A mainstay of our creative productions since the early days of Finisterre, filmmaker Chris McClean and artist CJ Mirra have played a seminal role in establishing the filmic style that we've become known for.
Longtime collaborators, the two have teamed up yet again to create the visual and sonic experience that is Translate. Below, Demi Taylor caught up with the pair to get their thoughts on the collaboration ahead of the release of the Translate soundtrack this week by CJ Mirra.
Chris McClean is on the brink, his lens fixed on the confluence of swell, tide, geography and the tiny surfer disappearing into the giant cavern below. In the lee of the slope, CJ Mirra fixes his headphones before reaching out toward the horizon, microphone in hand, to capture the thunderous crack of the cold dark waters as they detonate across the shallow slab. Two perspectives, one vision.
It is this analogous approach that has forged a multi-award winning, creative partnership and friendship between composer / musician CJ Mirra and filmmaker Chris McClean. Together they have collaborated on some 20 projects, pushing boundaries, redefining the look and sound of cold-water surfing and, in doing so, scooping awards and accolades across the globe. Translate is their latest collaboration and most ambitious to date. An ode to the raging North Atlantic, this feature length, immersive journey through Europe was created as a live audio-visual free surfing experience as well as a stand-alone film and original soundtrack.
I caught up with CJ in his studio and Chris out on location to learn more about the project, their creative processes and the art of collaboration.
Translate is a truly independent project, four years in the making. Can you talk me through the inspiration behind it?
Translate was conceived in a house by the sea, a sea that doesn’t feature in the film. The Baltic to be exact and I was smoking Swedish cigarettes with Freddie Meadows. I’d let my camera fall from an unbalanced tripod. As I retrieved it from the icy waters it felt like Europe and the world I loved was falling, like my camera, never to work again. I wanted to create an ode to the place, a love letter to Europe and travel and all its quirks and idiosyncrasies.
Translate was conceived as a Live A/V performance as well as a film and an album - did this alter the way you approached the project at all?
It was Chris’s vision to create an audio-visual feast capturing the best free-surfing across Europe. We set out to make a soundtrack rather than a ‘score’ giving us the scope to mirror the changes in the locations, the waves and the surfers. We created something that would evolve as we experimented with some core ideas in a live A/V setting first, reacting to the footage in a direct and raw way. We only had one chance to perform in front of an audience before lockdown (at the London Surf / Film Festival) so we ended up doing most of this process in the studio, but tried to keep the approach the same. A lot of the recordings are improvised. I set the studio up to be able to jump from instrument to instrument and loop round a scene, building layers each time and not stopping to edit until it fell like that energy was in the right place. We distilled those ideas into an album and then ultimately a stand-alone film.
Translate doesn’t follow a usual narrative story arc but manages to convey real feeling - how did you go about telling a visual tale?
I always wanted a visual narrative that would work with a live band. So thinking how this would look on the big screen was always in mind as we were shooting. I wanted to be up close and personal, to feel the energy in every shot - be it surfing, landscapes or cultural experiences. I wanted to create visual poetry that would transcend language so viewers could take away their own interpretations that are in no way less true than my own feelings about the film. I think that’s the difference between art and a documentary or a film with a defined story, the viewer plays as big a part as the creator in understanding it.
How do you begin to translate the visuals into sounds and convey the emotion of what is happening on screen?
I worked closely with Chris. He would have an idea for how each scene should feel. I’d watch the footage with a guitar or keyboard in hand and start improvising the core ideas that we’d work into live sessions. There’s a lot in Translate to be inspired by - from the colour of the water, to the style of the surfer, to the weather. All these elements help lead you to the pace of the music or the tone or the kind of instruments you might want to lead the piece.
I was in San Bartolome de Pinares, a small village in the mountains northwest of Madrid, during the annual festival, which sees horses ridden through bonfires in the streets. This ancient tradition was originally intended to purify villagers from the plague and protect the animals for the year ahead. It was visceral and otherworldly. I knew we had to cover the track Horses by Bonnie Prince Billy as soon as I watched the footage on my return. Luckily it’s one of CJ’s favourite tracks.
Can you tell me about some of the musicians you collaborated with?
The opener Translate is orchestral, textured and cinematic with live strings and tape-manipulated samples and has an almost Nordic, ethereal feel. I worked with the ultra-talented Robert M Thomas who layered up so many violins and violas.
Lee-Ann Curren has the coolest voice. She’s a core member. Part of the Live experience she sings on a couple of the tracks and plays some guitar. We managed to record with her at Abbey Road. She came up with this amazing, layered melody for Sans Raison which is two minutes of high-energy, beat-based, psych-pop with distorted bass lines and spiralling, fuzzy guitars. I was also lucky to work with a number of super talented musicians including Andrea Balency and Oliver Battle.
With the album what do you hope the listener takes away from the experience?
It’s a very over-used and abused term but I can’t escape the fact that this film takes you on a real, literal journey around Europe and the soundtrack reflects that. We wanted this to be a proper trip. Never out-and-out psychedelic but definitely sublime and immersive, free and sonically unrestrained.
You two are long-time collaborators. What do you feel makes your relationship so successful? What do you think is the key to a great partnership?
I’m not sure I can answer that, I’m quite happy riding solo in most avenues of life… but with films I like the fact we can bounce ideas about and it’s not very often I meet someone I can connect with like CJ. I guess we ‘get’ each other, but I can’t really describe how. We have similar creative tastes - that helps. Musically he’s more leftfield than me so always brings something fresh to the studio. He keeps me challenged and I try to do the same on a visual level.
Basically I love the way he makes films, always have and he is still into the noise I make. That might sound simplistic but it’s really the core of why we are still making stuff together. We’ve become good mates and we’re totally honest with each other when it comes to working on the films and there’s a good balance of pushing and encouraging and respect and all the stuff that makes any relationship work for an extended chunk of time. We’re both pretty laid back and share the same goals for the project - the main one being for when we can tour again and take Translate on the road.