The music video to The Inevitable Fate Of The Universe heightens the already disturbing aural assault of Ōtautahi death metal act Blindfolded And Led To The Woods with a staccato-paced, darkly indistinct evocation of rotting evil. The work of budget-conscious Kiwi director Amber Beaton, it’s a great illustration of her regular use of low lighting and simple, inexpensive but effective staging. Richard Thorne talked with her.
Metal music and the matched sense of darkness and mayhem is something of an Amber Beaton video trademark, though certainly not her only directing artistry. Witness the un-self-consciously comedic video portrayals of another Ōtautahi artist, Emma Cameron whose debut album was recently released.
“Most people will probably know me from Emma’s videos. I’ve done almost all of the Emma Dilemma videos – and she wanted to do videos for every song on her album, so she’s done nine I think! And also probably Blindfolded And Led To The Woods – even though I’ve only done one that’s been released at this point. Most people will know that their big video was one that I did. If I meet people when I’m out that’s usually the one people know!”
Currently living in Christchurch, there’s an occasional rolling of the r’s that belies Amber’s Southland upbringing. With a dad who was a Bluff oyster boat captain and mum an oyster shucker, her own creative artistic bent was evident from her early schooling in Bluff.
“When I was really little, my primary teacher Bruce Pagan was also the mayor of the town! He was so great, and every Friday he let me write plays, and I would pick out actors from the class and we’d go next door, rehearse, then come back in and perform it to the class. In high school I wrote in drama classes and for Stage Challenge too.”
Finishing her high school years in Nelson, Amber went straight to the local polytech intent on studying film. One eventful day there she met Jason Howden, famous subsequently as the writer-director of films Deathgasm and Guns Akimbo (featuring a certain Daniel Radcliffe). Back then the Greymouth-born Howden was studying to be a chef, and advised her to quit the film course because he’d done it and it sucked.
“Now obviously he’s a world-renowned film-maker! So then him and I dated for a little while, but I did quit the course and went and studied music instead. And now I’m also a film-maker…”
While Amber makes few claims as a musician, July 2022 saw the release of her own first EP, titled ‘Dead Caldera’, a recording done alongside Wellington producer James Goldsmith.
“James helped me produce it. I wrote it all and programmed everything, then we got session musicians in to play it, that was James, and Jolene [Tempest] from Bulletbelt and Nathan [Hickey] from Beastwars. It was pretty much just a cheeky use of cool musician friends, but we did it professionally, it’s not a mixtape.”
You might reasonably imagine that the debut release of her own music would be given precedence in her life, but when we talk in mid-July Amber has just returned from a trip to Auckland where she was shooting music video footage for two different (other) artists. ‘Dead Caldera’ was released that same weekend, but there was no promotional boost accompanying it. She laughs resignedly that she’d planned a video for each song on the five-track EP, but only managed to find time to do one.
“I was supposed to do all the press for it, but I haven’t because I’ve been so busy with work!” she admits, rolling her eyes at the obvious irony. “I’m honestly so, so bad at this! With all my friends in the industry and all my good networks, but I’ve just done nothing.
“I wrote all the songs then gave them to James, who is such an incredible producer and made them sound incredible. They are songs I’ve been sort of working on since I was a teenager, goth songs, which is kind of funny ’cos they sound like that time – it’s kind of come back round to being in again! One song is about 23 years old. It’s super dark, super industrial – very Nine Inch Nails.”
Trent Reznor’s NIN get further reference in the context of music videos and directors she has been inspired by. She names Mark Romanek for directing the black and white video to Michael and Janet Jackson’s Scream, along with a number of Nine Inch Nails’ videos.
“Floria Sigismondi, who did Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People, that video was the one that wowed me. And then Sam Bayer who did Smells Like Teen Spirit, Stupid Girl by Garbage, Losing My Religion – all of those videos that have that very ‘90s look. That is really still the aesthetic I always look back to.”
While not subscribing to any particular school of thought in terms of music video direction, it’s evident that the visual soundtrack of her own teens remains a strong influence, and the early impact of MTV still resonates.
“I have a lot of rules for how people have to act on my set, but that’s about it. Otherwise, anything goes. It’s a music video – I don’t think it needs to make sense. I do a lot of slow-mo, and lot of backwards, surreal, looming horror-esque things. Like a witchy vibe, with water or dust, or dirt.
“I find it tough to love a beautiful looking, buttery cinematic image. I really like a scratched-up, noisey, grungey-looking footage – kind of just what sort of music I like. And I do have to put that up front for bands, but that does give me a little leeway in low light. I like everything to fall to black and have very minimal lighting, so you can only just see it cos that’s another great way to make something feel unsettling.
“I like for things to visually look dark and also have that mood, but I also really like doing fun videos, like all the ones I’ve done with Emma. All of those are really comedy videos. Kendall Elise as well, and I love them! We have lots of fun on those sets. But I know that my (tiny) following like my darker videos and the more horror settings – they look for that on my Instagram – dark and moody!”
It’s not only local artists who have noted her creativity and sought her out. The untimely arrival of the Covid pandemic interfered with Amber’s own plans to live and work in the States where she has some strong industry connections. She wrote the idea for a video made by Lamb Of God, though a friend in New York got to shot it. A photoshoot she was engaged to do for American industrial rock artist Euringer (Jimmy Urine) expanded into a full fantastical video, and more recently she worked with US gothic rock artist Chelsea Wolfe.
After a few years spent pursuing music and doing a variety of jobs in the music arena, “…being young and pissing around basically”, Amber came to a point in her mid-20s when she felt she should study film again, and found a course at the Film & TV School in Wellington.
“So I went there and that was it, I haven’t looked back. That was 14-ish years ago, and I was kind of late to it then, everyone else in the class was a baby!”
The intention had been to start writing for films, but she recalls that she started studying around the time when DSLR cameras were coming out, and she bought one.
“Cameras were suddenly affordable and you could own them instead of renting big film cameras. So I owned a DSLR and I had a lot of musician friends and they all started asking me to shoot a music video for them. It just went from there.
My first was a funded video for Black River Drive, and it was just simply from being friends with musicians who trusted me, and I went from there. I’ve kind of never done huge, huge bands or anything, I think Divide and Dissolve & Chelsea Wolfe [Far From Ideal] is my biggest one, but it’s just been consistent over the years, which is really good.”
Amber guesses she’s completed 30-odd music videos, which, she points out may not sound huge, but is a lot for one person. She has no booking agency or production house, and does all her own editing.
“I do everything. I produce, I direct, I shoot, I edit, I do all of it – which is actually a lot of work!
“It’s a choice I’ve made because of budgets. I try my hardest to keep these videos as affordable as possible for the bands. I want to work to what the bands have. However there is an amount I wish they would spend, just so both of us can get a good video, but I try my hardest to keep these videos good and cheap. That does mean they can take a little bit longer because I have to do everything, I don’t hire other people.
“I think our job as music video directors (and something that gets lost, but I’m an elder millennial who grew up with MTV), is that musicians are supposed to be higher than us, and untouchable?
“Sometimes when I work I see that the musicians are just being themselves when they come to set, and some people do like that, but personally I love watching characters that are not them, that are more like gods when they’re on camera. I personally think we need to make these musicians not themselves on video, make them bigger than us, and better! That’s a ’90s hangover…”
“And that is the thing that I think sets me apart from other directors – I really, really do truly love these bands. I love the musicians, I love music. I feel precious about NZ music and so I am trying to do my best with these videos, even when people have no money. I just want to give them something good, that’s fun and different.
“I don’t want to sound egotistical, but I think that keeping my costs low has meant that metal bands that don’t get funding or have access to funds, have started to get better videos. I think some people forget that the total available for a video is coming out of these band’s own pockets…”