The idea for the video came about after Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin bumped into Andy Serkis on a flight to LA. “After a chance meeting with Chris Martin, I was delighted to hear that he often worked with my friend, and director from Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll, Mat Whitecross, who’d been convincing him that performance capture was the best medium for the next Coldplay video,” says Serkis. “Within no time at all, we were jumping and climbing around the studio, bringing out our inner apes.” Serkis, of course, is well versed in this, having played a chimpanzee in Planet of the Apes and a gorilla in King Kong.
“The brief was to capture the spontaneous dancing Chris does on stage,” says Whitecross, picking up the story, “but to use this technology to make it look choreographed – an army of dancers inspired by the band’s movement. Initially we talked about the video taking its look from the surreal imagery from the album sleeve – but on the day the brief completely changed. But that’s not unusual!”
Whitecross has a longstanding relationship with the band, having directed ten of their previous videos, including Paradise and Violet Hill. “To be honest, we were completely winging it as usual,” he continues. “I’d love to say the idea for the video was conceived in a flash of genius months before, but actually, as is often the case with Coldplay, it was a spontaneous collaboration between the band and the production team on the morning of the shoot. We have enough history that everyone trusts each other enough to figure it out together. I’ve never had that relationship with anyone else. It’s pretty unique. We didn’t even know what song we were doing!”
Even the decision to present the band as monkeys happened on the spur of the moment. “Before the session at the Imaginarium, Phil Harvey thought it would be a good idea to create some avatar characters, to help the band picture the final video,” says Whitecross. “So the head of the studio, Ben Lumsden, put together some ideas – we had zombies, rock stars, aliens… and the one avatar everyone went for was the chimp! So we tried one take with the whole band as chimpanzees – and they enjoyed it so much we decided that was the way to go. The incredible thing about performance capture is you can see the characters and the environment already on the screens around you, or through the camera viewfinder. So I wasn’t watching the band, I was watching a group of apes.”
The performance was surprisingly unplanned on set too. “The beautiful and terrifying thing about this technology is that everything can be improvised and changed – endlessly,” says Whitecross. “No decision you ever make is final – you can swap camera angles, change timings, or the position of the band – or even their appearance. Nothing is fixed, other than their performances.
“On the one hand it’s incredibly liberating, but it’s also easy to get lost. So we decided to only use the camera I operated on the day. It narrowed the possibilities in an interesting way – we thought giving the camera a handheld, natural feel would make the impossible things you were seeing seem more possible. I loved this way of working.”
Whitecross worked with Imaginarium and VFX house Mathematic to create the elaborate CGI and special effects that appear in the promo. “This was all new to me, but luckily Imaginarium and Mathematic held my hand through the whole process,” he says. “So I just approached it with the enthusiasm of a fanboy – I’ve loved animation all my life, but never imagined I’d ever have a chance to work with animators at this level.
“Both companies were amazing at interpreting thoughts and notes from me and the band. We talked about a lot of different approaches, and very quickly the band decided they definitely wanted the apes to look real, rather than cartoony. So Silvia at the Imaginarium created these beautiful designs that fused elements of the band’s real faces with those of chimps. We played around making them more and less similar before deciding on the ultimate look. Stephen, the head of production, and his team then created models of the chimps which they passed on to Mathematic.”
The promo was a team effort in every respect. “That’s what I love about filmmaking – but particularly with Coldplay – it’s always a collaboration,” continues Whitecross. The ideas often come from Chris and the band – and it’s a question of finding a way of interpreting them. Or we’ll get together and brainstorm, and find an image or story that seems to fit the music. So that takes the pressure off to a degree – as we’re all working together. No-one’s in charge in that sense – we’re all carrying the can.
“So it’s not really a question of me channelling the band’s vision, so much as everyone channelling a collective vision through the whole process of making the video,” he concludes. “And it’s been that way every time with Coldplay. This was just the most extreme version of that philosophical approach.”
From idea to completion, the video took six months to make. It was commissioned by Parlophone Records, which orchestrated a deal with Beats for an excerpt to be used in the brand’s latest advert, featuring a section where the band discover a Beats speaker buried among leaves on the ground. The ad version can be viewed below:
Director: Mat Whitecross, Mint Pictures
Producer: Hannah Clark, My Accomplice
Performance capture & animation: The Imaginarium Studios
VFX and Post: Mathematic