Director Lex Halaby’s Atmosphere “National Disgrace” music video presents us with social commentary that is unique in the world of hip hop. The slow motion shots combined with a monochromatic look bring the action scenes to life. We spoke with Lex about this visually stunning video.
Lex Halaby: I received the track from Epitaph with a few notes about what Atmosphere was looking for in a concept. I knew they wanted to do something different and Slug (the MC) did not want to be prominently featured in the video. Those were great guidelines for a director to write under, because they wanted to break away from the typical Hip-Hop video mold. I knew it was a really rare chance to bring something fresh to the table, so I jumped at the opportunity.
After I was awarded the project, Atmosphere, and both Rhymesayers and Epitaph were incredibly supportive of my vision for the video. After a few conference calls everyone was on the same page. We had less than a week before we had to shoot the video, so the pre-production process was short and sweet. My producer, Justin Cronkite, put together a great team and before we knew it we were on set shooting.
MVW:Did you know you wanted to shoot the video in slow motion from the start of this project?
LH: Yes. I sometimes put production notes into my treatments and that was one of the big ones. I think subconsciously the slow whistling sample in the song inspired that choice. The song was pretty fast and up tempo, but I wanted the visuals to play against that as much as possible. Also, the only super slow motion you see in Rap videos nowadays is when Strippers dance, so I thought we could find a better use in this project.
Bryan Newman, my DP, and I had extensive conversations about what equipment and what frame rates we needed to shoot. We ended up using the Photosonics Actionmaster 500 Hi-Speed Camera and shooting with Vision2 500T single perf 16mm. Almost the entire video was photographed at 360 frames per second with the exception of the beginning and end. The camera eats up film like crazy so you only get a limited number of takes. By the end of the two-day shoot we were able to limit ourselves to around 8,000 feet of film.
When shooting at hi-speeds you are never exactly sure what you got until you go into Telecine. Everything happens so fast you have to watch each take very carefully. If someone’s timing is off or a performance is not there you can’t hide it in the edit. Each second in reality becomes twenty seconds of screen time.
MVW: What were some of your influences in creating the overall look?
LH: I wanted to create something that had an equal dose of grit and glamour. Shooting in slow motion brought a lot of the beauty aspect to the visuals, whereas the subject matter and production design brought the grit. You can’t really make a homeless character look beautiful, so we strove for beautiful imagery instead. Arika Jacobs did all the production design for the video which really helped bring the reality of the homeless character’s celebrity to live and conveyed the right tone for the piece.
Also, I was extremely adamant about the video having a serious tone to match the song’s message. When the paparazzi are chasing a homeless character it is easy to find humor in its irony. But I really wanted to stay away from slapstick, so I emphasized the darker elements of the concept in the treatment. We did the transfer with Marshall Plante at The Syndicate and when it came to telecine, we went with a darker and more monochromatic look to help achieve the right tone.
MVW: A few scenes that stood out were the shot of the woman reading the paper in the back of the car and of course the flash still frames at the end of the video, how where they accomplished?
LH: A lot of people have asked me about the shot from inside the cab. Most people think it’s an FX shot, but we actually coordinated it on set. Bryan crammed himself into a cab filled with lighting equipment for two takes. We timed the driving and running a few times with rehearsals and then went for it. I am really happy with how it came out, so in the edit we found a great place for it to linger on screen.
As for the still photographs at the end of the video we shot those after the rest of the crew had wrapped. Bryan and I used still SLR cameras to shoot a series of 35mm stills with the homeless character in various poses. I knew it would have been easier to just grab freeze frames from the film footage, but getting the light cast from the photoflash was important to me. In fact, I liked the still aesthetic so much that I recently used it in Chimaira’s video for “Power Trip” on Roadrunner Records. If anyone is interested that one should hit MTV2 and Fuse in July.
MVW:Where did you find your main character that played the “bum”?
LH: We held an open casting call for all the characters. We were really fortunate to find Whistler Higgins (the actor who played the homeless character). He nailed the job in his audition and because of our tight schedule we literally cast him on the spot. Alyson Granaderos did an amazing job with hair and make-up to transform him into being homeless; so much so that on several occasions during the day he was actually mistaken for a real bum.
MVW: How important was the edit for this type of music video?
LH:The edit was a huge part of this video. Editing a music video with no performance is a difficult task to accomplish. Bill Pollock at Room.tv did fantastic work to put it all together into a cohesive storyline that worked with the music. Without performance footage there were no cut-aways to free up the structure of the narrative. So we attacked the edit by first deciding exactly where each sequence would have to begin and end with relation to the song. There are parts in the song I wanted specific shots to match with; most notably the “15 minutes of fame”, reveal of the first newspaper, the taxicab, and the still photographs. Once these were in place we found ways to get from one to the other in the right amount of time.
In my treatment I also referenced the use of jump cuts. I really felt that we could create an interesting editing style by combining slow motion visuals and fast paced jump cuts. If you watch the video carefully you will notice that jump cuts land on bass beats and photoflashes land on snare hits. It worked really well to tie the visuals and the music together without performance. The pacing was key. We found that for the slow motion visuals to pack the most punch we had to let some shots linger.
Executive Producers: Grant Cihlar and Nancy Cihlar
Production Company: 1171 Production Group
Producer: Justin Cronkite
Director: Lex Halaby
DP: Bryan Newman
Production Designer: Arika Jacobs
Editor: Bill Pollock