Filming with John Clay

We had a plan.

Sunday was going to be simple and relaxed. A slow start to the day. Some leisurely packing. Then bimble our way across the city to pick up our train from King’s Cross up to Cambridge for a couple of days hanging out with academics and researchers learning some science. All very simple right up to the point where John Clay got in touch and asked whether we’d like to help him film some music videos in a basement bar in Shoreditch that looked like something out of Twin Peaks.

From that point Sunday took a very different direction!

Instead of travelling light, we arrived at Red’s True BBQ fully loaded with full camera kit and Lampy’s lighting rig in a ruck-sack along with a couple of days kit for the conference we were heading on to. After pulling faces at John through the window he pointed us in the direction of the entrance at the top of the stairs down to the basement bar.

Red's True BBQ
Very Twin Peaks…

The entrance to the bar had to be seen to be believed. Thick red velvet curtains lined the walls and the floor was covered in large black and white tiles in a striking herring bone pattern. John was right, very Black Lodge. I could see why he wanted to film here. The bar itself was dark, lit mainly by candles in large jars on the tables and fairly lights across wrapped around the branches of a tree growing out of a piano in the centre of the room(!) creating a really nice atmosphere.

It was here where we’d set up for the first act, singer and guitarist Martha Makes Mistakes (AKA: Jessie Jetski). Really the main reason we were here was for Lampy to provide the lighting that would help John get all those ideas about how he was going to film the three acts we were going to see today out of his head and on to his SD card. My role was mostly to move furniture, lift things and try to make sure no-one was ambushed by wires (and maybe take the odd photo…). So after a little faff getting the stage extension set up and a somewhat cantankerous PA system up and running Lampy set about working out how to light Jessie.

Martha Makes Mistakes
Martha making excellent music, no Mistakes today…

Lampy’s lighting style is very theatrical. It’s all about bold, saturated colours and making sure that the artist stands out from the backgrund. With a bit of space behind Jessie, Lampy painted the textured, wood-lined wall John would be filming towards with strong blue light from her Bat Pars (which seemed to make our white extension leads glow in the dark!) and contrasted that with a warm amber light from a pair of birdies with gels in front of the stage. Placing these on the floor and too close to the stage created a somewhat unflattering “evil” up-lit look Christopher Lee would have felt comfortable with in his Hammer Horror days, so Lampy set up the birdies on barstools, raising them off the ground and moved them back from the stage a little creating a more diffuse wash of colour. John also demanded strobe for the end of the track, so a pair of Par 36’s were set up either side of the stage and the whole lot wired up to a lap top through a DMX controller.

Martha Makes Mistakes
Lampy creates some very moody lighting…

Performing for an audience and performing for the camera while a large group enjoy their meat-heavy BBQ lunch at the table behind us are two very different things and it’s brilliant to see how John works with the situation. He’s always talking, always smiling, always relaxed and flexible in his ideas. The sudden and slightly ludicrous addition of santa hat perched on his head adds an element of oddly surreal humour that helps put people at ease. He films in a single flowing take so lets the artist play through the track a couple of times to help them relax and get comfortable and also for him to find the rhythm and shape of the camera position he’s going to use during the take. With Jessie playing through a full PA system I can lurk behind John out of the way and take a few photos of Jessie and John in action and feel comfortable that I’m not going to add the distinctive clunk of a Pentax shutter to the sound track. In fact I get used as a prop and John swings from me lined up to shoot round to Jessie as she starts the song!

John Clay
The maestro at work… (complete with Santa hat!)

Songs have a rhythm, but usually somewhere below the beat there’s also a deeper rhythm loitering in the performance too. This shows up as cycles in the movements, position or facial expressions of the artist associated with different parts of the song or perhaps changes in the tempo or pitch. Most artists have them if you take the time to watch… I always appreciate the opportunity to watch the sound check or the warm up song as it helps me pick out some of these little quirks that I can watch for during the shoot. Listening and watching the practice takes as John gets comfortable with how he’s going to film gave me the chance to pick up an idea of points in the song where the artist smiles, or take a breath before looking up, or closes their eyes or moves just far enough away from the microphone for the shadow from the microphone not to obscure half their face. I work with a very narrow depth of field so focussing is everything. By picking up on these markers it’s possible to focus and meter on a moment and then take the shot as the artist returns to the same place. This reduces some of the randomness of chasing the moment. This is where sometimes you see something wonderful about to happen in front of the lens, but by the time you’ve pressed the shutter, the focus has thought about locking on, the shutter has opened and light hits the sensor the artist just isn’t where you thought they’d be anymore and you get a blur, or you’ve captured one of those special “Performance Faces” (more of them later.)… However in this case, watching the warm-up and choosing my shots carefully (and also with a little of the photographer’s favourite friend, luck) meant I got some lovely shots of Jessie.

Moskovich and Batra
Moskovich and Batra share a smile after the perfect take.

With a successful couple of takes we move on to the second act and a very different set of challenges. John wants to film Moskovich and Batra in that lush velvet-lined entrance hall… These guys have come dressed for the part in black and white complimenting the setting John’s chosen for them to perform in. There’s a lot of very strong down light from the over head spotlights so Lampy rigs up a birdie at floor level to take the edge of the low-side shadows created by the spots in the ceiling. A little careful positioning of the performers so that the bright down light and the white shirts of the performers don’t completely blow the metering of John’s video camera and they’re away with their deliciously filthy, and perfectly executed track “Thank You Mr President”. A track that’s all the more impressive because it was only put together the day before especially for this session!

Moskovich and Batra
Relaxing between takes.

The thing with filming in a hallway leading to a bar while it’s open is that there can be rather a lot going on and all that noise of people passing by can impact vocals as delicate as Iva’s. Lampy and I did our best to act as stewards waving people around our makeshift studio and trying to make sure people were quiet as they go past. My camera is not the loudest I have ever worked with, but it’s up there. With John taking a sound recording as he filmed there are split-seconds of silence, beautiful pauses within the track, and moments where the singer’s long note is softly drawn out to perfection where the crunch of my camera’s shutter just is not an appropriate addition to the soundtrack. Even with John using a directionally sensitive microphone, I’m really aware that I could be impacting that recording which is why we’re all really there. This meant I really only took a few shots on the practice run and in the gaps between takes. Perhaps another time I’ll actually try and take a few more posed shots once John’s got his take…

We were back in the bar for the final shoot of the day with Artist No.3 and her ukulele (read on and hopefully you’ll understand why she remains nameless.)… With Artist No.3 only using a small amp rather than the monstrous PA system, John chose to get up close to film. This meant that he immediately got in the way of the barstool mounted birdies Lampy had set up for Martha Makes Mistakes and cast a large shadow (with a curiously pointed head due to the Santa hat) over Artist No.3. Lampy’s solution was to turn off one of the barstool mounted birdies and go mobile with the other. One quick prod of the laptop, and a strong purple was selected for the backdrop colour. With John wanting to shoot close, Lampy moved to the side and held a birdie as a follow-spot tracking Artist No.3’s movements and keeping John out of the beam of light. Lampy’s handheld birdie even features at the beginning and end of John’s film! The result is quite a strong sidelight (Lampy doesn’t have a diffuser to mount on the birdies). This made for some really interesting shooting conditions that required some careful spot metering on Artist No.3’s face to get a good exposure stood as I was a little further back behind John away from the most intense of the action. On John’s video you can see that when he’s in close, the metering on his camera does a good job, but as he pulls back the camera struggles to balance the brightness of the light from the birdie with the darker backdrop and blows out the highlights a little. I’m guessing this is because it uses a zone metering which it updates with every frame rather than a single spot metered value – this might be something for John, Lampy and I to have a go at understanding for this kind of static lighting set up where John’s the one doing all the moving, not the artist. Artist No.3’s rendition of her song is pitch perfect with beautiful vocals delivering some viciously cutting lyrics and John’s done and happy in a couple of takes.

The mighty and versatile Birdie – barstool mounted for for more even colour wash and less shadows.

Some high-speed packing and a swift half of fine ale later, Lampy and I are off again to catch a train after a really enjoyable afternoon working with some very talented musicians and the legendary John Clay. Lampy’s got some ideas about black extension leads, diffusers and soft-boxes. I’ve got some ideas about taking some more posed shots if we do this again and I’ve got a little bit of editing to do over the festive season (We did make it to our destination in time for the conference ice-breaker session in the evening, just in case you were wondering).

Over the coming couple of weeks Chris Blake and Vasilis Chatzis work a little post production magic on the sound then John releases the videos through his YouTube channel and I post photographs from the first two sessions on Facebook and Instagram getting lots of views and positive feedback including from a pro music photographers forum I use. Which is why when I suddenly get a message from John that Artist No.3 that she doesn’t want to use my photos and does does not want me to post them on line anywhere I’m a little shocked.

Red's True BBQ
Meanwhile, just behind the filming…

No feedback, no “Thanks but no thanks”, no reasons why. Just don’t post them.

I’m perfectly fine to respect that despite being the copyright holder and owner of these images (and thus free to use them) and you’ll notice that there are no photos of a third Artist in this post just as she asked, but a bit of a chat about things would have made the somewhat bitter pill of my first proper rejection easier to swallow. Who knows, that bit of feedback maybe forthcoming in time! Of course at this point I had a choice. I could just take it on the chin, say “Whatever!”, shrug my shoulders and carry on without worrying about it or I could take this personally and vastly over analyse the situation. Anyone knows me well will realise there was no choice at all and you will now have to suffer the fruits of my extensive deliberations….

Obviously the first port of call when setting out to try and understand why my photos had been rejected was to go straight back to the photos I sent John. I carefully examined each shot looking for the flaws, wondering what I could have done better. They’re all well lit (Lampy very is good at what she does!) with good colour balance, carefully metered, pin sharp, the compositions were pretty decent. I even captured a nice smile or two! Satisfied that I hadn’t submitted any duds I worked through the shots I’d discarded to see if any of them were better than my selection. They weren’t (they were discarded for a reason after all!). What had I missed?

John Clay
Starting (and finishing!) the take from Lampy’s handheld birdie follow-spot…

I’d taken these shots at 1/100th of a second shutter speed so every second there a hundred other individual moments the camera and I could have frozen. There are an infinite number of 1/100th of a second moments over the course of a three to four minute song where I could have taken the shot. This is where the difference between filming and shooting stills really becomes apparent. In each of those occasions where I gently depressed the shutter button triggering the electric current to race around the circuits that cause the shutter to open for a fraction of a second and light to fall on the photoreceptive sensor lurking deep within the armoured metal shell of my camera, a prefect record of that tiny slice of time got recorded as a bunch of noughts and ones on the solid state media inside an SD card. Unscrambling those noughts and ones on a computer screen reveals an image that is the truth of that single moment. Henri Cartier-Bresson said that “Photographers deal in things which are continually vanishing and when they have vanished there is no contrivance on earth which can make them come back again.” The picture is what is is. It can’t be anything else, but when you are filming, something very different happens. Each of those fleeting single moments, each of those split-seconds, sits shoulder-to-shoulder with the all the moments that came before and all the ones that follow it, only very rarely are discrete frames are singled out to be viewed individually by themselves.

Martha Makes Mistakes
The smile says it all! Working with John is great fun!

Take “Performance Face”. That’s when that the camera captures that very special moment where the artist is pulling a face that either looks like an advanced state inebriation verging on a form of involuntary paralysis or looks like they’re about to do something bestial involving the microphone with a little too much enthusiasm (in the case of some artists the latter is actually what does happen next…). Photos containing these most handsome of expressions do inevitably get captured (and are always made to “go away” – it’s part of the unspoken photographers code), but when you’re filming these single frames of intense facial expressions are lost in the flowing sequence of the moving picture as they’re usually where an expression is transitioning in to something else as the artist takes breath or annunciates a new word or line of the song.

There aren’t any examples of “Performance Face” in my selection of Artist No.3. In fact she photographs really well and I’m happy that my technique is good.

Red's True BBQSo if I do my job well and capture a well-executed photo that represents the truth of the single moment, I’ve done my bit. That still leaves the issue of why they were rejected. Luckily, it’s Henri to the rescue again when he said that: “It is an illusion that photos are made with the camera… they are made with the eye, heart and head.” Perhaps then it is not the photo itself but the subjective emotional response to, and subsequent interpretation of the photo that is the driver? If this thesis is correct then when the artist views a photo of themselves and it does not meet their expectations of what they should see then perhaps it is the expectations, not the photos, that are flawed. Just a thought…

To completely misquote Brian Eno on a recent Six Music Sunday Service with Jervis Cocker: “Play is how children learn. Art is where adults play…” and if Brian is also right when he says: “Art is everything that you don’t have to do.” then there are lessons to be had from my afternoon creating light, film and images with John and Lampy. I’ve learn’t that I can take pictures that record the moment, but can’t control how the viewer perceives and responds to them, but importantly, that it’s not my problem. I’ve also learnt that I get to choose where I expend my discretionary efforts. I don’t have to photograph an artist a second time if they don’t appreciate what I do.

Follow these links to see John’s films of Martha Makes Mistakes and Moskovitch and Batra on his YouTube Channel.

18/12/2016 Red’s True BBQ, Shoreditch



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