A Holiday Music Video Miracle and Christmas at 7-Eleven

December is always a challenging month for me. Not because of the usual shopping stresses, but more because of work related holiday deadlines. It seems like my already bursting plate seems to overflow even more leading up to the holidays. I’ve learned over the years to not stress too much about it. There are things I can’t control and things I can. I tend to focus more on the latter.

I pick only a handful of holiday parties to attend between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Some are client related and necessary, but I know it’s not possible to be at them all, so I don’t try to pack them all in. And I pick a few to spend time with good friends. It’s all about finding the balance.

In the advertising world, there seems to be a general crush to get last minute projects completed and my colleagues and I spend lots of late nights accomplishing them the best we can. We try to spread out the workload so people can get out to see their families and no one gets too weeded out.

There are always last minute photography print orders that need to be filled, but I try to keep expectations realistic, telling potential buyers that they’ll need to allow a little extra time for me to make them before the holidays. It’s worked out fairly well the last few years. Everyone managed to get their prints on time this year.

By the time December 25th gets here, most of us have come down with some sickness due to getting a little too run down. It’s a bit like the cycle of life. Once you know it’s going to be like this and plan for it, it’s a little more manageable.

This year, I did however to take on one massive additional project that there was really no time for. It’s one of those things that I weigh the pros and cons before I accept it.

On December 4th, my good friend Jillian Ann asked if there was any way I could direct and edit a new music video for her new single, “I Confess”. I always enjoy collaborating with her and the results are usually very rewarding. The only problem was the deadline. The entire project would have to be completed by January 10th so it could be presented at a major European music convention in Paris that month.

Now, a little over a month sounds like plenty of time to complete a project like this, but it’s really not that much time. Trying to accomplish it during my own December deadline crush was extremely ambitious and I told her so.

We would definitely have to shoot before Christmas so I would have time to edit, complete color correction and final finish and make her deadline. That meant mounting the huge production in two weeks and shooting the weekend before Christmas.

The first task was reserving plane tickets for everyone flying into Chicago for the shoot as soon as possible since plane travel becomes more difficult as the holidays approach. We would use a local crew, but the principles would all be flying in.

The wheels were in motion. No turning back now.

We all began exchanging emails and brief phone calls when we had a moment to try to get an accurate picture of our wish list of what the video music would look like. In the meantime, Jillian continued to work on the still unfinished music track in LA. We knew there was a good chance the track would not be fully completed before the shoot, but I told her as long as we had a rough vocal track to work with at the shoot, her producer in LA could continue working on the track even after the shoot.

In the meantime, I began planning the shoot locations and finding a crew, which turned out to be very challenging with holiday schedules. We would have to find a compromise of what we wished for and what we could actually reasonably accomplish.

As the shoot approached, my December continued to be as busy as usual and I knew I would not be able to do as much pre-planning as I usually like to do on these productions, so rather than throw out a blanket call for crew help, I decided to reach out to a small group of people I had worked with before and trusted so we wouldn’t have to get up to speed with each other. Communication would have to be more intuitive than anything else. I knew that would lessen the amount of people that would be available, but I wanted to try to limit the amount of unknowns.

It turned out to be a really great decision.

We continued to pair down the wish list. The principles would be Jillian and one other model, Rachael Weathers, even though we had initially discussed having more. The number of potential locations was reduced, since I now only had two full shooting days instead of three because of my full schedule.

An amazing local makeup and hair stylist called Chelsy Usher, who had worked with Jillian for many years, would take on the challenge of a dozen hair, makeup and wardrobe set-ups over the course of the shoot. Jillian called in a few favors in LA to get us an amazing wardrobe, which when added to several good pieces I had on hand, resulted in racks of clothing to have for the shoot.

On Thursday December 17th, Jillian and Rachael flew into Chicago while I continued to finish up a few advertising projects. I spent Friday running back and forth from my studio to my downtown Chicago office to tie up some loose ends and begin wardrobe meetings and location scouting.

We still were missing one item on the wish list and that was to find a location with a grand piano. Jillian reached out to her network and we found a group of artists at Catalyst Chicago who agreed to help with their beautiful space. The last missing piece was now in place, less than 24 hours before we would begin shooting.

I raced back downtown to one of my must attend holiday parties for a few hours and returned to the studio to begin camera tests and finalize the location and shoot schedule.

We would be shooting the video using my Canon 5D Mark II, a camera that has been a game changer in how I shoot motion. It shoot beautiful images, but only at 30fps (frames per second) and we wanted to edit in the much more universally standard 24fps. My solution was to speed the playback music track up by 125% on set and have Jillian sing a little faster than usual. When we slowed it down to 24fps, everything would be at the right speed…. in theory.

A little before midnight on Friday night we shot a brief run though of the sped up song and I did the footage conversion and locked it to the rough music track and did a very quick edit. Perfect. And we had the added bonus of the track being at the correct speed, but Jillian’s movements were slowed down slightly, which added to the look we were hoping for. Everything looks better in slow motion any way.

By this time, it was 4am Saturday morning. Crew and hair and makeup call were in four hours at 8am. But we were finally ready. Katrina Nelken arrived on set as my assistant director. I’ve worked with her on a few projects in the past and her skills and great ideas throughout the shoot really made all the difference.

We shot for two extraordinarily long days, finally wrapping at 5am Monday morning so I could get back to finishing up my advertising projects a few hours later. Jillian and Rachael flew out of Chicago and the next part of the process could begin.

We began the process of converting the footage, loading it into Final Cut Pro and organizing it for the edit to begin on Christmas Eve, but not before I drove out to my parents house to see my family on the 24th for the afternoon. That balance thing again.

Back in Chicago at my studio by 6pm, I began making the first edits, roughing out the master shots and posting it as the clock struck midnight on Christmas morning for Jillian and the crew to see the beginnings of all our hard work.

It was only then that I could see all the pieces at once and how amazing it was that we managed to pull this off. The footage is beautiful. A testament to a small group of trusted and skilled humans, coming together to create something beyond what we had hoped for even with the limited time and resources we had to pull this project off.


Here’s a snapshot of one of my edit monitors with 14 of the 66 shots displayed for me to work with. Since it’s a music video and all the singing has to be in sync, it’s important to be able to see all the footage locked together in motion in multi-cam mode to help choose the hundreds of individual edits that will need to be made throughout the 5 minute song. It’s clearly an embarrassment of riches on this one.

I spent Christmas Day roughing out the storyline with all the footage in the edit and continued to make a list of the moments that I want to make sure make it into the final cut. There are a lot. It’s going to be a challenge, but a fun one.

About 5pm on Christmas Day, I decided to take a break and revisit one of my quirky Christmas Day traditions: Visiting my local 7-Eleven, a couple of blocks from my studio.

Now that may seem like a strange holiday tradition, so let me explain. When you work the crazy hours I do over the course of the year, my 7-Eleven is a bit of an oasis when it’s 3am and I realize I haven’t eaten all day. I know all of the clerks there and I always spend a few minutes there talking with them seeing how their long shifts are going.

I think it’s something I picked up in Paris where a visit to any local merchant isn’t complete without a little conversation. It’s just good manners.

Last night was no different. The young man behind the counter was a familiar face. He usually works all the holidays and I make it a point to stop by and spend a few minutes to catch up with him, since we were both working on Christmas.

I told him about Jillian’s video and showed him a few scenes on my iPhone and we began talking about music and art. He’s pursing a music career himself as a singer and violinist. Something no one would know unless they bothered to ask the guy behind the counter selling them cigarettes and lottery games.

Before I knew it, he was playing me some vocals he had recorded on his iPhone. We talked about the differences in musical phrasing between American music and Indian music. He has a beautiful sweet voice. Full of passion. It was a little Christmas gift to get to hear him that night.

In the crush of busy deadlines, it’s really important to slow down and just listen to what is around you. Finding the balance.

Merry Christmas.

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