Two weeks ago, I was hired by director and friend Torey Champagne to direct the photography on my third music video shot with Canon 5dmk2 DSLRs. The band was Prospect Hill and they were preforming their new single, “Come Alive”. These guys have a new album coming out and they are from New England.

Torey is a pleasure to work with because he is able to communicate his vision to me directly, without the use of storyboards. We were on the same page during pre-production and on location working the project. And I had no worries that his editing and special effects would make my footage live. Another good friend and contributing writer on my website, Bill Travers joined up to assist Torey and I.

The story for the music video was simple.

A guy and a girl were in a stressed relationship, money was tight, bills not getting paid, the guy was out of work, the girl was working a low paying job at a diner, a fight broke out over a pile of past-due bills, girl stormed out of house, girl got hit by a car, guy had nightmares and regret, dead girl visited guy as a ghost.

Sounds easy right?! And the glue that holds all that together was the band preforming the song in a dark, foggy and cramped space. Torey was not only director, but also editor and VFX. He would cut the project using Final Cut and composited the two faked shots using After Effects… the girl getting hit by the SUV and the ghost appearance at the end of the video.

For me, this project was unique. This was the first gig that paid me through funding on the internet. Prospect Hill got a Kickstarter page running and had no problem getting the money from supporters and fans. In fact, they got all the money and more in short time. Check out their “pitch video” in the embed above.

The job took two days to shoot. We worked a few locations in Lawrence, Massachusetts for about five hours each day with the band and actors. Ten hours total production time. For Torey, Bill and I this was textbook guerrilla film making. Run and gun digital cinema. Not a lot of fun with the 5dmk2, especially when almost the entire video was going to be handheld.

Sleep Alive Music Videos I shot using Canon 5dmk2

Making of “Lights Camera Action”

My last two music videos shot on the 5dmk2 (see above embeds) did not involve much handheld. In fact, I told Torey that we could not “go handheld” much to his disappointment. I mentioned that I had not found a stabilizing rig (outside the GlideCam 4000) that worked for me. I hate the rolling shutter and hard-to-handle bodies of today’s small cameras.

That all changed when I went to LA a few weeks ago. I checked out the new small-format camera support system a Hollywood DP had built from the ground-up, the Master Cinema Series.

I now had a new shoulder rig that fit my shooting style thanks to the guys at Hurlbut Visuals and Letus. I used the Shane Hurlbut Master Cinema Series for the first time on this project and I was very happy with the results. Not just the results on screen, but the fact that I did not destroy my body during the shoot. We may have only worked a total of 10 hours in two days, but the rig was on my shoulder nearly the entire time. The MCS shoulder rig balanced perfectly and gave me the control I needed to make the 5dmk2 part of my own body. Nearly all of the high frequency jitter that results in the rolling shutter “jello-effect” was gone. Keep in mind the MCS is not just for a DSLR. The system was made to tame small-form factor cameras.

A few of the tracking shots were captured using a GlideCam 4000. I find this cheap bit of metal very useful to stabilize a 5dmk2 while walking or hanging off a pickup truck. Mine is nearly 8 years old! One of the original GlideCam 4000 steady sticks.

I had a Vocas MB-325 mounted to the system when shooting outside. I have a bunch of Schneider and Tiffen white glass 4×4 filters and used a lot of neutral density and grads to avoid high shutter during any bright scenes. I find it better to run the shutter at 1/60th all the time and use ND to keep the lens wide open for the cine-look. By running that that speed, you minimize motion blur a bit, and you can still shoot in dark conditions at lower ISOs.

We did shoot at 24p, that is what Torey wanted but I could careless about 24p. For me, that does not define the “film-look”. If anything, I want MORE frames in a second. Shallow depth of field and camera motion create a cinematic feel. Lighting is always important as well, whether you use what is there or add some yourself.

I used a Red Rock Micro follow focus with a six inch whip to pull my own focus and keep my hands on the Master Cinema Series handles. I did not have gear treads on all my lenses, so some of my focus pulls were done with my finger tips. Glad the MCS rig was balanced! I was able to let go of the front handles to zoom and focus myself.

Bill worked closely with me to keep my lenses and filters under control and clean. Having an AC is so important. I tend to leave my lenses all over the place and it is nice to have someone just keep track of them all. And cap them!

The Prospect Hill “Come Alive” video was broken up into two parts, in the two days… The musical performance and the acting “film” portion.

We used two Canon 5dmk2 DSLRs, one shoulder mounted and the other on a tripod or magic arm lockdown. For lenses, a bunch of fast Canon “L” series glass. The 16-35mm f2.8, 24mm f1.4, 50mm f1.2, 85mm f1.2 and 70-200mm f2.8. I did not have my buddy TJ Powers’ 24-70mm f2.8 at the time, but I would have used it for sure. Love that lens.

I choose the 5dmk2 because we were going to do many of the shots with existing light. Sometimes almost NO light. We wanted the music video to be dark, but also wanted to move quick from location to location. I found that a creatively placed 750 watt Lowel RIFA light and a camera top-mounted z90 Zylight (with mini Chimera softbox) was all I needed for the “film” portion.

I used my Sony F800 for some of the “overcranked” 60p footage you will see during the performance toward the end of the video. Wish this was 1080p, but unfortunately, the cameras I own to shoot over 30 frames per second are 720p. This meant that we had to shoot 30p, not 24p to get the most frames for slo-motion. Torey had to up-scale this footage and conform it to fit the 1080p 24p timeline. You can see the artifacting! Perhaps it is time to get a Red?!

The first day, we worked a late afternoon inside a tight 20ft by 20ft detached garage full of debris shooting the musical performance. We lit stuff (like leaves) on fire to create toxic smoke and floating atmosphere. I did not own a fog machine at the time, but I do now. The smoky conditions looked cool and made breathing a bit difficult, but the band did not seem to be effected.

I mostly used a Canon 16-35mm f2.8 at the wider end to make the place look bigger than it was. The walls were black, but I did my best to keep light off them. Torey wanted lens flares, he loves lens flares. So I placed 6 open faced ARRI 150s in the back, wrapping the drum kit, blasting directly into my lens. For my main source, I had two extreme cross keying ARRI 650s. All eight of these fresnels had NO diffusion. I wanted harsh shadows and wicked flares. In fact, I took off all lens schrods and never used a matte box inside the garage. I snapped the heck out of the zoom on the 16-35mm lens with my finger tips as I shouldered the Hurlbut/Letus MCS. Torey had a SmallHD monitor in his hands to view the action. I simply took an HDMI loop through feed out of the Zacuto EVF that was jammed into my eye socket.

Prospect Hill ripped through about 12 takes of their song, “Come Alive” for the camera in a few hours. The song was intense and took alot out of the band, and the crew. The hanging acrid smoke in the lights did not help anyone’s stamina. I did mostly handheld work during the takes and had a second 5dmk2 running as a lockdown on a magic arm somewhere in the garage. I also used a dolly to slide the camera around the lead singer and later, the drummer-only. Bill was shooting BTS footage that you will soon see on this blog. Some of the screen grabs/photos on this blog were lifted from the BTS camera.

The second day of production was far more ambitious. Torey, Bill, and I drove a convoy of cars from location to location with members of the band and the actors that would be in the “film” portion. We had only a few minutes to set up a dolly shot in a cemetery at golden hour before we headed to a diner to shoot with our lead actress and a bunch of extras. Torey did all the logistics before hand and everything went off well. I did not use any lights inside the diner. I found the camera-mounted z90 Zylight (softbox) to be a very valuable run-and-gun key source to fill in shadows on the actress’s face. I could dial in whatever color temp I wanted instantly and it had a built-in dimmer. This saved us valuable set-up time at the diner, with limited crew.

When we got to the apartment complex at night fall, I used a single 750 watt Lowel RIFA softbox light on a homemade 1000 watt dimmer pack. This light was as easy to set up as an umbrella and it popped open just like one! I highly recommend you get one for your arsenal. It was very bright and you can even get it as a 1k.

The script called for an indoor morning scene and it was pitch black outside around 10pm at time of shooting! Bill and I set up the RIFA outside the apartment on the street and used the light to simulate sunlight hitting the blinds. I balanced the camera for 3200k and set the soft/dimmed Zylight z90 (mounted to MCS rig) to the same color temperature. The result was amazing and nobody watching could tell that the light streaming from outside was artificial.

The bedroom scene (when the female actress wakes up for work) also took place in the early morning. But again, we were working late at night, no sun. We placed the RIFA low on the stand in doorway, pointed it up at the bed, and ran it on a dimmer very low. The filament was barely emitting light. The soft warm tungsten glow simulated the golden hour rays bouncing off a kitchen floor into the bedroom. When the lead girl was pulling up her pants, I had to frame her extreme left, to avoid shooting the RIFA light!

The composited ghost effect shots in the bed room were very easy to shoot. Torey explained the effect to me and we simply locked out a few camera angles. We shot multiple plates in the fixed lockdown position (empty bed, just guy in bed and just girl in bed) for each angle of the scene. These shots cut quick and only exist on screen for a few frames, so Torey decided no to add any motion to them.

The “girl gets hit by car” shot was also a lockdown using the old “split-screen” trick. I placed the 5dmk2 on a tripod, tightened the pan and tilt and shot three separate plates… one empty, one with an SUV screaming through the frame, and the third was the girl walking through the frame as the SUV’s headlights lit her up. The resulting shot was a screaming SUV ramming into the actress. The straight up and down light pole in the shot was used for reference to create the split.

Torey, Bill and I plan on working on more of these type of music videos. Small budget, skeleton crew, limited gear, fast shooting, creative lighting, and quick turnaround productions. I love problem solving and creatively using what I find in the field. But… I always have my car just a quick jog away packed to the gills with almost every bit of gear I own… just in case.

For those of you not familiar with Prospect Hill, they had a great music video shot a few years ago in a single SteadiCam camera move. Check it out in the above embed.