Friday, 14 December 2012

FELAGUND - The Video

Title: Felagund - The Video
Format: DVD-R in colour covers, independently made and released
What's this all about then, Nazgul?  Read the text and marvel at Hugin's crazy fan-base
Edition: Believed to be 4 copies

Something different today, on a couple of levels - "Felagund - The Musical".  Oh no, wait, that's another project, promised for early 2014. No, instead, something even better: "Felagund - The Video."  This is the first independently shot film for one of Hugin's Uruk Hai songs that has been made (well, Nazgul thinks it is).  Secondly - and you will be delighted to hear this - the tale of this epic achievement is to be told not by Nazgul, but by chief camera-wielder and writer supreme, Michele Brittany.

Read, be impressed and inspired by the incredible efforts of other fans like ourselves from around the world (specifically the USA in this instance: come on Europe, keep up!) and most of all: Enjoy.

Behind the Camera Lens: Making the Uruk-Hai’s Felagund Music Video

By Michele Brittany

"The Lord of Castle Nazgul has kindly requested that I put quill to scroll and tell the story of just how I came to make the music video to accompany the instrumental song Felagund composed by Alexander “Hugin” Wieser for his Uruk-Hai project. I shall endeavour to spin a yarn that is worthy of the Honor and Darkness readers and satisfy Lord Nazgul adequately in order to arrest his threat of looping photographs of a certain drooling young prince in my email inbox for years to come. So, here goes.

An Idea Takes Shape

The tale begins innocuously enough with a trip that my boyfriend and I made to Joshua Tree National Park in early August, 2010 shortly after we moved to Southern California. We were struck with the unique beauty of the park punctuated by sparse looking trees and boulder formations of bare rock jutting up out of the desert landscape. It was magical and otherworldly; I was enchanted and inspired. I had my video camera and captured a lot of footage as well as taking several photographs. A thought took root and germinated. I mentioned to Nick that I wondered if Alex might have a song in his vast discography that would compliment the visuals that I had shot. Nick was supportive and suggested reviewing some of Alex’s songs – Nick has an extensive collection of Alex’s music (see Nick’s interview here) – then sending Alex an email with my idea to collaborate.

We listened to several tracks and I reviewed my footage. I emailed Alex, mentioning having visited Joshua Tree National Park and being interested in collaborating my visuals with one of his songs. Alex responded back with enthusiasm and offered that he would compose a new song as soon as he returned from holiday. In subsequent emails, Alex mentioned a future DVD release of music videos inspired by Lord of the Rings, which he thought could include our project. That was exciting news, so I set to work to develop a LOTR-inspired concept for the video as I waited for Alex’s track.

Since I now knew I would be making a video and that I wanted to use Joshua Tree as a focal point of the video, I made another trek out to Joshua Tree on my own. I knew from prior video projects I would definitely need more footage. Alone with my thoughts filled with Tolkien’s creation stories of Middle Earth and the filmic images of Jackson’s Mordor, I was on the lookout for interesting points of interest in the vast park that I could shoot. I made a lot of stops and trekked across a lot of desolate landscape looking for intriguing shots of the unusual looking trees and impressive rock formations. I was amazed at how much green vegetation – pretty petite pink flowers and mellow yellow cactus blooms for example - I found amongst the fallen trees, victims of some long ago fire that had decimated parts of the park. I wondered how to provide the video with a narrative structure so I was wasn’t dropping the viewer right into the park without some context. It may surprise the H&D readers, but I found help from Walter Ruttmann’s silent city symphony film Berlin, Symphony of a Great City (1927).

Michele making friends with the locals
Narrative Inspiration

I was on rather intimate terms with Ruttmann’s movie since I had spent the two plus years researching, watching, and critically analysing the city symphony films of the 1920s for my master’s thesis. A common component of all the films was that they were essentially structured around the day in the life concept, in this case, the life of a city. (Ruttmann’s film and Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) are the two most readily available and critically acclaimed of the handful of films that make up this niche genre of silent films.) For both films, they started with early morning shots of deserted streets and ended with shots of dazzling evening city lights. I decided I would incorporate the same structural concept for my video.

Applying the same method as the silent films, I wanted to shoot either a sunrise or sunset at Joshua Tree and then figured perhaps just a sunset there, because I could use any footage to fake a sunrise to book end the video. However, I was still unemployed at that point, so trying to stay out there overnight wasn’t feasible financially nor was it safe, since Nick was working and unable to go. I needed to come up with an alternative. Fortunately, there was – the Santa Ana River Bike Trail.

The 20+ mile trail meanders alongside the winding Santa Ana River, but more importantly, was a short bike ride from home, so it would be easier to get an early morning or dusk shot. Although several sections along the trail the river took on unattractive characteristics that were more akin to festering cesspools of algae in a cement aqueduct, the river was dotted with natural looking waterway areas clustered with long stocks of cattails and accented with a variety of waterfowl. This would be workable for what was formulating in my mind. While I had a basic narrative structure taking shape, I was missing substance. I would have to wait to hear the song before I could make headway on that aspect of the video.

In late September, Alex sent me the first version of Felagund. Nick and I listened to the 9-minute track several times. It came as no surprise that it had an epic sound and most assuredly, inspired by the fighting spirit of Middle Earth humans, hobbits, wizards, and orcs. Felagund opened with a long, building introduction that spilled out into two alternating paradoxical musical styles – one gentle and meandering, the other driven and forceful with accompanying ambient vocals – then drifting to closure with the same composition that opened the track. In all, there were eight sections, so an introduction, three each of the gentle and harsh sections, then the conclusion. With the song pattern identified, I timed each segment and laid out a template on paper that I could fill in with the names of video clips that I would eventually lay down in Final Cut Pro.

I kept listening to the music for emotional cues. For me, the two styles sat at opposite ends of the spectrum. The images at Joshua Tree were also very strong and diametrically opposed – flower blossoms and greenery struggled against a backdrop of prickly, wasted trees and rocks that in some instances, still displayed the scorched marks from a fire or ravished by extreme heat and very little rainfall. I observed the same paradox with the Santa Ana River, which teemed with greenery and activity in the form of egrets, herons, ducks, and other feathered fowl, yet other parts of the river was nearly dried out with only dribbles of running water. It led to me think in more basic terms of the four elements – air, water, fire, and earth – each easily found in my images although fire was probably the most esoteric concept that would have be symbolised by the heat of the sun’s rays and the wind.

Working in tandem with the elements, I also considered the concept of creation. I felt that the heavens were first, so that would become the introduction to Felagund. I went out one early morning and I could not have planned it better. The clouds were darkly dramatic with the sun’s rays slicing through the clouds, which were constantly shifting as the morning progressed. I stayed out most of the morning, capturing footage of the morphing clouds, interspersed with shots of the morning light reflected in the moving water surface of the river. I felt quite happy with my footage, but it would be during the review process when I would determine if I needed to go back out and capture more footage.

Since I had the morning shots captured, I wondered if I should close with similar shots? I returned to the track again for inspiration and the closing sequence reminded me of waves. Of course! The Santa Ana River empties into to the Pacific Ocean, so I knew I would close with a sunset over the lapping waves of the ocean.

Being in close proximity of the coast, we had several choices for beaches. We chose the artistic community of San Clemente on the recommendation of one of Nick’s co-workers and because it had a lengthy pier that I could use to take photos out past the hordes of beach-goers if need be. And, on the first Saturday afternoon of October, it was a typically beautiful sunny day in Southern California. We drove south to the coastal city and I captured footage from the pier and the beach. Since we had plenty of time before the sun would be setting, we picked one of the restaurants on the pier to have dinner. It was perfect because we were seated out on the pier where we could look down and watch the waves roll in as we ate our delicious meals!

 After dinner, we strolled out along the beach where a small wedding was taking place right at the water’s edge. There were several passersby that lingered as the bride and groom exchanged vows, us included. I was scouting out a good location for my sunset shots while also taking some close-ups of the waves crashing gently onto the pebbly beach. I soon found a location and set up my tripod. Intermittently, I captured footage of the sun setting and even caught lone birds flying past off in the distance across the sunset. There was a peacefulness of slowing down and enjoying the beauty of nature, breathing in the salty air, and feeling the sand as it was forced up between my toes. Life was good and I was feeling good about the video. With the closing footage shot, it was time for the labour intensive part of the video: the editing process.

The lesser spotted Hatted Diak
Putting It All Together

It was a long laborious process of reviewing approximately two hours worth of footage multiple times, so I could catalogue each for length of time and descriptions of each shot. (Shot descriptions had to include concise details so that when I was looking for a particular shot, the log entry should cue me for what I wanted.) I then capture each shot in Final Cut Pro – 180 clips in total! It’s probably the most arduous task, but it is also the most important for organising a lot of footage. To me, being organised with one’s footage is the key to a project’s success, especially in this instance where I was working with three locales of multiple visits. Organised with concise descriptors of each shot really helped me to conceptualise the structure I had been formulating in my mind.

If logging each shot was the worse part, laying the visuals to the audio is probably the best part of the creative process because it was the point in the process where the audio became manifest visually. The journey started out rather easy because I was just laying out clips in general areas that had really spoken to me and fit with the mood of the music. Clips were moved slightly by as little as one second and soon it became a matter of trimming the excess. I had to make hard choices to cut a few shots that I felt really shined (due to be composed well or having an interesting object) but they didn’t work with the overall progression of images that was developing. Then, the fades between shots were added. That was the first draft completed.

After many more hours labouring over clips, transition choices, and getting Nick’s opinion in areas of the video where I felt I was faltering, I played the video through several times, trying to find any anachronistic items (I had decided to keep my video void of anything modern, including the presence of people). And boy did anachronistic items pop up: specifically in the opening shots where I had tried to keep houses and power lines up on the mountains out of my shots – to no avail apparently! – and surfers at the ocean were the biggest offenders in my video. I soon became familiar with zooming in on a clip and then cropping the houses, power lines, or people out. I also figured out slowing down the movement of a pan in a shot to better match the pace of the music.

For the introduction, gentle and conclusion sections of the track, I used longer clip lengths and longer cross dissolves, which gave a smooth transition between images, adding to the meandering music. However, for the harder musical sections, I used a dip to colour dissolve that created a quick fade to black then fade in to the next image. I thought it provided an edgier look and by keeping the transitions shorter the clips took on a sense of urgency. I think this worked especially well in the last harder section which felt like the climatic part of the track before dropping off into the concluding portion of the song.

I added the credits that Alex provided for the musical acknowledgements and the logo for the Uruk-Hai name (beautiful font, by the way!) while I added my visual credits. In the end, I edited together 74 clips from the three locations into a 9 minute music video. I created the quick time movie and burned out four DVDs – to Alex, CZ, Nazgul, and myself. It felt great to get it completed and each copy mailed off.

Joshua Tree National Park, Nick lurking behind bush front-right
What I Would Do Differently

One: Less clouds! Oh my gosh, my beginning is slower than watching paint dry! Although the shape, lighting and intensity of the clouds change in the introductory sequence, they are still just clouds. Two: I think I would try a different location to incorporate more elemental concepts and perhaps shooting some stills of Tolkien’s maps and lettering that I could blend in to give the look of being double exposed, would boost the images I selected. Three: A replacement tripod for my old one for which one of the leg snaps broke and therefore would only occasionally work, on flat surfaces (figures!). I’m sure there were other things I could add, but these were probably my top three when I revisited my video.

That’s a Wrap

I sure enjoyed making the video and especially the opportunity to collaborate with Alex, who has to be the most prolific composer in the history of music! I hope I can work with Alex again in the future, perhaps on another one of his projects, such as Ceremony of Innocence. Revisiting Felagund while writing this essay has inspired me once again to knock the dust off my video camera and start looking at the world differently.

Well, H&D readers, that’s my tale of how my video came to fruition. I hope you found my yarn a good read, and that I have satisfied the taskmaster, oops, the lord of Castle Nazgul adequately so rather than receiving drooling baby photos ad infinitum, I’ll get cute, happy pictures instead.

Post Script: Miscellany, Bloopers & Other Nonsense

I have a couple of anecdotal stories to impart, which didn’t fit within my lengthy main narrative. First, while I was bicycling along the bike trail when the morning clouds were so dramatic, I soon experienced the first rains of the season. And, it was not a soft drizzle either. Oh no! It was like the sky opened up and dropped buckets of water on me. I tried to find cover since by that time I was riding home. I was passing a small block of shops and of course, not a one of them had an awning! The owners of the little corner mart took pity on my drenched self and let me take refuge inside their store entrance, trying not to drip too much on their floor. After about five minutes, the worst of the rain had passed. I conveyed my heartfelt thanks to the owners as I left. When I got home and happened to look in the mirror as I got a towel to dry off, I saw I had a wide line of road grime that had been kicked by my tire. My backside resembled a skunk’s markings, made all the more prominent from the white shirt I was wearing – how embarrassing!

And the second is when I was capturing footage of the setting sun over the ocean in San Clemente. While I was focused on the video screen, Nick sat with me so he could watch for people who would pass in front of my shot, letting me know ahead of time so I could pause my recording. He said there was one woman who, as she approached the frame of my shot, was staring in our direction, taking more than a passing interest. Instead of accommodating my shot and walking around behind me, she gave me a hard glass as she defiantly walked straight through my shot! Obviously, she is not an artist!"

And that, as they say, is that.  Nazgul thanks Michele for taking significant time and trouble to document this video and enlighten us all, and perhaps an update in future months should be organised to capture some stills from the actual video itself for your edification.  Watch this space...

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