Friday, September 11, 2009

Interview with Jay Blakesberg

Today I had the opportunity to do a phone interview with Jay Blakesberg, the photographer who did the video for Third Eye Blind's music video "Don't Believe A Word" which I wrote about in my previous post here [Music Video Made of Photos]. Jay's got an impressive resumé but as he'll tell you, that doesn't mean much in photography! I recorded the interview straight to my laptop while he was on speaker phone.

Here is the youtube clip of the video uncensored. Watch it to get a grasp of what we're talking about, then read the interview and let me know what you think! Jay said he's going to send me a couple of photos to fill out the article but I want to get this posted now so I can share it with everyone.

This is my first time interviewing someone for my blog, so that was cool. Hopefully I can do more of them in the future. Read through to the end and you'll see what I gleaned from this experience. The following is a transcription of the interview:

Shawn Lynch: First off I wanted to ask you about your background, how you got started, what you shoot and how long you've been a photographer.

Jay Blakesberg: Ok, um, hang on. Let me go turn the music down so you can hear what I'm saying...Hi.

SL: Hi.

JB: Alright, let's see. Your first question. How did I get started? Is that what it was?

SL: How long have you been a photographer, how did you get started, what do you shoot?

JB: Alright, when you say what do I shoot, what do you mean? Like what subject matter or camera gear?

SL: Right, what subject matter. Is it advertising? Is it editorial? Is it all of the above? You know.

JB: Right, Ok. Ummm, I started taking pictures when I was in high school. I'm 47 and 3/4 years old, so that puts me somewhere back in the 1970s. I started photography just kind of because I liked it. It felt good. I took a lot of pictures. Started out shooting concerts and friends and things like that. Umm, you know, just kept going from there. Studied some photography in school, but I'm pretty much self taught. I shoot people. I do a lot of event photography. I'm mostly known as a music/rock and roll photographer. Shot a ton of advertising. I've shot, you know, thousands of magazine stories for both corporate, computer, business and rock and roll magazines. I've been shooting for Rolling Stone magazine since 1987. I've probably shot over 250 assignments for them. I've probably been published in magazines over 5000 times. Several hundred CD packages. I've published 4 coffee table books of my work. I've been published in probably another two or three hundred books and another couple hundred television programs. Umm, does that answer all those first questions?

SL: I believe so. That's quite the impressive resume there.

JB: Yeah, it doesn't mean shit though because you're only as good as your last photograph.

SL: Yeah, always true and you know, I started off in newspapers and worked my way up to some magazines and stuff. [I now shoot a lot of architectural photography]. You just keep on struggling day to day and hope the work keeps on coming.

JB: Uh huh!

SL: So what I really wanted to talk to you about was the video that you did for Third Eye Blind. How did you get that gig? I see you've got some other videos up on your site. Some of them seem a little bit similar especially like the First Act guitars video.

JB: Well, I've known Stephan Jenkins since his career started pretty much. I mean, I shot the very first Third Eye Blind publicity photo before they were signed to a label they were just a local band. Hang on one second, my dog's chewing on a pen. I've got to take it out of his mouth, sorry!

(disappears for a minute to tend to his dog)

JB: Sorry (laughing)! Ummmm, so I've known Stephan Jenkins from Third Eye Blind for a long time. I've shot other, I've shot, you know, early on I did a lot of work for them. I shot magazine covers for them. I did publicity shoots for record companies. I did, let's see, don't they have a record called "Blue" or something like that?

SL: Yeah, that was their second album.

JB: Yeah, so I did a bunch of photos for the inside of that record. So I've just known Third Eye Blind for a long time, and I ran into Stephan at some sort of a benefit type event somewhere in downtown San Francisco and hadn't seen him in a while and just reconnected. And at that point my son, who is 16, had become a big fan of Third Eye Blind. Stephan told me he was working on a new record, which was Ursa Major, and I said, "Hey, I'd love to bring my son by to check it out and listen to it in the studio and come see your new studio." And he said, "Yeah, come on by!" So I went by, we visited and we hung out, and then a couple months later he called me up and said, "Ok, you know what? I need to do photos for this record. Let's talk about it." So I went over to his studio again and I showed him, there's a similar video on my website for a company called First Act, which is a guitar manufacturer.

SL: Right.

JB: I showed him that and he basically was like, where has this video been shown? And really it was just this internal thing. They showed it in the flagship store in Boston for like a week or something like that. So it really hadn't been seen a lot. And he was like, "I really like this look. I like this idea. Let's talk about maybe making a video like this for one of my songs for this record." And I said ok, so he sent me the music and I listened to it and I came back and I said, "Let's do it very similar. Let's shoot it black on white." And then I came up with the basic framework. And then Stephan came up with a lot of great story board ideas. You know, he didn't want this to get stale and boring. It could get very old looking with that kind of a theme, so that's why there's a lot of theme stuff in there. The boxing gloves and the hat and different stuff like that. So, you know, he was definitely a collaborator. I mean, Stephan's a very strong personality in case you don't know that (laughs from both of us).

SL: I see this.

JB: And so he has a lot of great ideas. And so he put his ideas with my ideas and I connected us with an incredible editor who brought in his ideas to make it kind of flow and move. And I shot with a lot of Stephan's input and my editor polished it off and made it sizzle.

SL: Ok, so uh, let me take a guess here for what you were actually shooting this video with. I'd have to say something like a Canon 1D MKIII or a Nikon D3 and maybe...I don't know what you'd use for lights, but maybe like a Profoto 8 because of its fast recycle times. Am I anywhere near on that?

JB: Yeah, sure. I mean interchange names and brands. Yeah, I'm a Nikon guy and it was shot on my Nikon D300, actually. And it was shot in my studio, and it was shot using Dynalite strobes. And, you know, there's a lot of very intricate direction that goes on to create that kind of movement with still photographs. So it's not just, "Ok, start playing," and shoot as fast as you can. It's a little bit more involved and it's a little bit more deliberate in terms of how you're directing the movement and the body language and things like that in order to actually get it to work and to show off and to flow.

SL: So the movement wasn't as fluid. It was staged or posed?

JB: Well, I mean, yeah, the whole thing is posed because I'm telling them what to do.

SL: Yeah, I understand that, but when he's like strumming through on his guitar and is he actually strumming and you're capturing three frames there?

JB: No, I'm capturing probably more like in blasts of six, eight, 10 frames at a time. Pretty quick. I had my strobes on very, very low flash settings so they would recycle very fast. I think I fried a couple of packs on that shoot - the capacitors - from the shooting so fast and so much. You know it was about 5000, I think we did about 5,000 images that day and I think there's...What's that (talking to someone in the background) Umm, my digital manager just walked by and said there's 5,300 images from that day.

SL: Oh ok.

JB: So there's very specific things you gotta keep in mind because you have to edit this. So you gotta have things that flow and that cut together and so on and so forth.

SL: Right, now was the buffer on the camera ever a problem?

JB: Yeah, I mean it is, but if you have fast cards, you're never know video shoots at 24 or 30 frames per second and I'm shooting at probably three frames per second, but that's the beauty of it. When you watch that video it tricks your eye because you're not really sure what's going on. You're not sure if it was shot on video and there were drop frames. You're not sure if it was still photographs. You know what I mean. Maybe you know what it is, you're a photographer.

SL: Right.

JB: But a lot of people would look at it and it just tricks the eye. And that's the beauty of that look and that feel. I also shoot everything in RAW, so if I was shooting in jpeg, even if I was shooting in jpeg fine, I could have probably shot 80 shots at a time without any buffering issues. By shooting RAW files as fast as you can, you're still only gonna get eight or 10 or 12 shots before you're buffering, then it kind of comes into play.

SL: That also kind of slows down the frames per second rate the camera can shoot at, the RAW vs. jpeg.

JB: Yeah I would imagine that it probably does.

SL: So was there any other special gear you used for this? Did you use a tripod or were you like more hand held?

JB: Uh, both. I used a tripod for some stuff and I did hand held for some stuff. You know, when you see stuff, like a microphone stand is moving, you know it's hand held. When you're seeing stuff, like the drums were locked down and the drums aren't moving but the bodies are moving, then you know that it was on a tripod.

SL: Right, right. So was this shot in your studio? Did you rent a studio?

JB: No, it was shot in my studio.

SL: And so you already answered this question, the 5,300...How many photos actually make up the video?

JB: I don't know the answer to that. And I think we used them all but I'm sure there's stuff that's repeated. Do you know what I mean? Because we would turn these into little video clips. And then we would...there's definitely stuff that gets repeated in different places, so I don't know the answer to that question.

SL: So the same photo will pop up a couple of times throughout the video?

JB: Um, yeah, you know we tried to not get things pop up too many times because again we didn't want it to get "Oh, I've seen that already kind of a thing." But I think some of the drum loops were used again. But also because we were shooting RAW and we edited in HD, which is 1080 basically and you're shooting at three or four thousand pixels, so you're shooting at three or four times the resolution of HD video. So we were able to go in and then crop things in and not loose resolution. So we were using some shots where we could going in tighter on the shot, and cropping it and reusing it as a different segment like that. Does that make sense?

SL: Yeah, definitely. So now, for post production, did you do all the work, did you outsource any of it?

JB: I had an editor who did it and I sat in on some of the editing sessions, but also Stephan sat in on some of the editing sessions. And then we would get a cut and Stephan would look at it, and he would come back and say, "ok, we would like this, but we need to move this shot of the guitars jumping into this segment." He was helping us rearrange stuff. You know, it's his song. He knows how he wants it to flow. And he's certainly like I said a very strong personality. He has a good vision and I trust his judgement and I like working with Stephan because he's got such great creative prowess.

SL: Of course. Ok, so what software did you guys edit the video with?

JB: I think we did it in Final Cut with some after effects.

SL: Well, another thing I've heard, and I guess maybe you're used to this is that, Stephan doesn't really like having his picture taken. Were you aware of that? Probably since you've worked with him so many years.

JB: Umm, well you know what, I don't think...I don't know maybe that's true. I've never had that problem. Like I said I've shot him many many many times. We also did a whole second photo not that day because we ran out of time, but I wanna say the next day or the next week - I can't quite remember - where we did photos that they're using, I think there's some on the CD package. I don't know, I haven't seen the CD package actually. But there was stuff that was on the website and for publicity and things like that.

SL: I've actually met him before and Tony and they're all really nice, so I'd love to work with them myself one day.

JB: Yeah, they're all great guys.

SL: Any other stories you feel like sharing or anything I maybe missed that you want to touch on?

JB: No not necessarily. Nothing in particular. I think overall it was a great project. I think it's a very cool video. I think it's very original. I think that I've heard that Fuse played it and I know that it's online on a bunch of places. I don't know that MTV has picked it up yet. We submitted it to them and they rejected it at first because there's some language. You know there's the part of the song where he says "you fucking whore." We'd actually already taken that out, but then there was some other vocal in there that they had us change as well, like the word "high" or something like that. So we had to switch that out as well and now there's a clean version and a dirty version of it. In the dirty version you can hear he says "you fucking whore" in the clean version we took that out. But really, great project. A lot of fun. I hope it brings more work my way.

SL: Awesome. Well, good luck with that and thank you for your time!

JB: You're welcome!

So I think the two major things that I came away from this interview with were the fact that he used a pro-sumer level camera to do this video. The Nikon D300 is not their top of the line model. I was thinking he'd be using a pro level body because of the higher frame rate. But I guess it was good that he used a slower frame rate camera because he had already blown a couple of his packs. The other thing, I was surprised that he was using a low power setting on the lights to get the faster recycle times. I guess that since they were doing it in black and white grain wasn't too much of an issue and they could really push the ISO to get the depth of field needed. I love the video and the song, but I'm biased. Anyway, it was great to talk with Jay.

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