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8th January 2013
Drop the straight jacket
Title of film: Alt-J - Tessellate
Director: Alexander Southam
Thank heavens he gave up on being a solicitor. 1.4 catches up with new director Alexander Southam who studied law but saw the light in filmmaking

Your videos for John Grant (see Related Content) and the earlier Tessellate piece for Alt J are completely different in style and tone. Were they on different budget scales and was it a different creative process for each of them?

Neither video had a particularly big budget, but John Grant was super low. Just enough to cover camera and lenses.

Whilst I don’t make a point of expressly trying to do something completely different for each video I don’t like to straight jacket myself during the initial conception process. So whatever ideas flow as a result of imbibing the track dictate the look, tone and feel. There are so many facets to film making that there is always room for exploration – through medium, technique etc – irrespective of budget. I don’t want to get locked into one way of making a video. I get frustrated when I see people making the same video over and over again.

A budget is a budget – but that shouldn’t limit the scope of the idea – we have so many tools at our disposal nowadays that with a little sideways thinking there is always room for manoeuvre.

Do you work closely with the bands or are you given creative freedom with a limited brief?

The brief for “Tessellate” was completely open, the guys are totally into a director’s interpretation – which is great. I think the only real notes from them were “Sharks” and “Gangsters”. Similarly there was no real brief for “Pale Green Ghosts” – just a quick note on where the album was recorded, an image from the album sleeve and the fact that John was a big fan of the film “Lost Highway”.

How did the concepts for the videos come about?

Alt-J are one of those few bands that not only profess to have multiple eclectic influences but also manage to deliver and can wrangle all those amazing references into a new unique sound – accordingly, since “Tessellate” sounded different and fresh I wanted to approach it in a left field manner, but underpin it with something high brow and classical that people could identify, but then fuck it up / subvert it a little.

For John Grant the track felt very much like a film score (all analogue synths) albeit one underpinned by John’s amazing voice, writing and musicianship. With that in mind, plus being cognisant of John’s past and how autobiographical his work is, I wanted to make a film which hinted at a narrative but which was deconstructed and abstracted to the nth degree – whilst hinting at self loathing and autophobia. Colour was very important to both John and I so you’ll see a lot of pale green in there.

Do you collaborate with a preferred cinematographer and editor or does that vary from project to project?

As a rule of thumb I edit most of my videos. I used to shoot everything myself too and it took some convincing for me to relinquish control to a DP – but having made the leap I now love the collaborative back-and- forth it affords. Paul Newton – who shot both the Alt J and John Grant videos – was the first DP I worked with and basically nails it every time, whatever the treatment. Similarly, when I shoot in the States I like to work with Pat Scola who is not only a fantastic DP but is also always brimming with ideas.

What were the most challenging aspects of both videos and how did you overcome them?

For John Grant it was definitely location and sense of space. When I was sent the track I initially wanted to shoot the video in Iceland – where the album was recorded – for its striking, eerie beauty, but due do budgetary constraints elected to shoot on Dartmoor in Devon,UK – which lent itself perfectly as an alternative.

With Alt J it was the planning and post process. Once I had the initial concept fleshed out it became all about timings, maths and blocking so we had everything we needed to take into post – which was a very protracted affair. At any given point there was always so much going on in the After FX comp (effects, keying, pre-comps etc) that getting any rendered playback for more than a few seconds was borderline impossible – plus having to give the label regular updates meant a lot of time lost rendering out the massive project file each time.

Can you tell us please a bit about yourself. Did you go to film school? Are you signed to a production company? Where was your childhood and where are you based now?

I actually studied Law at university and was on my way to becoming a solicitor but pulled a u-turn and after a brief stint as a runner in Soho started making my own films / videos.

I am currently signed to Agile Films in London for music videos – but also like to auto produce certain projects. I’m currently prepping for a TV show I’m directing, writing on more videos and am looking to step into the commercial arena too.

I grew up in Somerset and am now based in London – although I do head back to the West Country as often as possible.