What could you do with $500, a couple of smoke bombs and a few Canon 7Ds/5Ds? Make a badass music video that premieres internationally on renown music blogs like Pitchfork and NME. Well, maybe not you, but music video director and filmmaker Jeremy Johnstone could. And did.
DIY culture is in Johnstone’s DNA. Growing up a skater/snowboarder in the Pacific Northwest during the late 80s/early 90s, he naturally gravitated to the region’s exploding punk scene and the visual culture that went along with it. “I would plug two VCRs and my tape deck together with RCA cables and remix all my skate videos to the music I liked,” says Johnstone. “I had no idea I was ‘editing,’ I just wanted to get rid of the parts I didn’t like and make the soundtrack rockin.”
By the time he was in his late teens, Johnstone was a sponsored boarder and was the one being filmed for the snowboarding videos. That is, until he blew his knew out at 20, prematurely ending his snowboarding career. Unable to stay away from the slopes, he picked up a camera and started shooting snowboard videos with everything from super 8mm to 16mm to digital cameras. Since the nature of snowboarding, like skateboarding & punk rock, is DIY in sport and culture, the film side is similarly bare bones and run and gun.
“The punk rock/skate mentality is what lead me into DIY music videos,” says Johnstone. "You don’t need a ton of money to make something beautiful or to make it tell a story or connect with someone. We had to be able to carry all the gear we needed for a full day of shooting in our backpacks and be able to snowboard with them on, so you learn to get the best image/shot possible with minimal gear. I think this point of view is what separates me from your typical music video director, let alone typical filmmaker.
Yesterday he debuted two new music videos, one shot for a budget of $3,000 and the other a measly $500. But with a little ingenuity and a lot of talented friends who are willing to pool together equipment and work for cheap or free, it’s possible to end up with something truly beautiful. And that, more so than the oft-cited DIY example of the midwestern teenager with a webcam and a YouTube channel, is the true great promise of the current digital revolution—the incredible potential granted to the creative professional whose vision is elevated and enabled by access to these tools.
We spoke with Johnstone via email to learn some of the tricks of his trade, the challenges of making these two bootstrapped videos, and which music video directors he’s watching today.
The Creators Project: The Wye Oak video is a majorly ambitious undertaking for a DIY project with a budget of only $3,000. What made you think that you could pull it off?
Jeremy Johnstone: Well I wasn’t sure I could pull it off until I had the right people involved. The most important thing about doing anything DIY, especially projects like music videos, film, or similar, is having a group of people involved that are as dedicated and invested and/or passionate about the project as you are. On projects like this people usually make little or no money at all, so its not about working for cash but being involved in a project you are excited and proud of.
I got a great producer involved, Greg Beauchamp, he is not only a fan of the band but we help each other out all the time on different projects. He is way overqualified for a project like this, he produced a feature film last year, Searching For Sonny starring Minka Kelley, Jason Dohring, Britanick & Masi Oka. There is a give and take along with mutual respect that made it possible for us to work together on this project. Neither Greg nor myself made a single dollar on this project.
We did pay our DP a modest rate, but he also let us borrow a few thousand dollars worth of his own equipment—his Canon 5D, lenses, GoPro, camera mounted lights (Litepanel), as well as other minor pieces of gear. We had to rent a little bit of gear as well. The band themselves were also great help on this project, and having a crew, including talent, that are all excited and working together is key. Its not a high budget commercial or a feature film, so there isn’t the same hierarchy you would have in that situation. On set for a commercial, I’m the director, so I’m the boss. On a music video, its a collaboration between the artist and the entire crew. Everyone helps out equally and everyone’s input is heard. That’s why its such an enjoyable process and why I have done 20 music videos in the past 9 years all for micro-budgets.
I recently directed a video for the LA band DWNTWN, and that video was totally done for under $500, which is a little insane. But they are good friends and I wanted to collaborate with them and help them out at the early stages of their musical career. Again, everyone that worked on the project were fans of the band and actually friends. That sense of camaraderie makes the process enjoyable and then that translates into into a fun video to watch.
DWNTWN – Hungry Hearts
What’s the most challenging part of putting these types of shoots together?
For Wye Oak, it was a matter of logistics, how in the world were we going to be able to shoot a band on roller coasters at Coney Island? It’s about $6k to rent one coaster for the day, and our budget was barely half of that. So we did an insane amount of pre-production and tests. We had to practice getting on the ride with all of our equipment put away, so as not to look conspicuous. Then in the 15-30 seconds before the ride actually got to full speed, we would pull out the camera, attach safety lines or mount to the coasters, and then get setup to shoot. Most of the shoot we were shooting blind. So we had to practice me operating the camera while my DP watched on a mini monitor telling me to “tilt up,” “focus closer,” “pan left,” etc. Safety was our number one priority, so it was a lot of prepping for that.
For DWNTWN it was totally different. We didn’t have crazy setups but instead we were trying to create very vivid beautiful images with no set. We rented a fog machine and ran it off a generator, then got boxes of smoke bombs and mounted a few par cans (cheap stage lights) to a fence post. I inhaled so much smoke from the smoke bombs I actually got a little sick the following day. But it led to us getting some really amazing imagery. We also had the danger of setting a field on fire, so we had to have one crew member just hanging out with a hose, buckets of water and small fire extinguisher. We shot one series of shots with a car following Robert, one half of the band, as he ran down a hill. I had the driver behind him on the phone with a headset listening to my directions and then I sat in the back of an SUV with the back hatch open and a mono-pod resting between my legs. We all had to be in sync otherwise we could potentially run Robert over. Also due to time and budget constraints, we only had 1 day to shoot the entire video. So we shot from noon until about 2am. So the entire posse involved put in a very long day, for no pay.
Wye Oak – Holy Holy
What was the best hack you came up with on these shoots to get the desired effect you wanted on the cheap?
I think for Wye Oak, the roller coaster rides are the big money shots, but honestly those were more about practice and practicality. So it was all just a matter of using a mini cardellini camera mount, safety chains, small cameras, and having steady hands, which on a coaster can be difficult. But the DIY Snorri Cam is what I’m most proud of. I love Requiem for a Dream, and the Mick Jagger/Lenny Kravitz video by Mark Romanek. The shots with the camera mounted to the actual actor/artist blew my mind. I wanted to recreate this, but get an even wider view to show the glory that is Coney Island. So with about $20 in rental equipment, we mounted a rod to a wooden board strapped to the band’s stomach’s and set a camera on top. Of course its much more complex than that, but the fact that it actually worked was even a surprise to me. It was very uncomfortable, but the band were total troopers and dealt with the aches and pains for the sake of getting those great shots walking around the boardwalk.
Johnstone getting fitted with the DIY Snorri Cam
On DWNTWN, it was the field scenes with the smoke bombs. We had to judge the wind and set up a fog machine down wind, then light smoke bombs in the actual area and run to our setups before all the smoke had dissipated. It’s a lot less tech, but it was a hack nonetheless. The running car shot was tricky but more about making sure everyone was listening to careful direction the entire time.
As a DIY filmmaker, what are the most essential tools in your arsenal?
There are two answers to this. First is having a crew of friends you can rely on to put in the effort and do their jobs well. Plenty of people are willing to help out, but knowing those people that will really put in the effort and have that craftsmanship and level of professionalism is hard to find. I make sure I return the favors every chance I get. Even if its helping them move into an apartment, doing post-production on their projects or just buying them drinks.
The second is the fact that I have a lot of experience and have had a full career in post-production. I have been a designer and animator for 7+ years, 6 of those in NYC working with everyone from the Sundance Channel to MTV/VH1 to major agencies on huge projects like SuperBowl commercials. So I never have to budget in post-production, I edit most of my music videos and do all of the graphics and coloring. It comes natural for me and it’s a specific skillset I had before transitioning into being a director. And that also helps on set, I can be my own technical director, so I know what I can do in post, before I even shoot something. This has come in handy on every video I have done. Some of my previous videos were completely animated even.
If money were no object, what’s one passion project you’d like to get off the ground?
I really want to choreograph a ballet to an Explosions In Sky or Mono album. I want to write and direct a western movie set to a Young Widows album. If money were no object I would take all the amazingly talented and creative people I know who don’t have that chance to create what they have the potential to, and I would try and make the impossible happen. Again, I’m very idealistic. I would love to remake Fountainhead the movie.
Portugal. The Man – Sleep Forever
(Directed by Michael Ragen)
Who is making some of your favorite music videos right now?
Hands down, Michael Ragen is the most talented and hardworking guy in the business right now, and with him That Go are pushing limits. Mike’s work with Portugal. The Man is absolutely amazing. Sean Pecknfold of Grandchildren is so delicate and unique with his vision. And then I have never met, but Patrick Daughters is a huge inspiration to me, he has amazing vision.
All images courtesy Jeremy Johnstone.