The Auteurs of Music Video: Matt Yoka, Future Cronenberg
Matt Yoka and Ty Segall have created some of the weirdest and most exciting pieces of music video since Spike Jonze and the Beastie Boys.
Many filmmakers break onto the scene with a music video. For directors with a unique vision, like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry, music videos are the perfect venue for expressing and testing out auteurship.
In this new series, we attempt to find the next class of auteurs through their work on music videos. First up: frequent Ty Segall collaborator and heir to the throne of David Cronenberg, Matt Yoka. Below, he explains the process, from concept to shoot, of making some of his most lauded music videos.
"Music videos have always been a source of experimentation."
NFS: There are a lot of metaphors and recurring themes scattered throughout the album. How did you and Ty [Segall] collaborate to find a way to visually represent them?
Yoka: Emotional Mugger was the first album that he wrote since moving back to Los Angeles. The album itself is very much rooted in his interpretation of the city. He's from Orange County. I'm from LA. We're both generally Los Angeles kids. This place is a very personal place for us. We'd both been traveling around and living in other places and had moved back to the city around the same time. I think for both of us, this project was a fucked-up love song for our city.
So, we settled on the idea that he walks across the city. I felt like it was necessary for everything that he witnesses to physically manifest itself onto him. Every scene that he witnesses just adds another degree of deformation. It's all the idea that a city wears you down. Then we sat down with the producer of the album, F. Bermudez, listened to the album, and just kind of built out the scenes from there.
It was more collaborative than we had done in the past. He remixed some of the music that then informed the specific scenes. Then, after we shot it, we remixed more music to fill it out. It really was a back and forth process. For me, that's really exciting because it's a deeper collaboration with the musician.
NFS: There’s a lot in here that’s uncomfortable to watch—needles, blood, puss, hookers, weird sticky blue acid, boils. What is the value of forcing the viewer into this discomfort?
Yoka: That's a good question. I think about what I see on the street or what I see in the news—a cop killing a young black man, or somebody you know that overdoses, or watching a group of people sitting together and staring on their phones—all of those things sometimes feel as graphic as the way I interpreted them in this video. We're desensitized. How many times have we seen videos of people getting killed? The only way to make a comment about it is to show it in a way that's stranger. That's in service of saying how fucked up things are in reality.
"When bodies fit together, they create this weird abstraction. Sometimes it can be geometrically perfect."
NFS: Let's talk about Cronenberg a little bit. He has a famous distaste for humans intermingling with technology. He has this whole body horror aesthetic. How has Cronenberg inspired you in your work?
Yoka: Raise was my attempt to try and tap into a little bit of his aesthetic and his effects. I love Spielberg too; early Spielberg's amazing. I think they actually share some interests as far as special effects. I just love Cronenberg's effects. The scene where the television in Videodrome is getting all sensual and kind of like undulating— visually, it's so much fun to look at. He re-purposes something that's been used largely by the horror film community to say things that are a lot more substantial than just watching somebody get ripped apart for the sake of getting ripped apart. He has his cake and eats it too. He does this outrageous visual stuff but he's able to say deeper things.
I'm just starting out in my career. I'm still looking towards what Cronenberg's done and seeing where that can take me. He's the man.
Thank God For The Sinners
NFS: This is a different type of body horror. You used the body as the landscape.
Yoka: We all live in bodies and we interact with bodies. It's easy to kind of just let them normalize. Say you're laying next to somebody holding them, right? Let's say you're the big spoon. You look down at where your chest is meeting the shoulder of this person and then they start to almost look like a singular space, or start looking like a distorted version of a body, and you're like, "Now what I'm looking at doesn't make any sense anymore." My chest is disappearing into a back, or my arm is underneath another arm. You have no spatial reference.
When bodies fit together, they create this weird abstraction. Sometimes it can be geometrically perfect. I like making people look at things they see every day differently.
NFS: Were you the one who choreographed it? It's almost like a dance piece.
Yoka: Yeah, I did. The other person that I think about a lot is Busby Berkeley. He is the master of large-scale dance choreography. If you look at his work or the Rockettes or synchronized swimming, they're all just strange and beautiful.
NFS: I've got to ask about the tongue at the end.
Yoka: The tongue... that's where collaborating with Ty is so much fun. I kind of built up the whole concept, but I hadn't come up with a grand finale. Ty and I were actually driving down from San Francisco to LA and I hadn't talked to him about the idea. I was like, "I've got this idea for a video." I tell him the whole thing and he's like, "Okay, that sounds pretty cool, but it needs some sort of ending." I was like, "Yeah, you're right." I'm in the passenger seat. I start crawling my hands towards my face and then I grab my upper and lower jaw and start stretching it out a little bit. Ty's like, "Yeah, and then the tongue gets ripped out."
NFS: How did you pull off the effect where everything moves in slow motion while Ty stays in real-time?
Yoka: Well, it’s a one-shot. I think I got it from Spike Jonze's music video for Undone (The Sweater Song). It's all in slow motion. I shot Goodbye Bread at ninety-six frames a second. You shoot things four times faster, so when you play it back in twenty-four frames, it's in slow motion. I essentially multiplied the speed of the film by four and then we multiplied the speed of the song by four. Then when you play it back, you return it to the actual speed in which the song plays out.
NFS: Did you give every single one of the extras direction?
Yoka: Do you know where we shot that? Death by Audio. I was living in New York at the time. I recruited twenty friends and then they all brought a few friends. I hired a costume and makeup person and I told them the basic concept that I wanted. They laid out all the costumes on the table. I got a keg of beer. Then somebody brought a bunch of weed. We hung out there all afternoon prepping for it, just drinking and playing dress-up.
I told anybody who came to just go to the table and pick out a costume that they liked. Once everybody was set up and we had figured out the camera movement, I started placing people as though they were little pieces of a puzzle. I remember specifically the ballerinas were hanging out and they looked bored. I was like, "Hey, do you guys want to choreograph a little thing?" They got super pumped on that idea. I got excited because in that kind of shoot, it's all about energy. You want to make sure people are enjoying themselves, so bringing them into the collaborative process was the most important thing.
By the time Ty showed up, everybody's partying and acting ridiculous and dressed up in these costumes. I'm saying, "Can the leopard girl, can you stand over there? You guys are going to do the keg stand." Then Ty taps me on the shoulder and was like, "What the fuck is going on?"
NFS: The videos of Manipulator seem to be a little less dark and much more playful than the videos of songs from other albums. Why?
Yoka: In this case, I really wanted the video to be passive to the music. It's a pretty simple concept. We shot it once with just the band playing. We don't move the frame at all. Then, they act as a plate that we can lay over when Ty plays. Then, Ty's in a harness and it's just light choreography. It just lifts up during the guitar solo and then it drops him down at the end of it. What we do in post is I essentially superimpose the two images together and then I can drop the transparency of the performance of the band so they look kind of ghostly. They're semitransparent so you can see things behind them, which creates the Ghostbusters, Casper-type effect.
NFS: Is there any kind of symbolism behind this ghostly effect?
Yoka: I was imagining it like a musician writing a song. You have a musician who's at his home or in his garage or in some piece of shit studio. He's writing a song with a guitar, not even plugged in, just kind of imagining how it sounds. Then, in your head you're kind of imagining, then I'll have the drums come in like this, or I'll add some violins at this part.
What I was really doing was more about the ghosts of the creative process. The elements of the song are like ghosts in your head that you're working through when you're putting a song together. Him getting lifted off of the ground is kind of this grandiose vision of how it's going to feel when the song's completed. It's going to be such a ripper that it's going to lift you off the ground.
NFS: Why interactive?
Yoka: I was actually struggling to come up with an idea. I started thinking, "What if I created a video where you could change things in the video?" Then I started going down an internet rabbit hole. I'd never really been interested in making interactive videos, but suddenly it seemed like all I wanted to do. Music videos have always been a source of experimentation.
NFS: What was your collaborative process with designer/coder Simon Wiscombe for this?
Yoka: He was instrumental in building up this concept. He helped to minimize it a little bit. I think initially we were talking about there being some sort of window where you can grab things and add it to the frame. He suggested, "What if it's just the frame and you can click on things in the frame?"
NFS: Explain how you shot this one—was it mostly green screen?
Yoka: Basically Simon told the website that's hosting the video to [write in code to] never show a specific color green, and if they see that green, then to make it transparent. The actual effect is happening not in a software that made this video, but on the website itself as code. We shot that on green screen.
Along with a handful of friends over the course of a few days, I just drank a bunch of beer and destroyed thirty art books and magazines. I cut out hundreds of images. I wanted it to be fun and absurd.
That's kind of what the surrealists do. Dali was like, "What are you looking at here?" In that sense, I was just trying to think about the freedom of [surrealism]. My buddy was over and he was like, "What kind of things do you want me to cut out?" I was like, "Cut out anything that you like at all." I was like, "If you happen to see something that could be a mountain instead of a mountain, cut that out. If you see something that could be a moon instead of a moon, cut that out."