Parts of the Process — Matching Gucci suits, puppies and blue-iced cupcakes: Behind the scenes of Us’ music video for Harry Styles

Posted 05 December 2017 Interview by Marianne Hanoun

They say you should never work with children or animals. But defying cliché and convention, directing duo Us did all of the above in their music video for Harry Styles’ latest single, ‘Kiwi’. The result is a cake-laden, puppy-filled food fight initiated by a Harry Styles mini-me. Played by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’s Beau Gadsdon, all hell breaks loose at the hand of a single blue cupcake. With a portfolio of conceptually-led and stunningly shot work for clients that range from artists Labrinth and Wiley to Nike, The Sunday Times and IKEA, Chris Barrett and Luke Taylor are now known for their innovative approach and deft application of craft. Assembling a talented and trustworthy team, the duo’s dedication to detail saw them rigorously research classic war films and design individual cupcakes for characters, all the while channelling a ’60s aesthetic, to bring the pop star’s vision to life. Luke and Chris reveal how it all came together, the magic of spontaneity on set and what it’s like to work for a client with such a dedicated fan base. 

Client

Sony Music, Harry Styles

Duration

4 weeks: 11 October–8 Nov 2017
(2 weeks for Pre-production; 1 day for the shoot; 1 week for post-production)

Team

Directors: Us
Executive Producers: Morgan Clement and Sheira Rees-Davies
Producer: Steve Overs
Production Company: A+
DOP [Director of Photography]: Ben Fordesman
Production Designer: Dan Betteridge
Wardrobe Stylist: Sharon Long
Artist Stylist: Harry Lambert
Casting: Hammond & Cox
Editor: David Stevens
Editing Company: The Assembly Rooms
Grade: Simone Grattarola
Post: Time Based Arts
Commissioner: Bryan Younce

Budget

A healthy music video budget 

Brief

Create a music video for Harry Styles’ second single release ‘Kiwi’.

Project Background

As always with music videos, things happen very fast. We had previously pitched on a few music videos for Sony and commissioner Bryan Younce, (including a previous single for Harry Styles) but this was the first that worked out. Bryan got in touch to say that they had a promo idea in mind for Harry, but that they needed the video fast. The delivery was tight – three weeks in total.  

“Harry wanted to make a video that didn’t directly relate to the lyrics or meaning of the song. But the song did influence the tone of the film and how we directed the action.”

Normally you pitch against many other directors and present a treatment of what you want to make. The pitching process was slightly different on this one, as Harry already had a loose idea for the video. He wanted to have a food fight with children, and for it feel like a slight throwback to the ’60s. He also loved the idea of some of the kids wearing suits inspired by his look for the EP. 

So the brief was defined in a very loose way. We put together our approach, and how we thought the idea would translate onto film, before jumping on a call and chatting it through with Harry and his team. Harry was very involved for a man as busy as he is. He articulated the idea through his creative director to begin with. It then went back and forth a little while we ironed out the details. Then we were off! 

Us’ reference images

Us’ reference images

Us’ reference images

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Assembling the Team

This is probably the part that people talk about the least, but when it comes to making a music video, we are one cog in a big machine. Without a lot of talented people, videos would never happen. 

At the beginning of the process, we’ll write out an idea and then have our production company (Academy Films) look over it to make sure it’s possible within the budget. For this we don’t use anything more than a paper, pencil, and a laptop with Photoshop and InDesign. Once we are aligned on what we can do, and the label are happy, the production begins. That’s when we start to assemble our heads of departments. This is such a vital stage in the process because it can define the outcome. 

“When it comes to making a music video, we are one cog in a big machine. Without a lot of talented people, videos would never happen.”

This promo depended largely on our casting, art department and the styling. When we were students I remember people always saying that you are only as good as the team around you, and this couldn’t be more true. So our first port of call was to get our longtime collaborator and wonderful DOP Ben Fordesman involved. Next we chose our production designer Dan Betteridge who was in charge of cakes, and our costume designer Sharon Long who nailed the kids’ outfits – she was incredible; the perfect person for the job. Once we had these people on board, the collaboration really began. 

The hardest things about the job were working with children and the timescale. We had to approve our cast to get their licenses in time for the shoot. Luckily we have a long relationship with the casting directors Hammond & Cox, who suggested Beau Gadsdon, who was previously in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, and is a phenomenal talent for the lead girl. We were also very lucky to get a suit custom-made by Gucci for Beau to match Harry’s.   

Cupcakes were designed for individual characters

Cupcakes were designed for individual characters

Research Insights

To be perfectly honest, the song didn’t influence the idea as much as it usually does. Harry wanted to make a video that didn’t directly relate to the lyrics or meaning of the song. But the song did influence the tone of the film and how we directed the action. High energy and relentlessness were important. We wanted the visuals to marry with the musicality and the retro quality of the song. On paper, the idea could be seen as quite silly but we wanted to totally offset that. We wanted the children’s performances to be serious and genuine, and the cinematography to be mysterious and slightly gritty. 

“Storyboards act as the blueprints for the shoot. They were even more vital on this job, as we had children, animals and a pop star – oh and one day to shoot it all!”

Because there are so many areas that cross over departments, it’s our job to make sure that we are clear about our vision and end goal for the film. So we spent a lot of time gathering references from photographs and films. We were constantly referencing scenes from classic war films, which fed into the research that the key roles could use as reference. We told Beau to watch the Hunger Games and to channel Katniss, for example. We also do a lot of photoshopping – normally focused on the colour palette and tone of the film – and have numerous conversations about every little detail. This helps to build a clear picture as we go, so that we don’t have any surprises on the day. 

Storyboard sketches

Storyboard sketches

Storyboard sketches

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Chris Barrett with Beau Gadsdon on set

Storyboard sketches on set

Storyboarding influences everyone working on the video; it acts as the blueprints for the shoot. It was even more vital on this job, as we had children, animals and a pop star – oh, and one day to shoot it all!

We always tend to over-write the storyboard, but keep what we think we can lose in the backs of our minds if we are falling behind on the day. It was important to pre-plan timings so that they coincided with the musicality, rather than being an afterthought in the edit. There is a balance though – you risk losing the magic of spontaneity if you over-plan. You want to allow your talented crew room to breathe. For example, Ben (our DOP) had the idea to have one of the children throw a cake at the camera lens, and then he would drop the camera. It was a spur of the moment decision, but works so well in the edit. The boy that screams “What the fudge?!” was also totally unplanned.      

Development and Production

It had been a while since we made a music promo. We both forgot how quickly you have to move; you don’t have the luxuries you have while working on a TV commercial, for example. Working with both animals and kids was honestly as hard as you can imagine. But we were really lucky that our producers, Steve Overs and Morgan Clement, took care of all the tough logistics, leaving us to focus on the creative side of things. 

I’m always surprised when I step on any set by the scale and number of people. On this video, I was blown away by the children and their performances. Beau was incredible and we were so lucky to have her involved, she was a true professional. And all the other children were amazing; they were incredibly patient and took our direction so well. As for the animals: we have worked with puppies before, and knew that you’ll probably get the best result the first time around, as they aren’t as aware of what’s going on. Although we had specialist animal handlers who helped to inform how to get what we wanted from them. Ultimately I think it’s just complete luck, and they tend to just do what they want!

Cake pile sketch

The mountainous pile of cake on set

On set

On set

On set

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On set

On set

On set

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One major thing that we discussed very early on was the look of the film. We were originally going to shoot on 35mm film to create a more cinematic feel, however the practicality of this wasn’t feasible. So we shot it digitally, and tried to achieve this look in the post-production. To do this we worked with editor David Stevens and VFX company Time Based Arts, and reached out to colourist Simone Grattarola. Simone is very experienced, and had done this on a number of occasions – most famously for his work on Peaky Blinders. We spoke with him very early on about how we could achieve a more filmic feel, before bringing Ben (DOP) into the conversation. The collaboration between them was amazing. 

“We set out to make an iconic pop promo that was fun, but sophisticated and with strong performances, and I think we did that.”

After all this, we presented a first rough edit. This is normally done after a week, but because the deadline on this was really tight, we only had a weekend. The client gave their feedback and we worked this into our edit. In the end I think we went through four or five edits before getting to the final outcome, which is normal. The relationship with clients is always a challenge – and I’m sure it’s the same for them, too – but we like to be very open and collaborative. Communication mostly happens over email, but we’ll also jump on a few calls so that things don’t get lost in translation. 

We work things through thoroughly before we present to make sure that we have exhausted all options. This way if they have a suggestion or query, you have an answer. But I always feel that suggestions or feedback should never be frowned upon; there have been so many times where we have tried something out that was suggested by the client, and which has led to a better edit. Sometimes when you live with something for so long, and that you are really passionate about, you can become overprotective. It’s always good to step back and see the bigger picture. 

Luke and Chris with Harry and Beau on set

Luke and Chris on set

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Delivery

We always try to learn something new with every job we take on, and this was no exception. I don’t think there is any specific thing we would have done differently – you are always learning and every job is different, so it’s hard to say. Time was, and is, our biggest challenge; it’s the thing that any producer or director will tell you they want more of. That being said, there is something great about having a deadline. It forces you to make strong and bold decisions, that you’d probably worry over if given more time. 

You always have a vision in your head for how you see a film, but that develops over the production. It’s very hard to judge the success of something when you’re involved in the process from start to finish. But we set out to make an iconic pop promo that was fun, but sophisticated and with strong performances, and I think we did that. 

The reaction has been fantastic. The label were thrilled and fan reaction has been great. As you can imagine, Harry has quite a following, but we’ve received good feedback from them.  It’s always nerve-wracking releasing a new music video. Harry was easily our biggest artist to date. But having Harry involved in the original concept took some of the fear away; his fans love what he’s about, and his idea – to do a video that wasn’t a cliché or typical of the lyrics – is something they love. 

Harry and the kids on set

The final video

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