25 years ago I was asked by Chiatt Day Advertising in Los Angeles to cover the making of '1984'for Apple Computers. This commercial was to be directed by Ridley Scott to introduce the Macintosh to the world. Costing around $1.5 million dollars, '1984' was to make advertising history by being shown only once in the middle of that years Superbowl - a highly prestigious slot - but never before had an advert been only shown once. The message of the whole enterprise was: 'If you miss this, then you're going to be at a disadvantage'. This sentiment in itself set the tone for the definition of the self at the end of the 20th century, when the self was to be defined by its likes and its dislikes. At the beginning of the 21st Century, the individuality of a person is now to be seen to be definied in these terms.
I was then working and managing a Soho based facility called: ‘Videomakers’ and we had gained a reputation for shooting on the American system – we understood for instance that if you shot images in certain English situations there would be a strobing of the image due to our electrical system being based on 50 rather than 60 cycles. We were to shoot on NTSC, the American television format which recorded 30 frames of 525 line resolution images. We used to joke that NTSC meant ‘Never the Same Colour’ because it didn’t have the 13 cycle oscillation which the PAL signal did, which was a colour reference signal that the tv set could realign weather distorted images.
What I hadn’t quite internalized was that I was to be sent the son of the owner of the company to direct us, a young guy called Mark Chiatt. He’s probably now quite influential in the LA advertising world. At the time he was young and raw and often on the shoot I found my self being grabbed by the shoulder and spun round to cover something I’d already shot a few minutes earlier.
1984 as a commercial made advertising history for several reasons, the main being that it was only to be shown once during the 1984 Superbowl and the footage we were to shoot would be used, not only in a ‘Making of’ for the troops at Apple, but also to be shown on American News programmes and various other places (disco’s even) to hype the fact that the commercial would only be shown once and you’d better catch it.
It just so happened that at the very moment I was shooting this for apple, a friend of mine was involved in shooting a large IBM shoot down the road and we’d both been constrained to sign secrecy clauses so that we may not talk about what we were doing outside of the studios for some time to come. Needless to say we met and talked together in a pub in Soho and mused on the nature of all of this but of course didn’t discuss the issue more widely – at the time.
On the shoot, which lasted for 10 days and cost about $1.5 million which was huge amount of money at the time, I found myself on an amazing set which, wherever you looked you inhabited that future world and the sets themselves rose 4 stories at least with sliced up jet engines hanging on the walls as if they were massive air conditioning units. I started to realize that a director like Ridley Scott had a greater imagination than most at the time and that he knew how to create a world. Also, the crew was large, maybe 50 people in total with around 100 skinheads from the Bother Boots Agency (who could also be hired to collect debts, be bouncers, extras – whatever). A lot of them were also Neo Nazis. The adveritisng agency was straight down the line capitalist. The country we were in was Thatchers Britain, the world we were in was Orwell’s distopian totalitarian future. We the crew were basically anarchists (sort of). There were even socialist workers party infiltrators amongst the ranks of the skins trying to change hearts and minds and not get beat up.
Very soon I realized that I was in an amazing and historic situation. The commercial would be fantastic visually (he had already made alien in 1978 and Blade Runner in 1981 which showed he knew a thing or two about creating an interesting sci-fi world on screen). The ‘Making of ‘would therefore be impressive – so what about me, the artist, film maker, cameraman – what would I do ? I’d already had a seminal moment when checking back the rushes and finding the whole crew standing behind me and the soundman watching what for them was the first time any of them would see images of what they were doing at the time of making those images – usually they would wait months to see the outcome at the cinema – not this time though. So suddenly, instead of ostracizing us as the enemy with the new technology as they usually did, they welcomed us and even began to help us.
The soundman, Antony Cooper and myself decided that we’d like to interview the skinheads. There had already been a knifing and a rape and the crew were very nervous that this group of extras, being already known for rioting on Pink Floyds ‘The Wall’, may just get very violent at the end of the shoot. We found the biggest most interesting Skin and arranged an interview. A short while after we had begun more skinheads had heard about what we were doing and quite a few joined us, including the ‘theorist’ – so named by us because he was watching and listening to what the skins were saying and originally correcting them. Then Mark Chiatt joined us and made the mistake of asking a Skin about his Bulldog tattoo: “What’s that shit on your arm ?” Meaning what’s that mark on your arm. There was a moment of cross-cultural confusion as the Skins thought that he was insulting them and we nearly came in for a beating – but we managed talking them out of that by saying that he was American and didn’t truly understand what he was saying. Close.
I decided that I had to ‘steal’ the footage (effectively from myself as the image maker) and put on another hat and work with the material I had shot. This took some fast footwork where I managed to get some standards conversions done to import the footage into the pal system – the colour and contrast of the images suffered of course – all before handing the NTSC rushes over to Apple.
Later Mark made a good corporate piece for apple which played the disco circuit in California and also was used on the news networks and then the commercial showed and instantly gained its position in the industry hall of fame.
I worked with the material at Videomakers for a while – we had just taken delivery of a time base corrector, which could freeze the image and we had basic vision mixer capabilities too. One night I became angry at the sheer hatred cming out of the Skins during the interview footage and collided that aginst an image of the grl from the commercial who hurls a hammer at the Telescreen and thus brings Big Brother crashing down. This was elementary scratch video – or, going back 60 or so years to Vertov and especially Eisenstein with his Montage of Attractions – the collision of one image against another to produce a third meaning.
As soon as I showed the work which I now called ‘Prisoners’ knew I had a special piece of work and the requests for festival screenings proved this to be so.
Prisoners deals with the problem of ideology, the potential manipulation of meaning and the hotness or coldness of the medium as expressed by McLuhan – as well as several other issues. I called this work Prisoners because I was interested in the problem of having a fixed ideology, of having a fixed set of ideas in relation to the world. To use a metaphor: it seemed to me that having sun glasses was useful whilst in the sun, but useless in the middle of the night. So therefore those people depicted in my work, the capitalists, neo Nazis, Thatcherites, communists, corporatists and us, the anarchists were all held Prisoner by our own set of beliefs.