Head over to MTV.com and you’ll find the channel’s website prominently features a new video from Chicago hip hop superhero Kanye West called "Jesus Walks." The film is part of a new-fangled tri-powered video release strategy, where the best-selling West had three different videos for the same single - one of which plays on MTV, another on MTV2 and a third on MTV.com.
Chicago area Director of Photography Frey Hoffman shot the third video along with directors Coodie and Chike of Channel Zero Productions in a couple of jam-packed days, putting together a local film crew, shooting the action and editing the video for super-fast runaround. The video is getting attention from the media, recently garnering an article in the New York Times. We asked him about working on the video and how to get things done fast and right in Chi-town.
How did you get involved with the Kanye West video? Kanye called the directors Coodie and Chike late one Thursday evening in early June and told them he wanted to shoot a music video on Sunday. Ten minutes later I got a phone call from them asking me to get a camera, film stock and crew together to shoot a music video for Kanye on Sunday.
What were the biggest challenges with such a tight timeline?
Finding a camera, film stock and crew...I wish I was joking. Buying the film stock was actually fairly straight ahead except that it had to be shipped from L.A. and the wrong name was put on the box. This meant that when Coodie and Chike arrived at their hotel on Saturday evening and were expecting to find the film waiting for them it was nowhere to be found. So until the box was properly identified there was about an hour on the night before the shoot when I was calling people to see what short ends they might have tucked away in their refrigerators.
The camera was a challenge because we wanted to buy a camera so that we don’t have to keep dealing with renting cameras. The problem is that not many places that sell 16mm cameras have them just sitting on the shelf ready to go and shoot. They usually want to take at least a day to prep the camera and then for places outside of Chicago you’re looking at another day for shipping. We didn’t have that kind of time. Fortunately Man-Sung Son at SMS Productions here in Chicago was willing to go above and beyond the call of duty to make sure that we had a working camera for the shoot.
Getting the crew was also a bit nerve-wracking. At 9:30 p.m. on Friday night, I got a call from the original 1st AC saying he was going to take another gig. So I went into Saturday (the day before the shoot) without any camera crew. In the end it worked out for the best because I ended up working with Bob Sanchez. In addition to being an extremely experienced and knowledgeable 1st AC, who was willing to climb over barbed-wire with me so we could get a shot from a garage rooftop, he also happens to drive an immaculately maintained Lincoln Town Car. Given the last minute nature of the shoot his car ended up being driven in the music video and to his great pleasure got a specific mention in the New York Times review of the video.
The video has a real guerilla feel to it. What did you guys shoot on and what Chicago locations did you use?
We shot on a high speed, high contrast black and white 16 mm film stock for the principal photography and then push processed that footage to add more grain and contrast. Intercut with that is black and white 8 mm stock that was shot by the directors. They shot the 8 mm footage periodically throughout the day on location and then they drove around Chicago the next day shooting various Jesus and Chicago related imagery.
The main locations we used were an abandoned house, an alley behind the house, an active church, a jewelry store (which didn’t make the final cut) and a friend of Kanye’s house. In the case of the jewelry store, the church and the friend’s house we ended up shooting people in key on-screen roles who ten minutes before they were on camera had no clue that anyone was even shooting a music video nearby.
You’ve done several hip-hop videos recently. Are you a big hip-hop fan?
I am a big fan of hip-hop artists who share their thoughts, emotions and experiences in an articulate and compelling way. When their verses are paired up with well-crafted music that has an emotional resonance which matches the content of the words then I am excited to listen and am a huge fan. As with all kinds of music there are a limited number of people who do this well. Kanye West is one of them and I will always look forward to working with him and other artists of all kinds with an intelligent and soulful approach to their work.
What music video directors and/or DP’s do you most respect?
I have a professional respect for all music video directors and/or DP’s that are making a living doing so. In terms of specific visual styles and storytelling methods, Michel Gondry (featured in Issue 004) sticks out to me for his visual inventiveness and use of repetition. Otherwise the directors and/or DP’s that come to mind when I hear the word ‘respect’ are Vittorio Storaro, Francis Ford Coppola and Akira Kurosawa, but I don’t know how many music videos they’ve made if any.
What do you like about filming in Chicago? What works and what doesn’t?
People in Chicago are by and large willing to do what they can to help you get the shoot done and to do it well. I have found this to be true whether it is someone in the filmmaking community or a complete stranger on the street. Personally, filming in Chicago is convenient because I have been working here for a while so I know who to call and where to look when a need or problem arises.
What doesn’t work is that for the most part after 5:30 p.m. everyday of the week and from Friday evening to Monday morning there are no professional film and video resources officially open for business. There are also no labs in the city that process black and white film. Although there is a lot of capital in Chicago, most of it does not go into film and video production intended for national and international distribution.
What are you looking for from the Chicago filmmaking community?
Interesting and worthwhile projects to work on. Excellent clients, collaborators and colleagues, and high standards of technical, aesthetic and professional integrity. I try to provide the same.
Written by Richard Sharp