In 2003 Chris Hopewell was waiting for the phone to ring.
He and some mates had started a filmmaking agency: they had an office, a website (a labyrinthine site that you could “enter but never leave”), and a phone. They waited five months for the calls to start coming in. When the phone finally did ring, they let it go to the answering machine. It was a Friday evening and the message sounded like a friend taking the piss: someone wanted them to direct a last-minute Radiohead video clip. They’d never landed a job before. Definitely a hoax. Chris had been trying different things around the outskirts of the music industry to varying levels of success for years.
He’d wanted to be in a band as a child, but realised he was “useless” musically. So he created fanzines and wound up writing bits and pieces for magazines like NME and Select, then did a bit of radio writing for the BBC. He was “a little bit aimless and driftery”, in his words. As he entered his 30s he realised he might need to do something with his life. Someone suggested animation. So, at the age of 33, he enrolled as a mature age student in an animation course, leaving with first class honors a few years later. There, he and some mates had formed “Collision Films”, but it wasn’t going so well.
“Guys, pick up the phone.” The phone rang again on Monday. This time, a more urgent message. That call—from Radiohead’s then Creative Director, Dilly Gent—launched a ten-year career, which saw Chris create around 150 wildly creative videos and countless tour posters for superstar bands like Franz Ferdinand, TheKillers, Scissor Sisters, and The Knife. Chris all but disappeared from the world of music videos in 2012, resurfacing recently thanks to—you guessed it—your mate Stanley Donwood, who used the oldest trick in the book to pull him out of retirement…
What are you working on at the moment, Chris?
I’m working on tidying up my apartment. Nah, I’m working on some poster designs for Jacknife Prints.
Do you do all the prints?
About 80% of them are mine but we have a roster of about six artists that work with us. It’s a loose thing where we allow people to come in and use the studio. They make it more fun. Plus, sometimes we get these really long tour series, and I can’t do 12 posters for a tour, so we share it around the group. Well, you can do 12—the biggest run I did was 15 designs for a Queens of the Stone Age tour—but it’s more fun to have other people involved and have variation in the design work.
So, Stanley Donwood is the reason we’re here. Had you guys met through the Radiohead connection?
I think so? I was obviously aware of his work, and he was aware that I also did screen-printing. And I’d done the video for “There There” back in 2003. Which is honestly my favourite Radiohead song and video of all time.
That one does have a nice feel to it.
People always say it’s their favourite. I was quite proud of that. That was the first video I ever made.
What? That was the first video you ever made?
Yeah! That was it. That was way before I knew Dan. He was also the one who pushed me to do the video for “Burn The Witch”. I like that video; it’s fun. But I’d stopped doing videos five years ago. I did videos from 2003 to 2012 then stopped completely; I just wasn’t really feeling it. And if you do work for bands but you’re not really feeling it, then you’re doing them a disservice. I thought I’d let someone else do it—someone who’s more interested should get a shot.
But then Stanley came to me and asked if I had any ideas for this track. I said, “I don’t really do videos anymore.” But then he took me out in Bristol and got me drunk on cider, and somewhere along the way I agreed to do it…
Oldest trick in the book! Get him pissed.
Yeah! The writing of that video was collaborative between me, Stanley, and Thom Yorke. I came up with the concept of the 1970s children’s TV theme, doing something naïve…
What made you think of that?
It was wanting to do something that wasn’t too overtly on message. It’s a very strong song, and what we all wanted to do was something that wasn’t obvious—naïve and simple and child-like, which obviously ends up as quite a dark piece of work. But don’t ask me what it’s all about—I won’t tell you.
It was kind of weird when it came out… Like I said, it’d been five years since I’d done a video—there wasn’t really the whole social media thing then—they launched the video on Instagram at six in the morning, and everything went crazy. I didn’t realise what a frenzy it was gonna be. I turned off all my devices and ran away and sat in the woods. I lit a bonfire and drank beer.
As a music video director, how much of the whole thing is luck in terms of getting a good song? And what happens if a band you like gives you a bad song?
If you don’t like the band and you don’t like the song, don’t do the video. You need to match in some small way with the energy they’ve put into the song. I did a few in the day that I was like, “Yeah, I can work with that…” But these days—no. If we’re approached by a band we don’t like we politely decline. But I’ve been chasing Queens of the Stone Age for years… I always wanted to work with them, and The White Stripes, back in the day, and Arcade Fire. But they all have a lot of filmmaker friends and I get that.
What if one of them approached you and it wasn’t their best song?
I’d do any track at all for them. I’m still chasing Queens of the Stone Age. Everyone wants to do videos for them though. They have the choice of hundreds of directors who are much better than me. You’ve got to get in line. I have worked with Queens of the Stone Age on print stuff, but I’m yet to er…penetrate their filmmaking world.
So, are you out of retirement officially?
Yeah! We did the Radiohead track and we just released a video for the hip-hop group Run The Jewels. We did a video for their song “Don’t Get Captured”, which has gentrification, crime and punishment, and police brutality themes. So it was interesting to make a stop-frame puppet video with quite serious overtones because people don’t really put stop motion and politics together.
And we have a video for Father John Misty’s “Things We Should Have Known Before The Revolution” coming out today. There’s a political leaning to it as well. So now we have Jacknife Prints and Jacknife Films again. It’s nice to switch between the two because making stop-frame videos is really hard. It’s intense. I mean, “Burn The Witch” was made in 14 days!
Is that normal? I thought it took years to make feature-length stop-motion films, and that it’d take months to do a video clip.
Yes, it normally takes a long time. But we do it fast and loose. We do storyboard it, but we go in with a team of people and we say, “Let’s do this, this, this… go!” Conception to delivery was 14 days for that track.
Did you sleep?
I think I had three or four hours sleep a night. When you look at the making of pictures, towards the end everyone looks really tired.
How do you do it so quickly?
We do it really quick because we have such a good team. There’s about 12 or 13 or 14 of us and actually the team is 90% women. There’s me and the DOP who are guys, and then Rosie and her crew. It’s a completely female team, and they’re the best. It’s great working with a large team of women because they just do it until it’s done. There’s no fucking around or egos or male bullshit going on. They get on it. They do it. And it’s done. I think also with the whole stop frame thing, pitching it to record companies, they say, “Nah, you can’t do it. That’ll take months.” But what we’ve done is prove we can do it in a matter of weeks.
So that’s the trick—hard working ladies?
The trick is having very good people around you who care and are supportive of each other. A nice work environment. Lots of food. Working with people who work quickly. And hiring the best. We work in shifts around the clock. We work in two units as well, so things are being shot simultaneously. That’s why you need good people you can trust. It’s nice to delegate and for people to come back and say, “Look what I made.” And you’re like, “Brilliant!”
You don’t get woken in the middle of the night?
Oh yeah! I have a hammock in the studio and sometimes I’ll get a gentle, “Chris… They finished the shot, you need to check it.”
But we work solidly for a month then take two months off. Like, after Run The Jewels, we all went to Glastonbury together. And then I roamed around America for a month.
What other perks are there?
You get to hang out with bands! And sit backstage and drink whiskey with people you really admire.
Last question: what’s your favourite video you’ve worked on?
Do you know what? I think it’s “There There”. I was just shitting myself when I was doing it. I knew what I was doing, but it was such a responsibility. It was a total adrenaline high. But it came out exactly as I wanted it to, again, because they give you complete artistic freedom. And the “Burn The Witch’” video was similar because, again, it came out exactly as we’d hoped. Everyone’s hard work really paid off. I think those are my two favourites, but I do really love the Run The Jewels and Father John Misty videos we just did. I think the stuff we’ve done in the past year is better than anything that we did back in the day, except for the first Radiohead one. You know, we shot some of that in a woodland near Bristol, and occasionally I go over there on my bike and think, “Yeah, that was fun.” That was years ago though. I have a small shrine in the woods to Thom Yorke.
You don’t. You’re joking.
No, I don’t. I’m joking, but funnily enough there is a tree in the woods—if you watch that video, there’s a tree with a little door in it, where Thom sees the two squirrels—the door is still there and the tree is still there.
No one’s found it yet.
No one knows that it exists?
No. It’s covered in brambles. You can’t really see it. When we filmed it, it was a lot sparser. Now the whole place is really wooded over. You can’t really get to it. But… it’s there.
The big scoop of the interview! It’s gonna set off a fan hunt.
People have to go find it! I’m not telling you where the woods are. But they’re near Bristol… Good luck finding it though.
Words by Zac Bayly