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October 15, 2019

The Art of Music Video: Polina’s “Little Babylon” Pt.1 with Justin Thomson, Red Epic/Russian 16mm and iPhone lenses, oh…and Surfing


The single, “Little Babylon,” from Russian-born performer, Polina, was released this week. We interviewed the directing/producer partners, Justin Thomson and Rory McKellar. This is Part One with Justin Thomson.
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You can see a clip from the music video here.

TRANSCRIPT OF THE INTERVIEW:

CIRINA CATANIA: This is Cirina Catania, and I’m sitting here with Justin Thomson who’s back from another amazing adventure. Justin is a producer, a director, and he’s the founder of Ashridge Films and a long-time friend. Justin, how are you?

JUSTIN THOMSON: I’m all the better now that I got to hear your voice.

CIRINA CATANIA: Tell me. What have you been working on?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Well, it’s been a busy year so far, but probably the most exciting adventure. We’ve just finished a new music video with a super talented singer, Polina. She’s Russian born, but is living in the States. She has won a Grammy already and has the number 1 song in Germany, and is generally a creative powerhouse, a real delight to work with.

CIRINA CATANIA: What’s her number 1 song in Germany, for those who don’t know?

JUSTIN THOMSON: The number one song is Book of Love. It’s one of those one when you hear it, you go, “Oh, yes. Of course I’ve heard this a lot.”

CIRINA CATANIA: What’s the song you’re doing for the music video?

JUSTIN THOMSON: She just released her newest single, which is called Little Babylon. I can definitely vouch that it’s very, very good, because when you work on music videos, you hear the same song constantly over and over again while you’re in the edits, or while you’re doing playback or whatever. You can very quickly determine if the song is good or not. Fortunately, this one is very, very good, because I still like listening to it.

CIRINA CATANIA: When I was working in the music business for the studio,I always wanted to pick the one that stayed in my head. I figured, if the song stays in your head, it will work that way for other people. You think this is one of those?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Yes, definitely.

CIRINA CATANIA: We’ll play a little bit for our listeners, and see what they think.

JUSTIN THOMSON: Excellent.

CIRINA CATANIA: Tell me about this music video. What’s the story?

JUSTIN THOMSON: The story is about a young girl and boy who grew up in a fairly derelict town, kind of a trailer town. I’ll give it a little bit of a background of how things came about where I have a directing producing partner in London, Rory McKellar, who’s exceptionally talented. We received this brief to do the music video. We’re trying to think what we wanted to do. We had to shoot out here in California, because Polina is based in Los Angeles. We were thinking about doing something in Joshua Tree, and there were some opportunities to use a really beautiful ranch out there, so we kind of developed this concept around it, and around the ranch.

Then at some point, we’re going through budgeting and it just became too cost prohibitive. We couldn’t do the location that we ultimately wanted, so we were racking our brain. I’d recently done a project called the Bombay Beach Biennale, which is an art festival in this place called Bombay Beach, which is a town on the shore of the largest body of water in California that nobody knows about, called the Salted Sea. It’s this dying body of water with fish heads everywhere. It’s saltier than the ocean, and it’s this weird place. What happened was, many years ago, it was kind of going to be the next Lake Tahoe.

All these towns have been built in the ’50s, and then the lake started dying, and so these towns were just abandoned. You have these treats and everything, but there’s one town which still has people living in it, and it’s called Bombay Beach, and it’s trailers. You can buy a house and the property for $10,000. It’s a very unique space. It’s not for everyone, but it’s beautiful. It’s incredible. I got to see the beauty of it while we’re working on this Bombay Beach Biennale, which is where we sent out … There were these artists which were released into the town, and then there was professor who gave lecture series on the “decay.”

As I was walking around this place, it was gorgeous, because you … It was beautiful in its own way. We decided, “Well, let’s shoot there.” It was more cost effective, and ultimately actually worked out better for us, because it was a far more beautiful location. It’s a long way to get to the ultimate story, but it’s the story of this young girl and her young friend who live in this town, and it’s quite clear that she’s gone off and become quite successful, and she comes back into this town, and she’s … Polina has a great sense of style, so in every shot, she’s just beautifully dressed and extremely elegant in this completely decaying city around here, and so it’s a return to her childhood.

CIRINA CATANIA: It sounds wonderful. How did you and Rory work together? What did you each do?

JUSTIN THOMSON: He and I have a really interesting relationship besides the fact that we’re engaged on Facebook, even though we’re not really in real life. We tend to produce and direct equally. If it kind of skews to one side, I take the producing hat on a little bit more, and Rory, the directing hat, because those are skill sets that we just naturally fall into and do very well. It’s very nice because if there’s a producing question that I need a hand with, he’s more than capable to step in to do it. Then as far as creative directing, I can do the same for him, and so he’s one of my favorite people to work with.

CIRINA CATANIA: Definitely. It’s a really good marriage, even if it’s just on Facebook.

CIRINA CATANIA: Facebook engagement and marriage.

JUSTIN THOMSON: Exactly.

CIRINA CATANIA: You have a small crew. It’s like a lot of us are shooting with very small crews now. Who was on your crew?

JUSTIN THOMSON: We had a vast crew. Rory, myself, and then a colleague, Greg Bennett, who was all hands on deck. He was driver, grip, PA, craft service. Then we did have a makeup and hair stylist on set as well, but very lean and mean. Also, it’s something that we like to do, because Rory and I have also worked with very large crews, and it’s amazing how your productivity can actually … It has the inverse effect, the tanks, because you end up managing people, and you can’t focus on the creative aspect. We like to keep it very tight.

CIRINA CATANIA: I’ve seen you and Rory in action, and there’s a lot of creativity. There’s planned creativity, and then there’s the creativity that happens during the shoot, which with a smaller crew, you can allow to happen. Correct?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Absolutely. I think the most important job for a producer, it’s not over managing a situation. It’s basically getting the right people and tools into the right location, and then see what happens.

CIRINA CATANIA: Right. Okay. You were based out of LA. Correct?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Yes.

CIRINA CATANIA: Did Rory flew in from London for this.

JUSTIN THOMSON: Yes. Rory flew in from London much to his joy, because it was also really good surfing it at the same time.

CIRINA CATANIA: That’s right. I forgot. Rory is a big surfer.

JUSTIN THOMSON: That’s right.

CIRINA CATANIA: Good surfing here in LA. He landed in LA and you piled into a car. Can you give me a visual of how that trip went? Who was where and how long did it take to get there? Then after that, I want to know what was in the car, in terms of equipment. Let’s just set the stage. How did you get from LA to Bombay Beach?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Bombay Beach is about 2 1/2 to 3-hour drive from Los Angeles, depending on traffic. If you leave at rush hour as I’ve found out, it’s 4 hours. Polina, and Rory, and Greg piled into a minivan and they drove the night before. I had work to do in Los Angeles, so I could only get to set in the early morning. Then the parents and the 2 children, they drove out separately, along with the makeup artist. Then we had arranged an AirBnB in the nearby about 30 minutes from Bombay beach as a little bit of a base came for everybody to stay overnight, because it was a 2-day shoot.

I had been to Bombay Beach before, so I knew what it was like to work there. Rory, coming from London, and Polina, had not been there. If anybody wants to Instagram Bombay Beach, some photos, it doesn’t seem like the most appealing place. It’s scary. There are a lot of tweakers there. It’s very not the most appealing place. You figured [inaudible 00:09:27] was the time. I think Rory showed up, because he got to set before I did. He was like, “Oh my goodness. Where are we? What’s going to happen?” By the end of it, they had found the same love for Bombay Beach that I had.

CIRINA CATANIA: What equipment did you use? What did you shoot with, and how did you manage? Was it all natural light, or did you bring lights in? How did that all work?

JUSTIN THOMSON: We brought all natural light. Because we’re so small, we kept it at a very small equipment level. We shot with the RED Epic, and a Russian 16 millimeter film camera with an anamorphic lens attached to it, because all of the sequences with the children, Rory wanted to shoot on 16 millimeter to give it that real grain, rather than just putting a filter on it afterwards, which has its own challenges, because it’s very rare to be working with film anymore. You have a limited amount that you can shoot with, and you have to change it. Our first roll of film actually got jammed, so we lost everything that was on that reel. Otherwise, all the other footage came out, and it was really beautiful actually, just being on set and hearing a camera again, hearing the [inaudible 00:10:49] that go by.

CIRINA CATANIA: I would love to shoot on a 16 millimeter. Did you have any problem with the dust in the environment with those cameras? I know the RED Epic is more environment-friendly, but that old Russian 16 millimeter camera does not like dust.

JUSTIN THOMSON: It didn’t like dust, and we did get a hair in the gate, which looked fabulous at the end. It looked like we had purposely put it there. It was just perfect. A lot of people probably have spent a lot of money to get that special effect in. No, the equipment handled it very well.

CIRINA CATANIA: I think there’s a plug-in for that.

JUSTIN THOMSON: Exactly, hair on the gate plug-in. The equipment held up very, very well, but we didn’t have that much. We had a large speaker for playback, and then we use mostly reflectors, even for interior shots. We just waited until it was the magic hour, and the light would be shining in from one of the windows, and then we could bounce some really nice golden light onto Polina, while she was sitting on the couch singing. It turned out to be just perfect, really, really, really, really beautiful.

I will tell you which are my favorite parts. There’s a shot which you’ll see in the music video where it’s from the car, and we’re shooting from the side of the car, and it’s tracking with Polina as she’s walking passed a house, we had seen this house, and there were all these dogs who are standing, who are anytime anybody went by, they were barking and just going vicious. This will be a great shot. We’ll have them because we’re over cranking everything. She’s walking, and then the dogs barking in slow motion in the background. We go to shoot that. No dogs to be seen anywhere, because it’s about 3pm. It’s too hot for them. They’re in the shade somewhere in the back. We stand there for a little while, no dogs.

Rory goes, “Oh God, we need a cat sound or something.” Greg goes, “I have an app for that.” He takes [inaudible 00:13:01] that’s called the Cat Keyboard. He plugged it into the sound system of the car, turn the speaker up all the way, and he presses the button, it goes, “Meow! Meow!” Within 3 seconds, “Rar! Rar! Rar!” The dogs come running out. We have great behind the scenes footage. Just driving back and forth, Greg keeps pressing the cat sound. The dogs are barking and going crazy, and Polina is walking statuesquely in front of them.

CIRINA CATANIA: Oh my gosh. It’s classic. That’s classic. I love those stories. Oh my goodness. Talk to me about the RED Epic package. What did you have with it? What were you shooting in terms of lenses?

JUSTIN THOMSON: As far as lenses goes, we had a nice array of lenses. We mostly focused on telephoto lenses, 70-200, in order to give a really nice depth of field. Then there were some where it was just a 35, because it was very nice. I don’t remember what we used for each shot, because I wasn’t always focused on it with Rory, because I was arranging the next shoot location or whatever it was. The number 1 thing that Rory wanted to make sure is that we shot it all anamorphic, and it totally enhances the footage. We had shot the entire thing with that in mind, so everything was within the parameters that we needed. It makes all the difference. It looks really, really beautiful in the end result.

CIRINA CATANIA: Where did you have the 16 millimeter film processed?

JUSTIN THOMSON: We did it at Photo Cam if I remember correctly. They did a really good job. Processing was the big issue, or conversion to digital. I can’t think of it off the top of my head, but I will find out what the information is. There was a guy here in Culver City who was able to do it, and he was able to do a super quick turnaround. We basically had to shoot and have a final cut within 7 days.

CIRINA CATANIA: Are you serious?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Yeah. We did this turnaround pretty amazing.

CIRINA CATANIA: You shot for 2 days, and then you traveled a day. Did you have 7 days after that, or 4 days?

JUSTIN THOMSON: We may have surfed 1 day.IMG_4853

CIRINA CATANIA: I’m glad it was also stressful for you.

JUSTIN THOMSON: See, I think it’s important when you’re a producer that you need to have the time to recharge. You can’t work people onto the ground because you actually won’t get the result that you want. It ended up being editing for 2 days, pretty long edit sessions. Shot 2 days, a day of surfing, and then we got to our first cut after 2 days of editing, and then it was polished from then on for a few days.

CIRINA CATANIA: What were you cutting on in LA?

JUSTIN THOMSON: We were using Adobe Premiere CC.

CIRINA CATANIA: Are you the one that was editing it?

JUSTIN THOMSON: It was both Rory and I together. For this particular project, Rory took a little bit more of a front row, because he was the primary director in this project, so he is the creative vision. Then if there was ever a question, we would confirm and see if it was something right. Then this is one of the other things working with Polina. She’s extremely good at what she does. It was a pleasure to work with her, for Rory and I both. She knows what she wants, but she knows what’s reasonable, so she’s not overly demanding. All of her suggestions, when we looked at it, were pretty much spot on. It was really nice to have that in the edit suite with us. It actually made it for a much quicker edit, and it looked great. Then I have been cutting all the teasers at the same time.

CIRINA CATANIA: What are you delivering on? What format?

JUSTIN THOMSON: We have to, because we have a contact with … In our agreement with Ultra Music, we have certain parameters that we have to deliver, so it’s 422 HQ.

CIRINA CATANIA: Apple ProRess 422 HQ, and you’re cutting on Premiere Pro.

JUSTIN THOMSON: Yes.
CIRINA CATANIA: Anything else about this that stands out for you?

JUSTIN THOMSON: I want to do it again. I want to do the next song in the-

CIRINA CATANIA: In Bombay Beach again?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Yeah. Bombay Beach or something new. I don’t know. I feel like I’ve become the tourist board council promotion guy for Bombay Beach, but it is a unique spot with its own beauty. As a cinematographer, photographer, or anything, when you go there, you’re filled with inspiration. What I did get actually is … What is it? Moon Labs or Moon Labs or Moondog anamorphic lens adapter for the iPhone, and it’s gorgeous. It’s the same lens adapter that are used to film Tangerine.

CIRINA CATANIA: I have to look into that. I don’t have one of those.

JUSTIN THOMSON: I highly recommend it.

CIRINA CATANIA: Okay. The gear geeks are freaking out here. It’s something I don’t have. I figured out my apartment is 80% office and equipment, and 20% a small place for me to sleep, and eat, and cook.

JUSTIN THOMSON: God, I love it when you talk dirty, all that equipment.

CIRINA CATANIA: Yeah. I’m totally a gear geek. What advice do you have for other young film makers who might want to get into making music videos? What do you think worked the best for you, and what advice can you give to other people?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Never let other people’s ideas stand in the way of your ideas. It’s harder when you’re younger because you maybe don’t have the confidence in your vision, but as you get older, it gets a little bit easier. Always just pursue it, because everybody has their own agendas. I’ve had it on different shoots where people were, they wanted different things but it wasn’t ultimately right for the project or for them, and they just didn’t know it at the time. I think you have to have flexibility, but don’t just be totally pliable. If you have a real vision that you want to get across, then you have to stick to your guns.

CIRINA CATANIA: How do you balance that when you’re working for other people and they’re basically the boss?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Well, delicate things to thread on, but I don’t look at it because I don’t see it as a hierarchy. I see it as 2 equals working together, because I provide something that they need, and I know that I can do a good job at it. If they don’t like it, then they can find it … If they find somebody else that’s better, that works with the vision that they want, then that’s great, because why should I try to control what they want? They have their ideas, but I don’t see it as a hierarchy. I think it’s equal playing field.

CIRINA CATANIA: That’s great advice, Justin. Where can people ego to learn more about you, and where can people go to learn more about this new track from Polina?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Polina’s new track is available on iTunes, and it’s Polina Little Babylon. The music video is going to be launching either Wednesday or Thursday of this week, and so you could YouTube Polina Little Babylon, or Google it, because I think it has a premier on one of the music sites first.

CIRINA CATANIA: Can we show our listeners a little previous of this?

JUSTIN THOMSON: For you, Cirina, how could I ever say no? You will definitely get a sneak peek.

CIRINA CATANIA: It doesn’t have to be the whole thing, just a piece, just a little piece.

JUSTIN THOMSON: I’ll send you some footage, so you can see what it looks like. Then you can have a sneak peek before it’s released.

CIRINA CATANIA: Great.

JUSTIN THOMSON: The as far as the film goes, our website is AshridgeFilms.com, or you can find me on Instagram under bejustincredible in all modesty.

CIRINA CATANIA: It’s AshridgeFilms, A-S-H-R-I-D-G-E-F-I-L-M-S dot com. Great.

JUSTIN THOMSON: Great.

CIRINA CATANIA: What’s next for you?

JUSTIN THOMSON: Next is Europe for a wedding.

CIRINA CATANIA: Which of course you’re probably going to shoot, right?

JUSTIN THOMSON: I’ll probably in the end, but then after that, Burning Man, which I’ll be shooting, which is a challenging environment for anybody that knows, that’s been there, because it’s so dusty and it’s a very particular kind of dust that destroys your equipment.

CIRINA CATANIA: You’re not taking the rush and 16 millimeter film camera on that one, right?

JUSTIN THOMSON: I may, actually, because it doesn’t matter if it totally gets destroyed.

CIRINA CATANIA: It will get destroyed. That trail dust, they call it trail dust, gets into everything, even if you have … I know when we were going across the country with hauling a production trailer, it was all closed up, and somehow the dust got inside everywhere.

JUSTIN THOMSON: Well, it’s unique because I’ve shot in various countries in Africa, which are all dusty, like Namibia, and Kenya, and things like that in the Northwestern Turkana. There is no dust that is as bad as the playa dust in Nevada. It just is … Somehow it has this alkaline. It just sticks to it. You can’t get it out.

CIRINA CATANIA: We’re going to have to check back with you. When is Burning Man?

JUSTIN THOMSON: It’s the last week of August.

CIRINA CATANIA: Yeah. You better get ready. It takes a while to get ready for that.

JUSTIN THOMSON: Yes, especially my hair. It doesn’t come naturally [inaudible 00:23:43].

CIRINA CATANIA: Justin, it’s fun talking to you. Always fun talking to you, Justin. Until the next time. Thank you very much, and we’ll stay in touch with you.

JUSTIN THOMSON: Sounds good. It was my pleasure.

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