Videographer-Animator-Photographer Alex McLaren: “I love the outsider weirdo people that are just doing their own thing”

Original photo: Hannah Nikkelson. Handmade mixed-media by B.

Naarm/Melbourne-based videographer-animator-photographer Alex McLaren is the man behind some of the coolest music videos that have come out of Australia in the past few years. He’s made videos for King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, ORB, Parsnip, School Damage, Bananagun, Sunfruits, Pipe-Eye, The Murlocs and more. His clips are vibrant, dynamic and psychedelic. We chatted with Alex about his creations, of making skate vids with his friends growing up in a country town and it’s influence on his work, the music video medium, claymation, collage, making a living as a creative, new projects in the works and more.

How’s your day been?

ALEX MCLAREN: I had to go to my mate’s house and feed their cat, that’s pretty much all I’ve been up to this morning.

Nice! Sounds like it’s been a cruisy one then.

AM: Yeah. How about you?

I’ve been easing into the morning. Yesterday my husband Jhonny and I went and picked up a box of 45’s (records) for $10, so that’s always a little exciting. We’ve been going through them this morning. We’re big record nerds.

AM: Cool. Sweet. Any good stuff in there?

There was a Hawkwind ‘Silver Machine’ picture disc and some AC/DC in there, and some funk and soul. The guy we got it off was interesting; he had all of this Elvis memorabilia, including Elvis’ dad’s electricity bill. We love all kinds of music and have music to suit every mood in our collection. We’ve both collected records since we were teens.

AM: Nice. It’s good to have a good mix!

I’m stoked to be talking with you. We love your work so much!

AM: That’s so sweet.

The film clips you make are really cool. We find that whenever an awesome clip comes up from a local band, you’re usually behind it.

AM: [Laughs] That’s cool. Thank you!

Have you always been a creative person?

AM: I suppose. The main way that I got into it was from being into skateboarding growing up. Watching skate videos; they have little animations and stuff, they’re almost arthouse in a sense. That stuff really triggered where I’m at now. Dad would have the family camcorder; I’d end up stealing it to film my friends skateboarding. Through that I got into editing the footage and tinkering around with it.

Do you have any favourite skate videos?

AM: Yeah, for sure. There are so many! Alien Workshop videos, they were kind of wild in the sense that they had a ton of animation, strange little stop motion things. That all influenced me to some degree, even subconsciously at the beginning. I definitely look back at that stuff occasionally and can see how it affected where I am now. Also, with skate videos how quickly they’re edited, all chopped up and short, flashing by really quickly; I think that informed some of how I edit videos. With the King Gizzard [& The Lizard Wizard] one, I’ll have a bunch of visual styles and things changing rapidly, that’s all part of it. Videos from Girl Skateboards company, had little skits and animations. I think Spike Jonze did a bunch of that stuff.

I made a bunch of skate videos with friends and a couple of people who make music, like Nick Van Bakel from The Frowning Clouds and Bananagun, we grew up together in Warrnambool; it’s funny how a lot of people that skated then make music, art and video stuff now. It’s cool to work with Nick occasionally making videos, it’s fun to think that it all stemmed from skating together back in the day. Music interests were pretty eclectic… it’s almost like having a big brother in a sense, opening up a world in terms of music and visual stuff, arthouse 16mm and 8mm animation. I feel like all of that stuff was the initial seed of inspiration and opening the doors to new sounds and visuals.

My brother and I had a skate shop in the mid to late-90s, he’s had skate shops since the 80s, we used to watch all the skate vids, so I can relate. My love of punk and hip-hop in part comes from those vids. What was it like growing up in Warrnambool? You mentioned listening to eclectic stuff; what kind of bands were you listening to?

AM: I guess eclectic, in hindsight it probably wasn’t. But at the time in a country town, skate vids were good exposure to punk, hip-hop and more obscure stuff than what you may get otherwise, playing footy or cricket. Living in a country town anything outside the norm is eye-opening and exciting.

Did you grow up watching the music video show Rage?

AM: For sure. That was a big part of it as well, having Rage, Video Hits, Channel V and all that stuff on Austar (if you can remember that? [laughs]). That stuff was always on in the mornings. There’d be clips where I wouldn’t necessarily grasp into the song and think, yeah, I might not like this artist, but I would be engaged in the video. Spike Jonze doing that Daft Punk clip ‘Da Funk’ with the dog walking around, things like that, that visually stick out.

I really liked Michael Jackson when I was really little. I remember hiring Michael Jackson VHS from the video store.

Same! I still have a bunch of MJ VHS tapes. I joined his fan club too.

AM: That’s so good [laughs]. I used to do drawings of him too, it’d be so funny.

Me too!

AM: Oh wow! I remember this real crap one that I had that I even framed, it’d be so funny to see what it looks like now looking back.

Back then he was one of the greatest artists in the mainstream that the world had ever seen. His artistry will always hold out, despite everything else that’s happened. He was always pushing things forward art-wise. His film clip premieres would be a big deal, remember here in Australia Molly Meldrum would premiere them in a primetime slot.  His 13-minute film clip ‘Thriller’ really changed the film clip game.

AM: Yeah, definitely. ‘Thriller’ is pretty wild. Back then and still to some degree now, people had huge budgets for film clips. It was such a new thing as well, there was such a burst of creativity in the medium. So much money was getting pumped into it and people were coming up with some really cool stuff. It’s pretty easy to go back to that stuff and reference it and think about it.

I read an interview with music video director Hype Williams (who did Tupac’s ‘California Love’ and videos with Nas, A Tribe Called Quest, Jay-Z, Outkast, Missy Elliott and more), he was talking about his career and said that in one year of his career he made forty-four videos and how it was such a golden time with big budgets in the hip-hop world.

AM: Yeah, that stuff was definitely playing a lot around the time I had Channel V and that stuff. In my early teens that stuff would be on all the time!

The other night I saw Outkast’s ‘B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)’ it’s so wild, visually; everything about it is nuts. It’s crazy cool looking back at it.

Yeah. The director had the edit shipped to India for individual painting of each frame, which gave it that psychedelic look.

AM: It’s just amazing!

How do you see music videos? What is their function in your eyes?

AM: The obvious thing is that they’re a promotional tool. It’s a weird time for music videos because there seems to be that bands have less and less budget but it’s still a promotional tool. If you can make it interesting enough, it’s another way into the artist you can grasp on to. Initially the music video may draw you in more than the song but you keep watching it and you might end up liking the artist more. It’s definitely happened for me. It’s a good accompaniment for the song.

It’s a similar thing with artwork, vinyl, albums—I really like having a visual. If you like the music, it’s nice to be a part of it and create a visual for how you interpret that music itself.

How do you first approach a song when you’re going to make a video for it?

AM: Usually artists will send me the song or a few songs and ask, what do you think? Which do you like? Most of the time they let me do whatever, which is a nice freedom to have. I don’t mind a little bit of direction as well. Usually they’ll send me the song, I’ll listen to it a bunch and whatever it evokes emotionally or visually, I’ll pretty much run with that initial thought. Certain sounds and instruments will remind me of other music or clips from the past and I’ll loosely get a vibe or style from that and go from there. I like when songs have different musical elements and changes, the verse and the chorus are really different or at the end of the song the song will just change completely. It gives you a nice chance to have a completely different visual go along with it. Half the time I end up doing practical stop motion things. Every time I finish a video, I’m like, I really have to not do that again because it’s so time consuming, it is fun though! I always think the next time I should do something I can finish real quick, like live action. I can do that in two weeks and not have to go through the roller coaster ride of being really excited and then thinking, what have I got myself into? Getting excited again. Then getting worried. It’s up and down until it’s done, then I can’t believe I actually finished that!

I noticed in a lot of your work you have the stop motion animation-style and then you also have a collage-style in there too. Where does the collage aspect come from?

AM: I reckon it must be something of growing up and the children’s television that had that style back in the day, and early music videos. I don’t’ feel like I’m technically that savvy when it comes to computers; doing the stop motion seems like a really obvious choice to me, you have something sitting there, you take a photo and then move it and keep doing that until it’s animated and alive. I thought, I can do that. It may seem like a long painful process but it’s doable. It’s an easy process that makes sense in my head. It’s probably a reaction to not feeling technically savvy with software. I use it a lot and I’m probably more adept at using it and animation techniques and computers now then when I started doing stop motion. I think there’s a lot of charm in it though and that’s why I keep going back to it. I like when things aren’t quite perfect, that’s where all the charm lies; things being off, things being handmade, things being human-made, errors, jumps and flickers—that’s where all the magic lies. I always make it feel like I’m doing something new and different, even if it might seem minor in the end product; little steps forward so I feel like I’m evolving. I need to keep things interesting for myself.

Did you have any formal training or education in visual arts or film?

AM: I went to RMIT and did a two-year course of film and television, that was in 2009 when I first moved to Melbourne. Before that, in high school I did stop motion for my Year 12 project, it was all claymation stuff. I would have learnt stuff at RMIT, perhaps more how to use [Adobe] After Effects and programs like that. At the same time, I think what I initially learnt was through trial and error and skate videos. I would have made four or five skate videos with my friends, filming and editing it. And using my dad’s 8mm camera and learning to use that as well. A lot of learning has been through just trying to make stuff. It’s hard to say though, because when I went to RMIT I had just moved to Melbourne, and I was like, oh I live in Melbourne now and I’m out of my parents’ house so I can do whatever I want! I don’t have to go to school if I don’t want to. I definitely learnt stuff at RMIT but most stuff I’ve learnt on my own.

A few years ago, I went back to study. I did a three-year Bachelor of Photography at Photography Studies College in Melbourne. I work in video production (corporate videos and market reports) that pays the bills and video clips I just do in my own time. Working in corporate video production got a bit dry and boring, my partner at the time went and studied photography; I saw what she was doing and heard about the teachers. It made me really want to go back and study photography. Even more so just for myself, not as a move to start a business in photography or anything like that. I thought it would be great to go back and learn as a mature student; I was twenty-seven at the time. It got me thinking of the history of photography, images and what they mean and represent, the eras they’re from, what they’re saying politically, as a response to what was happening in that time. That stuff made me think differently about visuals. Beforehand it was more about what looks cool and interesting and compliments the sound. It gave me more of an appreciation of the thought process behind what images I’m using and how they might communicate ideas.

I’ve always been a more learning through doing person as well. I think doing things that way helps you to develop your own style. Often when people go study, they lose that creative spark or that uniqueness in their work, it gets learned out of them and people start making stuff that’s all the same. Coming from punk and skateboarding, that world is very DIY. With all the art for Gimmie, that’s all handmade inspired by my background in making zines and love of punk art. If you look closely at some of the art you can see the corner of my art desk in the image or some imperfection. I like that you can see it’s physical as opposed to digital, it’s handmade.

AM: It’s great how you can see the edge of the frame in your art. There’s an energy to it, an immediacy you can see in the work, which is something that I respond to. That immediacy is something that I try to create in my own work.

I think that’s partly why I resonate with your work; I can totally feel that in your work. I think if you spend too long on something it can feel tortured and it becomes overworked. Not always, but often. The life gets sucked out of it.

AM: Yeah, for sure. That initial energy and spark is what attracts me to things. In doing something like stop motion, it’s such a long process, initially I’ll be excited about it but after a few days and you have a couple of seconds worth of video, that energy is so hard to sustain for months or weeks to finish the video. That’s the only struggle when applying that to something as tedious as stop motion, keeping that initial spark and energy.

I can definitely see that. Have you seen the stop motion work of Bruce Bickford who did a lot of the Frank Zappa videos?

AM: Yeah, yeah. He’s the best! His stuff is amazing.

Your clips reminded me of his work.

AM: I’ve done some work with Sean McAnulty, my friend who is also from Warrnambool, we discovered Bickford eight or nine years ago. That first ORB video that we did that was all Claymation, it’s very Bickford inspired. I love the outsider weirdo people that are just doing their own thing. Bickford seemed to be working constantly doing his own stuff, if it wasn’t for Frank Zappa exposing him to heaps more people, he probably would have still just been doing his own weirdo stuff in his garage. People like him are so amazing and influential.

That’s my favourite kind of people, the true originals that create art for art’s sake, because they have to, it’s like breathing for them.

AM: It’s important that if you get an idea that you should just go with it and not think too much about it.

Is there anything that you do to stretch the resources that you have to make something look better than what’s available to you?

AM: Everything I do is on a budget, a pretty shoe stringy budget. I think that’s why I like the collage style, it’s so easy to get magazines or go to op shops and get old books and use images from those—it’s cheap, visually effective and interesting. It can be fun to do more animation with my hand drawn cartoons, but I feel like it’s not necessarily my strong point. Using found images is a way around that to create something visually strong and easy. There was a weird magazine that I found in an op shop, a World’s Fair magazine from the early-90s, it had what they thought at the time futuristic-looking things; a lot of that stuff made it into the Gizzard clip. That mag cost me 80 cents and I turned it into this whole other thing.

There’s a real art in doing that. College art has become quite popular, I find a lot of collage artists cut things out and slap them together. The artists I enjoy make something new, make a statement, have a lot of thought behind what they’re doing, there’s layers of meaning.

AM: Yeah. It’s fun to take that stuff and mix it with footage of the bands. You can completely create a new world or fantasy worlds, which I think is really interesting just the juxtaposition between images, maybe something from the 50s against future technologies or really banal stuff. I like working like that. You move the images around and as you see things beside other things, you’ll see new things or a connection between things that you wouldn’t have ever thought of otherwise; that can form other ideas in the video. It’s a fun, open way of working; it keeps it loose and interesting.

Are you inspired by the Dada artists?

AM: I haven’t really delved into the Dada movement much; I have been meaning to. I went and saw an exhibition at NVG [National Gallery of Victoria] a few years ago and there was a small section of the Dada movement and I was really interested in the stuff they were creating, it resonated with me. I feel like I’ll definitely get a lot of inspiration from it.

What’s a video you really enjoyed working on or that was challenging for you?

AM: I feel like they’re all challenging in different ways. Every time I finish filming a video, I feel like I don’t have anything else to give, in terms of that being everything I was interested in at the time and I can’t even imagine what I would do for another video. Getting excited about something will be all the spark I need to get started on the next thing though.

I really loved the Parsnip ‘Rip It Off’ clip you made.

AM: Oh yeah? Cool.

It’s pretty magical!

AM: That was fun! It was the quickest video I’ve made in terms of turn around. We shot in a day pretty much. I went to Geelong and they had some spots, we went first thing in the morning. It was so nice to shoot live action with natural light. When I finished doing it I thought, I need to do more videos like that. It’s almost like making skate videos back in the day where you can film some tricks and it’s ready to go as soon as you edit it.

The U-Bahn ‘Beta Boyz’ film clip is really fun too.

AM: Yeah. I kind of forget all the clips I do [laughs], especially with the last year being so weird with lockdown. I really like the last ORB video; ‘I Want What I Want’ was fun to make.

How amazing is that song?!

AM: Yeah. They wanted me to do a different song before that one, then they released the song and I feel like it’s not as fun to do a clip for a song that’s already released. It’s more exciting for me if people see the song with the video; it gives it more punch. Everything is usually fun and stressful at the same time.

The new Gizzard clip [O.N.E.], being locked down at the time, it felt stressful but I’m pretty happy with how it turned out. It’s got a big audience, so it’s nice that people get to see stuff.

What did you stress over?

AM: If it’s going to look good! [Laughs]. Is it going to work? Will the band think it’s good? There’s always that concern that they might think it just sucks! Because the process is working in slow motion, your brain has so much time to think, oh, this is good or this is so shit; how am I going to make this work? It’s a blessing working at such a slow process in terms of stop motion that if something doesn’t feel like it’s going right it might be a 24th of a second and then by the end of that second, you’ve corrected something that you didn’t really like and no one will ever notice; that’s a nice thing about stop motion, you can change something that isn’t going the way you like it.

How long did the new Gizzard clip take you?

AM: [Laughs]. A few months during lockdown, I definitely spent full days working on it.

Do you move on from things quickly that aren’t working out in the creative process?

AM: I usually get hung up on it. Most of the time because I spent so much time on it, I find a way to rescue it or still use it but recycle it and use it in a different way; I’ll cover it up a bit or use it with something else, layering it. Nothing kind of ever gets disregarded. Pretty much every mistake has made it in. I mask or change it, make it sit a different way or in a different part of the clip. If it was terrible though, I’d just face it and bin it.

What are you working on at the moment?

AM: I’m finishing up a Murlocs video in the next couple of days. It’s live action-based with a tiny bit of animation. Maybe a Pipe-Eye video. I’ve just started talking to him [Cook Craig] about it. I really like his stuff, it’s strange and interesting and lends itself to interesting visuals. He sent me the album the other week. He was like, “Any ideas?” There’s one song I really love and I sent him back a few ideas and he said he was thinking along the same lines too. Working with people like that and being on the same page makes it super exciting! I have to see what happens schedule-wise. After last year I wanted to hang out with people more and be more social again now that we can… but then you get ideas and you’re like, I really want to do this! Then you start doing stuff and you can’t go see anyone, you get obsessed with making it as good as you can. You want to get it to a standard where you can put it out into the world and not be embarrassed by it.

Last year was definitely a time to revaluate and think about how you can use that time. If anything, it gave me more time just to do what I was doing anyway, but not having to go to the office and do my more commercial stuff. Working in that commercial side of things, I think my video clip work is a reaction to that side of things; I want to get as far away from that world as I can. It’s nice after doing something boring and corporate at work to come home and do something that’s totally opposite; to take the banality of that work and add humour into my own work, to process and channel it and make it interesting. Does that make sense?

Yeah, for sure. My whole life I’ve pretty much had a day job and then done all the creative stuff for love in my own time. There are times when I have done creative stuff, like writing, as a job and I ended up hating it, it wasn’t fun anymore.

AM: It’s a funny thing trying to find the balance between worlds. It can keep you on your toes. Having that job that’s a drag can push you to pursue what you want in your own time and be more creative.

I always find myself at my day job thinking about what I’m going to make when I get home. At work my brain goes on autopilot sometimes and my creative mind is constantly going. When I get home, I’ll work late into the night or get up super early before work and do stuff because I’m so excited.

AM: Oh yeah! Totally. The only thing is hoping that your body doesn’t get too weary in the day that it can keep up with your brain’s excitement.

I get that!

AM: Yeah, it’s hard. Sometimes when I get home it’s like, I’m just going to chill out for five minutes and when I do that my body is like, this is good and you just take it easy. You have to keep chugging along and making it work.

Is there anyone you’d like to make a clip with?

AM: Yeah! It’d be cool to work with Cate Le Bon, Total Control, or Weyes Blood. I was excited to work with my friend Sean on a White Fence clip a couple of years ago, because White Fence, and Tim Presley as an artist, is a favourite. I’d love to keep branching out into different scenes and different genres. As long as it keeps feeling new and gives me a chance to try out different styles. It’s cool to work with new people.

Please check out @alex__mclaren

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