Video Chats: Timothy Saccenti on 'Heaven' by Depeche Mode
Posted by Douglas Klinger on February 20, 2013 5:15pm
There are a few ways to get a realistic looking performance out of a band. One way is to simply work with them over and over again with the track playing behind them until they get the sync looking right, another way is to just have them plug in and actually play the song live in the video. Director Timothy Saccenti and Depeche Mode tried the latter method to much effect thin their music video for “Heaven.” We talked to Timothy about working with the band, conceptualizing the idea, and voodoo.
Doug: Is there something unique about working with Depeche Mode vs. some of the other artist you've worked with?
Timothy: In this day and age it’s so difficult to keep any release information hidden and release it as a surprise for the fans, so the team is very clandestine about information. And it spreads very quickly through the fan base. For example, the second this video came out I had probably 50 new Twitter followers within a minute. It's interesting. I think it shows their particular set of fans are so connected to each other that if one of them knows something then it spreads really quickly. I could just see it like a wildfire, spreading through their fans. They were amazing, really positive, kind responses. Which coming from an indie music video background, in the age of Pitchfork and things like that, everything that you create, usually the initial reaction is just to be torn to pieces no matter what it is. No matter how good it is someone's going to tear that thing to pieces. It's just like a game for people to be the first one to tear things down. To work on a project like this where the management is great and the fans are really supportive, it's like it feels really unusual. It feels like how I felt being a fan of music in the 90s, where it was like you would never tear your band down, you would never dis your band's video. You'd be excited to see anything from your band.
Doug: Do you think that comes from the fact that they had success during the 90s? Like maybe some of those fans come from that mentality?
Timothy: I think so. I think because the band is like that. The band is not an ironic, hyper critical group of artists. They're not trying to be overly avant-garde. They use electronics to communicate stories and songs, but they’re not trying to be anything that they're not, and they're very sincere about what they are. I think that trickles down into the fans and the people who like it. The people who do like that, who are attracted to that, are also going to communicate that back. I think it has to do with their whole world. At the top management levels in their organization, at they top they have an amazing team. They're very loyal. I think all of that, the whole process, the promotion and everything, just lends itself to people being positive and emotional about it.
Doug: What is your involvement in that other stuff? You mentioned you're working on another video with them, are you doing stuff for the tour as well?
Timothy: I can't get too much into exactly what it is, because you never know what happens. They have started to release short live films we created and I will probably will continue some visual campaign elements.
Doug: Would it be styled and based on this project?
Timothy: Yes. I would say they're extensions from the stuff we've been doing. I've been working with them now for a bit. From doing some live pieces, to doing an in-studio kind of montage piece, to now this project that's just come out, the "Heaven" video. The things we'll be doing will be extensions from a lot of that world.
Doug: What is the styling of this video based on? Where are some of those images coming from?
Timothy: I had this book for the video. Each time I do a video, or extended project, as much as possible I try and stick it all in one book while we're working on it, if it's going to be complex. They came to me and they said, "We want it to be a performance video," which I like to do because as much as there are so many interesting conceptual videos or short story videos, I think that when it comes to a band that's like a classic performance band like Depeche Mode, the fans really want to see the band in the video. As simple as that sounds, I think it makes a big difference. They gave me the song, the lyrics to “Heaven” and the ideas of transformation, and very much in the world of things that I'm interested in. We have a library here of like occult books and do a lot of research into symbols of mythology and mysticism and elements of rituals and things like that that I've always incorporated in my work. It seemed like a great way to pull that out, even though it seems a little self-indulgent at time, to go so deep into something that you're very interested in personally. These were also themes I explored for a film and installation gallery show we created for our "Garden" exhibition in Tokyo perviously for my personal work. But I think that helps because with things - especially things where you're touching in worlds of like symbolism and occult pieces - if you're not actually interested in the story behind what they mean, it's going to come across as just decorative - which is pretty much the opposite of what you want to do. It will remove all meaning and power from the symbols that you're using.
Basically, I was working on a transformation story, because the song lyrics are leading to this idea of these people turning into dust, and then some kind of transformation. I wanted it to be a sort of metamorphosis type story with little hints of good and evil, and basically a kind of a creation story. Based on that, I built these symbol ideas. It's in the treatment there. Tying it in to the video was shot in New Orleans, because they were doing the album art there with Anton. The vibe of the whole album was very blues-based, and they wanted to tap into the sort of voodoo energy of New Orleans. So I took the story that I wanted to tell and cross-pollinated it with how I could work it with a voodoo edge. There is an altar that we used which is an actual voodoo altar that we built in this church. Voodoo is not necessarily like a negative thing. There's good voodoo and bad voodoo. We built this amazing altar, which features in the video. It's more of a texture plate. The crewmembers actually cut pieces of their hair out and elements like that, and put it in the altar to kind of bring a good mojo to the shoot. I gave the artist there what the story was and what we were trying to tell, and she picked objects based on that. A lot of objects referencing death and skulls and pieces of those elements.
Doug: You mentioned shooting in New Orleans, what was the process behind finding the locations?
Timothy: We shot at an abandoned church in New Orleans. Originally when we were working with this concept, I needed visual motif to tie it all together, so I was working from the tree of life based on the Kabbalah. In New Orleans they have a tree called the Tree of Life that is a very, very old tree with giant knotty, gnarly pieces of roots, and it's really beautiful. We were going to shoot and incorporate that tree into what we were doing. In the end, we had to shoot those elements on a separate day because it was raining and the band needed to perform. Luckily, we had also had this church.
The band actually wanted to perform live for the video. They had microphones - they were plugged in. They had amps plugged in. With them, I think the biggest thing, again it goes back to their like sincerity. They don't want to fake anything. They said, "As long as we can play live, we can feel it, we can get into it, then we feel our performance is going to be good and we're going to hopefully get some magic moments." The whole project that I've worked with them they've been like that. They wouldn't lip sync anything. The band really wanted to do a live performance. We were in this church and the acoustics are amazing. They had the real equipment there and it was all plugged in. It worked out sort of serendipitously because that just brought it all together. When we were trying to do the first video piece they weren't playing the song – the song is called “Angel” – they wouldn't perform the song because they weren't doing it in the studio at that time period. They had already recorded the track. So I was challenged to come up with a video of them in the studio without any syncing, because they refused to do it. That was the most difficult part about that piece, was getting something that lasts five minutes, and is interesting and cuts to the music of people playing stuff that's not what they're playing, and not having be jarring. You get these cognitive dissonance problems when you see somebody singing something and it’s not the lyrics that are playing.
Doug: I feel it really does comes across as them actually singing, especially when you cut to some of the harmony vocals.
Timothy: I hadn’t ever worked with a band that was performers like that. A lot of the younger bands I work with, which I really enjoy, they are in bands but they are also more conceptual artists, say like Chairlift or people like that. They're in a band, but they also consider themselves an artist that does visual things. They do this, they do that, they're not just a performer. In many ways Depeche Mode are musicians and performers. They work very hard at it. They write very strong songs. In that regard, it made my job easier because it was pure just to capture this performance. The only other band I really dealt with that was like this was Battles. We did a video for Battles for their song "Atlas." They also had to play live. They were playing some very bizarre custom-made keyboard things that were all jammed together, and crazy fuzz pedals, and weird mathematical time signatures. They also said, "It has to be exactly correct to what we're playing otherwise it’s going to take us out of the experience."
Doug: So then are you giving any performance direction?
Timothy: I would look at the performance beforehand. Luckily with Depeche Mode and Battles, I would go in and film them rehearsing a week or two before. Battles I had done that, and that helped a lot. Depeche Mode, I had actually already done a live film of the song so I knew where things would be. You are directing, because you are looking at where, what is the motion this person is doing, are they going to turn this way when they sing, hit this note, is that an important note to get, or is the one after that important to get? If they're leaning down when they're singing, you know that you are going to want to have the camera at this certain kind of angle and the lighting in this way so when they lean down it actually is a flattering light. There's a lot of elements to work in. Then choreographing that to whatever the other elements are you're cutting to. If I knew Dave would be doing certain poses, I would make sure the camera was framing in certain ways and camera moves going certain ways, so that when we went and shot the ceremonial scenes that I could cut with them so it would appear that he was interacting with these different worlds. In that regard, no, I'm not saying, "I need you to hit that note harder, slower. Your pace is to slow, the camera pace is too fast." You're directing it, but it's much more in an abstract manner.
Doug: What about the costuming of the band specifically? Are you involved in that process? Are you just giving them color points?
Timothy: For these guys in particular, every element you discuss at length. During production we said, "What are we going to wear?" We had the stylist come in, Mark Holmes, who is a great stylist that I work with often. I suggested that he be involved because he works really well with bands, which sometimes can be tricky because sometimes bands don't want to dress like how they don't look on the street, or sometimes they want to be dressed up. I've seen it in situations. I haven't had to deal with it but I've seen it in situations where bands were dressed up in a certain way that they were uncomfortable with, and then they didn't want to use any of those shots in the video. From all my experience of dealing with bands and their idiosyncrasies, a very important place to be is to make sure that they are happy with how they look when that camera is on them. Because very often, they don't actually look at what they are looking like until they see the first edit or something, the first rough cut.
Doug: When it's already too late.
Timothy: Yeah, when it's too lake. Mark Holmes and I are great. He also worked with Anton on Anton's section of the shoot because we were all down there in New Orleans together. It was really great, just having all this energy for this album all in this one place far away from everyone's homes. We wanted it to be classic. We wanted it to be rock and roll. We wanted it to be a bit somber, because of the tone of the music - sometimes Martin can be a little more crazy with his looks, bondage gear and stuff like that. We wanted to keep it within that world. We wanted traditional instruments and some traditional details on them, as far as little things like rings and necklaces and things like that.
Doug: What about the lighting elements layered on the walls and projected onto the performance, what was the process behind that?
Timothy: When I'm building a music video, I need to make sure I have some element that's going to refer back to basically the abstract parts of the music. I work with a lot of bands where they have a lot abstract parts of music, so very often we're printing out the wave form from the track and looking at sound waves from what certain elements look like in the track. Those become the abstract world that I always want to have set up for editing and to drive the track. Certain tracks maybe, if it’s a sort of ambient track, maybe that abstract element is something more like a flowy element, like a water piece, or fog, or haze, or something like that. If it’s a more driving techno track, it's probably something edgier looking, and it's a bit of synesthesia type thing. I want to make sure I have the performance in one hand, the story in another hand, and then this abstract piece. It should relate to the two. For this one, it was trying to take the church, which is a very traditional piece, and bring it into this sort of futuristic production techniques that they use in the song. To me the best way to do that was to have quite bold projection map pieces in the church that we could then take in post and enhance it a bit, so they felt a bit more holographic. Ivan Safrin, who is a visual artist, does a lot of pieces with us and some amazing pieces on his own. He designed a program to go with the music that we then brought into the church, projection mapped the church out, and then using the projection mapping software, and then decided where, how to shoot what and where, and how that would work. That was all live in the church, which helped a lot, again, for the live performance editing.
Doug: It looks like there are some portions with the actresses where some of the stuff behind them is put in post, is that right? Or was pretty much everything done practically?
Timothy: We shot three different pieces, really. We shot a girl in the church for a period of time to tie the pieces all together. Then in studio we built a set and shot the more ceremony scenes with the boy/girl and the dominatrix-type character. That's a combination of set and map painting backgrounds, and things of those elements and the tree. Again, we kept going back to our tree of life element. So it's all a combination of hundreds and hundreds of man hours.