Filming ‘False Light’ with The Willows

Filming ‘False Light’ with The Willows

This video had been brewing for a while.  I’d been talking to Ben Savage about a potential video project for The Willows and in April he sent me over a rough mix of the ‘False Light’ track from the new album they’d been working on.  Ben explained that the song was about the ‘Lantern Man’, which I later looked up on Wikipedia as meaning the following:

“A lantern man is an atmospheric ghost light, in the folklore of The Fens of East Anglia, seen around Wicken Fen and other areas.  According to the stories, first collected by folklorist L.F. Newman, the lights, believed to be evil spirits trying to draw victims to their death in the reed beds, were drawn to the sound of whistling and could be evaded by laying face down on the ground with your mouth in the mud.”

I listened to the song properly for the first time on a train travelling back from London (I tend to do most of my thinking on trains).  I thought the track was awesome.  Looking out the window of the train and trying to visualise a video, I started to scribble down thoughts on possible treatments:

I ran it past the band and it seemed like we were on the same page, so we were off!

Shooting with bands is always challenging in terms of people’s availability; as it happened we ended up with just a half-day window on a Sunday to shoot in when all the band would be available, with a hard-stop in the evening as Ben needed to get away to attend a radio session.

The shoot plan ended up with four basic ‘parts’:

  1. The band out in the Fens
  2. Indoor performance footage, full band
  3. Indoor performance footage, individual parts (lit by a single light bulb)
  4. One of the band being driven at night in a car.

The logistics for the shoot ended up having to come together in quite a short timescale.  Jade from the band already had a an area in mind for the Fens footage and she also did a great job in finding and securing a crypt-like location for the performance footage.

I drove over to Cambridge on Saturday evening to film the ‘driving scenes’.  We didn’t need the whole band for those scenes, so we decided to shoot that the day before to give ourselves more time on the Sunday, which in hindsight turned out to be a good decision.  Jade was going to be the subject sitting in the back seat of the car, with Cliff from the band driving and me sitting in the front passenger seat attempting to film Jade.  I had a small video light in the car to supplement the ambient lights coming in from outside the car.

This footage was a lot harder to film than I expected.  When we set off I said, somewhat optimistically. ‘We’ll have this done in about 20 minutes’.  It didn’t quite play out like that…we spent the next two hours driving in circles around Cambridge with me saying ‘can you just do one more loop Cliff?’ while I faffed around tweaking the direction and amount of light hitting Jade.  In the end, despite having dragged them around Cambridge for two hours, the best-looking footage and hence the clips I used for the video was the stuff we shot in the first ten minutes (just don’t tell Cliff and Jade, ok?!)

Before we wrapped up the driving scene, I’d made a note beforehand to shoot some footage of Cliff from the back seat, as well as some footage of  headlights in the car wing-mirrors.  The wing-mirror footage was an afterthought really, but later on in post-production it would turn out to be a lot more pivotal to the whole project than I’d originally anticipated…

On the Sunday morning we arrived at the fens to shoot the outdoor footage.  It was cold, windy and a bit damp and boggy underfoot in the area we wanted to shoot, so I was conscious about not keeping the band out for two long.  The reeds ended up being a fairly central visual theme to the video so we filmed various clips of them walking through the reeds, standing in the reeds and (in Jade’s case) singing in the reeds…

Once I was confident we had what we needed from outdoors, we headed over to the indoor location that Jade had organised.  I still had the ‘swinging light bulb’ picture in my head.  I’d been and bought an inspection lamp and then removed the glass from it.  I put up a backdrop stand, looped the inspection light over the top and then got each band member to perform individually under it.  Katriona did a sterling job of keeping the light swinging by rocking the backdrop stand back and forth; to be honest I felt kind of bad having to get one of my fave folk artists working, but this was a redwood shoot and needs must!
From there on in, we shot a few takes of the song with the whole band performing including some individual takes…and we were done.  Wrapped with about 30 mins to spare.

In post, I thought that the car headlights showing in the wing mirror might make a good way to start the video.  I had this idea of a story that travelling in the car at night and seeing these lights would trigger this hallucination related to the Lantern Man story and provide a pathway to the trippy visual feeling I was originally trying to achieve.

Playing around with blending modes, I accidentally overlaid the moving headlights onto some of the performance footage and really liked it.  So the headlights, kind of by accident, became this visual thread running through the whole video.

A couple of weeks later Cliff and Jade went back to the fens and shot some drone footage that we weaved into the latter parts of the video…

I was really pleased with how this video turned out.  We didn’t keep strictly to the original treatment (I rarely do), but I think the video really works for the track…which at the end of the day is the most important thing.  Plus I got to hang out with The Willows who are just the loveliest of people…

The video premiered on Folk Radio UK in August.

Behind the scenes images by Cliff Ward

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