February 10, 2011

How to Make Music Videos - My Adventures with Camp Jam

Last summer, thanks to an introduction by my friend Mike Tutaj, I was a traveling music video director and camp counselor for Camp Jam, rock and roll camp for kids aged 7-17. (Yes, it's every bit as awesome as it sounds.) I was flown between both coasts all over the country one week at a time, videocamera and MacBook in tow.

By the end of the summer I ended up making somewhere around 30 music videos, a brief highlight reel of which is below. The kids were put into groups, chose an existing song they liked, then were responsible for storyboarding and coming up with ideas for b-roll shots stuff to splice in with performance footage.

We told them the only major song requirement was that they all really like the song, and the singer needed to have at least some of the lyrics memorized. (In the few instances where the group hadn't mutually agreed on a song, and say, the bass player hated it, it was painfully obvious when it came to shoot time.)

In the best cases, the first music video meeting was early enough in the week that everyone was able to get a copy of their song on their iPod and give it multiple listens it before shooting. For the most part, the instrumentalists did a pretty good job of syncing along with the track, and in the parts where they didn't, I used slow-mo or other effects to mask that. And for the few groups who didn't totally follow directions and presented me with singers who didn't know all the lyrics, I either shot them in shadow, showed them the ol' "hand obscuring the mouth" trick, or otherwise shot and edited around that.

Then each group had about 10 minutes to lip-sync (and drum-sync, guitar-sync, bass-sync, and keyboard-sync) to each song onstage as I circled the performers, filming their best rock star poses and yelling encouragement from behind the camera. Their only instructions for the performance shoot were "Go bananas, move a lot, and have fun!" I told them the move over-the-top their performances were, the better.

The only thing we wouldn't let them do was stand in one place, stay still, and look bored. Sometimes it was tough to keep the energy up, because we were shooting late into the night, in sweltering Atlanta or San Francisco heat, but Camp Jam has a knack for hiring awesome counselors, all of whom deserve a high-five for helping with the music video process.

The kids' song choices were varied - everything from Lady Gaga to vintage Janis Joplin to heavy metal to the Pokemon theme song (seriously...and it was one of the best!).

Ever wonder what it takes to shoot and edit a music video? Here are a few tricks I learned this summer. First, when we shot the live lip-syncing performance stuff, I started the video camera a few seconds before the guy in the sound booth started the mp3. (Ideally, you'd shoot performance stuff as many times as you can, to give you more footage to work with. We usually only had enough time to go through each song twice.)

After you download your footage and drop it into whatever editing program you use (I'm a Final Cut Pro devotee, myself), put each clip on its own track, then one by one, sync up the footage with the mp3 that will serve as audio. I would usually pick a particular beat or lyric on the original mp3 to create a point for splitting the track, then I'd find the exact same spot on the video track and do the same thing.

With some of the videos I was so pinched, schedule-wise, there wasn't a lot of time to slowly review all the footage and digest, so, in the trickiest cases, I would simply start at the beginning of the sequence, literally close my eyes, listen to the song, and cut on the beat, all the way down all the performance tracks. (My boyfriend would watch me doing this and say I looked like Stevie Wonder, feeling the music and tapping on the keyboard like I was in a creative trance.)

Then I'd go back and delete (in each tiny section) all but one clip, so the visuals would cut back and forth between different takes, in time with the music. I'd double check each clip to make sure I didn't leave in the occasionally unusable clip (where I was walking between musicians and just got shots of wires on the ground, or, sometimes, I'd trip on something because I was so tuned into the kids I couldn't really watch where I was going). Then, each track would get its own filter, so each shot had a slightly different visual style. I used a lot of cool coloring tricks, filters that made little stars appear in areas of condensed light - basically anything I thought would look cool rock star-like.

Then on top of that I'd layer whatever b-roll we'd shot. In some cases, the b-roll was the kids acting out some of the lyrics, or complex storylines, so it required careful, tight editing, and other times we were short on time or short on ideas, and I just had the kids run around outside playing frisbee or otherwise goofing off.

The most important thing to me was making the kids happy with the final product, so I adhered to their vision as much as possible. In the end they were all pretty pleased with the results. I got tons of positive response via Facebook and email, and my fridge is the proud display of some really sweet thank-you notes I received in the mail.

I think what helped me most was the fact that I love music as much as the kids, and that I made a point to really listen to them and help them develop their ideas. I'm pretty sensitive to kids' self-image, and was acutely aware when anyone had a particular concern or something they were self-conscious about. "I will make you look awesome," is what I told them, and it was funny reviewing some of the raw footage and hearing the stuff I was yelling to the kids from behind the camera. "You are such a rock star right now! Gimme more attitude! Go crazy!" (Then I'd trip on something, and everyone would laugh.)

So while I still feel like I'm catching up on my sleep, I had a really wonderful experience with Camp Jam. I got to travel all over the country, make new friends, be creative, and meet some really lovely kids. Among them were some truly talented musicians, and a handful of genuine prodigies. I expect to see some of them make their mark on the music world in a few years, and when they do, I'll be very proud to say I directed them in their very first music video.


Dale said...

You need to run a Camp Jam for adults! It looks like so much fun! You could also teach me how to master my Mac. And by Mac, I mean Mac! :-)

Elizabeth McQuern said...

There is a Camp Jam for adults! Imagine forgoing the usual business team-building Outward Bound-type stuff and, instead, rocking out with your co-workers. Sounds pretty sweet to me.