The lead single from 1997’s “Travelling Without Moving”, “Virtual Insanity” was the video that introduced stateside viewers to Jamiroquai’s unique brand of cosmic stoner funk, while schooling American youth in the finer points of fashion-forward headgear.
A futuristic fusion of moving walls, rotating furniture, and gravity-defying footwork, throughout the video director Jonathan Glazer seemingly pulls new camera tricks from singer Jay Kay’s oversized hat at will. The video went on to win four awards at the 1997 Video Music Awards, including “Best Video”, “Breakthrough Video”, and “Best Special Effects in a Video” (ironic, given the song’s lyrics deal with the negative impact of technology upon the environment).
While both Glazer and Jay Kay claim to have dreamt up the concept for the video, the finished product differs markedly from their original vision. Calling for the creation of a hydraulic-powered set, Glazer wanted multiple moving platforms that elevated and rotated independently of one another – essentially creating a human version of Mouse Trap, with Jay Kay shuffling between them trying not to get crushed.
Upon discovering the cost associated with building such a set (approximately $500,000 at the time), Glazer ultimately filmed the reverse of his initial concept. In the finished video NOTHING moves but the walls, as a huge set on wheels manually powered by ten grips on either side gives the illusion of a reverse gravitational pull. One locked-off camera films the action while set elements slide back and forth, seemingly unaffected by the laws of space and time.
The video was a smash: occupying top spot on countless “Best of” video lists, while at the same time affording Jay Kay the means to purchase a fleet of outlandishly-painted sports cars to match his assortment of ridiculous hats.
So what web video lessons can we learn from the video that made cosmic funk cool again?
1) Take viewers behind the scenes
We were amazed to discover that there really isn’t a “Making of” video for “Virtual Insanity”, despite the fact that countless fans are obviously dying for it – something that would be sacrilege today. It never hurts to keep a camera or two rolling during downtime in a production to capture all the behind-the-scenes action. After all: you never know when you’ll be filming a ground-breaking video that people will hound you about for the next twenty years.
2) Sometimes you have to let the talent be the talent
Glazer kicked off the shoot by offering some direction to Jay Kay in terms of where and how he wanted him to move around the set. That didn’t last long. “Listen,” Kay is said to have told Glazer, “I’ve been doing this in front of the mirror since I was four years old, so let me worry about the dancing.” While clear direction is essential in getting the most out of your actors, at some point you need to let your talent do what you’re paying them to do: such as slither like a stoned serpent in a velour tracksuit.
3) Big ideas don’t always equal big budgets
“Virtual Insanity” is a classic case of necessity being the mother of invention. Needing to deliver their vision on a limited budget, Glazer and his team created a camera technique that is still being used today (for an example, check out this nifty recent video from Arc Media). The lesson? Don’t be so quick to dismiss a great concept due to budgetary limitations. This isn’t to say you can destroy a city block on a budget, but there are inventive ways to shoot around things like crowds and locations while ensuring you get the look you want.
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