Friday, May 30, 2008


I'm a musician. Let me pause to make some room for the snickering. OK, for those who know me that is outright raucous laughter. I understand it. For those who do not know me let me make this perfectly clear: I cannot play an instrument. I can barely hold a guitar the proper way. I'm the only guy who can blow into an empty plastic pop bottle off key. And I can't sing. No, I mean I can't sing the way Mike Tyson can't write iambic pentameter. I remember telling this woman that I couldn't sing and she calmly assured me that of course I could sing and that that I have just been conditioned by cold hearted music teachers in school ... then I sang. I sang so badly not only did she go deaf, she went blind ...

Still, I'm a musician. And it all relates to video. When I was inspired by Elizabeth McClung's weekend adventure challenge to cut a video with every one's pictures and video, I began thinking about the music before I had seen any of the images. For me, cutting often is all about the music, it certainly begins there. Particularly if it is images only; music becomes tremendously important. In the video business we call this "music video" style editing; not in the annoying lip syncing, belly button flashing, hair flipping, bling flashing actually promoting a song sort of way, but simply putting image to music, or the other way around.

For the Weekend Adventure video I wanted something upbeat with a nice pace to reflect the fun implicit in the images but I always wanted something with a little substance, with lyrics that conveyed optimism and yet could also understand the poignancy of Elizabeth's challenge: Go out, live life, have fun, cause life oft times throws you a curve ball regardless of what you may be planning. Jem's It's Just a Ride fit the bill perfectly. An upbeat, catchy melody, and a message that was life affirming because it acknowledged that the ride is filled with bumps and detours and doors opening in your path but it's still a ride and all rides should be enjoyed.

When I sang the song in my head (even singing in my head caused my cat Gypsy to wince, that is how pathetic I am) I looked at the images on the computer and it all just came together for me. In my editing style the song goes down first ... first, even though this is a video. Music first so the images could follow the music. Sure, I had an idea what I wanted the images to do; grouping them by "adventure" starting off with each individuals pics in a group to help with identification (I had some quotations rolling as well) and theme. That was pretty obvious and I certainly could have done that without music. But video has a rhythm. It has a rhythm even without music, without a soundtrack. We've all seen static images left on too long ... it can illicit a physical sensation that is almost painful, like your chest tightening. Maybe that's just me. I feel it. An image not given enough time I feel right behind the eyes, like a brief flaring headache. So I put the music down first, and let that be the rhythm of the images.

In the editing software that I use (Final Cut Pro for all the geeks in the house) I can set a duration for any still image I bring into the program. The default is 10 seconds .. way, way, way too long. I have two presets: One at five seconds and one at four. Four seconds is actually how long I want the images to last on screen. I think that duration gives even a completely static image enough time to "tell its story" to give its information without overstaying its welcome, if you will. So why the five seconds? Because if you put transitions on either side of the image (like a dissolve, fade to black etc) that eats up some of the time that each image lives on the screen.

That length is not a hard and fast rule of course. If you watch the Weekend Adventure video, there is a section just before the chorus where Jem sings "break down, don't you break down, break down .." and I cut photos into each one of the "break downs" which is less than four seconds, more like two seconds or so. I'm betting that those photos don't seem less than half the length of others, because the images are moving and they are matched to the music in a way that it makes sense; it flows.

I think I've always seen images and music as elements that should not only exist together, but need to go together to be at their most effective. This probably comes from the movies. A great soundtrack does not just accompany a movie, it enhances it, improves it, embellishes it. The Third Man, directed by Carol Reed; the use of the zither as Joseph Cotton chases Orson Welles around the streets and through the sewers of post war Vienna ... the jarring music and Reed's off kilter camera angles and the brilliant black and white chiaroscuro all combined to give those scenes a breathless, edgy quality. Combined, mind you. Reed's camera work and editing is brilliant but that music adds so much to the scene, it would not be as effective without it.

There are dozens of examples; a bit more recently The Ghost and the Darkness, set in colonial Africa, uses African inspired music to great effect. The music is heavily percussive and filled with chants and not only does it reflect the film's location, it pushes the movie pace. In the early scenes, when Val Kilmer arrives in Africa to build his bridge, all optimistic and filled with testosterone, the music is big, orchestral, effusive and with the African rhythm more subtle, hidden under the strings. As the story progresses and the man eating lions begin to terrorize the area, as all of Kilmer's beautiful clean engineering is destroyed by feral violence, the strings are stripped away from the soundtrack; the drums come out, thudding like blood and the chants become more guttural, grunting, like the hunger of the lions and the fear of the men that leaves breathing short and blood hammering. The scenes are not cut to the beat but the beat informs them, it adds the poetry to the language of the visual images.

I certainly don't aspire to such artistry but I think I understand that power of music to inform image. I have a certain reputation for it in my field. I have worked with other editors on long, complex corporate videos; usually in such cases where the bulk of the video is highly expository, there is a desire to break up the talking heads and close up shots of steel presses with musical montages. These little scenes provide a reprise from the pure information but they still must have a purpose, they still must illustrate something about the product or company. Often, working on these kinds of videos the refrain was "let Kellar do the freaking montage".

Cutting to music is more than just matching cuts to the beat. It is understanding how images need to match up to the rhythm; when cutting to extremely fast beats I like detail shots, extreme close ups, like a pair of eyes or a just the logo from a large machine or the curve of a neck of a bottle of chef sauce (hey, I never said corporate video was romantic). In corporate video you use, largely, instrumental music, because you do not want to distract from the imagery and the message.

That kind of cutting is challenging, both on a technical level as well as a creative one. Where it gets more purely creative for me (let me whisper the word "artistic" in your ear in my most manly of voices) is not just cutting images to the beat, its using music to illustrate the image. This is where you you lay down the images first then stripe in the music afterwards ("striping" is a perfectly archaic video term for inserting a video element, it has to do with the way old school video decks used helical heads to record image and sound onto tape ... wake up, we're done with the geek speak now). Here, the challenge is to find the music that not just compliments the image, but illustrates it. I've been told I have a talent in this area. My friend Karen Baldwin-Porter, an actual for real can play an instrument musician asked me to put together a memorial slideshow for her husband David; when she saw it she told me "You got me with the music, I knew you would get me with the music" I created a similar slideshow as a memorial to Collette's mother Margaret ... and really, you know, I'm happy to do it, but its a duty I do not want to make a habit of. People also complimented the music, were even surprised at the song choices but agreed that it gave impact to the pictures. You can also take a look at this Hayley video where I had some fun cutting to the music.

That is how I am a musician, I think. I'm never gonna be able to play an instrument. Tom Harpell, my friend, my teacher, my mentor in all things video and a pretty mean blues musician, once told me that he could teach anyone, even me, how to play the blues harp. Tom, I love ya brother, but we all know that ain't gonna happen. Its ok. No regrets. I have my own way of playing music. You tune up your harp. Give me a second while I start the computer ...

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