The lost art of the music video: An interview with Justin Oakey

Justin Oakey/Burial Offerings - Photograph by Alisa Brodsky

 

Not a single compelling music video within the confines of LURKER’s taste comes to mind at the moment of writing. The art is either long dead or never existed in the first place. Take maudlin of the Well or Arckanum, for instance. Both these bands can be listed among our favourites but both fail catastrophically when it comes to adding a visual element. Typically, everything we (and you) love tends to be done on a shoestring budget so, yeah, the low quality is understandable. But in that case, why even try? As a rule, music on its first listen should never be accompanied by any visuals, unless at a show... Or on drugs. Otherwise, the mind’s eye ought to be more than sufficient. Blurring unrelated media has too much potential to destroy an unadulterated first impression, and it’s just not worth the risk.

Rant over. Perhaps we are getting ahead of ourselves. There are talented exceptions and it’d be great if lurkers could comment with music videos they enjoy. Once you’re already experienced with the music, a video is fair game. Despite all the griping, one young filmmaker has successfully converted this hardened shell to his cause, and possibly revived the whole languishing medium. Canadian wildman Justin Oakey stumbled into making videos when he realised the music he loved was the perfect conduit for committing his rustic, surreal themes to film. As a result, each work represents a rarely seen glimpse of what another human thinks and feels in that first instance of listening. They become so much more than mere ‘music videos’, but portals to a world inspired and generated by timbre, melody and a director’s steady hand. Justin has produced films for LURKER alumni including Godstopper, Hexvessel, Gates and Column of Heaven. He agreed to answer some questions and shed some light on life behind the lens…

Film has to be one of the most exhaustive artistic mediums possible. One man cannot do it all alone. What inspired you to follow this path? When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

From a young age I was interested in pursuing traditional art and even thought about animation as a career. But sometime in high school I started making videos for class projects or to try to tell stories with some friends. From there I realized that the moving image was the ideal medium for me, at least for now. Filmmaking is definitely an exhausting process, mainly because of how many stages there are from conception to completion. It really is, generally, a social and populated process, sometimes so much so that it may lose its art. But lately I’ve been trying to do as much as possible on my own, for both personal and budgetary reasons. In the end you rely on much more than yourself and I’m always grateful for my crew and support.

What goes into creating one of the many music videos you’ve produced?

Each video is definitely a different process, but there are also unchanging elements to my methodology. I rarely do projects with a group that doesn’t interest me – either in their sound or their ethos. Regardless of the timeline we’re working with, I like to spend time discussing with the artist the origins of the track and their emotional or intellectual connection with it. Once I have a foundation for what was intended by the artist and their insight, I may try relating their ideas to my own impression of the music, or I may use this knowledge to work towards the polar opposite. Either way, the artist’s intention is always important – especially when you’re working with a more narrative video, rather than a performance video. Otherwise, all videos require planning and asking for favours, and taking the time to properly work with the raw material in the editing process. I get a lot of footage captured, usually. Lately I’ve been enjoying working without a shot list and just trying to capture the scenes as they come to me or as they’re suggested.

Your actors all seem very talented and acceptant of your strange visions. The performance in the Gates video is particularly enthralling. Where do you find them? And are they often happy to work with you?

In the case of the Gates video, Claudia Wittmann was an acquaintance of Bryan (Gates) and happened to be a well-trained butoh dancer and overall very creative person. During our first meeting, Bryan and I arrived at butoh imagery somehow, and it just stuck. He happened to know her, we got in touch, and she was very accepting of the unorthodox way of portraying her style of dance.In general, I like working with non-actors (that may be friends or strangers). I came to realize that a lot of what I enjoy seeing on camera is rigid and stoic, and non-actors are by nature less comfortable with it all and achieve what I need. I do work with actors for certain projects too, I have just been happiest experimenting with these conditions lately.

Column of Heaven - 'Altar'

 

 Are there any specific actors you’ve enjoyed working with, or would like to work with again?

While I enjoyed working with everybody, I also like working with new people (for main characters) and keeping each video feeling distinct from the others. You may find a lot of images and symbols repeating throughout my work, so if I started re-using actors I sometimes fear all the work may blend together.

Your films all appear to be of a high professional standard. What about crew?

Thank you, I appreciate that. Although working with new crew can be a rewarding and interesting experience, sometimes you just need to continue working with people who understand what you’re trying to do (and you’ve had good a rapport with in the past). Personally, I like really small crews – sometimes to their dismay. Thankfully, everyone I’ve collaborated with lately has been highly professional and dedicated to producing a high calibre of work, but also accept the unorthodox path of low-budget filmmaking.

How many people need to be behind the cameras to make a project successful?

A handful.Typically, aside from the on-screen talent, I like having one or two people helping with the production design, and then a couple more helping with practical things and assisting where necessary. But it varies from project to project; sometimes I may be alone (the Gates video, for example). With larger projects, I will undoubtedly require more crew, but for now I am more comfortable keeping it as close-knit and minimal as possible.

You have a degree in Film Studies from Ryerson University in Ontario. How necessary do you feel a course like this is for budding filmmakers? 

Through my post-secondary experience, I realized pursuing a Fine Arts degree could have both an extremely beneficial or highly destructive effect on an artist, depending on the individual. For some it may prove beneficial as a form of meeting like-minded people, being prompted to produce work, and acquiring knowledge you may have otherwise never encountered (history, theory, technologies). But for others, it creates a false sense of security; it reinforces the delusion that because you studied and got a degree you’re a filmmaker, a painter, a musician, or a journalist. Receiving a degree isn’t an accolade; it’s a brief pat on the back and a shove towards where actual work begins. I like to think that I’m working on being a filmmaker, rather than just adopting the moniker without feeling an adequate amount of work has gone into it.

Godstopper - 'Clean House'

 

You’ve worked with some truly excellent musicians, some of which have appeared on LURKER more than once. What made you want to start producing music videos? 

I didn’t originally intend to create music videos. I slowly eased into it after recognizing that the music I enjoy rarely has any video content that complement it appropriately and accurately (if at all), that the themes and personal philosophy I intend to develop in my work are rarely explored, especially in music videos, and that bringing this together could being a rewarding experience. Rewarding in the sense that with music videos I gain both creative freedom and an initial built-in audience (the band’s), versus an unknown short film dealing with the same themes. That being said, I am in the process of getting some short films off the ground, but those are rewarding in a different sense and allow for a more complete exploration into concepts that are often only touched on in a music video.

Some would argue that visual accompaniments to music can be disastrous; limiting the audience’s possible reactions to the music by making them focus on what is happening on screen. I don’t get that from your videos, instead I feel like it’s a valuable insight on what another person must have felt and dreamt in that first instance of listening to a song. It makes them closer to short films than music videos can ever be. But what would you tell a naysayer about the value of music videos?  

Building on the previous question, the “value” of a music video, as any creative endeavour, is dependent upon the intent (and the consequential accomplishing of this intent) of the artists involved. A performance-based video of a metal band in front of ragged banners with flash cuts of surgery footage isn’t stimulating to me in the least, nor is it cultivating any new insight into the deeper philosophical intentions of this band or filmmaker. I suppose it could be said that this type of thing is valuable to the people who search not for deeper philosophical discourse, but frankly that’s disgraceful. A music video is not necessary, it’s luxury, so why waste this platform and not engage with your audience on a meaningful level? Unfortunately, as most probably have, I’ve encountered great artists with useless videos.I’ve been really enjoying working with people that have energy and ethos rather than image – and that is not genre specific. It is ideal to collaborate with a band or artist that relies as heavily on their intellect as I try to, so that the result is something personal and layered and to be proud of. So, to the naysayer I would argue that in ideal circumstances music videos have potential to be as valuable as the music.

Explain the thought processes you went through and the concepts you wanted to explore when filming:

  • Godstopper – ‘Clean House’

 

Godstopper, Clean House (Music, 2011) from Justin Oakey on Vimeo.

Although it was I who contacted Godstopper initially (due to their demo), Mike had a series of ideas he personally associated with the track, that is to say, ‘Clean House’ had its own philosophy and it came together very quickly. We discussed the typical marriage and its potential stagnancy, the impulsive and deplorable thoughts that may reside just beneath the surface of most people, and consequently the convergence of these ideas. Mike’s cinematic preferences and attitude about our discussions met my own and I think we both feel we ended up with a very stark and complex product – violent and unsettling, yet inexplicit. With ‘Clean House’ I was able to explore creating a video on an inexistent budget, and was able to expand a little on my interest in highly fragmented storytelling. Speaking entirely of my own interpretation, the video was about how our society works, how little people express and how far they will let themselves be stifled instead of being honest – naturally, this is exaggerated and more menacing in the video.

  • Column of Heaven – ‘Altars’

 

Column of Heaven, Altars (Music, 2011) from Justin Oakey on Vimeo.

This was a special endeavour because it was predominantly personal, rather than promotional. I proposed creating visual accompaniment to the introductory noise track of their demo, and Andy was very receptive to the idea. It was almost entirely my interpretation of the sounds, albeit influenced by the unique sigils and other conceptual material provided to me. ‘Altars’ was very small project, and was only proposed because I personally feel that highly abrasive music such as Column of Heaven suits visual interpretation, mainly due to its texture and complexity – Complex in both the aural and theoretical sense. Ultimately, this video was very rewarding and allowed me to continue with fragmented storytelling, reflect on cosmological estrangement, as well as explore the idea of creating personal mythology and philosophy. I am very enthusiastic about Column of Heaven and the members’ other endeavours, so it was also a means for me to spread some music I feel is truly inventive to people who otherwise may never encounter it.

  • Hexvessel – ‘I Am The Ritual’, my favourite song of that album. Nice work.

 
 

Hexvessel, I Am The Ritual (Music, 2011) from Justin Oakey on Vimeo.

Thank you! ‘I Am The Ritual’ is truly a special song, and definitely my favourite song on the release as well. This project was several months in the making, and stemmed almost immediately from some brief chatting over Vimeo. In this case, similar to the process for ‘Clean House’, Mat had his own images and concepts he wanted to explore in the video. The track was beautiful and has a darkness and richness to it that made it very easy for me to create the video. After discussing everything, it all converged with my own interpretation of the song and personal aesthetic preferences, and it resulted in the product we released. Luckily we were on the same page with everything, and where Mat wanted to explore the story of colonialism and witch-hunting, I was able to expand and create something unreal and outside of any authentic time period or geography (much like the music of Hexvessel). Plus, I personally feel this presented the colonial and persecutory concepts in a universal sense rather than pointing at specific events or circumstances.

  • Gates – ‘Incantation’

 

Gates, Incantation (Music, 2011) from Justin Oakey on Vimeo.

The slow and meditative nature of both Gates’ music and the butoh dancing meant I wanted to capture the video in a similarly slow and meditative manner, but in the editing process fragment it all in a way that may seem counter-intuitive for a drone/butoh video. Intuition would lead me to keep longer, slower shots that follow the action of the dancer, but I found it much more interesting to jump through time and focus on the closer, more detailed moments. I personally found the video looking to judgment, shame, and gender, which made for a more reserved and atmospheric final product.    

Do the artists share their visions for how they want the film to turn out, or do they mostly leave it up to you?    

As I mentioned, I really do take into consideration the artists’ personal attachment to the song, and their intellectual and aesthetic intentions with agreeing to (or seeking me to) create a video. Fortunately, I have been working with very inventive and creative people, so they understand that in the end I too have creative needs, and they are very accommodating and interested in my input. I suppose there’s also the fact that they are allowing me, or seeking me, to do the video for a reason. Even if the imagery is something the artist specifically wanted I still try to brand it as being distinctly my work. I imagine that my respect for tradition, the search for mystical and esoteric wisdom, and the cosmos is fairly evident in my work, and I hope to continue to work with artists that allow for this freedom.    

Is there a band in particular you’d really like to work with some day?    

Although a little farfetched, I’ve always wanted to collaborate with Lisa Gerrard and Brendan Perry of Dead Can Dance. They have always released (both separately and together) incredibly ruminating work with both a mystic power and a historic knowledge. There are others, of course. Unfortunately, the most inspiring groups and artists I listen to are decidedly inward and strictly control their releasing of material, especially promotional material, so those are just Norwegian pipe dreams that I’ll keep to myself for now. I do, however, encourage anybody who identifies with my work or the groups I’ve worked with to write to me with their own bands or work, because I’d love to see where it could lead.

Hexvessel – ‘I Am The Ritual’

Out of all your films, which project are you most proud of?    

 

Each project comes with its own accomplishment. If forced to choose, I would say the video for Hexvessel would be the largest accomplishment. This is primarily because the entire process was completed via correspondence, but also because it was a larger task with an international audience. I feel very satisfied in knowing Hexvessel is so proud to exhibit my work as a representation of theirs.

What directors/films have had the most profound impact on you?

    A great deal of work from Eastern Europe in the 1960s and 70s has made a large impression upon me as both an artist and an individual, most notably the work of Sergei Parajanov. Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors (1964) is one of my favourite films, and I believe an incredibly important cinematic achievement in both style and revelation. A lot of the work of this era had a wonderfully spiritual and deeply esoteric streak, much to the chagrin of, say, the Soviet authorities. Other films include Parajanov’s Color of Pomegranates (1968) and Defying Everybody (Ilyenko, 1972), which left me speechless. I would say that these particular works helped me understand the esotericism of art, and consequently helped me understand what draws me to image-making. A video, or any creation for that matter, has the ability to be doctrine. That’s how I like to treat a lot of my ideas and creativity – doctrine that is ultimately indecipherable to anybody exterior to my mind. All that is left, for an audience, is to create their own meanings and arrive at their own conclusions.

I also draw inspiration from the raw power of Alan Clarke, the mesmerizing imagery of Kenneth Anger and Matthew Barney, as well as the intriguing stories of my country’s own David Cronenberg.   

Are you at liberty to reveal what you are currently working on?    

Of course – there are no secrets. In the more imminent future, Godstopper and I are planning our second video together. In fact, we may be fundraising a little online to cover some costs, and you may see a link to information on that soon. Hexvessel and I have been talking about a future collaboration as well, which will be hopefully taking place in Europe. Otherwise, I am not tied to any other music video projects and am hoping to have something interesting appear. I’ve also been working on a couple of short film projects I’d like to get underway soon.

Column of Heaven – ‘Altar’

Which records have you enjoyed most this past year?    

 

My favourite album of the year, and of recent years, is Burzum’s Fallen. It’s truly a gorgeous and matured work. Deeply melancholic and sorrowful, yet maintains an assuredness and solar strength that most do not possess.

Ride For Revenge’s Under The Eye, and Blut Aus Nord’s 777: Sect(s) / The Desanctification were great releases, too. Hexvessel’s Dawnbearer is a wonderful experience from start to finish – a very dark and inspiring album.  Plus, Mat was great to correspond with and I can’t wait for our future collaborations. On that note, Sol Invictus’s The Cruellest Month, Current 93’s Honeysuckle Aeons and Rome’s Die Aesthetik Der Herrschaftsfreiheit are other folk releases that I really enjoyed. Also, I must say that in the coming year I am most excited for Mgła’s With Hearts Toward None.    

Where do you see yourself in ten years’ time?    

In ten years I would like to be as equally focused on a homestead as I am on my artwork and career. I hope to still be very focused on improving my bushcraft while also being able to sustain my creative endeavours – specifically filmmaking and non-fiction writing. Mental fortitude and developing my personal philosophy and mythology is my main concern for the next decade.

Thank you, I appreciate getting the opportunity to do this interview. I ask anybody who reads this to support the independent arts they enjoy, especially those with less audience than music or film, because these types of endeavours are only feasible with support.

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Hates music and writing. Unfortunately, he's a journalist.

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