Two Fingers Above Everyone Else: The Animated Story of Tony Iommi

Making good things out of bad ones seems to be a recurring theme in the music industry, especially when it comes to rock & roll and heavy metal. As a follow up to my previous post about how penniless immigrant Eddie Van Halen rewrote the way electric guitar was played in the early 1970s, I want to direct your attention to an animated short based on the life of another legendary guitarist.

Just like Eddie, Anthony Frank “Tony” Iommi doesn’t need an introduction. Universally known as the guitar player and a founding member of Black Sabbath, the left-handed Birmingham-born musician is also considered among those who shaped the sound of heavy metal (if not the one who literally created it from scratch). This is why VH1.com’s The Complete History of Heavy Metal: Fingers Bloody Fingers, illustrated by Paul Blow and animated by Kee Koo, pays homage to his defining contribution to the genre.

Tony Iommi as portrayed in VH1.com's "The Complete History of Heavy Metal: Fingers Bloody Fingers"

You might have heard of how the legend began: after suffering an injury at work, which cost him the tips of the fingers on his right hand, Iommi took inspiration from another cult guitar player who also lost fingers, Django Reinhard, and managed to forge a replacement for his missing fingertips from plastic. What followed is part of the mythology of metal, something he designed around immortal riffs conceived on his signature Gibson SG guitars.

As Iommi explains in the short, “Of course, losing my fingertips was devastating, but in hindsight it created something. It made me invent a new sound and a different style of playing, and a different sort of music. Really, it turned out to be a good thing off a bad thing.”

Tony Iommi as portrayed in VH1.com's "The Complete History of Heavy Metal: Fingers Bloody Fingers"

Last year on 4th July I attended the Black Sabbath gig at the British Summer Time in Hyde Park. From what I saw, over the decades the guitar legend has not lost his iconic approach to the six strings, and despite fighting a battle against cancer he was touring with his band mates to promote their latest record and working on new material. He still is the “axeman” summoning all Black Sabbath fans by simply hitting a few notes, introducing anthems the like of Iron Man, Paranoid, Black Sabbath and Supernaut with his sound born out of an industrial accident.

Born Out Of Necessity: What We Can Learn About Modding From Eddie Van Halen

I clearly remember, as a teenager, the day I got my first CD from a band I had always heard of, but didn’t have very clear ideas about. I only knew that the guitar player knew his s**t and was said to have re-designed the whole concept of playing the instrument. So one day, when I was on holiday in New York, I entered a huge Virgin store and decided that it was time to get to know the man. I bought Van Halen‘s Best Of Vol. 1, which opens with Eruption. That song literally blew my mind.

When you grow up listening to rock & roll, you hear and read a lot of stories about techniques, styles, and troubled lives… It’s a mix of craftsmanship and attitude, and it’s part of the mythology surrounding bands and musicians: each and every player has their own approach to the instruments with which they’ve chosen to write their personal chapter in the book of music. But very few narratives have been passed on with such a reverence as Edward Van Halen‘s unique method of playing the guitar, and the process that led him to create his signature sound and gears.

Eddie Van Halen demonstrating his 2 hands techniques during "What it means to be American".

Eddie Van Halen demonstrating his 2 hands techniques during “What it means to be American”.

In the past few days a video has been making the rounds. I highly recommend you watch it: whether you like rock & roll or not, it’s one of those inspiring accounts of wild and creative days, the humble recall of a truly American dream by someone who travelled from The Netherlands to California to rewrite the history of contemporary music.

The “living guitar deity Eddie Van Halen”, as Rolling Stone calls him, was recently invited at the Smithsonian for its ongoing program “What it means to be American“, and the video I’m referring to is the live coverage of the event.

Eddie Van Halen on stage at "What it means to be American".

Eddie Van Halen on stage at “What it means to be American”.

Eddie’s experimentations include crossing a Gibson with a Fender to get the infamous “Frankenstrat” (which later on was paired in studio and on stage by his signature “Wolfgang”), re-inventing tapping and hammering as well as re-conceiving the art of playing with his second hand on the fret, or using an electric drill on the chords to get a sound out of another dimension, while on a quest to find the perfect amplifier (which of course resulted in him creating his signature model).

Eddie Van Halen with a replica of his striped Stratocaster and EVH Brand "Wolfgang" guitar at "What it means to be American".

Eddie Van Halen with a replica of his striped Stratocaster and EVH Brand “Wolfgang” guitar at “What it means to be American”.

His joy when he plays on stage is contagious to say the least, but there is also a very visceral (and sometimes darker) relationship with the guitar which can be found in lesser known performances taken on camera, or more obscure videos captured in his mythical studio “5150”. I’m referring for example to the one shot for Catherine, an instrumental song he created for the adult film Sacred Sin, which is emblematic of his physical struggle to get the notes he is searching for, no matter what.

Going back to the event at the Smithsonian, you can call it a simple “interview” or “master class” as you prefer, but in my opinion it’s a pretty interesting dive into what is known as modding, or the act of modifying hardware or software “to perform a function not originally conceived or intended by the designer, or achieve a bespoke specification”. In this respect, I can hardly imagine a story more fitting than Eddie’s.

Are Smartphones Helping Us To Shoot Smarter Films?

Just a few days ago, as the Sundance Film Festival was about to end, a film started making the headlines. Sean Baker’s Tangerine, shot with an iPhone 5s, was enthusiastically saluted as the frontrunner of a new breed of movies that, by spending between $168 and $768 for set up, can achieve quality images for a feature film, get noticed by one of the most respected international film festivals, and get a distribution deal with an established company like Magnolia Pictures.

Without going into too much technical detail, Baker enhanced his iPhone by adding a set of anamorphic adapter lenses, an app that allows control of the cinematography, as well as a Steadicam rig to stabilize the device. That said, it’s not only a matter of tools. You can’t escape the fact that you have to know what filmmaking is about: “You still need to know how editing works. You still need to know how sound works. You still need to know how a camera works.” says actor James Ransone to The Verge. “You can’t just go out and shoot. […] You have to know 100 years worth of filmmaking.”

Sean Baker's feature film "Tangerine" was shot with an iPhone 5s.

Sean Baker’s feature film “Tangerine” was shot with an iPhone 5s.

Tangerine is of course not the only film of this kind. And Uneasy Lies The Mind, directed by Ricky Fosheim and officially selected for the 2014 South By Southwest Excellence in the Title Design Awards category, claims to be “the first feature length narrative movie to be shot entirely on the iPhone”. (An iPhone 5 with a Turtleback SLR Jacket lens adapter, to be precise. You can read more technical details in this interview for American Cinematographer).

Horror directors are going mobile too. See for instance Juan Ortiz’ feature Jennifer Help Us, shot on an iPhone 4s, which recently got noticed. The list goes on, as there are plenty of mobile film festivals showcasing the most creative projects shot with smartphones. And it’s not just about filmmaking: I’m sure you’ve heard of iPhoneography.

Juan Ortiz' horror "Jennifer Help Us" was shot with an iPhone 4s.

Juan Ortiz’ horror “Jennifer Help Us” was shot with an iPhone 4s.

Technology is great, but what about the stories? Storytelling will benefit from this in the long run, although so far the enthusiastic reviews I read concentrate predominantly on the technical aspects, the quality of shooting, the apps and the gear. Not to mention the fact that very often directors adopt smartphones simply because they have a low budget.

Moreover, it seems to be true that there is a little bit of resistance among professionals, maybe because we’re getting to the peak of the clash between amateurs and pros. As Ransone recalled in The Verge, he hesitated before abandoning himself to the flexibility of the iPhone: “More out of pride. I’m like, Jesus Christ, man, I was on The Wire. I’ve ended up in iPhone movies.” As they say, embrace the change.