Kaotican Alphabet

Interview with Dougal Wilson (LITii video director)

Tales from the puppet video

Hello Dougal. How did you come to make the video for Life In Technicolor ii?
Well, I’ve been doing music videos for a while and Phil Harvey, Coldplay’s mysterious fifth member, got in touch to ask if I’d like to pitch for their next single, and to see if I’d like to meet up with him to talk about it. It sounded a little more engaging than your average video commission. Usually you just get emailed the track as an MP3 and you don’t know how many people will be pitching for it, or how much of a chance you stand.

Do you know which of your videos Phil had been inspired by?
I think he must’ve seen my showreel, which would’ve had Bat For Lashes, Dizzee Rascal, Basement Jaxx and The Streets on it. If you go on our website, you can see a bunch of them.

Perhaps the Benni Benassi one caught his attention.
Haha! They did mention that one, yeah. But I suppose they noticed that most of my ideas are quite light-hearted or affectionately take the piss out of the artist. Maybe they thought that was going to be good territory for them. I don’t really know, to be honest.

So you met up with Phil?
I did. We had a chat and it sounded like they wanted something in the style of what I’d done before, with my kind of silly humour. They were originally going to release a song called Glass Of Water, so that was the one I came up with an idea for. But that idea turned out to be too expensive and would’ve involved the band, which was looking really tricky because they were on tour. So, then I had to think of another idea, but it was nice because they were committed to me doing it by that point. Meanwhile, the band had suggested that they could be puppets, possibly in a Thunderbirds style. I thought puppets was a great idea, but that the Thunderbirds look had been done, with Team America.

You had worked with puppets before though, right?
Yes, for a Dizzee Rascal video, which meant it was territory I was familiar with, technically. So, I had a think about what we could do with puppets and I thought about Punch and Judy. It’s a British institution; quite creepy, funny and anarchic, but I hadn’t seen them in a video before. So that’s how we came up with that idea. Then they changed the single to Life In Technicolor ii and it seemed to still work with the idea.

What happened next?
Well, the idea was developed that it was a Punch and Judy show which was going to be taken over by a puppet rock band performance. I thought we could have a few jokes, if we attempted to do the kind of thing Van Halen or Motley Crue would do, with all the cliches of a massive rock concert, but on a puppet scale. So I got the song and storyboarded it bar by bar, thinking of all the gags we could put in. I thought it was quite important that everyone watching would be completely unprepared for it, so you’re constantly contrasting the people watching with what’s happening on the stage. That was the main repeated joke throughout; people looking at it in a mixture of bewilderment and fear. It wouldn’t have been funny if they’d started getting into it.

Some of the looks are amazing, particularly the little boy at the start.
Yeah, that is a classic little moment. We couldn’t have told him to do that. We had a second camera which we just kept rolling on the kids we’d cast. Basically my criteria for casting them was that they could do a good bewildered expression; I just chose the ones that looked funniest when they opened their mouth very slightly.

How did you pick where to film it?
That was quite tricky. I wanted it to be in a very unsuspecting English village hall, so I tried to find the kind of place where the local ladies guild would have their meetings. But it was quite hard to find places that weren’t being used, because those sort of halls are always being used by the table tennis club, or something. We searched for ages and then that one became available. It’s in a place called Aldenham which is near Watford. Interestingly it’s the same village where they shot the TV adaptation of the Midwich Cuckoos by John Wyndham, called Village Of The Damned. So it’s got some film heritage.

Is it a nice village?
Yes, it’s very pleasant and picturesque, although opposite the hall there are these nice little cottages and outside one of them was a big sign saying "Bring back hanging"! We made sure we didn’t make too much noise around that particular neighbour. But the locals we met were all really nice.

How did you go about making the puppets?
I’ve got a really good guy I’ve worked with before called Nonny Banks. He does prosthetics for feature films and that kind of thing. I did some research into Punch and Judy-style puppets, before trying to draw rough likenesses of the band in that style. Then Nonny sculpted them in clay and we rendered them in fibreglass, then gave them a wood look with paint. I don’t think it really matters that they don’t look precisely like them, it’s more that we’re supposed to know they look like them. That’s why I thought it’d be funny to really spell it out with the girl and the Playin’ It Cool biography.

We’ve had emails about that book, asking where you can buy it from.
Well, I think the whole phenomenon of the unofficial biography is really amusing. When any band gets any trace of success there’s always some opportunistic writer who immediately puts an unofficial biography together. So I put "unofficial biography of Coldplay" into Google and found this bizarre CD called Maximum Coldplay, which has the picture I’ve used on the cover of the fake book – the one where Will looks about 13. Maximum Coldplay is a CD of a woman narrating a very dry, factual biography of Coldplay, while music plays which isn’t even Coldplay, it’s just some other band playing a bit like them. You can hear clips of it online. It’s very odd. So I thought I should take that picture and put it on the book. It was meant to be a gag about the whole phenomenon of unofficial biographies.

Available at a village hall jumble sale near you.
Exactly! It’s a pity you can’t see the other books the girl’s got actually; classic things like the Hungry Caterpillar. We got loads of amazing props for the shoot.

There’s been some talk about Guy’s puppet.
Yeah, nobody thinks it looks like him, do they? That is absolutely fair. But it is supposed to be a caricature in a Punch and Judy style. And somehow I thought Guy, of all the band, looked most like Mr Punch. So I exaggerated it and gave him this massive hooked nose, weird eyes and a leering grin. I found it funny that we’d made the most good looking one the least good looking puppet.

Who did the puppeteering?
These guys called Jonny and Will and a friend of theirs called Martin. And another friend of theirs whose name I can’t remember.

Um, Guy?
Ha! No, it wasn’t the band, despite the names. But Jonny and Will are fantastic puppeteers. I just did a music video-style film for the English National Opera which has also got puppets in it and they worked with me on that too.

You’re becoming the puppet video man.
No, no, definitely not. Besides, the opera one was mostly live action.

So, did filming for the LITii video go well?
Yeah. We planned it out very precisely, because the video has a story so we were filming pieces of a jigsaw which had to fit together. It’s especially tricky with children, because they’re only allowed to be there for a certain number of hours. So we had to do it very, very fast; we probably averaged two takes per shot. With a big commercial you can easily do 30 takes per shot.

And Phil came along to make an appearance.
Indeed, he did.

It’s good how he appears, then disappears, then re-appears. Even within the video, he’s mysterious and elusive.
Exactly! That’s because he was only there for an hour and you have to shoot things in a funny order. For example, you have to do all the shots facing the stage at the same time, and then all the ones looking towards the children. You have to draw it up on the storyboard and work out what you’ll film when.

Of course the video climaxes with a helicopter smashing through a window.
Yes, that was actually shot in the middle of the night, at the end of the last day. So all the daylight is artificial – it’s just a big light shining in.

Is there any reason Jonny isn’t in the helicopter? If that was a Beatles video, people would think it meant he’s dead or leaving the band, or something.

No, there was no meaning to that whatsoever. It’s just that the helicopter was quite small inside and the puppets were quite big. We had to pull their legs off to get them into the helicopter and even then we could still only fit three in with the roadie. When we tried to put all four in, they were so crushed, they didn’t look alive any more. So as it’s only a very short shot, we thought nobody would notice if we left one out.

But why Jonny?
I think it was probably because he was the one that was flopping forward at the time, because he didn’t have enough Blu-Tack on his torso. So I’m afraid I just pulled him out.

Did you have to smash a real window?
No, that’s a trick of filming. It’s actually some fire doors which we opened and inserted a fake window into. We made it at great expense with balsa wood and sugar glass. We’d had two built in anticipation of one of them going wrong, but we were so short of time that when we smashed the first one and it seemed to work, we left it at that.

How did you actually do it?
The helicopter was attached to a long broom handle, which was just walked through the window. It wasn’t flying, it’s on a big pole with two hefty blokes walking about two yards behind it until it smashes through. Then in post production we rubbed them out.

There’s been a slight controversy over whether the man with the video camera swears. The BBC have said they can’t put the LITii video on their website because he does.

Really? How funny! But, yes, he does swear. He says "effing ‘ell". He was a featured extra guy called Davis and he was brilliant. The original idea was to cut in with DV footage, but we never used that. But his face was so funny that we thought we’d put him in. We were just improvising and I said, "Imagine something strange has just happened and maybe swear". And he did it brilliantly. I thought it’d be funny to have it after the motorbike scene, because that’s pretty much what you’d think if you saw that. It was a spur of the moment thing because it was funny. It was like a moment of humanity coming in. It wasn’t supposed to be gratuitous.

Were your roadie puppets based on anyone in particular?
There was talk of basing it on one of the band’s long-standing guys, but that didn’t happen in the end. So one of them was based on Saxondale, the Steve Coogan character. He’s the one you don’t see quite so much who pulls on one of the motorbike ramps and flies the helicopter. The other one, who picks the cymbal up and does the mixing desk, is just a classic roadie, with a ponytail and an ear-ring. We thought we should definitely give him a roadie’s arse, too.

So, are you pleased with how the video turned out?
Well, you work on something so hard for so long that it’s very hard to be objective about the finished thing. But what’s really nice is when people start watching it and telling you they like it. That’s very, very pleasing. And it seems to have happened quite a lot with this one.

What happens to the puppets now?
We’ve given them to Coldplay. But I’ve got one of the roadies on my shelf – the one with the arse. And I’ve got one of the Indian musician characters we invented for the start.

Do you think we’ll ever see them all together on stage again?
Oh, it could happen. A reunion tour must surely be on the cards.