In my first post for Check the Reel I set out a vision for the type of article content I intended when I said, “I’ll be discussing film and film-related news as it comes. Since I also write and direct films… I will sometimes describe that experience and what I learn from the process.”
Half a year later, I’ve written about the Alien franchise, Pixar, Wes Anderson, Star Wars, superheroes, and feminist film theory with some Seth MacFarlane sprinkled in on top of moviegoing philosophy and trailers torn apart for the purpose of reaching their essence, and all this time the only material I neglect to mention is my own.
I am indeed an amateur filmmaker alongside my day not-job of writing film articles, and when I say “amateur” I mean “at the starting line, all other horses are on the track and mine is nuzzling the grass.” The paths to a career in film are wide and varied, encompassing graduate programs, internships, self-funded productions, festivals, spec scripts, and tangential professions (actor/writer/editor/critic) segueing over the years into the crème de crème position of director. I have not yet fallen on any of these paths yet, much less reached the crossroads between them, so if you want advice from a filmmaker who’s worked at all the major broadcasting networks, been accepted to Sundance five years running, and can explain the difference between the GoPro Hero3 and Hero2 cameras you might want to close this tab and move onto the next film blog not run by a poor liberal arts undergrad.
But if you’re at a similar place, not sure where to start or how to translate the ideas brewing in your brain into stunning camera angles and the crackling dialogue that makes people laugh, cry, and applaud a job well done, I can maybe through example and shared experience set you walking in a direction near if not pointed at that goal. I don’t profess to know the ingredients of success because I haven’t tasted it. The decisions I make in my films may be the worst decisions ever, but at least you’ll know then what choices you will never make.
We all begin somewhere. I began this summer with an amateur hip hop music video.*
All Roads Lead to MTV
Whether you fancy yourself a one-man film studio like Orson Welles or the Fincher-esque journeyman shaping others’ material, I can’t recommend it enough: start with a music video. Fact is, while you tinker with a camera for the first time and figure out how to combine sound, visuals, and the always capricious element of collaboration with actors and crew (if you’re so ambitious as to have a tech crew beyond yourself), you will bump into infinite combinations of ways in which your productions can and will crumble apart. Part of this comes from ambition outstripping capability – roping too many actors with wildly varying schedules; writing feature-lengths when you should be doing five-minute shorts – but it’s also part of being at the start of your creative growth. What sort of films do you want to make? Which films can you make? Do you want to send your work to festivals straight away or hold it to your chest, waiting to mature before you break into the public eye? Exactly how do you go about finessing your talents in such a multifaceted medium as film?
A music video is the ideal starting point because it narrows your focus. The question of sound – dialogue vs. ambiance and finding a good mic – becomes the simple matter of a pre-recorded track synced up to silent visuals. Though you still have to consider how your footage plays off and resonates with the music, you’re no longer flailing so deeply into the darkness. The ambiguity has been stripped away: you’re putting together a puzzle rather than a melange of shorn paper that may or may not form a coherent whole.
You’ll find the idea for a music video by asking the right people. Family, friends, classmates, acquaintances, neighbors – somewhere in your social circuit are musicians looking for free publicity. Broach the idea of making them a music video and they’ll likely agree and also proffer the song for the job and some ideas for how the video should play out. The individualist in you will wince at the thought of someone else dictating your work’s direction. It’s natural. Still, for all its talk of auteurs film is a collaborative art. A music video enforces this lesson by requiring you negotiate and compromise your vision with another group of passionate artists to achieve the best result, one that paints both parties, director and band directed, in a positive light.
I got to working on my first music video by contacting an old classmate from high school, now studying music business at Columbia and carrying on a hip-hop career he had started while we were in school together. I kept up with his work on Facebook (posted under the rapper name “Keelo”), heard enough of his output to understand his style, and finally sent him a message at the start of summer break suggesting we collaborate on a video. Keelo was enthusiastic. We met up for lunch to plan the video.
Of course, eager director that I am, I came with my own idea of which of his songs we’d work on and how I wanted the plot to play out (It would have been a copy of every Spike Jonze video ever). He had his own ideas too, and through our meeting we selected the song he especially wanted featured in, along with a story devised by him, built on scenes brainstormed by the both of us – a fusion I welcomed because it breathed life into what might have just been a tepid knockoff of what I thought music videos should be.
In one hour, talking over lunch, I knew what song I was working on and the framework it would assume. I had a relative idea of the tone, props, settings, and collaborators we’d involve (Keelo rallied a group of his friends to help as actors and unofficial crew). We expected filming would be done within two or three weeks. It ended up stretching to three months, spanning all of my time back home for the summer. Nevertheless, while the video morphed, shifted, turned inside itself and assumed a shape we never expected, that first meeting helped ground the music video in a definite sense of direction, while the music video format guided us when we threatened to lurch off the rails. It’s a handicap that ensures you get the job done. Could a fledgling director ask for more?
On the Field: Collecting Your Footage
The process of filming a music video is as diverse as the process of filming any movie. It depends on the band/musician you’re representing, the director (compare a Michel Gondry video to a David Fincher or Chris Cunningham), the resources at your disposal, and what story you want to tell. A music video can consist of a single shot in one room or hundreds of shots across the globe. It can focus solely on the musical artist or set them aside. There may be an overarching story or nothing but flashing colors.
In my case, working off of no budget – only the miscellaneous props and costume pieces already belonging to Keelo, myself, and his friends, along with locations in the Chicago suburbs near where we lived – we still succeeded in capturing many diverse locales, from forests and abandoned gas stations to a record store.** We moved around a lot within a five-mile radius because the video dealt with the sudden shifts between the quotidian and insane, so we packed the screen with odd spectacle (a grotesque clown mask, Beanie Babies, a skull face, neon hula hoops) set against familiar, mundane backdrops. We worked off a list of amusing scenarios that included ghetto-rolling Krazy Bones and a samurai sword fight, fitting them where we could until we had filled the song’s run time. This meant a lot of ideas fell to the wayside, enough to fill a second music video, and there was often a lot of confusion about who might show up, what stunts were possible, and where we’d be going to film next.
If shooting the video became chaotic in parts, it was because we dealt with the subject of chaos… and also directed fifteen anxious extras mucking about a tight-spaced record store, thirty by twenty feet, all while regular customers came in and out and the cashiers rewound their CD player every few minutes to play the part of the song we needed over the store speakers.
This was my first day of filming. You’ll have days like that.
You can minimize the amount of clusterfucks you bump into as first-time director by drawing out a storyboard or shot list, something I tried to do but ended up discarding, accepting that I’d face the occasional frenetic shoot. While it’s impossible to control an amateur production as tightly when millions of dollars aren’t riding on the line, an outline is reassuring, it provides even more safety nets during the filming process, and it’s especially helpful when you’ve locked in the story concept and don’t expect it to change drastically.
Would it have helped with Keelo’s “Step into My Scene”? Perhaps. But that was a case where the video evolved organically from experience as Keelo and I got comfortable with our collaboration, experimented with camera angles and brainstormed ideas on set. In that case, you may want to have a vague outline in mind while allowing yourself leeway for impulse and suggestion. This is a case where there’s no wrong approach – so long as you can justify why your approach is the right one for the video.
There are some universals in amateur filmmaking, advice I’d extend to anyone making any kind of music video. Before anything else, check that your lens cap (if you have one) is off and you actually hit “REC”. It sounds like a given but givens are the first details to go when under stress to deliver – a filmmaker’s default mindset. I lost a lot of good shots by not looking for the red dot on the viewfinder. Take the extra five seconds to check.
Also fight the urge to flick on mental auto-drive and barrel through a day’s shoot. This is easier said at the start of filming than later. You can begin as the most eager beaver, adjusting the camera with Kubrickian precision until you capture the scene perfectly, redoing shots until all the elements fall into place and you better believe the actors go along with it until that Holy Moment comes…
Then an hour passes. Two hours. Fatigue creeps into your bones and climbs up to your brain to nest, sapping all your creative energy, cooing lazy words in your ear. Just get the shot; don’t worry if it’s not all you hoped it would be. Scrap that awesome tracking shot you envisioned and call it quits for the day. Somehow, Eager Beaver’s a lot more eager now to compromise.
Compromise is not bad. Sometimes you need to know when enough’s enough. What’s bad is oversight, and laziness breeds a surplus of oversight.
That awesome tracking shot you did squeeze in? Ruined because you left the tripod in the background. You finally capture a perfect backflip after twenty takes? An extra’s foot is sticking in from out of right frame. You check the dailies later that night? Half the footage is unusable because the lip-syncing doesn’t match the backing track or your thumb is sticking over the lens.
All these problems disappear with the proper attentiveness and care, a slight pause before you yell “Action!” to scan the viewfinder for any obstructions. It saves you the hassle of improvising solutions in editing when you could be working with unmarred footage at a steady, stress-free pace. If you can’t manage this level of consciousness over two hours, then you’ll hate to see the schedule on a professional film set, with 9-hours of filming before overtime, not counting night shoots and time spent in transit with equipment from your hotel, meaning you’re on the job for 12-15 hours on average. There you’re expected to stay awake and focused at every minute under the pressure of hundreds of crewmen, lest you fall behind schedule, suffer the indignity of reshoots, and risk soaring budgets, soaring tension, and the terrible fate of living with a product you know could be much better had you saved that one shot from the dolly looming overhead, sinking in until it covered the lead actor’s face, forcing you to scrap the scene and your favorite subplot.
It helps to stay alert.
Editing to the Beat
You’ve nabbed all the necessary footage. For a month you had fun whisking a camera around town, capturing your friends doing silly things, but now you have to buckle up and brace yourself for the encroaching grind. It’s time to edit your video.
Ideally you should be editing the music video as you film it, unless it’s a one-shot you knocked out in a single afternoon. After each day’s shoot I uploaded the new footage onto Final Cut Pro and placed it on a timeline with the full song. I could test each clip by moving it along the track, locking it in place and figuring out the video’s sequence of events – which you’ll be doing regardless if your video features a plot. Even abstract, stimulus-driven music videos have a “beginning-middle-end” arc if they hope to engage the viewer.
Simultaneous editing-and-filming often exposes the applicability of your shots, quickly answering the question: “Does this shot fit with the big picture?” You’ll discover some shots are “stagnant” and difficult to place in a sequence. They resist transition, defy momentum; they create awkward, aggressive cuts that ruin the video’s rhythm. Other shots only appear to be stagnant but eventually work their way in through a companion shot, forming a “two-piece puzzle” that may fill a pesky hole in an otherwise-perfect sequence. If you discover a stagnant shot before filming wraps up, you have the option to film a companion shot later on. That option is unable, or at least inconvenient, once you’re done with principal photography.
What if you don’t have a fancy editing program like Final Cut or Adobe Premier? Doesn’t matter. I used Final Cut for the first time on this video and learned just enough to cut, trim, dissolve, and navigate the special effects menu, all which you can manage in programs like iMovie. Professional software will certainly give the video more polish, and once you’ve learned the ins and outs of an editing suite you have the power to manipulate color, look, and sound as suits your vision, but before you think about bleach bypass and superimposition, go back to the basics and learn: the crux of a video’s success depends on the transition from one clip to another in time with the music.
“In time” doesn’t necessarily mean on the beat or after every line of lyrics. Many transitions will occur in that manner, but if you edit your entire video that symmetrically, a shot after every measure, it’ll look hokey, mechanical, and most viewers will minimize the video page to focus on the music instead, if they don’t move for the back button first. A music video depends on the interplay between the visuals and audio as they inform one another. One element isn’t entirely subservient or vice versa.
Keep your mental eye open to the possibility of long shots, extended across half a verse so the rhythm depends on the movement within a frame rather than the juxtaposition of shots. Listen for sections of the song that lend themselves to split-second shots arranged in a rapid-fire sequence, an aural and visual stutter, a welcome jolt when the rhythm threatens to settle in and lull the viewer into complacency. Remember the potency of a jump cut: throughout “Step into My Scene,” they’re utilized to fragment time and emphasize the absurdity of the scene Keelo describes.
In every case tailor your transitions to the video’s momentum. The best cut launches viewers into the next shot, like a springboard or revolving door. It should function invisibly without drawing attention to itself, but it must act with conviction, a force that propels an audience along in unexpected, compelling ways. That might mean occasionally editing off-the-beat or against instinct. There’s no formula for how to space and arrange clips in a music video since the tempo, tone, and style of a song often dictate your editing pattern, but if there’s one unifying principle, at least in my experience, it’s momentum. A viewer is propelled, not gestured, through a video, the result of tight editing and a deliberate director’s touch.
Just Shoot the Fucking Video Already
I finished editing “Step into My Scene” on November 28 after a three-month gap when I busied myself with schoolwork, personal life, and procrastination. A third of the video came together in the last week of November, capping off with a nine-hour marathon editing session on the 28th. I acted on instinct, sparks of inspiration, and occasionally the flip of a proverbial coin until I rounded out the song’s running time; the next day, with Keelo’s approval, the video went online. Relief washed over me even as I knew my journey with this song wasn’t over. After New Year’s I’ll promote the video throughout the web; I might use it as a calling card for future video work; even as I move onto other endeavors, “Step into My Scene” will stand tall as my first major film project. It was a massive undertaking that provided all the challenges and lessons necessary for me to acquaint myself with the art of filmmaking.
It taught me about editing to the beat and against it, depending on what charges the momentum. It taught me the value of the music video format as a training tool for would-be filmmakers, instructing them on basic techniques and the need to collaborate. It allowed me to film in cool locations around my neighborhood, which was fun and instructional as well as tiring, although I learned from my exhaustion the limits of my attention span and when it starts to flag, causing my work to suffer. It gave me a taste of a unique medium I hope to dabble in much more. I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
But it only happened because I went out with a camera and a friend to a place I wanted to shoot at and I hit “REC” and recorded raw footage with the intention of piecing it together into a coherent whole.
That first step made all the difference, and often it’s all you need. The other advice I gave you comes into play only once you start shooting the fucking video. Yes, that’s not very eloquent; it’s blunt and a harsh note to end this article on, but it rings true with a clarity we often forget. If you have an idea for a music video and have talked with a musician friend who loves it and wants to start filming as soon as possible, then film it. You’ve made the decision and laid the foundation for your success. That’s still not moviemaking. It’s mere potential up until you yell “ACTION,” the word all artists rise and fall on: their action, the volition leading to results leading to connection with an audience, your lifeblood.
This summer I made an amateur music video. That’s an action, my first after years of empty schemes, and it started with a “REC” button (properly compressed, just once so I knew it was on). I stood between two shelves of vinyl while Keelo emerged from the heavy glare cast through the window and he walked down the aisle, lip-synching to the track playing over the store speakers. I hit “REC” and stepped backwards, recording Keelo’s motion and muttering silent prayers that the footage wouldn’t be too dark or shaky, canted or bright, but just right – at least right enough to assure me through the rest of day’s filming. Such a simple action as tapping a red circle on a camera decided the next sixth months of my life; it ensured no matter how despondent I grew with my work, I’d have a basis to force myself to continue. I had to finish what I started. No matter how long it took, I needed to make it to the end.
Like I said, we all begin somewhere. Now hit the “REC” button on your camera (or cell phone) and make your own beginning. Hit “REC” and just shoot the fucking video already.
*Foreword: Whenever I write an article about my own work, I will keep clear of slanderous anecdote and self-aggrandizement. You don’t want to hear about it, I don’t, nobody does, there’s nothing of value to glean from it so I won’t bother with which actor if any was most obnoxious, the time I showed up drunk to filming, what I think of the video, etc. Watch videos of David O Russel and Christian Bale for your fill of trash tabloid-y behind-the-scenes drama.
**Parts of “Step into My Scene” were filmed at a local secondhand shop and record store. I only had to let them know about the shoot a few weeks ahead, work out a day when filming would be the smallest inconvenience, and avoid breaking anything. The owners even suggested we use the security cameras in one shot. With the modern YouTube penchant for guerrilla filmmaking and shooting undercover, it’s easy to forget small businesses love free advertising. You want to shoot a scene at a cafe? Don’t sneak a camera into a McDonald’s; just ask the Mom and Pop Diner down the street and you might even get some scenes in the kitchen. It’s the tiniest initiative and it does wonders for your video.