I love music videos. A mini movie to accompany a song? Yes please. Previously on I Enjoy Music, I interviewed DC rock band Two Thumbs Down about the hand-rotoscoped video for their song "See You Later," and also went behind the scenes of Be Afraid's "Nothing Like Romance" video, which was full of costumes and car stunts and green screen VFX.
Well, the Music Video Respecter has logged on again with a new interview. It's with Kyle Garrett, who recently directed the video for "Old Death" — the first single and first musical release in 20 years from Charles Bissell, formerly of The Wrens, now recording as Car Colors.
The song itself is a vigorously strummed, stream-of-consciousness retrospective of Bissell's life. A shadow of capital-D Death haunts the biography, which is spun through with imagery from Homer's Odyssey ("Work to retake beaches I’ve lost / Will I steer home solo by stars"), and even annotated with specific dates within its YouTube description, which is kind of a wild art form on its own.
The video for "Old Death" shows Bissell broadcasting from (or maybe trapped in) an ancient television, and his note accompanying the film points at a remote creative process: "Between [Garrett] filming & editing on the West Coast and me filming myself (begrudgingly) here in Brooklyn, he whipped out the whole thing in like a week. He (and it) is simply great." Well I needed to know what went into this production, so I sent Kyle some questions about the production of the video and we got into the nitty gritty of it all, including how hard it is to make an iPhone video look like it's coming from an old TV.
I gather from the YouTube description that this was a remote collaboration between you and Charles. How did that come about? And what was your workflow with both shooting in separate locations?
First I should say that I'm a superfan of The Wrens and in particular The Meadowlands, so I've been following the journey of their follow-up to that album for as long as Charles has been sharing it on social media. So when they broke up a couple years back, I kept up with Charles in the hopes that he'd release some of that album on his own. And when he announced his new project, Car Colors, along with the "Old Death" single in early October last year, I pre-ordered it and started to patiently wait like everyone else. But then a couple weeks later, I guess because my anxiety meds were working well enough, I decided to DM him on Instagram and basically just put it out there that if he didn't already have plans for a music video and was interested in one, I was really keen to do it. And to my surprise, he was interested!
We had some phone calls back and forth after that and it was kinda like...okay, what can we even pull off in a month or so? Because by the time we really started kicking ideas around later in October, the single was around a month out from being released. That isn't much time, starting from scratch and with day jobs and whatnot. We talked about doing just a lyric video on top of some kind of ambient colorful visuals but that ultimately didn't feel right because "Old Death" is anything but ambient in terms of its sound. In one of our calls, Charles mentioned that eventually he wanted to make a kind of satirical take on those old Pure Moods commercials when his full album came out, and that got me thinking about older, simpler analog times, and the image of an old portable TV came to mind. And so we were like, "Cool. Let's make a lyric video where the lyrics are on an old portable TV in somebody's work shed" or some location like that. In other words, one single shot for the whole video, and we'd composite all the lyrics onto the TV.
Once you take that idea to its logical conclusion though, it might make for a kind of boring video for a seven-plus minute song. So we decided that Charles should perform the song and we'd superimpose it on the TV for more like six shots in six different locations, since he considers the song to be made up of six distinct sections. One of us flying out to the other wasn't really realistic for timing or budgetary reasons (in that we really had no time and no budget) so we came up with the idea that Charles would self-record and I'd film the TV in a few locations, and mash it together in post. So, in early November, I got together with Aaron Fagerstrom, the cinematographer, and we filmed the portable TV in a few spots over a couple of days, and Charles started chipping away at filming himself performing the song.
The workflow itself was somewhat casual, in the sense that we had one or two Zoom conversations where Charles showed me different locations in his home in Brooklyn, and we'd decide on some that seemed like good spots for him to film, and then he'd go and film himself on his own time. He used his iPhone to film himself and then ran the footage through a VHS emulation app, so I was getting the footage already somewhat degraded. And what he sent me was always awesome and I just kind of liked the one-or-two takes methodology because then his performance wouldn't feel too practiced. I built out a CRT television emulation effect in After Effects and ran some tests, compositing his footage onto the live action footage we shot. Once we started seeing how cool the effect looked, the scope of the video started to change because it seemed like it was worth getting more ambitious, until we ended up going from the idea of a single effect shot, to a handful of shots, to over two hundred in the finished piece. Which is kind of wild considering we finished the entire thing in less than two weeks once we actually got production underway.
What locations did you shoot in? How much time would you say it took to do all the setups on your end?
We filmed at a bar called The Knockout in San Francisco (thanks to my buddy Matt who bartends there), my in-laws' garage and my sister's kitchen in Santa Rosa, and a beach in Alameda, along with some random spots we found nearby, like an empty street or a little forest. So it was very much a Bay Area production as far as the live action TV stuff. We got everything filmed over two days.
Where did you get that sweet old TV?? Did you really toss it around? Did someone else do the tossing??
I found that beauty on eBay! We bought three of them, and only one of them worked, so that was our "hero" TV. We never tossed that one. But the other two we threw around a bunch, haha. When Aaron was filming, I was tossing, and then I took a couple of turns filming and Aaron did the chucking. So those two non-operational TVs are definitely broken into several pieces now.
Were there any shots that look straightforward from a viewer's perspective but actually required a bunch of finessing on the back end?
Almost every shot in the video is an effects shot, because we never sent an actual signal to the TV when we were filming it. All of Charles' performance is composited in post. So even with the static shots where the camera isn't moving, there was a pretty decent amount of work that went into fine-tuning the CRT effect to look as realistic as possible. Like, you know, it's interesting because you want people to know what went into making it but the ultimate goal is for that work to disappear, so it looks like you got it all in camera.
I realized I should backtrack and ask you more about your own filmmaking career — how'd you get into it? What is your normal type of video/film gig? And have you made music videos before?
I used to go to UC Davis, studying engineering and sucking at it, then doing Econ because that's kind of all I could manage to sort my credits into to get out of there. My roommate at the time started going to the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, dropping out of UC Davis to study film. I thought that was cool and maybe kind of stupid of him, but also in a cool way, ha. But I'd help him on his student projects and it kind of reignited that old feeling of grabbing a camcorder and making little home movies with friends when I was a kid. So, the yada-yada is I also ended up at the Academy of Art and studied editing. Then promptly worked in retail for years and years after I graduated. But finally my best friend from that editing program and I were like, "Why aren't we trying harder to make something happen with this whole video education we got?" and so we started a production company, Seven Summits, by launching an IndieGoGo campaign to make a bunch of short documentaries about local business and nonprofits, kind of company stories. That was in 2011, and we've been full time video makers ever since.
Our work leans pretty corporate, so we work with a lot of tech companies because this is the Bay Area, after all. We've also got some regular clients in the food and wine industry which is fun.
I helped shoot, edited and did the VFX for a music video ten or so years ago. The song was "Paia" by Wild Ones.
I think we could have done better executing the concept but it was super last minute so we just kind of experimented throughout the whole thing. And then I actually just directed a new music video that will come out sometime in March. It was so fun to do, lots of composite work again.
Do you have a favorite music video of all time, or a platonic ideal of the perfect music video?
I used to be obsessed with those DVD music video compilations for Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Chris Cunningham and the like, do you remember those? One of my favs of all-time is "Drop" by The Pharcyde.
But then it's like...I love so many of them, but most of them are older. "Once In a Lifetime" or "Sledgehammer" for stuff that's conceptual, "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or "Criminal" (Fiona Apple) or "Oblivion" (Grimes) for something that just feels EXACTLY like the song it's representing. I love a great concept or something with amazing editing. Not to sound like a total dweeb but great editing can make a song feel synesthetic like its activating all your senses, because it's in touch with the rhythm and instrumentation of the song, so that always feels really important to me and it's what gets my pupils dilated when I'm watching an amazing music vid.
Thank you Kyle!! Music videos are so cool, man. Follow Kyle on IG. And if you enjoyed reading I Enjoy Music, tell a friend!