Shooting a Music Video at City Hall

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Photographer Ben Clay had an assignment. He needed to produce a demo video of vocalist Doug Gimbel singing the National Anthem. Once produced, Doug would present the video to a talent coordinator, who would then help him become considered to perform this piece for the Boston Celtics. With a deadline on the horizon, Ben assembled the critical elements to get this assignment done. His step-by-step procedure provides a road map for anyone with similar assignments.

Performers of all kinds need photos and video footage of themselves for audition purposes. In this lesson, Ben produces a modern version of the audition demo tape for use in an Electronic Press Kit (EPK).

A professionally produced EPK always improves the chances of getting the gig for the performer. EPKs are also needed for other reasons such as fund raising for non-profit corporations. EPKs are a great way for photographers and videographers to refine their skills before beginning their commercial career.

Topics Covered:

  • The Concept
  • Crunch Time
  • CoolStar® or StarLite?
  • The Video Gear
  • The Performance
  • The Still Shoot Portrait Session

The Concept

A few months ago, I ran into a friend of mine, Doug Gimbel, whom I hadn’t seen for years. He caught me up to speed, told me of all his current artistic endeavors (he’s a fine art painter, sculptor and vocalist in a funk/jazz band), and mentioned that he often gets asked to sing the National Anthem at games held at the local Civic Center and surrounding sporting venues. Later that day, I thought it might be interesting to record him performing the National Anthem with DSLRs and lighting gear.

Recently, I got the opportunity. I called Doug and told him my idea. He said he’d love to do it, and that coincidentally, he and his sax player had recently been discussing the idea of approaching the Boston Celtics about performing at The Garden in Boston. A 90-second music video audition might be just the thing to get his foot in the door.

Crunch Time

A lot needed to happen in a very short amount of time. I wanted to make sure the sound quality and video quality were both professional grade and was able to get commercial photographer/filmmaker Kevin Brusie to help on that end. My assistant James Helms was also able to help out that day, despite the food poisoning he’d gotten the night before.

The location was the one piece of the puzzle still unsolved. However, at the eleventh hour (the morning of the shoot), I was able to secure the State of Maine room at Portland City Hall, but would only have use of it until 4:30pm, which would be tight given that it was already 10:30am! By noon, James and I had all the still camera and lighting gear at the location.

Meanwhile, since Kevin had initially planned to meet for an evening shoot, he was now scrambling to get squared away with other matters so that he could get himself and his equipment there in time. Doug also had other commitments and wasn’t exactly sure when he’d be able to get there. Nothing like a tight deadline to get the blood moving!

CoolStar® or StarLite®?

Trusting that everything would work out, I started to set up the lighting configuration I wanted to use. I knew I wanted to use Photoflex® Constellation® heads to throw a lot of light from the back of the room, but I wasn’t sure whether to use the CoolStar® daylight-balanced Lamps or the StarLite® Lamps. It all depended on how much ambient light there would be in the room. If there was a lot, I’d use the CoolStar® Lamps and incorporate the window light more. If there wasn’t, I’d go with the StarLites® to create stronger rim lighting.

As it was overcast and we were able to curtain off the windows, I opted for StarLite® Lamp, which would give me the extra power I was looking for. So James and I set up two Constellation®3 Medium SilverDome Kits to serve as rim lights, or “kickers”, each with 2000 watts. The Constellation® head has three sockets, so technically, you can put up to 3000 watts in a single head, but here we just used one 1000-watt Lamp and two 500-watt Lamps in each head.

I also decided to substitute one of the SilverDome® softboxes with a Medium HalfDome® nxt to vary the quality of light. The main light consisted of a single StarLite® 3 Foot OctoDome® NXT Kit raised about 8 feet and angled down so as to create defined, yet soft shadows across the face. [figure 2]

Because we’d be shooting video as well as stills, I knew we’d have position the lights pretty far back and off to the sides to prevent them from entering the frame of the main camera. For the handheld shots, I didn’t mind if the lights appeared in the shots, as those would have a different feel. Here, you can see the HalfDome® positioned in the back camera-right corner.

As James and I were finishing setting up the lights, Kevin arrived with his gear and began setting it up. Here, you can see the camera-left kicker relative to the front of the room.

The Video Gear

With the lights set up, James helped Kevin set up the video and sound gear. For the main shot, we used a Canon 5D with 28-70mm f/2.8 L USM lens mounted to a tripod. For tighter shots, Kevin would operate a Canon 7D with 24-70mm f/2.8 L USM lens mounted to a Vari-Zoom DV Media Rig Pro Shoulder Support. He also attached an iDC “Run & Gun” Follow Focus system to the 7D, which is essential to determine focus in a DSLR. Finally, Kevin set up a Panasonic HPX170 video camera in the back right corner for a wide-angle view that would encompass the whole setup.

Once everything was in position, Kevin would start recording with the Panasonic and let it run the entire session.

At this point, it was around 3pm and everyone was running around trying to get everything synced up. Fortunately, we had packed most of the gear in two Photoflex® Transpac® Dual Kit cases, which helped to keep the various equipment organized.

With the cameras all set up, Kevin and James then set up the audio gear, which consisted of a Zoom H4n with Sony Wireless Lav mic and Sennheiser K66 Shotgun. Doug finally arrived at around 3:30 and we didn’t waste time getting him prepped and set up with the mic. During this part of the shoot, I didn’t shoot any photos, since the sound of the shutter would have been audible over the mics. Instead, I manned the audio gear.

[Note: It is possible to shoot still shots during a video/audio recording, but you need to place your camera inside a soundproof device called a “camera blimp”. This is what still photographers use on movie sets.

The Performance

After a brief warm up, Doug was ready to go. And he blew us all away. The National Anthem is approximately 90 seconds long, but it’s not an easy piece of music to sing. Doug performed the piece four times in total, and each one was powerful and heartfelt. Afterward, we all felt we captured what we needed. Plus, it was now 4:30pm and time to start packing up!

Soon after the shoot, Kevin and I edited the footage from the video. Here’s the final piece:

The Still Shoot Portrait Session

While Kevin and James packed up the video and audio gear, I asked Doug to pose for me while I took a few portrait stills. I began by first turning off the rear lights and just worked with the main OctoDome®. I repositioned it slightly, came in fairly tight on the lens, and took a few shots.

Here’s one from this series. Notice the soft, yet directional quality of light illuminating Doug’s face. The 3 Foot OctoDome® worked perfectly here for a main light.

Next, I turned on the HalfDome® in the back right and took a few more shots with just these two lights running. As you can see from the result, the HalfDome® with its 2500 watts of power provides a nice rim light for Doug and helps to brighten the background.

Finally, I turned on the other kicker in the background so that Doug would have rim lighting on both sides of his face and then decided to shoot from a different vantage point. Shooting from a lower, wider perspective would render Doug as a more towering presence and I’d be able to capture the molding detail in the upper areas of the back wall.

Doug gave me a series of expressions, but in the end I decided on this serious look, which somehow felt more appropriate.

Finally, for comparison’s sake, I took two more snaps without the light gear: one with just the ambient light of the room and one with the built-in flash of the camera activated. This side-by-side comparison helps you see why lighting is so essential for indoor portraits!

After the shoot, we packed up the rest of the gear, made sure the room was left how we found it, and used the Transpac® Dual Kit Cases to roll the gear out to the cars. A fast and furious production, but well worth the effort.

From Cattle Call to EPK

Back in the day, models, actors and performers (called “talent”) would assemble in an agency waiting room and wait for clients to see them. Depending upon the audition, they would read a script, sing a song, dance, or just walk around to show how they moved. This was known as a “cattle call” and we’ve all seen it in Hollywood films.

Around 1990, the Electronic Press Kit (EPK) replaced the cattle call as the preferred way to evaluate talent. Self-produced EPKs are often pretty bad and may eliminate the presenter before they get a chance to show what they can do. If they pay a pro to do the job, the result is always better, and their chances of getting a gig are greatly increased. EPKs are a great place for photographers to begin their commercial career.

If you’re looking to create your own EPK, take your time and do it right. Get familiar with your equipment and experiment with your lighting, camera, and audio techniques. But above all, make sure to have fun in the process, because that will keep you coming back to do more!

Written and photographed by Benjamin Clay.

Indoor Portraits,

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