When it comes to Beyoncé's incredible "Formation" video, calling the video shoot fast would be an understatement. As late as mid January, Ethan Tobman, who would serve as production designer on the surprise video, wasn't aware it was happening. But he was quickly brought up to speed.
"Literally three weeks ago, I'm sitting on my couch reading a book," he told Curbed during an exclusive interview. "Then cut to today."
Despite the themes of the video, nothing was shot in New Orleans. Everything was shot in Los Angeles and peppered with footage licensed from the documentary That B.E.A.T.. The concept and quick turnaround required Tobman and the rest of the crew to convert a historic home they found in Pasadena into a fitting Southern Gothic set for Beyoncé's new song, part of a whirlwind shooting schedule that saw them put together arguably the biggest music video in recent memory in a mere week.
"Beyoncé is a pleasure to work with, and she really knows New Orleans well," says Tobman. "She asked me, 'are you going to be able to do this with the time that we have?'"
According to Tobman, who has worked with Beyoncé before, the challenge was to find a building in Los Angeles with a porch that resembled those found in New Orleans. Nothing like that appeared to exist, so the crew used the Fenyes Mansion, which houses the Pasadena Museum of History, and converted it into a Southern Gothic plantation. The property was an early site of film production in the region, first used by D.W. Griffith in 1912 for a film called When Kings Were the Law, later retitled The Necklace.
A Beaux Arts mansion commissioned by and built for Dr. Adalbert Fenyes and his wife Eva Scott Muse Fenyes in 1905, there was nothing really Southern about architect Robert D. Farquhar's design, says Tobman, But the interior, with damask wallpaper and dark wood flourishes, provided more than enough to work with, and the scale of the building was ideal for a video shoot. The most striking transformation required was the exterior. Tobman and his crew added storm shutters, Spanish moss, ivy, and wisteria, and decorated it with vintage, plantation-era rugs and furniture.
Everything was completed less than a week after they came up with the concept. Tobman, who designed the set for the critically acclaimed film Room, had worked with the singer before, and was used to quick timelines and secretive shoots. Part of the team that filmed videos for her last album, he wasn't aware they'd all come out on the same day until they dropped.
"I remember thinking, by the fourth video, 'is she not happy with them?," he says. "Why am I still getting hired? Her team was incredibly smart about keeping the secret."
Director Melina Matsoukas, who Tobman says is "wildly intelligent" about the culture and history of the era they referenced in "Formation," wanted paintings of black women and families on the walls, done in a colonial style. The idea was that "this is not a house the slaves are working in, this is a house where the slaves are the masters." But where do you find paintings that fit that idea? Tobman says the crew began looking, but quickly realized they would have to paint them themselves. They scanned paintings of white people and painted black people over them.
"It really made you realize there are no painting from that era of aristocratic people who are black," he says. "We did find some photos of black families in their Sunday best, and those were hung on the walls."
Tobman says the crew wasn't interested in creating a Masterpiece Theater set, but rather something with a specific tone and texture. When Beyoncé and the women are fanning themselves, they were put on a couch that had been destroyed and ripped to threads; the idea was "tearing it down and building it up again."
"[That scene] has a vibe," he says. "It's not like everything is a big discussion and metaphor. You're working with a group of very talented people and trust them. The styling on the video was incredible. Costumes were pulled together in three days."
One of the most iconic shots in the video, Beyoncé atop a submerged New Orleans cop car, was filmed in a water tank inside a soundstage. The bottom of the car was cut up and filled with foam to provide buoyancy, while a series of pulleys and cables were connected to a winch and a crane, so the car could be sunk over and over again with controlled speed. While a good portion of the background was computer generated, oak trees, the tops of roofs and cast iron gates were added to the tank for more realism.
Tobman couldn't comment on any future video plans tied to the forthcoming album, but did suggest the release of "Formation" was deliberate, and not just due to the Super Bowl.
"There were larger reasons for this video coming out when it did," says Tobman, "and that will become obvious in the weeks to come."