Semi-Permanent Speaker Interviews: Keith Schofield

Visual gags are kind of Keith Schofield’s thing. In his video †Toe Jam’ by Brighton Port Authority, a bevy of butt naked swingers dance around a set ripped right out of The Brady Bunch, while black censor bars work their asses off (literally) making sure everything is kept in check.

Schofield has also directed masterpieces for Ladyhawke, the Ting Tings, CSS, Death Cab for Cutie and even won an award for ‘Best Rock Video’ at the 2008 UK Music Video Awards for his work on Supergrass’s †Bad Blood’ video.

He’s †the viral guy’ and we’re not referring to any form of disease. His video for Diesel (Diesel SFW XXX) has garnered over 15 million hits and is probably sitting in your inbox right now.

With his star power only set to rise and rise, we talk to Keith about his upcoming visit to Australia for the Semi-Permanent design conference, porn, making meth and Meatloaf.

P: What have you been up to today?

K: Oh not much, working on a treatment for a viral where they want to do a music video – so I’m kind of pitching something that is kind of a take-off of those power ballads…

P: Oh yeah, like Meatloaf or something?

K: Yeah Meatloaf exactly! And Air Supply…one of your local heroes down there right?

P: Yeah, yeah.

K: Actually this one guy wrote all the songs, this one guy that came up with that whole sound…or you know, perfected it.

P: Who was the guy that wrote all the songs? What was his name?

K: This guy called Jim Steinman, he wrote †Total Eclipse of the Heart’, he wrote all those Meatloaf power ballads…I don’t know I had no idea he was the same person. I didn’t realise that Meatloaf didn’t write any of his songs.

P: Yeah because you think they’d pick a better-looking guy hey? To be like the front of a band…

K: I know right! That’s exactly what it was. I was like ‘He’s got a good voice but surely the only way a fat guy can become such a rockstar is that he was, you know, he was the one writing all…but obviously you know, he found someone and said ‘You †re going to be the vessel that’s going to get my songs out there’. That album he did, it still sells like 200,000 copies a year or something…

P: Yeah it’s phenomenal, it’s one of the most successful albums of all time like †Bat Out of Hell’…

K: Yeah it’s like top five…

P: Yeah no one is selling records anymore apart from Meatloaf because all his fans don’t know how to download them.

K: (Laughs) That’s true!

P: You said you were working on a treatment for a viral, do you find that once you’ve had a successful viral you tend to get, like the amount of the requests for treatments for virals tends to go viral in it’s sense? Like you start to get a viral amount of requests?

K: Yeah. It’s kind of hard I mean the struggle we always kind of find is a lot of times you’ll get a scrip from an agency and it can be like a really good script and they’re like ‘Yeah, it’s going to be a viral’ and you could look at it and you’re like ‘Well, this could be a really nice commercial, we could make something that’s good and put it on T.V and people will enjoy it’ but it’s like, you can kinda just look at it and you know it when you see it if it’s going to go viral or not and no matter how well you direct it, you can’t really force something to go viral. So that can be really challenging because it’s like I don’t wanna, you know if you do a commercial and they put it on the air and it doesn’t get written up in advertising magazines, it’s not that big a deal at the end of the day just as long as it comes out fine- not every spot can turn out to be some big award winner. If you do a viral and it doesn’t go viral, then it’s kind of looked at like a failure, no matter how good it is.

P: Yeah it’s hard to chalk up 150 YouTube views…

K: (Laughs) Yeah and that can be kind of, not that I have this kind of perfect batting record or anything but you don’t want to do something that is a total failure and nobody sees it. That can be kind of challenging because you don’t want to promise that it’s going to go viral so you’re always trying to figure out some kind of way like okay can I make this script better, can I try and pitch it in another direction or sometimes I just treat the script the best that I can and however it goes is however it goes. The only thing about virals that I’m not a huge fan of is that the budgets can kind of shrink with them, and that’s really difficult because they’re expecting you to put together a lot of material…

P: And I think a lot of the time with virals it’s the strength of the concept really which is the thing that gets it over the line and really, they don’t pay you for the concept, they’re paying you still for like the production values of it, as apposed to paying you for the idea which is what they should actually be paying you for.

K: Yeah, exactly.

P: Have you ever worked on a concept yourself or seen a concept which you thought would work which then did flop, or didn’t take off?

K: Are you talking about virals or….?

P: Yeah, just in terms of virals…

K: Yeah I mean I think I did (laughs) talking about failures…

P: Well we’ll talk about your successes later but if we start with the failures then we’ll get those out of the way.

K: Yeah I’ve done stuff that didn’t probably work out and I hate to say it but you working you’re working on it, you kind of have a feeling about these things and then it kind of comes out. One thing that I’ve learnt over time is to try and direct stuff in my own style, in the style I’m comfortable with. It’s strange to do something when its like ‘Oh we’re emulating this type of directing style’ or ‘We want to do something like this with this kind of quirky performance’ or something- and I can assume what they want but it’s not something that I would inherently know how to do. That can be challenging and I’ve done that before where I kind of assumed that I could just mimic a different style and then it didn’t come out and I thought ‘You know I should of just kept doing this the way that I would do it, even if it wasn’t exactly what they wanted. With virals, this whole premise that you film something that’s shooted on home video, make it look like it’s real- then it will go viral, regardless of the concept you know what I mean? And that’s just because there’s been a lot of virals like that, that have been successful. But just because you film something on home video and try to convince the audience that it’s real, doesn’t mean it’s going to go viral. It has to be a good idea. Something can go viral without having to trick the audience into thinking it’s an authentic piece of home video- it can be like ‘Dude we’re going to go viral because we put something together they audiences are going to want to watch’.

P: I think the more material that gets produced that is successful online, like the more sort of willing people are to believe that things will work online. Your star has definitely risen since the Diesel video, can you tell us a bit about that? Was that your concept or did you work with an agency to create it?

K: Yeah that was something that, the viral factor, I’d spoken with them before about working with them and then this one was something that I got pitched on and it all kind of came together. And I had that music video that had sort of a similar vibe to it so…

P: Is that the Toe Jam one?

K: Yeah they brought me off work for that and I flew out there and spent ten days or so trying to figure out the workflow for the whole project. It was definitely one of those things where now we know exactly how to do it. You know, going through the footage, figuring out what shots work, coming up with ideas, doing little mock ups of ideas- figuring out what works, what doesn’t and then keep repeating until we have enough good stuff. But it was fun, it was really funny and I only realised this when I went back to do another job how much of the office participated in the Diesel project. We’d screen footage in the boardroom to try and get feedback and people would just kind of shout out stuff. And when we did that, the place was crowded. And then when I just went back for this other shoot to do a sort of similar thing, there were like three people in the room.

P: That wasn’t the Virgin mobile job was it?

K: No, no I just did one for Skype. It hasn’t come out yet, it’ll be out in mid October but that one is, it’s kind of funny. It’s basically- we took all this news-camera style footage of people talking on cell phones, and then we replaced the cell phones with funny 3-D animation. So it’s kind of like a G rated or PG rated version of the Diesel ad. But it’s kind of fun and kind of whimsical.

P: For the Diesel video, what was the brief that you actually got? Like what were they asking for?

K: The concept was †Safe For Work Porn’ which is basically people take porn pictures and then use MS Paint and like, cover up the naughty bits. So it was basically ‘take a look at these three pictures, now lets do a live action version of it’.

P: When you were working on it, did you think it would be quite as successful as it was? I mean obviously you probably thought, yes it would go viral, but did you think that you would be winning a Gold Lion at Cannes for it?

K: I knew the porn stuff would be popular, I knew it was going to be a couple million hits but I think now it’s got like 15 million. I think five million hits is impressive so 15 million is really cool but the fact that all these different people saw it and it was cool to hear different, people who’s work I respect had seen it- that was probably the coolest part about that whole thing. Then obviously the awards and magazine covers and stuff like that…I think with that stuff I was kind of a little bit more excited because I wasn’t expecting that because I kept thinking, it’s not like I was operating, you know, it’s not like we had a camera person and actors and you wouldn’t exactly call that film making in the traditional sense. So a part of me was surprised when I’d get calls to do other projects based on that solely because it’s like, what if you don’t like my work with actors? But it’s fun.

P: Can you tell us a bit about the clip you did for BPA as well? You said that’s probably one of the reasons that Diesel did get you to submit the treatment for their viral. The BPA video, again, subverts the †sexy video’ format as well- it has a playful element to it.

K: Yeah it was oddly enough one of those ideas I had for a long time, probably two years or so and I kept pitching it to different bands and I was nervous that somebody else was going to do it before me, based on the fact that it happens all the time where I come up with an idea and I think it’s really good and then a couple of years later somebody else comes up with that idea. It’s a coincidence, but it doesn’t matter you can’t do that video now because people will think you’re ripping off some other person. Thankfully I was able to do this before somebody else did and I was lucky because I pitched it to all these lame bands and it never got the go-ahead and then I pitched it to a cool band and I got it. That was one of the few videos that I’ve worked on where I was actually able to- because you shoot them and you’re like ‘Ahh that didn’t really work out’ or ‘It’s not coming out like I thought it would’ but this is one of the few where I felt ‘This is exactly like I wanted it to be’.

P: So when you are conceptualizing treatments and putting in submissions are you seeing things in your head and then trying to re-create them? Or are you seeing an effect that people can do with film and then going ‘I want to do that in this video’? So do you find the technology to facilitate what you see in your head or do you see technology and use that in clips?

K: Any video that has a big visual trick or something, the only way I’ve ever been able to get that stuff out is like have some animation or tests that really show what I’m talking about so in those cases like the MIMS video or the Supergrass, I more or less had either 3D animation or I went out and just had a little camera test to kind of show it because that’s really the only way you can explain those things, you cant put them into words and you can’t use pictures to describe them you have to show them exactly what it’s going to look like. It’s nice though because once you have those little videos, you kind of don’t need to write much for the treatment.

P: Does it get competitive? Do you have friends who are other directors that you write against?

K: Yeah I’ve got a bunch of guys that all are directors that I talk with all the time. A guy, Josh Forbes, is one of my best friends out here- tracks come both our ways sometimes. We talk to each other about treatments and ask each other for help and all that but it’s fun, it’s cool.

P: Speaking of treatments- you’ve got all your treatments sitting up online, what’s the thinking behind that?

K: Yeah! I can’t remember, there’s a friend of mine called Ruben and he kind of did almost everything I’ve done a couple of years before me. He was the first person to do like blogs, websites and this was back in 2002. And I remember when I was starting out, I saw all this treatments online and I thought it was really helpful to read them. It’s fun and it’s just an interesting kind of additional content to have a look through. I just enjoy the whole process of sharing it- if somebody asks me how I did my video I’m like †here’ and I’ll show them. It’s not a secret. Someone else will figure it out so I might as well just tell everyone.

P: You’re also quite open with the advice that you give young filmmakers. Could you maybe reiterate it? I’ve actually seen you interviews before and you said ‘I’ve got a very specific thing that I say to everyone…’

K: (Laughs) There are just these things that I picked up and it took me the first couple of years to figure it out. I feel bad because I had such a difficult time making my first couple of videos- it’s hard to spend your own money, it’s hard with all the time limits- to really do it.

P: I guess, in the advice spiel you were saying front the costs yourself, do something that includes sex/violence/drugs- something controversial that will get people passing it out and ask yourself wether you would email this video to someone else.

K: Yeah, yeah exactly.

P: Do you ever get worried about being typecast?

K: You know, it’s funny about the porn stuff, I still kind of see those pieces that aesthetically aren’t necessarily my kind of thing, in the scheme of things but I guess at the end of the day they’re not †sexy’ as much as †funny’. I would love to be, I always look to like those two guys, Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry. Jonze- his whole career was kind of doing these quirky, funny clips and he did a great job at it. It’s like ‘I cant wait to see what he does next- what kind of funny take will he do on this band?’ I’d like to do that. I’m not that concerned about being the typecast, as long as the stuff is good.

P: Can you tell us about some of the visual tricks and camera effects in the Supergrass clip, †Bad Blood’ and the MIMS video? Because I think those two are the ones that stood out to me visually as being quite stunning. Especially in †Bad Blood’- that really simple camera trick of just following the movement. How did you actually achieve that?

K: That was just kind of tracking in post. We’d shot everything with a static camera and then we shot it all on 35 and then basically took it to post in HD and then I tracked it down to a standard definition image. So basically using an image that was three or four times the size and that was all just tracking- it was a pretty simple shoot. It was nice because we were able to do it without a lot of money and it was basically 12 hours in one room with a crew. MIMS, I was playing around with some slow motion concepts and I found some footage on YouTube of break dancers in slow motion and I drew that into Final Cut and started playing around with the footage. For me, I feel like that trick is more interesting to look at.

P: Cool. Can you quickly tell us a bit about your earlier videos you did with Wintergreen which are another genre almost. That have that homemade, viral feel to them.

K: Yeah well they definitely didn’t cost much, so that’s probably one of the reasons. It did really well online so it got me a lot of work and recognition. It didn’t look amazing, but conceptually it was an easy sell because it’s about video games and people eat that shit up. That was nice because it was calculated to go viral and then it did pretty quickly. The ‘Cant Sit Still’ video didn’t go viral for a long time until I renamed it on YouTube to say, it used to say like ‘Wintergreen- Can’t Sit Still’ and I renamed it to ‘How to make meth’. That video cost literally $200, it didn’t cost anything.

P: Well thanks so much for that- we’ll see you out here at Semi Permanent.

K: I’ll see you then!

To see Keith Schofield discuss his work in person buy tickets for Semi-Permanent here and look out for more interviews with conference speakers on Pedestrian in the not too distant future.