Clearly an artist with an eye for picking skilled visual collaborators, Vince Staples follows the black and white human zoo of Señorita, with Lift Me Up, a disorientating anti-gravity concept devised by L.A. music video veteran David M. Helman. Helman joins DN to talk about his pivot from no-budget videos and reveals how he took Vince Staples to an elevated state.
You’ve racked up an impressive back catalogue of music videos over the years, how did you come to find your stride in the music video world?
I found out early on that the best and worst way to stay busy was to work for free. I was working as an editor during the day at a full-service commercial production company that allowed me to borrow equipment on nights and weekends. Because I was able to make some steady money cutting commercials, I took on as many side projects as possible. The first music video I directed was a collaboration with animator Ruffmercy for Blu and Flying Lotus. We shot entirely at my work with borrowed lights and a 5D. From there, Ruff was able to put in time to make it happen between commercial jobs. That video did pretty well for us and suddenly a ton of artists started reaching out asking me to direct videos for them. At the time, I really had a problem saying no to anybody and I ended up directing a ton of these no-budget videos. At a certain point, I just got burnt out and decided to make sure that I was only going to work with artists that I connected with. That’s when I chased to do a Joey Bada$$ video and not too long after that one came out, I got signed to a production company. Since then it’s been a steep professional learning curve. I’ve left behind a few shelved videos that will never see the light of day but I’m starting to figure it out.
Are there commonalities in the approach you take when breaking down a track for screen?
I really don’t have a regular process beyond listening to the track repeatedly and not sleeping. There’s usually not much time to deliver a treatment so I”ll try to get away from the computer during the day where I’ll listen to the song in my car or on my phone. Then as soon as there’s some semblance of an idea, I’ll go home and work on putting together a treatment until the next morning.
You open Lift Me Up with scenic shots of Long Beach, teasing in these partial shots of Vince before the floating reveal. How did you navigate how much to tease in beforehand and when to reveal the full body effect?
As we were shooting, my DP Dustin Lane and I started to gravitate towards the details of the anti-gravity effect… seeing just Vince’s hand floating in an unnatural position or his feet dragging against the pavement. In the edit Nick Rondeau and I experimented with these moments and tried to build a non-linear progression of Vince’s ascension to keep it as disorienting and unpredictable as possible.
There are obviously practical considerations for a film like this right from the off. How did they shape your choice of locations and the set ups you knew would be achievable?
We shot this in two days and because of some of the logistical corners we put ourselves into, the shooting schedule was pretty rigid. The first day was entirely shot in San Pedro where the camera was on the steadicam and Vince was in the harness the entire shoot. I believe we got off eight locations which was a miracle because a stunt crane had to follow us to each set-up and it maxes out at 20mph. The next day we were in Riverside at a Christian halfway house which is where we did the various top-down, rotating performance set-ups.
What was the balance between practical and VFX in pulling off the anti-gravity/rotation shots?
The VFX on this project was limited to just the wire rig removal and all the spiral camera movements were done practically. We were lucky enough to work with Doggicam Systems’ Sparrow Head which is a camera mount that allows you to rotate the camera in a complete 360-degree rotation at various speeds.
What’s coming from you next?
Right now I’m just finishing up post on Waves, a short film that has been on the back-burner for way too long. So I should be releasing that soon unless a music video comes along and distracts me from finishing it.