“Who Knew” Behind The Scenes/Making Of
Check out the “Who Knew” video here.
In January of 2012 I flew out to Massachusetts where my longtime friends/collaborators Josh and Raky reside to shoot the first music video for their band, You Won’t. The experience of shooting in a New England winter was brutal – we’d spent most of the shoot outdoors in single digits weather. However, the resulting Three Car Garage video left us looking forward to the next collaboration.
When I started talking to Josh about taking the lead on devising the next project, he mentioned that he thought Who Knew was the logical song to do something with. I asked him to reserve it for me, and I started trying to devise a concept around it. At first I was forcing myself to think about ways to avoid being too literal in my interpretation of the lyrics, because I had just recently shot the Martin and Seku video for my friend Dat – which is intentionally a very direct visual translation of the song. Yet, as I listened to Who Knew on a constant repeat, I realized if we didn’t use the characters built right into the song it would be robbing us of a performance playground for Josh and Raky.
I drafted my first treatment of the video, taking the characters referenced in the song and trying to place them in these scenes that felt relevant to the tone. That was pretty bland – although a few of the original ideas from that made it through to the final video. Actually, it was the bloody stuff – Josh on the windshield of a car as the middle aged man, and with a sudden nose-bleed as the old man. He highlighted both of those moments as keepers.
Otherwise, I wasn’t particularly excited about the narrative aspect of it. So, I started to conceive of a different visual approach that would be more appropriate to the song. I started to get hung up on this term that came to me, “imagined memories.” I realized as I listened to the song I was reacting to the lyrics as though I could relate to them despite their often fantastical elements. That led me to start thinking about ways to represent memories that haven’t ever happened – and I landed on this idea of “what if you could look at a photograph of something you only imagine happening?”
That’s when I started to think about shooting the whole thing as a series of staged photographs – and then took that a step further and decided to try figuring out how to shoot it literally using photographs.
I give a lot of credit to Josh and Raky for having any faith in me that this was going to work. Trying to explain these ideas to them from the other side of the country, and only having my weird-ass camera tests to show for it probably didn’t instill a ton of confidence. I felt pretty sure though, that if we shot using still photography and taking advantage of the 7 frame/second burst ability of the Canon 7D that I could translate that into something pretty unique looking. The worst part was that 7fps doesn’t divide evenly into 24 or 30 fps (traditional film/video speeds), so the sync in my tests never looked quite right (more on that later). So, for a while I was afraid we were going to have to translate 7fps into 12fps by slowing the song down on set – but that looked too smooth for my taste, so we ended up just going with the 7fps footage for most of it. We were going in a little unsure of what would result.
Otherwise though, I felt like if we could keep lighting and the “movement” elements constant – these things could look kind of cool.
I started building out the scenes in the treatment emphasizing concepts of frozen movement. Swing sets that were mid-swing, baseballs that were mid-air, and old men that were mid …chessing. I also had these ideas for breaking through the photograph and catching these glimpses of motion using actual video. Letting the imagination play out, if you will. That was drawn mostly by the rhythm of the song itself, and the fact that between certain verses were sections of music that inspired certain images (like Josh getting beat up to a soundtrack*).
When Josh was asking about costuming, he suggested that he break out the suit he wore in Three Car Garage to represent a “middle-aged man.” I liked that so much I scrapped the first part of that section in the treatment and replaced it with full recreations of moments from that video. Nothing like a little cameo.
The production itself was grueling. When we’d done Three Car in January it was brutal because of the cold, and the fact that we didn’t have a lot of time. Our friend Danya, who acted as the AD, gaffer, and generally kept us alive and free of frostbite was a godsend on that shoot, as were a whole team of friends who came in to help during the more difficult sequences. So, for some reason, we thought it would be a good idea to do Who Knew with fewer people and on a shorter timeline. It was literally just the three of us, except for about two hours where Tony (who has played bass for You Won’t) freed up some time to help us shoot the sequence that we were all in. So, Josh, Raky and I had about two and a half days to get all of this material – I think we slept about six hours total over three nights. Luckily instead of extreme cold, we had temperatures around 100 degrees. By “luckily” I mean: it was still dismal.
Despite the fact that I had storyboarded the concepts for each scene – I was doing so without a real sense of what locations we were going to have access to. We didn’t have any kind of real set/locations budget or control, so we had to use spaces that already existed. So, within our rigid schedule we also had to account for making changes and adjustments on the fly.
Our first sequence was the old men. The old men makeup took a really long time, particularly Raky’s bald wig – which came into play later in the shoot when we were running out of time. We used some plastic wrap tied around a wire to make some fake water – which we then attached to a garden hose for our first shot. Other than that, the trickiest thing was actually getting Josh’s nose bleed to cooperate. The fake blood was too thick, and wouldn’t run out of his nose – so we had to water it down and use a little injector to shove it up his nose just before the shot. It was gross.
Most of the other effects depended on some combination of wire and fishing line. Our ties used stiff wire, and the ghost’s sheet, the papers flying back, and the baseball are all just rigged with fishing line. None of that is erased from the final video – it’s just nearly impossible to see if it’s not the focal point on camera. We also had to rig lights a lot for consistency of image or to create the appearance of a frozen instant. So there’s a light under the glass of the copier in the office scene, we used the ‘flashlight’ app on my phone to get the LED flash when he’s taking a picture of the girl as ‘sad eyed 18,’ etc. Josh went all out in replicating a Marty McFly costume – and we used the hatchback of Raky’s VW Golf as our Delorian door. As I discuss in the video above – the toughest set was probably the cute little kids and the birthday cake (a fact you can catch if you watch the flames, you’ll see some falling “down” onto Raky). Then there was the outro, which I discuss in the video as well, and which uses a number of techniques. The insanity there was that the costume changes were so extensive and we were practically out of time before my flight home. So, instead of changing in and out of costumes over and over, I just rigged up as many tripods as we had at the various angles I wanted to get – and then wrote down my camera settings and moved from tripod to tripod. Then the boys would change, and we would do the next set of characters.
In theory post production was pretty simple. The effects work was essentially already done during production and the ordering was just dictated by the song. The scary part was that we really didn’t know how well it had worked. Because it was mostly made up of thousands of photographs, we hadn’t been able to experience any playback – and we certainly didn’t have any time to assemble anything during production.
I found a piece of timelapse freeware that allows you to input unique frame rates, and it creates a video for you. So I made ProRes videos of my 7fps images, and then dropped those into Final Cut on a 24p timeline. It took some serious rendering – but to my delight the computer handled it pretty well and the result was totally in sync.
I didn’t know if the images were going to work as “photographs” on their own, though – or if they needed some additional help. I thought about placing them into a fake photo album, or having some hands flipping through these images that were singing. Ultimately though, those all felt too disruptive to what we’d gotten. So, I decided to go with the concept of an old slide projector slideshow. I knew I wanted the images to appear old for the nostalgic factor – and I wanted to dirty them with smudges, stains, and scratches. I really like that we had done the whole video digitally, but wanted to present it with this reference to analogue. I know that Josh and Raky recorded the album that way – using a combination of Josh’s original digital stylings and running things through analog formats to get that gritty combat in sound. It’s appropriate to his musical content as well – the conflict between holding onto the past and growing older.
So, I created some borders and a bunch of different scratch, hair, and smudge overlays, and then color processed each image in a unique way but also gave them each a slight glow in the center as though a bulb is projecting them. I thought about adding a whole intro that explained the presence of a slide projector -but Raky had the much more elegant idea of just doing the opening titles as projected. Then Josh encouraged me to hand write them and give them a little more of an overhead projector feel.