Director of Photography Jeff Cutter has worked with several of the most noted music video directors to date. We spoke to Jeff about the challenges, inspiration, and creating the stunning yet simple look for the Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘Can’t Stop’ music video.
*see the Red Hot Chili Peppers ‘Can’t Stop’ music video
Interview with Director of Photography Jeff Cutter
MVW: What were a few of the challenges you faced shooting this video?
JC: The biggest challenge in this case was that we had a lot to shoot and not a lot of time. The concept basically was to give a feel of an art installation space; everything was sort of blank, white walls, metal doors, really uninteresting. We were hoping for a place that would have existing florescent lighting so we could come in and turn on the lights and have everything lit. Unfortunately there were no lights in the space at all. There were a lot of skylights, which was a problem so we had to cover them. We were not ever going to see the whole space in its entirety in any single shot so we just used each little area as if it were another area of some giant art space so what we ended up doing is creating our own mobile florescent light ceiling. We built a 20 x 30 grid then we rigged like 30 – 40 foot Kino flow doubles underneath it in a pattern as if it were a ceiling. We put that on an 80-foot articulating arm Condor and we would literally just roll that around and stick it over the top of whatever little area we were shooting. Each time we went to a different space it felt like we were in Home Depot, it had that weird, raw quality, but that’s what we were going for: the unlit, unflattering look. So that was the biggest challenge, in that nothing was lit, we had all this stuff to shoot and not a lot of time so we had to figure out how to do it.
MVW: What was the inspiration for the “Can’t Stop” music video?
JC: This artist named Erwin Wurm inspired the video; he did these art pieces called, “One Minute Sculptures.” There were people posing in these awkward positions with everyday objects like buckets or pots on their heads or inside trash cans. They would just hold these poses against very blank rather uninteresting backdrops, so it was inspired by his work. The band would assume all these positions and all these weird scenarios with all kinds of different things. Like one was Flea playing his bass with the giant purple dinosaur mask on. There was one with yellow plastic buckets on feet and arms and head, so it just became these very sort of surreal, abstract things, which threw the Chili Peppers into that environment that they had a lot of fun with. So there was that, and all the vignettes, and there was the band performance. It had the same kind of vibe as far as the space went: on a stage that the art director built, the interesting glass and metal and florescent tube stage floor in rectangle pieces that all moved around and then the band just got up on that with the same top light look. With the exception of two setups, we basically used the same florescent source above everything.
MVW: How did you like working with RHCP?
JC: They were actually very cool, they were very in to the ideas and Anthony in particular was very open to anything. Things that would often at first seem difficult he would make the most out of them. There was one interesting setup that was a jagged, brick wall that was cut out in big portions, so he could be bricked into this wall. Things like that could be very constricting and restricting but he just welcomed it and did an amazing performance.
MVW: The look was clean and simple as far as the lighting was concerned.
JC: Yes, the whole thing was to make it seem as unlit as we could so we rolled that light around and the only thing we did was we bring in 20 x 4 grids and grif-ons and just use the grif-ons passively as white sources. It needed to feel like you are in a white box to a certain extent. The problem is that it was such a massive space that we might be shooting against the white wall but we did not have any other white around us. You are against the wall and you bring in the top lighting source but it still seemed very top lit because there were no bounce back since there were no white walls. So we basically had to create our own white wall in a way. We rolled in about 40 feet of a couple of 20 x grif-ons on either side and got 40 feet of white wall basically on the sides and did the same with the front on either side to get white walls on the side and did the same on the front. We had the full grids and punched like 10k’s through the full grids just to pick it up a little bit. With the exception of two sets we pretty much did that for everything.
MVW: What was the focus of the discussion when you talked to Mark before the shoot?
JC: He had already found the location and he told me he was hoping it would have florescent lighting, but it didn’t. So it would be great if we could come up with a way to light things quickly and easily. At first, I thought of using helium balloons because you blow them up and walk them around and they’re so quick.
This warehouse was about 40 feet high and maybe 2 football fields long, massive space, of which we probably used only about half of anyway. Well, we talked about the helium balloons but he just wanted it to have that florescent quality, which he didn’t think we would get with the balloons. So that was when I talked to my gaffer and key grip and we started tossing around ideas about what was the biggest florescent grid we could use on the Condor.
MVW: What type of film stock did you use?
JC: The film stock was the film stock that I had used before, but I did chose one that was a low contrast, de-saturated stock 5277. We didn’t want it to be rich blacks and vibrant colors. That was actually one other thing Mark had talked about when we did the prep, was that everything would be essentially white or gray, no blacks, with the exception that there would always be one object in the frame that would be one vibrant color: like an orange bucket or a pink shirt. So there was one color that would pop and everything else was a white/gray world. The film stock helped with that, it is called Kodak 5277, which is a very low contrast stock and very de-saturated.
MVW: Did you work off of a storyboard?
JC: No, not really, it was more like a shot list. Mark had a shot list more detailed to the performance. He knew exactly the pieces that needed the coverage, etc. Then when we got into the various setups, he listed what the vignette was. You know one vignette was that John would be playing the guitar under this giant sack filled with pink Styrofoam peanuts in a tube, and they just rained down on him while he was performing. For something like that Mark knew that was the setup but we did not know how many shots it would be until we got to it. There were some things only played in wide shots and some only in coverage. So when we got to the shots we lined them up to see how many pieces we needed. We were not that precise with boards and we tended to stay a lot wider too to allow the band to do the things they might do rather than binding them to a tight frame.
MVW: Did the band do much ad-libbing to what was prepared?
JC: Yes. There were things that Mark thought would be cool and we would set them up then you’d be like, “Oh I don’t know,” then one of the guys would just jump into it and they would spring a whole new level to it just with their performance. Also, the way they would interact with the various props and the things they would do was spontaneous.
MVW: Were most of the setups focused on creating the unlit look of the video?
JC: Yes, more or less. There were two interesting things that we did which did not fall in that general setup. One was John playing his guitar in what seemed like a sea of lamps. There were about 100 lamps all different size with different shades and Mark wanted every lamp to be on its own dimmer. We did the setup and talked about whether he should just be lit by the lamps or if there should be other lights on. Then we just turned the lights on and had him stand there and it was so beautiful without any extra light that we just let the lamps light him and when the lamps were dimming up and down on John as he was performing it was very interesting. We started with just a black frame and then as the song fades up, the lamps just behind John turned on and created a silhouette. They were just dimming up and down, and then we brought the lamps in front of him up. In the end we just reversed it going down back to blackness.
MVW: How did you set up for the shot?
JC: My gaffer got a dimming board. We did something like this before and usually you would need to get a board operator, somebody who comes in and programs it. Usually you talk to the board operator and he programs it but if you want to change even one little thing which always happens that means the board operator has to go back in and reprogram it. So we decided we would just do it manually and have a bunch of guys controlling the switches. At first Mark was skeptical, but we had about 6 guys each controlling about 8 switches apiece: 4 switches with each hand. We just did it like the old school and once we got the rhythm going it was just beautiful.
Then there was another setup, which we had not talked about, but Mark just had this inspiration. It was a setup that was like a kaleidoscope where it starts out with a shot that is outside a three walled, triangular box. It is basically 3-4 x 8, horizontal panels that were elevated 4 feet off the ground so when you crawl underneath them you are inside of a triangle that is all mirrored. Mark wanted to be able to shoot inside it or cut a hole in it and shoot into it so you could see the millions of reflections. We cut a hole just big enough for the lens to slide through one of the mirrors so that we could have the camera outside looking in and you wouldn’t see it. Mark also wanted to have a kaleidoscope of colors inside, so we took it on the Condor. The hard part of it was that because the mirrors didn’t extend to the floor you could still see the floor going out underneath. That meant you couldn’t just throw light down the top without controlling it because it would spill out all over the floor and look messy. The idea was this internal light source inside this box and you would cut to the exterior and just see his legs dancing around and then, coming back to the inside, you’d see the colors. We got a Condor and rigged 6 different colored lights, but ended up just going with 3 of the primary colors: blue, red, green. They were more vibrant than the other colors, and we rigged the lights on dimmers and hung them on the Condor. The rigs were like black tubes that extended from the Condor for about 12 feet down to a pyramid, more like a giant snout to keep all the light from spilling anywhere but onto the top of the triangle. We worked that with a dimmer too, so the lights were pulsing at different colors. That was a difficult setup to do.
There was one other setup that was not simple too. We built this 150-foot corridor. They used one existing white wall and then built 10 foot sections of clear white visqueen 150 feet long and 10 feet high and the corridor was only about 6 feet wide. Then each band member wore a backpack like a florescent fixture, so each one would light the person behind them. The fixtures were found in the hardware store. The only other lighting we did was that we brought in just the back-lights to give it a soft underexposed glow so that there would be ambiance, but it wouldn’t be lit up. It looked like they were going through a fairly dark corridor with these bright, glowing florescent tubes and they ran down the corridor and we got these long 150-foot dolly shots.
MVW: What advice do you have for up and coming DPs ?
JC: Shoot as much film as you can, it doesn’t matter how much money you are getting paid. It is all about making mistakes, learning things, getting good stuff, and putting a reel together. The other thing is, sometimes it isn’t just what you shoot, but the people that you meet on these freebies or PSA’s while shooting because you never know who is going to be the next Mark Romanek or Francis Lawrence. So it is also important to meet these people and get on jobs, answer ads. If you do that it’s bound to happen for you. I absolutely believe that, even if your not all that talented, if you try, if you work hard enough and you make contacts and you’re a nice person it will happen for you. It’s just about perseverance.
Production Co. : Anonymous
Director: Mark Romanek
DP: Jeff Cutter