Feature: Emily Kai Bock


Emily Kai Bock knows how to get an entire scene talking.

Photography by Matthew Tammaro

It began in 2012. Emily’s friend Claire, a Canadian indie musician, needed to make a music video. Emily, who already had several music videos under her belt, willingly donated her services to create a concept and direct the video. It was a passion project and an opportunity to work with a good friend.

The girls gathered who they could with what they could and shot the music video in various locations around Montreal. Many of the people who appeared in the video had no idea what they were involved in. As Emily puts it, “People were trying to enjoy the game or spectacle on the field. They were very confused by us.”

Later that year, Claire, who performs under the moniker Grimes, was shortlisted for the Polaris Prize and that video “Oblivion” stands, at press time, at 5.2 million views on YouTube. Grimes’ career has taken off and Emily Kai Bock is now recognized as an up-and-coming music video director.

A photographer, painter and sculptor since youth, Kai Bock fell into directing after she began documenting her work on camera. Realizing it was as creatively stimulating as other artforms, Emily took on filmmaking full-time after graduating from her Bachelors of Fine Arts at Emily Carr University.

The natural ease at which she fell into filmmaking carries over into her work and is an excellent metaphor for how Kai Bock casts her videos. A sculptor can become a successful director just as easily as a pedestrian on the street can become an actor, even just for a minute (or three).

“Regular people just look and feel more authentic than anyone you can create through official casting and styling,” Kai Bock explains. “I like mixing naturalism with the surrealism within a script. I’ve used street casting in all my videos —my last commercial, too. I understand some people don’t like to be on camera, but many do. It’s a beautiful thing when you see someone on the street who is a perfect character and is willing to be in your film.”

Kai Bock takes a similarly organic approach to planning all her projects. “I write a shot list,” she says, “But I storyboard in my head.”

Visually speaking, each still is roundly thought out, with every corner of the image looking as if it was designed for a painting. “Most of my treatments reference contemporary gallery artists more than films. I pay attention to conceptual photography more than movies.”

She describes her style as “A mix of documentary and fiction, with attention to symbols,” with a knack for shooting wide, open spaces that she explores through a wide lens. The spaces look so curated it is shocking to discover that location scouting usually comes down to sheer luck. “I often have the eerie experience of coming across a location that is exactly how what pictured [for the project]. Like having a distant memory of being there before.”

Kai Bock credits 35mm filmmaking as being the catalyst for the beautiful of many of her shoots, though. “The latitude of colour and depth you can achieve by shooting film is astonishing. The first time I shot on film, I remember screaming watching the rushes. I couldn’t believe how beautiful everything looked. I’ve shot almost all my music videos on film and I plan to until the last lab in the world is closed.”

It’s these beautiful videos that have led her to paid opportunities, like her recent Coca-Cola commercial, which features rappers and dancers—once again, not professional actors—running around Toronto in what can best be described as a love story to Hogtown, And these paid opportunities allow Kai Bock to continue making videos for friends (and their friends and theirs) for the creative release rather than a paycheque.

But passion projects come with tight budgets, and making a sharp video for a new band is important, not only for Kai Bock’s reputation but the band’s as well. Despite budget constraints, however, Kai Bock manages to achieve a label-funded look, as in her video for Sebastien Schuller’s “Nightlife”.

Shot in Miami over two weeks after Schuller saw Emily’s work on Kool Music’s “Running Back To Everyone”, the video has the slick look of a big budget video—something to which Emily credits the other member of her two-person crew. Sending her director of photography Evan Prosofsky on a 30-minute helicopter tour of Miami with a 35mm camera and a master prime lens produced the opening of Schuller’s video—a crisp panorama of the coast that looks like it belongs in a Kanye West video. The helicopter ride was surprisingly one of the cheaper—and easier—elements of the shoot.

“Evan is a great talent and he takes a lot of risks for my projects. I can count on him. If I was like, ‘I want a shot from this specific angle over the water. Can you climb over that fence with your camera and stand on that person’s boat?’ He’d look over at the boat and say, ‘Okay.’ He actually is the one who converted me to shoot on 35mm when I asked him to shoot the Grimes video.”

With trusted collaborators like Prosofsky,  as well as her other DPs Bobby Shore, Chris Mably, Adrien Bertolle, and Andre Chemetoff, it is no wonder Emily Kai Bock has achieved considerable success for a young director who volunteers her services. Her video for Grizzly Bear’s “Yet Again” was named a Vimeo Staff Pick in 2012 and Coca-Cola gave her conceptual free range when shooting their ad. “It can be creatively trying working under a brand,” she says.

But, for Emily, it is buying in on her future as an artist.

“It allows me to make my other music videos, which are creatively freeing, and it also schools me on working with a large crew, something which will hopefully come in handy when I eventually make a feature film.”

Having recently wrapped a documentary about rappers in New York City, Emily is working her way toward that feature. “It was interesting to explore a city and a music scene that was out of my element,” she says. It was one of her first projects where she really got to work with sound mixing and design. “It allowed me room to play with mixing interviews, songs and live recording with the ambient sounds of the streets.”

This is a large demarcation for Kai Bock, who typically sees music videos as silent films. Working on an upcoming short, scheduled to shoot in Nashville during summer 2013, will pose another challenge for her. “It changes my direction from silent filmmaker to dialogue filmmaker. There are so many possibilities with sound, it is far more manipulative than images. Sound contextualizes how images are perceived.”

As she prepares to dominate yet another scene, making the move from music videos to scripted film, there is one thing that she is sure of. Emily Kai Bock is ready to be heard.