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The disturbing making of Radiohead's landmark 'No Surprises' video

Grant Gee’s music video for ‘No Surprises’ from Radiohead’s 1997 album OK Computer had a simple premise. For three-and-a-half minutes, the audience will watch a man trying not to drown.

Gee had originally intended to create a video based on “some kind of sparkly, music-box themed, performance-based nonsense”. However, Radiohead’s label, Parlophone, rejected the idea outright. The idea for ‘No Surprises’ came after Gee was forced to re-think his approach entirely. Gee, who had just finished filming the Radiohead documentary Meeting People is Easy, came up with the concept after studying a still from Stanley Kubrick’s film 2001: A Space Odyssey.

The still was a shot of David Bowman looking out at space from inside his helmet. It reminded Gee of childhood television memories of underwater escape acts. He began to wonder if he could shoot a video centred around a shot of somebody inside a helmet.

As the pieces came together, Gee became fixated on the line “a job that slowly kills you” and decided that he would fill the helmet with water and get Thom Yorke to hold his breath throughout the song, conveying that feeling of “murderous seconds”. Yorke, ever a believer in suffering for one’s art, agreed to be the premise.

The video is quite startling. We see Yorke, housed inside a glass helmet full to the brim with water. Initially, The Radiohead frontman remains relatively composed, but as the track progresses, we see him begin to struggle – his face twitching as he fights for breath. To anyone watching the video, it’s a surprise that Thom didn’t drown during the production. Thankfully, the crew had Yorke’s safety at the forefront of their minds.

Reportedly, the crew hired a special effects company to create a Perspex helmet that would slowly pump in water, which Yorke had the ability to release if he began to drown. To reduce the time Yorke had to hold his breath, the crew sped up a song sequence and then accelerated the camera from 25 to 50 frames a second to match. During the post-production process, the editor then decelerated both the song and frame rate after the water drained so that Yorke’s vocals synced up perfectly.

In the behind-the-scenes footage (which you can watch below), we see that, although it should have been a stress-free process, the whole thing looks bloody hard work.

(Credit: Wikimedia)

Yorke had demonstrated that he could hold his breath for a minute underwater in normal conditions, but due to the pressured environment, he found it very difficult to hold his breath for the required time. As a result, the day turned into, as Gee later put it: “A horror show … repeated torture.”

From the outside, it certainly looks that way. Yorke had to undergo what was effectively voluntary waterboarding. But after many failed takes, and some coaching from the assistant director, Yorke was able to hold his breath for the duration of the shot.

It must have been a pretty dreadful experience for Yorke, who, in the past, has described drowning as one of his worst fears. But the end result is absolutely mesmerising. It excavates the song’s quiet tension and brings it from and centre.

That tension builds and builds until the song’s climax when Yorke releases the water, and we see him straining for deep lungfuls of air. Truly, if ever there was a music video to take your breath away, it is ‘No Surprises’.

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