Chris Cunningham: Musician and Accidental Video Auteur

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Chris Cunningham: Musician and Accidental Video Auteur

Just a regular guy: Musician/filmmaker Chris Cunningham. (photo: Chris Cunningham)

Chris Cunningham is chilling in a booth at a Capitol Hill bar, shooting the breeze over whiskeys and talking about the latest chapter in his artistic journey.“It still surprises me that anyone’s asking me to make videos for them,” he says with a combination of amusement and bemusement. “I’ve basically never had any training. I’m learning as I go.” 

For a decade now, Cunningham has been the singer, guitarist, and informal leader of Seattle dark-pop band Ravenna Woods. But in the last five years, he’s donned another, very different, hat—that of video director and budding filmmaker. It’s a form of expression that evolved from a combination of necessity, and an eagerness to add more of his and his bandmates’ personalities to their visual representation.

It all started with a chat between Cunningham and one of his Ravenna bandmates, multi-instrumentalist Brantley Duke, around 2014. “Brantley and I were talking about getting a nicer DSLR camera to try shooting our own music video for Ravenna,” he says. “We’ve had a lot of great luck with directors coming to Ravenna, but we started having ideas that we wanted to fully execute, ourselves.” 

Cunningham and Duke began experimenting and devising short scenes that they shot at Cunningham’s house. Around the same time, Cunningham also began doing portraiture of friends…from a very skewed perspective. “It was a series I called Friends,” he says. “I was using lights, projection, and practical effects to make friends looking really f***ed-up, in these f***ed-up portraits.” Cunningham’s production company, Dark Details, was born. 

His first directorial effort, Ravenna Woods’ video for the taut new-wave noir track “Alleyways,” soon followed. The clip combined performance footage bathed in eerie red and the lead singer running scared from shadowy masked figures in hoodies. It felt like the horror thriller You’re Next and Invasion of the Body Snatchers, mashed up DIY-style and set to a rock beat. “Luckily, I had Ravenna to experiment on,” he says of the clip.

The “Alleyways” video established Cunningham’s visual style right out of the gate, and he and the band filmed full videos and teasers for other Ravenna tracks, in rapid succession. One teaser caught the attention of Seattle singer-songwriter Lotte Kestner, who approached Cunningham to direct a clip for her. “That was the first time I did a video for someone else,”  he says.

2019 Reel from Dark Details on Vimeo.

His first video for Kestner, “Ghosts,” is a stark, black and white mood piece framed around Kestner’s face as black bandages are gradually removed from it. Projections of branches, bathed in blue, dance on her extended arms. It’s a canny example of Cunningham’s visual sense, and his ability to mold his aesthetic to another person’s musical vision. It’s led to what Cunningham describes as “this amazing artistic partnership. Lotte’s got this ethereal voice, and her songs are beautiful, but visually, she felt like people had kind of missed the dark undertones in her songs until we worked together.”

Since finishing “Ghosts” in 2017, he’s also directed a video for Kestner’s atmospheric “Go to Sleep Now,” and he’ll be shooting another for a Kestner track remixed by Buddy Ross (formerly of Seattle psych-roots band Motopony) soon.

Cunningham’s visual work with Kestner and his own band emboldened him enough to reach out to Justin Pearson, the San Diego-based singer/bassist/guitarist from Swing Kids, The Locust, Crimson Curse, and innumerable other projects. “He’s one of my favorite artists of all time,” Cunningham says. “I grew up on his punk bands.”

Pearson was sufficiently bowled over by Cunningham’s demo reel to readily leap at a collaboration. As a result, Cunningham directed a clip for Pearson’s punk-industrial project Planet B (“Mirror Mirror on the World”), as well as a video for “Blast,” a sucker-punch hip-hop track by rapper Kool Keith (one of Pearson’s label mates at Pearson’s Three One G record label). The latter video, a snowbound saga of a man fighting to escape from a band of masked psychopaths, wields visceral power potent enough to fuel a feature film.

As has always been the case, Cunningham’s aesthetic is heavily influenced by horror movies (as demonstrated by my conversation with him on that topic a few years ago on this website), but his work as a director and editor has enabled him to flex his versatility editing social media promos for Maya Matangi M.I.A, a documentary on electro-hip-hop innovator M.I.A., and Chef Flynn, a doc about wunderkind master chef Flynn McGarry.

He ventured into even more uncharted creative waters with Animal Skin, a multimedia project centering around Makah tribal art and mythology created by Cunningham and Makah visual artist Aaron Parker. Cunningham and Parker performed it at the Burke Museum in 2017, and it’ll resurface when the newly-renovated Burke re-opens. Videos for Seattle dream pop band Lemolo, and a clip for Deaf Club (another Justin Pearson musical project), are also in the pipeline. 

Cunningham’s still running a stripped-down operation. Aside from vital assistance from fellow musician Brantley Duke, who’s become a valued assistant director on most of Dark Details’ productions, it’s largely Cunningham, Duke, and a small handful of friends volunteering on each project. But this now in-demand director’s gradually accruing the equipment he needs to continue his video work, and he’s nursing ambitions to direct a feature. 

To that end, he’s developing a horror film in collaboration with Kevin Bartlett, a California based writer and actor who’s been Cunningham’s best friend since fifth grade. It’s a project partially spurred by the mutual loss of loved ones for both of them. “A lot of horror is rooted in grief, and that, plus our friendship, is the starting point for this movie,” he says.

With all of the video and cinematic work Dark Details is fielding, music’s been taking a slight but not permanent backseat. “I think I’ll be making music forever,” he says. “I love the guys in the band, and what we create.” But Chris Cunningham’s evolution as a videographer and filmmaker has lit him from within. “Visual art has met with making music, and almost surpassed it. Right now, it’s the thing that, when I wake up in the morning, I have to do.”  

 

Tony Kay

Tony Kay