Plan It Like a Bank Heist
People ask me to help them tell stories -- theirs and other people's, past and present. As a producer based in DC, I've done short documentaries, magazine segments and promos for PBS, commercials, PSAs, and shows for many other clients over the years. And I'm also a novelist so it's not that I don't have my own free-bird creative outlet on the side. But one of the things I'd never done was produce a music video.
I always told myself that if I ever did get to do one, I wouldn't show a band lip-syncing in a warehouse with cobwebs, and I wouldn't run out of shots. Too many music videos cycle through their shots in the first 40 seconds, and then it's just more of the same. If I ever got my chance, I'd keep it interesting, with a live look and a live sound.
One day I got tired of waiting and dreaming, and I called some friends.
The project had labor of love written all over it -- a bunch of professionals coming together just for the creative juice of it all. For me, that meant planning, most of all because I didn't want to waste a second of my colleagues' time. But when you're working with a complete and utter lack of funds, sometimes you've just got to roll with the punches and stay determined.
The story of how we pulled this thing together is a story of two dances. One, between planning and nowwhat- am-I-gonna do? The other, between keeping my vision in mind -- eyes on the prize -- and trusting my team.
THE FIRST OF THE TWO SHOOTS
The dance began early on a Saturday morning in Falls Church, Virginia, outside DC. I had a 16-year-old local artist, Andy Poxon, with a just-written song in hand. I had an atmospheric location -- a rockabilly and blues haven called JV's (going strong since 1947). And I had a production crew headed by DP Matt Gottshalk, one of the co-authors of From Still to Motion (Peachpit Press, with James Ball, Robbie Carman and Rich Harrington).
The crew sets up at JV's in Falls Church, Virginia. Photos by Paulette Collins.
Matt and I had worked many times before, and he'd joined me at the location a couple of days earlier to get the lay of the land. Although I didn't have a storyboard, I did have a strategy.
Set up at the bar first thing and grab some soundbites from the talent. Spend the rest of the morning alone with the band, no audience in the room.
Multiple takes, multiple cameras. Point one lens at the singer, another at the bassist, another at the drummer, and use the fourth lens to get wides. Clean shots.
Matt hit the stage with a mix of ARRI Fresnels and Dedolight 150 spots, did his own shooting with a Canon 5D Mark II and cinevised Nikon primes, and directed the three other Canon operators on 5Ds and 7Ds. We had no multicam monitor rigged up, so once I had a rough notion of what each camera was doing, I put my faith in my DP and providence.
My hope was to be satisfied, musically speaking, with just one take and then, in the edit, hang picture from that best take. I didn't care if we wound up borrowing video from other takes, I just wanted to keep it live, using an uncut stream of music. The winning take proved to be the fifth of nine. Take five had the strongest guitar licks and, as luck would have it, a lot of the best sync shots.
To get a clean base for the live sound, Matt Zappile rigged eight mics -- singer, guitar, bass, kick drum, snare, cymbal, high hat and room. These were wired via the PreSonus Firepod FireWire interface into Boom Recorder on a MacBook Pro, recording at 16bit 48kHz. We also had Ray Tilkens, who produced Red Roots, the band's first CD, on hand as consultant.
The afternoon brought the audience, a good 30 people -- fans of the music, friends of JV's and Chapter 19 of the Boozefighters Motorcycle Club, whose fame goes back to founder "Wino" Willie Forkner and one wild weekend in Hollister, California, memorialized in the early Brando film The Wild One. The Boozefighters look like they'd drive over your face for a case of beer but they're really a sweet bunch of guys and took direction like pros. I hadn't had so much fun since directing a shoot in the conservation department at the National Gallery of Art, where I actually got to say, "Could you move the Rembrandt a scoche?"
Takes 10 to 17 were all about the audience, again with four Canons and eight tracks of audio. John Napolitano hitched up his Steadicam and followed some Boozefighters into the room, giving us our opening shot, which I should mention was suggested by my then 13-year-old son, Alex, who's also a filmmaker. The way I see it, when it comes to ideas, steal them wherever you find them.
IT'S NOT ROCK & ROLL UNLESS...
Somebody once said, "It's not rock & roll unless your pants hurt." It's certainly not a rock video without women rockers in the audience in sufficient quantity.
They'd promised to come, but we lost out to a big DC event that same day (Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert on the National Mall), and by day's end I was worried we were short. The first look at the clips confirmed it. I knew we had to go back for inserts, or be boring.
I'd had a great crew the first time out -- the aforementioned Gottshalk, Zappile and Napolitano, plus Matt Nagy, Avery Munger and Son Duong -- but everybody was just too busy for another go. They'd done their good deed, for which I'm still grateful.
So I put feelers out for every last DSLR shooter in the region. I begged and pleaded and got a dozen women to show up for the second shoot. We didn't need the band this time, just pretty people around and on top of the JV's bar, rocking to an .mp3 over the PA system. Classic movie magic.
THE SECOND SHOOT
DP Jim Ball had studied our existing shots and planned accordingly.
The trick was to use direct sources to emulate the softer look of indirect lighting -- the glow from a bright stage that wasn't going to be there. Jim lit the bar with Kino Flo Parabeam 400s with a touch of diffusion, adding a couple of LEDs for edges and fluorescents deep in the back of the shot --"just to make it look good," Jim said, because he always makes it look good. He shot our bar-hopping rockers with a 70-200mm zoom on his Canon 5D.
This photo was taken to the left of the dancers, where we used Kino Flo Parabeam 400s to simulate the glow of the stage as if lit for the performance. (From left to right: Stephen Menick, DP Jim Ball Canon 5D with Canon 70-200mm zoom, and workflow consultant Nephi Griffith, who was present at both shoots.) Photo by Bim Mamber.
Since a chunk of time (four months, to be precise) had elapsed since our first shoot, we had another toy to play with. Chris Li and Mark Kokkoros saw an opportunity to test-drive their spankin' new Panasonic AF100s. The AF100 is an evolutionary step past the Canon, and my feeling was, the more the merrier.
Chris and Mark dumbed down their Pannys, reducing the master pedestal (to a minus 3) to get that contrasty, crushed-black Canon look. They brought their chroma down (also to a minus 3) to get the Canon warmth. I think the result is as seamless as it gets.
With all our cameras producing H.264 native files, the logical choice would have been to cut the piece in Adobe Premiere for native format support, or even Final Cut Pro. (This was pre-FCPX.) And Matt Gottshalk had offered to do the cutting on his own FCP system. Other commitments got in his way and I had to go to Plan B, to wit, Scott Newman, an editor on staff in the broadcast division of AARP, in downtown DC. (I freelance there, and Scott and I had logged countless hours together, working on segments for My Generation on PBS.) The good people at AARP gave us the use of their Avid Nitris Symphony and drive space, on one condition -- that we work after-hours. So be it.
We used Clipwrap to peel the .m2ts wrappers off the H.264 natives and rewrap them as QuickTime files. Then the QuickTimes were imported into the Avid and transcoded to Avid's DNxHD codec, and Mr. Newman was on his way. He's a musician himself -- saxophone -- and brought his musical sense to the console, knowing when to stay tight on the band and when to go wide, and how to let the song tell the story.
The goal throughout was give people a reason to keep watching -- cutaways, cutaways, new and different cutaways -- but always bringing it back to the band. And we kept our promise to produce a live cut. The only tweaks to the music are in the mix. Jeremy Zunk imported the original eight raw tracks into Ableton Live, compressing, EQ-ing, and giving us a big sound that's just a little dirty. Just what you'd have heard if you'd been there, only sweeter.
To lend depth, we painted the first 10 or so seconds with crowd chatter from an outtake, and at 01:50, added the clink of two beer bottles. Without those details, a lot would have been lacking. God always dwells in the details.
Since all we had was borrowed time on the Avid -- a few hours here and there, evenings and weekends -- the edit spanned many months and more sessions than I care to count. Part of my rationale for sticking it out was that I felt I owed a product to all the people who'd given their time and effort to my fantasy. The rest was sheer cussedness. I was GOING to finish what I started.
PLAN IT LIKE A BANK HEIST
What do all those movies tell you? That no matter how you carefully you plan it, something always goes wrong. Having no money to pay people, I was a little -- no, a lot -- like an indie filmmaker getting his feature made in fits and starts and by hook or by crook. I couldn't roadmap it as much as I'd have liked.
But the one thing I could do was to plan each of my production days to the best of my ability. Know what I wanted. Communicate that to my DP and let him do his job. And plan the day in a way that made the best use of the crew's time. They did their jobs just as seriously as if their invoices were going to be in the mail the next day, and that was a pleasure to behold.
Some of my other takeaways:
With the DSLR, for Pete's sake, slate. Even if it's just a handclap. We failed to do that on the first shoot with four cameras and well over a dozen takes, forcing me to spend some annoying hours sorting through the clips, and forcing the editor to match waveforms.
Stay as native as you can. We converted from 1080 progressive at 24 frames per second to the broadcast standard of 1080 interlaced at 59.64 fps. Didn't need to, not for Internet anyway. The editor thought he saw the sync drift later in the timeline. Whether this was due to the frame rate conversion, or because he inserted the occasional sync shot from other takes and found himself having to eyeball a rough match, we're still not sure. He just kept his shots very short, saying, "This isn't a Revlon spot. It's all about energy and groove."
Work with people you trust, and trust them. On the first shoot, DP Gottshalk set the cameras on a flat gamma curve to keep from backing the editor into a corner when it came time to color-correct. On the second shoot, DP Ball used the same camera settings and lit his part of the room --the bar-- to recreate the bounce light motivated from the first shoot.
Editor Newman blended these ingredients and transformed the many into one. He warmed and expanded the contrast range in Gottshalk's shots of the bright stage, and cooled and added contrast to Ball's darker bar.
That's three guys working separately but together, months apart and really without the benefit of consultation. Three guys complementing each other naturally, intuitively. That's workflow. That's professionalism.
The final takeaway: if it's a labor of love like this one, don't let it go, even if you hate it sometimes. Forget the bumps in the road and the embarrassment of asking way too many favors of people. No matter what the budget, get it done, or you'll have nothing to show for your pains.
Watch the video here: