It's exciting when you are hired for a music video, but you are allowed to film it as a drama short film with elements of musical. In this article I will share the challenges in such a production.
It all started in the beginning of 2019, when I was approached by Lyubena Ninova, a well-known local singer, with a task to create a music video for her new song. The song was not recorded yet, but being a cover of an older song, we had a general idea how it would sound like.
Most music videos are usually tons of footage of the singer singing and a band playing, which recording is sporadically cut later. We wanted a film where the singer's performance was part of the script. The general idea was given by Ninova: a period drama from World War II which we decided to change because of wardrobe and location challenges.
The film is about a military officer who falls in love with a singer on a military ball. They start dating and he buys a ring planning to propose her. At that very moment the Ministry of Defense calls him for a mission and he decides to follow his duty without telling her about his intensions or giving her the ring.
The greatest obstacle for such a project is how to make a short film that is cut exactly as long as the song's length and to match the dynamics of the music with the tension and relief moments of the story on screen. That's why I sketched the scenes of the film and cut an animated version with the old song underneath (although I updated that video with the actual song).
I do sell prints of those sketches, thanks for asking.
Of course, the pre-production included the standard procedure of formally describing each of the scenes, their location, time of day, actors, props, and accessories. I had "plan Bs" for some cases as well such as bad weather, expensive location, lack of extras on set, lack of military costumes for everyone.
The screen partner of Ninova was a local celebrity actor Ivaylo Zahariev who had a busy schedule and we had to plan everything for him and for the capricious weather. We started filming at the end of February, planning to make the film look warm and sunny. Although it was a seven-day project it spanned over a period of around 40 days.
Day 1: Bar
That was my first time working with a celebrity actor on a film set, so we had to work quickly and efficiently. I have already seen the bar and I knew how to light it. The main issue with low-budget productions and filming on such locations is that it may not be possible to change the existing practical lights. The bar had fluorescent lights which flickered. Their refresh rate was slow for camera's recording frame rate. I doubt many saw that, but in case you didn't, that's one of the obstacles that I decided to leave as a visual flaw. You can see the flickering on that scene in the video:
The sets in the bar were lit with hot lights leaving the practicals just for a set decoration. One of the lights was a DIY solution: a three-foot wooden board with eight 60 Watts tungsten light bulbs connected in parallel with a dimmer. This gave me about 500 Watts of power.
Day 2: Officer's Apartment
We rented an apartment for a day for his scenes. decorating it with old military photos and a few desktop accessories. The shots were lit fairly straight-forward, using a softbox for a key light and a hard light to simulate direct sun rays in the room.
Knowing the male actor had a busy schedule, I decided to film two more scenes there which were lately composed as visual effects. One of them was the "at military tent" (see the end of the article for the VFX breakdown):
The other was the jewelry shop where he purchases the ring from. The setup is not only ghetto, but ghetto on steroids-looking. It worked, though. The rings were taped on white paper with scotch tape so they sit upright. The setup was placed on an ironing board I found in the apartment. It was too low and I grabbed two pieces of foam and elevated the "set."
The officer was lit with a big softbox as a key, while the rings were lit with a "Redhead."
Day 3: Singer's Apartment
This was one of the calmest days of filming. Everything was perfect. We had good weather, a little to shoot and I was given as much time as I wanted to play with the lighting.
As you can see, the day scene was lit with a softbox and a hard light (at the back). The sun provided great interior mood with the shadows from the window blinds. I detached a painting and hung it a little lower, because the composition felt empty otherwise. Oh, that on the left of the BTS picture is just a normal levitating picture.
The night set was lit with both practicals and hot lights. The latter were bounced off of white walls.
Day 4: Ministry of Defense
We made an attempt to film some of the scenes in military-owned buildings, but were not allowed and we had to improvise for this one. I wanted a vast room with little furniture, but all we had were small offices. This is why I filmed the scene on a green screen. That part was played by Ninova's father in his office.
Day 5: Dating
Although we filmed the outdoor scenes for less than two hours, we had to postpone the scheduled day several times. The weather forecasts were optimistic like pre-election promises, but in reality they were far from the truth: was cold and even started snowing.
All I needed was sun. It was cold, but the actors had to endure a few minutes of on-screen glory without their warm coats. I tried to include as much as possible sun light and as less as possible bystanders, because they were dressed for cold weather. No extra lights or modifiers were used. Just natural light.
Day 6: Guests in the Ballroom
We had to film these scenes in a beautiful small ballroom, but the arrangement was postponed in the last minute for a day that was very close to the date of the official announcement the music video.
We could not find other affordable locations and although I was scared of making that decision, I told the singer that we better film that in studio on a green screen. We had only five military uniforms and not a lot of extras. The goal was to film military men with their partners in various positions in the frame standing still or walking.
For the lighting, I bounced light off the ceiling and off the walls, trying to mimic chandeliers and lamps on the sides of the ballroom.
Day 7: Singer Performing at the Ball
Like the guests, she was filmed on a green screen. To be more efficient, I planned how the performance would be cut in the final edit and we shot only the lines of the lyrics that I needed for each clip with the exact camera angle and movement I had in mind. This saved us a lot of time.
One of the reasons I was hesitant to film on green or blue screens was the gear I had to use. The video was filmed on the Canon C100 (the first version) in combination with the Atomos Ninja Flame external recorder, allowing me to work with ProRes 422 HQ video files. In a perfect world, for VFX you need to have as less compressed files as you can. That is why I used an external recorder to bypass the internal AVCHD codec of the cinema camera. The 4:2:2 chroma subsampling is probably the minimum for relatively good VFX results. Usually bigger productions shooting for VFX are recording with 4:4:4 subsampling. This was my main issue and I took a big risk to decide to make all the ballroom scenes as VFX shots, not to mention the presence of a celebrity actor, a celebrity singer, and the extras. The stakes were high.
I still prefer hot lights to LEDs, because most of the time I don't need a single powerful light, but multiple powerful lights which frequently have to fight the day light. I used several 1K fresnels, 800 Watt Red Heads, and two Elinchrom Scanlites, combined with Elinchrom modifiers.
The green and blue fabrics are purchased from common fabrics stores and stitched together which is way cheaper than using a commercial-grade green or blue screen.
Editing, VFX, Color Grading
If there were no VFX shots, the editing would take around four days. The VFX shots took me a considerable amount of time mainly because of the limited 3D rendering capabilities of my hardware. The interiors for the VFX shots were made in Blender, while the editing, compositing, and color grading was done in HitFilm Pro. In this VFX breakdown you can see how these scenes were assembled:
Due to the hardware limits I used rendered stills instead of camera-tracked animation, faking a 3D look using parallax with foreground and background elements.
For color grading I used a technique which have been posted on Fstoppers some time ago. I graded in HitFilm Pro, but the principle is the same. Color grading alone took me about two days, because every time I looked at certain scenes with fresh eyes, I wanted to change something.
If you liked the story setting aside all the technical details, this means we did a good job. If you didn't like it, we failed regardless of the hard work involved in the project. That's the harsh truth about filmmaking. Nevertheless, I hope the technical information was interesting and helpful to you. If you want to know any other technical details, let me know in the comments below.