Days like these with The Cat Empire

Back in the early 2000s I was working as a Producer for a video production company called Tribal. Our boss (the inimitable Sharon Maloney) was looking to build a stable of young directors and so we were doing quite a few video clips. Back in those days there was no real way to make money off a video clip (the world of monetised YouTube channels was but a twinkle in some tech entrepreneurs eyes), but everyone needed a video clip to play on Rage or Video Hits. So most record companies viewed them as a necessary evil, but not one that they were willing to throw a lot of money at. It was therefore fertile ground for new Directors to try their creative wares, on a very limited budget.
Thanks to the drummer of the The Cat Empire being my brother-in-law Will, I knew that the band were pitching for a production company to do the video clip for their latest single ‘Days like these’. Our Director Mike Metzner pitched a treatment with a ‘City of God‘ feel, and the band loved it, and so suddenly we were on our way to make a video with The Cat Empire!

Location, location, location.

Unsurprisingly, the budget didn’t stretch to us flying to Brazil to capture that ‘City of God’ ambience…but Mike had found an amazing location near the wheat silos in Collingwood. Nowadays these are the location for multimillion dollar apartments, but back then it was a derelict wasteland full of loose concrete and tall grass. As is tradition on high-budget film projects, the Director, Producer and Art Department spent a day in full-Summer heat moving blocks of concrete, whipper-snippering long grass and desperately pretending that this was exactly how they thought their career in the arts was going to play out. But by the end of the day we had a space that was never going to pass an occupational health and safety review, but could definitely pass as a South American slum. Best of all, we had managed to track down the owner of the land and got permission to film there.

Bare feet was a ‘courageous decision’

Shooting on film

My kids delight in referring to any story I tell as being ‘from the olden days’. But the more I think about this part of the Cat Empire clip, the more I start to think they may be right, because we actually shot this on film!
I can still remember the first DOP who shot an entire video on Digital and thinking he was some sort of sorceror (shout out to Ben Allan!) Because up until then, we shot pretty much everything that had to look nice on film. If we were shooting a TV commercial (TVC) we would estimate how many rolls of film we would need (each roll of film was 400ft and would give you about 11 minutes of footage…and in typing this, I’m suddenly wondering if that’s where the term ‘footage’ comes from!) Then you would order if from the Kodak factory in Coburg, and pick it up the night before the shoot. Sometimes when you were filming the TVC you might have used 300ft of film, but know that the next take might need more than the remaining 100ft, so the 300ft of used film would be marked up and set aside to be taken to a place in Elsternwick that would convert the film to a digital file, and then that digital file would be used for editing and colour grading.
BUT, it also meant that we had 100ft of film that we got to take back to the office and store in a fridge. We had shot about 6 TVC’s that year and so from memory, we shot all of this video on what was in the fridge!
We also shot on Super-8 and then also worked in some Mini-DV footage shot by the band.
The final touch were some acetate stains that were created by two finished artists (Dom and Rich, who became known as ‘the stains department’) that were filmed and added in as a layer in post.

Max Davis, superstar DOP…I’m guessing that’s Darrel Stokes in the red t-shirt…and probably Jack Kenealley’s hand on the dolly.
Mike Metzner – Director, visionary…man who moved a LOT of concrete to make this happen

Highlights of the day

Cameos – At some stage the idea of everyone playing football (soccer) was changed to playing football (AFL) and so we got to see my father-in-law James rock up in full whites as the Umpire, and Melbourne jazz luminary Steve Sedegreen as ‘guy appalled by umpire’s decision’.

Location joys – While cleaning up the location on the days leading up to the shoot we had found the name of the person who was securing the site, and from him had found the owner…who after some cajoling and $200 cash heading his way, had agreed to let us shoot there.
Then about half-way through the day, a car pulled into the site and asked what was going on. I explained that we were shooting a video clip, and that we had permission from the owner, so it was all above board. He looked at me and said ‘That’s odd…because I’m the owner, and this is the first I’ve heard about it!’ Seeing that there was suddenly every chance that the entire clip was going to be over before it really began, I frantically began explaining that they were a great local up and coming band, and that we wouldn’t do any damage, and that ‘Gosh, isn’t this a funny situation for two wonderful men to find themselves in’. I think he saw the panic in my eyes and took pity and gave us permission to keep on filming.

The whole day was probably worth it to see the wardrobe lady’s face when she saw the sunglasses Harry had chosen for the day.

Surreptitious – At one stage while we were resetting for the next shot I walked past Andy Baldwin’s panel van, and found most of the band having a few cheeky beers in the back. I have no idea what I was worried about, but with all of the impotent power of a pool-lifegaurd asking teenagers not to sit on the lane ropes, I said ‘C’mon guys, you can drink after we’ve finished…and if you are going to drink, can you at least be a bit more surreptitious about it?!’ To my complete surprise they all stopped drinking and looked at me, and I thought ‘My God! I actually got a group of musicians to stop drinking and see my point of view! I clearly command a lot more authority than I had realised!’ Then I heard one of them say ‘Surreptitious. That’s a good word!’. Then they all laughed and continued drinking their beers.

Pizza – We had arrived early in the morning to get set-up, then worked through a stinking hot day in the full sun, and finally wrapped in the early evening. One of my final duties was to order and collect about 20 pizzas from a place on Brunswick St. When I returned the crew were packing away the last of the gear, there were band-members and breakdancers and friends and family all sitting in the rubble of an abandoned lot as the shadows grew longer across the scene. The footy was still being kicked, we had managed to get everything shot, and I sat down to eat some pizza and left-over watermelon…it was one of the best days I’ve had on set.
Best of all, thanks to the insane talents of everyone involved, the clip itself came together incredibly well.

All good things come to an end

One of the downsides to working with a song you like on a video project is that you get to hear it again, and again and again. In fact, if the person editing it doesn’t have headphones, you will get to hear two seconds of the song continually repeated as they try to make an edit work…it’s the best!
But one thing I will never tire of, is seeing The Cat Empire perform live. I’ve been lucky enough to have followed them from their beginnings as the Jazz Cat, through to self-financing their first album, through to international fame. I will still happily put one of their shows at The Forum as one of the top 5 live gigs I’ve ever seen (the other four are; Gil Scott Heron, Morphine, Beck, and Rage Against the Machine…never let it be said I am anything but a middle-aged white man). So it’s a little sad to hear that the band will be playing the final shows as the current line-up at the end of the year.
At the same time, to have survived and thrived in the music industry for over 20 years is a genuinely amazing feat, and to be able to retire on their own terms reflects the integrity that’s kept them together this whole time.
So thanks to The Cat Empire for letting me be a small part of your journey, but most of all, thanks for providing such an incredible reminder of just how important live music is!

Harry, full-noise at Fed Square.
Felix and Olly at the Zoo