October 12, 2012 | 4:00 PM
The year was 1991, and Michael Jackson was the biggest pop star in the world. He was set to premiere his latest—and most ambitious—video to date. It aired on a Sunday night after The Simpsons, and it was a sensation. "Black or White" was a perfectly "of-the-moment" song.
The end of the video featured a montage of people of different ages, genders, and ethnicities morphing into one another while singing lyrics to the song. It was an achievement in film technology, something almost magical, and a perfect representation of what the song was saying. Cutting-edge technology enabled an inclusive artist sentiment. Director Paul Landis hired the company Pacific Data Images, a CGI outfit that was later acquired by DreamWorks, to achieve the effect. Their budget was millions of dollars, and teams of digital artists and programmers worked for weeks to get it right.
Twenty years later, Ben Schechter, Alex Goldberg, and Drew Blatman, the filmmaking trio behind the New York production company Weird Days, achieved the same effect in a few hours. The Ultrabook™ Experience caught up with Weird Days at their Williamsburg, Brooklyn storefront office to talk about how new filmmaking technologies fuel their ambitions and keep them on their toes.
So how did you guys start making short films and videos together?
Alex: Drew and I went to film school together, and I knew Ben from the same music scene in Brooklyn. We decided to work together, and we've been able to make music videos for a bunch of great bands like Das Racist and Tanlines, as well as commercials.
Do you guys have a defined approach to filmmaking?
Alex: You could call it naturalistic run and gun stuff.
Ben: Our approach to filmmaking is playing with our different obsessions. We get really invested in an idea or a topic or a joke, and what we are joking about ends up in a video.
Alex: We also end up putting ourselves in unfamiliar environments. We like weird situations and figuring out how to do things on the fly.
Alex: We just got back from doing a video in Jamaica with Beenie Man and filming a commercial in Kenya with Masai warriors.
Drew: And we also incorporate technology into pretty much every video that we do, even new technologies that we might not be that familiar with. We throw ourselves into these projects, and learn on the fly.
So you'll use filmmaking technologies you've never used before on projects?
Alex: Pretty much every video we've done could have been a disaster. We often use technologies that we've never used before in each video that we do. So, that involves a steep learning curve, but in a way our obsessions and our ambitions are enabled by using new technologies.
Ben: With the Beenie Man shoot, we'd never done an entire video with a green screen before, so it was a gargantuan editing task, but one that let our imaginations loose.
Alex: We threw ourselves into a studio outside of Kingston with Beenie Man and all these Rasta dudes.
And tell me about the 360-degree video for the Tanlines song "Brothers."
Ben: Originally the concept came from Tanline's record label. They wanted to do a 360-degree video. So we hooked up with this company that makes attachments for smartphone cameras called GoPano*. But instead of attaching the GoPano to a smartphone, we attached it to a super high definition RED camera.
Alex: And we'd never shot with a Red camera or a GoPano before, and had all of six hours to shoot with it.
Drew: It was a performance challenge. There were lots of variables, and we only had time to do four takes.
Alex: It was like shooting a feature film or putting on a play. It was somewhat ironic because experimenting with new technologies made us revert to what seemed like a retrograde style. But that's what's fun about new tech, it stretches your range as a filmmaker.
And let's talk about the morphing in the Das Racist song titled "Michael Jackson." Why'd you guys copy that morphing scene?
Ben: We were born in the culture of Michael Jackson, so when the opportunity to work with the rap group Das Racist for their song, "Michael Jackson," arose we seized it. It was an amazing and hilarious challenge.
Alex: For the last scene of the video, we decided to try to copy the morphing sequence because, first off, it still looks cool, and, secondly, we thought it would be fun.
So how did you achieve the effect?
Drew: With the program AfterEffects. Our one-man special effects team and the filmmaker, Jordan Fish, just sat down for a few days and figured it out.
Alex: While we were shooting the sequence, we had no idea if we would be able to get it done. But it turned out amazing.
Ben: What's funny is that new technologies bring us out of our comfort zones, a lot like traveling. And as filmmakers we're drawn to challenges. Sometimes new tech presents new sets of limitations to work with. But that's art, working with and beyond limitations and creating new things.
And what's next for you guys?
Drew: We are doing a lot of commercial work abroad and finding new obsessions to turn into movies.
Would you guys be pumped to go to Doha, the Maldives, or the other locations of Four Stories to make a movie?
Alex: Are you kidding? That would be amazing. The winners of this contest will have a great opportunity to find inspiration abroad.