I thought I’d take a little break today from opening my Christmas cards (Yes, I’m that far behind schedule!), and write a little about the music video we released yesterday.
A month ago to the day, our cast and crew assembled in Chicago to begin the adventure that would become Jillian Ann’s “Confess” music video you see here. As I mentioned in the last blog post, it was an ambitious project to complete in a month, let alone with the holidays smack dab in the middle of it all.
It took the generous talent and skills of many people who are all listed in the credits. We all were facing other holiday deadlines and there was only time for a few brief telephone conversations prior to the shoot which served as our pre-production meetings. It would all have to come together at the last minute, as is so often the case.
Jillian Ann and Rachael Weathers, our two principles, arrived in Chicago on December 17th while I continued to navigate the shoot schedule which was still missing several locations for our mental storyboard.
It wasn’t until the day before the shoot that everyone sat down together at our wardrobe meeting that we made a list of locations and a shot list for our story. I still had one camera test to do, but taking the time to write everything out is always time well spent before production commences.
We went through the lyrics and brainstormed over ideas that might work. Jillian’s manager, Jean Renard, gave us a homework assignment to look at a list of other music videos that had examples of artist performances he really thought would work well with Jillian’s song and we added that to our mix. He would be using the video to attract interest at an upcoming European music conference in Paris in January, and we all wanted to create something that would stand out and really showcase Jillian’s presence.
“Confess” was a little bit of a musical reinvention for Jillian. Bruce Somers of KidneyThieves and Nine Inch Nails fame was producing the track back in LA as we worked in Chicago, and pushed Jillian to really sing out on it. It was aggressive and passionate instead of graceful and lilting as in some of Jillian’s previous work. The video had to match that energy.
Jillian is a classically trained pianist and works out her music ideas on a piano. She wanted to incorporate a grand piano in the video and with less than 24 hours to go before the first shot, we had not secured a location with a grand piano yet. Her network of artists is vast, however, and a few phone calls later we were speaking with Max Glascott of Catalyst Chicago, an underground Chicago artist community. Yes, they had a grand piano and yes, we could shoot there the next day. We headed off to check out the space.
It turned out to be perfect and full of interesting rooms to shoot in. Max and everyone at Catalyst were extremely generous and helpful and pretty much gave us the run of the place for half a day. It was the missing piece we were hoping we would find at the last minute and all the planets aligned.
A tremendous hair and makeup artist, Chelsy Usher, has a large beautiful apartment in the Humbolt Park neighborhood of Chicago and after our trip to Catalyst, we stopped by her place to see if we could shoot some of the scenes there.
Her place was a literal treasure trove of beautifully decorated rooms and spaces. Just what you would expect a stylist’s home to look like. We checked more scene locations off our list.
When planning a shoot, especially one of this enormity in the two shooting days we had, locations are complicated and I had to continually remind the group that although there were a few scenes left on our list we had not completely figured the locations out for, it would be good to keep it to three.
“When the production is moving, we’re not shooting,” was my mantra.
Moving a production from location to location takes hours, especially in Chicago winter traffic. We would make due with two locations outside the studio. The remaining scenes would be shot at my studio in the West Loop as the third location. Perfect.
The only thing left before our first day of shooting was finishing a camera test. To answer the technical people out there who have been asking, yes, we used my Canon 5D Mark II, a beautiful camera that has positively changed the way I approach shooting motion.
It still has a few technical quirks until the good folks at Canon catch up to the rest of the HD video production world and release their next firmware update to the masses that have embraced this new camera in ways Canon never dreamed. One of those quirks is that it only shoots at 30 frames per second. Not the film standard of 24fps or 25 fps as my European colleagues are screaming for.
No matter. We work with what we have and I decided to try something I believed would work in theory, but never actually tried on my own. We would speed playback of the music track up by 125% on set for Jillian to sing to. Then in post, we would slow the footage back down to 24fps (or 23.98fps to be exact) and marry that with the track at the proper speed and everything would sync up in the edit.
In the middle of the night before the first day of shooting, as we were finishing up the shot list, I shot one take of Jillian, sitting at my kitchen counter, singing to the sped up track, but pitched down with Final Cut Pro software so it was in the same key- just playing back 25% faster than usual.
I took the shot into Final Cut, slowed it down to 23.98fps… and voila! Perfect. And it had a slight slo-motion quality to it that I knew would work brilliantly in edit.
We used my Mac laptop on set through amplified speakers playing back the 125% sped up track with a large timecode window burn to use as our smart slate to sync everything up later in post. It couldn’t have worked any better.
First stop on Saturday December 18th was to Catalyst where we shot an incredible amount of footage in six hours. Lots of space to play. And that wonderful piano you see in the video.
I have a very minimalist approach to lighting my photography and that carried over for this video shoot. I like to shoot with as few light sources as possible. Our one natural light source on Earth is the sun, and I think it’s been doing a pretty good job for all these years. So when I light an interior, I start with one large soft light and go from there.
Since we had an extremely small crew for the weekend before Christmas with everyone traveling, doing last minute shopping or otherwise engaged, I kept the lighting to a minimum. One large flourecent daylight lightbox, bounced where needed, but otherwise, that was it. I color balanced the camera to give it cool tones where necessary and warm in other places. That combined with the fabulous color correction in post by Kelly Armstrong of ColorPlayground gave the video the look we were after.
After Catalyst, we returned to my West Loop studio to shoot the bedroom scenes until the wee hours. We downloaded the shots from the day to a series of backup drives and headed to bed for a few hours to rest up for day two of shooting.
Sunday December 19th morning arrived with news that Chelsy, our hair and makeup artist, had the flu and a fever. But she would have no part of the idea taking a day off and she motored through another extremely long day, finally passing out as we shot the last scenes at her place at 2am early Monday morning. I’m still not sure how she managed to perform the three hour hair and makeup changes every time we changed scenes. She was a hero that day.
As the we were finishing the last shots at Chelsy’s place, my assistant director Katrina and I were trying to figure one still troublesome shot on the list, which was originally supposed to be Jillian walking down a deserted street in the Warehouse District in the West Loop near my studio.
I knew taking a small crew into the cold winter night to a deserted outdoor location with expensive equipment and no security could be asking for trouble. And besides that, we had shot for two 20 hours days and we were all exhausted.
It was then we looked out onto Chelsy’s large front porch on the third floor. It was about 20 feet in length. While Jillian and Rachael were in makeup for one of the last scenes, Katrina and I moved our big light to shine through one of Chelsy’s windows onto the porch. We did a quick camera test. Not exactly a deserted street, but if I kept the background out of focus, we did have night streetlights in the distance. It just might work.
And it did. I had Jillian walk the length of the 20 foot porch and ran through the song a few times. It gave us one more location without moving the tired production to a potentially unsafe location.
The last shot on the list was the shower. It decided that would be the last shot of the shoot since doing anything else with hair and makeup after that would be next to impossible.
I will admit that I was thinking of scrapping that scene and wrapping the shoot early. Well by early, I mean 2am. I know, I know… “Killing the shower scene??!! The one with two naked women making out with each other??!! Are you crazy??!!”
Well, not crazy, just tired. And I wasn’t sure yet where it would fit in the story. But Jillian was insistant and talked me down and we all crammed into Chelsy’s shower, keeping all the electrical at a safe distance and ran through the song one and a half times.
So with two dripping wet lovely women in front of me, I called it a wrap. We loaded all the equipment, wardrobe and personnel and headed out into the morning hours back to the studio.
JIllian and Rachael headed to the airport later that day and I began logging and organizing all the beautiful footage for the edit.
Post production is always a great part of the process. Since I was also editing what I shot, I always have to be very careful to extract myself from the production while looking at footage. It doesn’t matter how difficult it was to achieve a shot or how much we all loved it on set. The editor has to be fresh eyes. Is it on the screen? That’s the only thing that matters.
Over the course of the next few weeks, the edit went through many incarnations. Focus more on story? Should it be linear? It eventually evolved to a marriage of Jillian’s excellent performance moments and key beauty moments from the story b-roll footage.
I threw out two scenes entirely that although I loved during the shoot, didn’t quite work as well in the edit. Hard choices have to be made when you have three hours of footage for a five minute video.
Jillian’s manager Jean turned out to be the fresh eyes we needed, watching the rough cuts I would post for him to review in LA, pushing the edit in a direction that felt like the best of all worlds. Jillian continued to go through the footage, also in LA, sending me notes on her favorite moments.
In the middle of it all, the long days finally caught up with me and I ended up sick in bed for several days during the edit, which pushed a few of my self imposed deadlines back in my edit timeline. But the time off served to help me get some distance from the production and I think in the end it really helped.
In the meantime, I was working with Kelly Armstrong as she began to create looks for color and tone based on the rough cuts she was also receiving along the way. We spent many long nights on the phone sending versions back and forth online since she too had a drive with the high resolution footage on it at her location, drinking a glass of wine and enjoying watching the look come together. One of my favorite parts of the process.
When everyone was finally satisfied with the edit, we locked it and let Kelly have a couple of days to finish her corrections in Color. She sent the final color grades to me and now it was all up to my computers to render the large files for the final assembly back in Final Cut Pro.
And there it is. A tremendous collaboration by an amazing group of humans, all coming together with a tight schedule to create something we’re all very happy with.
Now we send it out into the world.