Pointing a camera at a band on stage isn’t really filming a concert; Adam Smith and Marcus Lyall tell us how they made the Chemical Brothers’ Don’t Think seem so real.
The filming of concerts has had a long and rich history in cinema. Whether involving scripted narrative (Purple Rain, 1984), backstage clips (The Show, 1995), or gripping untold stories (No Distance Left To Run, 2010), holding the common audience member’s attention beyond the music is a much sought-after goal. Without the interwoven plot strand of a musical, watching live music when you are not actually at the concert can prove difficult, even for a musician’s most enthusiastic fans. The thrill and atmosphere of standing cold and wet-footed in a field, or cramped in an auditorium smelling stale beer and sweat cannot be replicated, and, often, you might as well just listen to the CD. The sheer electricity of the moment is difficult to recreate, so the challenge for filmmakers is to create a visual experience that captures some of the magic for audiences.
This is where the Chemical Brothers’ newly released monster, Don’t Think, successfully stands out from the pack. Lovingly chaperoned into the form of an aesthetic candy shop by director, Adam Smith, and creative producer, Marcus Lyall, this long-playing ode to the dance music idols’ past, present and future is nothing short of a grand vision of greatness. To be specific, that greatness is not simply a compliment, but a comment on the sheer scale of this vast production. Shot entirely at the Chemical Brothers’ performance at 2011’s Fuji Rocks festival, halfway up the country’s postcard emblem of Mount Fuji, the grandiose surroundings were only matched by the army of 50,000 Japanese fans standing in wait for the duo to come on stage.
Despite its enormity, the show manages to be engaging and personable immediately, not concerned with taking itself too seriously, as could be the case with one of the world’s most formidable dance music partnerships. Instead, the film’s aesthetic nods to the pleasurable onslaught of lights from Jean Michel Jarre’s live performances and the playful, yet menacing, movement of Disney’s Fantasia (1940) are apparent from its first few minutes. In fact, combine these two influences and turn them up several levels and only then will you get a fairly accurate impression of Don’t Think.
A production like this runs the risk of only catering for die hard Chemical Brothers’ fans, and alienating those not familiar with their music, but where Adam and Marcus have really flourished is in making it an accessible, artistic piece that stands alone. They frame the dynamic Chemical duo of Ed Simons and Tom Rowlands at the dead centre of a giant stage, dwarfed by an LED sculpture above them, and a screen behind. Showing these two icons encased in an open cockpit of mixing desks and keyboards portrays them as musical alchemists, almost like meddling aural Dr Frankensteins, adjusting minute sounds in a theatrical manner.
Having worked with the Chemical Brothers since 1994, Adam Smith’s long-standing relationship meant that the brief was left wide open creatively for him and his team. The show in its original form was shown a year prior to the filming, so committing the entire spectacle to a cinematic portrait was a natural progression after much discussion. “This show is the most precisely edited and programmed show we’ve done. And that’s partly why we had to film it. This set wasn’t Ed (Simons) and Tom (Rowlands) promoting an album; they were able to put whatever songs they wanted in there. There are old classics and there are also some new ones. It’s a well balanced set – frenetic and doesn’t let go.”
Cue Japan’s iconic Fuji Rocks festival in July 2011, stationed squarely on the side of one of the Far East’s most infamous dormant volcanoes. The Chemical Brothers have enjoyed a special relationship with Fuji Rocks in the past, having played one of the very first festivals to have been staged, and where better to host one of their biggest productions to date than a country brimming with technological progression, trend-setting and an unmatched love for music? The creative producer of Don’t Think, Marcus Lyall, understandably describes the entire overwhelming process as “quite surreal.” He continues: “We were at the festival two days before, trying logistically to get the filming going with a full Japanese film crew, and our Japanese isn’t that great. Directing them, plus another seven camera people in the audience and the other point-of-view cameras, in a festival, in the rain, half way up a mountain, with absolutely deafening techno and a psychedelic light show designed to make people fall over – it was quite full on.”
In addition to this there was the dilemma of finding camera operators among the tens of thousands of fans with only two weeks preparation time before filming began. Two weeks of hard work eventually paid off, Marcus enthuses: “We did everything by pre-planning it. For every song in the show, we wanted it to have a different feel and vibe. Before we went out and filmed, we storyboarded everything. I think in the end we had 13 cameras with zoom lenses. Adam was directing cameras in a truck and I was in a tent. I couldn’t see what was going on; I was just yelling out at them. The camera people were in the crowd, with people pushing into them, and ripping their headphones off.” A situation like this breeds an experiential cinematic atmosphere, where through all of the spontaneity, a highly complex, awe-inspiring performance of sound and light has occurred at a festival thousands of miles away.
Live footage can often look too strategic and clinical, resulting in a diminishing of feeling. Critically, Marcus and Adam decided from the start of the project to make their style of filming more inclusive, working to place the viewer’s armchair squarely in the middle of the rain soaked Japanese festival, next to every screaming reveller. Marcus explains: “People don’t put cameras in the audience very much. We saw a lot of footage on YouTube of people filming our show, and actually thought that it was great. These are the shots that other people don’t get, as it’s very difficult to ask cameramen to go into the crowd, especially with the big shoulder cameras that broadcasters use. If you put cameras in the audience, it makes the audience feel like you’re not above them. It has a very important psychological effect, which overall makes the film more appealing and real.”
Embarking on a project like this, in which the artist is the core of the performance, and generally the central focus and draw for the thousands awaiting a spectacle, it is easy to fall into a trap of deification – solidifying the artists as gods to their already doting fan base. Both Tom and Ed made it clear at the beginning of the process that they did not want the filming to be set up like a “typical” rock performer, who can, at times, be viewed as some kind of ethereal and untouchable figure.
Such attitudes are firmly rooted in the rave aesthetic. With a party in a club setting, there isn’t usually a stage to ogle at the man or woman behind the turntables; it is as much about the people surrounding you and the underlying atmosphere of the party. Adam, of course, agrees: “The challenge was how do we show what it feels like to be at a Chemical Brothers gig? How do you do that if you just point the camera at the stage? You need to see the emotional effect it has on people. If you were filming a drama you would have what someone sees, and then a shot of how they react to what they see, and that’s one of the ways to create emotional attachment. In that way I brought my experience in doing TV drama to the project.” Being at a live gig, as Adam puts it, is “the experience of losing your friends and making a load of new ones, whilst losing a shoe.” That’s the journey this film tries to take you on, continually surprising the eyes of anyone viewing it.
When you see things through someone else’s eyes, you care about them and the path they are taking, dodging other staggering, bouncing people. This is how Don’t Think steers away from the well seasoned concert film footage we are used to, mixing in a healthy dose of real party-goers. In much the same way as the characters of Michael Winterbottom’s 9 Songs (2004) dart amongst the crowd, the figures of Don’t Think are all very much enveloped in a private moment, not having time to stop, pose or act. Adam wanted to use small, less intrusive Canon 5D cameras, with notices in Japanese instructing people to not look in to the lens, to just observe the show.
That is all part of the Don’t Think ethos that resonates throughout the film. Don’t think about what’s going on; look around you and absorb the intricate textures of the engulfing visual stimuli, human and otherwise, which combine to form the complete bricolage of a gig or festival experience. There is a wandering robot on the festival site, along wth meandering projected animals, and a seemingly musically inebriated girl, looking rather chemically enamoured with her surroundings as she strolls through the grounds. “I came up with that a week before because we needed that emotional attachment and to follow someone’s journey through the gig. She is actually the girlfriend of one of the editors and a massive Chemical Brothers fan who had never done any acting before. You instinctively know if someone’s got a performance in them, and she did,” says Adam.
Marcus is quick to point out that where other filmmakers might get too wrapped up in the technological side of putting together a multi-faceted project like this, what they have done is “invent characters.” This includes a frightening clown that appears starkly across the length and breadth of the screen, much to the visible discomfort of one of the audience members captured in the film: “Originally the clown came from some slides of clowns in the circus that were in some of the very early shows. It has been a running theme that has developed along the way.”
From clowns, naturally, comes a cubist horse, appearing early in Don’t Think galloping wildly to a drum rhythm. Originally influenced by a sculpture, the team saw that motion capturing was also available for equestrian enthusiasts. Marcus detailed the process: “We sent this guy Paul who we work with some pictures [of horses], and went to see him. He said ‘I pressed this button before lunch and this happened, and it looks really cool.’” Each song is intentionally shot in a different manner to capture your interest visually as much as the music grips your ears. However, throughout the film, the shots remain relatively tight, not fully showing the expanse of the 50,000 euphoric fans covering a gigantic field. That is, until the emotional, spine-tingling reveal towards the end of film, with an intentional, epic effect: “We had record company people and management telling us to put a wide shot in earlier, so you can see how many people are there. The reason that shot works is because we’ve held it back” Adam explains.
Part of the beauty of this film is that it doesn’t rush all of the possible cinematography tricks at once. The characters, animals, fruits and glitter that encompass every inch of the stage’s enormous screen canvas take time to evolve and build until the final moments. There are many technical dos and don’ts in a concert film, but the very concept underlying this film is that above and beyond everything, those who watch it, in the field or in their pyjamas, need to have their minds utterly blown. This rave ethos of euphoria first, rules second, is what connects fans to the music made by the Chemical Brothers, and this is what Adam, Marcus and the rest of the creative team behind Don’t Think have committed to cinema perfectly. Marcus concludes: “The whole idea is that it’s supposed to be visceral. It’s supposed to have an effect on the audience. We use colour in a physical way; for example, we’d say, ‘right so this song is green.’ So we’ll go green, green, green then suddenly red! Because all the little rods and cones in your eyes have become used to green, it does something to people. We didn’t want to make everything nice and fluffy. When a three storey high clown comes on and speaks, you’re not supposed to feel comfortable. That’s what gives the show its texture. It isn’t heading in one direction; it’s a rollercoaster.”
Don’t Think screened across the UK on 3 February 2012 and at 500 cinemas worldwide. Visit www.dontthinkmovie.com.
For further information on Adam Smith visit www.flatnosegeorge.com, and for Marcus Lyall visit www.mlstudio.co.uk.