The Art Of Music Video Playback

by Maureen Egan & Mathew Barry

In the time since our first music video (that being Alkaline Trio’s “Stupid Kid”), one thing that frequently comes up as a topic of discussion is our somewhat unconventional approach to on-set playback.

Most shows, or so it is told, hire a sound person who will create a DAT-indexed version of a band’s song. This tape usually has a timecode that will run in sync with what’s called a “smart slate”. This contraption is just like your basic Hollywood clapboard, except its got an LED screen on it that displays said timecode, and is filmed at the head of every take so that the process of syncing the footage back to the song will go smoothly later on.

That being said, after our first video we noticed a few things about the process that frustrated us. For starters, our allegedly infallible DAT tape kept losing sync with our filmed footage. Secondly, we still had to go through the process of syncing up timecode numbers, which is even less fun than syncing dailies by eye. Basically, we ended up sitting there, thinking to ourselves “we just paid a lot of money for something that hasn’t really made anything easier for us”.

Upon further reflection, we found that this whole “industry standard” system was predicated on the fact that someone else would be editing your video for you. Since that was not the case for us (and of course many others like us), we thought we’d try something a little different.

Our solution was one we’ve used ever since: we make our own playback CDs. In this day and age, most home computers with a CD burner and basic sound editing software have the ability to do it. First we’ll create the sync “beeps” you hear at the beginning of most playback tracks, a matter of generating reference tones and chopping them into something that matches the beat of the song. While it takes some trial and error, it’s not as hard as it may sound.

Next we’ll create additional copies of the song file, starting at timed intervals – say fifteen seconds further for each track – and then type up a reference sheet with the song’s lyrics and a corresponding number for what-track-begins-where. Finding a good “in” point for these versions of the song is a matter of both logic and taste. A few moments before verses and choruses begin is usually a good place to start. But honestly, we just do whatever arrangement is going to help us out the most when we’re on set.

If all of this stuff sounds like a pain, it’s worth its weight in gold for how well you know the song by the end of the process. And as the directors, we’ve found it’s very helpful to know the song about as well as the band does.

Additionally, with today’s sound editing software you can get pretty tricky and do some really high end stuff on the cheap. For example, when you want a shot to be in slow motion but the band’s performance to remain in sync, you can use the computer to make a special playback track to assist you. Basically, if you speed up the song to 2x normal (making sure to bend the pitch down so no one sounds like a chipmunk), and then you shoot at 2x normal (48 frames per second), when you transfer your dailies you’ll find you’ve got a cool, dreamy slow motion shot with the band perfectly in sync. We once shot a whole show like this. When we showed the crew the finished video, no one recognized the song, which for them was playing at its correct speed for the first time.

You can also do this whole process in reverse to get the camera moving faster than any human could move. Just slow the song and the camera down accordingly. Yeah, there’s a little number crunching involved here. Yeah, it has the capacity to make your brain hurt after a while. But how great is it to find out that, contrary to millions of whining high school students, there IS a practical application for math and trigonometry?

From there, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Rent a standard playback / PA system from a sound house, one that’s big enough to fill the space you’re shooting in and can effectively drown out very basic big rock drums. Then you hook the thing up to a CD player, and have someone – literally anyone – near the thing to press play, per the handy dandy lyric reference sheet you’ve got in your pocket right next to your shot list. Finally, make sure your earplugs are in. We are dead serious when we say this. We know a lot of people who refuse to wear them; at the rate they are going, they really won’t need them in a few years because they’ll be deaf. Not worth it one bit.

The one thing our playback system does not afford, as discussed above, is the ability to automatically sync your dailies when you are editing. But what may seem at first like a burden really becomes an added, extremely helpful step in editing. Syncing the dailies ourselves familiarizes us with the footage we’ve shot, and serves as a helpful “big picture” snapshot of the entire shoot before we get down to the microscopic process of piecing the whole thing together.

And did we mention it saves a substantial little chunk of money?

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