This meticulously-shot music video landed its director in the hospital after a frenzied shoot.
Here at No Film School, we're big Radiohead fans. But that's not the only reason we've covered nearly every Radiohead music video released in the last few years. In keeping with the British band's eccentric, ground-breaking music, its music videos also tend to be outside-the-box, requiring elaborate and often scrappy productions to pull them off.
In June, Radiohead dropped "Man of War," a previously unreleased track from OK Computer, in commemoration of the album's 20th anniversary. The song features many Radiohead hallmarks well-known to fans: a discomfiting rhythm underscored by a twinge of paranoia, with lyrical references to the earth's dark arts ("the worms will come for you," "poisoned clouds") and some Lynchian imagery ("I'll bake you a cake / Made of all their eyes").
Colin Read, who was hired to direct the "Man of War" music video, translated these elements into moody imagery that cuts back and forth between night and day as a man is chased by a gang of strangers. Shot in just two 12-hour days, the music video is a shot-for-shot remake of itself. Read meticulously planned and matched musical cues, cuts, blocking, and camera movement so that the two narratives would intercut seamlessly, creating a hallucinatory interplay of the day's demons that emerge at night.
No Film School sat down with Read to discuss how he executed this elaborate production, which ultimately landed him in the hospital due to heat exhaustion and dehydration.
"I ended up having to go to the hospital. And the whole time, I kept hearing that maddening cue track echoing in my head!"
No Film School: Radiohead is huge! How did you initially land this gig?
Colin Read: After my last skateboarding feature (Spirit Quest) and a more recent short (Solos), a few producers reached out to me about pitching treatments for music videos. I did several with Rik Green at Pulse Films—none of which ended up being produced. When it came time for the Radiohead video, XL Recording’s commissioner was connected with Rik. Coincidentally, the commissioner had just been shown some of my work by someone else and was interested in working with me. So the stars aligned and they reached out.
NFS: What was the pitch process like?
Read: It was fast! I had to turn around a concept in about a day. After another day of back and forth, I sent in my final treatment. They approved it almost immediately.
NFS: What was the process of production, from scouting to blocking to shooting?
Read: For starters, the process was altogether quite compressed. The entire timeframe of the project, from writing the treatment to the video’s web release, was less than a month. They needed final file delivery a week before that, so we had to shoot about two weeks after project approval. We could afford only two days of shooting with a stripped-down crew.
I scouted locations myself for those two weeks—starting immediately—right up to the shoot dates. I rode my bike around New York every evening in neighborhoods I thought might work. Connor Kammerer, my friend and the frequent collaborator I brought in to co-direct, helped scout some as well. It was tricky—my needs for the locations were extremely specific. The script called for precisely timed actions and set pieces. I had to find a bench just so far from a turn in a sidewalk, with something to crouch behind just so many paces after that.
"We could afford only two days of shooting with a stripped-down crew."
The video is, in essence, a oner, but I ended up realizing that we were never going to find a single location that had everything we needed, so I found two locations that we could stitch together with a match cut in the middle. The second location had some inherent problems—unpredictable car parking, potentially open businesses—so I kept looking as long as possible, but time ran out and we had to go with what we had.
Meanwhile, in those two weeks, I hustled to bring the rest of the production together: the cast, the DP, the crew. And as I found the tentative locations, I continually updated the script to match the actual locations more closely.
Read: I had handled rough blocking as I found the locations since the only way I could know if a location would work was to act out the script myself, timed against the song. But when it came to doing the exact blocking, I had to prepare some extra materials first. I made an audio track with musical cues for each “switch.” When you watch the finished video, each time that it switches from day to night, or night to day, there was an audio cue for that. Additionally, each switch cue sound had “countdown” notes for the beats leading up to it to make sure that the cast was ready to hit each cue. (Think of it like: “3, 2, 1, go!”) There were also separate cues noting if it was cutting to day or night in order to keep things organized and clear. This may sound confusing on paper, but it ended up being very clear and easy to follow. This blocking was integral when it came to production.
"I had to do the math to figure out how screen time would translate into shooting time and retime to the song and cue track to match."
Here's a tricky thing about making the cue track: most of the video is shot in 24 fps, but several sections were shot in 36 fps for slow motion. When a section was in slow motion, it still had to fit the beats of the song exactly for the switches; the clips on either side were always in real-time. So I had to do the math to figure out how screen time would translate into shooting time and retime to the song and cue track to match. I also made an additional audio track that, on top of all that, had voiceover narration describing the exact actions and blocking. It was helpful as a study guide for the cast, and we ended checking it during the shoot to make sure we were following the plan.
With the cue track complete, I went back to the locations with Connor and our lead, Dylan. We went through the script piece by piece, noting the landmarks Dylan hit at each switch cue. Then, we went back with that as a guideline and more exactly practiced hitting certain landmarks at major cues.
Then we practiced hitting the in-between cues. We kept whittling it down until we had a good idea of exactly where Dylan needed to be for each cue. Again, the tricky thing was the slow-motion sections; for those, we had to see how many steps Dylan took in that time naturally, then reduce that down to 66%.
Read: The next day, we returned with the full cast. I cast five dancers as the followers since I knew that if anyone had a chance to hit precise blocking over and over to exact musical cues, it was dancers. I brought in Katherine Helen Fisher to help choreograph everything and program the blocking into everyone’s brains.
We went over the choreography with the cast, and when we thought we had the right blocking, we made strikes on the ground in chalk and tape (with different colors for each cast member). The video relied on extremely precise match cuts, so the only way to make them work would be to ensure that the actors were in the same positions, the same foot placement, each time. It was difficult and demanding, but everyone was excited about the project and more than willing to put in the work.
"It was a mad scramble to get everything done in 12 hours. On top of that, it was an almost 100-degree day."
Now that the actors’ blocking was out of the way, we had the next hurdle: the camera blocking. Todd Martin was the DP on this; he did an incredible job. For each switch cue, we made strikes on the ground for where the camera needed to be in relation to the action. And we went over it again and again until Todd was confident we could hit each strike. In this way, we made sure that the camera and cast were all in the same places for each match cut, or as close as humanly possible.
On the first day of the shoot, we split shooting into two days: the first was Friday night, for all the night footage, and the next was Sunday morning, for all the day footage. We all arrived early on Friday afternoon to set up and practice further. This time, we practiced with the camera, working out any bugs that came up, and getting the movements into everyone’s muscle memory. I have to say that the MVP here was Todd; he did his own Steadicam/camera op on this, meaning that he hauled that thing around almost non-stop for most of 12 hours on each shoot day.
Read: Finally, night fell, and we started shooting. I played the cue track as we shot. We mostly shot it in chunks to ensure that everyone was hitting the blocking. It was painstaking and we had to move fast; we were racing against the clock.
A few shots took much longer than expected. The “chase scene,” once everyone started running, was hard to get. There were a lot of moving parts, and everyone had to hit their marks while running full-speed, including Todd. We had to get everything in the bag before dawn. The last few shots were a scramble. We wrapped at 6 AM Saturday morning.
The next shoot started at 6 AM Sunday; everyone went home to try to get some rest. Everyone, except for me—I had to go home and edit. I logged all of the footage and assembled an edit against the cue track, choosing the best takes, or at least the ones that most exactly hit the blocking.
I made an export of all the night footage with black space where the day footage would go. Now the cast could watch it and see how their body language had been leading into and out of each shot, and then try to recreate it. I also exported still frames of each match frame and loaded them onto an iPad, so we could study them and try to recreate the framing and blocking.
"We had to drive a car right at our lead actor, fast and close enough to make it seem dangerous, but without actually running him over."
Sunday morning at 6 AM, I brought the new video and the still frames back to location and we started all over again. This time it was both easier and more difficult. On one hand, the guesswork was gone; everyone knew exactly what they had to do and exactly what it had to look like. The hard part is that that’s easier said than done! As we shot the day sections, I constantly compared it against the night video and the still frames. When I thought we had a good matching clip, we’d stop and watch them side-by-side. If it worked, we’d move on; if we noticed something off, we’d do it again.
It was a mad scramble to get everything done in 12 hours. On top of that, it was an almost 100-degree day in a concrete wasteland. When we wrapped, it was with two minutes to spare, and a huge relief.
NFS: What were some ways you made the budget go further?
Read: There were a lot of ways, actually. The budget was slim for this type of undertaking, and Jess Lowe, our producer, stretched our budget as far as she could. As I said, I scouted myself. We had a small crew. A huge help was that our DP, Todd, did his own Steadicam and camera op. We had barebones lighting equipment, relying on natural/available light whenever possible. We only had one camera.
But the biggest factor: this was a Radiohead video! Everybody was excited to work on it, no matter what. Everybody involved was willing to jump on the project for less than their usual rate because they were excited to work on such a unique project for such an amazing band.
NFS: Can you talk specifically about the cinematography? What rig/cameras did you use?
Read: We shot it with an Alexa Mini on a Steadicam, for the most part. For the running sequences, we shifted to Easyrig, and even straight handheld for some shots (like crawling through the leafy tunnel). The lens was a Master Prime.
NFS: What is unique about a day-night production?
Read: One unexpected thing is that the day and night shoots felt very different. Of course, the desired effect was for the footage to feel different between night and day, but I didn’t expect it to make us feel that way while shooting them.
The most interesting thing about this sort of production is that it gives you the entire sense of a place. We were lurking around those blocks for, by the end, an entire day. So you get a good sense of the entire lifecycle of a street. You notice an unexpected change in the scenery, brought about solely by the time of day and the change of light.
NFS: I read in another article that you went to the hospital! What happened?
Read: I mentioned that it was almost 100 degrees on our day shoot. Well, I was running back and forth for 12 hours, and I was so busy that I neglected to drink enough water. I was also pretty sleep-deprived from working on this nonstop for the last several weeks, and not getting enough rest after the night shoot.
After we wrapped shooting, I went home, fell into bed, and promptly was overcome with nausea. And then I started vomiting. I ended up having to go to the hospital and getting an IV for fluids. And the whole time, I kept hearing that maddening cue track echoing in my head!
In the morning, I felt a little more alive and got right to editing.
"If a take was fast or slow by as little as a frame or two, it made match cuts look staggered and clumsy."
NFS: What was a particularly challenging segment to shoot?
Read: I spoke briefly about the challenges of the running chase scenes. But one specific segment was when a "follower" cuts across the camera, in between the camera and the lead. When it came to shooting the day section to match the night footage, we had the hardest time recreating that. There were so many moving pieces. The follower, Martin, had to sprint across right in front of Todd, while Todd was also already running full speed. All while keeping the exact frame-specific timing, correct framing, and correct distance from Dylan.
There’s also one point where, at night, a truck appears and careens toward Dylan, before disappearing when we switch to day. That was hard; we had to drive a car right at our lead actor, fast and close enough to make it seem dangerous, but without actually running him over. That definitely took some practice.
NFS: How did the editing process go?
Read: After we wrapped, the label needed picture lock in three days for approval, so I jumped right into editing (after I returned from the hospital, of course). A lot of my work was already done since I’d made the night edit already. So now I had to find the best takes of the day footage that fit into the gaps. This proved harder than I’d predicted. If a take was fast or slow by as little as a frame or two, it made match cuts look staggered and clumsy. So I had to do a bit of slipping and sliding all of the footage around in time (although only in a span of several frames) in order to make the most seamless cuts possible. This also required using less-than-ideal takes in places, since what may have been the best take on its own was not the best match to the preceding and succeeding clips.
Finally, I brought my timeline into After Effects and punched in all around. We had shot wide with this in mind. Now I had a little leeway to line up the frames a bit more closely.
After the label approved the edit, I took it over to Tom Poole at Company 3, a colorist whose work I really love. Incidentally, Tom was the assistant colorist for the "Karma Police" music video 20 years ago. It was only fitting that he put the final touches on this 20th-anniversary release. The "Man of War" video itself is, in my mind, a spiritual successor to the "Karma Police" video. Serendipity!