Interview with Davis McCutcheon
By: Emma Corcoran
Back in January, Davis McCutcheon filmed Chicago-based rapper Chuck Inglish's show featuring St Michael, the big Refreshers finale and RAG Week Launch 2016 at Club 601. After editing the footage, creating a video and showing it to their manager, they decided to use it for the official music video of 'F**k Yo Couch', the sixth track from Chuck's second solo album Everybody's Big Brother. And as if that wasn't enough, their manager later contacted Davis again asking if he would make Chuck's next music video. To say that this is a 'big deal' would be a complete understatement; to receive that kind of response from an artist of Chuck's calibre is truly indicative of Davis's remarkable skill, despite only pursuing his interest in filmmaking a few years ago.
Some of Davis's most recent projects include the videos for the Tea House launch party at the Vic, with headliners DJ FLO and DJ KOKO, and the video 'Istanbul', a personal documentation of his travels. And in terms of photography, you'll no doubt recognise Davis's work from the Sitara* 2016 fashion editorials that have flooded Facebook newsfeeds throughout the year. Davis is a passionate, brilliantly talented photographer and filmmaker, and we had the pleasure of chatting with him about the creative vision behind shooting and editing the 'F**k Yo Couch' music video, as well as when he first picked up a camera and how he found comfort behind the lens.
An Interview with Davis McCutcheon
ST.ART: I saw that you just made a music video for Chuck Inglish - so you were at the Chuck Inglish show, and then they scouted you?
DM: I was connected to Chuck's manager through Ampersand Media. A couple of days before the show, I was put in contact with their manager - Chuck Inglish and St Michael are managed by the same guy in LA. He wanted me to give him just a few rap clips from the show, so I filmed about an hour of footage during their performances. Then I got back from the show at around 2am and made some edits until 4 or 5am, which I showed them in the morning before they left. I ended up emailing their manager asking if I could just make a video instead of the raw clips he asked for; I didn't really feel comfortable giving him the raw clips because so much of video is how the clips work together, you know? A couple days later, I had the whole video made, and they really liked it so they took it.
ST.ART: How did you put together the video? How did you put your own kind of creative spin on it?
DM: I mean, I always try to make it so that the experience of watching my videos feels like you’re actually at the event, watching it unfold. You see a lot of times people filming from a single spot or vantage point, which doesn’t make for very exciting footage – it has little to do with their creative direction. I do a lot of motion and moving of the camera to create the transitions between the scenes. Especially if it’s a night where people are drinking and listening to good music, I have to time all of the cutting to the music, first and foremost, because that’s what drives those kinds of nights. And then beyond that, when I have my clips – I probably have about 300 clips, each around ten seconds long – I’ll go through them, similar to the way you would put together pieces of paper to make a collage. I have all my clips out, I’ll find footage that I think is good within those clips, pull it into my project, and then from there, I manipulate the clips to tell a story.
Normally, it’s all about making people feel excited to watch the video. If I showed you the finished video versus the raw footage I have, the raw footage – it’s not nearly as exciting to watch.
ST.ART: Was it difficult to make the music video because it was something you’ve never done before?
DM: Yeah, I mean, I consume a lot of media, not only to learn what looks good, but also just as a fan of music and pop culture. I watch a lot of music videos, and I watch a lot of concert videos, so I sort of knew what I wanted to make, but I didn’t have any experience making it before. Since that video, I’ve done four more. Just today when I was re-exporting the video for the final upload, I was looking at it and thinking, ‘Wow, since then I’ve already gotten so much better’, which I think is a sign I need to practice more!
I’ve done photography my whole life, and video to an extent, but video is much more about the camera that you have and your editing abilities than photography is. For me, video is something that, once you understand your style and what you’re trying to convey, everything really just makes sense. I don’t really know how to explain it, but you just have to have a feeling as to what’s an appropriate amount of time to show each clip and let each effect appear on the screen, things like that – rules in video aren't so much compositional, or even traditional, like in photography.
But as far as actual footage and filming, my only goal with that is just to get footage that people haven’t really seen before, so I’m constantly going between the stage and the crowd, getting up next to the people onstage… I think at least what differentiates me is that I’m just a one-man show when it comes to filming, but I try to make as many angles and sort of manipulate the way that they’re presented to make it feel like I’ve been all over, which I have to be fair. I try to create connections between the visuals in the audio in one scene, so that in the next scene, when the camera is on the other side of the event, it feels like there was another cameraman over there, when in reality, that clip was filmed thirty minutes later.
ST.ART: So when you sit down and you put together all the clips, how do you choose the order in which you arrange them? Is it usually chronological?
DM: Usually when I leave whatever event I’ve filmed, I remember the clips that I thought were best. I’ll get home with five to ten solid clips that I know are going to be the cornerstones of my video: if you look at any of my videos, I try to make a really strong opener, then ten seconds later, show another strong clip, and then again ten seconds later. In between them is closer to what you would call B-roll footage – the filler that leads into the bigger clips and defines their thematic purpose.
In the FS video that I just made, there's a bit at the end where all the models come out celebrating with confetti pouring down, and they have bottles of champagne and they're high-fiving their friends. That to me is an example of a really interesting clip because it goes beyond the message of ‘look at these people partying’. Before it was this minute-and-a-half montage of the same models looking super stoic and badass while strutting down the runway. They seem really intimidating, but the clip at the end makes you remember that they’re just students putting on a show for their friends. It’s really important for my video that they’re put at the end because the whole video sort of escalates and peaks with some really dramatic shots; the end reintroduces the student-run nature of FS. That, to me, is sort of a thematic concept that I wanted to introduce, and I think I did.
ST.ART: So how did your craft develop? When did you first pick up a camera?
DM: I think when I was about ten my family got a 'real' camera, you know, some lame Costco bundle – nothing fancy by any means. I was always taking it without my parents' permission, using it to take pictures of my friends or siblings, riding bikes or doing whatever we were up to. I was really lucky that my parents took me to a lot of places when I was younger, so when we would go to Italy for instance, we obviously had to bring the camera. I would wake up and go out on my own to take pictures, and so most of the pictures from our family trips ended up being my pictures. I guess since then I've been making my own memories!
But video – video is harder for me because it’s harder, in my opinion, to have bad video equipment and make something that excites people. It’s kind of annoying, and this is one of the reasons why I prefer photography to video. If I had my video camera and I took a five second clip of you drinking a cup of coffee, slowed it down and colourised it, you’d think it looked really cool, like a commercial or something you might call 'professional', and that would be exciting to you. I guess because it's just more to take in, in terms of audio and visual sensation.
I’ve only done video seriously in the past two years. I always made videos for my High School, but even then, I never really got the same reaction as I get now. When I make a video now, people tell me that they really like it, not because I have some insane skill for video-making, I don’t think; I think it comes down to how well you understand what your camera is capable of doing, what you’re capable of doing as a filmmaker and then what the audio and the editing can do for a complete product.
ST.ART: What draws you to photography and video as opposed to other types of artistic media?
DM: I think for me, it has to do with both the ubiquity and the accessibility of cameras. When you go out with your friends, they’re going to be taking pictures of you. It’s not like they’re going to be sketching you, you know? That’s sort of what make photography cool to me. It’s something I’ve shared for a long time with my family, taking pictures that are forever in our family scrapbooks; that developed into taking profile pictures and Instagrams for my friends; then people asking me to photograph their events; then that turns into people asking if I would help them do an artistic collaboration, where my vision becomes artistic. It took a while for me to consider photography in the way that people consider art because so much of it at the beginning for me was very documentarian and just taking pictures of everyday life – my house, my dog, my family, whatever.
I just think that having a camera is the easiest way to express myself. Not that photography is a short-cut, but for me, it’s much more interesting to me to press a button and capture something than it is to learn how to manoeuvre my hand and to perfect fine movements, like with painting or sketching. For me, my medium is more about immediacy than painting or sketching might be to others.
ST.ART: I guess it’s just a different experience from painting, seeing something behind a lens and then being able to translate it to an actual physical image.
DM: Right, yeah, there’s a lot of really difficult theoretical stuff with photography: the idea that you’re presenting something that seems like reality to the viewer, but it’s truly not. It’s actually the furthest thing from reality; it’s exactly a manufactured snapshot of your reality. The success of a photograph can almost be measured by how well it tricks its viewer. There's a lot of subjectivity in what gets presented and how, but when people see a photograph, they tend to think about the objectiveness of what it appears to convey.
I think photography really lends itself to social experiences. Everybody is a photographer in the sense that everybody has a camera; everybody has a camera that’s better than the one that I started off with, and I’m not even that old! All people who have phones can be photographers, but it’s about going beyond the very first steps of, ‘I want my friends to look pretty, I want us to look happy, I want this scene to look cool, I want people to think I’m doing cool stuff.’ Once you get past that and you’re able to say, ‘I want to present this as being serious’ or ‘I want this picture to have an air of mystery to it’, then you start understanding how much bigger photography really is than just iPhone pictures and Snapchat – things that are, in essence, photography, but not really treated as such.
There’s a difference between people who get thousands of Instagram likes and people who don’t. Typically, the people who have thousands of likes know what people like to see and how to present it aesthetically, whereas the people with four likes don’t. It's obviously problematic to grade photographers based on their like count, but it reinforces something really interesting about photography: successful pictures portray something that people will willingly believe is reality, but, at least subliminally, I think, understand to be a created scene or image.
It’s really complicated; I don’t think anybody really understands the influence they potentially have with a camera. If you go visit somewhere and a war breaks out in ten years, there aren’t ever going to be more pictures of that place the way it was before when you saw it. You very well could be documenting things that could be important someday; you don’t really know what you’re creating each time you’re taking a picture. I think it’s mainly about understanding that you’re not really capturing reality; you’re capturing your own reality, if that makes sense, which is obviously most empowering about photography and why people like it. You look at the most famous, mature photographers, and they have their own style completely, and it’s because they’ve done it for so long that they understand what they’re best at expressing with a camera.
ST.ART: Do you have any ideas for future projects?
DM: I’m pretty much doing one or two things every week in St Andrews. I try to shoot for at least an hour every day on my own; even if I’m not doing it for anybody, I try to just take my camera around St Andrews and take pictures. I try to always take pictures. I think constantly having something to work on really is the best way of develop your own style.
When I made the video for Chuck Inglish, I thought, ‘Wow, this is really cool, I’m really proud of this.’ I made three similar videos since then, and after having spent 150 hours on the latter three videos, I look back and say, ‘I could’ve done so much better if I only made this video now.’ But part of it is that it’s a necessary arc, and one day that will hopefully stop being about the arc and ‘I am better now than I was two years ago’ and it will get to a point where everything I do is indicative of exactly how I want it to come off. I think that only comes when you are constantly taking pictures, making videos, practicing your craft – I think that’s the same for everybody, right?
Every time I do a photoshoot, people message me asking if I would take pictures at their event or help them with something. I used to love getting those messages because it meant that I had something to practice taking pictures of, and it’s not that I don’t love getting them anymore, I just don’t have enough time. I’m doing 20-60 hours of photography and video depending on the projects I’m working on at the time, and balancing that with school and with having a social life, it’s really tough. I’m now getting to a point where I have to tell people that I can’t, even if they’re willing to pay me. When I started, I did so much for free, and it’s not because it’s about the money, but doing things equal time, and you don’t have enough time to do everything… like for me, it’s not worth my time to not give the attention to people whose projects I told them I would give them my best effort; it’s not worth my time to give someone a bad product. I’m just really conscious now of getting into projects that I don’t either believe or projects that, if I do it, I know I take a short-cut, put some filters on it and send it off. What I want is every project I do to be, ‘This is the best that he could do, and this is very much his project.’ So I am having to tell people now that I’d love to, and I appreciate you choosing me, but I just don’t have time for it.
ST.ART: I guess it’s sort of flattering to be in such high demand, right?
DM: It is, but it’s hard to know if it's genuine… like for instance, when people ask me to do things that I’ve never done before, I get less of the feeling that people are wanting me for my vision and what I might be able to do, but more, ‘Here’s a photographer in St Andrews, I know three of the other four won’t do it, so let’s ask Davis if he'll do it cheap’, if that makes sense. And that’s fine, I mean, I think that’s the way it’s gonna be when people have other stuff to worry about and student budgets, and that’s totally understandable.
I know what you mean, it is obviously nice when people say, ‘I love your pictures, and hopefully someday we can work together.’ It does mean a lot. Seriously. used to not have a lot of confidence in my photography. This is the first year I’ve ever had my camera in St Andrews, you know. I went to a really conservative military High School in Texas, and people made fun of me for being into photography. It wasn’t something I was ever comfortable doing in that environment. I spent three years here going out and doing a bunch of fun stuff, so I wanted in my fourth year here to be able to look back and capture St Andrews the way I want to remember it. What if this place changes in ten years? But when I take my time to go do personal pictures, I spend time trying to capture places that matter to me, people that matter to me, in the way that I want to be able to remember them, if that makes sense.
ST.ART: It’s also a nice way to spend your last year.
DM: Absolutely. When you go to events, you know, you end up saying that all you really do is you get really excited to get dressed up, get really drunk, kind of lose control of yourself, do something you’re maybe a little embarrassed about – and all of that’s fine, I mean, it’s fun. But when you wake up the next morning and you can hardly remember the night, it gets kind of old. Definitely being on the sober side of the lens, it’s changed the way I see that kind of thing, and so now, I’m less into it.
But truth be told, I’m going to more things this year just because I’m photographing more things. There’s so many events and little parties that I go to that I would never have been to. Like earlier in the year, I photographed a Japanese Society tea ceremony, and I would have ever gone to that, but it was really cool. I remember thinking, ‘Wow, I wish I had spent more time doing stuff like this in my St Andrews career.’ I think we get really caught up doing things because we feel like you have to, but then when you start thinking about whether it’s really worth the time or the money, I’d argue that not everybody would say yes.
ST.ART: It’s nice that you kind of have, not really an excuse…
DM: It is pretty much an excuse, I think. I go to events for free, and people come up to me and ask if I ever get to party or have fun, but they don’t understand how much fun this is for me. People feel bad for me when I’m filming events, but I love it. They say, ‘Oh, you have to drink’, and I do, I mean, I’ll have a sip of their drink because I think it's better to not be completely sober when you're filming drunk people. But I’m not sitting there saying, ‘As soon as I get enough footage, then I can get smashed, then I can put my camera away and party.’ I want to be there all the way until the end, filming and making the best video that I can. That’s something that a lot of people I’ve worked with say – ‘Oh, just film for the first ten minutes, and then after that, you can do whatever you want.’ For me, I know that the more I film, the better my product will be and the more opportunities I’ll have to make somebody’s event even more special. And that goes back to what we were saying at the beginning, about making people feel like they’re at the event: it’s something that I have the responsibility to capture, in the same that way that a journalist has a responsibility to be present at the event and understand everything all the way through. They can’t just show up and leave halfway through, similar to me: I have to be able to know how the night went, be able to document what I want to be documented and be able to present a night that matches the image that you had of the event in your head.
ST.ART: Right, I know what you’re saying: just wanting to be present and being able to show a truthful reflection of how the night went. Plus, when you go to events like that all the time, I bet you get to meet so many cool people.
DM: Oh yeah, for sure, for sure. There’s so many people who come up to me asking me to take their picture, and I’ve met more people this year doing events than I’ve met my entire St Andrews career, you know? It’s awesome to meet people, and it’s awesome to go places where people are having a good time; I don’t think anybody would disagree with that.
Check out Davis McCutcheon's official website here: http://www.davis.digital/