Archive for July 12th, 2009

Music tastes and habituality

It’s a curious thing, really. Back in the ’80s I hated the Cure, or the Talking Heads, or any other progressive rock band. I also disliked heavy metal, although I didn’t mind the milder Bon Jovi. I also hated my native Greek music (and I still do). I was a yet another pop girl, in love with Michael Jackson and Madonna.

But in the ’90s, things changed. The time I became an adult was also the time we were able to acquire MTV signal from the local pirate re-broadcasters in my area. It made me more used to rock, alternative rock in particular, but that was also the time that Eurodance was big in Europe/Japan, which I also loved at the time.

This current decade has been all about rock though. JBQ is a heavy metal/alt/hard rock guy (big Iron Maiden fan), so I naturally got used to the sound even more. Franz Ferdinand, AFI, Green Day, Rise Against, Disturbed, Linkin Park, Metallica are all in our daily rotation.

However, I am changing again.

This time, my favorite music is actually the indie experimental sound, a sound that usually sits somewhere between pop, rock and folk — with a twist. Bands like Arcade Fire, Cloud Cult, British Sea Power, Blitzen Trapper, Feist, Orenda Fink, Portugal The Man, Ratatat, Scissors for Lefty, Midlake, Sea Wolf, Sin Fang Bous, We Are Wolves, and Wye Oak are what I like listening to. I don’t like all of their songs, but some of their stuff, I find amazing.

Now, you are probably thinking: “wait a fucking second. Aren’t you the same person who said just a few weeks ago that indie rock is not that epic, or that this is the kind of music you actually dislike?”.

I am. Or, maybe I am not.

I feel that I am changing again. During my vast research of free, legal mp3s on the internet last month I had to listen to this “new” sound a lot. Most of the new bands out there play such music. And I got used to it. I now “get it”.

For some of that music we have a specific word in Greek: “κουλτουριαρικη”. Means that it’s somewhat modern art, difficult to get into at first, and usually liked by specific kind of people, not your normal Joe & Jane. This doesn’t mean that it’s the music for snobs, but rather somewhat underground and unappreciated by the public at large. The funny thing here is that I always disliked that kind of music and I even opposed it all my life. I liked accessibility. But I think I now too get the endorphins associated with it. Update: I guess the international equivalent term to that Greek word is “avant-garde”.

I think one reason this music is not more popular (especially in Europe), it’s because is it’s uneven. I mentioned some bands above, and yet, I only like a fraction of their songs. For example, I bought the whole repertoire of Arcade Fire the other day, and I only find 10 songs that I like in there (and only 5 that I really like). As for my favorite indie band, the Cloud Cult, I *only* like their latest album! And while I love the current Blitzen Trapper, I can’t stand their first two albums. On the other hand, I can go through an AFI, Green Day, Muse, Franz Ferdinand, Madonna album without skipping songs! Some of these guys with a major’s contract might be history in terms of music genre, but their albums are overall better because they have more evenly good songs in them. The only indie bands that I like all their albums and all the songs, from start to finish, are the Malbec and the Drist (JBQ likes them too).

However, JBQ hates that vast majority of that indie folk-y music (he can’t stand Cloud Cult for example, to my surprise). He in fact finds it “painful”, he said, on at best “nothing special”. But I think it’s just that: getting used to it and “get” the serene melody with complex layers these songs offer compared to a hard rock shouting match that probably we heard it all before. To me, indie music is like rock married pop and had babies. However, I did notice that for some songs that JBQ hated originally, when I replayed them days later he was more susceptible to them (e.g. Feist’s “One Evening”).

These days iTunes is playing for me alternative rock, that new crop of indie rock, and some hard rock and trance songs. Very rarely I listen to pop anymore. Regardless of what kind of music I will be listening to in the new decade, one thing is for sure though: it won’t be Greek.

Interview with director Daniel Elkayam

Daniel Elkayam is responsible for putting together one of the best music videos I have seen in this decade: Blitzen Trapper‘s “Black River Killer”. Naturally, being into video myself, I had to ask for details on how he pulled off this amazing video. Read more for the very interesting and detailed interview!

1. What equipment was used for the shoot? Which format was it shot on? Was it shot sped-up?

Daniel: We used the Panasonic HVX200, shooting at 720p resolution. The variable frame rate was key. I decided early on that I wanted the video to have a fluid, dreamy feel, as if the camera were just floating through these scenes. So we wanted to shoot at a higher frame rate to give a subtle slow motion look. After some tests we settled on 36fps for most of the scenes (although the second talk show shot and all the underwater footage was shot at 60fps). We had a version of the song sped up to 36fps (about 150% speed) playing on the set as we were shooting to help hit the camera marks. So we were constantly listening to this chipmunk version of the song throughout the entire shoot. There weren’t too many moments where perfect sync was crucial, but there were a few: the opening shot with the singer playing guitar, the band playing in the talk show, and the sheriff reciting the song lyrics. They all required a bit of rehearsing, but in the end everyone nailed it.

In addition to shooting at a higher frame rate, we also used a .6x wide angle adapter for nearly the entire shoot. This further enhanced the dreamy feel and made all the camera motion that much smoother. We also shot nearly the entire video on Steadicam (specifically, the Steadicam Flyer). Our Director of Photography Brian McKee was our steadicam operator and did an amazing job. The Grip & Lighting Manager at Picture This, a local video rental house, is apparently a big Sub Pop fan and when he heard about the project he got excited and wanted to help. In the end, “Picture This” donated an amazing amount of equipment and crew to the production. We had a 15′ camera crane with a tiltable head, a 12′ dolly track, an Arri kit, Kino Flos for greenscreen lighting, and at times a complete grip truck at our disposal. It was quite a blessing.

2. How many days of shooting took place, and how much post processing?

Daniel: We shot for 6 days, which for a 3 1/2 minute music video is quite a lot. But because most of the shots were so complex or required so much setup, usually we would spend the entire day just getting one or two shots. For the riverbank, we spent all day building a trench in the beach for our dolly track, and then we shot in the late afternoon. The desert shot was a 3 hour drive away, so just driving there and back was half the day. Our busiest day was at the old west town, where we actually had to get 7 shots in one day. Fortunately, they were all the same spot so we were able to move lights and camera around fairly easily, and that was one of the days we had the biggest crews, but it was still a challenge to get it all done. As for post-production, we wrapped shooting on May 3rd, and delivered the final cut to Sub Pop on June 2nd. So, we had less than a month for all the post work. I took about a week off after the shoot to decompress, but then it was another solid three weeks of work after that to get it done in time. I did most of the editing and effects work myself, except for the underwater shots which were done by Jon Jaschob, who did a fantastic job.

3. How come you edit in After Effects and not in Premiere (and then use Adobe Bridge to move to AE for the effects)?

Daniel: It was originally my plan to edit in Premiere and just go to After Effects for effects work, but it quickly became apparent that the video was all effects work. There was very little “editing” involved. There are literally only 15 shots in the whole video and no actual “cuts.” Every shot transitions from the previous shot and into the next one in an effectsy way. Plus I decided that I wanted to do a fair amount of time-remapping to further match the video’s motion to elements of the song. After Effects has amazing time-remapping abilities to create really smooth speed ramps and slow motion. There are many times where the video is slowed down considerably slower than the 36fps we shot it at, but it still looks smooth and crisp. That combined with the fact that I wanted to do a lot of color work to play with the look of the video meant that every shot was going to be going through After Effects anyways, so I might as well do the whole project there. However, I did still use Premiere considerably to log the footage, select shots, and play back the AE renders. AE is great for lots of things, but terrible for actually playing video, so Premiere was indispensable for that role. And the dynamic link between them made it super easy to move back and forth.

4. How did the realization behind the Black River Killer video came to be? Did the band approached you, or there’s another story behind it?

Daniel: It’s funny, I met Brian Koch, the band’s drummer, through mutual friends several years ago and I’ve known him for quite a while now, but I only recently became aware of his music. I knew he was in a band called “Blitzen Trapper” but I had never heard them play or see them perform. I had started to hear about them more and get the vibe that they were getting kind of “big,” but I still didn’t think much of it. Brian is also a fantastic and hilarious actor, and he and I had worked on a few projects together in the past. So last year, as I was entering a competition called the ’48 Hour Film Project’, I asked Brian if he wanted to be one of the actors on our team and he agreed. The film we made ended up winning the city-wide competition and we were invited to several more “post-season” competitions, another one of which Brian starred in. After that, he asked if I might be interested in doing a video for the band. At that point, I was a little embarrassed to admit that I still had never heard them. So he gave me a copy of “Furr“, and then the band left on a 2 month tour. Needless to say, I immediately fell in love with the album. Not long after that, I happened to be watching Late Night with Conan O’Brien, and who should the musical guests be, but Blitzen Trapper! I nearly fell out of my chair. I had no idea they were Conan O’Brien-level! As soon as the band was back, I told Brian I’d love to do it. I gave him a list of several songs that I would like to do, and “Black River Killer” was at the top of the list. He said the band had also been wanting to do a video for BRK, so it was a perfect fit. We approached Sub Pop, showed them some storyboards, some of my previous work, and they agreed to produce the video!

Daniel Elkayam

5. How many people were involved in the overall process? Was it difficult to manage all these people?

Daniel: So many people put time and energy into this production, it was really amazing. Counting all the extras and mask makers, well over 100 people helped out for no money whatsoever. I think much of that was the allure of the band. We had so many people contact us wanting to help out in any way they could, just to be part of a Blitzen Trapper video. We had a core 12 person crew that occasionally swelled to 20 people or more for the bigger scenes. There were a total of 15 actors (not to mention a few crew cameos). We had more than 40 different people chip in to make the 60 masks worn by the extras in the talk show scene. This was an insane amount of masks, but we still weren’t sure how many people would show up, so we made extra photocopied versions, just in case we had more than 60. It turned out we had anywhere from 75-100 extras show up (we never got an exact count), so the photocopied masks definitely got used. Mostly, these were for the far background or the shadow areas (though at the end of the second talk show shot, you can see one of these photocopied masks on a small dog that one of the extras is holding in their arms).

Surprisingly, managing all these people was not too difficult. Our producer, Luke Norby, did a great job of keeping things organized and on track. Everyone was professional and knew their jobs. On the talk show day, we had several crew members devoted to corralling the extras. Jen LaMastra and Tony Fuemmeler, the mask designers, did an amazing job organizing all the mask volunteers, and also directing the audience on the day of the shoot. The whole video was such a group effort, far from being a hindrance, we couldn’t have done it without everyone’s help.

6. What’s your opinion on the seemingly cheap & accessible HD camera hardware available these days that allows amateurs to almost play in the pro league?

Daniel: This is the first project I’ve directed where I’ve been given money by anyone other than my parents, so I’m definitely used to playing in the ultra-low to no-budget leagues. And I think it’s amazing what you can do now with relatively cheap consumer equipment, both on the hardware and software side. I just purchased a new point-and-shot snapshot camera that’s less than an inch thick that also shoots 720p video. Of course, it’s not very good 720p video, but the technology is still amazing. And it’s only going to become more so. We’re fast approaching the time when an average consumer will be able to purchase a camera that can rival the technology used in Hollywood (in fact, if you can afford the Red, we’re just about there). Indies will never be able to rival Hollywood’s spending power for things like sets, locations, and huge crowds, but at least the basic filmmaking tools are no longer a barrier to entry. And what can be accomplished with consumer level software these days is just incredible. Of course, the downside to the fact that anyone who wants to can make a film… is that now anyone who wants to can make a film. It’s a lot harder to stand out in the crowd and a lot of what is out there is not very good. So, of course, it’s not the equipment that’s important, it’s creativity. I’ve seen some mind-blowing things done with very simple gear (several White Stripes videos come to mind). But all in all, I think this democratization of filmmaking is a great thing and I hope it continues.

‘Behind the Scenes’ documentary (shot with an HV20)

7. There’s an interesting scene at 00:36 where the jail’s wall serves as a transition to the talk show. How did you do that transition look so smooth?

Daniel: This is probably my favorite transition in the whole video, and also one that took the most work to pull off, both in terms of the shooting and the post. In order for the shot to be convincing, I wanted to pan onto a brick wall at the end of the jail cell shot, and then literally pan off of the same brick wall at the talk show set. So, our Art Director Ben Valentin made a portable replica of the faux brick wall from the jail cell. We hung Ben’s wall in the jail cell on top of the existing wall and shot with it (if you look closely at the video, you may notice that the brick doesn’t quite match up on the right side of the cell, whereas on the left side it does). We then physically removed the wall and took it with us to the talk show set several days later. The talk show was shot in a local theater and we were able to hang the faux brick wall horizontally from the ceiling grid (you can see a brief shot of this in our behind-the-scenes video on youtube). This was not as easy as it sounds, as the thing was so heavy it took about 6 people to lift it and that it started to fall apart as we hung it, necessitating some last-minute repairs. But in the end, we got it hung and stable. It was then a matter of trying to replicate the lighting and camera motion from the end of the jail cell shot in the beginning of the talk show shot.

The shot doesn’t ever crossfade from one shot to the other, instead, there is a “seam” along the mortar between the bricks that bridges the two shots. But even with all our on-set effort, the shot still needed extensive massaging in post for the transition to look smooth. Although we did our best, the camera moves were never going to line up exactly. The matching process essentially involved isolating a single brick from each shot and tracking it’s motion, and then lining up the two tracked bricks so that they matched. I used a variety of methods to massage the speed and perspective of the shots, to further get them to match. But even with all this, the motion of the shots still didn’t quite match unless I horizontally flipped one of the shots. Flipping the first shot would have affected the transition from the courtroom, so I flipped the second shot instead. However, this meant flipping the entire talk show scene as well. So to those of us who were on the shoot, that scene still feels a little strange because everything is reversed (though, I guess strange is good). The second talk show shot is not flipped, by the way, and you may notice that the killer is sitting on the other side of the host. Also, if you look carefully, you’ll see that the band members are all playing left-handed, which is not how they usually play.

8. What do you like shooting most and why? Music videos, movies, short movies, commercials, something else?

Daniel: I think music videos are the most fun. It’s such an open medium, really a filmmaker’s playground. Shorts can be fun as well, but I think it’s very difficult to find a concept that works well in the short film format. Music videos free you from the necessity of a story, and give you the opportunity to try out fun visual ideas that might be distracting in a feature or short film. They can be narrative if you want (and Black River Killer certainly is), but they don’t need to be. Songs are inherently emotional, so you almost get that connection for free. I think the music video director’s job is to try to realize the song in a way that reflects the song’s original intent. Unfortunately, so many videos these days are lacking any creativity whatsoever and are created solely for marketing the song. While there’s nothing better than a good music video, there’s also nothing worse than a bad one. But there are definitely some good ones still out there. My ultimate ambition is definitely to direct feature films, however I love doing music videos and I hope there are many more in my future.