Special Problems are a clever, as well as cleverly-named music video production company, that have made a speedy rise to the top of the Kiwi industry – and beyond. They’ve received glowing Twitter praise from Kanye West, been hired to produce videos for some of Australia’s top bands and, of course, badgered to produce TV commercials. Their creative excellence and local dominance was highlighted when they clean-swept all three finalist nominations in the Best Music Video category of the 2012 NZ Music Awards. NZM sent Gareth Shute along to talk with Joel Kefali and Campbell Hooper to find out what lies behind this remarkable success.
It’s five o’clock on a Friday afternoon and Campbell Hooper is just sending off the final cut of a video that Special Problems have done for Australian group, The Presets. This final bit of ‘office work’ is being done via smartphone in the courtyard of Ponsonby bar, Golden Dawn, between sips of beer. Meanwhile, the other half of the Special Problems duo, Joel Kefali (he’s the one in prescription glasses), is wolfing down a grilled cheese slice, explaining that it’s the first decent meal he’s had all day.
The fact that Special Problems are producing a video for one of Australia’s top electronica acts should come as no surprise, since they’ve now worked with a host of top table talent from over the Tasman – including Tame Impala, Jonathan Boulet and Wolfmother. Not to mention genre-smashing US artist, Flying Lotus and having a local client list that includes David Dallas, The Mint Chicks and Gin Wigmore.
Videos for The Naked and Famous have bagged them the Best Music Video Award for two years running at the NZ Music Awards – this year for The Sun and in 2011 for Punching In A Dream. If that’s not award-winning enough, at this November’s ceremony all three of the finalist videos had been made by Special Problems, making that second win in a row a given.
Special Problems’ other two 2012 Tui finalist videos were Zowie’s My Calculator and David Dallas’ Take A Picture. Campbell Hooper discusses the production of each below.
Kefali went on stage to accept the Tui at this year’s NZ Music Awards on his own, Hooper preferring to stay in his seat. Oddly – given that music videos are so much a part of youth TV watching – those catching the awards show on tele at home didn’t even get to see which song won the Best Video category. Taken to task via social media over this apparent indifference to the category, C4 later apologised to Kefali’s wife, Jane Yee, formerly a music TV presenter herself.
For his part Hooper says he has no interest in speaking publicly and was similarly indifferent about the lack of television exposure.
“It’s fine, the Music Awards are about musicians. We’re not personalities, we’re technicians. The awards are a very commercially orientated thing. It’s got a certain bent on what they want, and I guess having video makers doing speeches isn’t one of them.”
Neither of the Special pair reports having a particular interest in music videos when growing up, though Kefali does admit to watching a lot of them.
“When I was 11, I had a friend who used to tape videos off Max TV. I used to go around after school and watch those. But that was mostly because we liked the grunge music, even if it was 12 years after the fact.”
Kefali went on to study art at Unitec (including some papers in digital animation) and was enlisted by some musician friends to do work for them. He initially provided album artwork, but went on to make music videos for the Whipping Cats and Robot Tigers. When members of latter group went on to form Cut Off Your Hands, he continued to work with them – designing the cover of their first EP and making an early single video.
After working with friends’ bands for a while, Kefali met Hooper, who’d previously used the same studio space he was now occupying. This meeting led to the formation of Special Problems, with Hooper bringing a decade of experience in the local industry. He had previously made a living creating live visuals for local music acts and also designed a number of album covers, including one for The Muttonbirds’ greatest hits album which saw him win his first NZ Music Award Tui, back in 2003. Hooper had likewise eventually moved into music videos, creating a clip for the Dimmer track, Degrees of Existence.
Hooper also studied art at a tertiary level (film and painting at Elam) and believes that the pair’s experience in this regard is something that feeds into their current work.
“The Special Problems’ aesthetic is really a combination of our graphic design work for album covers, our knowledge of film and our painting background. It’s a hybrid of all those things mashed together. For example, the Presets’ video that we just finished this afternoon was all digital stuff, but our approach is to push it until it becomes painterly. That’s what comes most natural to us. I guess we’ve been quite anti-narrative in our videos and we get a little bit of stick for that from certain quarters. It’s more like an abstract painting for us, breaking things apart until they become quite textural. It’s more about colour, form, tone and texture. That seems more like how music is made – it isn’t really a narrative thing. Essentially music is an abstract art form and we try to make videos which share that approach.”
One of the duo’s shrewdest early decisions was agreeing to work with a young Auckland act called The Naked and Famous. The band’s atmospheric alt-pop tunes provided a perfect foil for Kefali and Hooper’s growing skills as video makers. Hooper is quick to credit the importance of this relationship.
“The most successful collaboration we’ve had is definitely with The Naked and Famous, just in terms of the amount of videos we’ve done for them and how long it’s gone for. We’ve been lucky to work with bands like them and Cut Off Your Hands from the beginning.
“It’s great to collaborate with bands that are so hard working, and that’s especially true of The Naked and Famous. If you take a song like Young Blood, you could cut anything to that song and it would look amazing. It’s a great pop song – the first time I heard that song, I thought, ‘This is going to be a number one hit throughout the world’.”
Their Young Blood video has by now been viewed about 18 million times and shown on music video channels throughout the world, helping the band develop a very solid international profile. It was a video that they created for Australian artist, Jonathan Boulet, that resulted in Kanye West tweeting: ‘Please watch this it’s fucking amazing.’ A Community Service Announcement, features a juxtaposition of real people and bright neon animation.
Unsurprisingly, offers of work steadily grew. Hooper says they find it easy to decide which music artists would be best to work with.
“When we get a track through, we’ll listen to it over and over again. There’ll be the odd one where we think, ‘I just can’t generate any ideas for this.’ That’s a classic sign that we just shouldn’t do the video.”
With this degree of video-making success Special Problems soon found they were also being offered lucrative TVC work – providing a more secure source of income for the business – though the result was a decrease in their music video output. When they first started, one particularly fruitful year saw them produce 18 videos, but this year they’ll most likely do only four. Nonetheless, Hooper maintains the music work is the most rewarding aspect of their business.
“We still get heaps of offers, but we just have to do the ones we really want to do. From the start, we weren’t in it for the money, but the imperative to stay afloat did mean we did a lot of them. Now, we just see it as being an enjoyable break from our other work. For example, we’ve just come from doing a couple of ads and some of them were quite painful.
“You don’t come up with the ideas for ads – you write an approach for someone else’s idea – so part of the process is already gone. You’ll shoot a scene then the agency and the client will change whatever they want. We’ve pushed really hard on some ads to use music we like from people we know, but it’s never happened. So when we come to make music videos, we say to the artist, ‘There’s no ideas, there’s no storyboard, it’s just whatever we want to make.’”
This love for their work is likely what keeps Special Problems at the top of their game. Many of their music videos express the duo’s distinctive style, with elements cut out and digitally altered so that they can be manipulated like pieces in a moving collage. The say they continue to challenge themselves and have moved broadly across digital animation and live action throughout their careers. This has meant constantly learning new skills on the job and taking whatever opportunities arise.
An example of this was their work on the new The Naked And Famous’ video No Way. Entrusted with a larger-than-usual budget, they used it to good effect by hiring a $7000-a-day camera which could film ultra-slow-motion. The result was a striking juxtaposition of archetypical characters (a black-clad biker, a distraught bride, and a kabuki samurai) with smashing glass and flower-petals floating in clouds around them.
Looking back over their career in music videos, Kefali admits the one limitation that sometimes interrupts their creative process is the artist themselves.
“A few of them get quite self-conscious when they see themselves in videos. It can be quite a challenge to get certain shots in a video if they don’t like how they look in those sequences. So that’s been an issue when trying to get a video approved… More generally, I think if a NZ band has got funding for a music video, they need to think about what their intention really is. A lot of bands get videos made and they don’t have a plan about how they’re going to use that video. They just chuck it on YouTube and advertise it to their mates on Facebook. But it doesn’t really work that way.
“It’s always got to do with the track, maintains Hooper. “You can have a really great video [but] if the track’s not great it never works. Ninety percent of what a video is is actually the music behind it. That’s the most important thing – it’s about bands, it’s not about us at all.”
Kefali also believes that a young band may be better off working with a visual artist that they’re friends with and points to the partnership between Dear Times Waste and Veronica Crockford-Pound as a positive example of this. Hooper agrees:
“If I was a young guy in a band, I would try to find someone I know who is amazing visually, who I can work with long-term. If you want to build up an aesthetic visual voice that is tied to your band then that takes time. Our videos for The Naked And Famous have definitely gotten closer to the band’s vision as they’ve gone on. The NZ On Air funding set-up is better for young directors to develop in that way. It’s almost better for them than it is for the bands in some ways. It’s like NZ On Air is funding the young talent of the film industry.”
The future will no doubt bring more and bigger opportunities for Special Problems, but the pair are adamant that they will continue to make music videos. Kefali even hopes to continue working on album covers when the time allows.
“Album covers are so much fun to do. Because we haven’t done so many of them we haven’t exhausted as many ideas. Also, you’re just dealing with one image, so it’s a nice slower pace to work at. I could see us making album covers longer than necessarily music videos. Maybe we’ll just end up making ones for our friends’ bands who are playing open mic nights, and selling their CDs for five bucks on the door. Can’t wait…”
Dave asked us to do a video when we were in the middle of two or three other big projects, and didn’t really have time to do it. So we actually got seven of us to make it. Four of us were in Special Problems and we brought in three other friends who are directors and we all had lunch together. We put everyone’s names into a hat and seven different film formats – so you know, one was CGI, one was VHS, one was hi-def digital, one was stop frame – so there’s a whole bunch of different formats. Then we all pulled our names and format out of the hat. Everyone went off separately and did it without showing anyone else what they were doing, and then we got an eighth person in to edit it together. Then we all sat down and watched the video together without knowing what each person had done.
I think there’s a theme that we’re trying to use more, which is big genre blocks – hard moves from one thing to another rather than mashing everything together. Yeah, big blocks of genre, cut and go to the style, cut and go to the style, rather than mashing it up. It really feels like six different videos in that video and none of them stylistically inter-relate which is really good.
We’ve made two or three Zowie videos already so we know Zowie quite well, she’s a good friend of ours. In terms of her personality branding and image it’s pretty familiar to us, we know it well so we wouldn’t do anything that wasn’t her.
It’s a real mixture of what Zowie already is and what the track is. It’s always a balance between those two and the track had a really robotic sound to it so we just went down that path really with hyper crisp 3D stuff. For us it was one of the first times we’ve done a pure 3D thing, usually we create a lot of textural noise whereas this was kind of the opposite, we brought in couple of friends who are 3D artists and made these hyper crisp pieces.
I think Zowie’s just an amazing performer so I think that’s the thing that resonated more than anything. The more charisma and performance aspect an artist has the less they have to do, so the actual visual elements of what’s going on around her are actually quite simple. It’s actually just her performance that’s really the main part of the video and that’s what I think makes it so compelling.
We obviously have time spent a lot of time with The Naked And Famous. We’ve become close friends and they give us complete creative control over their videos, they just give us a relative budget. So when their manager Paul McKessar called up and said ‘New video, do whatever you want,’ he also gave me one aspect which was not to make a porno. That was kind of what gave me the idea initially to make that video. I was listening to it and I was like, ‘Ah it’s kind of perfect’. You should never stipulate a rule, someone always wants to break it. The couple in it are really good friends of mine.
It’s one of the videos where the music element and the visual element are married really, really well. So for me it’s that aspect, and then it’s the moving from the photographic to the real abstract stuff that makes that video special. It could be quite corny but it’s not really at all. I think it comes across as quite sophisticated for two people pashing for five minutes.
We’ve approached that type thing many times before. It features a lot of animation so it took a long time, but it’s pretty familiar territory for us.