The latest Black Eyed Peas earworm, ‘Action’ is a stitched tapestry of wild, action sequences, somewhere between the improbable and the impossible. The faces of will.i.am, apl.de.ap and Taboo, members of Black Eyed Peas, are superimposed onto those of the actor using ‘deep-fake’ technology.
Over a zoom-conversation with directors, Pasha Shapiro and Ernst Weber, we discussed their first brush with “Bollywood”, both growing up on the other side of the iron curtain, in Soviet Russia, the postmodernism of Disco Dancer that finds its way into this video that is both ironic and in admiration of “Bollywood”. (In double-quotes here because it is not about the industry that produces films in Mumbai, but refers to anything considered outrageous and entertaining.)
Where did this idea for this music video originate from?
Pasha Shapiro: We have been collaborating with Black Eyed Peas and will.i.am on different creative projects for a while. Oftentimes, he comes to us with every out-of-this-world idea that we try to find modern emergent technology to make certain unusual creative ideas that weren’t possible before, possible. This video is a good manifestation of this relationship. The other common denominator in our relationship is where we take a certain slice of human culture, like we did a video where we took an entire set of Renaissance paintings from the Louvre, and then we take an element of pop culture, in this case, members of Black Eyed Peas, and give it a new voice by infusing it with pop-culture.
It was about a year ago when will.i.am and we were talking about Bollywood and I instantly realized there is an opportunity. Because the idea of Bollywood already has a very interesting echo of Western culture with a very interesting change of perspective, that long ago became a self-sustaining art form. There is a following for Bollywood in Western culture which is ironic but also there’s genuine admiration. We took that layer and brought in the Western element of Black Eyed Peas music. The reason why these collaborations work really well is that he believes hiphop cannot only be limited to music, he believes in visual hiphop and the video is the manifestation of that.
Ernst Weber: Bollywood action movies represent postmodernism for me, especially a film like Robot. I saw it back in 2010 and it was hysterical, I fell in love with it immediately. In order to create something exciting it is absolutely necessary to reflect on that, some post-postmodernism.
What were your respective introductions to Bollywood?
Ernst Weber: We were growing up in the Soviet Union where there was a very tight relationship with India back then. We had a number of phenomenal movies, some of the classics of Bollywood- Disco Dancer, Sita and Gita! Disco Dancer was a wonderful piece of postmodernism, in my opinion.
Pasha Shapiro: We both grew up behind the iron curtain, and that put us in an interesting position because we were deprived of Western influences and culture, and Soviet Cinema did not produce high budget films and musicals of the same epic scale as American movies. But we did have Bollywood. Ironically, our introduction of many Western cinematic ideas came through Bollywood. It was a breath of fresh air in a background of Soviet reality.
What was the selection criteria here for which movies to pick for the video? Have you watched the entirety of these films?
Pasha Shapiro: will.i.am was sending me references from YouTube that he found. I don’t know which of those movies he saw. We, of course, watched them. The criteria was simple: to find action flicks which have the most out-of-this-world, exaggerated action sequences, because that’s representative of the song, as something over-the-top, unapologetic, and self-ironic. Bollywood provided us with limitless choices.
If Terminator was Modernism, then Robot would be a reconstruction of that, making it funny, in a very successful way, it is a postmodern film.
Were there movies that did not make it?
Ernst Weber: It is mostly about getting rights for the movies, so we had to keep it to a minimum.
Pasha Shapiro: We just tried to stay within the genre. There were sci-fi genres and superhero genres that we filtered out. This was specifically about the action genre because if superheroes do seemingly impossible things, it feels more natural.
Tell me about the technology and role of a director in such a scenario. How did you direct this?
Pasha Shapiro: The entire complete music video was edited from the movies before the tech process started. This was unusual – to have it ready before the complex filming happened. Normally we film it with a loose vision, look at the footage, and then look at the visual effects. Here, everything happens on the editing table. From face-swap to deep-fake we had to use everything we had. Neural networks transfer actor’s likeness and lip sync. Deep fake is not used in VFX for a number of reasons; it has certain limitations. It is really good to take videos from YouTube and swap faces, but like any AI, it is a blackbox- you have no control over the end result, which doesn’t work in VFX, which needs control and predictability in the result. Because of that, it isn’t used in Hollywood.
The technology we developed, we take several layers of neural networks, and put the layers of other more traditional VFX to produce consistent and controlled results.
Ernst Weber: A lot of this was done by combining background with characters in green-screen. We actually used 3D modelling of the face. Lip sync had to be applied on top of keying and masking. It was a lot of fun; it was pure comedy – the most relaxed and most ridiculous.
Which one of these was the most difficult to recreate?
Pasha Shapiro: In order to make that video, we had to sometimes replace the entire scene and recreate the background, and for some we had to just replace the face. We had to use every possible approach.
For which one did you recreate the entire background?
Pasha Shapiro: That was for the Swedish Film Kopps. We discovered it was easier to film the person on the green screen and reproduce the entire background because it is almost static.
The video is meant to be a homage, but like you said, while there is admiration, there is also irony, of parodying Indian cinema. Were you worried about any pushback or criticism?
Pasha Shapiro: Not worried, but I believe that postmodernism, the cultural era in which we live, is all about that balance; where the thin line between irony and serious admiration is blurred, and in that blur art exists. Irony/Admiration is a source of artistic impulse that moves culture forward.
Ernst Weber: If Terminator was Modernism, then Robot would be a reconstruction of that, making it funny, in a very successful way, it is a postmodern film.
A lot of regional Indian languages were clubbed together and called “Bollywood”.
Pasha Shapiro: We also have a Swedish film! It is more about cross-geographic cultural phenomenon, which we loosely call Bollywood. But you’re right, it’s not Bollywood, it is an idea of a different part of the world creating its own colourful original take on what originated as Western action flicks. It is a good point, that it is not fair to call this specific exercise about Bollywood.
You shot this video a year ago, and it was kept in storage till last week. When you finally saw the video release what did you think?
Pasha Shapiro: We were not sure it was going to be released because of the riots. In many ways it was a risky endeavour. But once other people start watching it, you watch it with different eyes. To any creator, this is the ultimate goal, when you see your project as an independent viewer. It only happened after the project was released.