Yousef let’s start at the beginning, the days before you started making these crazy good music videos – Braindead for Piero Pirupa and Being Strange for Indoor Pets. Actually let’s go back further….. how would you sum up your childhood in Manchester? Was it creative?
I think so! For a while until mid-way through secondary school I wanted to be an author. I remember when I was seven or eight writing very short books on a Windows 95 computer and printing them out. I used to ask my mum to use her sewing machine to stitch the side so it felt like a proper published book although in reality it was like ten pages long and probably most of the ideas in there were heavily inspired by other children’s books around that time.
Yousef’s earlier graphic design work
You became a graphic designer creating the cover for Michael Kiwanuka’s Love and Hate album when you were 20. How did that come about?
I studied Graphic Design in college for a couple of years and really enjoyed it. One of the projects was related to music so I created a whole marketing campaign around a musician I was friends with. I made CDs, posters and branding assets – it felt very professional at the time but probably looking at it now I might wince.
During my time in college I was dabbling with music videos and I pitched on super low budget video for Sway and Ed Sheeran and I won – but the video was canned before we could shoot. Sway was very apologetic and followed me on Twitter and a year or so later he put out a tweet looking for graphic designers. I messaged him and we’ve been working together for nearly six years now. Sway was working with KSI at the time who was huge and gave me an opportunity to create his branding and marketing assets with the team at Island which gave me huge confidence to pitch on other briefs.
A few months later I got a brief for Michael Kiwanuka’s latest album – I loved his first one but the label said this one was going to sound completely different. I wanted to go literal with the idea and I really liked Nick Knight’s melting flowers artwork, so I created this melting representation of love and hate. I hadn’t heard the album at this point but first track on the album was called ‘Cold Little Heart’ which fit perfectly with the artwork. The label really liked it and commissioned me to develop it and create the packaging.
Up to that point I had seen a lot of my work for Sway and KSI up online but this was another level seeing it physically in stores, at Glastonbury and held up by late night talk show icons like Conan.
Indoor Pets, three heads are better than one
What made you move into moving imagery and in particular creating vfx?
I did a lot of video editing when I was younger working with programs like Sony Vegas and some other probably defunct rip-offs. When I reached college I started studying film studies and media studies which I fell in love with really. I was really inspired by director’s like Nabil who used VFX elements to enhance their stories but mainly I think it’s about control.
I prefer being able to experiment and play around in post production rather than doing it in camera – there’s a lot more freedom. Maybe I’m indecisive so I like to try out different options before committing to things. I taught my self 2D compositing over the years using YouTube tutorials and trial and error because I didn’t know any VFX artists and couldn’t afford one to work on my earlier jobs.
Did you train at film school or were you self-taught?
I studied film production at University but I didn’t learn a great deal anything new but I met a lot of people who I’ve worked with on many jobs over the years including my producer Jake who still works with me today. It was a great safety net. I was working on low budget music videos and a TVC with my classmates as the crew and that’s where I was allowed to make mistakes and hopefully learn from them.
It seems as if you were a student only a couple of minutes ago – producing some really good work like Five More Days for JP Cooper – which simply and cleverly uses repetition to express the repetitive nature of the working week. When you are sketching / writing up your ideas do you always “think” in vfx?
I don’t know if it’s deliberate but I always lean towards VFX. I think about how I want to achieve something and usually with the size of the budget it means I probably need to figure out a VFX technique myself that could express the idea rather than rely on production design. Even with ideas that have no VFX in the core concept I think about ways to incorporate invisible VFX or clean up work to enhance the idea.
Please tell us about your creative process from getting a brief…. Coming up with the treatment, pre-production and shooting….. to final film. Do you detail everything in storyboards for instance?
I like to do mood films and “text storyboards”. I wish I was a really good drawer or an amazing 3D artist to create great looking storyboards or pre-vizes that make sense to everyone.
Usually I have a clear idea of what the idea is or could be with a few listens of the track and reading the brief. I always feel terrible if I can’t come up with an idea instantly that I think would be a great video so there’s always some pressure that I put on myself there. I also have a bank of notes, ideas and rejected concepts that I look at if I’m really struggling. When I come up with a loose idea I call up my producer Jake who is a normal human and very rational. He’s really great, creative and honest and helps me out with my ideas and figures out cheaper or more efficient ways to do things. We bounce a lot of ideas around until we find something that feels right. He isn’t shy. If an idea is shit he’ll tell me, and most of the time the idea which I think has legs he thinks so too.
What’s your favourite part of the process?
I love pitching. When I get an email from Joceline [Hands Ldn rep] there’s a huge sense of excitement. I’ve got no idea what the concept or video will be but it’s an opportunity to get creative and imagine ideas that I think would be funny or would be interesting to see. Researching my ideas to see if they’ve been done before is also just a great opportunity to watch some incredible music videos.
Braindead, starring Shaun Williamson better known for his role in Eastenders
Braindead is GREAT. Were you given a free hand or did you collaborate closely with Piero Pirupa?
Yeah pretty much most of the ideas came from myself and Jake. The initial brief wanted a celebrity cameo to essentially lip-sync and maybe have some trippy VFX effects / filter and some typography animation on top. I wanted to take it further and build a story around it and the label, Piero and his team were down to get weird!
What were the main challenges of the production?
Post production was a tricky one. It was a generous but still tight deadline. We had an international team working around the clock on different sequences. As the pandemic became more serious towards the end of Feb / early March post production started to slow down. We had some of the post team who were off ill at points and some couldn’t complete their scene because other assets from another team were delayed causing a knock on effect. So it was just about managing that before it got too messy. I had to jump in to do some compositing work whilst other VFX artists worked on the next shot to save time.
The vfx are hilariously good. Assuming you had help how did you find directing the team?
I was pretty chilled directing and producing the post work. I spent a good few weeks sourcing specific talent to do certain shots I knew they’d nail but some dropped out when our shooting schedule kept being pushed back. When we got started I created mockups in After Effects, Photoshop and sent over plenty of reference videos to get them onto the same page.
Braindead, putting his foot in it
Is Braindead your first production with your new PRETTYBIRD UK family? Will you be focussing on music videos – anything in the pipeline?
Yes Braindead is the first production since I joined the PRETTYBIRD UK roster, and it was a great project to work for the first time with PRETTYBIRD UK’s Executive Producer and Co-Founder Juliette Larthe.
Nothing in the pipeline at the moment because of the pandemic slowing down the industry. Mainly commissioners are looking for animation, creative lo-fi amateur stuff shot at home or using existing footage and repurposing it. When the world is back to normal I’d love to do some videos in the US market but also take a step into the commercial world over here.
You seem to have collaborated with Jake River Parker since early on – he wrote the wonderful Ed Shales which you directed and now he’s produced Braindead. Where did you meet?
We met at university. I remember Jake being a really funny guy and a great writer so I asked him to join my group and write a script for our module projects. We’ve been working together as a creative writer and producer since then.
How are you spending your days now in this lockdown time?
I’m lucky, lockdown hasn’t changed much for me thankfully. I do a lot of work with major labels creating art direction, design and social assets at home so it’s business as usual for the foreseeable future. I’m getting some pitches for music videos in at the moment so I need to dive into them and see if there’s a creative way to make something interesting without being near anyone else.
Piero Pirupa, Braindead
Production Company: Prettybird
EP: Juliette Larthe
Producer: Jake River Parker
Music Video Manager: Chris Murdoch
Director’s Rep: Joceline Gabriel @ Hands Ldn
Commissioned by Lucy Rogers
Marketing Manager: Amy Collins @ Island Records
1st Assistant Director: Sam Roffey
DOP: Guido Cavaciuti
1st Assistant Camera: Nick Crew
Steadicam Op: James Thomas
Gaffer: Benjamin Law
Spark: George Wright
Spark Trainee: Oscar Whaley
Sound Recordist: Robert Chen
Art Director: Charlie Stuart – Grumbar
Production Assistant: Callum Murdoch
Hair / MUA: Sonika Sunar
DIT: Yssis Mcken
Shaun Williamson: Shaun Williamson
Director Character: Alasdair Shanks
Producer Character: Darren Privett
Production Assistant Character: Sabira Stanisavljevic
Lead Compositor: Yousef
3D Scanning: Additive
3D Character Model: Human-Engine
On set VFX supervisor: Matt Taylor
3D Artists: Dom Spall, Darri Thorsteinsson, Tyrone Doyle, Christian Whiticar, Matt Taylor, Mali Keena
2D Animation: Sven Stoffels
2D Artists: Shivam Solanki, Robin Zerner
Colourist: Connor Coolbear
Colour Producer: Olly Whitworth @ Electric Theatre Collective