Producer Jason Baum takes us behind the logistics of Sia’s game-changing music videos

Sia + Daniel Askill Jason Baum

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.

Jason Baum is an Emmy-nominated, Grammy award-winning producer who has worked with Beyonce, Spike Jonze, Kendrick Lamar, Paul McCartney, Childish Gambino and Taylor Swift, as well as Sia and Daniel Askill for their genre-defying videos for Alive, Cheap Thrills and The Greatest. As the key figure between the artist vision and the logistics to enable it, he overseas the finer details of cast, crew, budgets and schedules to make sure nothing falls apart.   
Find out more about the exhibition here…  
The beginning is always a good place to start. Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you started working with Daniel Askill. 
Sure! I was born and raised on Maui in Hawaii, and I really kind of fell into entertainment. I liked media and creating visual things; I made a short film that got me into NYU film school (much to my surprise) and that sent me off on this course. After college I moved to Los Angeles in search of an internship, and someone recommended that I find the production companies that make things I like so I could get a deeper insight into how those things I enjoy are created. At the time because I was young, I was really into music and music videos as an expression. And I reached out to a couple of companies and ended up at Radical Media for a summer. 
Daniel Askill was a director on their roster, and I worked on a music video for Placebo that he was directing. I was just the intern, and I have this really embarrassing story where I spilled water all over the set which took 45 minutes to dry, so I thought I’d never see him again. But that experience did send me off on a course towards the music video industry, starting as a PA then production coordinator then production manager. 
All of a sudden, I had people who knew about me offering a chance to produce small videos ($10,000 or less), and I just started slowly growing my producing career. But I stuck to this very interesting niche of music videos. It’s different from film, from television or even commercials, and as a real lover of music I just went for it. 
I read in an interview that your career has been really dictated by your taste. Is that the consistency between all the projects you’ve worked on?
I wouldn't say it's conscious, but I like the idea that there's some unified taste or perspective. I’ve never done jobs just for the pay-cheque, I’ve just always appreciated a challenge and I like doing things I’ve never done before. Straightforward is nice if you’re getting paid well, but if you’re not then it’s not that exciting. I think I've just always wanted to make things that people care about and that can be seen by and appreciated by a large group of people.

You’ve worked in a lot of different mediums, not just music videos but a documentary for the Beastie Boys and a standup special with Spike Jonze and Aziz Ansari that had a really unique cinematography. What’s the first step for diving into a director’s vision? 
The best producers to me are like chameleons in that they can adapt to different film sets or crews or group of collaborators. It’s like being a matchmaker: What’s the director like? What about the DoP? What do they need? What do they need? It’s my job to build a crew that’s very cognisant of personalities. It’s always helpful when you’ve worked with someone before, because you get this tangible thing from experience. 
It’s a lot of spreadsheets, a lot of phone calls and breaking everything down into the smallest of steps so it can feel familiar to everyone in the process.
Sia + Daniel Askill The Videos

You’re also working at a higher calibre of artist (Sia, Beyonce, Taylor Swift) which brings more budget, bigger teams and so on. Do the problems stay consistent and scale, or do they change entirely? 
It never gets easier. There’s always a series of problems to tackle because I can barely think of a time where I’ve been like ‘oh yeah, that budget was enough, we got what we needed’ (laughs). It’s always on the edge of falling apart, whether we’re out of time or out of money. It’s always a challenge because money is so intangible in the production process. You can spend it really quickly, so it requires constant evaluation of how to rethink things and get what we need while maybe cutting a couple of corners. 

I like what you said before that music videos exist in their own realm. It’s part-advertisement, film, art project etc. Can you talk about why music videos in particular are still an important medium? 
Music creates images in your head that are unique to you; it’s not specifically a shared experience. I gravitate to music videos because it’s interesting to work with directors and understand how they hear a song vs how I do. One of the first music videos that led me as a fan was Dave Meyers’ video for Missy Elliott’s Get Ur Freak On. I’d heard the song before the video, and I had these visuals in my head. I wasn’t trying to be a director, but I knew there was a crazy world in there. When I saw the video I was like ‘oh, that’s what I saw, that’s what was in my head!’ Dave completely captured it. Like the line where she says ‘Is that your chick!?’ and the head goes off her neck and squiggles towards the camera, I was feeling something like that, but he figured out how to visualise it. You get to see the world as the artist does. That's really why it's still such an exciting medium today. It's never going away because music can't be defined. And there's always going to be people that are putting something to a song that is interesting, whether it’s an outside director or the artist themselves positioning how they see their music.
OK, back to Daniel Askill… 
After I interned on that Placebo music video set, my interaction with him was fairly limited until my career as a producer was starting to flourish. I was working with Radical Media and Jennifer Heath, who worked there and was very instrumental in my producing career, reached out about a project with Sia and Daniel in Miami. I don’t think that video ever happened, but that was a cool career step-up when you get to collaborate with someone who was once way above you on the chain. 
Fast forward a little bit, I was working on the video for We Exist by Arcade Fire with director David Wilson, and we were sharing a rehearsal space with the crew on Elastic Heart. Their producer, who had worked on Chandelier and Elastic Heart and Big Girls Cry, was going through a career change and wasn’t available for the next video. So that’s when Jennifer called me and said ‘Hey do you want to do this project with Daniel?’ which ended up being the video for Alive. At that point Chandelier had become the biggest video on the planet, but they wanted to do a video without Maddie. They were really interested in this idea of a martial arts sequence, with both a choreography and a dance component. And they needed someone who could respond to that. 
Sia loves the internet. She just scoured YouTube and found this girl, Mahiro. And I spent about a month trying to figure out how to get her to LA so we could shoot the video with her. We had other grandiose dreams: we were going to get the choreographer from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to work on it, then we were going to film in Shanghai, researching all these approaches while running out of time. 
So what should we do? Well, we had Mahiro, she wanted to be in the video. Let’s just go to Japan! So we flew out, and it was just an amazing experience, probably one of the best jobs I’ve ever done because it was just such a cool time. We filmed for three or four days, but we spent another week in Japan. I’m half-Japanese, so it was cool to explore Japan for a little longer. I went to Kyoto where my family is from. And the video came out great. 
That was the beginning of my working relationship with Daniel and Sia. I think if we had shot in L.A, I don’t think I would have had such a strong bond with them. In Japan we were all on the same shuttle bus. We were eating at the same places. It wasn’t your typical pop star experience where they just come in when they’re needed and disappear into celebrity life. We really became this cohesive group. 
Going back to what we were saying earlier about choosing your collaborators, Daniel and I are both very….I’d say grounded is a good word for us. I think it’s something to do with being from Australia and Hawaii, just a very sunny perspective where you can check yourself when things are getting stressful. We’re just making something cool for people to watch, so how can we do this in the most peaceful and enjoyable manner. I mean, there’s stress in that there is money and time involved, but how can we still enjoy this. 
So then we went on to do the Coachella project, which resulted in the excellent video for Cheap Thrills. And then that led to us doing The Greatest
It goes back to the pop star thing. If it were any other pop star, they probably would have forgotten about the producer, right? There’s no one that special. But when Sia got the green light for her movie, I got the call up. She was like ‘I don’t know what you will be doing, but I just know I can’t make a movie without you.’ 

Earlier we were talking earlier about how artist’s can use music videos to create a shared experience. With Sia it’s interesting because she’ doesn’t expose her face or identity at all, there is no central figure. How does that impact your process? 
When Chandelier came out it was a very radical thing to say ‘hey, I’m doing pop music but I’m not going to sell my face or body to promote it. I’m just going to let the music speak for itself and exist without me.’ Maddie, Mahiro et al are the conduits for her as an artist. I have so many questions about Chandelier that still exist in my head, but I know that no one involved thought it was going to be what it was. And no one predicted Maddie would become this representation of Sia that launched an entire body of work. 
That was an interesting point for Sia and Daniel’s collaboration. I think Sia appreciates Daniel’s aesthetic because he has a very clear way of expressing himself visually and is also a very out-of-the-box thinker. She also has her own ideas that, when combined with Daniel’s lens, creates something where they keep one-upping each-other and finding ways to tweak it and twist it so the final product is just so good.