DoP Sebastian Winterø on the music video that changed everything.

In 2021, Semi Permanent will present 'Sia + Daniel Askill The Videos 2003-2021', an immersive retrospective charting the collaborative rise of two globally acclaimed, award-winning artists. Ahead of the experience, held exclusively in Porto, Portugal, we’re catching up with the contributors for whom the videos would not have worked without.

Sebastian Wintero is a director of photography who has worked with Lady Gaga, Miranda July, U2, Marina and the Diamonds, as well as Sia and Daniel Askill on the iconic, GRAMMY-nominated video for 2014 hit Chandelier. Here, we go shot-by-shot to learn how the vision became a reality.

 Find out more about the exhibition here… 

From the top: How did you come to be involved with Daniel Askill and Sia? 
OK, this was one of those classic Los Angeles agent hook-up things, where my agent was like ‘Oh you should meet with these people! They’re amazing!’ Obviously I’d known Daniel’s work for a while because it pops up a lot. I wasn’t as familiar with Sia, but I brought the project details home to my girlfriend who said ‘what are you thinking!? Go for it!’ because she knew her more than I did. 
Chandelier was Sia’s big break in the US, so this pre-dates that…
I knew of Sia going back to her Zero 7 days, but the more you dig into her work the more you realise what a fountain of creativity she is. What she’s able to accomplish and channel through her (in terms of songs and lyrics) in a normal day is just insane. It was a no-brainer signing up for that. Then it was just one of those weird experiences where we all only met on the scout day of the video in this old stage location in Downtown LA. None of us knew what it was going to be, and you were realising as it was happening…Sia put Maddie in. Maddie was doing her thing in rehearsals, and it became apparent that it was coming together in a way that you just don’t normally experience. 
It had so much energy. It almost didn’t make sense talking about it in technical terms of how we would approach it. The energy between Maddie and Ryan and Sia had this flow that materialised in front of the camera, and it was our job to capture that. That’s a very non-specific answer and possibly not what you were looking for, but that’s the truth. 
No, it’s good. It’s what I hear from some of the other collaborators as well. How do you go about building a creative relationship in such an intense environment?
This is moving into the personal side of it, which is the key. In any collaboration you’re always wondering ‘what’s really my role?’ But it was clear when the three of us met that it was an immediate open discussion. We could suggest anything and rehearse or entertain any idea. That generosity from both Sia and Daniel is what attracted me to them. Sometimes you don’t feel comfortable giving your ideas or honest opinion away, but with them it was a different game. Very generous, very honest. And that makes the collaboration so much easier. 
You briefly mentioned Sia’s creative process as a recording artist. How did that relate to what you do as a visual craftsperson? 
What makes her so easy to work with is the fact that you can show her something, anything, and she can relate to it and respond to it. It sounds simple, but it’s not always as easy as you think. She can translate and articulate her emotional response into something that’s actually useful, which is what we do as experienced filmmakers. I have this set of technical skills and I use them every day and they can be curated to suit different directors and personalities. But she does it as well. Even though she has no formal schooling and no one taught her the technical language, she’s totally able to do it.
There is an emotional reality within her that dictates how she feels things. So the way Maddie would move would be because Ryan and her made it together via this emotional logic she’s able to tap into. That’s pretty spectacular because you when she explains something, it’s not like this character does something because that’s in her past or whatever, rather she relates to her character as its own person that can respond emotionally to any given scenario.
Let’s rewind a little but. Tell me about the brief you got and how it matched the final product. 
When Daniel sends you a pitch, you’ll get a PDF and it’s like…two pages (laughs). There’s a headline and a paragraph and some pictures and that’s it. I recall Chandelier was always about the choreography telling the narrative, because Maddy was dancing within lyrics. She’s telling a story that is referencing Sia’s own story, so that’s what we wanted to do. 
Once we had scouted the location, we also figured very quickly that we should try and capture it in one take, because Maddy could clearly do it. In the entire shoot day, she was the one making the least amount of errors; we were the ones catching up. There were a lot of elements and mini-scenes with super slow-motion parts and graphics, which of course were beautiful, but they went out the window because once we saw what she could do it was just so clear that the best thing we could do would be to stand back and not interrupt that flow. 
Tell me about the shoot itself. Actually, let’s watch the video. What are we looking at here. 
We’re looking at good memories, just so fun. The first thing I notice is the mix between the location and stage, because it doesn’t look like a true location but it also doesn’t look like a stage either. You can see outside the window is where we had to place the lights. We tried to play it as natural as we could so everything would come from the outside as if it were a location. Even as we move into the living room, there are lights that are hidden in the ceiling because we had to amp, we had to up the exposure up to be able to shoot a thousand frames for slow motion, which we didn’t end up using. 
The honest truth is that we (the camera crew) had trouble catching up to Maddy. We had to fit a team and a steadicam operator to be in certain positions at certain times, and while we knew where she was going at no point did we ever catch up to her fully. 
During the first takes, it became apparent that that was a good thing. It felt like this girl was taking us on this journey and the best thing we could do was support that, or at least make the viewer feel the same emotional impact we did. That meant being strategically a little behind.
As a filmmaker, I want control. I want to be able to know where this is going. I want to be able to cue the movements. But the playfulness and the imagination and all the energy of a little child, it comes out this way, a little bit late. We never, we never fully see her in the beginning. We lose her a little bit, which just felt so much better.
How long did it take to design the set and block the shots? 
It didn’t take long, and that goes back to what it’s like working with Sia. We were working in real-time with the choreographer (Ryan Heffington) who was super quick in changing stuff and making it work. When we showed up on the shoot, they hadn’t even choreographed the piece with the room in mind and the layout and how it all fit together. But it was easy getting it together because it’s like a real apartment. The hallway is a hallway. There are no flywalls or any cheats. There are some cuts in the film, but I know a one-take version of the video exists.
There’s no way to hide in this piece because there’s one person and there’s noting else happening but her dancing. Everything shows up on screen, but you kind of want it to because it’s what gives it a human touch. It’s a real person. There are no springs or tricks to make her jump higher. She can do it all herself. And if she stumbled, or if we didn’t didn’t frame it properly, it just adds to it in a whole new way. 
What was the gear approach to the video?
Both Daniel and I share a single-lens approach. This was shot on a 50mm anamorphic lens on a RED Camera, which was the lens we tried from the first rehearsals. We tried going wider but it didn’t work.  If you go back to the kitchen scene, there is a light you can see that we didn’t take out either due to time or money or whatever. But I mean, no one noticed. All my DP friends laugh and they’re going to have a joke about it, but in the end it doesn’t really matter. 
When the video came out, the response was almost instantaneous. It really just shot around the world and spread like wildfire. What was that experience like for you?
 At the time I was living back in Switzerland and on a European timezone, which meant I was asleep when it was released. And when I woke up…madness. The Facebook and Instagram response overnight was insane. And then when I was up, everyone over there was sleeping so there was no I could talk to! I had to wait a whole day to talk to anyone and hear what had happened and share the excitement. But it was madness, I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m very fond of this video. None of us had seen it coming.
Can you talk about how this collaboration impacted your expectation of working with others now? 
It’s always preferred to work with a director for as long as possible. The longer you can stay with someone, the more you can make use of each other’s creative skills. It’s kind of like a marriage in that it’s a relationship and you do challenge each other more the longer you stay together. If you only work on one or two projects together, you spend the entire time trying to figure each other out. What do they think about this? Or should I offer them that? 
As a cameraman, I also see my role as a creator or guardian of the creative space. There is a lot of effort in that. The longer you can stay together, the more you can take care of each other, comfort each other and challenge each other within that. The conversations get shorter and shorter and you can push each other further and further. 

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