Ellis Bahl, who directed Alt_J's 'Breezeblocks' through Radar
Date Posted: 17/12/12 Author: Caroline Comments: 2
Stop press! We just heard Ellis' Alt J video is selected as one of Vimeo's Best 12 Videos of 2012. Amazing result, well done Ellis. Another trophy for the mantlepiece :)
Ellis reminds us it's scary, trying to make it. Here he tells us about the rocky road travelled from working in a shop to being signed by two of the most respected production companies either side of the Atlantic - and the part Radar had to play in his career.
Hi, I’m Sam from Radar Music Videos and we’re doing a vidcast with Ellis Bahl, who is one of our wondrous alumni! Hi Ellis! How is it going?
Very good. How are you?
Good thank you! You’re in London at the moment since you came down from the UKMVAs (UK Music Video Awards). What happened at the MVAs then?
Er, well. I won! That was cool. Lots of drinking also happened at the MVAs. It was very exciting, very cool and I finally got to meet everybody that I have been working with through email and Skype like Connie from Infectious and Caroline from Radar. It was pretty weird to have worked with them for like seven months or something and then meet them in person. I suppose that’s the magic of the internet!
Congratulations on your awards. Very well deserved, that winning video commissioned on Radar, of course. Great for us. Very nice. Thanks for using Radar, but we’ll work up to that. So when did you start as a filmmaker? Are we talking the distant past, like a childhood filmmaker, or something you picked up later?
Yeah, I’m one of those ‘always had a camera in his hands since he was 8’ kind of guys. I think I found my dad’s video-camera in our basement and started making videos with my friends and I sort of assumed the role of the director and then when my friends got bored of me being bossy I started using Lego and train sets and whatever. I thought myself how to do stop-motion pictures.
But when I went to college I lost interest and got into acting and improve comedy. After a couple of years of massive failure in the performance arena I got back into filmmaking and music videos in particular. I hadn’t really watched music videos until about 2 years ago. And that’s when I found Radar.
Okay, so it’s almost as if you wanted to get back into filmmaking when you decided to start with Radar. So why did you sign up and how did you come across it?
I found Radar looking for inspiration and I’d just discovered that blogs existed – as I was really behind at the time – and a girlfriend of the time was going on lots of different art-blogs and one of the sights she recommended was BOOOOOOM! With 6 or 8 o’s in the middle. One the right hand side they have friends listed and one of them was Radar Music Videos and so I was interested in music videos so I clicked on it and that’s how the love-affair started!
Great! So, what was the first thing you pitched for on Radar?
I couldn’t tell you. I don’t remember.
So how long had you been on Radar before you pitched on Alt-J then?
Er, well it must have been a year or two at least. Trying to think as Alt-J was in February and I’d been on Radar at least a year or two before then and I’d never won anything. I’d pitched ten or fifteen times I think.
So what else where you doing around the same time then? Were you making your own short films and bits and bobs?
So what happened was that I bought…I was working at a clothing store in the basement in stocking and I wanted to get back into filmmaking, so I spent my savings on a camera and a computer. I didn’t really know how to use the camera so I went on a road trip with a friend who shot a music video that I kind of directed.
From that I got a job at MTV working as an associate producer on TV. I’d just sort of lie and tell them I knew how to use the Canon 7D and I become a shooter/editor. I started making in house music videos for MTV that way and continued for about 2 years and shooting music videos on the side for personal projects.
Okay. I mean why pitch on Alt-J in the first place then? Something about the song or brief that really caught your eye?
It was the budget. It was the biggest budget on Radar at the time. From what I’ve seen it seems like Radar has a lot of bigger budgets now, but back then lots of the budgets were pretty small. Huge budget for me at the time – a massive budget. It was one of those times where I had my fingers crossed and I was like ‘please let this be a good track’ and sure enough it was brilliant. So those two things combined made me really, really want it.
For anyone at home you can see Ellis’ s treatment for Alt-J ‘Breezeblocks’ on the blog at the moment. Making the video: it was amazing enough to have that story planned out in the first place. The treatment looks very chain-of-thought . How did you go about filming it?
From what stage?
Literally from the beginning. Putting all the practicalities together.
In little less than a week. Like 5 or 6 days. I hired a production company on Saturday and we shot it the following Saturday. We just started talking about it a lot and figuring it out and when we had a location then we could really plan it out. I had it pretty much planned out in my head the way I wanted it and the location was the final key, you know, logistics.
Do you storyboard, or is it…
I read elsewhere that you planned your Walk off the Earth video in your head as well.
Yeah, I had a big piece of paper and I put each piece of the song and labelled each element in the song that I wanted to highlight and then shuffled them around in random order and them figured out how…I got someone to cut up and restructure the song that way and then I used that piece of paper as the hallway. Does that make sense?
Yes. Although I suspect it makes more sense to you.
Okay, so after Alt-J. ‘Breezeblocks’ came out and everyone loved it. It got a lot of play. How much promotion did you do yourself? Did you personally push the video?
Not really. The label put it on YouTube and I put it on Vimeo. I sent it to VideoStatic and then it got a Vimeo Staff Pick and that automatically gets something like 50,000 hits and then all the film blogs get really excited about it and whatever.
Alt-J was blowing up at the same time, so I caught that wave and music blogs were loving it and I think Infectious did a really good job pushing it and getting it on lots of blogs like the Huffington Post. It was like a perfect storm.
So how long was it from that to getting repped after that?
Er, 5 or 6 months.
What was that process? Were you aware of it [the video] getting pushed towards production companies?
I got approached immediately by production companies, by like 2 or 3. It was really crazy for me as it was the dream and it was what I’d been pushing for 2 years – my end goal – and it was happening.
And then after…so like I was working with some companies and then I got dropped and there was silence from all of them. They didn’t talk to me for like two months over the summer and it was really scary and I thought I was blacklisted and I’d never work again. It was really dark times, because I’d written all these treatments and none of them got booked.
I went to the Vimeo festival and met loads of people and I started talking and telling everyone what I was looking for and what was going on with me ended up meeting Doomsday through a number of connections I’d made. There were a number of people who had recommended me to a person who recommended me and so and on and so forth. People were like ‘you should talk to Ellis – he did that Alt-J video’. I got talking to the lady from Doomsday and she started sending me tracks just to try it out and I started writing for tracks and I won the Walk Off the Earth video and then when I won that I was signed.
Interesting about what you were saying about over the summer and losing contact with everyone and then getting back in must have been pretty scary. You’ve done something big and reached a bigger audience and then your back where you started, or maybe not even where you started.
Yeah, it was so crazy. The thing blew up and I got all this attention and what I wanted and then the buzz fell, the floored dropped out and I didn’t shave work and I didn’t have a real job anymore and I was broke – I mean I’m still broke – but broke with no hope. Yeah, I thought I’d missed my opportunity and I didn’t think that buzz would happen again.
I started working again in September and October and then the UK MVAs and then all this buzz started again with Breezeblocks and then I had this second wave of excitement about the video and I’ve just signed to Colonel Blimp and having meetings with record labels and bands and commissioners. And it all started with Breezeblocks.
So, thinking about Colonel Blimp, what have you been working on?
Nothing right now. I’ve been writing lots of stuff but all of it has fallen through for various reasons. There are potential projects on the horizon, but nothing right now. It’s a lot of meetings, lots of writing and lots of watching things fall through your fingers.
Best of luck for everything coming up. We look forward to anything you produce.
Thanks, I should have something by the end of December, early January. Check back then.
I was on your website earlier, trying to learn everything about you for this interview – in a non-creepy way – and I really like your little comedy sketches. I presume you write and shoot those. Are you still doing bit and bobs like that?
I don’t, but I want to. It’s funny you bringing it up as I was thinking about that today. I should just get back into that. Make a funny music video or something. Why do I always have to make these serious ones? Yeah, I might do that.
Quick one sentence advice to directors on Radar at the moment?
Basically I would say that the real thing is don’t give up and do what you want to do and don’t try and do what you think other people want because it will always be bad.
Ellis, thanks so much and we’ll speak to you again soon!