The nice thing about New York City is that everyone is just a subway ride away and if you already have a metrocard, it only costs an hour of your life and a couple bucks for a cup of coffee to see if you vibe with another filmmaker. In LA I would have had to sit in traffic and potentially burn 4 hours of my day.
I met Travis Satten one cold morning in winter and we kept in touch, so when he brought up this project he thought I'd be good for, and it was shooting the new crop of rappers for the year, I was psyched.
He described the approach as classy and intimate portrait shots we'd push in or pull out as our talent performed to camera. Black and white was key from the start and he wanted the looks to be unique for each artist. He referenced a photographer named Platon, who's portraits are very personal, yet powerful, and wanted the lighting to wrap and shape in different ways as we moved in and their performance unfolded. He spoke about the look "unfolding" as we learned more about each artist. It's always great to collaborate with a director looking to elevate what could have been just simple profile captures.
The freestyles were shot along side a lot of content (interviews, promos, etc) on the same day and XXL has been putting this together for many years so they were already sure where and how it works. We shot at Dune studios in lower Manhattan as it offered production several floors for the different stages, and greenrooms. It is mainly a MOS photo studio but works well for their purpose as they can take over everything and have several units running at the same time.
I shot TONS of these Tory Burch videos there so I knew Dune well and knew that although, they are comfy, the Cyc walls are clean, and the lunch is delicious ;-) the stage presents a few issues to someone used to larger stages, the main one being that there is no overhead grid for rigging lights. My task was to create a unique, changing, clean look for each artist and I'd have to put everything on the floor? No no no. Sometimes if god gives you lemons, do the work to look for an orange tree.
We would BUILD a grid. And we'd circle our talent with soft lights that I could bring up or down based on the design. And all the lights would be dimmable. I had a pretty good feeling that my approach would be costly, yet I knew that the initial time investment early in the day would save us in between set ups and still give us the class and unique looks Travis was looking for.
I had recently purchased an amazing product to be able to visualize set ups called Cine Designer , developed by a DP named Matt Workman. It is a plug in for Cinema 4d that allows you to pre-visualize everything from specific shots from actual camera frames to huge lighting design in a to-scale 3d space. it uses to-scale representations of actual lights, camera, and grip gear This would be a perfect project to use Cine Design for as it would correctly describe my vision and justify the extra costs to production. Instead of just drawing it out and asking people to trust me, it would make it something they could actually see.
Key grip Chris Wiesehahn made some notes and executed the rig flawlessly. The stands obviously would become crankovators to hold the weight and I cut the frontal octabank for a more controlled chimera. Jason Duffett gaffed and ran everything through a wireless dimmer board app on his Ipad. Once we were off and running it was just a flick of a switch to be able to change looks and make adjustments on the fly.
We shot Alexa spherical on Leica Summilux glass and I kept the stop around a 2.8-4 split. I monitored a B&W lut out of camera for client after confirming there was no way it would ever be in color.
A few spots have gone viral so far and have garnered hundreds of parodies, so I guess I've "made it" now. Just kidding. It was a pretty interesting project to be part of and I learned a lot in the process about how important being able to describe (and sell) a "big" idea is to a commercial client. After all, they hire a DP to utilize their experience and explain the bast way to accomplish everything. So it's important to push for the things you know you'll need and not be discouraged to the limitations inside the box, as long as you have a reason.
You can view all of the freestyles here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLNVdzHCSB2xKo0eIfxCHZ9CAeTClZ9nrL and below is the 45 second promo.