Canon EOS 5D MK II Domination2/14/2012 8:04 PM Eastern
Shooting a stylishly unsettling music video for the band Carbon 9.
By Jon Silberg
Stephen Pizzello, the longstanding editor of American Cinematographer magazine, had been seeking outlets for his excess creative energy for some time when a friend, Mathew Milani, drummer for the Los Angeles-based band Carbon 9, played him their eerie track "Life is Crawling Over Me" at a party. Pizzello had directed some shorts in the past and soon convinced Milani that he was the right guy to direct a music video for this song. (A rough cut of the clip can be seen here.)
"I studied film before I went into journalism," says Pizzello, recalling his days at Boston University. "I've since covered numerous projects as a journalist and I figured that I've learned a lot more in the intervening years. I wanted to put myself on the other side of this to see 'How hard is this, really?' I learned a lesson. It was plenty hard just putting together this small-scale project."
Pizzello (above, on far right) directs as Sadler (center) lines up the EOS 5D on members of Carbon 9. Photo by Chris Pizzello.
In retrospect, Pizzello realizes that the most difficult (and least rewarding) aspect of the “Life is Crawling” project was the producing, which he really took on as almost an afterthought. (He eventually solicited the help of a Canadian co-producer, Edward Peghin.) Yet in this role he managed to bring together a number of disparate elements that together help make the clip a stylish and successful complement to the dark, dystopian landscape the song suggests. Shot by Hollywood-based cinematographer Nic Sadler — with additional material lensed by DV Technical Editor Jay Holben — the piece was photographed primarily with the Canon 5D MK II. In front of the lens was actor Brian Austin Green (Smallville) and real-life dominatrix Isabella Sinclaire, who also provided the institutional-looking location, requisite cat suits, surgical equipment and stern looks.
Pizzello plots out a take with actor Brian Austin Green (on gurney). Photo by Chris
The song itself — combined with the Carbon 9's sci-fi-themed stage shows — led Pizzello down the creative path of paying homage to great films of that genre. This in mind, the self-avowed cinephile crafted a treatment that included imagery suggesting such classics as THX 1138, A Clockwork Orange, The Matrix, The Cell, The Manchurian Candidate and many others, "Another big one was Seconds," Pizzello says of the creepy, monochrome 1966 John Frankenheimer thriller starring Rock Hudson and shot by James Wong Howe, ASC that explores dark notions about the concept of identity as a secret organization offers the rich a second chance at life. Altered by extreme plastic surgery, these subjects are “reborn” back into society without family ties or responsibilities. "The movie has all those crazy perspectives," Pizzello notes. "There was a shot I really wanted to get that was like the one in that movie where Rock Hudson is on a gurney and he's being wheeled into surgery."
Pizzello and Sadler prepare their coverage while Sinclaire (center) prepares for her closeup. Photo by Chris
The treatment involved a hero — a young man that Green (a childhood friend of the band's lead singer, Stacey Quinealty) agreed to play — who lives in some futuristic world with his wife (actress Nikki Dalonzo). She is taken away by menacing secret police and converted into a Borg-like dominatrix. And he is soon arrested too, brought into a hospital-type setting in which the wife and others try to painfully scrub him of his memories. It was an ambitious treatment for a micro-budget music video.
Initial attempts to find a way to shoot the piece on film proved simply too expensive, and Sadler, coincidentally, was starting to see some video shot with the Canon EOS 5D MKII DSLR that he found “shockingly good-looking.” In referencing the 8-bit, 4:0:0 .H264 signal, he admits, "The specs don't look good on paper at all. But the big sensor and the ability to use depth of field to separate backgrounds and foregrounds, and has a psychological effect on the viewer that makes the image feel more cinematic."
This was Sadler’s first use of the 5D MKII on a job (though he's since done 15). "It was the earliest version of the camera," he recalls. "We could only shoot at 30fps. The Zeiss Compact Primes we have now weren't out yet, so we were dealing with Nikon and Canon lenses designed for auto focusing on a still camera, without the full gearing you would have with a cine lens. Since we shot our video, the technology has improved a great deal."
Pizzello was fascinated with the potential to get shots with this tiny camera from what might otherwise be very impossible angles. "I noticed the resonance hole in the drums and realized we could stick the camera in there and get some great shots," he says. "That was an amazing thing about this camera. You could put it anywhere."
Sadler outfitted the camera with a Redrock Micro rig and made extensive use of the Artemis Digital Director's Finder — an iPhone/iPad app from his own company, Chemical Wedding. "Illumination Dynamics was also very supportive," Pizzello adds. "We rented a grip truck and a relatively small lighting package from them."
The main shoot took place over one day at dominatrix Sinclaire's place of business. There, Green's character would find himself strapped to an operating table, watching black-and-white images of his former existence with his loving wife (Dalonzo). This material had been shot some days earlier by Jay Holben using a Canon XL2 and minimal lighting gear — an ARRI tungsten kit and some small Kino Flo units — to render the scenes of domestic bliss in a way to suggest home movies. The black-and-white, NTSC images were designed to feel less real and immediate, in order to contrast sharply with the saturated HD images from the MK II.
"I met Isabella years ago through a mutual friend," Pizzello reports. "When I decided I wanted to add some edge to the video and put a real dominatrix in there, it turned out to be a great idea because she was perfect. And when we just couldn't find an affordable location to shoot in, she let us use her space that she makes her videos in. It added the right vibe for these guys. They loved the whole [dominatrix] aspect of it. They're rock ’n roll guys.
"The place had sheet metal on the walls, which was a perfect background for the shots of the band. One of the backup singers, Danny Cistone, is also a production designer, and he whipped up this whole crazy sci-fi scene just on his own. When I saw it, I just thought, 'This is great!'”
Milani, in addition to be being Carbon 9's drummer, is also a video editor. He cut the video in his home studio using Final Cut Pro 7. His workflow started by upconverting the .H264 stream from the Canon 5D to ProRes 4:2:2 basic. "It let me keep the media settings for the camera," Milani says. He edited in that format and output as a QuickTime movie. "We didn't color grade it," he says, noting that the HD from the MK II, for all its stunning potential and its cinematic look, is simply not robust enough to handle much post processing. "The idea was to make sure the color and contrast of the images was primarily accomplished in-camera."
The clip is fun and edgy and Pizzello is pleased with the results. "If I had it to do over again," he reflects, "I would not have produced it. I enjoyed conceptualizing it and the actual shooting, but getting the shoot together wasn't something I'd want to do again."
Also, the shoot proved frustrating at times for all the reasons so many do. "We didn't get the coverage I wanted of the band rappelling down the walls to rescue the hero," he laments. "I also never got the shot from Seconds that I wanted. Isabella had the exact kind of surgery light I wanted and a perfect gurney, but we just didn't have time to get everything." None of this really took Pizzello by surprise but he admits that the experience may inform the way he watches and judges the films he sees. "So much the way it came out happened because of logistical issues or there was not enough time or the set was too cold or everyone was tired," he sums up. "And you can't help but have all those things affect the aesthetics of the final product."