Oklahoma City might not sound like the next cradle music video creativity, but director duo LAMAR+NIK are turning heads with their ingenious ways with storytelling – often involving cardboard and lots of craft – which have already helped them to scoop a UK Music Video Award and work with Pixies. David Knight meets the pair on the cusp of major-label success

Jesse Lamar High and Stefan Nik Harper are young directors who are already award-winners. They have made music videos for the godfathers of modern indie rock, Pixies. They also have representation in the UK and France – and they recently made their first music video in London and their first commercial in Paris. But they also happen to work in what many would consider to be – and let’s try to be polite about this – the back of beyond.

To be fair, with a population of more than one million people, Oklahoma City is not exactly a one-horse town. Situated slap-bang in the middle of the USA – and the heart of tornado country – it is a major centre for the American oil and livestock industries. But it is certainly not regarded as a hub of film production.

But this is where LAMAR+NIK (that’s supposed to be read as ‘Lamar plus Nik’) have launched their career as makers of highly creative, ambitious, well-crafted films. And even though Nik now actually resides elsewhere – not LA or New York, but Seattle – Oklahoma City is still where, for the most part, they do their thing.

It’s where they created the ‘lyric-head’ video for US rapper Lushlife’s Magnolia, a winner at the UK Music Video Awards last year; where they filmed mesmerizing giant bubbles in a derelict school (for indie band Keep Shelly In Athens); and where they shot a malevolent teen wreaking merry mayhem in their promo for Pixies’ Bagboy.

For a variety of reasons – mainly related to digital technology and connectivity – LAMAR+NIK have not gone out into the world, but the world has effectively come to them.

“When we were at college, a lot of people were saying, ‘As soon as I graduate, I’m going to LA to make it in the movie business’,” recalls Lamar. “But our thought process was that we needed to make a name for ourselves before we moved, so we started to make those smaller projects, like music videos. We knew this was something we could do on our own.”

A can-do attitude to DIY

Ironically, their work has been largely reliant on old-fashioned virtues – usually hand-crafted and, due to tiny budgets, often requiring weeks of painstaking work. Maybe it’s down to their Midwestern backgrounds, but these are can-do guys, comfortable with the idea of building things.

For their breakthrough video for Lushlife’s Magnolia, they recreated every word of the track’s lyrics in cardboard boxes, placed over the heads of numerous volunteers. Shot over several days, rapid-fire editing then made every box-word appear in sync with the track, to dazzling effect. And they made all the box-heads themselves – each letter individually created in 11 x 9’’ cardboard – having sourced their materials from malls and grocery stores.

“If you put them all in consecutive days, my half [of the lyrics] took a month to make,” says Nik. “Bending cardboard over was annoying, then we had to outline [each letter] in black. A lot of work – and the sheer space they took up was another story. We ended up storing them on my mom’s porch, floor to ceiling. But we knew the video was going to be cool.”

“And that’s why we do the DIY stuff,” adds Lamar. “After we did that for Magnolia, we could say, ‘Who the fuck else is making all these words? No one’.”

Their previous music video for a band called Houses is also notable for homemade ingenuity: they built a city made of ice. After experimenting for ages in Lamar’s mother’s garage, they developed a process, not exactly health-and-safety sanctioned, of making hollow ice buildings in moulds made of a shower liner product called Red Guard, with Christmas lights inside the ice.

“I just think that, in life in general, we’re just a bit hands-on,” reflects Nik. “If I look at something that I like, like a piece of furniture, usually it’s pretty simple. And I just think I can make that.”

But if the rigour of their DIY aesthetic makes LAMAR+NIK stand out from the crowd of up-and-coming directors, that’s not the whole story either. The pair met as teenagers via their local skate scene when Lamar posted photos online of the best skating spots in Norman, the Oklahoma City suburb where he grew up. “Then it became this big skate day with 30 skateboarders turning up,” he recalls. “It’s kind of weird, but we met through this random day.”

“We started hanging out together skating, then [Lamar] broke his foot,” continues Nik. “He was sitting at home, scouring eBay for a Sony VX 1000 – the camera of choice for skateboarding a while back. And pretty quickly after that I was doing the same thing.” So, armed with cool new cameras, they each began to create simple skateboard montages. Then they started to add themes to their edits – inevitably influenced by watching Spike Jonze’s seminal skate films.

Soon afterwards, they both enrolled at Oklahoma City Community College – an unprepossessing-sounding institution, but one that boasts an impressive film department with high-end digital equipment, a soundstage – and a course head who had been one of the producers of The Godfather. They gained a lot of hands-on filmmaking experience – even though Nik ultimately dropped out before graduation.

But while Lamar was still at OCCC, and figuring they could utilise the film department’s resources, the pair began to contact bands and managers, offering their services as video directors. After a frustrating experience trying to get a project going with up-and-coming synthpop producer and artist Toro y Moi, they made a video for a band called Crocodile, with the performance projection-mapped onto rows of boxes.

“That was supposed to be our Toro y Moi video,” says Nik. “But it was rushed, and we had no experience.” In fact, it was a good enough debut to lead swiftly to their video for Houses’ Reds – and in making their city of ice, they experienced for the first time how the production process could be a serious case of trial-and-error, learning from mistakes until it came right.

“At a certain point the ice would expand and it happens really quickly, breaking out through the bottom of the moulds,” explains Nik. “It was painstaking. We had to babysit them for hours, until a certain point and then we’d poke a hole in them and drain the water out.”

Technically ambitious

Then came the Lushlife job in late summer 2012. Raj Haldar, aka Lushlife, flew in from Philadelphia to appear in the video. “When he saw our work, he was like ‘what the fuck?’,” reveals Nik. “He didn’t believe we’d make every word of the track.” By the time of its delayed release – due to Hurricane Sandy disrupting its premiere on influential music blog NPR – LAMAR+NIK were completing their impressive skate film Raindrops, featuring their friend, pro-skater Clint Walker.

Shortly after that they embarked on their most technically ambitious music video to date, for Oklahoma-born folk-rock singer-songwriter Samantha Crain. “The aim was to do stop-motion animation – but as one-take,” Lamar explains. In practice, it meant more prodigious industry (and more cardboard) as they shot the artist performance, edited it and then exported every frame – around 3,800 of them – printing them up and then mounting them on card.

What they created was a domino effect in real-time, with the printed-out frames as the dominoes. The camera advances through the frames, pushing them downward onto what was sticky tape as it follows the course of the song. But this meant this could be done just once. They had to get it right first time. “The way we connected the images to the ground was with clear packing tape. We stretched it out on the ground, sticky side up,” Nik explains. “But whenever they got pushed over, the backs of them stuck all the way to the tape, so they were unusable again.”

“It was a two-day set-up, and a very quick shoot,” Lamar continues. “It could’ve been executed a little better.” But the Crain video did have a positive effect. The singer’s PR agent, who also works for Pixies, sent it to their manager. “A few months went by, then we got this call from him saying he wanted us to direct the first Pixies video,” continues Lamar. “And we weren’t pitching against anyone else.”

Even though their initial idea – which featured the band – was rejected, the duo still ended up making two videos for the legendary indie-rock outfit last year. In the process, they extended again into new territory. In their first Pixies video, a spotty suburban teenager – played by Nik’s younger brother – wreaks inventive, wanton havoc on what turns out to be a neighbour’s house – setting off fireworks inside the house, taking a bath filled with milk and cereal, smashing plates, and more – all against the pounding rock and singer Black Francis’s sneering vocals on Bagboy.

The pair admit that they raided their ideas books to come up with their script, gathering together themes too small to sustain a whole video in themselves. Then they added a storyline to accommodate what Lamar calls “the dumbest shit we ever thought of”. The result was their biggest critical and popular success to date.

Darker storytelling

Bagboy was followed by their video for Pixies’ follow-up EP Indie Cindy – which has a far more complicated, almost palindrome-like narrative structure. The promo starts as a film noir-like thriller of conspiracy and murder, but running in reverse. Then, halfway through, it starts to run forward, telling the story again in the right direction, but also adding new details about the abusive relationship that leads to Cindy’s partner’s murder by an intruder.

As Nik explains: “It comes from trying to structure the video like when you pop in a VHS and rewinding it when you don’t press stop first, so you’re seeing images – then you play from a certain point. The first half is meant to be the girl’s vision of the relationship, and the second half is from the [other guy’s] perspective – he sees that the boyfriend is much more abusive than she lets on.”

While Bagboy was fairly lighthearted, Indie Cindy showed they were also capable of sophisticated, dark storytelling – even though the budget is in no way in keeping with its ambition.

“The reason why we’re able to make those videos is that we’re in Oklahoma. A lot of people are really down to help us. When Nik comes here, we just borrow anything we need for free. A lot of those locations with Indie Cindy were free. If we were doing that in LA they’d be asking for money. It’s so cheap – our French rep, Marine, really wants to film here.”

In fact, LAMAR+NIK have now directed their first ad, out of RODS, their French production company. But it was shot in Paris, for the French outlet of KFC – a 20-second commercial for a scratchcard competition that Lamar describes as “painfully simple. It’s like Seinfeld – with a bunch of teenagers driving a car, but its against green screen…”. But, of course, it had a proper budget and he adds that “it’s very good to say we’ve shot with this amount of money”.

Around the time that their Lushlife video scooped an MVA last October, the pair also signed to Agile Films in London – and talked to shots when they were in London directing the video for new pop/R&B artist MNEK. It’s their first proper record label commission, and their biggest budget music video so far – and again LAMAR+NIK have broken ground. It is their first proper performance video, but also one that accommodates a characteristically audacious idea, with different elements of the song being personified by actors, who join MNEK while the camera travels on a circular track around them.

A few weeks later, with the job completed back in Oklahoma City (and Seattle), they can reflect on reaching a new stage in their music video directing career – including, for the first time, working with a producer and a full crew. “Basically, everyone that worked on it did such a great job for us. Agile have a group of talented people they pull from anytime they’re producing videos, and we can see why they use them over and over.”

They also had to cope with a more speeded-up process than they are familiar with, of dealing with a label and artist management that also handles One Direction. Are these the sort of issues that will challenge their innate creativity in future?

Not surprisingly, they don’t see it that way. While appreciating the freedom of low-budget jobs, bigger budgets means they can make bigger things – and use more interesting toys.

“Sure we can do stuff and make it look good without money,” adds Lamar. “But you need a Steadicam and Steadicam operator to get a great, swooping-ass Steadicam shot.”

“We’ve used a Steadicam now – if we could we’d love to do a project with a motion control at some point,” adds Nik. “Its been frustrating at times when we’ve pitched something very cinematic and the agency has come back saying, ‘Your work isn’t representative of that’. The way we think is, if you give us some money, it will be guaranteed that you’ll have a polished product.”

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