Filming of “Free As A Bird” promotional video

Started October 23, 1995

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From The Beatles Monthly N°239, March 1996:

For ‘Free As A Bird’, Apple Corps commissioned the services of Joe Pytka, well-known in the U.S. industry for his TV commercials. His task was to assemble a video based on Iyrical themes from the band’s songbook. […]

‘Free As A Bird’ was the result of discussions between Pytka and his team, the three Beatles and Neil Aspinall, who agreed that archive film of the band members should be added into new footage shot in Liverpool, London and Los Angeles, bringing to life song titles like ‘Paperback Writer’, ‘Penny Lane’ and ‘She’s Leaving Home’.

Though the video has been described as a “post-production nightmare”, producer Vincent Joliet is more upbeat about the project. “It wasn’t easy but we did exactly what we set out to do. There weren’t many surprises on our part,” he says.

Location work began in Liverpool on October 23rd 1995. Joliet comments: “We shot the location scenes knowing that something was going to be added later. We had to find the right footage. With the accident scene, for example, we selected the best take and then looked at all the old footage for the shots of John’s head and body movements that would fit best. The post-production itself took about three weeks from the moment we finished the location shoots to the moment we delivered the tapes.

Editing took place alongside the location shoots and the completed video was delivered to Apple the day before its world television premiere on November 20th an eleventh-hour experience which Joliet describes, tongue-in-cheek, as “a lot of fun”. He adds: “The editor came with us to the Liverpool location shoot and we started cutting as we were shooting. We moved the editing to London for a few days and Paul came over to see the first cut. He was very positive
and encouraging. Tapes were sent to George and Ringo for their approval, and then we flew back to New York, where we produced the final edit. Joe then made a personal visit to Yoko, who absolutely loved the video.

From Wikipedia:

The music video for “Free as a Bird” was produced by Vincent Joliet and directed by Joe Pytka and depicts, from the point of view of a bird in flight, many references to Beatles songs, such as “Penny Lane“, “Paperback Writer“, “A Day in the Life“, “Eleanor Rigby“, “Helter Skelter“, “Piggies“, “The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill“, “Strawberry Fields Forever“, “Doctor Robert“, and “The Fool on The Hill“. Between 80 and 100 allusions to the Beatles’ story, music and lyrics in the video have been estimated. Although the bird can be heard at the beginning of the video, it is never seen. Neil Aspinall (Apple Records executive at the time) said that this was because no-one could agree on what kind of bird it should be. Pytka had to send his ideas to McCartney, Harrison and Starr, as well as Ono, to make sure they all agreed before he could proceed with the filming of the video. Derek Taylor (ex-Apple Records executive) sent a two-page letter to Pytka confirming that he could proceed, and personally encouraged and supported Pytka’s ideas. The video was filmed in as many authentic locations as possible: Penny Lane was made by Pytka’s art department to look as it was in the 1950s, and other locations filmed were The Liver Building, and Liverpool Docks (as a reference to Lennon’s father Alfred Lennon).

Although Pytka fixed the ideas on a storyboard, he abandoned it as soon as filming began, and followed ideas based on what angles and perspectives the steadycam camera produced. One instance was the filming of the car crash, which Pytka filmed for hours from above, but realised that a steadycam shot on the ground was a much better idea. Archive footage was used by imposing it on scenes shot by Pytka, who utilised a greenscreen stage to digitally blend it into the finished film, such as Paul’s Old English Sheepdog in the graveyard, and the elephant in the ballroom procession scene. The elephant was put in last, as Aspinall phoned Pytka and said that Starr liked the scene, but insisted an elephant be put in it, which Pytka later did, as he had already put a sitar in at the request of Harrison. Apart from the steadycam shots, Pytka used a Russian-made Akil-crane for sweeping overhead shots, such as the Abbey Road zebra crossing shot at the end, as well as a remote-controlled toy helicopter with a camera added to it for intricate aerial shots. To make it more interesting, two Blue Meanies make cameos.

Harrison played the ukulele in the studio for the song, and asked to appear as the ukulele player seen only from behind at the very end of the video. Pytka resisted this, as he felt it would be wrong for any contemporary members of the Beatles to appear on screen. Pytka later stated that it was “heartbreaking” that Harrison had not played the role, particularly after Harrison’s death in 2001 and upon discovering that the ukulele was not a sample of an old song as Pytka had assumed. The video won the Grammy Award for Best Short Form Music Video in 1997.

Last updated on September 19, 2020

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