Visualized spotlights visual artists in the music world.
Michael Lawrence is a director and photographer that has worked with artists such as Levek, Cemeteries, Day Joy, and Emil + Friends. We were lucky enough to spend some time and chat with him about process, life, and music (of course).
First off, can you tell us some basic info about who you are, where you grew up, where you live now, etc.
I was born on a snowy night in Buffalo, NY in December of 1988. Spent the majority of my childhood wandering around cavernous factories that turned into forests, watching. Later I moved to Bali, Indonesia to photograph. Eighteen months later I moved to my current apartment, nestled between an expressway, a park, and a mile of housing projects, in Brooklyn.
What was the first art form you created (that you can remember at least)?
I used to create little miniature sets, all around the house. They were meticulous—I remember putting couch cushions up around them, hoping to guard them from accidental destruction, amidst the room being tidied up.
Can you describe the first time you discovered the power of film?
Looking back to your previous question—film does prove immortal, doesn’t it? The chance to freeze a feeling, an audio-visual synthesis, a mood. Other than living it yourself, it offers the ability to combine and curate a number of different mediums into one.
I didn’t realize this until I had lived some of the scenes that I later put into a film. This was only in the past few years. It was the only way to share some of the stories I had, particularly from living abroad in Bali. “Let Your Heart/Prescriptions”—that is auto-biographical, if allegoric.
Who/what are some artists, films, film-makers that you hold in high regard?
Among contemporaries—my friend Oliver Goodrum makes fantastic films; heartbreaking, human. AG Rojas is producing stunning work at a breakneck pace, really capturing the spirit of youth and the fragility of existence (albeit in a very graphic, opposing way). Khalil Joseph’s film for Flying Lotus is the strongest few minutes of filmmaking I have seen in years—stunning. CANADA set the pace for an entire movement, an entire style of filmmaking. Their earlier clips were quite influential when I was making “Crystal Ball.”
There really are so many talented people creating great work. What separates the exceptional from the rest is honesty—you can feel the difference on screen.
There is a rawness or truth that comes across in your portraiture and the majority of your films—can you explain the importance/significance?
Most of my work is truly an extension of me, my perspective on the world, my relationships with people. My subjects are oftentimes my closest friends, family—I spend a great deal of time with them and we respect each other. The props and costumes are from my house. The locations are places I have been before, grown up amongst. It really all amounts to this distilled little world, it’s been brewing in my mind for ages and finally comes out. The goal is to put a lot of blood, sweat, and humility into every frame.
When planning a shoot—do you storyboard, sketch, write notes, shoot on the fly, or something else entirely?
I never really storyboard—I have the camera in my hands, and already have the image in my head. On set, I tend to work spontaneously, unscripted. I will have an written outline—shots I know we need to get in order to make the piece work narratively. But you have to leave room for the beautiful little mistakes—those are the true gems, the defining moments on any project. You have to give it all room to breath, to develop. This is why I also favor shooting chronologically – you can let your characters evolve within the world of the film.
Working with musicians like Day Joy, Levek, Cemeteries, and Emil & Friends – can you explain your process when creating these short films to their music?
I really respect and admire the musicians I work with. In all of these cases it has been a very collaborative, organic process—the polar opposite of “bidding”, as you do on large music videos, or in the commercial world. It’s hard to put it into words, but generally I hear a track, and an idea comes up. Informal, short. I will throw it back to them, get their thoughts. And then we do this for a bit, going back and forth and refining ideas. And then I will shoot a number of scenes—almost always chronologically, generally only loosely scripted, using non-actors, friends, available locations, objects. It’s very environmentally-focused work—you create a space for the scene to function within, you take all of the research and ideas and you put it in a pot, and hope that some magic will happen.
I want the visuals to complement and expand the world of their music, and there seems to be a respect for that.
With Emil & Friends you took on a lot more than just video work, art directing the entire release. How did that come about?
Emil and I met up in Boston, years back. He was just getting started, making his bedroom music. I had done a couple of crummy short films, but nothing notable. We started to hang out this local dive—$1.50 pints of Guinness and lots of Irish tales. Free pool tables. We would throw around ideas, shoot some stuff. We made our first music video (for both of us) “Short Order Cooks”—it got a good premiere, he got signed to Cantora. Things started to take a off a bit. He asked one night at 11pm, in a fake Irish accent “do ya wanna do ma album art and some photos? It needs to be done in 24 hours.”
To this day, he’s one of my closest friends. You’ll see more from us soon.
In Emil & Friends’ “Crystal Ball” film the post-production/CGI work is notably different than your other films. Did you like incorporating CGI to your work? Would you consider using it for future projects?
“Crystal Ball” called for it as a piece. Thematically, the unifying visual was to have this floating eyeball (actually, it’s a scan of my eyeball!) that is omnipresent, throughout the world. So it worked for that. A lot of my films have some VFX elements in them—but I try to have it be subtle, and always motivated. If it helps the story (and preferably, if you can hide the fact that it is an effect), then I’m happy to use it. I’ve learned to shoot for it, to know how to direct for it and understand the process. That is liberating.
I’m certainly not against using VFX—but at the moment I’m on this narrative kick. I like the idea of shooting more of my projects on film, focusing more on the story.
What does the future hold for you as an artist?
That is what I ask myself every day. I am writing more and photographing more lately, and that makes me happy.
Is there any personal or longer format films in the works or planned (or that you’ve done in the past that I don’t know about)?
Funny that you ask that. I’ve very recently set a firm goal for myself—at a point in the next few months, when I feel it is right, I’m going to stop directing music videos, commercials…. pretty much anything, for a while. I have a feature film, set in my hometown, that I have been developing for years. I feel like I’ve finally reached the point, personally and professionally, where I am ready to make it happen, to sacrifice everything for it.
You’ve also done a large amount of commercial work including a series filmed all over the world for Travelocity—how was that experience?
Commercials are a whole different animal. They pay extraordinarily well. If you love to do music videos, this is very important, as they do not pay well. I try to keep the amount of commercial work and personal work I do in a balance. They feed off one another.
In the case of the Travelocity spots—it was a really crazy, exhausting, and wonderful experience. We had under 72 hours in each city to concept, shoot, and edit each piece. I slept on the flight in between cities. We were shuffled from plane to car to hotel and then to location. It was the opposite of how I normally work, or travel. It was just this state of floating, of being lost in transit. But, we made some wonderful images, the client was happy, and we had an awesome crew. So I’d call it a success.
Music and sound is such an integral part to filmmaking—what recent albums/songs do you find yourself imagining visuals for?
I’ve heard a lot of great stuff lately. There’s a few bands I’m talking to, but nothing finalized yet. If you have a great song, please send it to me. I’m looking for a killer soundtrack on this feature, and I figure I might be able to pay for licensing by doing videos.