Directing a Music Video... with Zombies
This post is written by Roland Bingaman
I’ve often heard Directors and DP’s talk on podcasts and in articles about that “one project” that took things to a new level for them. That one project that pushed things creatively, logistically, and kind of forced them to grow into the role they’ve been given. Directing Skillets “Back From The Dead” music video was that project for me. I can’t pretend to have a lot of experience with this type of stuff. I’ve been Directing and DPing videos “professionally” for a few years, mostly in the corporate realm of things. My passion has always been in music videos though. That’s how I remember really listening to songs growing up. There’s something really special when the magic of musicianship and film come together.
This project really came out of nowhere for me. I’ve never worked in this capacity on a project this large. By “large” I mean budgetary, status of the band, and number of extras and crew involved. Ben Kasica (former guitarist for Skillet and Executive Producer on this project) texted me one day and asked me if I wanted to write a treatment. Ben and I have been friends for a few years now through the music industry. He believed in what potential vision I might have had for this and took a total chance by asking me to write it. Together we came up with what is now Back From The Dead. He and I worked very closely together through the whole process.
When we started coming up with concepts, the only thing we had to run off of was “Zombies”. John Cooper (Lead vocalist for Skillet) loves the sci-fi / horror genre. He wanted something that was dark, gritty, and had zombies in it. With that in mind we tossed out the idea of connecting it with their hit “Monster” from 2009. That music video really laid the groundwork for an epic sci-fi zombie thriller. John and Korey begin as corpses in that video and are injected with some type of blue substance. They come back to life as a “monster” and escape this experimental lab. Back From The Dead picks up a few years later. They loved the treatment. That was a feeling I’ll never forget. Reading the text saying “Yo – we won the treatment”. It was a solid combination of total fear, excitement, and a tiny voice in my head saying you are definitely not capable of this.
We had two and half weeks of pre-production. For me that was getting home from my 8:00-5:00 job, jumping on skype sessions, phone calls, and typing frantically on my laptop every night. I’ve never done this much pre-production before on anything. I drew up storyboards, had multiple mood boards created for each element including costumes, locations, the color, look, and feel of the piece. We took influences from Mad Max, The Walking Dead, and lots of other music videos that I love. I live in Pennsylvania, our DP and AC were from LA, and the Art Director, Producer, and Executive Producer are in Wisconsin. I met most of these people for the first time the day before the shoot. That meant I was totally relying on these mood boards to allow those guys to put in the work in advance to make sure everything was ready to go on the shoot day.
Storyboards and Shotlist
Storyboards are the easiest way for me to show everyone involved what I kind of see in my head. I'm very visual. Writing is not my thing so I need pictures. I have a hardcore music playlist, an atmospheric synthy playlist, and a film score playlist on spotify. When I'm creating storyboards or shot lists I put headphones on and really just dive into the vibe of the music. It helps me see my ideas more clearly when I can kind of drown out the world.
I have a simple wacom tablet that I use to roughly sketch out how I see each scene playing out. These are by no means final or exactly what I wanted Chris to shoot. I started those storyboards before we even had a location secured so most of that was just in my head. It was easier to explain to the band and to our crew during pre-production how I saw the action playing out using these storyboards. From there we created our shotlists to make sure we knew what we needed coverage wise. Having a plan and knowing what you need allows you to leave a little more wiggle room on set for spontaneity
We had one day to film this video. The band is from Wisconsin so we decided it would be best to keep it local for them. The art team found an amazing old factory that was mostly abandoned. They did two or three location scouts sending tons of images. We used those pictures to plot out our shoot day. It was about 10 degrees in Wisconsin the day we shot this thing. We had about 11 guys working crew and roughly 25 extras plus the band. It was A LOT to cram into one day. Between the amount of humans to keep track of, schedule to keep in mind, and scenes to direct, things got kinda tight. By the end of the day we were really pushing it. The crew and extras really worked hard to make sure this came together in one day. The thing that saved us, besides everyone involved being incredibly patient and hard-working, was the amount of pre-pro we did + the crew lighting each scene in advance. We would get set in one room and while we were rolling the crew would be in our next spot getting lights ready. Our DP, Chris Ellison, was a boss behind the camera. We shot on an Alexa Mini and a full set of Cooke Anamorphics. That was a decision we made early on. I love anamorphic lenses so it was like a dream come true. Chris has a great eye, and were were able to be very collaborative in how we pulled shots together on the day.
Directing the band and zombies for the performance was fun. Those poor zombies were freezing, but they did a great job keeping their energy up. I was running back and forth and jumping up and down flailing my arms to signal them to keep the energy alive. It was exhausting but they did great. We only had time to literally grab one close up shot of each member, but Chris was all over getting that coverage.
For the edit we had originally talked about cutting the music halfway through and letting the some scenes play out like a movie. John really wanted this to feel like a film. Everyone was cool with that, we had audio coverage, we had the footage but when I sat down to edit it just didn't feel right. Especially with the beginning being so lengthy it just felt disjointed. We ditched that idea and let it all play straight through.
When that many people are looking to you for guidance and direction you either crumble under the pressure, own it like a boss, or fake your way through it and hope nobody notices. The day started out by me putting on a confident mask but by the end of the day I felt very comfortable calling the shots and trying to amp up our extras. That small voice in my head telling me I wasn’t capable of this vanished. When you have that many people bringing their gifts and abilities to the table to make YOUR idea happen on screen, it’s both humbling and confidence building. Everyone there had my back, everyone had a positive attitude, and we were all there to make something special together. You kind of have no choice in those situations but to step up and own it. It was an incredibly challenging project but I had an absolute blast seeing this crazy idea to come to life this way.
As far as advice goes, I would say to study others work. Figure out WHY something makes you feel a certain way, how it was lit, why the camera moves the way it does. Then just go do it. You'd be amazed where something can take you when you just go do it.