Barry Cleveland: How I Made a Music Video For $12.00

Everyone knows how far an engaging video can go toward advancing an artist or band’s career, or promoting a record—but making a music video costs major clams, right?
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Everyone knows how far an engaging video can go toward advancing an artist or band’s career, or promoting a record—but making a music video costs major clams, right?

Well, if by “making a video” you mean renting a studio sound stage and hiring professional videographers with multiple cameras, lighting arrays, and a fancy editing suite—then, yes, you’ll need a tidy bundle to play in that arena.

But should that dilemma cause clam-challenged artists to slink back into their corners and whine about being excluded from the game? Instead, why not substitute noodle power and elbow grease for money and get creative with whatever resources you can get your hands on?

In my case, up-and-coming filmmaker Martin Yernazian had offered to make a music video for the avant-metal song “Warning,” from my album Hologramatron, which made a certain amount of sense because the song features the voice and words of Michael Masley (a.k.a. the Artist General), who Yernazian was, in fact, making a documentary film about. But Mr. Yernazian is a busy man, and despite having brainstormed some cool concepts, after nearly a year the video remained but a glimmer in his mind’s eye.

So I decided to make the video for “Warning” myself.

The song’s core riff had come to me late one night after I’d discovered that a Euthymia ICBM Fuzz pedal combined with a Crowther Prunes & Custard Harmonic Generator-Intermodulator and an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG emits a tone gnarly enough to give Tony Iommi pause. When I couldn't come up with suitably heavy lyrics for the piece, I asked Masley to try improvising some “lyrics” while rapping along to a loop of the core riff for 20 minutes—no mean feat seeing its in 11/8. Ultimately, Michael Manring added fretless bass, Robert Powell dubbed in pedal-steel, and Rick Walkerpounded out drum parts on a chain-covered custom kit and a ring-modulated teakettle. I edited together the most compelling bits of Masley’s impromptu rant and processed each one individually, as well as tracking the guitar solo.

So, given the improvisational origins of the music and the words, I decided that an improvised video performance might be truer to the original impulse than something scripted. And since I had no budget, and competing with slick commercial videos was out of the question anyway, it was only reasonable that I should embrace lo-fi as a possible advantage rather than as an obstacle. After all, the audio quality and the musicianship were excellent, and that would hopefully establish the integrity of the endeavor, perceived visual cheesiness notwithstanding.

The video footage for “Warning” was shot using a five-year-old JVC consumer camcorder and an inexpensive Fresnel light. I hung a green sheet in front of my fireplace as a makeshift backdrop, and at one point I removed the sheet and built a fire, shooting Masley with the blaze behind his head (and some B roll of just the flames). By positioning the camera and the light in various ways, I was able to get some very vibe-y, noir-like effects—and the fire footage came out really well.

Much as he’d improvised the lyrics, Masley assumed the character of the Artist General—including donning the AG’s uniform—and repeatedly lip-synched to the recording until we had multiple takes for every part of the song.

Once we had the footage in the can, it was time to edit it together—and that’s when things got a whole lot more interesting. I knew just enough about editing in Final Cut Express HD to get into real trouble, but I learned to use the software as I went along, buoyed by Beginner’s Mind and the idiot glee of discovery. I may even have stumbled upon some original techniques.

For example, in Final Cut (and numerous other video editing programs) there is something called the Razor Blade Tool, which may be used to cut up segments of virtual video, just like you’d cut physical tape with an actual razor blade. I used it to slice out thin bits of video and photos (you can import photos as well as video into the Timeline) and then place them next to each other to create flickering composite images and other dramatic effects.

Taking the process a step farther, I placed one track of video on top of another and used the Razor Blade Tool to slice out bits of the track on top, so that the track below showed through in place of the missing bits. For example, by placing the B roll shot of just the fire below, and cutting small slices out of the track above, I made it appear that the image above was being engulfed in flames.

I also liberally employed something called The Mirror Effect (Effects>Video Filters>Perspective>Mirror in FCEHD), which splits the screen and creates a symmetrical image by mirroring one side. This is super-easy to do, and creates some truly awesome results.

But my crowning achievement was a sight gag I created using a pie pan, a bag of decorative stars, some blue cardboard, and a piece of dental floss. Masley gets a little cosmic toward the end of the song, and I wanted to use some outer space and flying saucer images, but I couldn’t find anything that gave me the effect I was looking for. I kept visualizing a hokey flying saucer and eventually it occurred to me that by using the Blue Screen/Chroma Key process (Effects>Video Filters>Key>Chroma Keyer in FCEHD), I could make my own.

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I suspended the pie pan in front of the cardboard using the floss, gave it a spin, and captured the video using a Kodak Zi8 camera.

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Next, I spread the stars out on the cardboard, and panned the camera from the bottom of the cardboard to the top.

Then I dialed in the blue color using the Chroma Keyer, and removed it, so that all that remained was the spinning saucer. I superimposed the saucer footage over the footage of the stars, and since the stars were moving down in the video, it appeared that the saucer was rising. Viola! Total budget? $12.00.

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And here’s what the final video looks like:

Whether you dig the Artist General's Warnings or disapprove of them, I hope that I've inspired you to make videos of your own. You might be surprised at how much can be done with just your imagination, hard work, and a few basic tools that most people either already possess, or that may be easily borrowed or rented inexpensively. I certainly learned a lot making this video—and had great fun along the way.