Endorsed By PTA: Emily Kai Bock on Music Videos as Film School and Shooting on 65mm
Music video director Emily Kai Bock discusses her career path and 'A Funeral for Lightning,' her first foray into narrative.
Emily Kai Bock dropped out of film school. You might have, too, if you struck gold with your first music video—as she did with Grimes' "Oblivion," which has been watched 35-million times to date. Her film school education thus continued in the field, where she created the cinema tic video for Arcade Fire's "Afterlife," with its rich emotional texture and nocturnal hues. Dozens of high-profile music videos later, Block now makes her narrative film debut with the striking A Funeral for Lightning, streaming on Le CiNéMa Club now.
The film is an autopsy of abandonment, conducted in the dreamlike fragments of a pregnant young woman's memory. After convincing her to shed her life and move off the grid, the woman's charismatic husband has left her to fend for herself. Now, she moves through life in the deafening silence of betrayal. Bock depicts her character's loneliness in the low-light motions of everyday life, captured on a combination of 35mm and 65mm film by cinematographer Evan Prosofsky. The film is rife with emotion, calling to mind the sweeping universes contained in the small moments of Shane Carruth's Upstream Color.
Bock caught up with No Film School to discuss how music videos launched her career, navigating 35mm and 65mm on a 40-year-old camera, and more.
No Film School: You dropped out of film school to shoot music videos. Why? What, if anything, did you learn making music videos that you didn't learn in film school?
Emily Kai Bock: I did a semester of film school after I already completed a degree in painting and sculpture. I was disenchanted with the art world, super broke, and wanted to make films, but knew nothing about filmmaking. I thought film school would teach me technical skills and allow me access to rental house equipment. I quickly learned that as a first-year student, I was only allowed to use a Bolex and some crappy digital cameras. I wanted to shoot 35mm but was told I wasn't allowed until my fourth year. I had already taught myself how to use Final Cut 7. I realized that we were expected to learn basically by doing—but doing on crappy equipment, and paying tuition to do so!
I started volunteering at the local film co-op. Together with a friend who wasn’t a film student, but an aspiring DP, Evan Prosofsky, we started taking out the co-op’s cameras on weekends, like the BL 35mm camera, which we used to shoot my first music videos. Once I started editing them and putting them online, I dropped out. Luckily, my student debt was low, as Quebec Universities have very low tuition.
"I am so indebted to the music video genre. It taught me all of my technical knowledge and gave me my career."
NFS: How did making music videos for Grimes, Arcade Fire, and others allow you to hone your aesthetic as a filmmaker?
Bock: Music videos actually were my film school because I learned how to trust my ideas by shooting them. I would always write ideas for scenes but didn’t know if they were dumb or not. It felt like a lot of blind faith at first, because I was fighting hard, problem-solving to turn ideas into shots, regardless of permission or money. If I needed a car to drive equipment, I would babysit in exchange for the use of a friend’s car. If I needed a certain location, I would knock on doors of houses, or make friends with owners of nightclubs, hotels, or people who owned swimming pools. It all came down to “getting the shot.”
Once I had the shots and plugged it into an edit, I realized, "Oh, hell yeah!" I was so thankful for my crazy naive self to fight so hard for them. They were so necessary to grow and build my confidence as a filmmaker.
NFS: You've been described as having a "run-and-gun" style for your music videos. Is this how you would describe your process?
Bock: Yes, but it’s not so much a choice as it is the reality of working without money. When we started out, we would steal a lot of locations, so we were running because we were kind of trespassing. I also have never had the luxury of a lot of time in a location even if we did have permission because our days are always maxed out.
"The main thing stopping people from learning filmmaking is money, and a music video provides you with a small budget."
NFS: Based on your experience, if an aspiring filmmaker was hoping to "come up" through music videos, what advice would you give them?
Bock: I think they are the best film school you could ever have. The main thing stopping people from learning filmmaking is money, and a music video provides you with a small budget. My first music video budget was $300. Off that, I was able to build up to a $3,000 budget. It doesn’t seem like a lot, but it was enough to make something. You get to test out your ideas, learn to shoot, light, edit, and possibly direct actors… and you have a deadline, so that helps to motivate you to finish a project.
Then, you put it online and people give you feedback. Maybe it will get on a blog if the song is good. It gives you some exposure. I am so indebted to the music video genre. It taught me all of my technical knowledge and gave me my career.
NFS: Now, let's get to the film! A Funeral for Lightning is gorgeous and devastating in equal measure. You can feel the enormity of the loneliness the main character is experiencing. How did you decide to write so little dialogue— barely any—for the main character? How did this impact the way you shot the film?
Bock: I had initially written a few fighting scenes between the protagonist and her husband, but they felt overly dramatic and cliche. I found it much more interesting to study the space near the end of a relationship, when everything you have said and done doesn’t work, and you have no power to change the other person or the situation. The only power you have is to leave. And sometimes, it is very hard to leave, especially when you are in the vulnerable position of being physically and economically dependent on that person.
"I’ve been let down shooting on Alexa and the RED, but never on film."
In the case of the film, the protagonist is unemployed, undereducated, living off the grid, and seven months pregnant. The power disparity is huge. Her husband is an employed, well-liked entertainer with a cell phone and a car. He is always talking, singing, and cracking jokes. He literally sucks all the power out of the room.
I wanted people to feel how stifled she was. Her lack of power was represented in her loss of a voice in the film. The first time we hear her speak is in a flashback—before she entered her relationship with him.
NFS: What do you love about shooting 35mm and 65mm?
Bock: I’ve never been let down by shooting on film. I’ve been let down shooting on Alexa and the RED, but never on film. It’s just a steadfast quality. It’s the way skin tone looks, the spectrum of color you can pull out of the sky, the amount of detail in low light. It’s a rich, generous palette. Digital feels limited, like you're missing information that you are left to build in later through intensive grading, which feels contrived.
I’ve shot all of my videos on film and graded them myself in Final Cut 7 using the three-way color tool, which is a super basic color tool. It felt like all the color was there; nothing was missing. It looked as good as it did when I looked through the lens right away.
"With celluloid, you can lean into generations of film history."
Evan Prosofsky, my cinematographer, pushed to augment the 35mm with 65mm. He bought a used IMAX camera that was at a massive discount from its original price, and bought 65mm short ends that were resold through Reel Good film, a dealer in the recan trade, purchased off Interstellar.
It was the first time that we had a film screen in a cinema, so we were so excited to see how the 65mm would hold up on the big screen, and it was mesmerizing. It is so surreal to have a camera in your possession that shot 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia. I think we both find it fascinating that with celluloid, you can lean into generations of film history. To use the same lenses, techniques, and even camera bodies fills your shooting day with meaning.
NFS: What challenges does this unique mix of 35 and 65 present?
Bock: One factor is that the specific IMAX camera we had was 40 years old. We had it break right out of the box. We had to ship it to LA to be fixed. The cost of scanning the 65mm was really expensive. We did a low-res scan, and could only afford to scan in 8K about 5 minutes for the final film.
35mm had no setbacks; we shot on the Arricam LT camera, which was light and silent. I actually prefer having the hard copy of the film stock that can be re-scanned if the hard drives crash. Both Evan and I have separately experienced corrupt files with the Alexa— either the DIT didn’t realize 'till it was too late, or there was something wrong with the camera. We have lost entire days of shooting that way.
"I wanted a soft, dreamy, romantic, and nostalgic look, so we shot with Zeiss Super Speeds."
NFS: What camera and lenses did you shoot with? Why did you and your DP make those choices?
Bock: I wanted a soft, dreamy, romantic, and nostalgic look, so we shot with Zeiss Super Speeds, which I’ve used on a lot of our projects, like Grimes and Arcade Fire [videos]. It allows for a soft, almost pastel look when they’re shot wide open. It also helped to have our 35mm scenes slightly softer, so the 65mm would stand out.
We shot mostly on the 25mm. The IMAX camera used old Hasselblad lenses. We only had a couple lens choices for that camera and we picked the 50mm, which is a focal length that matches the 25mm perspective on 35 film.
NFS: In the absence of much dialogue, cinematography and the resulting atmosphere play a large role in the film's tone. There are many very short scenes or sequences of elements of the environment. What kinds of conversations did you and your cinematographer have about this approach?
Bock: I think my background in painting, photography, and editing has trained me to really stress the importance of building the world around the character with multiple shots of the environment. You learn so much about the story and character through these little cutaway shots. Film is a visual language, and seeing a macro shot of a trinket on someone’s desk or a weed outside a gas station can give you emotional information that is lost in dialogue or wides.
I’m also in love with wide shots, so I feel like I have to go close in a single on something in order to tell a complete story. There are also many insert POVS of the protagonist that allow you to enter her perspective. The push in to the rain shadows on the ceiling communicates her insomnia as well as a feeling of being trapped—the ceiling closing in on her.
Evan and I agreed to shoot the film locked off except for some slow dolly shots, so the camera would be in sync with her mental state: being locked off, stuck.
NFS: Can you talk about the process of shot listing?
Bock: I spent a weekend with our AD breaking down the script into a detailed shot list. We stayed pretty close to it, but obviously I make room for us to shoot from inspiration in the moment.
Evan and I are pretty good at being in constant communication with each other and showing each other ideas as they present themselves. Of course, those ideas sometimes present themselves in the most inconvenient times—you to see something from a car window and have to pull over when you're already late to another location, or you find something in between setups and have to drag out the camera after all the gear has just finished being packed up. But this also creates room for some of our favorite shots. We’ve learned not to be lazy or afraid of new ideas.
"This film taught me how important it is to be clear about what each character wants and why they can or can’t get the thing they want."
NFS: Did you try or discover anything new about your aesthetic or narrative approach with this film?
Bock: I learned a lot. I learned, probably, the basics of storytelling. I made a lot of mistakes in the writing and the edit.
It’s not a perfect film. If I were to make it again, I would probably have illustrated her efforts to keep him, or her denial of his betrayal more. This film taught me how important it is to be clear about what each character wants and why they can or can’t get the thing they want. I was so afraid of being too on the nose too much that I allowed for a lot of room for the viewer to think and wonder—perhaps too much room.
NFS: How did Paul Thomas Anderson's shout-out affect your career?
Bock: It was the most surreal experience to ever happen to me. I think at the time, I felt like I was making things in the dark, unnoticed. To be given a platform such as the Lincoln Center/New York Film Festival, where he screened my video as an influence on his work, was something that in a million years I wouldn’t have ever dreamed of.
At the time, I was writing a feature. It was a bad script. After the PTA shout out, I realized that I needed to learn what the hell I was doing and take this whole thing seriously. So I stopped making music videos entirely, made this short instead, and am now re-writing my feature.