Welsh nomad Tom Swindell is a freelance director and DOP shooting mainly documentaries and music videos. He’s most at home while traveling and has shot in over 50 countries. Tom’s work has been broadcast around the world by the likes of VICE, the BBC, ITV, Channel 4, Netflix, Discovery, the History Channel, National Geographic, NHK and ARTE.
Here, Tom shares his experiences of shooting a recent music video at Notting Hill Carnival.
Earlier this year, I was asked to direct a music video for the Jamaican artist, Randy Valentine. The track’s titled “Champion” and was produced by Walshy Fire, who’s a member of Major Lazer. The first thing I do when making any music video is listen to the song on repeat, I seem to get my best ideas in the shower, for example. The initial inspiration for this came from one of the song’s lyrics: “the rebel from the rubble”. It reminded me of old newsreel footage of Notting Hill after the World War 2 Luftwaffe bombing raids. London's Caribbean community lived amid that rubble when they first arrived in this country, and that got me thinking about Notting Hill Carnival and its founders. They sort of embody that lyric; they are the rebels from the rubble.
A day-in-the-life documentary-style music video, seeing the Carnival in 2018 through the eyes of one of its founders.
I’d met Sonny Blacks, who was one of the pioneers of Carnival, last year. He brought some of the first steel pan bands over from Trinidad in the early 1960s. I called him and proposed the idea of tailing him for a day-in-the-life documentary-style music video, seeing the Carnival in 2018 through the eyes of one of its founders. After Sonny agreed, I told Walshy, and he loved the idea.
I’ve been going to Carnival since my early twenties, getting the train from where I grew up in Cardiff. In that time, I’ve performed live as a drummer with Jus Now and filmed everything from stages run by Toddla T and Shy FX, to the more traditional Mangrove Steelband and London School of Samba. If you want to capture dance and revelry authentically, you have to join the fun. At Carnival, I’ll take a drink and join the party, dancing and singing along to the music, which assures people nearby that despite my Welsh and ginger appearance, I know what Carnival’s about.
I’ve tried a glidecam, steadycam, gimbals and shoulder mounts, but I find the best way to get a variety of shots is to simply shoot handheld.
In terms of gear, I’ve tried a glidecam, steadycam, gimbals and shoulder mounts, but I find the best way to get a variety of shots is to simply shoot handheld. Also, most of the footage I shoot at Carnival is on wide lens – anything from 8mm to 20mm will do. A lot of the time I’ll be in big crowds of people, and someone will start dancing right in front of me – if the lens isn’t wide enough, I wouldn’t get that full body shot. The most powerful shots of dancers are often full-body, including the feet and their connection to the ground. This year, I also thought it’d be a good idea to wear an all-white outfit, white hat included. This was so I could easily be found by any lost crew members.
When it comes to filming at an event like Carnival, there are a lot of useful things they don’t teach you in film school. Half the battle is just about showing some personality, making eye contact, having a good smile, cracking a joke, being confident enough to tap someone on the shoulder and say, “Yo, I’m doing a film, wanna be in this shot?” You can be a nerd and know all the technical stuff, but having the balls to approach people in the streets is just as important.
I’ll take a drink and join the party, dancing and singing along to the music, which assures people nearby that despite my Welsh and ginger appearance, I know what Carnival’s about.
Filming at Carnival presents other interesting challenges. Nowhere else do you encounter so many members of the public – Notting Hill has over 2 million visitors each year. So I have public liability insurance and insure my camera against theft – I’d say these are essential precautions when filming at any carnival. This year, I also hired a professional security guard to protect my contributors – especially Sonny, who’s elderly. I also secured triple-A passes from the official Carnival committee, which allowed us to go backstage and cut through the streets that were blocked off to the public.
It’s mainly about the lifestyle for me, more than turning a profit – I’ve made a lot of good friends through these videos.
It takes time to foster relationships like the ones I have with Walshy and Sonny – I’ve been directing music video since 2012, and am at a point now where I can actually get good money for my work. For a long time, people weren’t paying me much. That said, it’s mainly about the lifestyle for me, more than turning a profit – I’ve made a lot of good friends through these videos, it’s just such a great vibe when you’re documenting a spontaneous moment at Carnival. Nothing beats it.