The making of Jesca Hoop’s City Bird video

An inspiring delve into the mind of Elia Petridis, creator of music videos for Jesca Hoop's singles The Kingdom and City Bird.

Written by Amelia Gregory

Jesca Hoop by Avril Kelly
Jesca Hoop by Avril Kelly.

I love Jesca Hoop‘s new song City Bird and the accompanying video so much so that I decided to get in touch with both Jesca and Elia Petridis, the director of her recent videos, to find out what makes them tick. Elia Petridis runs boutique production company Filmatics in Los Angeles, California. After making several award winning shorts and music videos he is about to start shooting his first full length feature The Man Who Shook The Hand Of Vicente Fernandez. I think his incredibly detailed answers throw an intriguing light on what goes into the creation of a very considered and beautiful music video.

Jesca-Hoop-by-Liam-McMahon
Jesca Hoop by Liam McMahon.

When did you start working with director Elia Petridis?

Jesca: Elia is an old friend. We met in Los Angeles at one of my shows. He would say that he forced me to be his friend, which is kind of true though I would say that he used his clever imagination to lure me in. I’m glad that he did. The Kingdom was our first video adventure together.

Elia: A producer I’m working closely with these days said to me recently that humans are “meaning making machines” (a soundbite from some career seminar) but that phrase really resonated with me. I’m infatuated with screenwriting and personal mythologies, sometimes to the detriment of my own mental health. I grew up in Dubai for 18 years before moving to LA for film school – although Dubai had a lot of its own magic it didn’t have a music scene to speak of so I’m always a little astonished by the talent I find in LA. When I saw Jesca perform live I really felt her music was very special and otherworldly, and tried to do my best to see if, as human planets, we could potentially orbit each other and become friends. 

Jesca Hoop by Rebecca Strickson
Jesca Hoop by Rebecca Strickson.

I would venture to say that the first time I saw Jesca Hoop live was one of the most astonishing musical moments I have ever witnessed. It was the night before Halloween and she came out in a marionette outfit, complete with rosy cheeks, and stood motionless while her back up players wound her up to life. For a visualist like me, a storyteller, it really had an impact. The whole endeavour of courting a friendship with her was kind of a lark for me because I honestly thought she had better things to do. It was just a matter of pushing the boundary between fan and friend and seeing how much I could get away with. Suddenly, unexpectedly, as with most of life’s wonder, we had some mileage behind us and had transformed into friends. I will tell you that the first *official* conversation, the ice breaker, was when she was writing Tulip – from the Hunting my Dress album – and I was writing a screenplay dealing with Tulip Fever in Holland so I leant her my reference material. I knew I had two opportunities to wiggle my way in there – one to give her the book, and one to get it back!   

Hunting my Dress
The Hunting My Dress album cover.

Where was City Bird shot and where did the inspiration come from?

Jesca: It was shot in a miniature haunted house in downtown LA. We both wanted it to be a ghost story and Elia was the one to bring the children’s narrative into it.

Elia: FALSE! The video was shot in a garage in Riverside, Ca. The whole thing was fractal – an infinite amount of information in a finite space, as the garage is attached to an 18th century ‘Painted Lady’ Victorian house owned by my fiance. So in essence, it was shot in a miniature dollhouse inside a bigger dollhouse which made the shoot utterly magic. I think what Jesca is communicating is that the story takes place in a miniature dollhouse in downtown LA. The whole thing was lit using candles and christmas lights. 

Where did the idea for an animated video come from?

Jesca: It came out of limitation really. We had very very little money for this video so we just mused about what we could do with what time and money we did have. I set a pretty hard task considering the resources available and I am delighted with what Elia and his team came through with.

Elia: To me, the track is seance folk. That’s the sonic iconography that City Bird evokes – a ghostly seance. When it comes to music and music videos I am not a literal thinker so although my mind knows the song is about the fright and sadness associated with homelessness that’s not what my heart feels when I hear the song, and it’s not what the dream theatre in my mind projects over it either. But here Jesca’s mastery shines through, because the sonic landscape, right down to the very physical shape her mouth is making around the lyric is just as important as what she’s trying to say; the two are organically woven together. The magic of Jesca’s music lies in the alchemy that exists between form and content. All my artistic heroes do this, from Chabon, to Spielberg; they use genre to sugar coat the pill. So here she uses the disguise of seance music to coat the literal message of homelessness she’s trying to communicate. 

Now, narrative is something I am always running away from when directing a music video. Whenever I read a music video treatment from some kid that went to film school it makes me cringe and I think the best music videos come from documentary filmmakers who get a chance to put forward a psychology of form rather than one of narrative. But, having said that, my instincts on City Bird were narrative, perhaps because it’s a kind of lilting waltz so it felt right to have a narrative to pull you through it.  So, for the treatment, I sat down and wrote an entire ghost story from scratch, in the style of Poe or Hawthorne. I even wrote nursery rhymes about the ghost, because ghost stories are mostly aural traditions.

On The Kingdom video Jesca had a ton of input because I quickly realised that it would only reach its full potential if I pretended to be a paint brush and let her grab hold of the crew through me and paint. Once I took my ego out of the equation I realised there was something special there I was meant to service, and honestly, that’s the best method of working with an artist on a music video, that’s what you really cross your fingers for, isn’t it? You can see a little more of that process on the behind-the-scenes doc of the kingdom here:

But for City Bird Jesca was in Manchester and we were in LA shooting. Her schedule was tight, and I was really flattered that she had enough faith in me to let me just go and shoot because I know how much she loves her songs and how much faith it took for her to let go a little. I had originally submitted an entirely different treatment to her and had kind of resigned myself to the fact I wasn’t going to do it, which was cool enough for me because god only knows how many talented people Jesca comes across in her travels. Surely, I thought, she can find people in the UK to make amazing videos, and surely, as an artist, she wants to go and do cool stuff with other cool people. So I thought I would just give it a shot. I submitted this treatment about metaphorical ghosts, which dealt with mis-en-scene of places that had just been left and abandoned – an unmade bed, plates on a table after dinner, a toilet still running, stuff like that, where humans had vacated the frame only seconds ago and you’d just missed them – kind of pretentious honestly. Then I came across my fiancée’s childhood dollhouse and started taking video and snapping pictures and all of a sudden this whole new idea came to mind of the dollhouse and miniatures and stop motion and ghosts. I sent the examples to Jesca and she totally fell for it! 

City Bird house
The City Bird dollhouse.

Ghost stories are tricky because they are incredibly emotional stories surrounded in gothic imagery. Ghost stories like The Others, The Orphanage, The Sixth Sense, are rite of passage stories – they’re about letting go. About the dead letting go of the living and the living letting go of the dead. They’re NOT about the living being punished for a sin like horror movies, but about forgiveness of that sin from all parties, the relinquishing of unfinished business. And I wanted to nail that, I really did. In City Bird it is the boy who is at the centre of the story and has the rite of passage: the ghost is a sort of Frankenstein or Edward Scissorhands character. 

The boy has nightmares and makes up ghastly stories that paint the ghost as a demon, then something happens to the boy on his bike and he dies. We get those silent movie inter-titles: his tower (the city) is turned to a tomb. Shadows loom over his white coffin and he becomes a ghost, set into the underworld where he is refused and becomes a refugee with nowhere to go. It’s scary out there for a little boy so he returns to the ghost’s house and we realise that’s her purpose – she is a host for waywardly spirits like the dead boy. But he has been so scared of her, will he change? Can he let go of his fear of her? Can he muster up the courage to enter as she beckons him in? The song ends unresolved sonically so I wanted to leave the audience there just as the music does. The theme is that of judging a book by its cover and misunderstanding something: just as we pass the homeless on the street and pretend they are invisible like ghosts when they all have a real inner life. Can we let go of our prejudices and see beyond the stereotypes to see that the issues that made them homeless are ones that could very well come to prey on and haunt us at any time? That’s kind of the metaphor I was trying to get at. 

City Bird ghost
The City Bird ghost.

Who made the puppets and how long did the video take to make?

Jesca: I’m not quite sure actually… I should ask.

Elia: Everyone who was involved in making the City Bird video knew there was a finite time of ten days in which to create this beautiful, creative thing so necessity was to be the mother of invention due to the time constraints, and everyone really fed on that and brought their best to the project. My fiancee, Maranatha Hay, is an Emmy award winning documentary filmmaker who is piped into the most creative, kind, and daring community of filmmakers and her best friend Natalie Apodaca is an artist with experience in installations. I showed her Metropolis and told her we were going to build a monotone city from cardboard and she just went for it. Cosmin Cosma was my left hand man who insisted we use the Dragon Stop Motion software, which honestly was the main reason we were able to get the shots we needed in the time we had. 

The crew never lost faith in my direction, even when I had no idea how we would do it just ten minutes before the shoot. In the opening shot of the video there is a city cardboard diorama, the dollhouse, the puppet of the ghost AND the moon projected over the city! All those elements came into play because we just broke down the shot we had in mind element by element: that’s real filmmaking in a pure form. 99% of this video was done IN-CAMERA, like The Lumière Brothers! Then it was given that incredible aged look by Dan Geis, our after effects genius.

Jesca Hoop by Emma Lucy Watson
Jesca Hoop by Emma Lucy Watson.

I can tell you how the puppets were made, but I urge you to remember that cinema is like a magic trick. The home made feel is part of the fun of the viewing experience, especially the joy in realising that things like hair are actually twine. The doll’s arms are made of tiny painted tree branches, her spine is metal wire and her dress is made of muslin. Her face is tracing paper and is removable so that we could change her expressions from shot to shot. The part where the fork floats across the table had to be done with tweezers! (nudged lovingly one frame at a time by Maranatha)

The house was a nightmare. It is three feet tall and it took us 3 days to put it together from a flat box. We painted every part, so we had to know what the end product would look like before we even started. Luckily an architect friend, Dannon Rampton, showed up just to check out what was going on and got so enamoured with the dolls house that he ended up putting it together which is just as well since Natalie and I were clueless as to how we were going to do it. We painted it and then we had to DILAPIDATE IT so it looked old and haunted! We scrubbed it with metal brush, we broke its steeple and we stuffed miniature moss in all its crevices so that the ghost story would feel real and lived in. 

My motto is: make movies that can only be movies! Make movies that need that final step of the medium to fully realise the vision, because it’s such an expensive, time consuming endeavour that the content had better deserve and earn the medium. If it can be a song, a book, a play, let it be that. But film, film is reserved for the special stories that need the seven arts to make them whole. SO don’t give away our secrets if you don’t have to. 

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