During a mock-Holi festival, monks in saffron robes glide past stone statues covered in garlands, while Chris Martin rides a Pakistani-designed rickshaw en route to an old cinema to watch Beyoncé star as a seductive Bollywood film star. This imagery was enough to make YouTube’s viewer count tick over 32 million in one week. While the ornate scenes shot in India for the video “Hymn for the Weekend” represent their first collaboration (taken from Coldplay’s new album, A Head Full of Dreams), it’s not the first time cultural appreciation has muddled with appropriation. A worldwide debate has sparked since the video hit the net, accusing the megastars for fetishizing stereotypes (old ones at that) and representing historical Hindu imagery through a narrow lens that exoticizes India, all with serious repercussions: When cultures are limited to their stereotypes, we repress understanding of a country’s real political and social environment.
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The footage itself was filmed in Mumbai, but the video features frame-by-frame visual design and animation by the Yaron Yashinski Studio of Tel Aviv in Israel, completed over a four-month period by a 10-person team. Billboard sat down with Yashinski to discuss the humbling experience, his views on appropriation and the state of the VFX industry in Israel.
Yaron, your previous work has included the film Hunting Elephants, 2013’s Israeli crime comedy featuring Patrick Stewart, and premiere promos for Keeping up With the Kardashians and X Factor Season 2. Was this the first music video you worked on?
I’ve been doing VFX for 20 years, but it all really only started when my business partner, Uzi Mor, a YouTube filmmaker, got invited over to Los Angeles by YouTube where he was contacted by the team that work for will.i.am from the Black Eyed Peas. will.i.am liked that he was from Israel, so they collaborated on a video and that’s when Uzi brought me on for the VFX. Then, will.i.am had us do another clip for a Black Eyed Peas project, which they brought on Ben Mor [the director for Coldplay ft. Beyoncé’s new music video], who coincidentally isn’t related to my business partner. Initially Ben was reluctant but Will insisted he work with us.
Why was Ben reluctant?
First of all, because Ben didn’t know us, and he’s one of the top five directors in the music industry today. He’s an amazing director who understands how important post-production is. It’s like making a dish with one of the primary ingredients that you’ve never used before. For him, he’s a master chef who wants to pick his own ingredients when he ‘cooks’ a video. Luckily Ben changed his mind.
What’s your process for adding VFX? Do you listen to the song and then go over the director’s pre-production notes and brainstorm new ideas?
He already had a storyboard complete but gave us freedom aesthetically. For example, the kaleidoscopic background for Beyoncé began with Ben initially sending me a couple of images. I made 20 versions of the kaleidoscopic shot, but Ben wanted for it to be aesthetically pleasing and conceptually include sources that related to India — to use elements from Indian materials from India.
From fire breathers, to flowers and fireworks, tell me about the different techniques you used and how many VFX shots you incorporated.
[Laughs] We lost count! With 10 of us as a team, almost every shot of the video has something in it. There are a lot of techniques you might not necessarily see. Because of the cinemascope, some shots were later on reframed — we needed to create set extensions for frames and expand them. Some shots took us three or more weeks just to process.
Are there any VFX details you’re proud of that viewers might overlook?
There’s this scene with three boys wearing monkey masks, it’s 3:30 minutes into the video. So, behind them there are trees, but we replaced the tree roots and branches with CG roots and they are rotating during the shot. It’s really subtle, but try to catch it — they’re all twirling. It was all Ben’s idea. He wanted to make the surreal real, and the real surreal.
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What was the director’s overall aim then in terms of the look and feel?
According to Ben, it’s a love letter to India.
How did you connect with having to do Indian imagery as an Israeli artist? Did you have any connection toward India as an Israeli, or did he share with you his association?
That’s an interesting question. The Indian culture is extremely visually rich and enriching, and I did a huge project in India on a commercial more than 10 years ago, but Ben didn’t know that at all.
I suppose music videos, despite not being as nearly accessible or influential as they were during the ’90s MTV-era, still have an opportunity to introduce a culture to people who might not have a chance to travel the world. The same goes for introducing Israeli artists like you and Uzi.
The biggest achievement that this video has for the Israeli local industry is the fact that it’s been made here. The market isn’t in a good place, a lot of friends of mine are struggling, and so this is a beacon of light for them. These projects can reduce the hurdles between people who are skeptical about working with Israelis. The talent is here in Israel, and we would love the support of the global community. If we can use art instead of politics, perhaps our future will shine, like Coldplay say, “A sky full of stars.”
As an artist, why does it matter if you’re born in Tel Aviv or Tehran? Art is supposed to transcend above and be the bridge that connects people. If somebody doesn’t want to work with me because I’m Israeli, then it means that the world has won, and art is limited.
Along with the widespread praise the video is receiving, it’s also getting a lot of backlash for its portrayal of Indians and India. The legacy of cultural appropriation and misrepresentation in music videos, from Iggy Azalea to Major Lazer, extends beyond the usual appreciation vs. appropriation debate. Coldplay and Beyoncé are being accused for fetishizing stereotypes. What do you think about this debate?
As an Israeli I would love Coldplay and Beyoncé to come here and shoot a video in a similar manner like the one they did in India. For them to come here and show what the Jewish nation really looks like in Israel and portray Israel in such a beautiful light would be amazing. I looked at the comments a bit, and there are Indian people who agree that it’s portraying their country in a beautiful way. It’s a huge video with millions of views, of course there’s going to be a backlash. I think it’s an important conversation, but there’s nothing in this video that isn’t full of the utmost respect for Indian culture.
It’s a divisive topic; a lot of people had important points particularly about using old stereotypes without considering reality as the main inspiration. On the other hand, if we continuously brandish every video that comments on a culture other than the artist’s own as “appropriation,” it’s going to stop artists from looking to other cultures for inspiration entirely, in fear of being accused.
I completely agree with you. The video came out of respect and appreciation. Ben isn’t only about the visual but the subtext, and the subtext here is full of respect. To Ben, India is an amazing, visual, mystical atmosphere worth recreating for history. Even when we added flags, which we did research on for days, it’s the identical flags being used by the monks, the shape and gold trimming, even the orange color we used had to be the exact orange.
Beyoncé and Coldplay will be performing at the Super Bowl 50 halftime show. Did you provide any design imagery for this?
We provided the imagery that they requested specifically for the backgrounds that appear in the video behind Beyoncé, but we don’t have any knowledge if it’s going to happen. Let’s see? We created stuff especially for that, but I didn’t get any solid feedback. Things can always change.