November 24, 2003
'Too Close for Comfort'
The story behind Subt Lemons zero budget music video
By Graeme Webb
It all started when I bumped into an old friend that I hadn't seen for some time. Over more than a few beers it transpired that he had been involved with a band called Subt Lemon for a couple of years and they were at the point of recording an album of original material. I suggested that we could cooperate on a promotional video for the band. I had been running a media department for a large company for the previous two years and had always thought that I would like to work on a project like this as it was far removed from the corporate videos and multimedia projects that I had been involved with.
Over the next few weeks we set about trying to plan how we would do it and also kicked about a few ideas on what song would be used and what the story would be about.
One thing we learnt very early on was that the video story had to be do-able; there was no point in creating some fantastical story line with special effects and a cast of thousands as it just would not happen. All the guys involved in the band and the technical helpers work full time and it would be a miracle if we could get them all together for more than a few hours at a time.
After a few weeks we came up with the concept for the storyline and a plan for how we could complete the project. An idea was floated early on that the story could be about one guy following another guy; the idea would be that the audience wouldn't know till the end why he was being followed. This would be intercut with studio footage of the band playing and other shots that could be connected to the main theme or would even be used as red herrings in the narrative to grab attention. The song that was picked, 'Too Close for Comfort' was ideal as it gradually builds up power, so we could then match the dynamics of the song with the visuals and build up the tension as the video reached the end.
We came up with the following conclusions:
We used the following equipment and software:
Apple G4 667Mhz Powerbook
Canon XL1 DV Camera
Maxtor External 80Gb Fire wire Drive
Lacie external DVD writer
Final Cut Pro 3
Story Board Quick
Quick Time 5
Propeller Head's Reason 2
DVD Studio Pro
Once the theme had been fleshed out we started storyboarding and looking for locations. The way we did this was to use a Nikon D100 and to place ourselves into the locations as the actors would appear taking lots of small JPEG images. These were then organised in iView MediaPro, made into QuickTime presentations and then circulated to the band and any other interested parties for comment.
We went around this loop several times and the storyboard gradually evolved as we found locations were unsuitable to use for various reasons. One problem we had early on was trying to set up a particular pub location for some interior shots and coming up against a brick wall. Without the prospect of payment of hundreds of pounds, the management just were not interested. We finally found a very cooperative and friendly couple in the form of Tony and Pauline Lock of the Pelton Arms in Greenwich. They were more than happy to oblige, even letting us in early on a Saturday morning to film the interior shots. The storyboard finally hit version 4 and it was then transferred into an application called Story Board Quick for final agreement.
I cannot over emphasise the importance of storyboarding, as it's the only way you can organise your shots and effectively communicate your ideas to other people. Although we ended up with a video which was about 30% of the final storyboard, it did enable us to plan and manage what we were doing.
The Shoot Morning One
The video was to be shot over two Saturday mornings and two evenings. The first location was the interior and exterior of the Pelton Arms. A date was set and we started trying to persuade friends to be extras, the promise of free beer and a lunch certainly helping.
As the day approached the weather was changeable and several extras had pulled out. It all looked pretty gloomy and it was fifty-fifty whether we would go for it. We had already decided that Steve, the band's singer, and Alex, another freind, would be the main characters. We took a gamble and at the eleventh hour a few more extras turned up, the weather stayed remarkably dry and sunny and we had our first shots in the can.
Shooting the Pelton interiors
I thought I would use the tripod more than I did but I found a monopod much more useful and with the image stabilisation on the Canon XL1 the shots were fairly stable.
We only used natural light inside the Pelton and because we were trying to get a burnt out look to the sky and external shots through the windows it didn't matter that we never used artificial lighting inside. But do make sure that you visit the location at the same time you want to shoot about a week before you shoot just to make sure that the sun won't be facing into your camera lens or there is some other nasty lurking in the shadows.
Shooting the Pelton Exteriors
We planned to do a set up shot with a motor bike that was going to come to a screeching halt just in front of one of the actors. About an hour was spent on what appeared to be a simple four shot sequence but like all the other 'clever stuff' we attempted over the first two locations it ended up on the cutting room floor. At the end of the day none of the guys in the production are actors and we were asking them to do things which they were not trained or experienced in This is an interesting area and demonstrates why you should keep things very very simple.
There are ways of creating mood and understanding from sequences of managed shots and editing techniques and a study of the Russian Director Lev Kuleshov and his use of the juxtaposition of images and montage is very useful.
The Shoot Morning Two
Even in a small production like this, continuity is an important factor and although everyone had a snapshot of what they were wearing, state of hair, shaven or not, make up etc after the first shoot, someone went and lost the main character's hat. This resulted in searching the web for a supplier; one was eventually found and purchased. It's a good idea to keep all these small 'losable' props in one box and let one person have the responsibility for it.
The weather could have posed other problems as we really wanted continuity in the external light over the two shoots. We were very lucky with this and the weather stayed fine. But these areas of continuity do require managing and it's very useful to build contingency into your planning.
Another set piece which we took an hour to complete later also ended up on the cutting room floor. As on the first day's shoot the storyboard was invaluable and enabled us to move through the locations quickly and to frame the shots as planned with everyone knowing what they should be doing.
At the end of the second shoot we transferred all of the DV video footage to VHS tape for viewing by the team and when we had agreed on what takes would be used these were then captured to the Powerbook and then archived to the Maxtor 80Gb external Firewire disk drive and 4.7 Gb DVD disks.
The Shoot Evening One
The first evening shoot was at OTR Studios at Hackney. It was a sweltering night and stuffy inside the rehearsal room. There was no natural light of any type inside the room and for an hour the lighting that we had borrowed refused to work.
Finally the lights burst into life and we started the ten mimed takes we needed to give us enough material for the band sequences. We required enough cutaways to take care of any problems that we might come up against later in post-production. The band shots would be cut into the story and these would probably come in and out on the beat, but until we had finished all the shoots we didn't really know where these would fit in. The Band mimed to a CD version, which was eventually deleted from the visuals.
When these had been completed I layered all of the ten takes in Final Cut Pro 3 and lip-synched them together. Once this was complete I turned layers on and off to try to get an indication of which takes were the best and then created a rough edit of a studio video. I locked all these synchronised layers, deleted the original audio and overlaid the CD track that had been used at the studio. When I came to insert the studio footage into the main project it was a simple matter of turning it into B&W and rendering the studio video project in FCP, later importing it again as one clip into the main FCP project.
The Shoot Evening Two
We had one more shoot which was to be done at one of the band member's houses. At this point I was wondering where the first cut would be made and how the video would actually start.
We felt that a hook should be put in early on to grab the audience's attention. This later turned out to be the girl (Fran) with the knife walking in slow motion. This shot is also repeated later in the video and runs at normal speed. We also decided to create a soundscape comparable to the mood of the song with some opening music chords and sound effects. These would run over the titles and into the opening shot where the band actually starts playing.
This last shoot roughly followed the storyboard although we took the opportunity to improvise with some unplanned and spontaneous shots. Some of these were actually used in the production.
We ended up with two and a half hours of footage, which was finally whittled down to an 8 minute video. This included the titles the introduction, song, closing credits and some footage of the making off the video.
I captured the takes that we were going to use in Final Cut Pro. The video clips, audio and graphics files took about 20Gb of space on the PowerBooks 40Gb disk drive. These source DV files were then backed up to the Maxtor Fire wire drive and to DVD. Its imperative to have a logical file naming convention and stick to it. Also a control of the various project files can become a headache. Each DV source file was given a descriptive name eg 'Al and Steve walking location 3' and project files were listed as project 1 date 060703 and so on. I kept a small spreadsheet with the file name and its content.
By now I had become very familiar with the song and felt that the best way to put it together was to use an instinctive and intuitive approach. The storyboard told me what the sequence of shots should be - I just needed to tap into the rhythms of the song and to let that dictate the perfect length of the shot whether it be cutting on or off the beat or something else. It's important to wear high quality headphones when editing as you can hear all the subtle nuances in the make up of the track. The vocal will always have cue points that match the underlying rhythms, but will also have its own cue points, which you can use to cut on or off the beat.
Music videos are not about subtlety, they're about grabbing the viewer's attention. Every shot has to be 'on the money' - this is the craft of the music video.
When the rough edit had been completed it was aired to the band for approval. We ended up making some cuts to speed up the pace at the end and then concentrated on getting the look that we wanted. A simple 3 note motif created in Reason was placed over the opening titles and introduction to create a moody opening section.
I rendered a full Pal-DV stream and re-imported it into a new FCP3 project then:
Three versions where then made.
We have learnt an incredible amount from this project especially about what is and isn't possible when you have no money available to spend. As well as distributing the video amongst the Subt Lemons fan base it is an ideal promotional piece for the Album, which is to be released in October, and we have already submitted to a TV network for possible inclusion in a rock video programme. We are now in the process of planning a second video, which we are hoping to finish by the end of the year.
Subt Lemon Web Site Music tracks from the new album "Nice Try"
copyright © Graeme Webb 2003