Making AntsLive's viral video Number One Candidate – with vintage Canon optics

Director Tom Emmerson and DoP Isaac Eastgate shot in the Dolomites and used unconventional kit for their "different" hip-hop video. Here they tell us the story behind the shoot.
Rapper AntsLive sits on the back of a horse, with the Dolomite mountain range in the background, in a still from the video for his song Number One Candidate.

"[Music videos] are challenging, for sure. But I think filmmaking, at any level and on any budget, is challenging. Making something good isn't easy," says director Tom Emmerson, who used a vintage Canon lens to help give the viral music video for AntsLive single Number One Candidate a unique aesthetic. © Payday Records, Inc.

The Sound of Music meets the sounds of north London in rapper AntsLive's phenomenally popular music video for his song Number One Candidate. With over 1.3 million TikTok views, the British artist's performance is joyfully set against the Italian Alps by director and manager Tom Emmerson.

The result is both unexpected and entertaining, with the three-minute analogue video comprising a medley of creative shots. They include slingshots, super-zoom reveals and background montages that leave the viewer wondering just how they were created.

"We've all seen hip-hop done in a certain way, at least currently," says Tom, "but there were a million ways to do this video differently: we could have gone to South America or we could have gone into the desert. There were so many ways to take it out of its context."

What Tom knew was that he wanted "an epic landscape" for an "epic song", and he chose the Dolomite mountain range in north-eastern Italy. He says, "It just had these amazing rolling hills and then sheer rock faces, which is a landscape you don't really get anywhere else in Europe."

After starting out with a handful of initial ideas, Tom's approach was organic and he allowed himself to be inspired by the landscape. "Ants is such a strong performer; he makes such good music and he's so open creatively," Tom says. "You can just put him somewhere and it will be captivating, but to ensure this is continually captivating for three minutes is a slightly different task."

Here, Tom and DoP Isaac Eastgate talk about their approach to making the video, tell the story behind its key moments and reveal the kit choices that helped make it special.

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Rapper AntsLive sits at a picnic table, food to his left and a goat, resting its hooves on the table, to his right, with a mountain landscape in the background, shot using a Canon SC15x11 Super 16mm lens.

Tom knew all along that he had to pair a Super 16mm format with the vintage Canon SC15x11 (11-165mm T2.5) zoom to achieve the perfect look, just the way he envisioned it. © Video Still Courtesy of Payday Records, Inc.

The creative vision

Aesthetically, Tom wanted the video to feel "different", "like a postcard" and a "real Alpine experience". He also says, "I just knew I wanted it on 16mm film. There's just a magic about it. I wanted it to feel surreal, a feverish dreamy version of The Sound of Music – just because I liked it, and you don't see that in imagery that much these days. Certainly not in hip-hop."

Cinematographer Isaac helped Tom get the specific look he wanted by choosing the right lenses – including the vintage Canon SC15x11 (11-165mm T2.5) Super 16mm zoom lens.

Isaac also brought a taste of a digital workflow to the analogue shoot, using his smartphone to create a feed in order to review footage in the field, rather than having to wait for the film to be processed. The video was shot during the early hours of the day and in the evenings, so this helped save time on the 4.5-day shoot.

AntsLive stands at the edge of a body of water, the Dolomite mountains unfolding in the background, Ants and the blue sky mirrored in the blue water.

"I think there's going to be a little more interest in these specific lenses as time goes," says DoP Isaac. "Just because of the pixel density on digital, because they're small format lenses, you can now use them on digital more easily because you can crop down to a small format." © Payday Records, Inc.

AntsLive crouches atop a rock face wearing a red jacket and dark trousers, further mountains in the background.

The Number One Candidate video combines two of Tom's great loves – being a music manager and directing. "That's what I absolutely love doing," he says. © Payday Records, Inc.

How Number One Candidate's best moments were shot:

1. Opening scene

The opening scene shows Ants riding a horse through the mountainous landscape. For these shots Ants had to learn to ride a horse in just 10 days.

However, it was equally tricky to find the right location which had a view of the mountains behind it, would catch the sun just right, and was flat and straight enough for Tom and Isaac to drive alongside Ants in a pickup truck.

Then they had to choreograph the shot, replicating Tom's vision as closely as possible. Isaac was in the back of the pickup. "The horse was called Lucky – that said everything for how the video went," says Tom. "Isaac was the 'human meat gimbal', as he described himself, and he was pulling focus and stabilising. We still wanted to keep some shake because if you go too smooth you get all sorts of distortion and you lose a lot of the energy."

2. Hyper zoom lens reveal

"I knew I needed a really big zoom lens because I wanted to have these crazy reveals of the landscape," explains Tom. "You think Ants is standing against a green wall then, no, he's next to a fire truck. I want people to feel they've been taken on a journey – and a zoom out is one little journey within a bigger story."

"Any operator will tell you it's challenging to create these shots," says Isaac. "It's tricky, especially if you're panning and operating the camera while zooming, but you're letting the lens do the work, really. It's not super technical."

3. The 'whip-pan' transitions

When the camera 'whips' from Ants singing on one cliff face to another, it's all about timing, says Isaac. "It's purely about being locked into your performer. It helps a little bit if you've got the tripod set up the right way, but you're mainly asking the operator to work in time with the talent.

"My work is to facilitate the director as much as possible and if they're going to be able to nail a beat better than I am, then why would I be operating one second? So Tom was the one who shot that!"

4. Match cut moment

A stand-out moment in the video is the montage of backgrounds, with Ants seemingly static in the scene. This involved a cycle of only two backgrounds at walking distance from each other, and the technique was surprisingly simple. "We had adhesive putty stuck to the screen to mark his position," explains Isaac. "Then we just went to a new spot and put him in the same position.

"I would say that a lot of the work we were doing is far less technically advanced than Charlie Chaplin's work. It's just getting the compositions and the lighting right. It's the real fundamentals of cinematography."

AntsLive stands in front of a rocky hill, with his reflection visible in the water under him, in the music video for Number One Candidate.

"Each bit of a zoom, you want to keep unravelling your image," Tom says of the shots created with the Canon SC15x11 zoom lens. © Video Still Courtesy of Payday Records, Inc.

The vintage Canon SC15x11 (11-165mm T2.5) behind the 'big reveals'

Canon's vintage zooms have a deserved reputation for elevating the quality of filmed pieces. Isaac frequently uses the Canon SC15x11 (11-165mm T2.5) Super 16mm zoom lens in his work.

"I specifically have the second generation of zooms because they still have a lot of the imperfections that really make it, then I'll switch to the later generations if I want pure resolution," he says. But it isn't just the image quality that appeals. "They're also ridiculously lightweight," at just 2.5kg.

Canon has more than 75 years of optical expertise, but entered the cinema lens market in 1971, with the K5x25 macro zoom lens. "Our introduction to cinema optics was groundbreaking at the time and it was recognised instantly by the film industry," says Aron Randhawa, Canon Europe Product Specialist. Directors including Danny Boyle are still championing some of the Academy Award-winning K35 prime lenses.

The 15x optical zoom used in this music video, the Canon SC15x11, was originally released in 1997. Its spiritual successors are the Canon Flex Zooms with other Cine-Servo lenses, such as the Canon CN20x50 IAS H E1/P1 and Canon CN10X25 IAS S.

Cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle films with a Canon camera. He is wearing a warm black jacket, yellow gloves and headphones.

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AntsLive sits casually on a grassy mountainside, further peaks of the mountain range extending behind him.

"People always come to me and say, 'Oh, we need a big smash zoom.' And I say, 'Yes, it's covered. It's a 15x zoom," says Isaac. The Canon SC15x11 is a mainstay in the DoP's kitbag. © Video Still Courtesy of Payday Records, Inc.

What made Number One Candidate a success

"Tom and Isaac have achieved one of the most remarkable, captivating and creative music videos of the year," says Aron. "The combination of their precise framing and powerful optical zooms creates an amazing experience."

Tom says that several factors have contributed to its success. "To say it went viral solely on the basis of the quality of the video would be naive," he says. "It went viral because the video was great, the song was great, but we got lucky as well."

Isaac adds, "We both knew it was going to be a great video, but I think a huge part of the response is the way that image feels when you look at it. It's those intangible things like composition, colour and performance that matter."

The video has opened many doors for the team. "I think it made people trust me a little bit more," says Tom. "Now I'm the guy who made that video, and it's so different from everything else, that I guess they think my ideas probably aren't crazy. That's a really nice place to be in."

Emma-Lily Pendleton

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