Editor’s note: The new Behind the Lens Series focuses the spotlight on the artists and visionaries behind the cameras that capture the iconic, the infamous, the narrative, and the unexpected moments of culture. Our goal is to tell the stories of these brilliant men and women found behind the lens.
A swipe of a card beeps. A turn style clicks. Doors open and close. People hustle, never stopping to notice, the dirt, the grime, the life abuzz in this subterranean world. The intercom speaker that hangs above your head buzzes awake to announce, “The next L train is now arriving on the Manhattan-bound track.” Suddenly a rhythm appears. Notes float into the vast spider web of tunnels. The music of life no one seems to notice is found, discovered in a rarely appreciated world that is known as the New York Subway system. This is what Anthony Sylvester’s and Katakresis’, breakthrough film, “Subtunes” encapsulates.
Winner of Best Music Video at The Raindance Film Festival, “Subtunes” takes shots of the everyday life of New York’s subway system and remixes it into a stylized music video that creatively captures what it’s like in the world found underneath one of the largest cities in the world.
The music, mixed brilliantly by Katakresis, was all taken from the sounds discovered underneath the feet of millions and the beautifully captured cinematography and editing by Sylvester, helps create a film that puts us into the shoes of the millions of New Yorkers who pass through the subway every day.
It’s in minutiae everyday life where art can be discovered. In worlds overlooked by the masses, underappreciated and ignored. Sylvester and Katakresis help us remember what New York’s Subway system has to offer, besides easy transportation from point A to point B, what has long been forgotten by the people inside her every day. That this dimly lit subterranean concrete labyrinth is a beautiful place filled with all walks of life and art. It’s just waiting for you to open your eyes and take a look around you.
We had a chance to talk with Sylvester, the brilliant director behind the music video, about “Subtunes” and much more. Here’s what he had to say:
Tell us about yourself.
Philly born. NYC raised. Happy to be alive.
With “Subtunes”, was the idea inspired by taking the subway into the city? Kind of a window into the life of a New Yorker?
I spent my final years in NYC exploring the vast subway system. It actually started to get ridiculous – I became a sort of junky walking the tracks and exploring the tunnels. I love the gritty, honest coalescence of life underground. NYC is a city of layers, and the subway is the bottom layer. All of the guts and juice and gue of the above world drip into its cracks. It’s a beautiful, gross, inspiring fusion of elements. I wanted to capture and share the vibrancy and rhythm of this weird, wacky world. There’s no comparison.
I noticed that there are points in the video that turn into music so there must have been sampling from that when Katakresis created the music, but was the video all done before the music was created?
All of the audio is completely from the subway environment. Katakresis and I spent an entire day underground, capturing the sounds, and recording the visuals of those sounds at the very same time. Literally if I’m shooting a subway door closing, he’s there recording its sound too. We sat down with the footage, and started figuring out what looked cool, and what could sound musical. He laid out a track from the samples of car doors closing, people in the tunnels, performers – everything. And then we ping ponged off of each other until the final version.
What was it like collaborating with Katakresis to create such an imaginative project?
Always a pleasure. If you can believe it, we met on Youtube. I needed music for a documentary I shot in Ecuador, and he happened to live in Chile and make South American hip hop beats and upload them to his YT channel. We found ourselves face to face about a year later, collaborating on our first TUNES project, called RIvertunes. We went on to have a lot of collaborations after. We know what drives each other, and we support and celebrate each other’s quirks and weirdness. He’s like a brother to me.
Tell us a bit about some of your other projects?
There’s lots going on. I run a creative content company called CUTSDATFLO – it’s comprised of a handful of creatives in LA and NYC. We just spent a year in Los Angeles taking on a large amount of artist development projects for different record labels from all over – Japan, Australia, some indie artists from LA and NYC.
Right now we’re focused on creating concept pieces for film and TV series, including our latest one, Father Rock. We’re in the midst of a festival run for that, but the goal is to push it into large scale development.
You’ve worked in a number of Genres including horror with “Waffle”, what is the genre you prefer most?
There’s nothing better than science fiction. It’s freeing, exciting, and often philosophical.
Do you find producing easier than directing or vice versa? or are they both challenging in their own way?
Personally producing is easier – all of the stress and anxiety of creative decision making as a director wears on you hard. Directing requires being on your toes every second creatively.
What inspires you? Is it everyday life? Is it your childhood? Is it music? Where does your inspiration come from?
It’s totally day to day life, with music peppered in. There’s a certain movement and rhythm I’m obsessed with – both in the way the world moves, and how humans and life move within it. I think you can put on almost any song at any time, anywhere – from a moving train throughout the countryside, a busy city intersection, or an empty desert – and a music video will start to unfold in my head. They’re the moments that shape my imagination.
You tend to explore humanity and the fabric of society that attempts to hold it together, where does that curiosity come from?
It’s rooted in an admiration for what humanity has achieved, but a fear that it could all fall apart at any moment. The societal fabric is so thin, it’s so malleable. Here we are, dancing on top of this planet, barely holding it together. Somehow it’s happening. It’s amazing and scary.
What inspired you to move to another country and cultivate a community of international filmmakers there?
Well, love actually. I met a girl I was crazy about, and moved to her hometown, Budapest. There’s sophisticated culture of filmmaking and art within the city. I feel very fortunate to call it my second home. I’ve befriended super like-minded individuals, and they’ve been integral to my creativity since meeting them.
Tell us a bit about Living in Budapest and what you’ve got going on there.
Life in Budapest is special. It’s a quarter of the size of Philly but with twice as many people. The hustle and bustle is real and it’s teeming with life and pre-21st century character.
I’m a part of an international filmmakers group, as well as repped by a commercial production company. In 2018, I hosted an experimental film event which was a lot of fun. I’m currently developing a science fiction film that we’re slated to shoot in 2020. And you can usually catch me shooting in the city on random days on my VHS camera.
Your latest project is ‘Father Rock’ which is inspired by The Bronx, its diversity and heavy religious values, where was this idea originally conceived?
It’s a bit autobiographical. I spent a decade in NYC after college maintaining a tough existence as a freelancer. I learned a lot about myself, and how to be a somewhat free-agent in a capitalistic society.
Growing up Catholic, I always saw priests as sort of scary, but mysterious individuals. At one point I started wondering how would their lives be if they had to live out their calling like a freelancer – in the “gig economy” of post 2008.
The intersection of capitalism and faith really intrigues me. I’m interested in the choices a person has to make in a financially dominate society, that will undoubtedly conflict with one’s sense of morality. The Bronx entered into the piece purely because I spent my last year of NYC there, and fell in love with the old school New York ambience. People still seem human there – crosses decorate the streets. People are okay expressing their religious beliefs outwardly.
Were you religious growing up or did the Bronx community open you up more to religion?
I was raised Catholic. My upbringing was rooted in a working-class, Catholic suburb of Philly. I was never a “religious” person, but always searching for deeper meaning, trying to figure out the why’s and how’s of this life. Religion at an early age sort of helps to unlock that questioning inside of you, but it doesn’t solve it.
Can you talk at more about the series (Father Rock) or is it still in its infancy and needs to be kept more hush hush?
Father Rock takes place in a somewhat near future. The Catholic Church completely collapses worldwide due to massive corruption, and all of the clergy are abandoned. They all have to figure out how to survive in a late-capitalistic society which really holds no place for people like priests, nuns, and religious figures. We’re currently developing it as a larger series, and hope to be able to present the whole Father Rock universe on a much more epic level soon, but I think of the film as less about religion, and more about morality and money – can those two truly co-exist?
What’s it like working with some of the Worlds biggest artist whether that be on camera with music videos for Shamir, Yaeji, Superfruit, AC Slater or helping them develop their image before big shows at festivals such as Coachella?
It’s exciting. I love that initial feeling that an artist could be huge if everything falls into place. I like working on and developing artists that are unknown. There’s a major satisfaction when they become successful – it feels like the world is validating our creativity.
Tell us more about the collaborative side of your work with artists. It seems like more of a partnership when creating these ideas.
It’s about trying to harness what makes them unique, and celebrating that. In the same breath, it’s about working with the artist to figure out what defines them. Often it’s the small things that make a strong partnership. Sometimes you sync with an artist in most serendipitous ways – the idea for instance for Yaeji to be riding her bike at night in the “Drink I’m Sippin On” video, was an idea that we both texted to each other at the same exact time. It was telepathy, and it actually gave me chills.
Do you find it difficult to create your vision when working with the music labels and companies or are you usually granted freedom to create?
It depends on the label. If it’s a more intimate record label, they’re pretty involved, but that usually means they have a seriously vested interest in everyone’s success, including mine.
What’s your favorite music video you’ve ever worked on?
Shamir’s “Darker” video. It was a transcendent few days we spent in the desert, and my first trip to Joshua Tree. The VFX element was a new thing for me, and when I saw the first version of it, I couldn’t believe it that we actually made this all happen. It was also my first video with Pomp&Clout as a director, and I felt like I had an army behind me.
Any horror stories or funny stories you could from behind the scenes?
Actually that same shoot had a lot of problems. The drone kept crashing, the DP’s tire on his truck went flat. We were stuck in the middle of the desert, pitch dark with no phone signal, trying to figure out how to change a tire. We eventually made it out, and went to a local bar with a mechanical bull after to celebrate.
What’s it like on the set of these music videos? We’ve all heard or read behind the scenes stories where things get a bit crazy. Have any of your sets gotten a bit wild?
I had one shoot that was a bit crazy during an ice storm. We shot in a massive abandoned building complex on the east coast – I almost fell through an entire floor because the wood was rotting. We all took turns slipping and falling. The place was monitored by local police too, so all day we snuck around, almost getting caught quite a few times.
What’s your typical day like when directing and producing music videos?
It always changes, but I usually always start pretty early. I’m super methodical in how I prep in the morning – from the strength of my coffee, to stretching, and the music I play (light minimal techno or house). It’s all mind games, quelling my anxiety and maintaining enthusiasm. I try to really manipulate my mind’s processing of time in the hours leading up, in an effort to feel a bit more in control of how fast the day moves along.
What does it mean that the visual impacts the way the music is produced?
Visuals are often a part of the making of a song. I’ve heard of artists coming up with scenes to a music video, or ideas for one, before a song is even made. I’ve even worked on projects where discussions over color palette have led the artist to completely rethink a mix, in order to fit the visual mood.
How do you help artists like Channel Tres and Yaeji develop their image and what is that process like?
It’s pretty organic. It’s largely about becoming friends and developing a solid understanding of what excites each other. Usually the artists are pretty interested in my world, and that’s exciting because I can really bring my experiences, inclinations, and artistic ideologies to the forefront. It’s also about listening to them and never being dismissive. To me it’s the intimate things though – what kind of snacks do you like, what songs do you love, what was life like growing up. This is how you unravel their story. These are the human elements everyone needs to see.
What goes into developing someone’s image?
A lot of patience and compassion. You have to appreciate the artists and what they’re up against – it’s a hard industry. In a way you have to see them as larger than life, usually before everyone else. You have to be okay getting something wrong, learning from it, and making sure the next visual feels like a progression, as opposed to a new direction.
Art, as they say, is all around us but it takes someone with a keen eye and strong work ethic such as Anthony Sylvester to unveil it to us. Out there grinding. Making our world just a little brighter, by finding the beauty that dwells in the ether. Taking inspiration from the cracks in the pavement, the breath of the world most of us never notice. “Subtunes” is a fine example of this, taking an overlooked aspect of American society and revealing its beauty to us.
Artists live in a collaborative world and at the heartbeat, you find creatives such as Sylvester. He loves curating the collaborative atmosphere some artists tend to avoid. His partnerships bring out the best in whomever he’s working with and as he continues to grow in his many crafts it’s his embracing of these creative collaborations that will take him to even greater heights. The sky is the limit for him and I’m excited to see what the future brings.