The Magic Behind the Video for Coldplay’s “Magic”

By shutterstockchris / /

Ziyi Zhang, best known for her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

We were really taken with Jonas Åkerlund’s promo for “Magic”, especially the production design. The attention to detail is phenomenal. And the world-within-a-world is totally believable, evoking another time and place, yet in a surreal twist, set in a field with modern-day LA forming the backdrop.

We wanted to learn more about the thinking and the process that led to this tented universe, so we caught up with Production Designer Emma Fairley who very kindly took time out to answer ALL our questions and supplied us with a veritable treasure trove of behind-the-scenes photos.

Firstly, could you describe your role on the project?

As a Production Designer it is my job to work closely with the Director to determine the “look” of the film. This means that we decide on the period of time, the colour palette and by pulling research and reference we gather an emotional reference that helps the storytelling. The props, fabrics, decor, construction – all of that comes under the banner of Production Design.

What was your brief?

Our director Jonas Åkerlund sent me a file of photographs – documents of circus and carnival life from the 1930’s. He knows clearly what direction he wants to take a film and his reference is so specific that I know exactly the mood and decor he wants me to create.

He likes to bring his own style to it and didn’t want this to just be a period take on carnival life. He want to bring modernity to it which was the drive behind our location choice – modern downtown Los Angeles.

Jonas always wants props and dressing to be emotionally palpable. If an element makes it onto film, it has to mean something.

At one point during the shoot I noticed that a regular old cutlery set had been placed down for the dinner scene. In mad panic, that the cutlery was just not good enough, I sent a PA running off to my house to rifle through my cabinets to find an old gypsy set that my Auntie had bought me in Russia. It came back and made it onto set just in the nick of time. That’s what we do.

What timeframe did you work to?

Music videos normally are built very very quickly, but on this one we actually got some nice time for preparation due to Coldplay’s and Jonas’s schedules having to coincide nicely. The film pushed back once or twice which meant that the rest of the artistic crew were able to get more and more detail in the work. 

How would you describe the look you settled on?

Norma Desmond and Charlie Chaplin take a trip to the circus and get waylaid by the opium den…? I thought a lot about the Charlie Chaplin film “Circus” – that has great decoration details.

Where did you find all the props and set dressing?

There is a great emporium of circus paraphernalia just outside Los Angeles where we were able to find all the vintage tents as well as a lot of the carnival dressing. Wini is the owner of this place and was a circus performer herself many years ago. At one point during prep, I found myself sitting in a room with Wini, her partner Chester and our director Jonas. It turns out I was in the company of three Guinness Book of World Record-holders.

What was the hardest piece to source?

Finding the beautiful tents was my first worry when the project came to me. I knew we had to get the textures and patinas right and I was worried we wouldn’t be able to make as many as we needed in the timeframe.

When I found Wini and her tents, I saw clearly the direction to take the design of the project. 

What was your favourite item?

The little fox with the rifle. We used it in Christophe’s (Chris Martin’s) tent. 

The two statuette lights get a prominent supporting role. How did you find them?

They came from a prop house in Los Angeles called Twentieth Century Props. The prop house suffered badly in the recession a few years ago and with film leaving Los Angeles, it was forced to close. It was a big loss for Set Decorators to lose such valuable vendors but these two globe-holding ladies were rescued by Wini, who had bought a lot of the pieces at auction. 

Where was the promo shot?

In a field right next to downtown Los Angeles. The metro runs right by that field. We liked that. The horn would go off in the night during filming – it added a special ambience.

Tell us a little bit about the shoot – how long did it take to dress the sets?

We dressed the sets in a day. The tents were pitched at 6am then at 10am in rolled five 5-ton trucks packed to the gills with fabrics, lanterns, antiques, trumpets and stuffed animals. It was overwhelming to unload so much dressing and to start to know where to put it all. That is my favorite moment in a set dress though- when you start to build the stories and make it come alive. We shot for two nights.

Did filming illusions add another dimension to the shoot?

All of the magic in the film was done for real. There was no CGI or post production (except for the levitating, of course). Chris Martin carefully learned the tricks with the help of Joe Labero who Jonas brought in from Sweden to coach. Magic props are a special and secret territory, well-guarded by the masters of illusion. I didn’t have a prop master on the shoot and so to be prepared to make the props work. I really had to rely on the power of magic – and trust in it. I still managed to learn a few tricks though.

Were there any technical challenges or hitches that needed to be overcome?

After a ten month drought in LA, Los Angelenos got their wish granted out of the blue – in the middle of our night shoot. With equipment and antique props lying all around the field, a rainstorm descended. It had us scurrying like rats for shelter all of a sudden. 

Does all the dressing go back to the hire shops or did you buy it outright?

We buy quite a lot of the props, make a lot and hire a lot. It works out an even breakdown. For this shoot we made a lot of props with items we just went and bought at the hardware shop. Curtains were made out of painters drop cloths, knives were carved out of wooden blocks. I have a really great crew, all bringing their own special talents and it is great that on jobs like this, we can really let everyone contribute with their skill. That’s why I love making music videos.

What are your upcoming / current projects?

One project I can’t particularly mention may have some familiar artists in it… Otherwise we keep busy with a lot of commercials and other short film projects.