So it's been a little time since my last blog post, but I'm sure everyone agrees life has been just a little crazy recently.
My most recent (not news or corporate) project was to create and edit a music video for J U N O's new single. In this post I'm going to break down the video and dive a bit into the behind-the-scenes of what brought it together. If you haven't seen the video yet, check it out, its pretty intense:
So before we dive into this, its been over a year since I last wrote a blog post. For those of you who've been following me I apologize for the absence. There's three main reasons for it:
1) Almost immediately after my last post I went on a few week vacation to Europe and the United Kingdom - I took a bunch of pictures and video that I can't wait to dig into and share with everyone, but haven't had time to do anything with them because...
2) When I got back I was swamped with work and yet didn't have anything new I could write about and I never get anything done over the holidays, and then...
3) Just as I started to have time to dive into some new (and old) projects of note, we all got locked down by the Coronavirus - yay quarantine!
That all said, I hope everyone's had a good year and is staying healthy. I hope to get back into posting a little more regularly. (Especially because I hope to have more to write about.)
With that out of the way, lets dig into "The Swarm" by J U N O. First a little background:
A few weeks ago (somewhere around June 15th) J U N O reached out to me, told me he was putting the finishing touches on a new single that he was planning on releasing on the 4th of July and he wanted a music video to go with it. That gave us basically two weeks to turn this around while working primarily remotely/over the internet because of the quickly rising COVID-19 numbers in the Houston area. Even with the tight time frame, I was intrigued and asked him to send the track along so I could listen to it. I got some ideas and started jotting them down and then we brainstormed on the phone for a bit.
We very quickly came up with the idea of juxtaposing the current/recent protest footage against older footage from protests in the 1960s and earlier, with an emphasis on civil rights and police brutality. We also decided to let the video from the protests do the most of the talking. Mainly because the reality of the situation speaks so loudly that there isn't much we could shoot that would feel right being cut into it, and of course with the coronavirus there wasn't much we could shoot anyway.
So for the next week we both dove into trying to find as much relevant footage we could find licenced under creative commons or just in the public domain. We discovered very quickly that there was a lot to work from. Though honestly, we found more from the contemporary protests and riots (that we could use without worrying about licencing) than I expected to, and a lot LESS that was in the public domain from the protests in the past than I was expecting to. Of course we both wanted the footage of JFK giving that speech, but we couldn't find it in the anywhere that didn't want to charge us a lot of money for the few seconds we'd need.
So the solution I came up with was to cut the ENTIRE video in Adobe After Effects. This let have all the pieces I was working with right there as I needed them, and also allowed me to play with different approaches on the fly as I worked my way through the music since we didn't have a lot of time to pre-plan "the look" beyond some very general ideas.
I started by breaking the 4:45 song up into 10 segments at natural beat points, and then worked on each segment as a standalone composition. This made it easier for me to keep track of what I was doing and where I was going next, but also made it a little easier on my computer as I very rarely had the whole video up at once unless I was checking transitions. I'll dive a little deeper into the approach for each segment in a moment.
The next big step was going through all the footage we'd downloaded. A few gems jumped out immediately. As I mentioned before, we had wanted to use footage of JFK, but we couldn't find video of the speech J U N O had used in the track. Luckily Kennedy opened more than one speech with "Good evening my fellow citizens" and I was able to match it up well enough (though admittedly not perfectly) with the public domain footage of one of the speeches regarding the Cuban Missile Crisis.
Of course, the nature of the type of music and the content itself meant that edit pacing on this would be very quick, and that meant we needed a lot of footage. I think of all the footage I found, only 5 clips or so didn't make it into the final edit, and that was partially due to a technical problem. Having sourced as much footage as we felt we needed, I started downloading the files and bringing them into After Effects, where I quickly discovered a problem, and lets just derail a moment to talk about that.
Most of the footage from Wikimedia Commons was encoded using the open source "webm" codec. Luckily there's a plugin for the Adobe suite that allows it to play that, but that didn't solve the problem entirely. Everything that was ".webm" dragged my computer nearly to a halt (especially the clips that were 10 minutes or more). The problem with open source codecs is that there's no (or very little) standards. When there's no standard, programs like After Effects or Premiere can't "know" what to do with the files and it takes more computer resources to process that footage. It slowed me down when I didn't have the time to deal with unexpected technical issues. So I re-encoded them all as .mp4's using media encoder. About half of those failed out for whatever reason. So, I took the ones that failed and tried re-encoding them as .mov's - of that set a few more of them failed out and I just left them out, I had all the footage that I knew I wanted from wiki.
Protip/reminder for the future: Wikimedia commons frequently links back to the original source. I discovered the issue with webm too late to make it work for me, but if you're pulling footage from commons, it may be worth tracking it back to the original if its available.
That problem sorted, I worked my way through the edit. Starting like I would with any other project, just assembling the footage into the composition and roughing out the edit.
Starting at the crash sound was "segment two". I found video from both the past and now that I felt fit the tone of the music and cut them together. Sometimes I looked for a visual cue that felt right for the audio, other choices were made to play off the previous (or incoming) shot. Cutting from the shot of the modern helicopter to the old helicopter footage for example. The idea with segment two was that it needed to feel like the "build up" of tension going into the rest of the video.
Segment three I wanted to focus the video on the contemporary situation, and is one of only two parts of this video where I didn't juxtapose it against footage from the past. Again, I chose footage based on two criteria: First - what worked with the lyrics or other audio cues? Then from there I filled in the gaps with video that I felt bridged visually between the other shots.
I came up with this treatment by layering a stock paper texture on top of the video, and then tweaking the video a little more so it would blend - as if the video was the paper the speech was written on. From there I animated the "type-on" effect for the first page. When I demo'd that section, J U N O threw out the idea of crossing out some of the text for effect, and by default (for technical reasons) the stock paint swoosh elements I have are white, the original plan was to make it like black marker like you'd see with redacted text on an official document, but we decided a "whiteout" look would have a better visual impact. The second page I originally wanted to feel like another page being set down - as if he'd turned the page of the speech. But I didn't want a pagecurl effect. I settled on the transition I did because it was also reminiscent of a slide change from an old slide projector, continuing to play off those older visual cues. On that second page I wanted to then play off JFK's point of changing the color of one's skin, and layered on a few effects that would change specific points of the text from white to black.
Then there's segment six. I probably spent the most time on this section of the track than any other segment. This one came back to one of the original creative decisions: To juxtapose the past with the present, dividing them with a police light. Originally I had planned on wiping back and forth, or doing a split screen effect, but when I found that footage of the old police car with the rotating light on the roof, the idea to play off that just jumped out at me.
The more time consuming part was first, finding the number of rotations that kept the speed of the transition in time with the music, while also keeping the video on screen long enough to be "readable" to the audience. If you've never synced visual effects to music before, that last step is a lot easier said than done, because the longer you look at it, the more you "know" what you're seeing and you start worrying that something is on screen too long. (Always have someone else watch it cold when you start feeling that way!)
With that sorted I then just had to choose which video would be on screen when, and followed the same logic I'd used for the rest of the piece. Starting with what visually matched the lyrics and music, and then finding shots that visually or thematically paired with those. The funny thing was that I'd originally planned to alternate back and forth from the same clip a few times before moving on, for a total of about four or five clips in the segment. But the more I played with it the more I found that I wanted to put into this segment and it just grew and grew in complexity. The more time I put into that segment, the more I felt that I wasn't going to finish it and move onto the next segment with enough time to finish the piece by the 4th. That said, I'm very happy with how it turned out.
Moving forward from there, segment eight was a lot of fun to put together. I had ended seven with a night aerial shot from the recent protests. I used the musical shift as a point to fake a zoom transition from it to thermal video from a drone that was flying over Baltimore in 2015, this footage was just a little spooky to work with. To watch footage that looks like something from a movie or game, but knowing it was very real was just... weird.
To get into segment nine, I swiped the video away matching the directional movement from the drone. Originally I'd planned on going back to a similar treatment to what I'd done in segment six with the police light bar, but after I saw this all assembled and playing with the motion blur it felt like that would have been too much, so I left it clean.
For segment ten I used the video of the Black Lives Matter mural in New York as a punctuation to JFK's "this is what we're talking about" line and bounced through some tighter shots of some of the protest signs.
Once I had finished my first pass on the complete video I exported it and sent it to J U N O for him to look over. A couple days later, we had a remote edit session using a combination of NDI tools and Google Meet, which allowed me to share my screen with him in realtime at nearly full frame rate, with audio (mostly) in sync, meaning he could see the tweaks and changes I was making as we went without burning the time needlessly on exports and file transfers, we've been using a similar workflow at the office to keep everything as socially distant as possible. If you want to know more about the remote workflow, shoot me a note on social media or ask in the comments below.
And with that, I'll wrap up this behind the scenes breakdown of "The Swarm" Official Music Video that I made for J U N O. If you like the song, you can find it on your favorite music platforms including Spotify and iTunes. All proceeds from the song go to Houston based organizations supporting the Black Lives Matter movement: Download or Listen to "The Swarm" here.
If you liked what you heard, and want to keep an eye out for upcoming releases from J U N O you can follow him here:
J U N O on Instagram | J U N O on Facebook | J U N O on Spotify | J U N O on Twitter | J U N O on YouTube
Anyway, that's it for this post. I had a lot of fun working on this project and I'm looking forward to collaborating with him again in the future. (We already have a couple other projects in development now - stay tuned!)
As always thank you for reading, and feel free to drop a comment below if you'd like to know more about anything I write about in this blog.
Also, be sure to follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @tomameek
Until next time. Stay safe and healthy everyone!
Thomas Meek is an independent filmmaker living and working in Houston, TX