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5th July 2021
Rising sense of freedom
Title of film: Skrillex - Butterflies (with Starrah & Four Tet)
Director: Ben Strebel
Production Company: Biscuit Filmworks
It took a while in coming, but Ben Strebel’s stunning video for Skrillex, Starrah and Four Tet’s track Butterflies is a spot-on portrait of a generation of youth now coming together again after a year of covid isolation. 1.4 talks with the director about making this fantastical choreographed film where the kids morph into exquisite ghosts as a metaphor for liberation.

Maddie, Butterflies

 

Sonny [aka Skrillex] and I had been talking about doing a music video together for a while. We had the plan to shoot a music video in Thailand just before the pandemic. Then Thailand was one of the first countries to lockdown completely and we shifted it to South Africa and then that got affected, so that idea completely died. [But] he came back with another track, Butterflies.

So we just started talking and then with lockdown and everything, suddenly this visual of these ghosts came to mind. It’s not supposed to be a dark rendition, and I think that was the hardest thing to steer it away from, because of ghosts representing death and the souls of the lost.

 

How did that initial spark evolve into this multi-layered film?  

It really became about lockdown and kids missing out on school and then just hearing about the high suicide rates and all that. It was, like, “Okay, how do we spin that into a positive way and celebrate the kids and give voice to them?”

All the kids in the film, they’re of that generation. I think the youngest was 17 and the oldest was maybe 21 or 22. And so it was really about those who’ve had their year robbed, those who’ve just not had a life for a year. And the common statement or the common quote was, when you ask them how old they are, they say, “Technically I’m this age, but actually I’m the age before the lockdown, because I haven’t had a year to grow or to progress in my life.”

But then the video celebrates a form of end of lockdown and this sense of freedom. It’s about reuniting. There’s the scene at the beginning when they’re dancing, that’s all about them coming back together in celebration of that, of physicality, of touch, of tangibility. That’s the back story to it.

 

Your narrative is so different from the lyrics.

The lyrics are about love, but [the video] is more about love in that euphoric sense of being connected. I think that feeling is so much more amplified now. If you haven’t seen each other and you haven’t been together for so long, that you would feel that feeling of euphoria and intimacy so much more.

 

 

Can you tell us a bit about the casting process, because the lead girl is just sensational.

She’s insane.

Why did you choose Maddie? What was behind that?

It was a careful balance of finding an amazing group of dancers and finding dancers who can also act, which is always a challenge. At one point the story was way more narrative-based and then that shifted a little bit more into the dance element. Because of the speed of it and the BPM, which is fast, it needed that. You couldn’t linger on a weird, awkward exchange of gestures without having some kind of rhythmical element to it.

Initially the story was about a young lad, but then – I think that’s the beauty of the casting process – you discover faces. It was something about Maddie and her modesty.  Well, her and Devante – Devante being the guy in the underpass and the reflection. I feel there was such a truth to them and there was such a rawness and you could really feel with them. But to be honest, with all of them.

Jamie, for example, the shaved head white kid, he just broke down. All of this I felt in the casting process: just passion for expression and brimming with it because of the lack of opportunities that made everything more amplified and more extreme.

Then we got into rehearsals and I did this exercise in the downtime. There’s, what, nine of them, they’re all in a circle. You’re excited to see each other again, you’re best friends. You haven’t seen each other for a year, you’ve come back together. It’s about that intense embrace, that intensity of two worlds colliding again. Then there’s some friction because something’s changed, inevitably you’ve evolved, but without knowing it. So there’s friction and then you make up again and then you part. And then the next person comes in on the high.

And there was this moment between Maddie and this other guy where it was just so intense. It was just fireworks.

 

Yes, that was a phenomenal interaction between those two.

She’s phenomenal. She’s so real. And she’s so modest and yet so self-assured. I think in a way they must’ve grown up more than they realise in that time as well. They say they haven’t been able to grow up, but I think it’s given them a real sense of self because they’ve had to spend so much time by themselves, with themselves.

And then the challenge with the choreography was, well, once you’ve got a choreography on the ground, to then do it on a Y axis, which is when it’s in the air. All different rules apply. So where do you cut off the ghost? Does the body end here? Does it end there? Does it end by the feet?

 

 

It’s exquisite, it’s actually beautiful, but those ghosts… Was all that done in post?

All of it. Everything is done in post. Even the cloth falling down towards camera, it has a life of its own. That first time you see the cloth and it’s just tumbling between the tower blocks towards you. And what I love about it, it has a life. It’s not just a cloth falling, but there’s a ghostly element, there’s a purpose to it, there’s an energy in it that isn’t just an object falling, but actually has character as well.

In terms of Electric Theatre Collective, I’m flabbergasted by what they did. It’s the first project in my career where I’ve not worried about post. The cloth work is incredible.

 

How much was mapped out beforehand?

It was choreographed and we tried to simplify it enough that we could then apply it when we got into CG. We went into a motion capture studio and we chose three dancers [and] they all got sensored up.

And then we captured their movement. So they would all do the choreography. Between the three of them they’d fill the grid of nine and they would do each one, so you have all the information. But obviously they can only jump off the ground and then they land again, they can’t defy gravity. To defy gravity, you need the whole Y-axis, and that’s where ETC just smashed it. It was just incredible. And still keeping it in sync, on the beat… And it’s also that extra wow factor at the end.

I wanted to create three levels. You have the kids as real. You have the kids playing around with sheets as real, and then you have that sense of crossover, the moment where they become liberated. And I think that’s the important thing: it’s about liberation and freedom and not sinister kids who have died. Maybe there’s a slight, dark undertone there, obviously, but really the aim was not to put that to the forefront. It’s not about suicide, it’s not about someone jumping out the window, falling in the cloth, but it’s about how far can your imagination go when you’re liberated and what these kids have been thinking about over the year. And how do you amp it up, that sense of freedom? You create a metaphor and the ghosts become that metaphor for them.

 

 

It was a three-day shoot?

Two day shoot. Two nights. Crazy nights, in half-lockdown. We shot in Thamesmead. We didn’t want it to be London skyline, so there’s actually a bit more of an industrial moment. We were going to start the whole film with all these GVs of houses, the sense of claustrophobia. But we ended up taking it all out and actually just focusing on the kids and simplifying it and going with more longer set pieces, like in the tunnel, or 35 seconds at the very start, just her looking, breaking the fourth wall. But there’s that knowingness in that first shot. It’s not about her just breaking the fourth wall or unsettling the viewer, it’s like a prelude to the whole film – that she’s giving us a sense that there will be more. More’s coming, something bigger is coming.

 

So often when you just pull things out it edits together much tighter, much better.

It was a combination, for sure. It definitely was in terms of being economical and I love set pieces anyway. I think it’s a balance, to be honest. The edit’s always so important and finding it with the music.

So it was good [that] at the end in the edit it really worked. And even the bit which at first I was struggling with the most, which is the joking around in the Chinese shop, it could have felt really throw-away and fake and just crammed in. But I think Matt [Nee – editor] did a great job in creating something that felt rhythmic and in time and not forced and more about emotion. In the end it’s about kids having fun and enjoying themselves and exploring their surroundings.

 

With the ghosts it could have been corny. But it’s not. It’s brilliant.

 

@Benstrebel

@biscuit.filmworks

Biscuit Filmworks

Credits

Production Company: Biscuit Filmworks (Uk) // @Biscuit.Filmworks
Exec Prod: Rupert Reynolds-Maclean, Andrew Law // @Rupewolf⁣
Producer: Adam Farley // @Mradamfarley⁣
Prod Manager: Roma Nesi Pio // @Romieg
Dop: Benjamin Todd // @Toddy911⁣
Choreography: Holly Blakey // @Hollytblakey⁣
Production Designer: Oliver Hogan // @Ollie___Hogan⁣
Casting Dir: Kharmel Cochrane // @Kharmelcochranecasting⁣
Casting Ass: Virginia Kerr
Location Manager: Titus Penate // @Titus_Penate⁣
Costume Designer: Kate Forbes
Wardrobe Assistant: John Revell // @Revellwithoutacause⁣
Steadycam: Simon Wood // @Simonsteadicam⁣
Focus Puller: Sean Lomax // @Sean___Lomax⁣
Drone: Stem Studios // @Stem.Studios⁣

Editing Company: Metal Edit // @Metal_Edit⁣
Editor: Matt Knee // @Matt_Nee⁣

Post Production: Electric Theatre Collective / Colour // @Electric.Theatre.Collective, @Etc.Colour⁣
Producer: Antonia Vlasto // @Vlastagram
Post Cd: James Sindle // @James.Sindle.Electric ⁣
3d Lead: Tobin Brett // @Tbn_Vfx
2d Lead: James Belch
Colourist: Luke Morrison // @Thehux⁣

Cast:
Maddie Miller // @Madmillar⁣
Ben Todd-Jones // @_Benjamtj⁣
Holly Brennan // @Hollybr⁣
Tyrese Mckenzie // @Tythetytan⁣
Devonte Sackitey // @__.Deeee⁣
Zirihi Zadi // @Zirihizadi⁣
Aden Dzuda // @Adendzuda⁣
Jamie Bell // @Jamiebell_13⁣
Lauryn Bryan // @Laurynbryan_20