Justin Timberlake's 'Say Something' Video Shows Masterful Steadicam and Focus Pulling Work

I just watched Justin Timberlake's "Say Something" video, and then, I watched it again. No doubt that's professional production work. Knowing the technical challenges of such a video, for me it felt like I was watching a reality show. The almost "unplugged" vibe of the song was so right for that video that the rest of my senses could be focused on how those guys pull that work off (pun intended). This article will be a humble attempt to reveal how they shot the video.

When I watch such work, I'm always trying to figure out how they made it: was there any trickery, how was the audio synchronized, what cameras were used, what lenses, etc. In this analysis, I will talk about what I saw from a technical standpoint, but feel free to leave your comments to correct me if I'm wrong.

Camera Stabilization

The most obvious aspect of the video is that it was shot as a single take on some sort of a stabilization system. The motion was quite stable. I have two options: a classic Steadicam or a motorized gimbal. Let's look at the shot of the elevator:

Justin Timberlake - Say Something - Elevator shot

This is a pretty tight shot. There are other tight shots too. If a motorized gimbal was used, similar to the Movi, it would require significant space for the operator, because both hands are usually stretched forward. Take a look at this demonstration:

Even if they can fit a motorized gimbal in the elevator, it will require a very wide angle lens. You won't notice a cinema wide angle lens by a barrel distortion, because those lenses cost a fortune to not have such. When you try to guess a type of cinema lens, you have to look at the perspective it gives. Obviously the elevator shot does not resemble an ultra-wide angle lens, but probably something around 24mm.

My guess is they used a classic Steadicam, because of this shot here (go to 2:50 in the video):

Justin Timberlake - say Something - Steadicam zoom shotIf you have used a stabilization system similar to the Steadicam, you know that even for an experienced operator, it's difficult to make a shot that looks like the camera was on a tripod. There will be always a slight floating motion. Another difficulty is using a long focal distance or a long lens. Every imperfection in the way the stabilization system is balanced and in the way it is operated is greatly multiplied and visible in the video. That was the only place where I saw a slight, really very slight floating motion of the camera like a reed shaken by a light breeze. You don't usually see that on a motorized gimbal. Also, the classic Steadicam requires a much smaller space to be operated. I must admit that the stabilization system was balanced almost to perfection. They may have used something like the ARRI Trinity too, which is a combination of a classic Steadicam and a motorized gimbal:

Update: By the time I wrote this, I recalled there were credits at the end of the video. There you can see the name Ari Robbins, who was also the "A" camera operator and a Steadicam operator in "La La Land." Obviously, not an everyday guy.

Camera Brand

Let the speculations begin! Can this be shot on a mirrorless camera? Of course, but from the magnitude of the production, I doubt they've used stills cameras that are not designed for video work. My guess is either a RED or an ARRI. Most US-based video productions use RED, but many of the Hollywood movies are shot on an ARRI. The image is not that sharp to be a Sony, but I would be surprised if it is a Canon cinema camera, which Shane Hurlbut used to shoot "Need for Speed." I vote for a RED, not because I'm sure, but because I need to "Say Something."

Lens

Most of you have guessed. They've used a zoom lens which was operated by a very skilled first AC (Assistant Camera operator). In my article about the differences between cinema and stills lenses, I mentioned the smooth zoom operation of cinema lenses. Obviously, the zooming motion was incredibly smooth and precise, so much so that they've managed to make a push/pull shot synchronized with a Steadicam operator:

Justin Timberlake - Say Something - Push-pull shotIs it an anamorphic lens? I don't think so. We can have an anamorphic lens without the signature horizontal light streaks. Usually the anamorphic footage is stretched horizontally in post and the circular highlights that are not in focus look elongated. I looked at the blurred lights in the background of close-up shots and they were perfect circles (see the first screenshot too). My guess is they used a non-anamorphic fast zoom lens in the range 18-80mm, at probably T/2.6 or 2.8 at the whole time.

Resolution and White Balance

Knowing it's very risky to shoot with a zoom lens on a Steadicam, I think they used a camera with a sensor allowing 6K or 8K, because they may have needed more room to stabilize some of the zoom shots in post. That's why I guessed they've probably used a RED camera.

The video seems like it was shot at a color temperature greater than the usual tungsten light color (3,200 K) and with less than 5,600 K, which is the typical daylight-balanced light. In the beginning of the video, the light looks very blue, while the tungsten ambient lights in the interior look warmer. So, my guess would be a white balance at around 4,000 K.

Focus Pulling

Working with a Steadicam or a gimbal usually requires someone else who focuses the lens, and in this case, operates the zoom. It is obvious that this person is not following the Steadicam operator, because there's not enough space in the elevator. In this case, the signal from the camera is wirelessly sent to a monitor outside the set where the 1st AC is sweating and turning the knobs, making sure the image is in focus. The choreography of the dance between the camera operator and the first AC is brilliant. I like it especially on the part where they zoomed into Chris Stapleton on the other side of that floor and then they did the push/pull when he was coming towards the camera.

Lighting

When you light a big set, you need a ton of light. In this video, they used very dim lighting. These seem to be the practical lights of the interior. They may have changed the light bulbs to match the camera sensitivity without bumping up the ISO too much. Having many spotlights does the job of lighting a huge set, but there will be also lots of pure dark corners. In order to work around this, they used haze to dissipate the light and make it softer.

Justin Timberlake - Say Something - Hazed environmentIn the places of the interior where there were no suitable practicals, they've installed lights on light stands and proudly showed them in the video.

Audio

If you don't know what ADR is, that's the process of replacing audio by re-recording it in post, trying to lip-sync the speaking or singing in the video. That's probably useless information for this article, because I don't think they've used ADR.

Obviously, they've used lots of microphones to capture the ambient sound, as well as the two moments where Justin Timberlake said something (pun intended). You can hear the singers and the musicians cheering at the end too. Here is probably the wireless transmitter and receiver attached to the guitar strap:

Justin Timberlake - Say Something - Audio transmissionIn their monitors, they've listened to the audio from the other singers and instruments. The question is: have they used a studio recording playing in their ear monitors and added some of ambient sounds for the video? I don't know. The audio work is very convincing, and it looks like they've recorded it live. It is not impossible, but I think they've used a studio recording both in their ear monitors and as a base for the audio in the final video. I'd be pleasantly surprised if they did a live recording.

Editing

Well, I think they can save some money on the editing by hiring a very good colorist and an underpaid film school graduate student.

Conclusion

I've probably missed lots of technical details, but I still think that even these are overwhelming enough. Say something in the comments. I'm curious to read your thoughts on the analysis.

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44 Comments

I don’t know that much about professional camera brands, but the credits state they used a Panavision camera.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I didn't see that, but you are right. It states it was a Panavision camera. Neither a BMW, nor a Mercedes, but a Rolls-Royce.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Just an update from Ari Robbins himself, who was kind enough to write a comment here under the article: It was an ARRI Alexa Mini with a Panavision lens.

It was shot in Los Angeles - the famous Bradbury Building where they shot the original Blade Runner and many more movies and commercials - and Panavision has a rental service there.

They rent - of course - Panavision film cameras but also Reds, Arri Alexas/Amiras, and Sony F55s and whatnot. I guess these days it is rather difficult to say on which camera it was shot based alone on the video itself.
DPs of big budget movies have in general a greater inclination to Arri Alexas due to its better color resolution (RED has man issues in this regard but they have a higher sensor resolution).
On music videos the choice of camera has often to do with budget constraints. RED is sometimes cheaper. Then on the other hand it is a video of 2 high profile artists. Guess we will never know from the footage itself.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

And I doubt there would be a BTS video either because of the constant camera movements in 360*.

But, I just remembered the long take in "Atonement," that had a BTS. Hopefull they have some footage for our enjoyment.

Audio: It's important to note that this isn't just video synched up with a studio-recorded track. This was an entirely live performance—video and audio. "That was a reverb challenge," Perez says. "The building was all steel. To even do the wireless transmission was a mathematical feat. We had to record so many instruments in so many different places."

http://www.esquire.com/entertainment/music/a15895135/justin-timberlake-s...

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

"I'd be pleasantly surprised if they did a live recording."

And I am.

I've worked with Ari a few times and his steadicam work is amazing! Reached out to him to ask for camera/lens combo...

Can't imagine the stress of trying to pull this off.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

From the first take :)

Bill Larkin's picture

no kidding!

Lee Christiansen's picture

Let's not forget the focus puller who hit the mark every time.

I've just finished watch Birdman. Whilst not a single take, (but edited to feel that it was), there is some pretty spectacular Steadicam and focus pulling in that film. (And yet the TV credits didn't seem to feature either of them - shameful). That is also a film that should be watched for a mastery of the arts.

Also The Revenant

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I know. That's why the title reads "...and Focus Pulling." I'm impressed by both of them at first place, because that's what I'm closest to.

I would think that the camera operator would control the zoom from a remote on his grip rather than having the Focus Puller do it. This way it's much easier to match movement to zoom and is the norm on the Steadicam set ups we use in the UK. It could be a cabriolet lens, or motorised remote on a film lens.

On other points in the article, I would think it was entirely lit by hired lamps (rather than relying on the practical lighting in the building). They would have the time and budget for it, and you would want complete control of colour temperature, and dimmability, plus health and safety is easier to control with rented kit rather than dealing with the building's own electricals.

I'm sure there's lots of post production, including painting out cables, kit and crew, stabilising, and even possibly some edits to tie different takes together. Possibly one at when the camera pans away from Justin in the elevator the first time for example.

I am sure the audio is live, even if extensively remixed (which can mean re-tuned and notes moved and re-timed). It's very hard to get such good lip-sync with post or pre-recorded audio. You can just tell. See the difference in musicals by comparing the Les Mis movie (live singing) to the Greatest Showman movie (playback).

Overall, this would have had a pretty healthy budget; each department (cameras, sound, lighting, costume, casting, art direction etc.) would have had the opportunity to have the top end of their resources, so no need to save by using Gimbals, DSLRs, house lighting, playback, etc. etc. when you can have Steadicam, Film cameras, hired lighting, live sound etc.

www.timvansomeren.com

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

They did it on the 1st take. Read the article posted by Alexander Petrenko above. There were no edits to tie takes together. One take and that was all (and of course a lot of preparation work).

The audio is live indeed. That's what they said in the article, that they want to show an example of how live music video can be made.

As for the lighting: If you watch the video once again (and read the paragraph in the article about the lighting), they didn't bother to leave lightstands and lights in the final video. If you look at the light quality and fall-off, you will immediately find that this was all practicals. The building's electrical installation was not something done just for the video. It's calculated, so it works the way it is designed. The only thing I'd guess is that they may have changed the lightbulbs for either power (less likely) or manageable color temperature (more likely). If they wanted lights, they could put lights on rails on the ceilings on each floor without worrying they'd be in the frame.

Again: There are no other lights, not because they have been retouched out, but because there's no effect from other lights than lots of practicals. That's why there's smoke: to soften the light up.

As for the zoom: It's not about "easier" here. It's about the complexity of the job. If they relied their Stedicam operator to do 90% of the visuals, he'd be under too much stress and there might be lots of other takes that would cost way too much. There were 200 people on set. That's why hiring a Steadicam operator who can do what he does best, and a focus puller who can do their best, is a much better combination. I don't know if you tried to zoom with a long lens on a Steadicam and operate it at the same time without much wobbling. And do it under a stressful situation of having 200 people including high profile artists, relying on your skills.

And BTW, did you create an account and put a comment here just for the sake of posting your website? If someone likes your comment, they may look at your profile and if there's a website URL, they might click on it. That here is not the way you should it.

Hi Tihomir

Thanks for your comments!

I posted in the same spirit as your original article, purely as speculation. I didn't see the article you referenced with the behind-the-scenes detail, so I was just guessing, so I'm sorry my speculation didn't hit the mark in most cases!

I didn't mean it to sound critical of your original article, but I can see that you could read it that way.

I just wrote my thoughts as they occurred to me, using the knowledge I have of my own experience on such projects, but I should have written with more respect for the pervious opinions, so I'm sorry if I sounded arrogant.

I added my website as an afterthought; I'm not looking for any promo - in fact I'm retiring from directing (after 20 years) next month, so I really don't need any promo ;)

I just thought this forum would welcome some knowledge from people in the industry so by adding my website readers would see that I had at least some "inside" knowledge, which I thought might be welcome.

So I completely take on board all of your corrections - well, almost!

I'm a director, not a camera operator, but I've shot with steadicams for my whole career, and the normal set up is for the operator to zoom, and the focus puller to focus. It's not more stress for the operator - they can handle it, that's why they get the big bucks! PL film zooms don't have a massive range anyway (compared to B4 TV lenses) so the tight end is pretty controllable.
But I'm in the UK and perhaps we do things differently to the operators in the US, so I shouldn't assume that's how this shoot was done.

I'll keep my comments to myself from here, all the best.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Tim, you haven't offended me at all. I'm in a different culture and from a different generation that doesn't get offended that much :)

I'm neither from the UK nor from US, that's why you don't have to worry about my opinion on the steadicams.

Thanks for your feedback. I respect your experience, and I can only learn from people with more experience than me. Here we were just sharing opinions and arguments. That's not offensive by any means. Do not worry about it. I should apologize for talking to you like you were at my age.

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I've got a first-hand info from one of the team members, that the audio was live indeed. Very grateful for their input.

https://twitter.com/beclumsy/status/957990842215682048

Right about most, but I’d be happy to answer any questions you have. We used a standard steadicam, no Trinity, because the lens was the panavision 42-425 with an Arri mini. Focus puller was Jenna Hoffman. Thank you

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

What a privilege to get an answer from Ari Robbins himself!

Thank you!

First of all, impressive production! Impressive camera work! Both yours and Jenna Hoffman's. Thanks for sharing details on the camera and the lens. The readers will appreciate it.

The question I still have unanswered was about the lighting: did you change the lightbulbs or these were the used on the location?

I believe we did swap them out yes

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks, Ari!

Always great to get a first-hand information and I appreciate you were so kind to give us your feedback. I didn't expect such an honor.

Keep up the great work!

Excellent work, Ari! From all of the team members. In the past years we did a dozen "one-take" commercials on a techno crane. That was hard. ;)
But this is a whole other level. You and your crew have my respect....

I am not a musician or a film-maker or video maker but after reading this post and seeing the video clip I can't stop watching it over and over. TIt is a great video. Every time I find new musicians in different places and new features. Like the drummer at the end Congrats to all the artist who made this video and thanks to FS for showing it with technical details

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

Thanks for the feedback. Be sure to check Ari Robbins' comments too.

Studio 403's picture

Nice post, wiz bang.....nice coverage. I bought the Tiffen (new) steady cam for my IPhone. The gimble and unit is easy to set up. I have sort of “played” with. For someone like me who is low budget nad “wanna be” video guy, It great fun on the cheap and getting great results, Watch out Sundance, A hillbilly is headed your way. Age 71, i have “tremors”, so, this “gizmo” results in robust steady, smooth viewing. (Disclaimer) I have no ties to Tiffen legal or fininacial or free products. Just my experience

Tihomir Lazarov's picture

I completely understand that. We all want to have a solid stabilization regardless of the size.

Studio 403's picture

thanks for your kind reply

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