Director Sarah McColgan is making glossy pop visuals weird again
Sarah McColgan is a photographer and video director whose work lies in the realm of major label blockbusters and MTV glitz, but subtly veers into left-field territory by tying strange moments of eccentricity into stylistic shorts of pumped up glamour. A prime example: sinister baby masks open the scene in David Guetta and Afrojack’s Dirty Sexy Money, lending the visual a surreal quality. For her videos, McColgan’s portfolio boasts a range of high-profile clients, such as Miguel and Kelly Rowland, and within the remit of photography, she’s lensed artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Nicki Minaj and Alicia Keys, entrenching her presence firmly in celebrity circles.
And yet, while her work is painted with a glossy sheen, McColgan is able to tap into accessible hype, having co-directed the much-loved visual for Charli XCX’s Boys, which, last year, became a viral sensation overnight.
Below, we catch up with the rising director to talk Boys, working with Charli XCX and how fashion has shaped her visual style.
Read Crack Magazine’s list of 10 music video directors switching up the game. Work by these directors will be screened at the and& summit and festival’s A/V screening room, and Oscar Hudson will be in conversation with Crack Magazine at the event, discussing the art form and its future. Find out more about and& here.
Firstly, what music videos can you remember making an impact on you growing up?
Funnily enough I didn’t have cable TV when I was a kid, there was no Youtube or streaming, so I had to go to friends’ houses to watch videos. At the time, my best friend had a channel that played Video Music Box and they had the best videos. At home I would listen to my cassette tapes and close my eyes and just create imaginary visuals.
Which videos from your childhood do you think have directly impacted your style as a director?
Growing up in a small town I never really thought I could actually make what I was seeing on TV. I was raised in the era of big budget music videos from Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Madonna, Prince. I didn’t think too much about the roles people played in the filmmaking. Years later I ended up at art school in New York City studying photography and I think photo books, fashion editorials and fine art have had a larger impact on my style as a director than film or music videos. I really only started watching music videos a few years ago when I started directing.
What do you think the role of a music video is in 2018?
I think the role of the music video is evolving and changing. People have the power to choose exactly what they want to watch and it’s right in the palm of their hands. Creators have so much freedom and the tools are so much more accessible now. You can make a video on your iPhone that is seen by a billion people. At the core, a music video is a marketing tool for the artist. But as a creative medium for the director, the possibilities are wide open, there is a freedom in making music videos, you can push the limits as far as your mind will take you. It’s an exciting space to work in, and I’m looking forward to seeing how it continues to evolve.
There’s a sense of glamour and grandeur that runs through a lot of your work. Is that intentional? What do you think that’s inspired by?
I really try to work on instinct, I don’t necessarily try to inject any sort of preconceived style into my work. I’m always trying to do what’s right for the project and if a bit of me shines through each piece I think its an intuitive thing. It probably comes from my photography background and looking through big book fashion editorials for so many years. I think ultimately you have to do what feels good to you and tune out all the opinions, that’s how you can make a unique mark on your work.
Tell us a little bit about the Boys video – how did the concept come about?
Charli’s label reached out to me to see if I’d be interested in co-directing with her. I asked to have a call with her first to make sure we clicked, we spoke the next day and she was really amazing. It was important for me to make sure she was collaborative and that we click creatively before taking the project on. Charli had already put together the rough concept, and I took it and added some of my own touches and made it a bit more production friendly. Charli has an amazing gift for creative direction, and let me take the lead with the decisions on cinematography and the more technical aspects. She has really good ideas and was super open to my ideas as well.
And the colouring of it is really striking, how did you achieve such a continuity through so many different boys?
We knew early on we would be shooting in dozens of different locations and sometimes unpredictable environments, and we wanted the video to have a cohesive feel. We chose a specific colour palette for set design and wardrobe and tried to stay within that world. The Art Department, DP and Stylists really helped keep the whole video feeling consistent throughout.
Who were your favourite boys to shoot?
So hard to choose! I have to say Riz Ahmed, Khalid and The Fat Jew, all for totally different reasons.
How would you describe your approach once you’ve heard the music?
I usually try to write down any instinctual thoughts upon hearing the music, feelings, emotions, like a stream of consciousness. With every song it’s different, sometimes ideas come instantly, sometimes it takes a while. I’ll look through books, magazines, and watch old films. Sometimes I just go for a drive. Honestly my best ideas usually happen when I’m taking a long drive or when I’m doing something totally mundane like cooking. I try to avoid the internet as much as possible when formulating ideas, we’re blasted with so much imagery now on all the social platforms, I find it to be a bit overwhelming.
And which other names would you love to work with next?
My wish list: Thom Yorke, Frank Ocean, Sza and James Blake.
Words: Vivian Yeung
Interview: Duncan Harrison