Steps in 2022

Words Are Not Enough directors share their memories

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animated Claire Richards

Words Are Not Enough has been remastered and upscaled to HD on the official Steps YouTube channel, to celebrate the band’s 25th anniversary.

To celebrate this iconic video, directors Aron Baxter and Thrain Shadbolt have shared their memories of making the video. They spoke to reporter Chris Fox via video call.

CHRIS FOX: How did you come to work with Steps?

ARON BAXTER: We actually worked on the effects for a few other Steps videos, including Here & Now. We animated the flowers coming on to the hedges and we helped put the band in that world. We had a good working relationship with them and they formulated this idea that they would like a fully animated video in two or three videos’ time. We said we’d be happy to make that happen.

THRAIN SHADBOLT: At that stage, I hadn’t directed a video before. I was predominantly involved in doing the animation production side of it, that was my speciality. Aron looked after the live-action shooting and directed that part of it. But we worked on the whole thing together.

CF: Why did the band want an animated video?

AB: They were super busy at the time. They were on tour, they were doing so much promotional stuff. And doing an actual live action music can take three to four days of their time. It was a perfect storm of putting together something that they could comment on and see, and we could work on it concurrently while they were charging around the country doing gigs and promotional tours.

TS: I guess you get to portray another side of yourself, a sort of fantasy role, almost like a comic book hero. I think it let them explore this idea in a different way.

AB: We came up with a premise, once we decided to do an animated video: let’s start this in the real world, which involved just a one day shoot. Then they would transition into this world beyond the mirror – almost beyond the looking glass. Then they would manifest themselves into the animated versions of themselves and go on this fantastical journey.
They also had to have a special super power. H’s superpower was his absolute speed – and little embellishments came from that, like him blasting down the canyon and breaking through the rocks. They all had their own special power to beat this shadowy nemesis we came up with.

CF: What was the brief for the video?

TS: The brief as we had it was really quite open in that they wanted to be portrayed as animated characters. I think they just had an interest in seeing themselves as that and having an almost superhero alter-ego. They also had asked as part of the brief that it be a fantasy and… heroic kind of story. So we took both those angles – and of course the lyrics for the song – brainstormed a few ideas, came up with a story around that and pitched it to the band and their management. Visually, it was a new thing for them, and an opportunity to do something different and striking.

AB: It was great to shoot the live action as well and spend a day in the castle. The band were charming as always. Our location scouts found this great castle that you can still visit today and the inside and exterior really enhanced the mystique of it all.

CF: What did you think of producing an adventure video for a ballad?

TS: It was an interesting challenge because the song is relatively slow-paced whereas the brief was for action and adventure. We had to make that work as best we could. Partly that was just through the way we animated the shots. We did have a number of quite long shots with long camera movements as opposed to “cut, cut, cut”. Aron did a very good job with the edit overall, timing the events with the music and telling the story.

CF: How did you piece it together? Did Steps have a lot of input?

TS: We brought each member of the band in one by one and talked to them about how they saw themselves and how they would like to see themselves portrayed in the video, and what kind of special abilities or superpowers they might have as an expression of their alter-ego. Then we took those ideas away and incorporated them into the story. And then as we got further into production we brought on a concept artist who did some great renderings of the characters.

AB: We went through a process with the band, having a look at the drawings, seeing what they thought, getting some feedback, and then we’d make adjustments. When they were happy with the drawings, we took it to the next level and started building them as 3D characters. Of course, when you start seeing yourself in 3D it’s another whole thing, so we had a few more creative loops and eventually the band were happy with their alter-egos.

We did sketches after sketches after sketches, especially to get the characters just right. We designed the characters first. The guys in the group had comments on what they were wearing, their physique. For example, Lee came back and said I want to show my tattoo on the back. H said: “In this world, I’ve got to have sunglasses, I must wear sunglasses.”

TS: Mentioning no names but I do recall there was one request to make someone’s lunchbox a little bigger. I won’t say anything more.

AB: Faye was in this very flame-esque volcano sort of world. The feedback came back that she wanted a calmer more thoughtful presence so we changed that.

CF: How did you decide on the video game style for the video?

TS: We have to try and do what we can with the time we’re given, and the time is defined by how much money there is to go around. Music videos in general are not really big budgets so when we’re trying to create animation – which is quite time intensive and takes a lot of work – it is challenging on a pop video level to do that. We planned it all out very carefully starting with storyboards, based on a script treatment. We drew each shot we were going to be doing. That gives us an idea of what it’s going to take, and how long it’s going to take. Ultimately we were able to do quite a lot with what we had.

The band were pretty keen on a cartoon-stylised treatment anyway. The Lara Croft look from the video games at the time was definitely one touchstone along with a Robbie Williams music video, which had a video-game kind of feel. We had to be realistic about what we could achieve with a small team on a relatively tight budget. We weren’t going to be able to achieve photo-realism, that was never going to be an option, so it was better for us to go for a much more stylised-look. That can be interesting in its own right.

CF: Were any ideas cut?

TS: Looking back at the story treatment we did and it’s pretty close to what was on the page really, with just some minor adjustments for time.

CF: What tools did you use?

TS: The tools we had at the time were relatively crude. We certainly have much better tools today. But ultimately we were very happy with the way it came out and what we were able to achieve with the given resources.

AB: We used Maya for the animation. It’s still in heavy use today. The concepts were drawn by hand. We had a whole team working on the backgrounds and a separate team working on the characters.

CF: How much did the video cost?

AB: At the time, it was at least £100,000. Should it have been more than that? Yes! The amount of time and people and energy… it was expensive at the time, but if we did a music video for £100,000 these days, that’s a fair chunk of change for an up and coming band!

CF: Was there a plan to make a Steps video game spin-off based on the video?

TS: Not that I was aware of. I don’t know whether the thought ever crossed their minds. A TV series with more adventures, that would have been great.

AB: There were noises that it could have more of a life beyond the music video. There were murmerings of that. It didn’t come to pass, but it sounds familiar.

CF: Are you happy with how the video turned out?

TS: I still enjoy it, it brings back so many memories. I think part of the process when you do this kind of work is that you’re never really happy, and that keeps you trying to improve your work and make it better. That being said, I get a lot of appreciation from it.

AB: I think the environments are great. It was done under real time constraints and pressure. Anybody working on anything thinks: “If you have a little more time, you can make it even better”. It would have been great to give the animations a little more flexibility and make them less rigid, but I think it still stands up as a very decent animation piece.

TS: It was great to be reminded of it again. I know we worked on it really hard for the duration of the production and I know exactly when it finished because at the time my wife was pregnant with our first child and the birth coincided with the last day of production quite conveniently. Our daughter was born just before we wrapped so I have very fond memories of the time.

CF: What are you working on these days?

TS: A few years after doing the music video I made the transition to working in feature films and doing visual effects there. These days I continue to work in visual effects. I’m currently based in New Zealand with Weta doing work on various Hollywood films – but this video was a great little stepping stone along the way.

Thrain’s credits include Avatar, Avengers Assemble and Iron Man 3.

AB: I’m now in New York. I still do animation and still shoot live action, that combination of both I’m still involved in and I’m still enjoying it. I shot Marry The Night with Lady Gaga. We were on a rooftop in Harlem at 3am in the morning setting fire to cars. Because of the close proximity to the dancers and Lady Gaga, we could only set fire to one car – so, we had to explode the other cars around her in CG (computer graphics) and make it look like she was surrounded by fire

Aron has worked on music videos with Beyonce, Kanye and Lady Gaga.

CF: Thanks for your time!

TS: I never expected to be talking about these things 20 years later but here we are and it’s a real pleasure.

AB: I’ve very much enjoyed it.

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