Remember how psyched you were as a kid to build a little car or a castle out of Lego pieces? Bet you never fashioned a fully functioning punk-rock duo and a kaleidoscopic world where they could swim, ride bikes and whale on the drums, though, did you?
Don’t feel bad. You probably never got that sophisticated, but pioneering director Michel Gondry did, thanks to the White Stripes.
In the eye-popping video for “Fell in Love With a Girl,” a two-minute blast of O.P.P.-like fantasy, the candy-colored pair from Detroit strum, jump and sprint their way through a building-block realm that could only come from the twisted mind of this whimsical 38-year-old Frenchman.
This is the same guy, after all, who had BjÃ¶rk getting her teeth checked by a primate dentist in “Army of Me” and turned Radiohead’s Thom Yorke into a mouse for the “Knives Out” clip.
“As soon I heard the album, I loved the energy and kept playing [‘Fell in Love With a Girl’] over and over,” Gondry said of the infectious single from the Stripes’ third LP, White Blood Cells. “There’s something charming and naive about their use of black, red and white imagery. I made a parallel between that and the basicness of the color of Lego blocks.”
It’s not hard to see why the unconventional director would be attracted to the White Stripes. The band’s decision to limit its image to three basic colors, its melding of garage rock and gritty blues and the media prank the duo pulled by suggesting they were formerly married might have been enough to sell him. But how did Gondry persuade the group to go for his out-there idea?
“One day he came to a restaurant and he had Jack’s head in Lego,” explained drummer Meg White.
” ‘This is what I want to do for the video; it’s perfect, really,’ ” Jack White said Gondry told them. “You couldn’t argue with that. When someone brings a Lego sculpture of your head to dinner and says this is what the video’s going to be, you pretty much say, ‘That’s it, go ahead.’ ”
A rabid fan of Lego blocks since childhood – when he and a cousin built a rudimentary zoetrope cartoon viewer from their combined Lego collections – Gondry was obsessed with the idea of rendering the pair as blockheads, not realizing how time-consuming the task would be. The process took 15 animators more than six weeks to complete.
The resulting clip is a bit disorienting, just like the dirty punk blues song’s disjointed lyrics, which find the singer torn between seeking true love and longing after someone else’s girl. Images of figures running down the street melt into shots of the rockers swimming in a pool and back into blocky Jack strumming his guitar.
Gondry – whose mind-bending feature film-directing debut, “Human Nature,” was recently released in the U.S. – was determined to render the brother and sister team in a boxy world while still creating the effect of fluid movement and real world detail. So when Jack forms a perfect “O” with his mouth while singing, you can spot his tongue wagging, and when Meg is bashing her blocky drums to bits, you can see the cymbals shimmy realistically.
In a scene that must have surely turned heads, Gondry shot the Stripes performing the video’s physical stunts on the streets of London in exaggeratedly heavy makeup (to make sure their black eyes and red lips showed up once the film was pixelated). Gondry also shot the pair against a special effects blue screen, then picked the highly contrasting images that he thought could be rendered best in Lego.
The pixelated images were printed out on paper at a rate of 25 sheets per second of film, with each sheet corresponding to another Lego model that had to be built, set up in front of the camera and filmed.
“It was a long time, but I wanted it to feel like a children’s program, which is why I didn’t make it too slick,” explained Gondry. In fact, the acclaimed director good-naturedly said that if you were to see the non-Lego rough footage he shot of the Stripes in London you might think you were seeing the rudimentary work of a first-time director.
The Stripes, whose latest album was picked up by V2 in February after its original release on indie Sympathy for the Record Industry, will kick off another U.S. tour May 22 with a pair of shows in Royal Oak, Michigan.