Ahh, “Writing Room”. Perhaps the most ambitious project that I’ve ever been apart of…
I was Director of Photography of a very clever YouTube series called “Writing Room” in February of 2013. The premise was to pair 10 YouTube stars with 10 serious Hollywood music producers (the likes of Brian Malouf, who produced Michael Jackson’s Bad, and Jacques Brautbar from Phantom Planet) to create and release an original song complete with an original music video.
A great concept, as these YouTubers were very gifted singers and musicians, but were often confined to performing cover songs in their living room. Many of these artists already had quite an audience, some with over 500,000 YouTube subscribers. It was really interesting to see them create original material with legit music producers. The songs came out great… as good as anything that you’d hear on the radio.
For each artist, we produced 2 episodes. The first was a reality episode where we interviewed the artist and the producer before the collaboration; we then captured some of the songwriting process, then interviews with the artist and producer after the collaboration. The second episode would be an original music video for each song. Sounds pretty simple, right….except that we did this in 10 shooting days…on a microbudget with a skeleton crew.
When the dust settled from the shoot, I did the math…in 10 shooting days, I shot 40 interviews, 10 reality episodes and 10 original music videos. It was challenging, to say the least. The plan was to shoot all of the reality in the first five days (2 artists per day) then the music videos in the remaining five days (2 music videos per day). The reality part was pretty easy…but shooting 2 music videos per day was not. It was a marathon. Holy shit was it a marathon.
The Prep –
A few factors worked in our favor on this show –
The first was that it was all shot at the YouTube Space LA on two different sound stages…one for the reality portion and one for the music videos. The art department, headed by Production Designer Deanne Millais, dressed and built the reality set as we set and tweaked the lighting on the grid. The set was beautiful, with old instruments and vintage light fixtures, creating a vibe that felt like a rockstar’s basement studio. I was able to prelight our set with Source Fours and DeSistis on their DMX grid, so when it came time to shoot, we mostly just dimmed and controlled our lighting from the board. I operated A camera, while Scott Perlman operated B camera. Scott also edited the reality portion of the series, which turned out great. For interviews, we usually just aimed a Source Four into a 4×4 silk for a key light.
While we shot on the reality on the first stage, we were able to build and prep for the music videos on the second stage. Since each music video would be as different from one another as possible, our prep there was building sets, then putting them aside and rigging lighting on the grid. We were trying to be as flexible as possible with lighting and art department, accommodating 10 different music videos and the visions of 5 different directors, with very little time to change sets in between. I designed a lighting configuration that could be used in many different ways.
The Execution –
The second thing that worked in our favor was the access to 4 cameras. The youtube space had 2 Canon EOS C300’s and 2 Canon EOS C100’s that we were able to use. We matched settings with Paul Joy’s Custom Picture Profiles and ran them all throughout the music video portions. My multicamera sensibilities remain in my tool kit to this day, often to my crew’s chagrin.
The Crew –
The most important factor that helped us achieve our daunting goals was our amazing crew. I was A camera operating, Nick Novotny was B camera operating, and we both just pulled our own focus on my Zeiss ZF prime lenses, John Mijares was key grip and operated the Jib while Andrew Sanchez and Brian Glenn traded off camera operating and pulling focus with my Bartech. Daniel Gomez was gaffing and gripping and he was even operating a camera at one point. These guys are all killers…they are talented filmmakers and great team players with amazing attitudes. We even managed to squeeze some laughs into our hectic days, which flew by. We had only 2 PA’s who wrangled smoke and served as an extra set of hands, Marco Woodbury and Michael Cordero and they busted their butts to get things done.
The show was a lot of work and a lot of fun. I’m proud of the series and what we accomplished with such little time, money and resources. It was a pretty intimidating concept, at first, but as I examined it, I realized that it was only another puzzle to solve, one tiny piece at a time.