Anyone who’s ever become drunk at a wedding will immediately connect with Adam Smith’s 2004 video for The Streets’ Blinded by the Lights. A song about getting off your head at a club while wondering where your girlfriend and best mate are, Smith had the genius idea of setting the narrative at a wedding instead, where the whole sex/romance/emotional quotient is ramped up in an atmosphere already made surreal by tipsy grans dancing to the Birdie Song, while the groom removes the bride’s garter with his teeth. It’s a film that beautifully illustrates Smith’s twin loves of stunning visuals and power-punch narratives.
This is a film-maker who evidently enjoys his work, whether it’s making a pop promo or a short film featuring the cream of the UK’s acting crop (Bob Hoskins in Jamie T’s Sheila promo, Kathy Burke in What Goes Up Must Come Down), a documentary about men recreating the Vietnam War in Kent, a high-octane episode of Channel 4’s Skins (of which Smith directed four episodes) or concert visuals that make the audience’s connection with the music more guttural than they’d thought possible.
He has been doing all these things for nearly two decades now, and, this week, London’s Trafalgar Square will see some of his best band visuals yet. Appearing as Flat Nose George for a live performance with the Chemical Brothers, Smith’s audio-visual tricks will be among the highlights of the ICA/Beck’s Fusions extravaganza, as anyone who saw the set at Glastonbury will testify.
The London College of Printing film and video alumni began his career while still at college, setting up production company Vegetable Vision to do visuals for bands. Depressingly, the college took a dim view of students striking out on their own, using a load of ex-Ministry of Defence projectors to create graphic visuals that were vivid, abstract and extraordinary. It shouldn’t have, because in post-acid house London and on world tours, Smith was learning far more than he could in a classroom. ‘We were shooting 16mm stuff on a Bolex, customising slide projectors with spinning wheels controlled by a Hornby train set control box, and on top of that we’d have loops. It was hugely experimental and a lot of fun,’ he recalls.
It was also lucrative, and enabled Smith to branch out into something he loves as much as creating concert graphics – storytelling – via his first documentary. AIPS (an acronym for American Infantry Preservation Society) is a film about men in Kent re-enacting the Vietnam War. Its subject matter may seem a million miles away from the youth and music culture Smith was steeped in, but the film is redolent with the quality he brings to all his work, an extraordinary ability to get something from people that’s absolutely real.
Smith’s documentary technique is reminiscent of fly-on-the-wall greats like Paul Watson and Roger Graef, in that he spends a lot of time with the subjects, seeming to inhabit their world so completely that all the guards are let down. So, why doesn’t he stick to such work? ‘Observational documentaries like this mean spending six or seven months in people’s lives. It’s fun but it can become problematic and potentially exploitative, so it’s great to be able to then go back to something like a promo, or concert visuals,’ says Smith. With the latter in particular, there’s an obvious pleasure in connecting with a live audience.
The most recent tour work he’s done with the Chemical Brothers sets him off like a firecracker. ‘The graphic work on it is the best yet, and some of it is really simple, but during a live show it takes people somewhere else,’ he says. ‘It’s great being able to make people feel like that.’
As a child, Smith wanted to be an actor, and you sense that his desire to be a showman is still there. ‘I was so chuffed once on a Chemical Brothers tour. We needed Japanese visas, and under “occupation” mine said “entertainer”,’ he says. ‘And that’s what it’s about. In ten years I’d like to be doing exactly what I’m doing now, though I hope I can incorporate a lot of these things into feature films.’
Smith is currently developing his first with Warp Films and producer Mark Herbert, who made This is England. ‘I can get some nice graphic bits in the title sequence, some lovely abstract shots during the film, a few pop video sequences in there, a great story and good characters,’ he grins. ‘That’s me a happy man.’