How do you create a unique music video for a beloved band during a pandemic? This director tells us.
Last week, The Shins dropped a new surprise song on fans, along with a gorgeous all-CGI music video. It's called "The Great Divide," and it seems to be coming out at the perfect time for many who have experienced a turbulent 2020. Staring into psychedelic colors as the camera pulls back in an infinite zoom through time and space might be the best way to zone out these days. Or is that just me?
The video is by writer/director Paul Trillo, who has worked on commercials, music videos, and narrative shorts. Much of his work combines a sense of humor with fresh new visual styles and filmmaking techniques. His short At the End of the Cul-de-Sac, for instance, is captured in a single 10-minute shot using a drone.
Trillo was kind enough to speak with No Film School about the making of "The Great Divide." Watch the video below, then check out our interview with the director!
NFS: You like to push boundaries as a creator. How did you get to bring your unique point of view to this music video?
Paul Trillo: I'm always attracted to these conceptual videos, where there is some sort of constraint or a deceptively simple set of rules that are being pushed to the brink of breaking. I try not to repeat myself, especially with music videos, so I'm always looking for a new technique or visual motif that I haven't explored. However, it's important for me that nothing is arbitrary. The technique or visual should be inseparable from the music.
On the surface, the idea is simple to explain: an infinite zoom from the beginning of time to the end of time. I look at the parameters set up in the concept and see how far I can push them and overcomplicate it. I guess that's my POV, is I look for ways to overcomplicate simple ideas.
NFS: You've done several music videos. What do you enjoy about working with music?
Trillo: I've done a lot of shorts, and commercials and music videos seem to exist in that happy in-between space. They're completely my own project, they are even personal sometimes, but at the end of the day, they serve as a promotion for someone else's art. I dig that.
All filmmakers know how defeating staring at a blank screen can be. Coming up with something from nothing. Music videos give you that jump-start because there is already a foundational idea, tone, mood to work with. It's then my job to stay true and authentic to that tone but also make it my own. Music can be incredibly inspiring for generating new ideas. When I'm working on a screenplay and I get stuck, I'll create a playlist that reflects the tone I'm going after and I'll play that while I'm writing.
NFS: Can you walk us through the conceptual process on this project? (Did you work closely with the band or more independently, for example?)
Trillo: This video came about in a very unusual way and probably benefited because of that. Jon Sortland, the drummer for The Shins, sent me a DM on Instagram asking to use one of my Instagram videos in a music video for The Shins. I was flattered but also felt like handing over something I designed for a different medium wouldn't ultimately work at the end of the day. Eventually, I convinced him to let me create something new for the song, which was both exciting and daunting.
We knew we wanted to craft something as grand as the song; something that was both wildly surreal yet also resonates on a human level. The band seemed really drawn to my last short "Until There Was Nothing" which is an abstract look at the Earth before it enters a black hole. It's got a lot of surreal landscapes and epic-ish visuals. We talked about a few different ideas but Jon kept returning this idea of doing an infinite zoom like I had done before. So, I had to marinate on combining this idea of grand, epic landscapes with an infinite zoom.
As with everyone else, I was also grappling with 2020 and what it meant. I wanted to place the current state of things, this "Great Divide" we're going through, within the larger context of the universe. The song had both this timeliness and timelessness quality that resonated with me. That's when I stumbled on this idea of doing a continuous pull out from the big bang to the end of time. The song also has this entrancing quality that keeps pulling you in further and further, so that continual motion made a lot of sense. It was extremely ambitious, to say the least, and I was pretty nervous that the whole project would crumble under that ambition.
NFS: What were some unique challenges (or benefits) of working on a music video during a pandemic?
Trillo: Initially, it felt like not being to do a traditional live shoot was going to be a huge constraint. I would have loved to shoot with the entire band, but that simply wasn't possible. We were all spread out in different locations and bringing a crew together back in June was not an option. However, not being able to shoot anything in person opened the door to a whole world of possibilities with visual effects and animation. I have a background in visual effects and have explored similar ideas in the past but nothing quite as involved as this.
Despite using post effects in a lot of my work, I have a bit of an aversion to full-on 3D animation. That created an interesting challenge for me: to make 3D animation more palatable. I guess I'm not a huge fan of the overly polished or pristine look of 3D, so I had to find ways to funk it up. To give it that in-camera look, we applied an anamorphic lens to the camera in addition to adding grain, noise, and other optical effects. To limit that 3D animated look and feel even further, I wanted the camera to be the primary source of motion that takes us through these still life vignettes. Also, to justify doing everything in the computer, I incorporated this idea that the whole video takes place inside a simulation. I'm not sure if that comes through, but that's why it's book-ended with this alien-like code at the beginning and end.
NFS: The video is beautiful and trippy. It takes the viewer through space, to more recognizable images like a burning city, and then back to more ethereal settings. How did you land on those images?
Trillo: I like toeing this line between science and art. Incorporating something based in facts with something completely experimental. The animations created for Nova and the like don't have much poetic license taken and can be a bit stiff because of it. It was fun to imagine what some of these Nova and Cosmos-like shows would look like if they had taken some more psychedelics. But creating an entire video of psychedelic swirls felt just like a cheap concert visualizer. It was important to ground it and create imagery that would resonate on a human level.
So, the video moves between these modes of wildly surreal and fully representational. Because the video is supposed to condense the entire history of the universe into four minutes, the challenge became whittling down what scenes would be used as landmarks. There were so many ways to show the past that I felt leaving it more abstract was the cleanest way to get through it. However, when it came time to move through the present, I couldn't help but be influenced by the great divide we're going through in the U.S. These more visceral scenes gave weight to the ethereal scenes and inversely, the ethereal imagery provided a perspective on the present day.
NFS: What did you use to create the video? How long did it take you?
Trillo: The video was made in Cinema4D and After Effects. Relatively modest tools compared to what's used for many CG projects. I worked with Hunters House and their team of visual effects artists primarily based in Ukraine. Most of the video was created in about two months.
NFS: Are you working on any other exciting projects?
Trillo: I am working on another project that is a result of the quarantine. I don't want to give away too much, but it's all user-generated and also uses visual effects to tie everyone together. It's definitely something I would have never made if it wasn't for the lockdown, and I'm excited to get it out there.
Check out more of Trillo's work at his online portfolio.