Gary Yost is no stranger to PVC, as he detailed what went into making “The Invisible Peak” last year for us, so his skill and expertise are beyond doubt. He is both a filmmaker and a photographer, and you can clearly see his photographer’s eye in much of his work.
Gary recently filmed the first fully-infrared music video featuring underwater, timelapse and real-time IR cinematography. The world-famous synchronized water performance team, The Aqualilies, teamed up with SF indie band Yassou Benedict to create a brand-new visual medium for the music video “Youngblood,” which Gary directed.
The video is visually stunning, and I wanted to talk with Gary about what went into creating that look, how the project came together, what it was like to film underwater and plenty more. He lays out some key insights that are as entertaining as they are enlightening.
ProVideo Coalition: You directed the music video “Youngblood” featuring the band Yassou Benedict and the world-famous synchronized water performance team, The Aqualilies. How did this project come together?
Gary Yost: The band came to me in June of last year and told me that they were working on a new song that needed strong visuals. I hadn’t heard the song yet, but co-founder Lilie Bytheway-Hoy was clear about wanting a new kind of look. I’d been experimenting with a recently IR-converted Nikon D200 for a time-lapse project I wanted to accomplish that summer in Hawaii, and so I suggested that we make some experiments. We got together at my house and took the camera and a slider into my yard to see what we could do.
I wanted to incorporate real-time IR video, which the D200 isn’t capable of, but I do have an old Canon XF100 camcorder and it has an IR “night mode” that essentially lifts the IR-blocking filter from in front of the sensor. If you add a 720nm IR filter to the lens the camera turns into an IR monster, so our June tests incorporated that camera as well. I threw the test visuals on top of a fun Morcheeba track just to see how they cut together to a beat. (We spent a lot of time testing different clothing material because infrared will sometimes show white as black!)
The test results were so successful and compelling that by August we had clear ideas for the look, but I still hadn’t heard the track yet and was curious about where the music would take us. In September, Lilie sent me the first cut of the track and I was hooked. The song starts with a lo-fi sequence of James Jackson singing in the background and then it kicks into the first verse with a strong bass drop. Structurally, it has a long first verse and then splits up into two polar opposite vibes in the second section, alternating between a frenetic feel and a very calm release. In short, a great aural canvas to paint on!
The look and feel of this video are very distinct. Where did the creative vision for this project come from?
We struggled quite a bit with this. In late September, Theo Quimby (who plays keys and synth) was joking at one of their rehearsals that perhaps synchronized swimming would be a good direction for the video. 21st century Busby Berkeley! Lilie picked up on that and called me the next day asking if this would be possible. WTF! Of course I didn’t know any synchronized swimmers, but I had seen (and loved) many of those old films starring Esther Williams and the thought was so crazy intriguing that we began doing research on whether any swimmers were even available for something like this. Eventually that search led us to the only professional synch swimming team in the USA, the Aqualilies. I contacted their manager in LA, Mesha Kussman, and laid out our plans for the video. They’d recently done a music video with Justin Bieber and had worked on TV shows like Glee, with Justin Timberlake and others. With our limited budget it looked like it may not be possible, but Mesha was fascinated by the project and loved the music, so she agreed to collaborate with us in early October.
We had swimmers! Not just swimmers, but the best on the planet. Game on, and the stakes just got higher.
Our intention for the song was to build it in three parts. An opening A-sequence and then alternating B&C sections, followed by a resolving part D. Synchronized swimming would be the C part, and we decided that both the A and B parts needed to be water-themed as well. For A, we felt that starting in Lilie’s bathtub and having her drop underwater would give us a doorway into the B&C sections, which are essentially dream sequences. The B-part was the biggest challenge, and we wanted watery imagery but as different from the silky smooth choreographed swimming movement as possible. I had just completed my Hawaiian Tree-Bones infrared time-lapse short and had become entranced with the surreal quality of IR imagery. 720-nanometer infrared cinematography captures light that passes through the skin and is reflected off the sub-dermis. The sub-dermis is composed of connective and adipose tissue, and its physiological function is primarily to provide insulation and cushion the underlying body for protection against trauma. So when you view people filmed in this way, you’re essentially seeing through the outer layer of the character’s skin, into the hidden support organ underneath. Seeing underneath the skin… this is extremely interesting to me and it enhanced the narrative of young love, with so many emotions hidden below the surface.
The tests we had done in June proved that we could create Harryhausen-esque stop-motion time-lapse sequences of Lilie’s body in front of the smoothly roiling clouds. Those clouds would reinforce the water motif but still provide all the visual contrast we needed. Lilie was a huge sport during this process… we needed intense storm-clouds and waited until December to do this, but it was very cold up on top of Mt. Tam… usually in the low 40s. She didn’t have a lot of clothes on, and each 10-second sequence would take 10 minutes to film while she moved her body slightly from frame-to-frame. The things we do for art!
But now we had all of our scenes in mind and once that visual language was established, the rest of the project fell smoothly into place.
This video was shot on top of Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County and above and below the surface of an olympic-sized pool. Was this location about an opportunity or about fulfilling the creative vision of the project?
100% about the creative vision. The Aqualilies obviously need a large pool to perform in, and we had to find one for them. It had to be private, and I was lucky to know someone with a beautiful pool and facilities to support all the talent (6 swimmers and 2 coaches) and the production crew (5 of us). For time-lapse sequences we needed clouds behind Lilie, plus we wanted to portray her as huge, so the hills of western Marin county lie below her, as if she’s hundreds of feet tall. There are very few places other than the top of a mountain where you can get that effect.
How did you look to use underwater, timelapse and real-time IR cinematography elements to create that distinct feel and really impact your audience?
Working with these three infrared mediums of real-time, time-lapse and underwater cinematography had its own challenges… we needed seamless integration in order to sell the vision. That was accomplished primarily by bringing the FCPX edit timeline into Davinci Resolve and using Resolve’s advanced controls for matching tonality, which integrated the disparate visual components.
What were you shooting with? Any specific reason you went with that hardware?
I already had the converted Nikon D200 for shooting IR timelapse, and it was perfect for the mountain shots. I also had a dry bag for the Canon XF100 for shooting the underwater sequences, but the XF100’s lens wasn’t wide enough for the overhead pool shots. So I had to purchase a low-cost Nikon D5200 and send it to Lifepixel for conversion – we did that for our original tests in June. Having a DSLR that could shoot video was essential… we needed the ability to use different lenses for different scenes. I did purchase a 15’ crane from Proaim because we needed those overhead shots and there was no other way to do it. It’s come in handy on a few other shoots already, and was a great investment.
What were the biggest challenges that you encountered when shooting?
Usually the weather is my biggest challenge because almost all of the work I do is outdoors. Sometimes I need clouds and there are no clouds. For the swimming sequences we needed sun and warm weather and were very lucky to get that at the end of October. I previsualize everything I do in advance for shoots like this, so when I walk on set the day of, I’m comfortable that I can do what’s necessary. The Aqualilies were such professionals… it was all I could do to keep up with them as they went through their routines, listening to the music blasting through a special underwater speaker system they use. We recorded the song 20% faster than the track’s actual speed and did all the choreography to that. We shot at 30p and then in post I slowed it back down to normal speed so that the swimmer’s motion would have an extra little bit of smoothness to it, which helped with the dreamy surreal quality. We did end up using the Blade Speed function in FCPX to make fine adjustments in timing, which was essential.
Tell us about the logistics of shooting underwater. Were you dealing more with technical or creative issues?
I’d never done this before, so had no idea of what to expect. I asked my friend Colin Drake, who’s a great photographer and also a surfer, to be camera op for those sequences. The dry bag we had for the XF100 didn’t provide for very clear monitoring, so it was hard for him to maintain the framing that we wanted. But we kept shooting until we got what we needed. What was unexpected was that the infrared camera enhanced the contrast of the air bubbles and caustic sun flares underwater, which we used to great advantage in the final cut.
What are your biggest takeaways from the project?
Collaboration! As always, when you bring talented people into a creative project, what you get is synergistic… much greater than the sum of its parts. Working with Lilie’s concept from the beginning was liberating for me, and then sitting with her in the edit bay for weeks, helping her to accomplish her vision for the final piece, taught me so much. Particularly that creative projects are a process, and slowing down allows the process to play itself out naturally instead of forcing it.
What would you tell someone who wants to establish a distinct look for their own project? Should they look into elements like timelapse and real-time IR cinematography?
Wow… great question. We struggled with this issue ourselves, and originally felt that maybe we needed to “gild the lily” so to speak and add additional visual effects to the synchronized swimming sequence. One of the amazing things about shooting swimmers wearing white bathing suits in a pool with an infrared camera is that the video stream is also essentially a z-depth map in addition to an rgb map. When the swimmers are at the surface, the whitest part of the image is closest to the camera, and the darkest part is farthest away. This is insanely useful for doing depth-map-based visual effects, and my friend Jamie Clay ran some fascinating experiments on the footage in After Effects to see what was possible. Short answer is, A LOT. But in the end we decided that the look of this piece needed to be as clean as possible, without pushing too far into the abstract zone. That said, we’ve got a lot of beautiful footage here and I’m hoping to get the time to cut a piece for the Aqualilies that is the visual equivalent of a synchronized swimming acid trip. Here’s a clip with some of our experiments:
So even though we could do something cool, we decided against it for the sake of the project and to not detract from the narrative. It’s important to go into every project without holding your creativity back… go way outside the box. Then, once you’ve explored all the potential opportunities, see how you can best help the story tell itself. Music videos are great fun to work on because there’s so much room for creative freedom. Wouldn’t it be great if they also came with reasonable budgets!
Anyone who wants to come up with their own look needs to explore what turns them on. My credo is that I’m “looking to explore the mystery in life through a careful examination of the natural world,” and everything I do supports that philosophy. I know that if I stay true to my own personal ethos, all of my work will have a consistency and “look” to it. But it’s taken me a long time to come to this place of understanding, and I’m learning more about it every day.
Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at the shoot day with the Aqualilies:
Gary Yost is a filmmaker and photographer living in the San Francisco Bay Area who focuses on telling stories about the interesting people and places where he lives. Yost has been using technology to tell complex stories for a long time. As the leader of the team that created Autodesk 3DS Max he gave millions of people 3D modeling and animation tools, enabling them to use computers to visualize anything they could think of… and a lot of those things were too large, too small, too fast or too slow to show with conventional video. These days, Yost refers to nature as “his grand animation stand” and spends much of his time on Mt. Tamalpais in Marin County. You can view his work at www.garyyost.com