Roddy Bogawa’s fascinating documentary, Taken by Storm brings us into the world of Storm Thorgerson, co-founder of Hipgnosis, the company responsible for the unique and often-startling designs of dozens of classic vinyl album covers from the late 1960’s to the 2000’s including such iconic album designs as Pink Floyd’s “Dark Side of the Moon” and Led Zeppelin’s “Presence.” In showing Mr. Thorgerson at work, Mr. Bogawa takes us into an earlier era of artistry, where physical crafting and painstaking staging of photographs were relied on as opposed to the technical shortcuts of today’s computer-generated ease. When Mr. Thorgerson set out to create the cover of Pink Floyd’s “A Momentary Lapse of Reason,” depicting dozens of hospital beds lined up in the English countryside, dozens of hospital beds it was despite the obstacles one would expect to find in arranging such a photograph including the inevitable English rain.
So, too, has filmmaker Roddy Bogawa continued to work often with 16mm film, preferring to get his hands dirty rather than clicking on a mouse. Excerpts from a recent conversation with Mr. Bogawa about Taken by Storm and his approach to film are below. Taken by Storm premiered at South By Southwest in 2011 and screened at the Museum of Modern Art in 2013 as part of Roddy Bogawa: If Films Could Smell, a mid-career retrospective.
Mike Fishman: You’ve worked a lot with 16mm film, which has a tactile nature to it as compared to digital video. Was part of what drew you to this particular subject the tactile feel of film and your interest and teenage memories of album covers, which often opened up to reveal more design elements?
Roddy Bogawa: Absolutely! I learned how to make films doing black and white photography and then super-8 (which was like trying to work with curly pasta!) and then finally 16mm film. I’ve done almost all my work in 16mm film because I love the image, the grain of the film, and the physicality of working with it – threading a film camera magazine, loading and unloading it, even having to take it to a lab to get processed. My last three feature films were all cut in 16mm on a Steenbeck six-plate editing machine which means you work with tape splicers, grease pencils, sharpie pens, and boxes and boxes of film and sound rolls. My memories of learning to work in film have to do with all of this…the editing room as an absolute mess. There used to be notes and pictures taped all over the walls, you could smoke while working, old burrito wrappers on the floor. It was a studio! Now with computer-based editing systems (and I don’t say ‘non-linear’ because cutting on a film flatbed is non-linear editing), you’ve got none of this. You sit in an air-conditioned room, calling in a sushi lunch, and staring blankly at a computer screen for hours. There’s precisely NO physicality to this other than the click of a mouse. Not only is this terrifyingly boring to me but I have a belief that the fact that with film editing you would have to move around, pull the film, look at your cutting marks, find your log sheets to locate a shot, thread and re-thread reels, creates moments when your eyes are forced to look elsewhere and your brain drifts into another space where you get ideas about editing and relationships of shots and concepts.
The act of editing should really be the physical act of articulating your thoughts, but computer-based editing pushes you to be lazy because you can always undo your last edit with a key command. Even if you are quick with a tape splicer, an edit would take a certain amount of time and thus you would think about why you were making a cut before you would do it. This for me is a huge geological shift in editing that came far too quickly. I’m not a technophobe in a cave but I do think tools affect creativity and these particular tools aren’t predisposed for thinking. It’s the same with writing. How quickly has the method of how we write changed with first the word processor and then the computer? At this moment, I’m answering your questions while typing on a laptop and editing and re-writing at the same time as punching the keys rather than trying to write out a draft and then going back and doing a re-write. I try as much as possible to not do this with writing and also editing on a computer system but it’s fighting a landslide of bad habits formed by technology.
It’s a good correlation to pose vinyl records against this parallel shift and I do think it’s possibly one of the reasons that opened the door between Storm and I. Not that we were anti-technological curmudgeons but that we intuitively felt this shift and recognized the larger social function that was getting lost in the shuffle. Vinyl records were not just physical objects but also the source of information in the pre-internet days. This is where you would read about who was the producer and engineer, what musicians played on the LP and also of course, who designed the cover and packaging. Hipgnosis was a name that popped up on many records that I had as a teenager and I was fascinated by the fact that sometimes the “company” or whatever I fantasized it was, was spelled strangely and also occasionally mis-spelled as “Hipnosis.” This was also where you studied pictures of the band to model your clothes or hair style on and when I got into Punk music, where I thought about politics, albeit naïve at the time.
Storm and Po’s covers (Aubrey “Po” Powell was the other founding member of Hipgnosis) were always never easy to pin down and did in fact have many visual puns, hidden meanings, etc. embedded in the design. This was not simply clever packaging but rather taking the notion of packaging to an entirely new realm of meaning. Storm continued this throughout his career up through StormStudios and realized that what he called his “job” was not simply to market the band but instead to create what he called a visual parallel to the music. Thus, the majority of his covers are artistic pieces in and of themselves. In a funny way, I also think this freed up the musicians in certain ways – not locking the image from a cover of one of their records to a particular look or time period thereby dating it.
MF: It’s fascinating how the images on album covers become intertwined with the music, such as the prism on “Dark Side of the Moon” or “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” where the cover directly supports the actual story of the album and the story Peter Gabriel wrote that appears on the inside cover. Do you think the packaging of music will ever move back to something larger or different that will somehow incorporate that experience or we inevitably moving towards only downloadable files?
RB: I really doubt that album covers will shift back to that kind of interplay with the music and in that way, Storm was a true pioneer and genius. He, of course, was not the only one working like this and there is a handful of other designers I quite admire but I have to say Storm was one of a kind for his dogged dedication to exploring imagery in relation to music. That the “Dark Side of the Moon” cover developed from the iconic prism and refracted light graphic to images of pyramids and triangles and such, symbolizing ambition and madness, is emblematic of how Storm’s imagery was expansive in meaning.
The other cover you mention, “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” really is kind of a perfect match to some of what I think was Storm’s strategy in numerous designs. I told him once that one of the overarching interpretations I got from looking hard at the bulk of his design work was that they resembled film stills or still images from a scene caught mid-action which was what always made me curious about what had just happened prior to the image or what was just about to happen. He grinned at me and that was the moment he told me he had studied filmmaking at the Royal College of Art. In fact, Po, his partner, also studied filmmaking at college and after Hipgnosis folded went on to direct numerous music related projects and documentaries as well as commercials. “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway” by Genesis and “Deloused in the Comatorium” by The Mars Volta decades later are both concept albums that are visually evocative so these are cases where the music is moving more into his terrain of expertise. And most of all in something like “The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway,” Storm got to do more than one picture for the album! He must have loved that.
While making the film over three years and spending a lot of time with Storm I decided the medium that might have worked best for him was one that got abandoned pretty quickly – the CDRom. In the architecture of a CDRom, he could have had multiple entries and exits to the imagery. It was really the epitome of a rhyzomatic form and Storm’s mind worked in those associative methodologies. I don’t think you can have the same type of pathways of information in an ebook or website with hidden buttons, etc.
In terms of the move from vinyl to CD to mp3, it’s terribly sad, not just for the music industry as it suffers financially but also how we all have lost a real social element that was in my mind very significant. The notion of sitting your friends down after dinner and spinning a record or loaning an LP to someone is completely lost with digital files and how music is now “shared.” We’ve given up what was a bonding tribal ritual for supposed convenience and consumption and moved from music unifying groups of people to the “I-Pod” and “I-phone.” Me. Me. Me. It’s the same with physical photo albums. My grandparents’ photo albums still exist and are on the shelf to pick up and look at, pictures that are 75 years old, but will the same hold true for all those hundreds of thousands of digital photos we’ve got on our hard drives? Unfortunately, I think not.
Above, from left to right: editor Karen Skloss, filmmaker Roddy Bogawa, Storm Thorgerson, and StormStudios photographer Rupert Truman at South by Southwest Film Festival, 2011. Photo courtesy of Rupert Truman.
MF: This may be an impossible question to answer but taking an album like “Dark Side of the Moon,” how much do you think the cover added to the mystique of the album? Do you think the album might have had a different reception if the cover had featured, say, a simple shot of the band on it? And by that I mean not an interesting shot like on Pink Floyd’s “UmmaGumma,” but just a plain still image of the band?
RB: Pink Floyd, by the time they hit “Dark Side of the Moon,” had really abandoned the idea of an image of a band as its identifiable symbol so the graphic of the prism fit perfectly to this arc, and then certainly after the success of the record, it solidified this feeling. Their concerts had already taken on a larger than life aspect with the light show, quadraphonic sound, inflatable balloons and an octopus, so they were moving towards another type of spectacle in their live shows. Maybe it was the advent of “prog rock” that also influenced this shift, that the bands didn’t jump about much as they had to play rather complex riffs and runs, or their desire for people to listen to them live as if visiting a play or theater setting rather than a typical rock concert but any type of portrait is literally gone from the covers after “Piper at the Gates of Dawn” and “UmmaGumma.”
It’s hard to reconcile just why the prism is so perfect for the music contained in the record, or is it that it’s been ingrained in our collective consciousness to the point that we simply can’t separate the two? My memory is that it seemed very futuristic and I always thought of the prism as the monolith from Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey,” hence the black background of outer space, which was also re-enforced by the infra-red images of the pyramids in green looking like Mars. Our inability to immediately decode the prism in relation to the music is testament to its lasting impression in a way and it clearly looks absolutely fantastic on a t-shirt! I can’t say for sure if the reception of the album would have been different with an image of the band on the cover but I do think it would have tagged the lyrics about the music industry and madness too close to the band if there had been this type of design. With this reduced graphic, people can interpret the content more freely and associate some of the songs to Syd Barrett or the snippets of dialogue about violence and death from anyone, even the listener (Editor’s note: see also Storm Thorgerson’s design for Pink Floyd’s follow-up album to “Dark Side of the Moon,” “Wish You Were Here”). The cover also feels out of time and I do think this is one reason that the album has found its place over and over again with new generations of music lovers.
MF: What’s the status of Taken by Storm and where can people look forward to seeing it in the future?
RB: At the moment, I’m dealing with all the clearances and hoping it gets released in the coming months. I’ve been talking with independent booking agents about doing limited theatrical runs and then it’ll be released on DVD and digitally. Storm and I had talked about screenings of the film with music shows afterwards alongside exhibitions of prints of his images (Storm with his studio, StormStudios and various galleries have made limited edition silk screens of numerous images) and crazy things like screening the film in rock concert venues. It’s time for the film to come out now that Storm is gone so music lovers along with graphic designers and even advertising people can see his process and how prolific his life and career was over the forty years he worked. I always told Storm that his influence on culture went way past just the music world and hopefully when the film is widely available this will become apparent.
For more information on Roddy Bogawa and Taken by Storm please visit: http://www.roddybogawa.com.