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Shooting “Bless of an Angel” Part 2

April 10, 2014

Note: I wrote this one a while ago, but because I’m generally crap at this, never bothered posting it. But since time is moving on and this post might soon cease to be relevant, I thought I should put it up asap. Really long post, this one, so strap yourself in…

Shokamo CD Cover Art v1

A few weeks ago, we wrapped on the “Bless of an Angel” music video shoot. As I write this, the final cut of the video is doing the rounds on YouTube and we seem to be getting good feedback on it, which pleases me because of how much time and effort everyone put into it. I’ll probably write another post on the editing process, but for now I thought I’d write about the shoot itself and the decisions leading up to it.

For those who don’t know, “Bless of an Angel” was inspired by the story of a lady called Heya who, despite slowly dying from cancer, was determined to help a young struggling musician get his career off the ground. JP was deeply affected by her story and wrote the song as a tribute to her to be played at her funeral. After he put on his website, fans reacted very positively to it, so he decided to go the whole hog and record it professionally and do a music video for it.

I took on the project because I wanted to get some music video directing credits and this seemed perfect for me. A cinematic music video with dramatic story sequences and the chance of good exposure? It ticked all my boxes, save the one about lots of money and free pizza.

The original idea for the video wasn’t that different from what we ended up shooting. JP didn’t want the video to be about him- like the song, he wanted it to be about Heya and the story- so we concentrated on a narrative that would capture the main points and convey them visually and simply. This is harder than it sounds. Even visual films need some kind of set up or exposition to convey complex ideas, but without dialogue or any significant screen time to try and get this across, the story needed to be distilled into things that could be communicated simply. Emotions, simple ideas and cues were ideal. Complex relationships and back-stories were going to be nearly impossible. I also didn’t want to just create a literal re-telling of Heya’s story. Even if I’d wanted to, conveying the relationship she had with the struggling musician she was trying to help and all the backstory that goes with it was going to be impossible to get across visually. So I chose to focus on the things I felt would work for any audience, whether they knew Heya or not- a story about a woman who’s dying of cancer, trying to do good deeds with her final times because she has a selfless goal she’s working towards.

Actors Robin March and Yvonne Wan.

Actors Robin March and Yvonne Wan.

The deathbed bookend structure with the flashback in the middle was there from the beginning, but originally our character (who I’d called Mai to make things easier and less legally-problematic) was going to be in a hospital ward where she would have an out-of-body experience upon death which would lead into the flashbacks. Aside from the tricky effects shots required to get two Mais in one dolly shot (very tricky if you don’t have motion control or match work equipment) and the difficulty of getting a hospital location (actually not as difficult as you’d think, just expensive), the big problem with this was that it just wasn’t emotionally fulfilling. Mai would come back from her flashback, realise her job was done and let herself go, leaving with JP (who in this version was some kind of guardian angel) into the light. While that worked from a character arc point of view, it left Luke (the husband character) without any closure and gave JP a role which didn’t really fit his image as a metal musician.

There were also issues with what her good deeds would be. She would be helping her neighbours, the elderly caretaker in her apartment building, a music student, her husband… but none of it really worked. Some of it was also going to be difficult to convey visually because there needed to be some form of exposition. It also added to our cast list, which was getting a bit too big for the budget we had.

So I stripped the story down to its essentials. Mai would be at home on her deathbed rather than in hospital which would help establish her better as well as her husband and the situation. Cut to flashbacks, in which we’d see her finding out that she has cancer, trying to not let it affect her life and continuing to teach her student so she could get accepted into a prestigious music school. We see that this is the thing she’s pushing for and trying to achieve before she goes. I also decided to give a bit of screen time to the husband character, show how she is unintentionally pushing him away because she’s so driven and how this affects him. I felt these were the things that would come across visually and through the actors’ performances (although I had to stretch realism a little by having her find out about her cancer via a somewhat impersonal hospital letter- no dialogue and no access to a doctor’s office remember?).

Yvonne Wan making a dramatic shortcut believable.

Yvonne Wan making a dramatic shortcut believable.

All this would be for bugger all though if the story didn’t fit with the music- not just rhythmically (which most videos try to do in the editing) but also with the lyrics. The performances are dramatic and have no dialogue so the lyrics become more important in the video than they would if it were just a musician performance piece because the audience will focus more on them as a substitute for dialogue or voice over. Fortunately, JP likes to tell a story with his songs rather than just say words that fit the music, which meant that all the lyrics were pertinent to the story and the characters but this also gave me the chance to tie certain parts of the video to certain lyrics. For example, the lyric “she knows that she is running out of time” was matched to the sequence where Mai first discovers the extent of her illness by coughing up a little blood.

This was done by using a timing script- something used a lot in broadcast TV and live studio work. Unlike a normally formatted script which has scene headings, stage directions, dialogue blocks and, if you’re a really dictatorial tosspot of a screenwriter, transition and camera cues, a timing script will separate the audio and the visual elements into two columns with a runtime down the margin. It’s so that the studio can check their show timings with what the performers are saying and what the pictures are. For “Bless of an Angel” this was the audio runtime and song lyrics matched to the story and shot elements in the other column. It helped me break down what shots were going to be needed where to tell the story properly, as well as give me an idea how long theses sequences need to be.

The rest of the video was JP’s performance segments, the shooting of which I mentioned in a previous post, just to show the face behind the song and allow for visual and tonal contrast with the story scenes. I kept them mainly to the chorus and bridge sections, partly because that’s where I felt they worked best, but also because it allowed the story segments to flow easier and more naturally in the verses if they weren’t intercut with JP singing.

ShokBW

These performance shots were filmed back in October at Readipop and we intended to shoot the dramatic parts in November/December. Due to all manner of scheduling issues and other practical things, however, we wouldn’t get everyone in the same place at the same time til three months later. In that time, both lead roles were recast, a new make-up artist was found and there was a lot of panic to find supporting artists for the roles of Student and Doctor (the latter of which eventually wound up being me and so found it’s way to the cutting room floor before we even got to the cutting room!). Fortunately, we found a new lead in the lovely Yvonne Wan and a new male lead in the always awesome Robin March, which made me exit panic mode and slip back into my directing hat.

It was a good shoot.

In fact, it was the most relaxed shoot I’ve ever been on. I’m used to being on a very tight schedule, making compromises and having to rush. For example, the Persona shoots were twenty minute projects that were shot in two days. Two long, fast-paced, headless chicken-like days. But this was a four minute music video and although we were technically shooting a drama, we didn’t need to worry about dialogue or even coverage, since the narrative sequences had a specific method of assembly and there was little wiggle room for editing options.

Emily the AD and I were constantly checking to see how we were doing compared to the schedule and each time it surprised us when we realised we were on or ahead of time and we had plenty of room to fine-tune lighting and performances.

DoP Ashley Duckerin and myself checking playback.

DoP Ashley Duckerin and myself checking playback.

This was where our DoP, Ashley Duckerin, really pulled it out of the bag. I mentioned before how tightly storyboarded the project was. Well, Ashley managed to take those storyboards and make them alive and in colour. We shot the video on a Canon 5D mkIII and the full-frame sensor, while not ideal for most shooting situations, was great for this one- the wafer thin depth of field helped create the slightly oneiric feel and emotional focus we were after. We shot in a CinemaScope aspect ratio as well- Ashley’s recommendation- to add to the cinematic feel and composition and used the Technicolor flat profile, partly so we had some flexibility in post but also because I didn’t have a clear vision on the sort of grade I was looking for.

I don’t have much experience with grading and while I know what I want to see, hear and feel from a film, the alchemy of the grading process somewhat eludes me. The great thing about shooting flat though is that, to an extent, you’re not tied all that much to a specific look if you get things right on set. Knowing that this was going to be the post-production path, I made sure to control the production design on set- white bed-linen, costumes weren’t too bold or bright, subtle hues, mainly cool blues and earth tones (since I thought that might be a possible look for the bedroom scenes).

Yvonne, Katrina, Ashley and I go through the piano scene.

Yvonne, Katrina, Ashley and I go through the piano scene.

Everyone did a sterling job- the actors especially. Yvonne and Robin had to pull off the difficult task of acting and establishing a relationship without the luxury of dialogue, or rehearsal come to think of it, and Katrina had to jump in at the last minute as a piano student! I think it’s the actors that really sell the video- the story and the characters are engaging and that’s the thing the audience respond to. Certainly, much of the feedback we’ve been getting is how emotional the video is, how it makes you cry- and I’m all about provoking an emotional response in an audience, tears, laughter, that sort of thing so this is good feedback for me.

I’m hoping that this is the first of many collaborations with JP and the first of many more dramatic music videos. I think I’ve found something good here, a high quality niche that not only allows me to do what I know and what I’m good at, but also gives me the necessary credits to move my career up a notch.

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One comment

  1. […] them as something they’re not. (Actually, thinking about it, we kind broke that rule with Shokamo’s Bless of an Angel and that worked out great, so maybe the adage is only mostly right!) Plus, the band line-up’s […]



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