Sigur Rós have been sharing the love, commissioning twelve film makers (from i-D favourite, Ryan McGinley, to fans of the band) to create films to accompany the songs on their new album, valtari.
The band have called the project “The valtari mystery film experiment” – and it is a mystery in the true sense of the word – even to them. With typical lack of ego, the band gave each director the same budget, and total artistic freedom. They say, “We don’t want to tell anyone how to feel… we never meant our music to come with a pre-programmed emotional response”, therefore they didn’t know what any of the directors would come up with and since May they have been revealing their artistic endeavours, one by one, on the valtari website.
I went to the premier screening of Nick Abrahams’ contribution, ekki múkk last week, which was a magical exchange between Aidan Gillen (of The Wire and Game of Thrones fame), a talking snail (voiced by folk legend Shirley Collins) and a wounded fox, set in a weather torn English field. It’s one of the most unlikely pop videos you’ll ever see; and is all the more wonderful for that. With the latest advancements in nature photography employed, including wildlife cameraman Martin Dohrn’s ‘frankencam’ (pictured) and stop-frame photography to show the decomposition of the fox, as well as the camera languishing amongst the beauty and simplicity of grass blowing in the wind, the result is absolutely mesmerising. Sigur Rós are always so evocative yet quite abstract and for Abrahams to have put a narrative to the film is brave. But it pays off. This short film is heartbreaking, uplifting and awe-inspiring in the beauty of detail all at once. It’s perfect with the music.
i-D online spoke to Nick about the film, close up snail shots and artistic freedom.
You’ve worked with the band before, is their approach very different to your experience with other bands? Yes, because they gave everyone involved a free hand – no direction, no intervention, just let us produce whatever we wanted. Actually I think they are pretty astute at choosing who to collaborate with. And when I think about it, they didn’t intervene in the other things I have filmed of them. Sigur Ros are pretty cool in that respect.
Have you ever been given utter artistic freedom before? Actually no, not even when working on small budgets. Oddly because of this I felt responsible to create something worthy of the band’s trust! Maybe that was all part of their cunning plan…
Did the idea for the film come from the music? The music was the starting point – if anything the trouble with Sigur Ros is their music is almost too evocative… I had a lot of ideas in my head to do with a feature script I have been working on, and some of them linked to the music in a way which I had to follow. So the music was the catalyst – I do love the way their music is so layered, the more I listen to it, the more tiny sounds I hear deep within the texture of it – and I knew I wanted to look at the British countryside like that. And that led to creating that main shot of the man entering the field and the camera swooping down into the undergrowth to reveal this snail… That really was the starting point, and it all grew from there.
The pace of the film is beautifully slow, even given the time limit, your film lingers, seems almost to be in slow motion, which is brave given that music videos are usually the opposite, why? Part of the idea was to do something where the special effects are natural – so the aim was to make people feel that childlike awe you feel when they watch a David Attenborough film for the first time – when you look at something in a totally new way. Often in music videos you cut fast to create rhythm, but I wanted to slow things down, so you could enjoy the snail, the trees, being lost… And to allow it to work as a drama, rather than a music video, with a pace and logic all of its own. With the decaying fox, I wanted to show it to be something sad but also beautiful – to make it into something poetic. Again, I think the poetry is partially in giving it all a bit longer on screen than seems normal.
The use of wildlife cameraman Martin Dohrn was inspired, how long did it take to get the snail’s beauty shots?? How was that experience? Amazing – Martin is a singular man, and brought a massive amount of experience to the project. His view of the world is completely different to most people’s, as he sort of looks at things from an animal or insects point of view. He used what he calls his ‘Frankencam’, a special rig he made so he can get the camera in very close to the subject and follow it through the undergrowth. It’s like revealing a totally hidden parallel universe that is co-existing with us. And you don’t need to go somewhere exotic to find it, it’s there all around us. I think the idea of combining his wildlife skills with dramatic storytelling appealed to him, and hopefully we will do some more of that together in the future.
Aiden Gillen and the fox look so comfortable together. Both consummate professionals! Is this your first time working with animals? Absolutely. The fox fell asleep in his arms! No drugs were involved! Tod the fox must have felt very comfortable in Aiden’s arms. Just before the shoot, people started to tell me ‘oh yes, you can spend a whole day waiting to get one successful shot with an animal like a fox’. Luckily they were wrong and Tod was great. The snails, unfortunately, were rotters, and we actually had to do a mini reshoot with Martin to get some of their close ups!
Was the use of Shirley Collins something to do with her folk music background in relation to the band? Had Sigur Ros heard of her? I don’t know if Sigur Ros have heard of her, I haven’t asked yet, but probably, they listen to all kinds of music. She, meanwhile, was absolutely complementary about the band’s music. And also turned out to be a massive fan of ‘The Wire’! I knew I wanted to use Shirley because I saw her give a talk about folk music a while back (she doesn’t sing any more), and I both love her voice and the link it has to a wider tradition of folk singing, and Albion. I thought she might think I was bonkers to ask her to voice a snail, but she was enchanted. I really hope to work with her again.
The film is being shown as part of the London Film Festival and in its full surround-sound glory at Art Basel Miami in December. Abrahams has previously worked with Turner Prize winner Jeremy Deller on two films – one about Depeche Mode fans, the other about Bruce Lacey, as well as directing pop videos for bands as diverse as Stereolab, Leftfield, Huggy Bear and the Manic Street Preachers. See all the films commissioned by Sigur Ros here.