Always eager to expand their experiences, Mainframe duo Murray Munro and John Malloy talk to Ian Gilby about the processes involved in the shooting of the promo video that accompanied their recent Polydor single release.
In lighter moments, Mainframe's Murray Munro and John Malloy like to refer to themselves as "a two‑piece synthesizer band from Hemel Hempstead". But they have always been more than just that...
From their first self‑financed single release in 1983 which broke new ground through its inclusion on the B‑side of a graphics display program to run a computer, to their current involvement in the development of the Greengate DS3 Sound Sampler, John and Murray have always shown a healthy regard for the do‑it‑yourself philosophy. And very successful it has proved too in several unforeseen ways. Take the Sampler, for example.
As the public face of the Greengate company, they decided to produce a demo record to show off some of the unit's abilities to potential clients. Copies of the resultant 12‑inch single — a glorious pastiche of Trevor Horn's pioneering sampled recording work with Frankie Goes To Hollywood — called (Into Trouble With) The Noise Of Art, somehow fell into the hands of several influential DJs at London dance clubs who liked the instrumental record and played it to death in their clubs. The result, according to Mainframe's Murray Munro, was that it inadvertently became "...a dance floor smash! We had nightclubs up and down the country‑even from New York‑ringing us up and saying, 'Have you got a copy of this record? Can you please ship us some?'. We couldn't believe it. It became a cult hit and to this day it's still being distributed."
It also attracted the attention of various Polydor Records personnel who frequented such establishments and liked what they heard enough to report back the discovery to their A&R men.
To cut a long story short, the whole sequence of events culminated in John and Murray, in their capacity as Mainframe, signing a record contract with Polydor. Their first single for the company was a driving, up‑tempo track called '5 Minutes' which received a lot of national airplay upon release and reached the number 92 position in the UK music charts.
True to form, Mainframe felt they needed a further means of promoting their single and settled for producing a video based around the unusual lyrical content of the song. John Malloy takes up the story.
"'5 Minutes' began as a fairly straight pop song — I think the lyric went something like: 'And I heard it on the radio and I saw it on TV' — typical Buggies stuff don't you know! But we were stuck for words to the last line and I came up with the phrase 'Uncle Eric held the key' just as a joke. We rather liked it... so we scrapped all the other lyrics, kept the Uncle Eric theme and wrote the remainder of the song around that."
"One day," Murray continued, "I recorded some vocals and stuff off the radio and, using the DS3, sampled a few people saying odd little phrases like: 'He said it' and 'So he said, let's cut!'. They were all totally meaningless but seemed to fit in with the other lyrics we had which basically revolved around a kid's uncle stealing his designated five minutes of fame — a variation on Andy Warhol's idea."
So, the duo had a strong lyrical foundation on which to base the video, but they still had to derive a complete storyline that tied in with the lyric content.
"We spent a good few hours" said John, "trying to figure out something that would be significant enough to get national newspaper coverage for the boy in our story, and that was also a bit quirky and 'English'. The only thing we could think of was the discovery of King Arthur's sword Excalibur, so that became the basis of the story."
"Then we sat down, worked out how the storyline would develop, and typed it up to form a rough outline known as a 'treatment'. Then we handed that to the video people at Polydor."
What happens next with most pop videos is that the band are shown a series of show‑reels — examples of a film director's past work — and select the director they wish to use. He then has to come up with the idea for the finished video and often only has a week at the very most to originate something because the rest of the time he has to get on with pre‑production planning etc.
This wasn't the situation, however, with Mainframe since they already had a well‑prepared storyline which gave the director considerable scope for developing a variety of shots. The video was produced by a company called Gothic Audio Visual and directed by Stuart Orme who was responsible for Genesis' 'Mama' video and Phil Collins' 'You Can't Hurry Love' amongst others. What attracted him to the Mainframe project was the challenge of working on a 'period' set, since the guys had decided the story would take place in the 1950s and, to give it all the feeling of an old B‑movie crime thriller, would be shot in black and white.
"We wanted it shot on 16mm black and white film stock originally, not colour film simulating black and white because there is a subtle difference. So we were a bit worried when they did shoot it in colour but it turned out well in the end — quite a good transfer from film to video.
It still looks modern though — the texture, the contrast, is slightly wrong, I think. There's nothing you can actually do about that using modern film stock as it has a wider dynamic range to allow for more contrast and so it looks sharper and cleaner."
Polydor allocated a budget of £15,000 to the production which in film terms isn't an awful lot and meant that the filming all had to be completed in one day. With almost 24 different main shots appearing throughout the four minute video, everybody involved had their work cutout from the start. Luckily, the Mainframe duo did a lot of the groundwork themselves in preparation for the shoot, as Murray explained.
"We found the location, built some of the props and got hold of the cars. That was just a question of going down to the shop, buying a copy of Classic Car magazine and phoning people up. We didn't realise at the time that it was the job of the production company to do all of that!"
The day's filming, which began at seven in the morning and ran through to midnight, took place in Great Gaddesdon, a small village near the group's Hemel Hempstead home — the perfect location in John Malloy's opinion: "If we hadn't found it, I don't know what we would have done!
It's an old feudal village and there's a lady who owns most of it including the Manor House which became the Big House that Eric, the central character in our story, lives in."
Having supplied the director with a breakdown of the script detailing what they felt needed to be in each scene, he created what is referred to as a 'shooting script' to indicate exactly what had to be done at any particular point in the day. This, essentially, was to ensure that lighting conditions remained static throughout each individual scene but also to order the movements of cameramen and lighting technicians so that they knew in advance what was required of them on various shots.
With such tight schedules and budget restrictions in operation for a location shoot like theirs, Murray highlighted one rather shocking fact: if it pours down with rain you still have to do it. No matter what! There's no money available to do it all again. (Now you know why so few pop videos are filmed outside the studio.)
Other commitments prevented Murray and John from being physically present at the editing stage of the film, but the way in which the shots had been constructed from the very beginning meant they could leave things to others, as John explained.
"I think with '5 Minutes' it didn't matter so much that we weren't involved with the editing because the story was the type that just floats — it's not one of those videos where everything has to happen directly in sync with the music to give you the sort of sound to light effect. And so the editing was more like editing a conventional film. There were only a few frames here and there that had to be synchronised with the music."
Although we have been talking about the shooting of a video, '5 Minutes' was actually shot on 16mm magnetic film as opposed to video tape, then finally copied to the video format once the editing stages had been completed. It was during this transfer process that the finished picture on screen was converted from colour to monochrome with the image contrast being adjusted continually to achieve the highest quality picture.
All in all, Mainframe were very pleased with the finished video which was screened on various pop programmes including Europe's Sky Channel and BBCTV and which helped get their music over to a wider audience than they could ever have hoped to have reached by other means.
"Stuart Orme, the director, did a really wonderful job for us — he was great. The end result looks just about how we'd imagined it!" they said. But true to the spirit that sets them apart from the mainstream, even now, Mainframe still believe that £15,000 is too much to pay for a video (try telling that to Michael Jackson!). "We still think we could have done it for less. And hopefully — when we do the next one — we will hire in the cameramen and the lighting guys, but we will do the production ourselves."