I can in those same terms where anything is possible. It hard though, I really wish I’d written more music video treatments when I was eight. They would come in really handy now.

Kayne West “All Falls Down”

MVWire: Did you have to go through the regular process of submitting a treatment for this video?

CM: No, Kanye came to me directly after seeing the Chemical Brothers. He specifically wanted to do a POV video where he sees his girlfriend off at the airport. I was extremely hesitant. Every time I see a POV video I think Prodigy’s “Smack my bitch up” rip-off. I figured the only way to do it was to try and do something different with the technique. I had written a treatment for Audioslave where the ending was the different POVs of the individual members performing into a reflection. The Audioslave treatment went nowhere so I adapted that idea into the Kanye video.

MVWire: What were some of the challenges shooting in the bathroom?

CM: It was pretty tricky figuring out the optics of the whole thing. The simple explanation is there is a layer filmed for his POV, a layer for the image being reflected, and a layer of his hands in front of green screen to match his hands in the
reflection. Obviously if you are shooting into a mirror you are looking at yourself standing there with a camera. So I knew going into it I would shoot the image in the mirror as a separate layer. That was the easy part. By far the hardest was figuring out how to get the subtle motion and rotation in each layer to work together so it seemed like one cohesive POV. If the motion and rotation don’t match layer to layer they look like they’re floating independently around in space and the effect is completely lost. We did quite a number of tests on video first before we ever shot a frame of film. And, truthfully, I still don’t think it’s absolutely perfect yet. Because of time constraints, I only got to shoot two takes of each layer. If you look at the foreground hands there are a couple of moments where they don’t match the reflection perfectly.

MVWire: The one scene in the video that brings it home is at the gate with the actress, we see her true emotions leaving Kayne. How was the experience working with her?

CM: Her name is Stacy Dash. You may remember her from the movie Clueless. She is a seasoned pro and we got along really great. She’s an amazing actor. I give her the credit for that performance. I talked to her about what I was looking for but she’s the one who made it happen and brought such specificity to it. It’s difficult to see but if you look carefully there’s a tear rolling down her left cheek. That was real and spontaneous. I was impressed.

MVWire: How was the scene accomplished with the x-ray machine?

CM: Those are actually my legs and feet you see going into the x-ray machine. I was operating the camera wearing a double of Kanye’s clothes. When you see his hands, that’s Kanye reaching out from either side of me.
The actual shot of the skeleton is 100% CG. I shot Kanye performing up against a wall with 3 video cameras placed around him. The CG artists then took the model they built and tracked it to that video footage frame by frame. It’s basically the poor man’s motion capture technique.

MVWire: What were some of the challenges shooting in the Airport?

CM: The Ontario, California airport was really cool with us. It’s very hard to shoot in airports these days, as you would imagine. The people there went above and beyond to help out a little hip-hop video. They were even cool with us after the unfortunate “cardboard box incident.” As a general rule, airport security doesn’t appreciate the unmarked unattended cardboard box left in the airport. Even when said box turns out to be full of props misplaced by an absent minded art dept and not a terrorist threat.

MVWire: Who was the editor? Did you work with him on the edit?

CM: Livio Sanchez at The Whitehouse in Santa Monica was the editor. He has cut all three of my music videos as well as a number of my commercials. He’s one of the best there is. Yes, to answer your question, I worked with him on the edit. I’m very hands-on when it comes to post since I used to do it all myself. Some might even go as far as to say I’m a huge pain in the ass in post (although I prefer “perfectionist”).

Livio’s assistant Logan Hefflefinger helped quite a bit with my inevitable, endless late-night frame-fucking exercises. He’s going to be a great editor one day as well. It’s fun to let him go off and do his own cut while Livio and I do the big offline edit. Inevitably he comes up with some interesting little moment or idea that Livio and I hadn’t thought of. This happened on both Kanye and Courtney and we ended up incorporating it into the final cut.

see these videos on the Chris Milk website

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