The making of The Joy Formidable's 'Cholla'

Interview by April Robinson | Photo donated by Charisse Manzi

Christopher Mills (dubbed “Millsy” while on tour with The Tragically Hip) is a refreshingly hands-on all the way up to up to his elbows, in fact creative soul. With roots in visual arts and video editing, he routinely mixes lo-tech with high tech, adding striking, labor-intensive touches achieved by his own hand (think personally-trained canaries) and through collaborations with friends and artisans (think handcrafted ravens by Geordie Lishman and hand-drawn illustrations by a huge list of international artists).

Having created a veritable plethora of visually-rich, award-nominated clips for the likes of Modest Mouse (Float On), Blue Rodeo (Arizona Dust), Metric (Collect Call/Expecting to Fly), Interpol (PDA), The Dead Weather (Blue Blood Blues) and — gasp! — Rush (Far Cry), we are duly flattered when Millsy graciously corresponds with us to share the behind-the-scenes scoop on his recently-completed music video, Cholla, with Welsh rockers, The Joy Formidable.


Holy shit, that was interesting. In my opinion, the band are basically at the core of their overdue explosion into our collective conscience, so it was clear to me that when they showed up, the heat would be on.

They were super focused on putting these really insane and wonderful details on their record in New York. I knew this would be a very organic process from start to finish, so I delivered an array of ideas via something I call an ‘idea buffet.’  It’s 5-10 paragraphs of concepts that I lay out for a band pick and choose from, giving us a choice of  ‘creative ingredients’. This ‘buffet’ makes it easy for us to get on the same page and we get an immediate sense of where we’d like to go with the project. Once they picked a few ingredients, we balanced them up with some interesting challenges, and lo and behold, we had a formula for the making this video!

In short, the concept was very loose. We agreed that we wanted to shoot some things in a barren landscape, that we wanted to explore volcanic activity, and that we wanted to present the image of the Cholla Gardens — a super magical place in the middle of Joshua Tree Park, California. We also knew we wanted ‘something a bit magic’ to happen with animals.

I wrote most of it to be animation collage, but with a heavier photo-based angle. Somewhere along the line, canaries were brought up. I liked this idea, because the guitars sounded like the beating of a million pairs of wings. Canaries also just seemed simple, accessible and unpretentious enough to work for us.

As I said, the band are clearly in an intense and important stage of their career. From what I can see, they have toured themselves into what I can only imagine is a serene point of exhaustion. On the one hand, they likely realize they need rest, but on the other hand, they’re  so motivated  and driven by what the positive feedback  coming back at them, they’re just perpetually propelled forward. I know this state well.

The band have clearly been hugely inspired by their journeys and Cholla is evidence of that. Ritzy told me about an encounter that she had with ‘something magic’ at the Cholla Gardens, and later, when I got to experience that place myself, I could only begin to imagine what it would have been like to arrive at such a place after conquering the world with your music. It felt a lot like a scene from a Jodorowsky film…

That said, they were super-intensely collaborative on this project, whereas the other two videos we’ve done together — for Whirring and The Heavy Abacus — they were far more hands off. With Cholla, they definitely had specific things they wanted to see and experiment with.

As with any busy band, there were some scheduling challenges. I was booked for other projects and our schedules didn’t really allow for a whole lot of back and forth or ‘let’s try one thing and lose another.’ One moment, I was pulling favours from friends and shooting beautiful animals at zoos, the next, I was driving through The Salton Sea. Some days I was planning simple, abstract animations, on other days, I was out purchasing and training live canaries to move through a little hole I cut out of a piece of green screen cardboard. (I used apple slices and a whole lot of patience).

All things considered, they elected to keep this video much simpler than the others and to keep it to their vision of one magic place where life comes from dead plants, canaries emerge from volcanic deposits and the carcasses of Cholla cacti. When mixed with a hearty dose of Ritzy’s hypnotizing eyes, and scenes of their always-enthralling performances, we knew we’d have a video we could be proud of. In the end, this is probably all that a band like this — so interesting and exciting to watch — needs.

I think the dedication of their fans and the view counts already on this video are great markers of this band’s success. The video, as always,  is really just along for the ride. I’d be lying if I said I was 100% happy with how the video turned out, but, I also think that the day I’m 100% happy with a project is also the day I should probably stop doing whatever that is.

Perhaps with the right encouragement, they’d find a way to allow me a Director’s Cut — one that included all the locations and most of the other bits and pieces we shot. To me, that project will definitely have a different pace and a different emotional resonance than this one. In fact, I’d love to see more Director’s Cuts  in music videos in general. Even better — REMIXES! And like, music videos made for back-catalogue artists! I’d die to make a Jimi Hendrix video some day. Well, not actually die, but like…almost.


Christopher Mills’ official bio and work can be found at To read an interview with Rhydian of The Joy Formidable where he speaks on their experience of working with Christopher, click here.

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