Making the Video, "DIY"-style

Our imaginations are running wild, conjuring up new worlds inspired by your outstanding New Music New Video composition competition submissions! Keep them coming! (The deadline for submissions is September 1, 2018.)

The creative process is one of our favorite aspects of video-making, and we look forward to collaborating on this with the winner of the New Music New Video competition. Our budget is is usually very small (we're musicians, after all!), and so most everything we do fits within the realm of "Do It Yourself," or "DIY." We turn our dreams into reality by finding creative solutions to the seemingly endless set of limitations that shape our productions. While we've created some wild effects through meticulous editing in post-production, our most beloved music video moments often stem from utilizing unusual techniques and props on set.

The most common filmmaking challenge we face with our tiny budget: the limitations of our venue. We can't afford Hollywood-style sound stages (yet 😉), so we've filmed everywhere from our own homes to our friend's backyards. To transform our less-than-glamorous venues into MTV music video-style sets, we often place a strong light immediately behind us at the piano; the backlighting is super dramatic (yaaas!) and it disguises whatever mess may be hiding in the background. Fog machines can also turn a dour bedroom into a heavenly vision. (Speaking of fog machines, we've used these multipurpose devices to create radiant shafts of morning light!) And in making our Contrapunctus music video, we simply hung black & white bed sheets from the walls to create a high budget, high contrast look.

Another common, recurring filmmaking challenge we encounter: how do we create sweeping shots without the use of super expensive camera trains, cranes, and stabilizing rigs? Our solution has been to recreate the effects by situating our camera crew on roller skates and wheel chairs. In a few instances we affixed the camera to a long monopod and waved the contraption above the pianos. And in a recent shoot, we asked a professional dancer to literally dance with the camera in hand, ultimately giving our viewers the sensation that they are dancing along with our performances. 

We love playing with "time" during our video shoots. In our video of Gluck's "Dance of the Blessed Spirits," we tested our pianistic abilities by playing the piece extremely fast—nearly five times fast, in fact. We then slowed down the resulting footage (nearly five times) so that our hands appeared to be playing the music at the correct tempo, but in a dreamy, almost ghostly manner. Similarly, in a few sections of our Rite of Spring music film, we learned our parts backward (an utterly nasty challenge!). We dipped our fingers in paint before filming, and then, with the cameras rolling, we performed the passages (backwards) as our fingers covered the keys in paint. Later while editing, we reversed the footage so that our hands appeared to be playing the passage correctly (i.e. not backwards!) while giving the illusion that the paint was coming off the keys as we played.

Sometimes we go all out with over-the-top, crafty filmmaking effects, like by making use of bugs and bubbles. For a mind-bending look, we've found that we can focus our camera into a flexible mirror and artfully distort the image by warping the mirror. For a hair-raisingly spooky scene, we once used the static electricity from a balloon to make Liz's hair stand on end. (Thank you, grade-school science class. 🤓) And in one extra challenging film shoot, we turned out the lights, donned L.E.D. gloves, and attempted to perform from Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring."

In every case of creative DIY filmmaking, our mission has been to enhance the spirit of the music—to accentuate the music's dreaminess, to illustrate the music's decay, to add potent visual punch to the music's most dramatic moments. We reap inspiration from the generous imagination already latent in the music.

The beautiful, surprising, and weird pieces submitted to our New Music New Video composition competition so far all have exciting boundary-pushing potential! There's still time to submit a piece—the deadline for submission is September 1, 2018. We're so eager to see what unusual visuals we can come up with when we put our heads together with the winning composer.

We're all fired up. 😉

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Rite: The Sacrifice. Episode 10 and beyond...

After months of planning, recording, filming, and editing, we proudly present to you the 10th and final episode of our "Rite of Spring" project:

We revealed a few wild production notes in our recent Gramophone blog, and Greg wrote about the 135-year-old organ that we sacrificially destroyed here.

More pertinent, perhaps, is what comes next! The film wasn't originally designed to be split into installments, but we also knew our YouTube subscribers might be overwhelmed by a 35-minute-long extravaganza. As such, we decided to divide the work into 10 episodes, which we've posted on YouTube for your viewing pleasure.

But now we're working toward our ultimate vision: a seamless, engrossing, and dramatic film — "The Rite of Spring: A Musical Odyssey." We strung the episodes together and re-edited everything; we've re-shot scenes, restructured concepts, and revised and fine-tuned the editing. We are super excited to show you, our fans, the entire film, but we have other ambitions to tackle first. We're currently applying to a handful of carefully selected film festivals, and later we plan to create a DVD/blu-ray version of the film, complete with directors commentary and a behind-the-scenes documentary. Stay tuned for more developments... ;-)

Rest in peace, oh beautiful, sad organ

Today, we take a moment to honor the antique Clough & Warren organ that played a significant role in our Rite of Spring music film — and in many peoples' lives over the past 135 years.

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I found the organ on Craigslist exactly a year ago. The owners, who were totally charming and helpful, had cared for the instrument for several generations and were looking to de-clutter. No judgements on them: while the instrument, built in 1878, was something of a family heirloom and an example of impeccable craftsmanship, it was a bit of an eyesore... a gothic monstrosity... the Debbie Downer of furniture items. It's so creepy, in fact, that they advertised the organ on Craigslist as the perfect addition to a haunted house!

They were so taken with our videos that they generously offered us the instrument for a price we couldn't refuse, even though we had no idea how we would incorporate the instrument into a future video. 

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Greg with the original owners of the instrument. October 2012.

The organ quickly made its way into the conception of our Rite of Spring film, after we had decided upon the themes of materialism, gluttony, and sacrifice — as a symbol of the first two, and something that could serve as, well... a sacrifice. The organ first makes its way into the film in Episode 6 (the "Introduction to Part II"), stark and alone in the middle of the desert. Throughout the film, and especially throughout the video shoots, the instrument took an enormous beating: we covered it in paint, red wine, bugs, bubbles, and sweat. In the end, we managed to bring our original vision to life: we sacrificially destroy the instrument in a baptism of flames and water. Watch for the dramatic sacrifice in the final episode. We literally pushed the organ into the ocean, then hauled it back out and set it on fire. :-)

(The organ got its comeuppance when it tore off my large toenail while filming in the massive waves of water.)


We grew fond of the organ after working with it for nearly a year. We'll show some footage of us playing it — really playing it — when we release the behind-the-scenes video. For now, suffice it to say that while the complete and utter destruction of a beautiful, 135-year-old organ was sad (tear-inducing, even), we did it for the music. We went to these extreme lengths because we ultimately had no other choice: we had to stay true to the colossal scope and vision of the music. In the end, while the instrument will no longer play its reedy tune, it will live on forever in our visual realization of Stravinsky's cacophonous and apocalyptic score. 

Rite: BUGS! RoS: Episode 9

Our concept for this particular movement—entitled "Ritual Action of the Ancestors" in Stravinsky's score—revolves around the idea of decay and dissolution. If the organ, in all its curlicued, hoary stateliness, symbolizes the corporeal, then, as with all material things, it cannot exist forever.

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust ...

Its decay is not only inevitable; it is revealing. Appearances are often deceiving: what is beautiful and alluring on the outside can be corrupt and even depraved within. This episode examines what happens when the protagonists choose to relinquish their material attachments in order to face Reality unencumbered. To communicate this narratively crucial (and rather existential!) denouement, we sought ways to make the organ's degeneration not only visceral but disturbing. In choosing to have the bugs emerge from the organ as it rots, we took inspiration from two things: 1) the organ itself, with its macabre aesthetic, not to mention its many orifices!, and 2) the music, which sounds creepy and crawly and haunting and ominous, with its undulating tell-tale heartbeat spelling doom.

To give credit where it's due, Greg—my ultra imaginative yet sometimes off-his-rocker colleague—was the one who thought of the bugs in the first place, on one of our many in-flight brainstorming sessions during our Asia concert tour last fall. (Although I love to sleep / read / watch movies / basically avoid work on flights, I can attest to planes providing an incredibly fruitful setting for creativity: a) you're captive, b) you're in an almost dreamlike state half the time, and c) you're literally miles and miles above the ground ... that's gotta affect one's mental state, right? Needless to say, folks, the majority of concepts within this Rite of Spring film were dreamt up in the air!) OK, so this long, ostensibly random tangent leads to what I'm about to say .....

I DID NOT enjoy the filming of the millipedes, harmless as they were; to put it simply, I am not a fan of bugs. Just writing about the experience now makes my skin crawl. *shudder* That said, I'm generally open to trying new things, and I'm willing to sacrifice personal comfort (to a degree) for the sake of art. And for all you entomologically-inclined people out there, don't worry—we didn't pluck random bugs off the sidewalk or from someone's yard. We went the "official" route and ordered a bunch of millipedes online, and while they were in our care, Greg fed them little bits of veggies from the nearby farmer's market (not kidding!). To assuage my jitters, I jokingly gave them nicknames (to be said in a kiddie voice for maximum effect): Millie A, Millie B, etc., etc.

The filming required lots of patience, trusty assistants (thank you, Caitlin and Cody!), and chopsticks to keep the millipedes on course. They had a tendency to go astray, crawling in the exact opposite direction from what we wanted. There was always the errant one (or three) that would crawl right off the keyboard, almost into my lap, and every time I yelped in horror. To make things even worse, the first one that was placed on my hand excreted—I think it sensed my fear! Speaking of fear, whenever the millipedes felt threatened, they would curl up in a cinnamon-roll-like bundle, ruining the shot and interrupting the flow of filming. So while they might look coordinated onscreen, they were actually very unpredictable. 

Still, all the discomfort (and squealing on my part) appeared to be worthwhile; the millipedes leave quite an indelible impact and fill the viewer with dread, setting up the organ's cataclysmic swan song. Vivent les mille-pattes! Vive le sacre!

EPISODE 9 of 10: Upon grappling with their inner demons, the journeyers emerge even stronger and more vigilant. This newfound awareness shakes the foundation of their egoic attachments and material trappings. The degeneration of these worldly fetters opens the pathway to their final, inevitable task.

RoS: Episode 8

Lesson learned from filming Episode 8: playing the piano while wearing LED gloves is nasty challenging! Be glad you don't have to listen to the real audio during those scenes; it's an utter mess. (Not that we *ever* miss notes. ;-)

EPISODE 8 of 10: The journeyers return to their mission with a newly sharpened focus and even greater urgency, transformed by the revelations of their hallucinatory flashback. Yet this resurgence of resolve is threatened by the attachments, doubts and fears that persist within. To overcome these dark forces, the seekers must summon their latent, untapped power — the inviolable wisdom of the ages.