For London-based filmmaker Shaun James Grant, it's all about narrative. Inspired by the swingin' sixties and the early 70s, he pours his gorgeous vintage style and irresistible analogue aesthetic into captivating music videos. We chatted with Shaun about his directing film, building a narrative, and what it was like to collaborate with world-famous artists including Anne-Marie.
Hello, Shaun! Welcome to the Lomography Magazine. Please tell us a little about yourself — what got you into filmmaking and photography?
Thanks for having me. I’m a filmmaker and photographer in his early 30s still trying to figure it all out. I guess I first realised I wanted to make films when I was in my late teens, I got into a bit of trouble in the outside world and felt it best to chill out a bit. I spent a lot of time in my parent's attic bedroom watching movies one after the other. It was a period of escapism. I was fascinated with how I could be transported mentally to another world and relieved if not momentarily from my life troubles. Without knowing it at the time, I now believe it was very therapeutic, and also helped me realize that there’s a much bigger world out there than where I grew up. I wanted to be a part of it.
In terms of photography, it’s funny because I don’t think I actually became a decent director until I start taking pictures. This was about three years ago when I bought my first point and shoot film camera and took it with me on a trip to Thailand. I became obsessed with capturing moments that I couldn’t review immediately — there was a purity to it that still allowed me to stay in the moment and focus on the world around me.
From gorgeous costumes to glowing neon lights, your work has a really distinctive, vintage aesthetic. Who are your main influences?
It’s funny, to look at me you wouldn’t think it! As a slightly overweight black man currently wearing Nike joggers and a grey hoodie, people often say they wouldn’t place me with my work, which I think is great! I think my work is a reflection of my mental passions as opposed to my physical appearance. I enjoy making other people look good, and I’m okay with just looking semi-decent.
With regards to inspiration, it’s not so much a case of who inspired me, but more when inspired me. I’m in love with the mid-60s and the ten years that followed. I think some of the greatest moments in cultural and political history happened during this time, a lot of which still impacts us to this day. In terms of style, I think we just got so much right during this period. We peaked as far as I’m concerned — everything after that just felt a bit lost.
You direct music videos for a wide range of different artists. Did you always know that you wanted to make this your speciality, or is it something that you’ve become more drawn to as you’ve developed as a director? What is it about directing music videos that you like so much?
The thing about music videos, as many other directors I’m sure will agree, is that they’re a great creative space to experiment and figure out who you are as an artist. My journey of making promos I believe definitely coincides with my growth and personality as a human being. I look back at my archive of work from when I first started out, and whilst there’s a hint of me in there you can clearly see I was lost and trying to figure out who I was. My work over the last couple of years, whilst not perfect, feels a lot closer to who I am — my cultural interests along with my love for telling stories. In the long term, my ambition is to make films and really create that sense of emotionally relatable escapism. I think my music videos are a bit of a stepping stone to getting me there.
You recently worked with world-famous artist Anne-Marie to create a stunning music video for her hit song Machine. How did this collaboration come about, and what was the collaborative process like? Did you have a lot of creative freedom?
I do a lot of live music performance work for the music platform VEVO, and through them, I landed the commission to direct a campaign for the lovely soul that is Anne-Marie. In terms of creative freedom, there’s definitely trust there to let me do my thing. In these situations, I feel it’s really important to try and decipher what it is that the artist and the brand are looking for in terms of feel and emotion. One you feel like you understand this you can really work that into your style of filmmaking and imprint your mark on the creative. I try to do this with everything I touch — collaboration is about listening as much as it is talking, that’s what gives you the opportunity to emotionally connect with the artist you’re working with.
What was the thinking behind making the video monochrome, and why one long continuous shot? That must have been pretty difficult to film!
I love doing live music promos in one shots. I’ve got a bit of history of doing them! Live is quite limiting for someone who likes to tell stories — your focus is and in most cases must always remain the artist. There’s not really an opportunity to involve a heavy narrative (which I love), so you have to think differently. One shot presents an opportunity to create simple yet impressive reveals within the performance, and in doing so incorporate that element of narrative, or at least a journey. My work for Anne-Marie (as well as Jp Cooper and Jack Garratt) are good personal examples of this.
With choosing to go monochrome, it was a late decision that we made at the recce with my director of photography Aaron Rogers. Originally I wanted the space to look like the film The Post, with its cool blue and green mature tones, but we realised that there was just no way to create this feel and retain the one shot — you’d end up with all the lights in shot, which would spoil the illusion. Black and white gave us a powerful feel that really lent itself emotively to Anne-Marie’s performance, allowing us to place lights in the scene as part of the furniture.
Your narrative music videos for Black Honey are absolutely incredible — they’re almost more like short films than music videos. We love the costumes in the disco scene! Who came up with the story for these, and how long did it take for the vision to come together? Has it made you want to try directing a short film?
Awww, thanks! I think you nailed it on the short film comment — it’s what I was going for with both these videos and yes, I do have a huge passion to explore narrative so hopefully I’ll be making a short film soon.
In terms of the process, I guess it goes back to what I was saying earlier about music promos being an experimental playground. Working with Black Honey is exactly why I love making music videos — Izzy (from the band) is all about the narrative and just lets me go wild, which makes for a really fun process. Her love for the 60s and 70s is as strong as mine, so it felt very unrestrictive working with her. After we hashed out the broad strokes I locked myself away for a couple of days and really started to work on the finer details whilst building the treatment that everyone would be working from. I often find that the more you communicate with an artist about your ideas when formulating the visuals and structure, the more you can feed off one another and build excitement.
Lots of your analogue stills are behind the scenes shots for the videos that you direct. Where else do you get inspiration for your personal projects?
That’s a good question, I believe that you can only write about what you know, and for me, the same goes for conceptualizing imagery. With that in mind, I love walking around and discovering new places and people that cinematically speak to me. Then, I just let things grow organically from there — I try not to overthink it, and just feel it out. It’s quite therapeutic.
Do you have a favorite image from your personal projects? Could you tell us a little about the story behind it, please, and why you like it so much?
Oh man, I’m not sure about a fave shot. I think I’m yet to shoot it! I would say my fave shoot was the one I did with Alicia on the tube — that felt like my most cinematic to date, outside of the behind the scenes stuff. The personal stuff is quite challenging at times, in a good way, because you don’t have the budget and art direction from your music videos and sets to lean on, so you have to discover places that you find interesting and are free to shoot in, like my flat.
I’ve long been a fan of Bruce Davidson, in particular, the work he did on the NY subway in the 80s. There’s something immensely captivating about that work — the people and the steel backdrop of the subway all felt very cinematic. I’ve always wanted to do my own thing on the London tube but felt like it was all a bit too contemporary — until I rediscovered the Bakerloo line. I feel like it’s the one line that’s retained some of the old charm the tubes had back in the day, which created a visually interesting backdrop to place Alicia against. From there, she really brought the magic.
Why do you choose to shoot on film? What is it that draws you to analogue?
I find film to be quite a simple format. It’s very honest, free of complexities. It forces you to really be present in the moment, something I feel our society struggles with these days. You don’t review your shots intermittently like on digital, which I think can pull you out of the scene as you strive for contrived perfection. It’s made me a better director for these reasons — I trust my compositions more, shoot less takes and have found I’m far more economical and efficient on set without jeopardizing the content.
Also, it goes without saying but the texture and tone of film is unparalleled, I truly believe as humans we connect naturally more to film as it helps to reinforce the qualities and nostalgia of the past, which I love.
What’s next for Shaun James Grant? Any exciting projects in the pipeline?
I’ve got a few music videos in the works and a couple of commercials coming up before the end of the year, but what I’m really excited about is a ten part TV series that I’m writing which is loosely based on my childhood in the north of England. Hopefully, that will be my first full foray into narrative.