Legendary music video director Kevin Godley was commissioned to help to launch Charlotte Church’s creative rebirth with an innovative video for the single ‘Back to Scratch’. Godley, DoP George Tiffin and producer Ben Sullivan tell Robert Hull a tale of white rooms, eight Canon EOS DSLR cameras and a finished video they feel hit the mark.
When a recording artist as high profile as Charlotte Church takes creative control of their career it’s usually an indication that they mean business. And with the Welsh singer forming her own label, Dooby Records, to launch the ‘Back to Scratch’ album, it also underlined her financial commitment to the project.
So, when looking for a filmmaker to create the visuals for the album’s lead-off single, also called ‘Back to Scratch’, it made sense for Church to commission Kevin Godley, the hugely respected and award-winning music video director. Godley – who has worked with artists including U2, Sting, Phil Collins, Keane, Katie Melua, Gabrielle, The Charlatans and Snow Patrol – has exerted a similar creative discipline over his own work to the one that Church now wants.
For the ‘Back to Scratch’ video Godley created a landscape that helped to evoke the song’s lyrical concerns of heading back to the beginning, and of starting afresh. Working with another vastly experienced filmmaker, in DoP George Tiffin, and a trusted producer, in Ben Sullivan, Godley pulled off the trick of combining a simple concept with a complicated production process to make the final video appear the beautifully straightforward idea it always was.
Essentially a performance video, in ‘Back to Scratch’ Charlotte Church inhabits an almost perfectly white space, save for a set of ‘portholes’, that she gazes into and which record what she’s doing. But the 360° environment means Church is covered from all angles, surrounded. The video also represents the cyclical nature of heading ‘Back to Scratch’. Whatever your interpretation, it’s a video with the ‘wow factor’, and one which will have people asking, “How did they do that?.” Here’s how…
How the shoot was done…
Kevin Godley reveals: “We created a 360° white environment and shot from eight different camera positions using Canon EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 7D cameras. So, we ended up with eight views of Charlotte at the same time. And we shot those eight views from three different angles; so we started low, moved to the middle and then the top.”
Godley only works on his own concepts for videos, so the ‘Back to Scratch’ video was 100% his idea. It was a concept that had spent some time in gestation and one that benefited from the quality and technological advancements of Canon’s EOS DSLRs.
Godley reveals: “The idea had been kicking around for a while, but I’d not really managed to pull it off. I guess the technology hadn’t arrived to allow me to do it before. But in the back of my mind, I had the idea that digital video using EOS might be the way to make it work.”
Godley was aware that while the shoot could be straightforward – all of the eight EOS cameras being in fixed positions, with no requirement to move – there was a need to test his concept in advance. This appealed to DoP George Tiffin, who recalls: “Kevin rang me up and said, ‘Listen, it’s going to be a weird one, it involves a lot of maths and we’re really going to have to think about the construction of the set’. But that was lovely for me because it involved all the other aspects of cinematography: design, technology and perspective, as well as post-production.”
While preparation was essential, Godley admits his maverick side was still lurking. “We did testing in advance, to make sure it worked, but there’s always an element of jeopardy in what I do. I do it to keep it interesting – I do like that little area of the unexpected.”
The production process
The task of marshalling this mixture of maths and the unpredictable was the job of producer Ben Sullivan, who explains that directors have relationships with producers who they feel can enable their ideas to be done properly. Sullivan explains: “It’s my job to ensure everything happens to budget and schedule. I appoint the crew and arrange for sets to be built and the equipment that’s to be used.”
Among the challenges facing the ‘Back to Scratch’ team was how to achieve Godley’s vision in a way that made it achievable in a one-day shoot and within the confines of the £60,000 budget. George Tiffin attests to the “enormous” amount of preparation that went on before filming but says the shoot turned out to be a very straightforward process. Tiffin explains: “The lighting was relatively easy because the room itself was white. And because we never knew where Charlotte was going to go, I effectively had to light her from every angle at the same time. It became this infinite horizon of soft lighting, which was very flattering to Charlotte and helped in post-production because all of the white matched.”
Godley admits to just two difficult areas with the production: the first being the number of cameras; the second the data they produced. “As we had eight cameras obviously we needed eight monitors in order to see what each camera was seeing. It made the set look like NASA mission control!” The time required in post-production was increased by the amount of footage that was shot over the course of the 17-hour shoot. And Godley points out that the Screen Scene post-production team, led by Juniper Caulder, had a massive amount of overlaying and CGI work to do.
Benefits of shooting on DSLRs
The choice of Canon’s EOS 5D Mark II and 7D cameras proved to be universally popular and the team are full of praise for the way the cameras performed. Indeed, they are fans of HD shooting on DSLRs full stop. “It’s to Kevin’s credit that he was the one who said early on that the shoot was going to have to be digital, and that we should shoot it on the 5D Mark II,” admits Tiffin.
Godley was delighted by both the EOS 5D Mark II and EOS 7D, and is certain he wants to shoot do more shooting using the cameras and technology. He enthuses: “What’s great is the convenience, the size, and the fact that it’s instantaneous. The quality trade-off isn’t that much between 35mm and HD on these DSLRs and it suited our shoot perfectly.”
The EOS cameras met the artistic requirements but also satisfied Sullivan from a production point of view. “The Canon cameras were chosen because of a combination of image quality, which is very high, and the economies of not shooting on film. If we’d shot on film we’d have needed more equipment and crew; the final cost for the video would have been tens of thousands of pounds more. The compact size of the cameras meant we could build them into the set, so that saved thousands of pounds as well.”
George Tiffin was impressed by the High Definition footage from DSLR demo reels he’d seen shot by photographer and filmmaker Vincent Laforet, and footage that he himself had filmed on a borrowed EOS 5D Mark II. So, Tiffin jumped at the chance when Godley suggested using Canon’s EOS DSLRs and believes the cameras helped deliver a comprehensive advantage over shooting on film. “When running eight cameras it isn’t, practically, going to be a film shoot because we wouldn’t be able to check the image output in any kind of detailed way,” reveals Tiffin.
Lens choices & sensor sizes
The ‘Back to Scratch’ team also made use of Canon L-series lenses, notably the EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM, but also the EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM and the original EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM zoom. “We used zooms because we wanted to be able to get different shot sizes, but we were careful to exactly match the effective focal length within the zoom range that we had,” says Tiffin.
Asked to reveal a little bit more about the camera and lens setup, Tiffin delivers an admirable summary of the plaudits and challenges of shooting Full HD video with EOS DSLRs, but ultimately one that reveals the versatility of the cameras and lenses. “I looked at the zoom lenses that were compatible with the cameras and worked out the focal lengths and coverage we would need. The only question that was thrown up – and which that I think is of interest to Canon users – is that the EOS 5D, EOS 7D and EOS-1D Mark IV have different chip sizes.”
He continues: “We had to make ergonomic and efficiency decisions about which sensor would be best. There’s also variation in those three excellent cameras about the frame rate output they deliver, depending on their firmware. So, it became a computation. We had the parameters of the shot sizes that Kevin wanted, and of the frame rates we needed to achieve. In some ways, the decision was forced a bit by which combination would deliver the most options.”
Ultimately, all involved seem contented with the shooting experience and the outcome, and with YouTube views of the video having surpassed 120,000 you’d imagine Charlotte Church and her management are also delighted with how Godley’s vision was realised.
Displaying a mixture of humility and self-belief, Godley says the completed video: “lived up to my expectations for it.” A sign, perhaps, of a director who enjoys matching dream and reality. What’s certain, however, is that he has caught the EOS filmmaking bug: “I definitely want do more with High Definition video on DSLRs.”
For Tiffin, there’s great satisfaction in delivering a director’s vision within the constraints of the shoot. “I’m hired to make real what is in somebody’s imagination and, if it turns out to be exactly what they’d imagined, I feel a great sense of pride,” he says. As he signs off Tiffin provides a neat summation of the making the ‘Back to Scratch’ video: “It was an outstanding example of a tricky problem that only had one solution, and that solution turned out to be some fantastic Canon products.”
‘Back to Scratch’ shoot equipment:
EOS 5D Mark II
EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM
EF70-200mm f/2.8L IS II USM
EF16-35mm f/2.8L USM
Biography: Kevin Godley
© Kevin Godley
A groundbreaking musician and music video director, Kevin Godley first achieved fame in the 1970s as a member of the group 10cc (alongside Lol Creme, Graham Gouldman and Eric Stewart) and created hits including ‘I’m Not in Love’, ‘Rubber Bullets’ and ‘Life is a Minestrone’. Godley and Creme left 10cc in 1976 to record as a duo and in the 1980s became famous for innovative music video productions for Duran Duran, The Police, Yes, Peter Gabriel and Kate Bush, and Frankie Goes to Hollywood. Since 1989, Godley has worked, on his own, on music videos and films.
Biography: Ben Sullivan
© Ben Sullivan
Freelance music video producer Ben Sullivan – who works on a regular basis for Bikini Films – began his career as a production runner in 1996, “making the tea”. He worked in-house at Partizan, the award-winning music video and commercials production company, as a junior production assistant, and worked his way up to producer level. Since 2000 Ben has been a freelance producer working on video and film projects with a diverse range of recording artists including Oasis, The Sex Pistols, Shania Twain, Mercury Music Prize winners The xx, and Charlotte Church.
Biography: George Tiffin
© George Tiffin
George Tiffin is an award-winning cinematographer, director and writer. He has over 20 years of film making experience with all 16mm and 35mm formats, as well as digital cameras. George began directing films at Oxford, and in 1997 wrote and directed Soup, starring Alan Howard and Trevor Eve. He served as cinematographer on the film Goal III, has written for the BBC1 drama Spooks and in 2001 Picador published his novel Mercy Alexander. His camerawork has also featured on a wide range of commercials for clients including Sony, Disney, Coca-Cola, Audi, Ford, Yardley and BT.