While not a comprehensive look at the music video of work of Daniels, my attempt is to touch on the key points in an effort to show the common themes and ideas that pop up throughout their work. In particular, I am looking at what led to Swiss Army Man, both from themes and technique.
FM Belfast – “Underwear”(2010)
This early Daniels video is very simplistic in its setting, characters, and concept but is already seeding the larger ideas and themes that will populate their work up to this date. In an interview with Motionographer, the duo explains their emphasis on casting “people who didn’t mind being ugly”. The video is lit very dimly with a harsh spotlight/flashlight shone on the central figure in each scene, with the light levels oversaturated. This creates a very creepy home movie feel. It looks like the characters are being filmed by some unscrupulous figure off camera. There is also the presences of dust particles floating throughout every scene. In the interview, Daniels explained this effect was from smacking a dusty shoe and an old copy of The Godfather. That footage of dust was then overlaid on the footage of the characters dancing.
One particular effect stands out as something Daniels won’t return to and they even hint is a bit amateurish. The bartender character goes through sequences where his legs become like rubber, bending back and forth. The directors explain that this is called Slit-Scan Photography, an old school effect made easier with modern filters and technology. This effect will not appear in this way for the remainder of the videos and it signals an effort to push for more advanced and complicated special effects.Stop motion technique is used in the sequence where Daniel Kwan violently thrusts the clothes off of his body and onto the wall.
The key effect that will come up again and again in these videos will be Daniels’ use of zoom focus. This is the instance where we begin to zoom in on the figure while shifting the camera in multiple directions. This is typically a signal that the figure is about to lose control of their body in an even more extreme way.
Thematically, we have the loss of control of the body. An unseen force appears to possess each figure on camera and they look with shock, and sometimes acceptance, as they perform convulsive like dancing. Characters appear to be visibly uncomfortable or not at ease with where they are. The movements that overtake them definitely have a sexual nature and most of the figures eventually give into this uncontrollable force. The scenes have a distinct after hours motif and convey a sense of the discomfort “after the party is over”.
The Hundred in the Hands – “Pigeons” (2010)
The techniques are refined a bit more in this video than the former. We still have the after-hours setting. Claustrophobia is induced with tight close up of our female protagonist squashed between partygoers. The young woman is teetering between her enjoyment of the party and collapse. The video kicks in with her suddenly vomiting, transitioning into an explosion of sparkler fire from her mouth. Daniels will not shy away from bodily fluids or functions in their work and here the expulsion is turned into something beautiful, subverting our expectations from experience and the look on the central figure.
Here we have a character losing control in front of other and the crowd reacts with realism. Screaming and clearing out space. Our protagonist flees the party but finds the laws of reality falling apart. Here dancing is forced by the very frame of the video twisting and turning, and her body following the movements. At first, she fights against this, but over the course of the video she finds herself in sync with the world’s movements around her and appears to almost feel euphoria.
Manchester Orchestra – “Simple Math” (2011)
Unlike the previous two videos, here we have a full-blown narrative. The techniques continue the mix of practical and digital effects and reminded me a lot of the practical work of Michel Gondry. The premise is essentially a man’s life flashing before his eyes after swerving to avoid a deer in the road. The video uses a series of symbols to link moments from his past to this moment in the present. Reality crumbles even further than the previous two videos in some clever ways. It’s the most introspective music video so far. Also important to note that this moves Daniels into a rural, wooded environment instead of an urban one.
Again we have more distortions in time and space as the protagonist moves from his accident in his car, back to his childhood, and then into a mishmash of past and present. There is also the body as a force of destruction when the protagonist as a child tears through trees and people with an explosive fury.
Chromeo – “When the Night Falls” ft Solange Knowles
This is the first of the overtly comedic videos. While previous videos listed had funny moments, the entire premise of “When the Night Falls” hinges on a ludicrous concept. As the band plays, the power of their music impregnates the women in the audience. The tone of this video feels very much like a cross of A Hard Day’s Night and Michael Jackson productions of the 1980s. There is also a lot of power in these women. They become pregnant with such force they explode tables in the bar. They are an unstoppable force. The reveal at the end that this is the nightmare of an apprehensive new father feels a touch maudlin for Daniels other work.
Battles – “My Machines” ft. Gary Numan (2011)
Returning to a more simplistic setup, the action in “My Machines” is confined to two shots of a mall escalator that track from the first mark to second mark then concluding with the first mark. There’s much less narrative here and more technique on display. In an interview with Pitchfork, Daniels explained the idea came from as simple inspiration as possible: they thought the music sounded like a man falling down an escalator.
They expand on this, though. Daniels refer to the experience of the protagonist as a nightmare and that part of the nightmare is that while people are all around him, no one helps. Kwan stated, “That’s one of the grossest things about malls– everybody gets together and buys things and doesn’t talk to each other. It’s what makes malls so scary.”
Foster the People – “Don’t Stop” (2011)
This video has more in common with Daniels work on “When the Night Falls”. A very light narrative that incorporates the band into the story. Zoom focus plays a critical role in establishing character mindset. The video begins with fairly standard camera shots, but when the action begins we have a zoom focus on the protagonists as a nod that the energy of the video is about to explode. There’re more plays with reality, more concrete and grounded. The driving instructor wears a fake mustache, the driving student is apparently a bank robber. We also have a character getting bloodied and banged up as seen in “My Machines”. The biggest change to Daniels work is the addition of small scale car stunt work.
The video was originally made to be viewed on the Nintendo 3DS. Inspired by Jackass The Movie, Daniels filled the video with stunts and action. In an interview with The Creators Project, they discussed the difficulty of filming with two cameras in sync and need to keep both stabilized and focused together. In this interview, they address the melding of humor and violence that permeates their work.
“[…] we’re pessimistic romantics. We are lighthearted fun-loving guys who think the world is pretty fucked up and crazy. And there’s a philosophy under that. Learn to laugh at life, ‘cause then you can stare life’s challenges in the face more objectively without crying as much. Making movies is our therapy. Sorry, you guys have to watch it all. And we’re very sorry to the folks we’ve tricked into paying for it.”