James Tonkin is a Filmmaker and Director of Hangman Studios, a London-based creative studio. James originally started out in music production graduating with a degree in music technology, but he soon found himself drawn into editing and directing and in 2001, backed by music management company IE Music, he setup Hangman Studios. Since Hangman opening it's doors, James has created documentaries, commercials and DVDs for a number of artists from Björk and Craig Armstrong, to companies such as Jaeger and Coco De Mer. Through out this time James has also directed music videos, commercials and documentaries for Robbie Williams whilst continuing to work with artists and brands including Coldplay, Duran Duran, Archive, Placebo, T-Mobile, Sony, Apple and more.
In 2012, James & Brett Turnbull DPed the Coldplay LIVE 2012 Concert Film, Coldplay 's first concert film / live album for nine years. The film documents their acclaimed Mylo Xyloto World Tour, which has been seen by more than three million people since it began in June 2011. The film was directed by Paul Dugdale, previously responsible for Adele’s 'Live at the Royal Albert Hall' and The Prodigy’s 'Worlds On Fire' concert films. It was produced by Jim Parsons and edited by Simon Bryant, Tim Thompsett & Tom Watson. Mixed by Rik Simpson.
• So James, talk to me about Coldplay. How everything got started and how was your collaboration with the band during filming?
James Tonkin: I was hired by Paul Dugdale and JA Digital to help film documentary footage with the band during their UK, North America and European Tours during the summer of 2012. In total I filmed at 10 different concerts as well as documenting traveling with the band and some of the different cities they visited. The idea was always for the documentary footage to become an integral part of the whole live film as it would fit in amongst the songs to break up the concert and give an feel of what goes on behind the scenes of a tour of this scale.
• In how many stadiums you worked on this and what was the biggest challenge for you on capturing the band?
We filmed in a number of stadiums, Emirates in London, Ethiad in Manchester, Stade de France in Paris and arenas in Montreal and Minneapolis, 10 shows in total. The biggest challenge definitely came from working solo a lot of the time and running around huge stadiums trying to always be in the right place at the right time. I had comprehensive shot lists of things I needed to cover, from the wrist bands being prepped, to fans arriving, the band back stage getting ready, the walk to stage with the band, filming moments from the show and then fans leaving and scenes of the empty stadium. 12-14 hours of running around with my kit was tiring and after the first few shows I realised I'd have to pace myself. Stadiums are physically really big and even with a light weight camera, tripod and slider, you soon get tired. When Paul and I worked together on some of the shows it worked well as we could both cover different elements and cross shoot moments with the band.
• One of your previous works was shooting Archive live in Athens. What are the main differences on shooting a concert in a closed environment like a theater, and in open stadiums?
The Archive Live in Athens show was a fantastic experience but a very different show and experience from working with Coldplay. For Live In Athens I was directing, producing and shooting the whole show from start to finish. We had a few moments of back stage to set up start of the show, but ultimately it was all about the live show. Everything was also on my shoulders and once I got back to the edit suite after filming, I then had 10 solitary weeks of post to put it all together.
For the Coldplay tour I was part of a much bigger project. Being hired to work just as the documentary director meant I could just focus all my energy on getting the moments we needed to put the doc parts together without having to worry about how the whole live show would come together. We editing the documentary sections at Hangman and these were then integrated into the main show. It was much more of a collaborative process and all helmed under great direction by Paul. I really enjoy collaborating with people who have a real vision of how they want things to come together and Paul's vision and approach is what's made the film so good in my mind.
• You shot Archive on DSLRs, RED ONE & Sony EX3. Why did you decide to go with Sony Nex Cameras on Coldplay?
I spent a lot of pre production time testing camera formats before settling on using Sony NEX cameras for the Coldplay tour. DSLRs were perfect for shooting Archive in 2010 but a lot has changed in terms of camera tech since then and one of the main things that was required of the cameras for the Coldplay tour was to be able to film everything in slow motion. For this reason DSLRs and also the Canon C300 was discounted as both can only film in 720p for slow motion. I'd been using RED Scarlets on a job early last year and was tempted to shot everything on them, but allowances for disk space, power consumption and post workflow ended up pushing me towards using a Sony NEX FS100 and later and NEX FS700. I also shot a little bit with a Sony 5N using it for a few backstage moments when I wanted to keep the camera size down.
• What was your gear?
I had a Think Thank Airport International as my main camera bag which contains all my lenses - a mix of Canon, Tokina and Nikon all to EF and also E-mount lenses by Sony and SLR Magic. This bag also contained my batteries (a Hawk-woods system which uses Sony NPFs with a breakout to power my DP4), Sony FS100 and Sony FS700 and other accessories such as leads and media. I then kept a second Think Tank shoulder bag with me at all times with a little Sony NEX 5N, any other lenses, laptop, hard drives etc. This bag literally always traveled with me in my hand so at any point I could pull out a camera and film something as I saw it. Lastly I took a very small manfrotto tripod, glidetrack and Steadicam merlin and a handful of clothes in a tripod bag. All my gear was chosen to be as light and portable as possible whilst also maintaining the best image quality that I could achieve from the cameras at the time. If I were doing this project again this year, I would no doubt choose different equipment simply because technology keeps changing and I'm also adapting what I'm using all the time to make the film process be as easy and natural as possible without the gear getting in the way.
• We see some very beautiful super slow motion shots of Chris Martin walking, jumping, throwing his guitar in the air, etc. What was your camera settings? How did you achieve these shots?
All the super slow motion shots were filmed with the Sony NEX FS700 in 200fps bursts. I bought this camera specifically for this project as I knew that it'd give me a look which would only have been achievable otherwise if shooting with a RED Epic or Phantom camera. The ability to shoot these moments at 200fps for me really gave a unique style to the filming. It took a while to master getting in exactly the right place at the right time during the concert to get the best shots, but fortunately the band perform like clock work so after a couple of shows I knew exactly where to be at the right point of the set.
• What about the beautiful timelapse shots with the fans filling up the stadiums?
I can't take credit for these as they were filmed by a friend of Paul's on DSLRs. I think they added perfectly to the film.
• In Bell Centre, Montreal we see Chris entering the stadium while filming with an 8mm camera!(?)
Yes this moment was devised by Paul to help intercut into the songs which were performed at the back of the stadium and were given a more lo fi super 8 feel. Some of the footage was indeed filmed on super 8 from the camera Chris was using when he is seen entering the stadium.
• What is the most important thing for you when you have to shoot concerts of this magnitude? Where exactly are you focusing?
I believe at the end of the day, no matter the size of the concert or the capacity of the venue, it's all about the connection between the audience and the band. That connection is the reason people go to see bands live instead of just listening or watching them at home. It's therefore essential to document and film this and remember that without this connection then there's nothing different than filming a band at rehearsals. The amount of time we spent focused on filming the fans and their reaction to the band became key to keeping this connection alive.
• Your advice to young concert & music shooters?
Nothing beats getting experience by going out and just filming a lot. There are so many young unsigned bands all desperate for video content that there's never a lack of content to film. I got on my first tour bus about 10 years ago with a Canon XM1 shooting miniDV and loved every moment of the experience. I would always ask myself, what's the best shots I can get here and what's the narrative I'm trying to tell and this approach transcends camera formats and what gear you're using as it's all about walking away with a story at the end of the day.
You still certainly need to be proficient with your gear and understanding good framing, focus, exposure and lighting are all skills that can be easily taught and then applied. The best gear in the world won't help if the shot is out of focus. Resources like F-STOP Academy run by Den Lennie are a quick start into learning these skills and also for picking up great tips and tricks along the way.
Visit: Hangman Studios London
Interview: Alexandros Maragos