Twenty One Pilots - TOPxMM - DP Alexander Elkins
Mutemath + Twenty One Pilots. They blew up the internet.
This post is written by Alexander Elkins
Most DPs have regular directors that they work with for a few different reasons: they can tolerate long days on set together, they have a creative shorthand, and they trust each other. One of those directors for me is Mark Eshleman of Reel Bear Media. We’ve done a few music videos together (Twenty One Pilots’ ‘Stressed Out’ & ‘Lane Boy’ and Veperteen’s ‘Obsess/Possess’), so when he called me to do this new Twenty One Pilots/Mutemath studio project, I jumped at the opportunity.
When we first chatted, I was operating on a feature in Lousiville, KY, so there wasn't a ton of work I could do immediately. We shared a few different ideas, but the bulk of the prep happened through phone calls a few weeks later. This is when we talked through general ideas on feel and how we might go about placing cameras. Honestly, I could only guess at lighting ideas until I saw the space. Luckily we had a pre-light day, so I was able to get in early and place lights in a low stress environment. That's when I really figured out how the piece was going to look, in terms of lighting.
This project was a bit of a hybrid between a music video and a documentary. We were tasked with capturing six musicians, from two different bands, as they reinvented five Twenty One Pilots songs… lots of number there, but hopefully you’re following along. We had the luxury of multiple takes, but we also had to ride a fine line between being creative and not being intrusive. These artists needed space to create the tracks that we were filming – not everything was decided on musically, so being in the way was frowned upon.
I guess it makes sense to start at the bottom: Gear.
Mark and I had been looking for a project to shoot on anamorphic lenses and this one fit the bill perfectly. Mark (and the band) weren’t a fan of super clean visuals – he like as much character, grit, and abstraction as possible, so anamorphic was the perfect format. We didn’t use modern anamorphics either… we shot on Lomo Foton 37-140s from the late 60s/early 70s. There are distorted, funky anamorphic lenses and then there is the Lomo Foton. These things were really interesting – almost unusable wide open (I ended up shooting around a 5.6), and soft on both the wide and long end of the zoom range. But, for this project, they were absolutely perfect. We embraced the funk and enhanced it wherever possible. Part of the funk came from the fact that all three of us operators were pulling our own focus - crazy, right!?!? It happens, sometimes (mostly because of budget), and you just have to roll with it - all of the imperfections add to the character of the video. We had three of those Lomo zooms that we paired with three Arri Alexa Mini bodies. I absolutely love shooting on the Mini, it's just so intuitive and easy to operate.
Apart from the camera gear, lighting was crucial to the look of this project. Believe it or not, we had a VERY small crew on this one (as is evidenced by the lack of ACs), so I ended up gaffing it myself. The crew that we did have was absolutely amazing and everyone pitched in wherever they could. Both of my other operators (Adam Mills and Sean Green) also helped set up lighting and we had a killer dimmer board op (Daniel Slezinger) that fined tuned the lighting cues and chase sequences.
For the bulk of the look, we utilized a fixture called the Patt 2013 from Robe. We had 20 of these 750-watt tungsten fixtures and it was my job to decide how to get the most out of them. The main reason we used them was because we wanted to see them in frame. The band was set up in a circle, so it made sense to create an even bigger circle of lighting around them. That way no matter where we looked we would always have a few fixtures in the shot. Once we had the lighting circle set up, I gave each musician a 650-watt backlight and I set up an Arri M18 + 8x8’ ultrabounce for fill. I wanted the Patts to read as ‘warm’, so the daylight fill really helped to add some color contrast and not leave the entire image overly warm. Our cameras were set to 4300K white balance.
Throughout the 25-min video, the lighting changes a few times. We used different combinations of lights for different parts of certain songs. The piece starts out with 'Heathens' and we only use the 650 backlights and the M18 fill. When the beat kicks in, we crank up the Patt 2013s and let that ride for a while. Our baseline 'normal' look for the Patts was 33 percent. At the end of 'Ride', around 14-min in, we push the Patts to 100% for a super flared-out look. The majority of the video is at our 'normal' look, but we do one final change at the very end of 'Lane Boy', around the 22-min mark. Here, we drop the backlights and the fill... using only the Patts at our 33% mark. This yielded a really warm look where the musicians were only lit from the back and sides. At the end of the song, we programmed a chase sequence to take us out of the video. It gets chaotic, with the Patts using the full range of intensity, but because of the chase speed the lights never have a chance to cool off and reach 0. We had a lot of fun playing with options and I think the final lighting combos complement each song in the set.
Next Up: Coverage
As far as actually capturing the performances, we broke the circle of musicians into North and South (three & three).
- Angle #1: we had all three cameras outside the South side of the circle, focusing on the three musicians on the North side.
- Angle #2: inside the circle, still focusing on the North side.
- Angle #3: inside the circle, focusing on the South side… so we basically just turned around.
- Angle #4: outside the North side of the circle, focusing on the South side.
Angles 1 and 4 were ‘dirty’, looking over a band member’s shoulder (or instrument) at a different band member. Angles #2 and #3 were 'clean' of any foreground elements. Typically, I was on a Dana Dolly, while Adam and Sean were on sticks. Check out the hand-drawn/organic/vintage/fair trade/gluten-free diagram that I created.
So, we did that same song and dance (there’s a pun in there somewhere) for all five songs. When we were looking North, I either panned or dimmed the Southern lights, and vice versa when we were looking South. There were a few additional inserts of pedals, knobs, and a single on Tyler, but that’s pretty much how we went about capturing the set. In general, we ran each setup three times. Changeover times varied, but we allowed 30 minutes to move cameras, tweak lighting, and give everyone a bathroom or snack break.
Mark (Director) was setup in a control room, live monitoring all three cameras and calling out directions over walkie for each angle. Remember how I said it was a mix between a music video and a documentary? Well, it’s probably more accurate to include ‘live show’ in there as well. I had never shot anything like this before, so it was an absolute blast to step outside of my comfort zone and help create something unique.
Once the edits were done and everyone was happy with the content, we set about the task of coloring. We enlisted another frequent collaborator - Chris Joecken - to get the job done (Chris colored ‘Lane Boy’ and ‘Obsess/Possess’ for us). We cooled off the mid-tones, added a bit of green, brought in a little more contrast (those Lomos were unbelievably low-con, oh and I flared the $#!@ out of them), and desaturated the entire image. On this project, both Mark and I shared notes and references with Chris, but we also sat in on the final session to see it through. Every project is different, but I try to be as involved with the post side as I can be.
Overall, this was a really fun project to shoot. When you’re collaborating with a good friend, listening to good music, and working with a good crew, everything seems right in the world.
Thank Alex for sharing some insight into this shoot! I know I was super impressed with the look of this when it first came out, and even more impressed when I found out someone I knew shot it. What do you guys think of the final look? - Evan