For the development of Modest Mouse’s “Float On” video from their newest release “Good News For People Who Love Bad News,” director Chris Mills found himself stepping into an animated vortex where Animal Farm meets post-modern art meets Indy Rock. Constructing an alternative reality from Popsicle sticks, sheep, and extensive after effects, Chris Mills discusses his induction to the interior world of Modest Mouse explaining how the creation of fantasy derives from the rearrangement of actuality.
See the Modest Mouse “Float On” Music Video
Music Video Wire: I was actually sort of surprised that MTV nominated such a cutting edge music video as “Float On” ; I thought that was great!
Chris Mills: Yeah, me too, those kinds of things are always better when they’re unexpected.
MVW: It was nominated for several different categories… for MTV2 and then for best visual effects. That’s got to be gratifying, especially knowing that you worked on all aspects of the video.
CM: The video was a big breakthrough for us. I didn’t do every single bit; the making of the video was definitely a mass collaboration. My friend Ernest Harris Jr. built the models that you see. He actually physically constructed that barn out of Popsicle sticks and then he built the gates and did all the drawings, basically making all that stuff from scratch. Malcolm Sweeny scanned the physical props in to create their digital images and then handed it off to a Toronto production company called Ghost Milk Studios. At that point I gave them blue prints to build a map of the scenes. They constructed the 3-d models and then did some of the sheep movements; I just got them to technically articulate the sheep and then show me how it would work. At the very end I got to be the guy who did all the camera moves and finessed the sheep so that their moves had more gravity and were a bit more motive. Step-by-step, that was the breakdown.
MVW: Did you just submit the treatment like a normal process, or did the band approach you first, or how did that work?
CM: It started out as a regular process. The first treatment I wrote had the band as Miners and the music was conveyed sort of like a marching song with the band as Marching Miners. There was this scene where they were in a diamond mine and the mine collapsed and flooded. They liked it, but it wasn’t really selling. The other idea I had was to do something that was based on kind of strange or unusual cartoons that we’d seen as kids, like Charlotte’s Web and Animal Farm. They liked that one at first but they wanted to explore some other ideas, which we did, but we ended up gravitating back to the Animal Farm concept. Before starting off on anything Isaac wanted to meet and hang out to talk about stuff in person which was kind of fun. I went down to Portland and had a few beers with him at his place, absorbing his vibe by seeing his art collection and hearing some of the music that he likes these days. We were thinking round about, brain storming really, the how-to of this treatment, the how-to of the video, and just a lot about the aesthetics that you would see or hear in the video. Seeing his place kind of creatively set us off… The guy with the green box, that little green box in the video, is actually similar to something that Isaac has in his art collection; something that his dad made for him. I thought wow that would be really cool to start it off; that this whole world lived inside this box that Isaac’s got.
MVW: And then going off into that next dimension where he holds it up and then goes into another world.
CM: Totally yeah, and then the world inside the box is made of different woods and that wood is based on Isaac’s weird upstairs room where he makes music and keeps his art collection and stuff. So in a lot of ways it’s based on what that room looks like. It’s really kind of fun and it felt kind of important to be able to actually meet him and hang out with him so that I can inject the video with as much of his stuff, and his personality, and the bands personality as possible; it was a rare treat.
MVW: It sounds like you were able to take the time and meet with him and conversely he was willing to kind of let you into his world.
CM: Yeah, I think that’s kind of cool; I don’t think a lot of people get to collaborate that way. I don’t know that I really loved doing it; I liked getting it all right, which is what those kinds of means were all about.
MVW: Did you shoot a performance video of them and then mask everything in or how did that work?
CM: I wrote the treatment and then wrote down the scenes next to the lyrics devising a time line. Then what I would usually do is edit pieces of the script into an actual scene, placing them into the music which would give us a rough idea of what was going to happen where and when. Ernest then started making concept sketches of the sets and how everything was going to look and then we cut those concept sketches into Animatic and from there Isaac and I figured out how the guys were going to dress, what kinds of clothes would they wear, would it be period or not, what kind of props would we bring into set, etc. We had just one day shooting green screen where two of the guys came down and we dressed them up and they performed. We shot some plates of their eyes blinking and their mouths singing, we shot some of our created talent, like our Bo Peep and Roger Lynn characters, and then we shot some plates of some of the individual elements, like fish against green screen, swinging chains, and some rocks dropping into the water. We painted the rocks green and then dropped them into the water so that we could get the bubbles right for when the sheep land in the water. It was like a day of capturing the performance and then after we got that performance we spent the rest of the time goofing around getting plates.
MVW: So it was three elements- the regular video that you shot of the band, then doing green screen like you just mentioned with the rocks and water, and then of course putting everything together in post.
CM: Yeah, while we were doing that Ernest would build the models and build the sets and he would also be making drawings and sketches of the different sheep or their different looks. We had what we called our hero sheep, which were the ones that were running around in the fields, and then we had what we called our extra sheep, which were the ones that sort of made the bulk of the line up. He sort of drew all that stuff by hand while we were shooting and then the last step was just the addition of other elements. As we worked, we would fill in a lot of the gaps. A lot of it was getting the base elements we knew we needed to get and then just filling in the blanks as they came about.
MVW: And as you mentioned before a big portion of it was done in the After Effects.
CM: Most of it actually was, and not for any other reason than that’s just the world that I know best so far. I knew I wanted to be really, really hands on for this one; it’s a good track I think, I totally love this track.
MVW: It’s unique the fact that the band is starting to make a mark, that they would go for something that’s out there, and it seems like it’s really paid off for everybody. Everybody was willing to take a chance on something that hadn’t been done before but just felt right.
CM: One of the best things about this project was the fact that Isaac said (and I don’t know if I should be saying anything or not) that from the minute I walked in the door and we hung out a bit, he seemed to know that we would be collaborating on something. It would work out ok and there wouldn’t be any tension or bullshit or anything like that. And I don’t know; from the second I heard this song, I was like, ok I’m going to give this everything I got. It was just a really, really nice surprise that it’s been accepted as it has and that it has done as well as it has. It was just a good twist of fate that it worked out and perhaps mostly to the credit of the fact that it’s kind of an undeniably pretty record. For me it’s a very perfect record to help define a period of time that is kind of heavy, or memorable, or whatever.
You get to work on music that you end up playing nonstop after the project. What I mean is that I’ve heard that song ten thousand times now after having worked on it, but if I’m out somewhere and I hear it or I’m at somebody’s house and it comes on TV, it still affects me the same way, and that’s what you dream about when you think about making music videos.
MVW: Did they come and were they able to see the whole process or did you just show them at the end? How did that work, collaborating with the band on an animated video like this?
CM: Well that’s where things like having an Animatic come in really handy. What you end up doing in the early stages is taking your script and then laying it down to the song so that they can get an understanding that when the sheep go under water it’s at this part in the music when everything becomes a lot calmer, so that there’s this weird little magic bit that goes on. They read about it and then what you end up doing is working on that scene for 1,2,3 days or whatever and then you get to send them a rough of that scene or a low res version of that scene and then they see it. The process was very much about just filling in the blanks and as each blank got filled in, everybody could see it coming together.
To some extent you want to caution people that scenes evolve as they come together, so you never really want to get stuck on one scene or another. You don’t want people to be worried that this sheep is happier in this scene, or not happier in that scene. It’s important to say yes, here’s the progress as we go, and then to agree to meet after it’s all together so that you can stand back from it for a second and go, ok, now what does it mean?