How to Ruin a Music Video

“When life hands you lemons, just say fuck the lemons and bail!” —Paul Rudd, Forgetting Sarah Marshall

Our video for Elevators is out now, only two months behind schedule!

When we decided to put our focus on making videos, we knew we needed to learn a few things along the way in order to make it all work. For me, the best way to learn something new is to dive into the deep end and fight to stay afloat.

Squarespace — ever the sponsorship visionaries — got behind us pretty early and let us go do whatever we wanted. Literally. The only requirement was that we eventually release a video. But even that ended up being a close call.

For the record, everything that went wrong is entirely my fault.

When Joe and I started putting the band together I thought it would be fun to do a music video in an elevator. At the time the band was just myself and Joe, so it would be fun to play it as the two of us in a Midtown Manhattan office building, busking in the elevators while confused and bemused passengers interact with us (or try desperately not to). The idea was forgotten entirely when we got into making the video for “I Said So!”

Months later we were hauling gear up to my apartment after practice, all four of us crammed into my building’s elevator. I laughed at the idea of us trying to pull off an elevator video now — we’d never fit. The only way it would work is if we each had our own elevator.

“Actually that would be awesome.”

We workshopped over dinner, eventually landing on the idea of a bank of four elevators, each with its own little story that plays out over the course of the song. And maybe we could have the building be all cool and stylized, and pull the camera back to move between them, making the entire video a single, uncut shot. Sort of OK Go meets Wes Andersen. Ambitious, but not impossible. The only limitation we could see was finding a song that worked. We went through the list a couple of times before I finally said, “fuck it, I’ll write a song called ‘Elevators’ and we’ll use that.”

That’s right, the song was written specifically to make a music video. “Things have been a little up and down”? Come on.

(“Lately, baby” might be the dumbest thing I’ve ever written.)

We had a director lined up early on; someone whose work I love and respect too much to name here. But he had other commitments and had to drop out. No problem. We had done most of the think work already. How hard could it be to shoot the thing?

I had no idea how difficult it would be to track down a usable elevator. In a city filled with skyscrapers, seemingly nobody rents them by the hour. So I considered having a set built. I mean an elevator is three walls and a door, right? How much could that cost?

The lowest estimate I got was $12,000. A small home in a rural area can sell for $100,000. How could one closet — which doesn’t even need to be built to code — cost so much?

I finally found a studio that had an elevator set already, though it would need to be brought in from New Jersey and assembled on the day of the shoot. The good news is that it was within our budget. The bad news is that it was very nearly our entire budget. This meant no room for mistakes, since we’d have exactly one day to shoot and no opportunity to go back and do pickup shots.

The original plan was to shoot in 4K on an iPhone mounted to a tripod. The video quality, especially under studio lights, would be great, and easily edited and composited in Final Cut and After Effects. Once we knew how much the set was going to cost us, I thought perhaps we should invest in renting a high-end camera to bump the production quality a little further.

This is the point at which my mistakes begin to cascade.

On shooting day we showed up with instruments, my own studio lights and tripod, a Canon C300 and 35mm cine lens, a makeup artist to make us pretty for the camera, and absolutely no idea what we were doing. No shot list, no specific agenda. Just a bunch of gear and the hope that we’d work it all out on-camera with our friends and edit it together somehow.

The studio itself was amazing. A converted warehouse in Williamsburg containing every kind of prop you could want (each with a price tag of at least $150 per day for rental), it gave the video shoot a sense of gravity that seemed to spark some much-needed professionalism in everyone on the set. The studio’s manager was very excited to show us the elevator, which did technically meet our requirement of looking like an elevator. It even had a working door; all we needed was someone to stand to the side with a stick to push it closed. Whatever happened, at least we would match the sophistication of the original Star Trek.

Camera setup was easy. I know my way around a camera, so the C300 wasn’t exactly alien technology. Since we were shooting it all as static shots, we wouldn’t need camera work or a cinematographer. As long as the shots were in focus, we’d be fine. Plug the things into the things, put it on a tripod, hit record.

It was a chaotic scene. Patrick setting up his drum kit and assembling lights, Joe running cables and helping to assemble gear, Agnes plugging things in and helping to coordinate people. It was fun to work together as a team in a different context, and cool to see everyone’s commitment to making it all work. With everything set up and people rotating through the makeup chair, I finally called “action” about four hours after arrival. 

Some friends had to cancel at the last minute. Others were running late. We got a few takes of Patrick solo, then our friend Curtis (who ended up being the day’s MVP by sticking around and doing all of the grunt work for us) stepped in as Grocery Bag Guy, the straight-man for Patrick’s drum scenes. Throughout the day, folks would show up, do a few takes, then go hang out in the studio’s kitchen, gradually adding to the level of noise and chaos on set. 

Our only real concept for structure was that we wanted a bunch of different types of people getting in and out of the elevator. We asked people to bring random things. We sent Patrick on shopping runs for things like groceries and balloons.

Joe had the idea to hire models and stick them in my shots. “Your elevator should be beautiful women ignoring you.” Sounds about right. But even hiring models ended up being more complicated than expected. All of the agencies I contacted worked on hourly rates with four-hour minimums. We’d only need each model for about an hour total, and didn’t have the budget to quadruple the cost of anything. Somehow we managed to find three models at the last minute via friends.

By the end of the day we had lucked into just enough people showing up to fill out the shots we knew we wanted. Friends were calling friends. We even had Rose, the makeup artist, jump in for a few takes. Somehow it all came together and we could breathe a sigh of relief. We did it!

And then I looked at the footage we had shot. It was all blown out, slightly out of focus, and shot in the wrong framerate.

I’d love to blame anyone or anything else, but it was me. I missed it. I set the camera up without considering framerate, depth of field, or aperture settings. I know I’m supposed to do those things. I know how to do them. I just didn’t. With everything else I was doing, I just forgot. And now we had a full day of unusable video.

My stomach sank. There’s no recovering from this. We’re fucked.

Not just fucked in a this-video-will-suck-now kind of way, either. This was to be our flagship, and our first outing with Squarespace, and now it’s dead. Nobody is going to want to watch this. Squarespace is going to kill us. And there’s no way another sponsor would touch us after seeing this mess. All of our plans of going full-tilt with video were over.

I stepped away from it for a couple days, thinking maybe I was over-reacting. Or at least I should give myself time to figure out what to do next.

The final stage of grief is “post-production”, and I decided the best option would be to spend some money out-of-pocket to have someone else clean this mess up for us. Disney can change an actor’s emotions on the fly — surely the technology exists to make our music video not look like shit.

We met a guy named Jason through a friend. Jason had directed music videos and was comfortable with the post-production process. He took a look at what we had, and said he could fix it up. We spent a lot of time talking through options and put together a handful of rough edits to get a better sense of how to proceed. We even did some pick-up shots in my building’s elevator to fill in the selfie-cam footage, since obviously we wouldn’t be able to do this as a single tracking shot anymore.

Two months in, he was called away to China to work on a project, and we were left more or less where we started. Except now the whole thing was extremely overdue.

I began working on my own cut, loosely based on Jason’s. Sorting through four hours of takes for a four minute video was rough. But I knew more or less the beats I wanted, and I figured I could at least get a good edit, and just come clean about the footage. Maybe people would take pity on us.

The thing was nearly done when I met up with Christina Warren — selfie girl from the video — to have a drink and show her a cut. We talked about the video problems, but she wanted to see it for herself. We had a good laugh.

“It’s not that bad!”

“It looks like a ‘90s sitcom…”

“I love ‘90s sitcoms! Run with it!”

Holy shit. Could it be that simple? Washed out colors? Check. Looks like it was shot on videotape? Check. Low-resolution look? Double check.

It’s funny how much can get done quickly once you know how to proceed. We didn’t have the cheese stop-and-smile-at-the-camera shots to make it look quite like credits sequence, but it could work if we played it as if the video were an episode of a bad TV show.

Selling the gag would be all about the setup. “Filmed before a live studio audience” and a muddy establishing shot of a tall building. (I really lucked out with the bird on that one.) We lifted the font from Full House. Oh my god this actually works. From there it was just a matter of scaling back the video quality to make it look intentional.

They say you should never tell people what went wrong after a show — if they think it was great, don’t give them a reason to change their mind. I’m very, very pleasantly surprised by the reaction to this video. The gag plays, in spite of (or perhaps because of) some funny anachronisms like Christina’s iPhone. Like Archer, it manages to occupy an era without being locked to it.

There are so many lessons here. The biggest being that with this endeavor — making a music video every month — we can’t just be a band anymore, we have to be filmmakers. We need to get comfortable with every step of the process and absorb the details the same way we do on a stage or in a recording studio. We should have hired a crew or a cinematographer or a director. We should have brought in a real lighting designer. But really, we should also be learning how to do those things ourselves.

There are many things that I would change if I could, but I’m glad we got thrown into the deep end on our first big video. Rock and roll is all about how you recover from your mistakes. We’re shooting again in a couple of weeks. I’m ready.

Airplane Mode loves you.