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Talking to the Director of MAX's Backwards "Gibberish" Music Video

How Greg Jardin combined motion-controlled cameras and music video magic to distort time in MAX's "Gibberish" feat. Hoodie Allen.

by Emerson Rosenthal
Apr 14 2015, 5:35pm

Photo Credit: Rebecca Smeyne/YouTube Music Awards

As an empty white space, lit like if Dan Flavin decorated La Monte Young's Dream House, roars to life to the opening thump of MAX's "Gibberish" feat. Hoodie Allen, MAX is locked into a dance duet. But something's different, evident in the first toss of the YouTube star-turned-pop star's coat: he throws it down into a modern lounge chair and it's as if it has a life of it's own. As the coat leaps from the chair and into the arms of his dance partner, the particular visual trickery of the music video rears its disorienting head. Directed by Greg Jardin of Radical Media, "Gibberish" combines a motion-controlled camera with good ol' music video magic to make it appear as if, as MAX moves ahead in space and time, everyone around him is in reverse. In what looks like one shot, performers move forwards and backwards, intersecting at precise points to complete the illusion, which is rounded out by the spectral appearance of Hoodie Allen projected against fog. 

The video premiered in March as part of the YouTube Music Awards, and hit #1 on the Billboard Trending 140 during the first week it was released. To gain a deeper insight into the production's complexities, The Creators Project interviewed Greg Jardin via email about directing MAX's "Gibberish" feat. Hoodie Allen:

The Creators Project: First off, there are quite a lot of techniques going on in "Gibberish." Can you tell me about some of the experiences you've had in past productions that have led you to the skill level required of this one?

Greg Jardin: I’ve done a handful of videos that have required a good amount of precision as far as matching action to music, but probably the closest one to this video, at least in terms of execution complexity, was for a Canadian indie rock band called Hollerado. I directed the video for their track “Americanarama,” and it involved synced action with about 30 people total, where everyone was reacting to someone actually counting up numbers more or less corresponding to the beats of the song. Since we had so much interactive action on the MAX video, we did something similar, where Max was performing to the song, with a voice dubbed over the track counting up the whole time (“one, two, three…”). Max would have to execute most of his actions right on certain beats, like, make sure that he jumps in the air right on beat 19 or something.

Then, all the dancers are performing towards a backwards version of the track, which also had numbers being counted over it. So, one of the dancers had to know to slide through the shot right on beat 51 or whatever it was, which corresponded to Max’s beat 19.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Smeyne/YouTube Music Awards

Keeping track of what forwards beat matched up to what reverse beat was one of the biggest challenges of the video, and a majority of it fell on Laura Edwards’ (the choreographer) shoulders. She was awesome.

And then on the VFX front, I’ve been trying to incorporate more and more VFX with my work over the past few years, learning how to do as many things as I can, which more or less culminated in a VFX-heavy short film I did last year called Floating. The steps it took to learn how to execute something so involved left me with a fairly decent level of comfort as far as understanding the basic mechanics of VFX, which was really helpful in being confident enough to attempt this project.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Smeyne/YouTube Music Awards

How long did it take to set up? How many rehearsals and how many takes?

Max, Laura Edwards, and Laura Quinn (our assistant choreographer) met several times in advance of the shoot. Then we had two days of rehearsal with the dancers, and then two full nights on location. The first night was used as a prelight/motion control programming day, which bled into about an hour of the second night. Then we pretty much shot the whole rest of the night, but at that point, all the choreography was nailed down. We probably shot somewhere between two and six takes for each bit, depending on the complexity of the performance.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Smeyne/YouTube Music Awards

Are you more of a "do it in your head" director or a "do it on paper" dude? Is it something that happens with your eyes closed listening to the song, drawing in a sketchbook, talking? What do you do to make the images materialize?

Generally, I find that it’s detrimental for me to listen to the track too many times. I generally try to latch on to one aspect of the song and form an idea around that. Almost like listening to the song too many times just constantly introduces new possibilities, when it’s more helpful for me to hone in on one.

In this case, it was the fact that the vocals in the chorus were backwards, so I was trying to think of an idea that incorporated reversed motion, but in a way I hadn’t seen before. I just kind of sat with it for a few days and eventually just came up with the idea to merge forwards and backwards motion in one go. I don’t really know how it specifically came to me, but usually an idea will hit me when it’s more in the back of my mind and I’m out doing something else. But honestly, I can never exactly pinpoint the source of inspiration, as it’s really elusive and changes every time.

If the idea feels exciting to me in some way, I’ll usually run with it and pitch it to my rep, Jennifer Heath, and get her take on it. She’s usually good at telling me if an idea sucks or not.

Can you talk to me about some of the challenges you faced in keeping this one-take? 

The idea was to make the whole video appear as though it’s one seamless take, even though in reality it wasn’t. Because we used motion control, where the camera was programmed to do the exact same move every time, we were able to shoot it in segments—Max did his in four, and then dancers had a few more. Probably the biggest challenge of that aspect of it was the actual blocking, and working within the constraints of the motion control rig. The camera could only move so fast and go 8' or so away from its track, so staging the action around that—knowing we could never rely on a cut to punch in on any moments—meant really trying to maximize the limited amount of space we had to work with, and of course, that the lighting worked for each segment that we shot in.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Smeyne/YouTube Music Awards

What about the colors? Why did you match them to Max's aesthetic? 

I’ve always liked how the use of a blue and red color palette really lends itself to a natural separation between the two spectrums. The production of the song felt pretty slick, and I knew the video was meant to showcase Max as a strong pop artist, so I thought lighting it with a more extreme palette like that, heavily accented by neon tubes, felt pretty appropriate.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Smeyne/YouTube Music Awards

Are there any particularly memorable on-set moments with Hoodie and MAX that you could share with us?

Since everyone but Max was performing to a reversed version of the song, we were never really able to see Max’s performance with everyone else’s performance simultaneously. So there were a good amount of tightly crossed fingers while shooting. But on set, Jarrod, our VTR guy, was able to reverse the dancers’ take and ghost it over Max’s take to give us a rough idea of how the actions lined up, and that was really the first time any of us would see all of the moving parts intersect. Everyone—Max, both Lauras, and the dancers, would huddle around the monitors and watch these rough comps, and seeing moments that we’d worked on for two weeks come together felt really special—like being part of a team and everyone collectively celebrating a victory of sorts. That was honestly the best part of making the video—even better than releasing the finished product—those shared moments.  

Photo Credit: Rebecca Smeyne/YouTube Music Awards

What's next for you?

I had never realized how incredible hip hop dance could be until working with everyone on this video. So I’m planning on watching every Step Up movie in a row as soon as possible.

Photo Credit: Rebecca Smeyne/YouTube Music Awards

Visit Greg Jardin's website for more from the director. 

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