When director David Lewandowski conceived his video for experimental rapper and producer Flying Lotus’ track "Tiny Tortures" he was a bit nervous about it. "A survivor-guilt-ridden, drug-addled amputee seems like a pretty out there idea. I was a bit worried that the subject matter would be a bit dark for a music video."
But the darkness, both conceptually and visually, is what makes "Tiny Tortures," one of three videos being released in support Flying Lotus’ (aka Steven Ellison’s) recently released Until the Quiet Comes (including the multi-track short film "Until the Quiet Comes" from Kahlil Joseph, who, along with Lewandowski works through Pulse Films) so menacing and magical. It’s part Akira, part Enter the Void, all headtrip.
Supporting a glitchy minimalist track that Lewandowski says Ellison calls his little mischievous track about trying to write music while everyone’s asleep, "Tiny Tortures" is a moment-in-time story of a man (played by Elijah Wood) grappling with extreme loss with some pretty hardcore hallucinatory drugs. As he lies in darkness inanimate objects, created with amazing photoreal animation, start to float slowly around the room until they surreally come to form Wood’s missing arm. In freaked-out awe, Wood rightfully grabs for his meds, which launch him into a psychedelic overdose dreamscape before he’s plunged back into a gruesome reality.
Here Co.Create talks with Lewandowski about how a failed remake of Akira inspired the project, a totally untrue story of how Wood became the main protagonist, and how a grocery bag full of gross substances make for great trip-out fodder.
CO.CREATE: How did the project come to you?
DAVID LEWANDOWSKI: I’ve known Steve (Ellison, aka Flying Lotus) for a little while now and we’ve become friends over common interests. When he started working on the new album he sent me a few cuts and we joked and talked about doing something visual for it. When he mentioned he was going to get a few directors together to all do videos he came to me and I put together a pitch book for him and away we went.
Did you get to choose this track?
He sent me three tracks and I fell in love with the first one he sent me, which isn’t even on the album, unfortunately. I had written an idea for it and it got cut for the album so I adapted the idea for "Tiny Tortures." It kind of threw me for a curve ball so I had my heart set on this other one—I hope he puts it out because it’s really cool.
So tell me about the idea you had originally conceived for this other video.
The impetus for this idea was from a director called Jaume Collet-Sera. He was slated to direct a live action version of Akira. I really liked the idea of someone doing all this telekinetic, hallucinatory, visual stuff on a big budget level. And then the project got cancelled. The thought of seeing that all photo-realistic really excited me, and then the project went away so I said I just have to do that kind of animation. So I wrote an idea from that despair of really wanting to see really interconnected, mechanical, psychic floating objects.
What’s up with that overdose sequence?
So we really trimmed a lot back in the edit but the idea is that he’s this prescription drug-addled amputee who overdoses and starts to hallucinate that he’s getting his arm back. Then he overdoses really hard and goes through this drug experience. And then in the ending is where we realize that none of these objects were floating around at all—he’d just undone his bandages and crammed a bunch of garbage in his arm.
But he has such a grin on his face…
He’s coming down from a drug trip and in his mind he gets his arm back and gets to have all the things he had in his former life. I love that. We shot it a bunch of different ways with a bunch of different endings. I chose the one where he’s just totally euphoric, which, I guess, is just a sadder ending.
How did Elijah Wood become involved in the piece?
I’ve been telling people that he and I both posted on the same Pokémon fan fiction forum and that I told everyone I was doing a music video and he replied, "I know how to act, I can be in the video" and it just turned out it was Elijah Wood. But the real story is a lot more boring. He was a fan of my stuff, I was a fan of his stuff and we connected over Twitter and email and decided to make a project together. I wish it was a much more thrilling story but that’s just how it happened.
How did you determine which objects would go in the arm?
The concept art was done by this guy named Ben Mauro. He’s a brilliant concept artist who freelances a lot for Weta. He had been a fan of my short film Going to the Store and he reached out to me and said we should do a project together. I gave him a brief and he came back with three or four designs. Really, he took my initial brief that included toys and small electronics and model airplanes, and just jumped on it and loaded it with all of the bits and bobs—like having a GI Joe hand for a finger tip—just beautiful details that get lost a bit in the video. I’m a pretty die-hard Sega Dreamcast loyalist and I also managed to sneak a few shots of it in there.
You really have to watch it a few times to realize the detail that’s in there because the imagery is literally so dark…
I like that it’s so dark. I’d rather things live in the shadows than it be over-lit like a lot of visual effects. We did a test shoot before to see how far we could push it. When I showed people the test they were like, this looks like an incorrectly exposed image. I said that’s what I’m going for. I want grays on blacks on dark blues. So the choice to make it dark was an early one and the test-shoot was tremendously helpful. We never would have got that look on set had we not had the time to play and explore up front. And then we pushed it even darker in the grade.
So, this telekinetic arm forms and then he trips out…
That stuff was pretty tough, really. It went through a lot of revisions. In the original treatment I made reference to Enter the Void. I wanted it very fluid and organic with lots of particles and stuff like that. It was hard to achieve that look so my DP Christian Singer and I went to the grocery store and bought vinegar, egg yolk, hand sanitizer, food coloring and all this gross stuff, and then got some Plexiglas. We just squished it all together and shot it on an Epic (the photoreal animation was created on Cinema4D). Then I used the textures to stylize and inform what that world was going to look like.
What ended up being the most beautiful substance?
Egg yolk, for sure, because it has this pulpy, veiny quality to it—aw, god, it’s just gross. With a bit of food coloring to contrast the yellow it just looks so galactic and huge. I would love to do a whole other video that was all macro fluid photography, like Aronofsky’s The Fountain.
Did it turn out how you’d set out in the beginning?
In the original idea the back story was that this guy that got in a horrible car wreck and has survivor’s guilt. That was the motivation for his weird drug-out state. We shot some stuff with this model and a bunch of photos that you can see around his room and there was this whole B-plot for the video that gave it a bit more emotional punch. But it’s really hard to tell a story in three minutes so we ended up cutting a lot of it out. It turns out it’s almost more interesting as this thing that just happened, with this weird vibe, rather than trying to shove a pretentious three-minute narrative down your throat. There’s that great quote, "I’d rather be confused for 10 minutes than bored for 10 seconds." That resonates with me deeply. I prefer surrealism. I really like it when it feels like there’s something happening just outside the frame and there’s a whole other part of it that you don’t know about it.