Long before The Buggles secured lasting fame when their makeshift obituary to the radio launched MTV in 1981, the music video as a filmmaking art form in itself had been developing beyond setting up a live performance in front of a camera, and the advent of YouTube sees music makers becoming ever more creative with the visual presentation of their sounds.

These days, you can make a music video on a shoestring budget using your mobile phone and some bog standard editing software, before sending it out on a merry digital voyage through various video platforms, but as with any art form, skilled hands can often help it to stand out.

Luke Bather from Plastic Zoo spoke to us about filmmaking, eggs and silly ideas.


How did Plastic Zoo first form?

Well, Plastic Zoo was Sam (Alder)’s thing long before me and Nick (Wood) got involved. Sam started it about ten years ago with his friend Toby (Potter) and they made loads of stuff in that time. Then about three years ago Nick and I were filming bands at Sounds From The Other City for Manchester Scenewipe, which is Sam and Toby’s beautiful child, and we all had a lovely time.

Not long after that, Sam sent Nick and me a really romantic email explaining that he and Toby had amicably decided to walk different paths, but he was ready to love again, and so he asked us if we’d like to be a part of Plastic Zoo. We, of course, said no and laughed in his face.

What comes first, the chicken or the egg? Do you have to listen to a song to forge an idea for a video theme or do you have half-prepared ideas ready to link with the right music?

It’s different every time, really. Sometimes you’ll get given a song and not much more information than that, and a hint of an idea will just hit you and snowball from there. Other times you get a very specific set of parameters in a brief and you find yourself catering an idea to all manner of limitations – mostly budgetary, but occasionally things such as ‘no sex or violence’ or ‘we want [band member or actor] to feature heavily’. Things like that.

Every so often with Plastic Zoo we’ll have an idea that we love so much that we develop it and write it up anyway, and just have it sat there waiting for the perfect song to marry it to. We call those our Forever Eggs.

Would we hear music differently with different visuals?

Absolutely, yeah. That can be both a good and bad thing though. When the visual accompaniment to a track gets it right you have this perfect marriage of two mediums, each complementing the other in such a way that it feels like a complete work. You’ll have moments where a cut will accentuate an expression in the music that otherwise might go unnoticed, or the entire narrative will evoke real emotions or create an extra layer of meaning. I don’t just mean for overwrought, melodramatic stuff – a great, fun video can complement work in just the same way. If the tone of the song and the video match one another then you really start to experience the whole thing in such a different way than if you were streaming the track on YouTube with just the album art or a picture of the band for visual stimuli.

The flipside of this is that a messy and confused concept can sometimes distract from the song itself, and the primary focus of a music video is always gonna be the music. If the video actively gets in the way of your experience of the song, then it’s probably not doing its job properly.

Do you find filmmakers working with music videos will sometimes have similar theme ideas at the same time?

There are definitely overlaps sometimes. I think there’s a pop culture chain reaction that happens when something gets released to the world, whether that’s a film, a TV show, a piece of technology or something on YouTube that everyone’s losing their minds over for a week. Music videos can be very much in the ‘now’, thematically speaking, so when directors are pitching, undoubtedly there’ll be things on their minds, consciously or otherwise, that they’ll have been exposed to recently. That’s not to say everyone has the same idea all the time, far from it. But yeah, just like any creative medium, you’ll see stylistic and thematic trends come and go.

What have you worked on recently?

Plastic Zoo’s last project was this video for Dutch Uncles that we shot at the start of the year. The last thing I directed by myself was this video for FTSE a few months ago.

Has the YouTube age made your work easier or more difficult? Would you go back to the time when ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’?

I guess it goes without saying that YouTube has given people a platform to share things. I mean, it’s pretty bleak that a lot of what is shared is this bizarre stream of loud young people with a basic knowledge of green screens shouting bad jokes into the abyss, but that’s the cost of accessibility, I guess.

The most beneficial side of it for me has been that smaller bands have started to see music videos as a viable option, because they can make one without having to hire an entire press team to get it on TV, because getting it on TV is no longer the end goal. If we were still living in a world without YouTube, then so many of the music video and film directors that I admire would be stuck making wedding videos or something.

Have you made films outside of musical themes?

In university I made a lot of short films and I’ve pieced together a few little personal projects since then, but not much beyond that. I really want to get back into the swing of making short films again.

Has the proximity of MediaCity had any effect on making music videos in Manchester?

I don’t think it’s really impacted Plastic Zoo or myself in any real way. There are companies like Chief down at MediaCity who have a strong team of directors, who are bringing a bunch of high-profile music videos up to Manchester, which is nice as it’s probably making people realise that production doesn’t have to be London-centric.

Which music video do you wish you’d made?

This one.

What’re you filming at the moment?

Currently nothing. Plastic Zoo are pitching for a couple of videos at the moment, so we’re just focusing on developing a bunch of silly ideas in the hope that somebody gets so exasperated when reading them that they just let us make one of them to shut us up.


Background image: Shelf Life by Vincent James.

Ian Pennington