Archive for the ‘Music Videos’ Category

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The “What’s Been Going On?” Post

April 13, 2016

I haven’t blogged in a while. Nothing new there. But it’s not like nothing new’s been going on in my film career, I just haven’t been writing about it.

Okay, so that’s a bit of an exaggeration. (It’s not like Spielberg, JJ, Ridley and I met up to talk about how awesome my new film was- JJ cried a little, it was very emotional…). I’ve just been lazy with the blogging and slightly less lazy when it comes to film-type-stuff.

So, what’s been happening since the last time I blogged?

DM Poster v2

Most of my directing energy has been thrown into my latest short film Dead Meet. I started making this project about eighteen months ago- which is a fucking long time for a twenty minute short! People have met, fallen in love, had a child and learnt the Peppa Pig theme song in that time. And much of the reason it’s taken so bloody long was a series of problems finding locations.

The first location was stumbled upon when I shot a music video for The Midnight Rambler. I’d been talking to the band about doing a music video for a while and there are dozens of ideas, treatments and half-developed storyboards littering my iPad to testify to that. They were really keen to do something off the wall and cinematic- something I wanted to do as well. Eventually an idea took hold- to have two classical dancers tango while the band play their track Inside Out with a little narrative bookend to tie it all together. We knew a keen and capable tango dancer, Rex, and he asked his teacher, Sarah, to partner him in the video. And the location was one of the village halls Sarah teaches in.

I’m actually really happy with this video. While I didn’t always get the lighting I wanted (because I’m not exactly a great cinematographer and didn’t have the right kit to get the look in camera), I did manage to capture some of the grace and movement of the tango and time it to work with the song. It was only after the band and I watched it that we realised that while it was good, it wasn’t… the band. Somewhere along the line, we’d lost much of the band’s personality and comedic character. The video didn’t reflect the band as they were. So I was reminded of the age-old adage when it comes to music videos- be true to the artist and their music, don’t present 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 changed and the arrangement of the track has changed, so all in all, this is a video that will probably never see general release. Which is a shame, but it’s what can happen in the ever-changing world of music videos.

On the other hand, sometimes you direct a music video that gets a lot of visibility. Irene Rae‘s See Me For Me was quite a simple shoot over one day in one very photogenic location. It was also a very quick production with virtually no prep and a very “wing it on the day” approach. There was no narrative and the only plan was to shoot a performance section and intercut it with various beauty shots.

What’s nice is that Irene Rae is very marketing-savvy and promoted the hell out of the video, getting it a ton of views on YouTube and good press into the bargain. It’s been a great artist-centric video to have on my reel, with a different style and pace to the other music videos I’ve been involved with. I hope to work with Irene again, maybe on a more cinematic video- which her sound would work really well with.

Sorry, I got sidetracked… Where was I? Oh yeah, the location…

So we were looking for a pub bathroom to film Dead Meet‘s fight scene in and had so far hit a brick wall. We were also looking for a pub- a brick wall of Great and Chinese proportions it seems- but I knew that the pub and the pub bathroom were not necessarily or likely to be in the same place. We needed a bathroom with decent dimensions- partly for the fight choreography we had been developing but also so we could get a camera and sufficient lights in there. So far, no joy- most actual bathrooms were the wrong shape, size or decor or were just downright disgusting.

But the village hall’s bathroom would work. I didn’t fancy having the conversation where I said I just needed to hire the bathroom for a day to film in, so I hired the whole hall. And after months of rehearsal and prep, this was what we shot:

The response to this video has been great. And hats off to Francesca and Dean for their work- we shot Hong Kong style, in sections, where the movements are choreographed with the camera and tailored to edit seamlessly with the shots on either side. This allows for shorter, but more intense takes with more complicated choreography and is quite difficult to do. Dean’s an experienced fight performer and has shot this way before, but this was pretty new for Francesca. She’d shot some action before (and quite a bit since!), but this was something of a baptism of fire. For me too, as it happens. As I’ve said before, I’ve shot quite a bit of action in my time- it was the thing that got me into filmmaking after all!- but not quite with this level of complexity and I quietly felt that this was a test of my skills and my resolve. I needed to prove myself with this fight scene, both to an audience and my own worst critic- me. But the response to the fight, even the rough cut, has been overwhelmingly positive.

With that fight scene in the can, the only thing that remained was to shoot the rest of it. And as I mentioned before, we had more than a few location problems. In fact, we didn’t get to shoot the rest of the film til November.

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I’ll put together a proper Dead Meet post a little later when we’ve shot everything (at time of writing, we have one more scene to shoot next week, then we’re done!), but the short version is that we got most of what we needed, muddled through on the things we didn’t have (enough extras, practical effects, the perfect location etc) and had a pretty good time into the bargain.

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Over this time, I did a few other bits and pieces including multi-camera music shoots for Silver Street Studio’s Aquedukt streaming community. I hadn’t done much in the way of live-mix work before this, although I had done a lot of multi-camera stuff. The general gist is a band come into the studio, we set up multiple cameras (at one point we had five!), all feeding into a software controlled mixer and they play and we stream live over YouTube. It’s been a steep learning curve- for all of us- but the results have been great and should be good long-term work if we can find a strong business plan for it.

I’ve also been busy writing. Two features, two shorts and a web series to be exact. None finished, obviously, this is me we’re talking about after all (“good starter, poor finisher” as some unfortunate and disappointed women might say). And at the moment, I’m trying to work out where to go from here. Will my next big project be a feature or a series? Or another short? I still don’t know and I’ll probably blog about that another time…

Music-related shoots seem to have been the focus this last year and I’d love to keep them a major part of my work. But over the next twelve months, I’d like my focus to be fiction and my directing career. I’ve been slack these last… ooh… eight years or so, and really need to pull my finger out if I’m to get within grasping distance of what I want: the hallowed director’s chair.

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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.

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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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Storyboarding “Bless of an Angel”

February 2, 2014

I’ve been storyboarding again!

I’ve mentioned before how useful I find storyboarding. That it makes you think about your story visually and through editing. That it’s like a first pass at making your film. Yeah, it takes ages to do and you frequently find yourself cutting illustrative corners (the end scenes of so many of my flicks were boarded with rough, wireframe-like sketches), but the level of preparation it gives you and the opportunities to try things out in relatively cost-free safety is invaluable.

I’ve also discussed how I’ve gone through a variety of approaches over the years- lots of little frames to a page, three to a page, one big image over a sheet of A4, hand-drawn, photoshopped, drawn in pencil, drawn in ink, designed like animation elements so you could create an animatic… But now I have a new way. And in my opinion, the best way to storyboard.

On an iPad.

Now, I’m not an Apple fanboy. Very rarely does something come out of Cupertino and give me a hard on (although the new mac pro does raise the pulse a little) but I tend to adopt a “best tool for the job” attitude for the most part. I do use macs exclusively and have done for over a decade, I edit on Final Cut Pro (including the new, marmite-like prodigal son FCPX) and 18 months ago, I bought an iPad. Why? Shits and giggles I guess… But I soon realised that by using a stylus and a half decent drawing app, this stalwart of the gadget freak and clueless pensioner alike would become a very useful storyboarding tool.

When I first blogged about this I was using an app called Penultimate to draw storyboards with and described it as “a hipster MS Paint” because of its retardedly basic controls, limited options and moleskine-esque notebook stylings. You couldn’t zoom, shading was impossible and, like those small boxes of crayons you used to get bundled with colouring books, you only got about five colours to work with (and one of them was “rancid yellow”). But it got the job done and I could export the images to the camera roll where other apps like Celtx Shots could import it.

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Concept art drawn in Sketchbook Pro

However, I soon found that there were better options for drawing on an iPad. Sketchbook Pro was the first I tried and with its varied toolsets and photoshop-like layers, was actually a very good app. You could actually zoom in (as opposed to the frankly pitiful magnifier loupe thing the Paper app promotes as a better alternative), you had a pencil tool that actually looked and “felt” like a pencil tool and you could export the full file, layers and all, to something like Photoshop if desired. Downside? It was optimised for the weird dimensions of the retina display, meaning that if I wanted to export and print anything, I’d end up with a large chunk of space on A4 paper and possibly some scaling artefacts. I also couldn’t import images from elsewhere, like storyboard templates, and draw over the top of them- which meant I had to draw the bloody frames in the app itself. Not ideal, but then, this is a drawing app not a storyboard drawing app so I can’t be too harsh.

My current app of choice for drawing storyboards (and anything else for that matter) is Procreate. Unintentionally hilarious names aside, this app has all the functions I need as a storyboard artist. There’s a setting for A4- which means I can print the images properly and at the right resolution. You can import images too, which means I finally get that storyboard template I want and since its A4, I can fit the right number of frames on it. The pencil looks like a pencil, the pencil shaders feel like pencil shaders… The whole app seems geared towards artists being able to create the sort of work they could if they had paper, pencils, paint and other things beginning with P.

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Using Procreate and the Cosmonaut Stylus

Anyway, I’ve been using it to storyboard the music video for “Bless of an Angel.” Being a dramatic music video with actors and performances and visual storytelling means that storyboards are a necessity. Particularly since I’m not the one operating the camera, so it’s a great communication tool for me and Ashley, the DoP. It’ll also help when Emily and I start putting together the schedule because we can work out the set-ups based on position and lens used. Actors like to see storyboards as well- in my experience because it gives them confidence in the script and in you the director. Like everyone, they get to see how the film will look (or more accurately, how it could look!) and their role in bringing it to life.

I’m lucky enough to be able to draw well enough that there’s little distance between what I see in my head and what ends up on the page (or in this case, screen). But storyboards don’t have to be elaborate, detailed or pieces of fine art (although if you’re trying to impress cast, crew or investors, that might be wise…), they just need to tell the story and show your vision of the film. Just like the script, they’re not blueprints. They’re a starting point, a way of exploring what the film could be and a way of communicating that to everyone else.

And I’m only about halfway through them, so I really must get back to doodling…

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Shooting “Bless of an Angel” Part 1

October 20, 2013

I’ve had a few career knocks recently and got a little depressed (hence no blog posts for a while), so I was going to write a something on dealing with failure and beating yourself up. You know, positive stuff…

But then we started work properly on this Bless of an Angel music video and I started to cheer up a bit, so I’ll postpone the borderline-depressing quasi-pep talk in place of a “behind the scenes” type post because people seemed to like the last one on shooting The Papers’ video.

Shokamo, doing what he does best.

Shokamo, doing what he does best.

Bless of an Angel is an acoustic rock ballad by local musician Shokamo. The track’s somewhat different from his usual rock/metal oeuvre but his fans have really taken to it and because of the story and awareness-raising behind the song, he wanted to do a video for it. The song’s about a friend of his who died of cancer and the good work she was trying to achieve with her last days. Being a drama director, I saw the story in the song and felt that an emotionally charged, dramatic take with actors and actual performances would be a good fit. I also felt it would be a good project career-wise because I need music video credits and this one would play more to my drama strengths.

We’re still in the planning stages for much of the video (finding actors and locations etc) but there’s one thing we decided to shoot and get in the can early- footage of Shokamo performing the song. Most music videos have several threads, whether they be attempting to tell a story or just bombard the viewer with images, and each thread is usually visually or contextually distinct. One that’s common to many videos is the musician performing the track in isolation. It could be in a dark room, on a rooftop, a white studio or a vocal booth… the location varies, but the purpose is the same. So you can cut back to this footage at any point in the edit for pacing, emphasis, cutaway or variety. It also serves to create or reinforce the musician’s identity and persona, which is the cornerstone of most music marketing.

DSC00245For Shokamo, this proved an interesting question. Being as this was his first video and thus the first real visual expression of his look and persona, the choices made for wardrobe and styling were going to set a foundation for his inaugural image. There was a lot of talk about how much “metal” to how much “rock” he should look, how much black should be worn, long hair down or tied back… In the end, we decided on something simple and honest- black shirt, blue jeans and ponytail. After all, Shok wanted this video to be about the story and the music rather than his image and it didn’t feel right to upstage that with something from Gene Simmons’ wardrobe.

That “keep it simple, keep it honest” vibe came through with the location as well. We wanted something neutral, nondescript and almost monochrome, contrasting somewhat with the subdued, clinical colours we were going to use in the dramatic parts of the video. Shok suggested a recording studio, like you’d see on many of the charity singles produced in the 80s, and we booked a couple of hours at Readipop Studios.

I’d been to Readipop Studios before when it was Plug n Play and shot some live gig videos there and remembered that much of the place was black-walled like a lot of indie music venues. This suited my purposes perfectly because it meant I could run with a high contrast look, use high key lighting if desired and isolate Shok in the frame. Shok told me about me an image he liked of Clint Eastwood, edge lit. I knew we were on the same page!

It was peeing with rain when we rocked up at Readipop on Monday. Shok had booked the main stage as a location and I saw that as a chance to use some strong low angle shots. The stage and the room was painted all-black and had a drum kit, monitors and mics on it, so the need for extra set-dressing was minimal. The lass who worked there, Sue, said we could use the stage lighting grid, but for the look I was aiming for, a simpler set-up would be best. I put one LED panel on the stage to hit Shok with a strong edge/key light, slightly diffused and dimmed a little. Another went on the floor at the front of the stage off to one side, providing a softer fill on Shok’s face. I used a third, smaller panel, fitted with a CTB hard filter, behind and below Shok to give a bit of blue-ish backlight on his shoulders and hair. Aside from the necessity of this to separate him from the black background, it provided a soft flare from certain angles which I found quite pleasing. I’m not normally a fan of lens flares (and I wish JJ Abrams would just give it a rest, to be honest!), but in a dark environment where there’s little parallax effect on camera moves, this flare would add a little interest to some shots.

Speaking of camera moves, as with The Papers’ Pikachu video, I decided to get a bit of dolly action in there. And for the first time in ages, I could do a shot that used the whole length of track I have- works out as about a 16′ move. As with Pikachu, I primarily used this as a reframing technique, going from stage left to stage right and back again for certain bits of the song. I did, however, do a few shots timed so the whole move was used- usually over certain bars in the chorus. Hopefully, I’ll find a way to use one in the final edit. Once or twice, I found the dolly mount sliding off the end of the track (the joys of one-man-band-ing this shoot!) but found a suitably low-budget, guerrilla filmmaking solution.

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After the wide dolly shots, I moved in for close-ups and tried a few moves there as well. In close-ups the tracking movement didn’t work so well, so in the end I stuck with statics. I also tweaked the lighting a bit so I got a more dramatic balance- if this were a drama it would jar a bit if I cut from wide to close, but being a music video has its advantages in this regard, not least of all that there is likely to be other footage intercut with it.

My favourite shot of the day was “the Clint Eastwood shot” as Shok and I referred to it. I put the tripod on the stage, framing Shok in a close profile. I cheated the vocal mic position so the LED panel wasn’t visible and aimed it for a strong edge light on his face and the mic. I also tweaked the backlight to just catch his far shoulder and let the other side fall off to black. The other panel was dimmed to a very soft fill. Et voila!

Shokamo BoaA

So why use the fill when I knew I really just wanted the edge? So I had more options basically. In the past, I always aimed to get the shot and look I wanted in camera (and for a lot of things, I still do), but in order to create the sort of look audiences expect now, you need to be able to grade the footage. If I’m honest, I know very little about grading, but I have seen less-skilled cinematography saved/enhanced by judicious filter-work and have had my own work disparaged because it didn’t resemble this look (more on that in a future post), so I figured I had to learn to use these tools properly. With any luck, the fact I know how to light stuff reasonably well will separate me from the “amateur hour magic bullet preset” brigade. But anyway, for grading you need to keep as much visual information as you can. My camera doesn’t have a log or wide dynamic range mode so I can’t shoot flat or near to it. But I can give myself a bit of wiggle room by lighting with decent exposure, hence the fill lighting.

The dramatic sequences on the video will be shot on a better, more cinematic camera and by a dedicated DoP because I want the video to look the best it can and the only way that’s going to happen is if I hire someone better than me as the cinematographer. It also means that I can concentrate more on the actors and the performances and worry less about the camera and lighting gear.

Two one-man-bands and one funky hat.

Two one-man-bands and one funky hat.

I think this surprised Shok a bit when I mentioned getting a DoP in, since I am capable of operating camera and lighting a scene, but in the end it’s about creating the best video we can with the resources we have available. If we can pull out all the stops, not only will we have a better video, but we’ll all look the better for it. And so much is riding on this video being good- the level of awareness we can do for the charity (The Love, Hope and Strength Foundation), Shok and my careers and reputations, those who knew Shok’s friend Heya who the song is about and the expectations of all the people that have believed in the project and donated money to the FundRazr page to get this off the ground.

We need this to be good.

And as I started to look back over some of the footage, even though I can’t really edit it together yet, I see things I like. I see potential. And that cheers me up and drags me out of the low point I’ve been sinking in for a little while.

So at the very least, this project’s achieved that!

Shok and myself with two of the guys from Readipop.

Shok and myself with two of the guys from Readipop.

If you want to help with the Bless of an Angel project, follow Shokamo on Facebook, download the track on his ReverbNation page or donate to the FundRazr. Every little helps and all proceeds from the video go to charity.

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Shooting at Ongaku Studios

September 11, 2013

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The weekend just gone I shot a promo for local music recording venue Ongaku Studios (run by musician TJ Buchanan) and at the same time film a studio-style music video for The Papers who’ve been mastering their mixtape album there. A two birds, one bird-table, one stone kind of deal.

It’s been a while since I did any music-centric work- music videos, gig filming, promos etc- and it was great to actually get back into it. There were a ton of things I learnt from doing these sort of jobs back in the day, most of which I did at college when some friends and I called ourselves PurpleShakerMaker Productions. I learnt the hard way that multi-camera is the ideal strategy with bands and that there needed to be a systematic approach to shooting multi-camera and getting good material. I also learnt that clean audio is necessary to sync properly with the master audio track and that synching itself is a mighty pain in the gonads. We shot a number of music videos and multi-camera gig recordings in that time, but I more or less stopped shooting music-related work after college. In the main because I didn’t know much about music, bands, artists, genres or other videos (if it was made after ’97 I’ll likely just nod vacantly if you name drop) and also because it was usually Jim or Becki who got us those gigs. Instead I focused on shooting drama.

But I’ve been keen to get back into the music video saddle and the Ongaku Studios project is hopefully the first of many.

Ongaku Studios is a small, home-based recording studio with a fully digital control room, vocal booth and a flexible live recording space and it was the latter area that the majority of the shoot would be located. The band, The Papers, are a four-piece group- vocals, guitar, bass and drums- so getting them in the space with all their gear and Ongaku’s acoustic panels, mics and drum kit was going to be simple enough. Getting decent angles to film from and how to light the space was going to be trickier.

One of the nice things about doing a studio-style music video is that the space itself is part of things. This means that if we see cables or shadows of stands, that’s both acceptable and part of the texture of the video. With that in mind, I decided to side light Lou the guitarist and Yoshi the lead vocalist from opposite sides with my LED panel lights, creating their key lights on their side and a fill light of sorts from the panel on the other side. By tweaking the angles, I could also get some key and fill effect onto the bassist, Massyl since he was behind them and to one side. As always with these things, the drummer was the trickiest to light. Being at the back meant there was limited fill getting to him, but by putting a kicker to one side and slightly behind him, he too would get a bit of edge. Because of the nature of the space, this light panel would be visible in some shots- particularly wides- but I wasn’t overly bothered by this since, again as a studio video, seeing kit like this is part of the mise-en-scene.

I also decided to mix up the colours of each panel so as to add interest and shape things nicely. The larger LED panels at the front were balanced to tungsten, with the one edge-lighting the vocalist being slightly warmer and more diffused. For the kicker on Malaya the drummer, I decided to use a midnight blue gel. A little bold perhaps, but I’m a big fan of the blue backlight technique- the contrast between a warm key and cool rim light creates a simple but effective look. Granted, I didn’t have quite the right conditions for that and the blue light was probably more key than usual, but the effect was nice and it highlighted the drummer nicely and sent a bit of a blue tint towards Lou as well. Ideally, I’d have liked to get at least one more light in there, maybe a magenta coloured edge on the bassist… something funky. But we didn’t really have the space and I didn’t have the extra panel so I digress…

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For the camera side of things I decided to get out the B-Hague pipe dolly. I bought this a couple of years ago when shooting The Collector’s Room because I was fed up of wanting a dolly shot and not being able to have one… but if I’m honest, it hasn’t had as much use as I’d have liked- although every time I’ve bought it out, I’ve been glad to have it.

Due to space constraints, we set up the tracks on a diagonal towards and off to one side of the performing space. This meant that from various points on the track I could get clean shots of everyone as well as some great two shots and a wide group shot. In effect, this would not only be for creating a move during a shot but also for repositioning the camera. I figured this would be both a creative and practical approach to a lot of the filming. I also had my trusty Gorillapod Pro with me- or as I call it, my makeshift shoulder rig!- so I could get some interesting handheld shots.

Tripod. Shoulder mount. Bizarre sex toy. All these things and more.

Tripod. Shoulder mount. Bizarre sex toy. All these things and more.

The band came up with an idea where in the video they would be recording the track to an old dual tape deck, adding to the home studio vibe. And TJ, being the audiophile he is, had one to hand. So we dusted it off (literally- it had been in storage for a while) and perched it on a flight case. I decided that this would make a great dolly shot for the opening of the video- start on the tape deck as a tape is put in and record is pressed, then pull back and tilt up to a wide shot of the band in situ. The move required a pull back, an acute tilt and pan and a focus pull. Not an easy task for one person, which is where the old Sony shot transition function came into its own- set your focal distance for point A and point B, set the transition time to match your move and presto- focus pull. I’ve never really used it much, preferring manual controls to anything automatic, but it made things a damn sight easier here and I was glad to have it.

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Usually on a music video, the track is already mastered and finalised so the band just have to mime or perform in such a way that it matches, but one of the challenges here was that the band were going to be recording a live track for future mixing and mastering at the same time as we were shooting the video. Obviously, this presents a problem because the audio is being recorded at the same time and the edits aren’t always going to match if the band lose time or improvise. We weren’t able to reschedule the shoot til after the recording was done so I suppose it’s one of those things where you deal with the situation you have and try to make the best of it. Potential sync issues aside, it did mean that takes were frequently aborted for musical reasons- a fluffed line or a missed note etc- something that wouldn’t normally matter for the video because you would just cut to something else in the edit at that point. Fortunately, we had the time, the track was short and the band were pretty solid for the most part, but it was something I had to accommodate in my shooting plan.

Ideally for a shoot like this, you’d have multiple cameras and sync them all with time code or genlock, but since this was a single camera shoot, it meant multiple angles on multiple takes. My shot list included mid shots of the guitarist and the bassist, close-ups of their faces and hands playing, close ups and BCUs of the vocalist, mid and close shots of the drummer and a range of moving/reframing shots with the dolly. Knowing that there will likely be continuity and synching issues, the close ups of the two guitarists would be great as cutaways for when things don’t match. Another plus is the way Yoshi holds the mic very close to his mouth, obscuring his lip movements- meaning I can probably use his close up even if the audio doesn’t sync perfectly.

When shooting obs-doc style- as I did on the promo part of the shoot- my approach is to shoot mini stories of sorts. A small selection of shots that can be easily and flexibly edited into a sequence so as to tell or reveal some kind of narrative. And I have an acronym for the approach, for anyone who’s interested: ARES. Action, Reaction, Establishing, Specific. So, for example, if I was filming someone at the mac using Logic Pro, I would have a shot of the screen (Action), a shot of the person looking at it in close-up (Reaction), a wide shot of what’s going on (Establishing) and shots of their hands on the keyboard or mouse etc (Specific). The benefits of doing it this way are that you could edit the shots in almost any order and subtly change the nature of the “story” based on what you reveal and when. It’s essentially narrative editing and that’s a whole post all of it’s own, but say we saw our guy first, then saw the screen he was looking at. That would have a subtly different narrative effect to showing the screen then the guy’s face. The reveal of the second shot in relation to the first is what gives a story its inflection. Fairly standard stuff really, but I’m always surprised by filmmakers who don’t do things this way.

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For the studio promo, TJ wanted to highlight the studio’s features and areas and what that means for the musician. So shots of the control room, the Logic suite, the speakers, the band listening to their recording and mixing it, the vocal booth, the portable soundproofing panels, the live recording space, the fully digital connections, the drum kit etc all edited into a 60-90 sec promo video and cut to music (supplied by The Papers and a between-take jam session). This will likely be a much simpler edit than the music video, although there may be some key framing and graphics work to do. And since I need to wait for the mastered version of the live track before I can start the long slog of synching the multiple takes to the audio, this will be the first to be edited.

Time to fire up FCPX again…