A Heartbreaking Music Video & the Inspiring Creative Process of Bringing It to Life
Painful memories and guilt can destroy us. We re-live these moments again and again, until they become nothing more than warped distortions of themselves.
Our first introduction to August Bradley came in the form of a short concept film shot on the Zeiss Otus 1.4/55, which is widely considered to be the world's best lens at that focal length. Of course, that film looks great, not because of the lens, but because August has a keen eye and a distinctive cinematic aesthetic that he's showcased on numerous narrative and commercial projects through his company GLASS Media Lab.
His latest project is another conceptual one, a music video for Filter's dark, moody cover of the classic 1967 hit, Happy Together. Take a look:
August was kind enough not only to chat with us extensively about his process for directing and shooting the Happy Together music video, but he's also allowing us the exclusive premiere to the behind-the-scenes video that his company produced for the shoot. So without any further ado, let's dive into how this music video came to life:
NFS: First off, tell us a little bit about yourself and your history with filmmaking. How did you break into the business, and how did you make your way to where you are today?
August Bradley: I grew up in my mom’s photo studio, I was her little lighting assistant at age 5 or as far back as I can remember. I then lived in the darkroom through high school and part of college. Years later (and after a previous career in marketing strategy) I became a commercial photographer shooting ad campaigns, magazine editorials, and exhibitions.
Based on my stills portfolio, the production company Klutch Creative hired me to be the DP on a promo for ABC Family. So I built a camera & lighting team to start shooting these promos and ultimately a wider range of commercials. Cinematography got me on bigger sets faster, but directing has been the more complete culmination of my transition into motion content. I do both now, and find each rewarding in different ways.
With directing comes producing, so I teamed up with some remarkable people to form a creative agency called GLASS Media Lab -- a production team with a very silicon valley kind of entrepreneurial approach. GLASS enables us to do both cinematic commercial projects and more experimental media creations.
NFS: How did you and your company land the opportunity to shoot the "Happy Together" music video for Filter?
AB: For years I’ve worked with a boutique ad agency that does marketing for Filter. Filter’s re-imagining of the song “Happy Together” had received a lot of attention when it was used in the trailer for Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby. But the band had not done much with the song, so the decision was made to do a music video to give it a visual story as powerful as the song.
The marketing agency knew my team was strong with dark dramatic cinematic work, which this project required.
NFS: Talk a little bit about the "Happy Together" shoot from a conceptual standpoint. Where did the idea for this video come from, and what was your process for honing in on that idea and then designing powerful visuals around it?
AB: The power and anguish of the song hints at an intense story, but says very little about what’s actually happening. Filter’s version in particular is never happy; there is always an ominous feel to it. We built a story around this. This music video is about guilt. The protagonist inadvertently creates a situation that torments him afterward. He re-lives the night over and over again in his head. In hindsight he can see the tragedy coming; its inevitability is a torture as he re-lives it.
None of this has objective clarity to the protagonist. Therefore, we gave the visuals an obscured haziness to further convey this psychological perspective.
I like to boil concepts down to their very core so that every decision that comes up can be addressed by asking how does it serve that core idea – in this case, how does it communicate or establish the sense of guilt. I like stories that are messy and disconnected at first then come together over time. This video doesn’t really make sense until the end -- the protagonist’s anguish is too intense for it just to be a longing for her. There has to be something else driving it, which is revealed in the final segment.
The non-chronological nature of the edit makes this video a different experience the second time you watch it; there are so many fragments from after the tragic event that appear earlier in the video. It’s pieced together as memory often is. The entire bar scene is a recollection from the protagonist’s clouded view after the incident, and the horse scenes are an idealized interpretation in his mind, so none of this has objective clarity to the protagonist. Therefore, we gave the visuals an obscured haziness to further convey this psychological perspective.
NFS: Walk us through the technical aspects of this shoot. What camera (or cameras) did you use? Lenses? Lights? Etc. We're a bunch of gear nerds and we love hearing about this stuff, so don't spare us any of the juicy details.
Lenses: Zeiss CP2 (the Superspeed editions when focal length permitted)
Lens Filters: Formatt-Hitech Firecrest ND set (for horse shots), Supermist and other diffusion filters
Camera: Sony F5 + R5 (4k RAW module)
Tungsten Lights ranging from 200watt to 2K (bar scene interiors & night exteriors)
1’x2’ LED light with battery kits (bar scene interiors & night exteriors)
A 200w Joker with battery pack (for daytime exteriors)
The Zeiss CP2 lenses with the Formatt-Hitech filters are my go-to glass kit. The small size of the CP2 lenses, mechanical precision, and uniformity of the Zeiss look is my default to build upon – they’re neutral (not inherently stylized) and have a bit of a cool feel which I prefer. I can use them on any camera, no sensor is too big. The small size and lightweight is a huge benefit when work fast in tight spaces with a small crew.
I was fortunate that the new Formatt Firecrest IRND line had just come out when I shot the wild horses, this is the most neutral set of IRNDs I’ve ever seen. I had been having trouble with previous ND’s being inconsistent color-wise across the set, creating more work in the color grade. Plus IR protects the deep blacks.
We would drape and hold transparent fabrics and ribbons on the periphery of the lens to obscure part of the frame. As the camera moved, it felt organic. This takes a lot of experimentation so we played with it for weeks before the shoot.
All of the flares, halos, distortion, and blurring was done in-camera. I did it this way for several reasons:
- I think it just looks better and feels more authentic. You can usually tell a post-production effect, they don’t have the depth, spontaneity, and integration with the scene.
- You can’t wimp out later, I like deciding and committing. This way you think it through and work harder at it when you know it cannot be undone. You craft and shape it more deliberately.
- It’s just faster to do it in camera than to try an endless assortment of post-production filters playing with sliders and knobs. I prefer doing everything possible on-set and spending as little time as possible at a computer.
We have some element of distortion or degradation in many of my shoots, and we take a different approach for each. In this project I made a visit to the fashion district in Downtown Los Angeles (a few blocks from my studio) and found some transparent fabrics and ribbons. We would drape and hold these materials on the periphery of the lens to obscure part of the frame. As the camera moved, it felt organic. This takes a lot of experimentation so we played with it for weeks before the shoot.
We also introduce lens flares with an assortment of flashlights that I have collected over the years, of various sizes, shapes, and colors. This also should be tested extensively before the shoot. All of these techniques slow you down on shoot day so you need to have your system dialed before you walk on set.
We shot in 4k RAW to have full color grading capabilities. Achieving mood through color and tonality is a big part of my approach. I do color so much by feel that it’s hard to describe the process. But having a panel like the Tangent Element is a huge help and makes the process highly tactile – more like painting and interacting physically with the media than just sitting at a computer. The precision and speed is much greater as well with the panel.
For those playing with color grading, it’s also essential to create a neutral field of view at your workstation. We have a perfectly neutral 18% gray wall in front of our grading workspace, and blackout curtains to control any light spill from other rooms. That, combined with a high quality calibrated monitor (signal fed via SDI outside of the control of the OS), enables me to see exactly what I am getting without optical mind tricks misleading my interpretation of the color.
I also run scopes on a separate notebook computer next to my workstation for accuracy and to leave all processing power in the workstation for the heavy lifting. I run software called Scopebox, (customizable scopes palette) and the feed to this computer comes from the reference monitor via SDI through a Blackmagic SDI/Thunderbolt converter.
Total grading control.
NFS: I noticed that you're using an Easyrig in a few of the BTS shots. Personally, I'm a big fan of the Easyrig, but many readers of our site don't get the appeal (largely because of the price). What's been your experience with it, both from an ergonomic and aesthetic standpoint?
AB: I love the Easyrig. I’m also a certified Steadicam operator, which is a totally different tool that is often confused with Easyrig. Easyrig gives you handheld shots with greater control – either really steady handheld or if you want (as I often do) you can deliberately add a more energy to the camera, it’s all up to you. It’s also a backsaver on long days. Over time it costs less than weekly chiropractor visits.
But the my favorite thing about the Easyrig is that it lets you shoot handheld at a wide range of height levels while maintaining mobility – waist level to shoulder height or anywhere in between. Shooting low handheld without it is either a back/arm crusher (and very unsteady) or you have to kneel and loose all mobility. And since I’m tall, the optimal height level to shoot at for me is often lower than shoulder height. But it is a tool for a handheld look, it is not a silky smooth Steadicam floaty look. Different tools for different purposes.
NFS: The color palette of this video is really strong, and it complements the emotional tone of the piece perfectly. Talk about how you go about choosing color palettes for your projects. Do you create tone boards or some kind of digital equivalent?
AB: We always create mood boards in which color and tonality play a big part. We define the palette ahead of time, then collect reference images and build a collage that shows that color palette achieving the mood we’re after. I sometimes use Adobe Kuler to define and communicate palettes. Or I start with a reference photo.
For this music video, we built two different mood boards in Pinterest (on private boards). One for the outdoor horse scenes, and the other for the bar interiors. Pinterest lays them out well and lets us comment and have conversations about each image and its relevance. The bar interiors were to be a scene from the “hell” in his head. Cool blue, lonely shadows and fiery, bloody reds. In some scenes he almost literally has blood on his hands. The outdoor scene is an imagined idealization of what he had hoped for. It was washed out and soft, warm and comfortable. Peaceful. It’s his fleeting refuge from the torment. The color and tonality was all defined to contribute to these ideas.
NFS: Despite our best-laid plans, production never seems to go as smoothly as it should. What kind of creative and technical obstacles did you run into during the production and post of this video, and how did you get around them?
AB: Especially with animals, and wild ones no less. We shot at a wild horse rescue ranch called High Sierra Wild Horse Sanctuary. The people who run this ranch were awesome to work with. But the horses had their own agenda. They had places they felt safe and comfortable, so after being released from their first marks, they ignored all efforts to guide them and bolted straight back to their comfort spots at the ranch. Instead of trying to get the horses to run according to our blocking, we restructured camera angles and essentially built the shots around the predictable running paths of the horses heading to their favorite destinations.
The talent was dictating to the Director -- total divas.
The biggest challenge in the bar was how little time we had. Budget was tight, as it always is on music videos. We had a half hour to load in, a half hour to break down, and only two hours to shoot. We covered a lot in that time, made possible by extensive planning and detailed shot lists. We planned out every moment and listed them by priority.
NFS: Anything else that you want to share with our audience about getting this music video made?
AB: Casting is so critical, and we put a big effort into finding actors who conveyed a lot with little gestures and expressions. There’s no dialogue, so emotional depth needs to come from other forms of communication.
We had a half hour to load in, a half hour to break down, and only two hours to shoot. We covered a lot in that time, made possible by extensive planning and detailed shot lists.
The other big thing that helped a great deal and is rarely discussed is team communication platforms to enable efficient pre and post production. We relied heavily on Slack for internal conversation and file sharing, Pinterest for mood boards, Trello for task lists and prioritization, and Wrike for project and logistical coordination (casting, location scouting, scheduling). When scripts are involved we use Adobe Story which is a great cloud-based collaborative script writing platform. Our team works incredibly efficiently even while scattered and engaged in other projects around the world.
NFS: What's next for you? Any cool or noteworthy projects coming down the pipeline that our readers should keep an eye out for? Also, where can people find out more about you and watch your other work?
AB: Next up is finishing the short documentary and portrait series I shot at an orphanage in Uganda. It was really a life changing experience as well as a highly technical cinematic production operation.
I’m talking with a few large commercial production companies, and may end up joining one of their rosters. Also working with my creative team to develop a short film and (separately) a feature. But if the right band and the right song came along, I always enjoy doing music videos.
Here's where you can find me online:
- Creative Team & Production Co.: www.GlassMediaLab.com
- Personal: www.AugustBradley.com
- Twitter: https://twitter.com/augustbradley
- Vimeo: https://vimeo.com/augustbradley
- Pinterest: https://www.pinterest.com/augustbradley
We'd like to thank August and his team at GLASS Media Lab for putting all of this great BTS content together and for taking the time to share it with us and our community. If you have any questions for August, leave them down in the comments!