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Exclusive: How Andy Morahan Brought Band Aid 30 to Life in 36 Hours

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Director on working with Bob Geldof, Sinead O’Connor and Bono for Ebola charity Christmas video

Exclusive: How Andy Morahan Brought Band Aid 30 to Life in 36 Hours

Great Guns director Andy Morahan has had a very busy week. His new music video for Band Aid 30’s re-working of ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’, which was premiered on Sunday night’s X-Factor, generated immediate debate in the media and turned the charity record into the UK’s fastest selling single of 2014. Even more impressive, the team managed to juggle 32 top artists and turn around the single and video in a heroic 36 hours. As the (understandably exhausted) director explains to LBB’s Laura Swinton, the key to pulling it off was a mixture of persistence, experience and surprisingly polite pop stars…

The video and single for Band Aid 30, created by organisers Bob Geldof and Midge Ure to raise funds for the Ebola crisis in West Africa, were recorded and filmed simultaneously in London’s Sarm Studios. With only a few days to prepare and 36 hours to shoot, edit and post, it may well be one of the most challenging jobs that director Andy Morahan – the man behind Guns N’ Roses’ ‘November Rain’ promo – has ever worked on.

From getting the call on Monday November 10th, the team were racing against the clock. Even before getting to the set, there was drama to deal with as they battled with organisers to obtain permission for their crew of 32 to attend the shoot. With 200 pop stars, managers, PRs, label execs and more due to cram into the Notting Hill studio, the space looked set to turn into a three ring circus. “We had to fight our corner and we had to take a few people out. If we were going to turn the edit around, we’d need someone to hook up our cameras to generate time codes. Our sound people had to hook up with their sound people. To get it ready for Sunday afternoon we’d need a couple of editors on the premises, a couple of DIT people feeding data into machines. For us to move that quickly we needed people,” explains Andy. “I imagine from his [Bob Geldof] perspective it was really scary, it was spiraling out of control a little bit. But he needed the video, he needed the track, we all had to co-exist. And he’s thrilled with it.”

In the end, the team managed to set up a production line-type process and the shoot itself was an unexpectedly stress-free. “Outside the studio was madness – the green room, the reception, the stairs; that was all fucking madness. But the studio was an oasis of calm. It was very conducive to people being creative,” says Andy.

In fact, the most challenging aspect of the job was not, as one might expect, dealing with divas and egos. As Andy reveals, all of the artists involved were polite and punctual and collaborative. The real drama came in the cutting room where Andy and the in-house Great Guns editors James Demetriou, Nick Saunders and Will Cole were tasked with a particularly tricky overnight edit. “It was difficult, and for a very specific reason. We had 12-15 people singing single lines and they had multiple takes each. Paul Epworth, who was making the track, basically had to make those decisions. We didn’t know until three or four in the morning who was singing what line. That was why we needed all the takes and time codes. Often the best take vocally wasn’t my favourite take visually so we’d have to find alternative shots and angles. It was a really difficult jigsaw of an edit. Before we could start editing in a lyrical way there was a lot of technical stuff to figure out. It was all about placing stuff. And then it was only when we were really tired at seven or eight in the morning that we could start thinking ‘how’s this thing going to work as a video?’ I had a narrative structure in my mind but I like my videos to be musical, to be lyrical, to have an emotion to it. You can’t get that if you’re making it by numbers so we had to get over the technical hurdle to then sit back for a couple of hours early Sunday morning to figure out how to do it in a way that was emotional and uplifting. We had to pool all of our years of experience.”

After that it was off to VFX house Rushes for a super quick session of post and telecine – and then the video was off to the X-Factor studios, where it arrived half an hour before broadcast.

Since its broadcast on Sunday evening, Band Aid 30 has not been without controversy – not least the opening images of an emaciated Ebola victim which contrast so starkly with the rich pop stars performing in the video proper. According to Andy, these images were always intended as a pre-roll to the video rather than part of it.

“Bob wanted to show the contrast between the reality of the situation and the film, that was the original thinking. He wanted to put it in context – the fact that this is more about Ebola and he wanted a harrowing series of images because he knew if we could get it finished and get it on X-Factor that’s quite subversive. He went to X-Factor – and this is a true story, so I can tell it – and they didn’t want to play that first bit. So Bob called Simon Cowell, who said ‘I don’t have a problem with it’. Apparently it was coming from high up in ITV, so Simon called the head of ITV and said, ‘we’re showing it’.”

It’s a decision that has served to keep Band Aid 30 and Ebola in the headlines and generate debate. “It’s kind of taken on a life of its own. The first few images of the video are people arriving and photographers and some people reacted badly, saying ‘you’re going from the terrible situation of Ebola to these pampered celebrities’. But that’s exactly the sort of juxtaposition we wanted. We’re very lucky and these people aren’t and it accentuates the disparity. Some people have supported it and some people think it just shows how spoiled these celebrities are. I think it’s bullshit – I think it’s a really good juxtaposition.”

In the UK, Band Aid has become something of an institution. ‘Do They Know It’s Christmas’ was first released in 1984 to raise money for the Ethiopian famine crisis and every decade since has seen a new iteration with the top pop stars of the day. So how does Andy feel Band Aid 30 fits with previous versions? “I think what’s interesting about this one is that, yeah, he’s [Bob Geldof] got some pop people in there like One Direction because One Direction are the biggest boy band in the world right now, and I’m not denigrating these guys, but the rest of the cast are just some incredible artists. To bring back certain people like Seal or Sinead O’Connor, who have incredible soulful voices, is great. With the way Paul Epworth, the producer who worked on the Adele 21 album, has put it together there’s something quite classic and quality about it. It feels more grown up.” 

And that grown up feel is also apparent in the look and feel of the film. With warm glowing lights and areas of deep shade, at some points the recording studio feels almost transformed into a candlelit church. “We wanted to give it that slight reverence. That came about in a couple of ways. One is that it’s quite a dark studio and if you turn the main house lights on it feels like a school classroom or a lecture hall. It’s really dull. And also, we went to visit it before the shoot and they had the vocal booth set up in the middle of the studio and a very small lamp in there and there was something really interesting about how the light fell off into the depth behind. We accentuated that.”

Andy is full of praise for the artists who contributed to the single. There were no egos and there was a real collaborative atmosphere. However, as an experienced director, Andy knew he had to help each artist feel at ease in order to get the best performance from them. “You had to create an environment where the singers were comfortable and didn’t feel like a million people were watching them go through their paces. Some are confident and love the chance to show off in front of their peers, others are shy and intimidated – you just don’t know what’s going to happen. Sinead, at first, said, ‘I need 15 minutes to warm up and can you turn all the lights off in the studio and I don’t want the camera crew in here’ – and that was her thing. She needed to warm up, she was literally singing in the dark, figuring out how she was going to sing some of the lines, and when we came back she was ready. That’s her particular thing. Some people get in, do it, leave. Others want to hear what they’ve done to see if the want to get back into the booth. You have to be totally open and flexible.” 

In fact, watching Sinead O’Connor perform was one of Andy’s best memories from the day. “People might go ‘she’s strange and difficult’ but it was watching a true artist really do her shit, and she knew exactly what she needed to do to get her shit,” he says.

Bono and Ed Sheeran – who nipped back to London from his tour of Germany in order to contribute – also come in for unexpected praise. “The other high moment was when Bono came in. Whatever people think about his look or his attitude, when he opens his mouth and sings it’s probably one of the greatest voices you’ve ever heard in your life. The phrasing, the way it breaks at high notes. You just sit there thinking ‘oh my fucking god, that’s a proper fucking rock star’.

“Also the understated dignity of Ed Sheeran was just beautiful. He turned up, no fuss, no entourage, in his little jumper, does his thing and says ‘sorry, I’ve got to go back to Germany’. He was so polite – not that anybody wasn’t polite but there’s something about that guy that’s just fantastic. I think he’s going to be around for a long time.”

Speaking to LBB from his home in Somerset, Andy was obviously still recovering from an intense and high profile piece of work. Admitting to ‘bawling his eyes out’ in his hotel room after the promo was finally wrapped up, Andy describes it as an incredibly emotional experience. 

“It was such an intense experience that your head has nowhere to go really. You either get out of it or you have a good old cry,” he says. “You go through a whole range of emotions. Everything’s possible before you shoot it. The mad moment for me came actually during the edit and not getting the track through until three or four am. There was a point at 10 in the morning where I didn’t think we’d make the deadline. I just couldn’t fucking see how we were going to do it. That was a really, really low point. No one likes to fail and when you’ve got the world watching you it’s really intense. But, you know, we got through.”

And get through he did. Within hours of launching, the video and single generated £1 million and, despite intense debate, has kept the Ebola crisis top-of-mind as the Christmas party season begins. 

Support Band Aid 30 by downloading the track here.

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Genres: Music performance

Categories: Charity, Corporate, Social and PSAs

Great Guns London, Wed, 19 Nov 2014 17:48:16 GMT