Note: Frequent visitors to this website will recognize the name Matthew Ward. Matt is a friend of mine from college, who now works on amazing projects in Hollywood. When he isn’t working on VFX for Robert Zemeckis or DP’ing animated features, he directs & shoots music videos for his favorite bands. Case in point is this rockin’ production he created a few weeks ago.
Matt describes his work as “a serious production with limited tools,” and that uncompromising quality shows in all his work. Luckily for us, Matt was generous enough to share an exclusive Behind The Scenes look at the production of this video, just for CrewOfOne readers!
Matt, How did you get this fantastic assigment?
Back in 2010, I shot a music video for bay area musician Megan Slankard and her band. The video featured a crowded restaurant, so we thought it would be fun to fill the crowd with other bay area musicians, producers, and creative types working within the music industry around town. One of those people was musician Jeff Campbell, who was already making a big name for himself and his band, Pine & Battery, and he had also been touring and performing with Megan at solo acoustic shows, so I had heard him perform a few times before. After we met at Megan’s shoot, we bumped into each other from time to time and eventually he gave me a few of his albums. I put them through rotation at home and really got into his music. I wrote him and expressed an interest in working with him on a video whenever he was ready to share some new work. A few years later, he released his (current) EP, “In Spite of Everything” and he called me right up.
Turns out Jeff and Megan were dating, as well, which eventually had me land her in his video (she’s the gorgeous blonde peeking from behind him in several shots). They’re kind of blooming into the Carly Simon and James Taylor of the San Francisco Bay Area.
We landed somewhere in the middle, though I have a hard time treating any project I do as “guerilla.” I just assume it’s a serious production with limited tools.
For “Save Me,” I used it as an opportunity to test out (and price out) a low-prod/low-budget shoot as I had been getting a few requests to fly with equipment to work with clients out of the area. To do that successfully, it required some planning, a budget, and some contacts in the area to help with it all. I had to get scouting shots sent to me, relay questions back and forth about existing light, the location, all without being able to be there prior to the shoot. And based on the concept, Jeff and I had agreed on a budget and as co-producers, we vetted everything that the budget was to help with. Though the budget wasn’t in the 6-digits, we treated it as a big budget shoot. And although we weren’t using the best equipment, we didn’t skimp on what we needed to do the shoot properly. With any project, I obsess with the pre-production planning. It’s the Eagle Scout in me… “Be Prepared.”
During these pre-production processes, Jeff and I built up some serious trust and I think we were impressed with each other’s insane work ethic. This only helped move us forward and better set us up for even more trust required on the day of the shoot.
How big was the crew?
We had the location booked for a day and I wanted to shoot as much as possible, so I knew I needed a small, focused team to count on. In the effort to make this as fun as possible, I decided to call upon some old friends that I had enjoyed working with in the past in the bay area. We had our Production Manager (Damon Wolfe – responsible for the whole day’s movement and scheduling), a Production Coordinator (Angela Lucero – responsible for all the hands-on help to keep the shoot on schedule), a second cameraman (Anthony Shafer), myself (directing action, operating another camera, and lighting), a production assistant (Megan Slankard – helping with playback and anything else we asked her to do), and a few other people hanging in the wings like our location manager and the band’s production assistant. Any bigger and we wouldn’t have been able to move as fast as we did.
Most of the crew was comprised of people I had worked with prior on big-budget films, so it was fun scaling down for something like this and applying techniques we used during the big productions. Damon, Anthony and I had been to hell and back on a few feature films in the past and it was a little reunion wrapped up in some dirty work. Angela had managed and co-produced two of my previous music videos, and I couldn’t possibly do one without her. She’s another perfectionist and is exceptional at challenging my methods during production, thus improving them. These are the type of people I want to continue to work with; those who support your direction and remind you how collaboration is infinitely invaluable to any creative process.
How was the experience of using a small DSLR for a high-profile project like this?
It went better than I had hoped. The week prior to shooting, I was armed with a Canon C300 that I had been spending some time getting to know, but at the last moment, the camera was damaged on a previous shoot and not repairable in time for the video. I had been playing with the Canon 70D at home, testing it against my Canon 7D, and had been really impressed with the footage I was getting from it so I pushed it through a few more last-minute tests and realized this little camera could do just fine if I planned the light just right. And it handled like a champ.
Now, that’s not to say I didn’t have my fair amount of footage on the cutting room floor that was unusable due to some serious jello-ing and moiré. That was another reason I knew I had to cover my bases by over-shooting, predicting I’d have to toss a lot. But as the day went on and we watched footage from time to time, we adjusted our rigs, camera moves, and methods to handle it. In the end, I had plenty to work with, but a few sweet shots just couldn’t be saved.
We kept it simple. Mostly due to glass selections, we kept it in the Canon family. Our “A” camera was a Canon 70D mounted on a Jag35 rig w/ follow focus on a tripod or monopod depending on the set-up. Our B camera was a Canon 7D, mounted on a tripod with a Marshal 7” monitor and Zacuto Z-Finder (we used either depending on the set-up, as well). In short, we had two cameras, two tripods, one monopod, and a lot of tricks up our sleeves.
Shooting in a big hangar with skylights and massive doors that like to feature the bright California sun ain’t such a bad thing until you want to try and control it. Depending on the shot, we used the sun as a key light, a fill, or a rim, then we’d fly in some lights to compensate.
We wanted to be able to leave the lights in shots as we went, so I thought we’d use Lowell Tota lights that both kicked out some great light, but also fit in the scene as rugged work lights of sorts. I had three Tota lights loaded with 750w lamps, each placed behind a standing talent, then a little 250w Lowell Pro Light next to the seated drummer. These lights were mostly providing a nice rim around the band when the sun wasn’t ideal. And seeing how I knew the end product was going to be in black and white, I didn’t bother to gel the lights as to keep them looking “raw” and not to lose any throw.
And then there were flares. In keeping with the bright light theme, I knew from the beginning I wanted to get the sun in the lens and embrace any lens flares we could capture. Most of the time we found a set-up that featured a nice flare, did a quick rehearsal of the camera move and then shot away to try and captured something unique. At times, our production manager, Damon Wolfe, would be standing by my side waving a high-powered flashlight at the lens. In the end, we shot some plates of natural lens flares using the same Canon 70D and 7D cameras that we carefully blended in post.
The brunt of the work was done over the phone and through a hundred or so emails between Jeff and myself. We used Google docs to keep everyone on the same page, create cast call sheets, schedules, budget – you name it. It’s amazing what you can get done if you have a shared space to plop it all down in. We didn’t have any issues on this shoot seeing how Jeff and I kept everything open and honest from the first moment we agreed to work with one another.
If you [the director] are lucky, you don’t have to do much thinking on the day; you’ve planned enough beforehand and are ready for the worst to happen. You try to think about all the details and address them beforehand. You surround yourself with a crew you trust and have experience already working with. And you hope the talent is easy to work with, direct, and collaborate with. I was lucky to have this all lined up for “Save Me.”
When it comes to music videos, I never want to ask a band to do something that isn’t natural to their look, performance, etc. so I try to watch them, see what they do naturally, then push them to do it over and over, but more enhanced and over-the-top. But you can’t force a musician to have that rapport needed on stage. If they’ve got it, they’ve got it. Jeff’s band gave it over and over again. We must have had them perform the song over 50 times that day, and they brought their “A” game with each take.
Another key ingredient to a great music video is the location. You need to find something intriguing and interesting enough to see over and over again, but it needs to complement the band, the music, the tempo, everything. Figuring out which song to shoot was the first decision Jeff and I made together. The next was the location. And we kept knocking on doors until we found something we loved – an airplane hangar in Sonoma Valley. I mean, how often do you get to shoot in an airplane hangar? With a 1942 North American AT-6 “Texan” framed behind your lead singer?
Overall, working with Jeff and his band was a breeze. I’d welcome the opportunity to do it again with them sometime.
You recently DP’d an animated movie. How does the skill-set for a project like that compare to the skills needed for music video work?
The scope is completely different, but light is light, composition is composition and cameras are cameras, virtual or real. So when it comes to the bare bones of camera, it’s very similar. But most music video work doesn’t rely on narrative filmmaking, thus you’re free to take more liberties.
If anything, I’d say music video work prepares me better for working on bigger productions. On a music video shoot, decisions, set-ups, and ideas all have to happen quicker, thus you learn how to think and problem-solve faster. You’ll have a much harder time trying to fix something “in post” than in an animated film. The edit truly becomes the savior. When it comes to bigger productions, with more time, more money, and more crew, you can (arguably) take your time finding the right idea and perfecting it.
For me, making a music video is like playing on a playground while feature work is like designing and building the playground. Both have their merits and I truly can’t appreciate one without the other.
In the case of camerawork, most of everything I’ve ever shot or DP’d has been composed in 2.40:1. Usually, it’s been asked of me, but now I simply prefer it as I find it much easier to find compelling compositions, even in music videos. But again, you have to compose differently depending on the type of story you’re telling. In “Save Me,” we tried to find interesting compositions in every shot, so the same rules apply there, but seeing how the edit isn’t a narrative (in this case), we didn’t have to worry too much about set-ups connecting and flowing together. We got to find an interesting angle, shoot it, and then move onto another. It was a ton of fun.
Lately, research is key for me and it paid off big on this project. Find the idea, then start to piece it together before you go too far down the path of not fully knowing it. Inspiration is important to find, though I’ve only recently figured out how to recognize it.
For “Save Me,” the monochrome treatment was certainly a direct inspiration from Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer David Turnley. I had met David last year while we were both in Savannah, Georgia, speaking at SCAD. I had a few brief conversations with him on the massive front porch of one of the school’s renovated Southern homes and was intrigued with his experiences and how he managed to somehow perfectly capture those experiences in single photographs. His black and whites were so striking, I scoured the internet for more of them, along with following David’s occasional posts on Facebook that featured a walk to a coffee shop, his family, or simply someone he witnessed during a stroll to a park. I had been swimming in David’s work when Jeff and I started talking about “Save Me” and my mind couldn’t help but try and pay a little tribute to his striking monochromes.
I learned a lot about the 70D and how I’d use it again if needed. I learned that I really need to get a new iMac before I shoot my next video. I learned that Final Cut Pro 7 is still a very powerful weapon, though I plan to make the jump to FCPX very soon. I always learn about my crew and think of ways to utilize them better the next time I work with them. Most of all, in this specific case, I learned how to manage pre-production from 1,000 miles away, pack up some essentials, and then head off into the unknown as prepared as possible.
And dammit if I wasn’t reminded how much I love that California sun.
On-set photos by Kumiko Enatsu Shafer