Timothy Saccenti is proof that there are directors still out there hell-bent on keeping the art alive in music videos—not to mention discrediting a legion of unenthusiastic copycats time and time again. Working within the parameters of videos, photography, and various multimedia projects, the New York-based visionary embarks on far-out trips, pulling visual cues from far-flung sources like the Alien franchise sprinkled with the gloss of high fashion. With memorable directorial efforts for Battles (“Atlas”) and Animal Collective (“Peacebone”) already in the bank, Saccenti pushes forward with hypnotic visuals to be projected at select School of Seven Bells shows and a new video for Chairlift’s “Bruises.”
Anthem nabbed exclusive footage from the SVIIB project—a sampling of a whopping 70-miniute presentation—for your eyes only! Click here to watch it in glorious Quicktime. (A DVD showcasing the project in its entirety is being planned out for future release)
Read on as Saccenti shares his views on the increasingly grim landscape of music videos, the many pros of living in New York City, and given the opportunity, what his Britney Spears video might look like.
How did you make the leap from a successful career in photography to music videos?
After a few years of doing still photography—mainly portraits of musicians—I was being asked more and more to create videos for them. A photo shoot is a good way to get to know the artists and gain their trust. It’s much less intense than a video shoot, so I think I benefited a lot from this situation. Having no formal filmmaking training, I had no idea how to work in the motion field. Luckily, I had many friends who were directors and I slowly learned the craft from them. I also had great support from people at Warp and Domino Records. Now, I split my time about 50/50 doing still work and motion work.
What are some similarities and differences in your work process for still and motion stuff?
A photo shoot to me is all about the immediacy of the moment. In a single frame, you know if your image is working or not and with that comes immediate gratification. Motion on the other hand, is an extremely protracted process with many more variables. It may be weeks after the shoot before you know weather you succeeded or not. However, both of them come down to the simple exercise of problem solving and the trick is in determining very clearly what the problem is and what you are trying to communicate. The rest is a series of hundreds if not thousands of logistical, strategic, and artistic decisions to reach that end. But there is a lot of intuition involved in both as well.
Additionally, a big difference is that still photography is in many ways a solo venture. When I shoot stills, I tend to be the art director, lighting designer, camera operator, etc. We do collaborate with stylists and make-up artists, but the crew is very small and the process usually lasts a few days at most. On a motion project, collaboration is a massive piece of the puzzle—you work very intensely with very large groups of talented people for weeks on end. The collaborative part of motion work is what makes it exceedingly fulfilling for me. In both though, I try to leave room for the unexpected to happen—that’s often where the magic lies. It’s like you’re lost at sea on a ship, you the director is captain, your editor is the navigator, the DP is lighting the way, etc. You see something in the distance, small and blurry, not sure if it’s an island, another ship or a mirage, so you slowly try and steer towards it, fighting the wind and the sea as it comes more and more into focus. Sometimes, you arrive and it was just a mirage so you turn back, but eventually, you do get to the paradisaical island you were searching for. Then you have a luau.
How important is it for you to like the artist and the song that you direct a video for? Is one more important than the other?
As the director, by the time you’re done with a video you’ll have listened to the song somewhere around and possibly exceeding 100 times. When we are sent tracks to write videos for, a big consideration is the psychic damage that will be incurred by listening to the song ad infinitum. So, liking the track is key. You’ll be living with this song and the artist for somewhere around 6 weeks of your life. It will invade your dreams and the lives of everyone around you like a virus. You’ll start to notice your collaborators and friends humming it unconsciously. This is a good sign. Also, you have to delve into the psyche and traits of the artists you’re working with. So in that way, you have to consider what that will entail. As the director, you’re collaborating with the artist from the start. You have their song, their baby, which exists in 1 dimension. You’re attempting, through the alchemy of the process, to reveal the other 3 dimensions of it. This can become very personal and intense at times, with psychology playing a large role. So, admiring the artist, for me at least, is just as crucial as falling in love with the track.
You have a very distinct style that carries through in all of your work—atmospheric, lots of textures, and dark themes with a super glossy look. Do you find it difficult to maintain that look and feel from project to project or does it come very naturally?
The look isn’t consciously thought out. The approach I have is always the same: to start with a blank slate, listen to the track, and notice what images appear. I thoroughly enjoy the transformative quality of light. Therefore, the feel of the lighting will come first in the ideas. All elements, techniques included, should only be used in response to the subject matter at hand and anything superfluous should be discarded. We use very different lighting techniques, cameras, and design with each project. The fact that they have a consistent look is probably down to the decision-making process filtered through my taste and the tastes of my collaborators.
The magic of film and photography that is different from all other art forms is its ability to capture texture and light. So we’re often pushing in that direction to get the strongest communication possible from the medium. With that said, I tend to take an archetypical approach to the subject matter, so perhaps that’s why the images appear to have these dark themes. Much of the time, our work is spent in the dark rooms staring at glowing things like monitors and lights. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t have an effect on you after a while. Also, the projects we pick or get asked to do tend to veer in this direction, so I think it’s developed into a style over time.
What were your inspirations for the School of Seven Bells project?
The music is always the main attraction. I’ve been working with SVIIB, discussing ideas and things we love for sometime now. This project gave us an excuse to use these themes even though they’re subtle. Identity, masks, sleep, noise, color, nature, and dreams are all in the lyrics. The band, Alvin Cruz (the flame artist whom I collaborated with on this), and myself all share a great interest in things esoteric and beautiful, so we naturally gravitated in that direction. We let the music guide us and tried to push the elements we had as far as they could go. The entire piece is over an hour in length, so we had leeway to be indulgent in many respects. There were many random, uncontrollable elements that gave the piece a sentience.
It’s created from various footage I shot and techniques that are mostly analogue (but put together digitally) and because of this, it’s not specifically synched to the music. Due to the mind’s craving to find patterns in chaos, it does seem synched at many points though. Also, it has no real edits. It just plays out and melds from section to section. This was done purposely to create a hypnotic effect on the viewer. The methodology we used was this: I would create various film pieces using still life setups, time-lapse landscapes, scientific visualization tools, etc. and bring them to Alvin. We would alter them and combine them in a post-production device called Flame and discuss what was working. Alvin would then tweak and create using the footage over some time while I created more content. We’d then repeat the process, re-transforming the previously effected footage and adding in the new materials. This organic process lasted for two months. When we were finished, we had over an hour of material that neither of us could have pre-visualized as it was born out of the process itself. We also had to consider how the images would look when projected very large, which is a different process than thinking about how things will look, say, on YouTube. In that respect, it’s more about textures and patterns than any sort of narrative.
When I spoke with Benjamin Curtis, he described SVIIB’s music as “easier to visualize than to verbalize.” Do you find this to be true for a lot of the music you end up directing a video for?
You could probably say that about most music. You can use words to describe process and personality, but with the music itself, words always seem laborious and clumsy—hence the overuse of the word “compelling” to describe any sort of music. But I do think I tend to get projects that lend themselves to a more synesthesiac approach that ends up being more abstract visually rather than narrative driven. I’ve been directing more narrative stuff lately while trying to keep the visual sense as a supporting role. Often when working, we’ll ask questions like “What color is this sound?” “What shape would that high hat crack be?” but all that bullshit is thrown away in favor of “If it feels right, do it.”
Not to bring up a sore subject, but what’s your stance on the current state of music videos? Do you find it frustrating or are you coasting along sort of unaffected by it?
I have come into the world of music videos at a time when all the budgets have been drastically slashed, but the expectations are still at the same elevated level. Since I wasn’t directing before this time, I can’t know how it was in the past—having realistic budgets and such. I do know that in order to get any of our projects finished, we beg, borrow, steal, and rely on the kindness of strangers. As a result, it becomes very difficult to do multiple projects at once, at least for me, and my output of motion pieces is quite slow. In that respect it’s very frustrating, but it coincided with technological advances that made it possible to be creative without all the expenses of an overblown live-action shoot. There are people doing some amazing work right now, working within the budget constraints. But I do hear ancient fables of a time when directors could make a living doing only music videos. It sounds utopian.
Do you feel that significant changes have occurred in your career since your video for Battles in relation to your most recent effort with Chairlift?
Well, the process of creation has gotten more natural. I’ve been working with the same people for that entire time and we’ve grown to understand and learn a lot from each other. The Battles video was a huge learning process and comparatively, Chairlift was less painful. From Battles I learned that the most important aspect to development is to get out of your comfort zone. The Battles video was literally a battle of wills to get it done. The process for the Chairlift video felt natural, although just as complex. As a dear friend and art director of the shoot put it, “You and Caroline Polachek made a baby, Ivan Able (the DP) nursed it, and Ryan Mckenna (the editor) performed the delivery,” which I think summed it up perfectly. I think I’ve just become more comfortable being uncomfortable and trusting my instincts.
Many music video directors tend to make a leap into feature films at one point or another. Do you have any aspirations?
I’ve been doing more dialogue pieces, which is usually the key ingredient missing from getting into that world, so I do plan on making a feature in the near future.
Do you find that living in New York influences your work?
Yes. The artificial lighting, the claustrophobia, the lack of a horizon, the small slice of sky you’re lucky to see between the two rows of dark dirty buildings you live in, the social discourse over too many drinks, angry tiny Chinese landlords, pizza, the art galleries, the comforting fact that there’s 20 fun things to do every night just minutes from your home (even if you decide to stay in anyway), not having to drive, that every band on tour comes to play here, delivery of every sort at all hours, the constant influx of new people and purging of others, the fashion element, the fact that you can stumble home every night at odd hours (since you don’t drive anyway), the seasons (there’s four of them in New York), the magic of people watching on a Spring day, the homies in the corner deli, extra sensory perception, Lower East Side rooftops, cheeseburgers, the Bowery Ballroom, the feeling that you can do anything because everything is in perpetual motion—all of this impacts my work. Also, I have the best friends in the world here and they influence me more than anything else.
What do you imagine might happen if you were to relocate to Los Angeles?
There would probably be less stumbling home since I’d be forced to drive. I’ll eventually have to be there more to film my features though.
What would we find you doing when you’re not working on one of your many projects?
I enjoy meeting with my friends and discussing our next projects. But aside from that and stealth drinking, I have very few other hobbies: watching films, reading New Scientist, listening to music very loudly, and long walks in the dark.
Here is a hypothetical scenario: You’re handed a Britney Spears video with a million dollar budget. What does your treatment look like?
In a near future dystopian trailer park, sweet teen “Oops I did it again Britney” battles “Shaved head lost her mind Britney” in a no-holds-barred cage match to the death…with a supernatural twist.