Behind The Melting Flesh Dance That Won Sigur Rós' Valtari Music Video Contest
By internet standards, an eight-minute video seems pretty long, particularly if it follows a single character in an unchanging setting. But Sigur Rós’ new music video for “Fjögur Píanó” from their latest album Valtari defies this stereotype. With its elegant portrayal of an internal struggle, the enthralling performance, Skinned, won the Valtari Film Competition last year, in which filmmakers created music videos for songs from Valtari.
The music video, created by Hong Kong-based photographer Ken Ngan, visual designer Dio Liu, and animator Anafelle Liu, features a faceless man shaping his own form, played by Adrian Heung. It seems that the harder he tries, the more of a mess he creates, ending up with burnt and melting flesh falling from his body. As a viewer, you are right there with him, cheering him on, anticipating his next move, and finally feeling his frustration and pain.
We caught up with director Dio Liu to find out what went into the making of Skinned.
Creators Project: Skinned is a minimal yet emotionally powerful film. Where did you get your inspiration from?
Dio Liu: I remember Ken [Ngan] once randomly brought up a video called Transfiguration, a stunning body art performance piece by Olivier de Sagazan. The tension and anxiety in it is really penetrating. We wanted to generate the same intensity of struggling but in a relatively serene way. To us, Sigur Rós’ music is always introspective. It’s like it creates a spiritual space inside us in which we feel safe. Safety not quite in the sense of being covered, but the reverse—it’s like an inner space in which you are naked and so you can confront your own naked self. So for the video, we wanted the energy to be pointing inward rather than out. My first thought was body modification—things like cosmetic surgery, bodybuilding, and all that. Those transfiguration techniques are nothing new, but the ideology behind them is always changing.
What was the creative process like? Did you know exactly what the end result would look like, or did it sort of just come together?
It was a rather organic process, almost like a sculpture that completed itself. As previously mentioned, the project was initially a reflection of body modification, for which I drafted a set of symbolic movements. After that our choreographer, Cliff Huen, insisted that we don’t dictate Adrian’s moves since he’s not trained for that. Instead, we just let him go. It was an interesting process. Most of the time Adrian was performing with his eyes closed. Cliff directed Adrian’s movements much like he was hypnotizing him. Sometimes Cliff illustrated an imaginary scene for him to go from, sometimes violently provoking him, sometimes calming him in a soft and comforting voice. When he was performing, the atmosphere in the studio seemed heavier. If I were Adrian I’d probably have gone mad.
Adrian Heung in dough.
What kind of material was used for the “skin”? Were there any CG elements involved?
It was actually dough. Quite a few people were curious about that. It gained that texture because the intense lighting dried the dough up fast. It was accidental, but we went with this texture during testing. Compared to the other options we got from industrial stores, flour turned out to be better. It’s much safer. We didn’t want to kill our friend!
We are all quite lo-fi after all. CG is always the last thing we’d go for. I ended up inverting the whole screen and radically altering the colors. It looked quite unreal and uncanny at the end. As much as the X-ray is a look inside one’s body, the inverted treatment is an attempt to bring up what’s behind one’s mind, the unconscious, or the unknown.
Adrian Heung in dough.
What was the hardest part of making Skinned?
The production itself is quite simple, as you can tell. We didn’t have too much budget to make it more complex. So the difficulty was all on Adrian really. We didn’t expect that it’d be that harsh for the performer because he’s an athlete with a trained body. For the texture and thickness that we were going for, the dough ended up being too dense and heavy. I’ve known Adrian since we were 14, and I’ve never seen him exhausted like that, not to mention the mental exhaustion we put him through. He kept silent the whole night after the shoot. I’m glad to know he didn’t need to see a psychoanalyst afterwards.
Before it went to editing, I was a little worried the video would look too heavy and intense for a Sigur Rós track, but Anafelle did a great job with it. It ends up that blending of visual and musical elements increased the depth of both. The way she handled the pace and rhythm retained the intensity of Adrian’s movements and also brought out the introspective quality of the track. All of us grew up on Sigur Rós’ music. Some of their songs mean a lot to us. Their music was the reason behind a trip to Iceland Anafelle and I took years ago, which was really important to us. You really can’t imagine how happy we are that the band picked our video!
Image courtesy of Dio Liu.