by Richard Thorne

Isaac Bell: Let There Be (More) Music Videos

by Richard Thorne

Isaac Bell: Let There Be (More) Music Videos

Six60 might continue to dominate the numbers game and Lorde still horde international media attention, but if there’s one Kiwi artist defining the local music landscape in the 2020’s it’s surely actor/musician Troy Kingi. It follows then that being Kingi’s go-to music video maker is a pretty good indicator of directorial talent, and the holder of that baton is fellow Northlander Isaac Bell. Richard Thorne talked with him during Auckland’s Delta lockdown.  

There are surely cost-effective ways to film a smashed up and bullet-ridden car, like starting with a wreck, or using those bullet hole stickers for instance. Then there’s the way a Tarantino or Spielberg would do it, which is to start with a perfectly good car of choice, then smash it up and riddle it with actual bullets. That’s the option Isaac Bell took for Troy Kingi’s epic Cold Steel music video in 2016, and it tells plenty about the cinematic intent and attention to detail this self-taught director, responsible for several Kingi music clips, routinely displays.

Born to an Australian father and Māori mum, Isaac Bell says he grew up all around Whangarei, and was very happy there as a kid in the ’90s and early 2000s. It was in Whangarei that he started making little videos with friends from school when aged about 14-15, but he clearly recalls the day he decided to try to forge a career in this space.

“I was 22, living in Brisbane and working at a hotel, and just having a conversation with one of my colleagues there. I was saying how I’d be keen to make music videos, and he goes, ‘Well, why don’t you do it?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, why don’t I do it?’

“So I got a loan, bought a MacBook Pro and a Canon 7D, got Premiere Pro and started offering free videos to basically any musicians I could find. The first video I made was for an Australian hip hop act called Prophet Rayza [This Is – 2011]. It’s about seven minutes too long!” Isaac laughs. “That was [my] university, that was training for me. I just taught myself. I’m a creative through and through, but not much good in a classroom!”

Having filmed a few more music videos in Queensland, Isaac returned home to Whangarei where he soon connected with Troy Kingi. Amiable and easy-going, Isaac’s a natural networker, and before long a number of Auckland artists were travelling north up SH1 for his music video production services.

“If there was an up-and-coming artist I really liked online I’d reach out on Facebook or email. Just trying to be as busy as possible really. At that point in my career I just wanted to make as many videos and learn as quickly as I possibly could. And to build a showreel, that’s all it was about at that point.

“One weekend I did two music videos, and they were for only about $250 each!” he laughs, almost in amazement. “Back then I was very resourceful and just had to make it happen, y’know? When you’re starting out you’ll do anything just to get your name on a project, and to get eyes on it.”

And he was keen. A 2014 interview with the Northern Advocate entitled 10 Questions With ‘Northland’s Tarantino’ – Isaac Bell, reveals rather more of his intent at the time. Isaac had launched a crowdfunding campaign aiming to raise $100,000 towards the filming of ‘a cool new Tarantino-style film being shot in Whangarei with Troy Kingi.’ The plan then was for production to commence in early 2015, and the proposed film’s title was Let There Be Violence. More on that later. Now 33, he’s been based in Auckland for the last several years.

“When I moved back to NZ my focus became, ‘Okay, who’s the best music video director in NZ?’ And at that point it was Shae Sterling. I used to watch all his stuff and I really liked the level he was operating at, so he was definitely a motivator for me locally.

“On the world circuit, you’ve got guys like Colin Tilley and Director X, to name a few. Now I’m inspired by people like Taika [Waititi], Peter Jackson and James Cameron, Spielberg – so that focus always changes!”

Isaac’s first video with Kingi, for reggae single Hold Your Head High, was released in early 2013, the same month the local hero Mt Zion film opened in cinemas. They’ve both come a long way since. Following that came True Love, an exceptionally executed ‘one-shot’ video of Kingi getting a haircut.

“That was a real turning point I think. It was definitely one of the more successful videos I’ve done, and I guess a bit of a validation!

“The inspiration to that was from a Tyler, the Creator video for a song called Yonkers [2011 – 133M views and counting]. The visual tone and style was heavily inspired by Yonkers, which was very similar, all black and white, appeared to be one continuous take. It was all dark and gritty and I was just obsessed with that video! I wanted to do something similar and was looking for ideas that might work. At that time there was an explosion of new barbershops popping up around NZ and I thought of that as a one-shot video concept.”

F.M.S Train, Just A Phase, Cold Steel feat. Mara TK and First Take Strut, (“I think that’s it,”) have followed.

isaac bell

He’s definitely not given to hyperbole but Isaac does say he’s very happy with how the most recently released First Take Strut turned out. With DoP Matt Durand it was shot over a day at Highwic House, a 19th-century show house in Epsom, Auckland, and is a likely looking finalist among 2021’s yet to be announced music awards. A film within a film, the narrative style is classic Isaac Bell, as is the rich detailing and a sense of violence, most acutely portrayed in 2016’s Cold Steel – perhaps his personal fave, and closest to being an outtake from that as-yet un-shot Let There Be Violence feature film.

Cold Steel, yeah. It’s one I just love. That was a result of (once again) a very, very small budget, and pulling together resources to make something I’m really proud of. It’s undeniably me, you know? It’s got that Tarantino vibe to it, crime, desperation, mystery, it’s open-ended…

“We bought that Mercedes off TradeMe, and drove it to an old quarry and got five or six friends to just shoot it up with shotguns and rifles. Then we towed it out of there and put in a studio on a trailer. We didn’t use green screens for the background, I wanted to go retro so we projected against a wall, like the old days!”

Of course, Kingi hasn’t been his only music video muse, and among the many others, a few that come quickly to mind are Mikey Mayz, Hollie Smith, Donell Lewis and Andy Lovegrove of Breaks Co-op.

“More recently I did a video for Dylan Frost, who is the lead singer of Sticky Fingers in Australia. That one had the biggest budget I’ve had to work with.”

Isaac claims a very eclectic sense of music taste, so the genre isn’t an issue – if a song gets him straight away then he’s keen.

“I do particularly love Troy’s music, he’s so talented and his music I find is very cinematic. In each genre he has done an album it’s been so cinematic, and so different. His music lends itself to my own cinematic style.”

If asked to pitch for a video he says he tries to encompass the whole vision on just a few pages. His treatment document would have a one-page script, with points in the music matched to what’s happening in the video. Some visual references to the proposed look and feel, and a technical sheet with the sort of camera he’d like to use, lighting etc. Less is more or kitchen sink?

“I think you need to work within your means, and I think less is more, definitely. It all depends on the brief and what’s required. True Love is definitely less is more, but then Golden Tongue, the one I did for Dylan Frost, that is kitchen sink!

isaac bell“I love it when an artist comes to me and says, ‘Give me your idea’. That’s what gets me excited – if I have full creative freedom and the ability to do what I want. That gives me full investment, it’s my idea and I really want to prove to them that their trust in me is well placed!”

With NZ On Air-funded videos, he says the budget offered is generally $8 – $10k, and lesser spends can only be made to work by limiting the concept accordingly.

“There are some directors out there that are self-sufficient and can operate at a fairly low cost, and so can live off that. I’ve never really taken a lot of the budget myself, I’d prefer to put the budget on screen if possible.

“It’s really tough to make a living off making videos in NZ, especially if you’re wanting to make videos of a certain quality, and get the right crew, and DoP, and art department – put a good team around you. You’ve gotta look after them, and when you do that you’re generally not left with much at the end.”

Our Zoom conversation takes place near the beginning of Auckland’s protracted Delta Covid-lockdown, Isaac saying that he has no more videos on the drawing board for 2021, but the lockdown hasn’t (as yet) scuppered any other plans. He’s actually only done two or three music videos since 2020, but guesses he has probably directed about 50 in total.

“I’ve had a day job practically the whole time I’ve been making music videos – I’ve always had to do them on weekends and after hours – but there’s not a lot of that work I can do in Level 4 lockdown.

“It’s actually allowed me to get some serious pre-production done,” he laughs loudly. “I’m shooting a short film in October and December. I’ve made a transition into films, and that will be my third short film shooting this year.

“Around the start of 2020, I sat down and wondered how I can quit my day job and do what I love in the creative sector, and make enough money to look after my family. I figured that probably moving to more narrative stuff, film, TV and so on, is a more viable career path.

“I made the decision to put more of a focus on short films because ultimately my goal is to make movies. I wanna make big Hollywood movies, that’s the dream!”

He formed Zakapotatoes Films late last year, and those keen to see more can find two disturbingly creative short films, A Gut Feeling (his own script) and Space Invader (written by Matt Kelleher) online.

That need to be a responsible family man means that Isaac, along with his family, will be moving south to Christchurch in early 2022.

“I want to buy a house, so we need to get the hell out of this place! It’ll just be nice to get out of the rat race and just start afresh down there, y’know? I’ve got whanau down there as well.”

What he won’t have in Ōtautahi (for a time anyway) is the Auckland production crew that he has come to trust and describe as a ‘safety net’.

“I like to have a solid team of regulars around me and have definitely formed some awesome relationships with an amazing crew. Film making is probably the most collaborative art form on the planet. It takes so many talented people to pull off a really nice video and I find that if you get technicians who are experts in their fields you are going to get a better result. I love collaborating with different DoPs because they all have a different style and aesthetic, and I think it’s cool to work with different ones. ”

In earlier days he used to edit his videos as well but now outsources everything.

“That was a hard decision. Back when I started I was shooting and editing all my own stuff, I was doing everything myself. One of the hardest decisions was hiring a DoP for the first time and watching someone else run around with the cameras. It made me feel so uncomfortable! But in order to progress and upskill as a director you do need to let go, and allow these technicians to do their work. My go-to editor Rowan McKay is a genius. He comes from a narrative TV world and has been editing for years. I like to get people that are better than me at that particular role.”

Isaac groans at the very thought of answering the question about disasters, but one Whangarei shoot obviously still haunts him.

He was wanting to homage the Fatboy Slim Weapon of Choice video that included Christopher Walken dancing alone in a hotel lobby. With a big name Kiwi actor and venue access sorted all was going well with the shoot until in the final rehearsal of a stunt double scene the double accidentally hit the famous actor in the face. With blood streaming the actor had to go straight to the hospital and the whole shoot ground to a sudden close.

“It was horrendous. We couldn’t even finish the video. Really, really bad, and by far the lowest point in my shooting career.” 

And as for that feature film of his that promised to be Tarantino-esque, well the 90-page script is apparently still in consideration, and while a little embarrassed about that digitally-imprinted news item reminder, he’s happy enough to put any apparent hubris down to the enthusiasm and naivety of youth.

“I’m still trying to find my style,” he says with convincing earnestness. “I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh yeah, you can tell that’s an Isaac Bell video,’ but I don’t actually know what that is. I’m honestly still trying to find my style, and it is always developing.”