Art Meets Tech
Because I'm a visual artist turned director, striking a balance between technical precision and artfulness has remained a career-long obsession. The clients who choose our company, Production Blue, value a core capacity to deliver both. But when recently directing the video for indie pop band Guster's latest single, "Do You Love Me?," which we co-produced with Bait & Tackle, my own creativity and the Production Blue team's technical abilities were tried to their utmost.
With only three days of preproduction following Universal Republic's green light, the workload was immense. Aside from securing a shoot location, assembling a crew, and building and dressing a set, our concept for the video was very new, and we were not certain that the idea would work from a technical standpoint.
Guster's initial interest was piqued by a music video test I directed with photographer Liam King and artist Jon Sarkin, the man now responsible for Guster's album art and tour merchandise. But that piece was a stop-motion animated painting, and Guster wanted to include Jon Sarkin in their video to find a way to integrate the band with the art and the artist. It seemed impossible. If our goal was to create a music video in which an artist paints a scene on top of the band and set, we would need lots of time. Sarkin works very slowly. He paints on a smaller scale, and is entirely spontaneous and impulsive. So I considered ways to use technology to make the challenge of time work for us. I quickly decided that the band would need to perform the video in ultraslow motion, giving the artist enough time to paint the evolving scene. Sped back up, the band would appear to play in realtime and the art would unfold at 10 times speedat least that was the hope.
We had little time to run tests with the Canon EOS 5D Mark II, a camera that neither technical director Emile Doucette nor I had much experience with. We chose the 5D because we planned to combine both video and stop motion within the same frame and could do so without changing cameras. The first test showed that we were onto something good, even outside of our original aim of getting more time for the artist to work. The awkward, jerky effect of attempting to recreate human movement in slow-motion is very watchableso watchable, in fact, that co-director Sten Bowen and I decided that while it would be easier to perform at one-fourth speed, 800 percent slowdown would produce the kind of unexpected artifacts that we found most interesting. But with our scenes unblocked and our lighting setup still incomplete, it was impossible for us to determine final camera settings before the start of the shoot.
When the band arrived on set, a black box theater space at Gordon College in Wenham, Mass., Doucette quickly shot a reference video with each of the three musicians performing the song. He then assembled a video of the song that included a close-up of the singer's mouth next to a wide shot of the drummer and guitarist. The lower third was reserved for the lyrics and a four-count loop that accompanied a click track added to the music. When the video was exported at one-eighth speed, the song was nothing more than a low grumbling drone, so the music track was then pitch-shifted using Apple Logic to a level where the vocals and guitar could be distinguished. The near-30-minute video was then projected onto a screen above camera so that the band could use it for reference throughout the shoot.
Where each take of the video required a cleanup and paint job of several hours, we were pressed to get the choreography and execution of the performance right each time. Doucette stepped in to take on the challenge of directing the crew whose responsibility was to unveil Sarkin's artwork and orchestrate props and scenic moves. I donned a costume (Russian snow camouflage suits) to focus on directing Sarkin, while camera operator Tom Papows took over calling the shot. Two 20-hour days were a blur, beset by technical, creative, and logistical challenges. It wasn't until late in the second day that we were satisfied with our camera settings (24p 1/50s, ISO320, and f/11). At that point, everything began to gel. Our best take came at 3:30 a.m., just hours before the band's scheduled departure.
After wrap, the Production Blue team began work at Sarkin's Gloucester, Mass., studio to create the text animations. To best accommodate Sarkin's spontaneous style, we projected the video onto a large roll of paper that hung against a wall using an Optoma HD20 DLP projector. Sarkin and his team of artists painted the animations directly onto the video projection on the paper. Each of the nearly 5,000 projected frames were then imported to Adobe Photoshop, where we keyed out the animations using action scripts whenever possible. The otherwise unaltered images were imported into Apple Final Cut Pro and laid over the video file, frame by frame.
We chose this labor-intensive route because it was a better match for Sarkin's work than creating masks, comps, and effects using Adobe After Effects or Apple Shake or Motion. There are no digital effects to speak of. Even the curtain animation was created using a rig with drawings hung from fishing line that were pulled aside as the camera moved through the frame on a dolly. All told, it was an extra month of work instead of what we imagined would be a few days, but the nuances of opting for a more analog treatment are clear to anyone watching.
Our A and B cameras were both Canon 5D Mark IIs, and we kept on set two Panasonic AG-HVX200s as backups and to shoot the reference video. The camera for our master shot was paired with the Canon 24-105mm f/4L and the B cam, used for close-ups that were eventually scrapped, was fitted with the Canon 50mm 1.2L. We dumped all shots onto two SATA drives mounted through external docks (one 1TB master drive and one clone for backup). After years of trying to solve the problem of cost versus safety and ease of use, external SATA drive backup has proven to be the best solution for our needs. We transcoded from the native h.264 to Apple ProRes 422HQ 24p before editing our comps, after discovering a number of problems that resulted from editing in the native format.
Careful preparation is something a director hopes for before launching into any project. But in reality, those preparations are often impossibilities, and having a crew comfortable with adapting to unknown variables is often far more valuable than time. "Do You Love Me?" is the video that I intended to make, though many of the things that I thought would be implicit elements were left out because they failed to improve what we discovered along the way. Instead, the entire collaboration became a kind of technology-meets-art happening. In the end, our willingness to try new things was rewarded when the video was chosen as iTunes Music Video Pick of the Week during the last week of September.
Chad Carlberg is the founder of and directs for Production Blue in Boston. Find out more at productionblue.com.