Canadian music video director Wendy Morgan (Swollen Member, Treble Charger) talks about her career and her latest project with Ambulance. Morgan won big at the 2002 Much Music Awards with Swollen Member’s music video for Fuel Injected garnering Best Independent Video, Best VideoFact Video and Best Director. In 2003, her video for Treble Charger’s Hundred Million won for Best Rock Video and Best Director.
MVW: What is your filmmaking background?
Wendy Morgan: I studied art history at the University, then started working in film production as a production PA in Vancouver. For a couple of years I worked on a lot of bad Canadian B-grade movies with people like Casper Van Dien and got fed up with that. About three years ago, I started shooting really low budget DV videos and my career just spiraled from there.
MVW: You didn’t really have classic film school training, you just learned on set?
WM: Well actually I didn’t learn on set because I was more of an office coordinator by the end of my intern days. When I was directing my first video I hadn’t had a lot of on set experience but I had people around me who were helping me and mentoring me.
MVW: What was your process in finding and shooting music videos for bands?
WM: In Canada, I saw a band in concert called Swollen Member, they’re not as famous in America as they are in Canada, and saw this guy Moka perform. He was so animated and so amazing that I thought it would be really cool to make a video for him so I walked up and asked him. I always knew that I really loved music video even more than film. I’m really a music person. Anyway, we shot the video for nothing and it was pretty fun and silly, but later I made more videos for him and then his band members started taking off. In Canada there are grants that musicians can get to make videos so I started applying for those and quite a few got accepted.
MVW: What are the grants called and how is it funded?
WM: They’re called VideoFact. It is funded by the Canadian government in conjunction with Much Music, which is sort of like MTV. Because Canada is so close to America, there are laws that oblige the Canadian television and radio stations to have 30 % Canadian content. There’s so much more American than Canadian content, the Canadian government gives money to people to make videos. They do it to develop Canadian talent, but also to be within the CRG regulation. In order for Much Music to have enough Canadian videos to play, they pretty much pay for them to be made, which is kind of the wrong way to do it. It’s a double edged sword in a way because, in the States if a band really wants to make a video, they have to get the money together and work harder or be more creative, versus in Canada where we just apply for VideoFacts. It’s too easy and sometimes it breeds mediocrity.
MVW: About the Ambulance “Primitive” video, how was the treatment process?
WM: Revolver has a pretty good relationship with TVT , so the song came up and the band really liked my original treatment. But with budget changes and other delays, it was a really long process getting that video off the ground, from start to finish it took about 4 months . I ended up writing an entirely new treatment and the band liked it. There were definitely more well known directors that I was up against, but the band seemed to really like my treatments and supported me.
The process of shooting a performance video is challenging because you’re trying to do something that hasn’t been done before and will get the viewers attention. I’ve noticed you used several visual elements. Had you been experimenting with these different ideas?
I imagined the band playing up on a mountainside with a humungous mirror behind them so that you could see the band but you could also see a huge expanse of land in the mirror. But then the reality of getting a humungous mirror to the top of the mountain set in. So I started thinking about mirrors and having the band perform in a line instead of in band formation. The constant dolly shots are based on the pacing of the song. The mirrors added different levels, like you see the band but you also see all the equipment from the video shoot and the lead singer and you see the dolly passing them and a piece of the guitar player, all in the mirror. So it gives you more information than you would normally get than if you were shooting them against a regular plane. There’s a part in the video where it cuts to the back of the band and they’re facing a kind of mountain.
MVW: That’s your mountain!
WM: It’s my version of it. When you’re facing the band, you’re seeing the reality of what’s in front of them, which is grip equipment, big grip cranes and lights and stuff, but when you cut to the reverse behind the band instead of seeing an obvious set, you see a really serene, theatrical landscape. I wanted to juxtapose those two things. I wanted a slow motion theater backdrop versus the set and the lights and the mirrors and all that stuff.
MVW: What was the editing process?
WM: The edit came together pretty well, mostly because of the guy that I worked with. We sat down and worked on it together non-stop for two weeks. Most editors want to do a cut and then you come in and see it and make your changes. The effects that we used mimicked a horizontal stripe pattern, such as the breaks in the mirrors. Also to the right of the mirrors, we had a big reproduction of their album cover which is also a horizontal stripe, so we decided that would continue that visual theme of moving horizontal shapes.
MVW: It’s very effective, it definitely catches your attention. And the band had a pretty good performance too, which really helps pull it together. Where was the location of the video?
WM: We shot it in a humungous empty concrete space in Toronto that used to be a roller skating rink, but they ran out of money when they were revamping it so now it’s just a huge vacant designy space.
MVW: I was just really taken aback by the look of the video, who was your DP?
WM: Pierre Roget, a pretty awesome DP, just happened to be in town working on some other stuff at Revolver so we managed to get him to shoot it which was amazing. He added a lot, his lighting is really nice.
We had a few days to prep together so we both knew what we were walking into. In some points, like with the mirror and the two backdrops I realized that not everyone understood what I was trying to do because it was a little bit technically confusing at times. But Pierre and the whole crew are really good. We knew what we wanted. Pierre was good in the sense that he got what I wanted but he also brought some of his own ideas, which ended up working really well. He’s very patient person and very professional. He’s shot a ton of other music videos.
We had to approach it in a specific way where we had to think about the aesthetics of not just how the lighting was going to look on the people but how the lighting was going to look on the set, so the lighting set up was actually really simple. Once we had set up the main lighting scheme it wasn’t too difficult to figure out the rest. We didn’t have a lot of time to shoot the backdrop at all but it turned out pretty well.
MVW: How has the response of the video been so far?
WM: It’s been really good. It’s been one of those very nice occasions where you send a video in to a label and they love it. Any changes we had to do were super minor, which was so nice because there’s usually a lot of nitpicking. There was a little bit of nervousness on part of the label and the management just because it was the band’s first video and they wanted to be perceived in the right way. The prep was pretty rigorous but then once we sent people the cut it was all pretty easy from there.
MVW: That’s pretty much all the questions I have, it was nice to see a beautifully shot music video with a different view point on a performance.
WM: I really like smart concept videos obviously but at the same time, I’m into bands and into music, too. I like to see the performers but sometimes it is a challenge to think of a way to shoot performance videos that can still be visually interesting. Obviously there is a time and a place for performance but I think, in certain cases, I’d almost rather see the band then some random idea that someone had. I think it’s important that the video portray somebody real.