If you haven't seen it before, let me give you a visual. Imagine tons of choirs, classical musicians, dancers, aerialists, and guys in giant paper heads performing live on a stage while Cantor narrates a brutal scene about you, the viewer, being ferociously chased by a blood-soaked Shia LaBeouf -- who is also a cannibal.
I saw it the day after it went live in late October and it easily became my new favorite video on YouTube. I was totally blown away by not only the lyrics of the song ("Wait! He isn't dead! Shia Surprise!" -- I just lost it), but the creativity and beauty in the live performance. So, it was certainly exciting to chat with the director and cinematographer of the project, Scott Uhlfelder, and ask him about how the whole bloody, beautiful, bizarre thing came together, from directing Shia LaBeouf to filming a live performance with so many (literally) moving pieces.
But before we get to the interview, take a look at the music video:
And here's some BTS goodness shot by Matt Fuller and edited by Randy Maxwell.
NFS: So, how did this project get started? How did you get involved?
Scott: I got involved with this project after I shot another music video for Rob Cantor called "Old Bike" directed by Andrew Laurich. I really enjoyed Rob's music and wanted to continue to work with him. Rob had released the "Shia LaBeouf" song on SoundCloud in 2012 and wanted to make a video for it. He approached me about making a video for the song in April of 2014 and it took off from there. Rob knew he wanted to do a live performance in some capacity. We started pitching ideas back and forth. Eventually we settled on doing a classical orchestral performance that would constantly grow as the song progressed.
Director/cinematographer Scott Uhlfelder with songwriter Rob CantorCredit: Zach Callahan
NFS: Why Shia LaBeouf? And why is he bent on murder?
Scott: The idea for the song came from Andrew Laurich. Rob and Andrew were helping a friend move, and Andrew kept randomly singing the words "Shia LaBeouf." The murdering-cannibal thing came from Andrew's creepy whisper.
NFS: What gear did you use? (Camera, audio, lights, etc.)
Scott: We shot on three Canon C300's with a variety of Canon L series zooms. That camera is great when the operator has to pull their own focus, or quickly reposition to get another shot. Lighting was all source fours, par cans, or follow spots provided by the location. My first AD had a theater lighting background. We worked together with the lighting board operator to figure out our initial design and cues. As we progressed in the song we would figure out new cues based on the performance.
I lit Shia separately from the performance, which was a source four and 1k with a chimera on dimmers. I was calling cues to my gaffer over the walkie once I wanted the lighting to change to cue Shia to stop clapping a la Citizen Kane. For audio, the only sound recorded on the day was Shia's clapping. Audio consisted of a simple boom and shotgun mic. I honestly couldn't tell you the brand.
Credit: Zach Callahan
NFS: Considering the fact that it was a live performance, what were the unique challenges of the shoot?
Scott: One of the hardest challenges for the shoot was bringing all the performers together on the day, since they had never rehearsed together. Each section had recorded their part of the song prior to the shoot so we would have a track to play on the day. Also, we had a very limited budget to work with so we were not able to do a pre light. With no pre light and choreographing all of the elements in 12 hours -- well, that proved to be a big challenge.
In order to manage our time better, we broke the song up into five sections with each one building on the next. In order for everyone to actually fit on the stage we mapped out the performance groups in diagrams -- making sure each section had room to be seen and also featured. Oh, and we weren't allowed to actually USE the space until the day we shot, so that meant no rehearsals. Thankfully, all of the performers were extremely professional and the day went off with out a hitch.
Dancers performing choreography by Stacey TookeyCredit: Zach Callahan
Uhlfelder directing members of the West Los Angeles Children's ChoirCredit: Zach Callahan
Members of the Argus QuartetCredit: Zach Callahan
One other unique challenge was making the heads the dancers wore. A friend of mine told me about an artist Eric Testroete that made paper craft heads. I showed this reference to Rob and he loved it. Eric had to take several photos of Shia and map them into a 3D object. From there, he broke them up into individual printable shapes. A few weeks before the shoot, several of us got together to assemble these heads. The process required us to print out the shapes, cut them out, fold and glue them together. This took a total of 16 hours to make 5 heads.
NFS: That final shot of LaBeouf clapping just killed me. What was your direction on that? How did you get that reaction from him?
Scott: When Rob and I reached out to Shia's management we pitched him a few ideas. Initially, one of the ideas was him being the sole audience member and clapping at the end of the performance. Once Shia signed on, he emailed us back the clapping scene from Citizen Kane as a reference. Shia was very professional and he was committed to reenacting the scene from Citizen Kane. He even wanted to make sure his wardrobe was spot on with the film.
My only direction to him was that we would do the same lighting cues as in the reference clip. "Once you stand up after a few beats we will bring up the additional light to cue you to stop clapping." One thing I learned from this experience is what an A-list actor can bring to a performance. I had no idea he could bring such a nuanced performance to something so simple. Within a few takes I had more than what I needed for the end shot.
NFS: Any advice for filmmakers?
Scott: My biggest takeaway from this project is how important pre-production is! We started planning this video in early May, and ended up shooting in October. Some of that had to do with scheduling, but ultimately all of that time helped us find the right performers, location, choreography, and finalize the plan we needed to efficiently shoot the video. You can never have enough. I truly believe that is what helped us have a very smooth shoot.
Also, work on projects that excite you; this was truly a passion project, and every moment while creating it did not feel like work. I guess the last thing I would add would be -- if you can work with people you enjoy, it only makes the process sweeter. When you get to collaborate with like-minded folks, you're lucky. And you're even luckier if you get to do it for the rest of your career.
A big thanks to Scott for taking the time to talk with us!