It’s the middle of Labour Day weekend and dawn has yet to crack. In a van crammed with gear and costume changes, the members of In-Flight Safety—bassist Brad Goodsell in the driver’s seat, keyboardist Daniel Ledwell in the passenger side, drummer Glen Nicholson in the middle and singer-guitarist John Mullane in the back—are headed from downtown Halifax toward Crystal Crescent Beach, to the set of their new video for “The Coast is Clear.”
A gas station stop near the Armdale Rotary adds director Drew Lightfoot, director of photography Jeremy Benning, producer Aram Kouyoumdjian and three crew members to the now three-vehicle convoy.
Nicholson runs into the store, which has a Tim Hortons inside, to grab much-needed fuel. A rush of 5:30am lottery ticket buyers sets the day back five minutes.
Back on the road, he takes a sip of what turns out to be watered-down, hours-old coffee. “This tastes like garbage,” he announces with disgust.
He drinks it anyway. It will be a long day.
Just before the gate, as the sky slowly gets lighter, the three cars round a bend that reveals a little nook of ocean surrounded by trees and an almost mythical-looking mist hovering above the water’s surface.
Lightfoot pulls over. The remaining two cars follow.
“Drew’s gonna want to get this,” Mullane says.
Benning emerges with a camera, Kouyoumdjian following with a tripod. The band stays in the van while the team shoots some B-roll. From the back, Mullane instructs Ledwell to find something good on his iPod, patched into the car stereo. Jason Collett’s “I’ll Bring the Sun,” an apt track as the day comes into view, starts up.
“Good choice!” Mullane says approvingly, clapping along.
At Crystal Crescent Beach the gate is locked. It’s 7:15am. It’s a Sunday, on a holiday weekend, no less—it’s a risk to wait and see if somebody comes by to open the gate. All of the camera gear will have to be carried in, walked 10 minutes down a dirt road, and 10 more along the beach itself. The performance section of the video will be filmed this afternoon in a different location, so nobody has to lug any instruments, at least.
The band changes from its street clothes into its video clothes, using the van as a dressing room. Ledwell lets out a mock-shriek in the cold morning air. The boys wear jeans, black button-down shirts and grey blazers. Around each neck is a snow-white tie, made by Mullane’s mother. Everyone but Goodsell, who wears orange-striped Adidas, sports high-top Chuck Taylors—lime for Mullane, white for Nicholson and brown for Ledwell.
Kouyoumdjian instructs the group on what to say should a park official come nosing through. He doesn’t have permission to shoot at the beach, which is always a precarious position for an independent filmmaker—there’s a chance access will be granted if you ask for it, but if your request is denied, the people in charge have a heads-up and they could foil you should you choose to do it anyway.
“This is a band called In-Flight Safety,” he coaches. “We’re doing a school project.”
Everyone grabs something and trudges past the gate, into the woods and the waiting sunrise.
Though In-Flight shot the “Coast” video, its third, in Nova Scotia, Lightfoot and Benning are well-regarded artists from Toronto. That the video is set here is an anomaly—Lightfoot also helmed In-Flight’s “Surround” clip, shot this spring atop a Toronto skyscraper. Wintersleep’s “Sore,” “Danse Macabre” and “Faithful Guide” were all made with Sean Wainsteim of TO’s Ghostmilk Studios. Matt Mays and El Torpedo’s “Cocaine Cowgirl” takes place in the blistering California desert.
Which begs the question: in a town with so many musicians and so many filmmakers, why aren’t more music videos by local bands being produced locally?
Mullane, in conversation over coffee in July, is upfront about the band’s choices. “From our point of view, it comes down to the industry being centrally located in Toronto,” he says, “and out east if you’re not with Sonic Entertainment Group, you’re kind of unknowingly trying to find a director. The infrastructure for the record industry is in Toronto, and it magnetizes people to be searching in that area. You just forget about home—it’s great that there’s a great director in Halifax, but does he know how to get VideoFACT?”
VideoFACT is the blessing and the curse of this story. Created by MuchMusic’s Moses Znaimer and Bernie Finkelstein in 1984, it is responsible for the majority, if not all, of the funding artists receive to make music videos. Up to $20,000, or half of the video’s budget, is available. The most common method finds a company or director applying on behalf of the band, doing the form-filling and budget-wrangling, and then the band shows up on the day. But it’s not like the VideoFACT vault is available to be picked through by any schmo with a guitar—like anything in the entertainment industry, Canadian or otherwise, it’s about luck, timing and connections.
“You need an in,” Mullane says. “You need a director, and you need a production company that’s going to get behind your song. Otherwise you’re just an independent applying for $20,000 and they’re going to say no thanks.”
In-Flight Safety’s first video was a moody, black-and-white affair for “Somebody’s Watching You,” from its debut EP Vacation Land. It was directed by Michael Leach, a fan of the band with limited film experience.
“We didn’t get VideoFACT with Michael, probably because Michael didn’t have a reel or a reputation and we did it sort of ghetto on our own,” says Mullane. “And that’s something I don’t want to do again unless we absolutely have to, for the amount of time and energy it took from the band.”
He notes that “We spent $1,500, $2,000 just on the closed-captioning for MuchMusic, to get “Somebody’s Watching You” on The Wedge, like, twice. Two thousand dollars! And the next video we did all this crazy stuff with helicopters and spent zero. It’s like, well, do you really want to make a video without VideoFACT next time? No. So you wanna take great lengths to make sure you get a reputable director and a production company with a history of getting VideoFACT. And out east I don’t know who those people are, but I do know Revolver Film Company wants to work with us, so let’s do that.”
The early morning sun is still rising as the team prepares to shoot three members walking along the beach. Lightfoot and Benning, along with the two crew members, are near the water setting up the shot. The band stands around on the boardwalk drinking water.
A Nova Scotia Parks and Recreation employee appears on top of the path, changing garbage bags.
Somebody yells “Bogey!” down to the team on the beach, code for an outsider who could pass through the shot or otherwise get in the way.
Kouyoumdjian immediately walks up to him and gives him the project line.
“If you liked,” says Alan, the Parks and Rec guy, “you could’ve called us up and we would’ve let you in earlier. We do it all the time. If you know the right person, you can get in here any time of year.”
Matt Wells is the host of Going Coastal, the MuchMusic show that focuses on talent on this coast and in the west. (It airs at midnight most Sundays.) But for much longer he’s been the singer of Bucket Truck, the monster Newfoundland hardcore sextet. He disagrees with Mullane’s assessment of the process.
“Like with anything, if you know somebody who knows somebody, that’s gonna help you,” he concedes over his cell from a central Canadian highway. “But I can use the example of Bucket Truck—we were having videos played on MuchMusic long before I ever worked there.” He laughs. “More. Less now that I’m there. The second VideoFACT grant we got, we went with a company in Toronto, and they were really nice people and they made a shitty video for us and it got light rotation on MuchLOUD, which is pretty much no rotation. And it was somebody who was definitely connected in Toronto and knew all those people and has been doing videos for years and we had this killer DOP who really liked the band and did the video for free, and it was a shitty video. A year later we made our own video and it went into heavy rotation.”
Bucket Truck has made 10 videos, eight of them on their own and half of those directed by either Wells or guitarist Mike Rizkalla. Wells flies in the face of Atlantic Canada’s inferiority complex to make a valid point to bands looking at Toronto:
“What bands have to realize is that they’re not doing you a favour by applying for a VideoFACT grant,” he says. “Bands are like ‘Oh this company’s gonna apply for us and it’s gonna be great,’ and it’s cool but at the end of the day they’re padding their reel and they’re making money from it. You’re doing them a favour. So you’re in drivers’ seat—you can say ‘Fuck that, I got a VideoFACT grant because of the music we made and our band, and I want to shoot it in Halifax.’ And if they don’t want to do it, you get another team.”
Walter Forsyth is the administrative coordinator of the Atlantic Filmmaker’s Co-operative, and he cut his teeth on a handful of music videos for beloved Halifax pop quartet Plumtree back in the New Seattle days. As a filmmaker in the non-profit, artist-run sector, he knows from funding. And he’s tried to give local musicians a touchstone for music videos. With Jay Dahl, Sean Doyle and Chris Fox, he formed Gentle Wave Productions, which produced a video for The New Breed and one for Universal Soul.
“And that’s as far as we got,” he says from his office downstairs from the CBC. “One of the things that we ran into is that a lot of the bands that have the finances to make a music video have already been courted or have already chosen to do a music video with a production company out of province. When I first started making music videos which was probably 1992, there were two music video companies in Toronto. One was called Blackwalk and the other one called Revolver, who are still doing it and are doing it big. Like any smart company they were trying to find bands to make music videos for. Then there was this feeling that if you wanted something done well, you would have to go somewhere else to get it done. And I think that still exists here. Which is kind of ironic because the bands that are making music probably don’t believe that in the musical world. But in the video production world they do believe it.”
A major reason there’s no production house here is the same reason there aren’t a lot of things here: money.
“Tell me who in Nova Scotia has a successful company for anything else,” says Forsyth. “That’s what it comes down to. Nobody’s making kickass videos in Nova Scotia—well, who’s making kickass features in Nova Scotia? Who’s making kickass TV commercials? If there is anyone, then they’re the people that could easily have a breakoff company that could do music videos. That’s the problem. The infrastructure here—there is the talent, the crew and equipment and everything to do it—there just isn’t the money and willpower for someone to do it.”
Aram Kouyoumdjian of Roomtone Productions has been working in the local film and television industry since 1997 and in bands since high school, so his current careers as a sound guy and music video producer make perfect sense. With Colin MacKenzie—whose is the only name that ever comes up as a known director of videos in Halifax; he moved to Montreal earlier this year—he has made videos for Jill Barber, Matt Mays and El Torpedo, The Museum Pieces and Julie Dorion.
He produced In-Flight Safety’s “The Coast is Clear” and Matt Mays’ solo single “When the Angels Make Contact,” which Lightfoot also directed, back-to-back on Labour Day weekend.
“The unfortunate reality that Halifax’s talented filmmaking community is faced with is that the Canadian music video industry, like the Canadian music industry itself, is dominated largely by Toronto-based companies,” he emails from Paris, where he’s doing sound on a documentary. “Toronto has been cranking out videos for as long as videos have been a part of the music industry and the amount of experience in the genre is far greater than ours. Also, as Toronto is a common ground for all the facets of the music industry, the videos tend to get handed to production companies that are already in the loop.”
He shares Mullane’s belief that who you know is a huge factor in getting a video not just made but played.
“The centre of Canada’s English music video industry, MuchMusic, is on Queen Street West, so that’s where business is conducted,” he writes. “Basically, videos have more clout, and tend to get more play, when they are connected to companies, directors and directors of photography with solid connections and reputations in the industry, who in most cases, hail from Toronto.”
Kouyoumdjian is on a mission to have videos made here. “The truth is that we’ve got great creative forces, tremendous crews, fantastic locations, studio and post production facilities right here in Happyfax,” he writes. “If more local musicians were willing to stay in Halifax with their videos, we’d have more opportunities to build strong reputations that could compete more easily with the Toronto market.”
He puts the onus on the film community, rather than the music scene. “We have to get out there and do it,” he says. “If the musicians are under the impression that they have to go to Toronto, we have to prove ourselves to them. Simple as that. Let’s come up with some great ideas and make them happen. It’s a collaboration between the musicians and the filmmakers, we just have to start thinking more like a Halifax team…In the meantime, continuing to have successful collaborations with the Toronto industry can only help.”
With the incredible success of YouTube—purchased recently by Google for $1.65 billion, if that’s any indication of its power—and the steady decline of record sales along with the steady increase of reality shows on video channels, the argument could be made that the music video is a dinosaur on its way out. Traditional music marketing is practically dead, with listeners abandoning radio for MP3 blogs, not to mention that the sheer volume of music accessible to the average person is immeasurable, making it harder than ever to get—and keep—fans.
“I think now more than ever it’s important to have a music video,” says Matt Wells. “Cause you know what? At the end of the day, MTV and MuchMusic are not going to break an independent band. Not because they’re not able, but it’s just not gonna happen. There’s less and less videos getting played—it’s just the nature of the business. With MySpace and YouTube and where the internet is, you can take your music video and put it up and you can get so many people seeing your band. Especially for an independent band—not only can people hear your music now, they can potentially see you live. And I think it’s important. It’s a better idea for a band to take the $3,000 they have to make a digital video and say ‘I don’t care if this gets played on television.’”
Since the music industry is always on the hunt for bands that will save it, Wells believes even a cheaply produced clip can help a band.
“Aside from the potential fans they could get from that,” he says, “people in the industry—if they’re looking to network with labels or managers or whatever the case—there’s this live piece of music they can watch and not just listen to. If we’re talking about a band who’s trying to promote itself, like ‘I wanna do this, I wanna be in a band, I wanna tour and sell lots of records,’ it’s very important to have a video.”
“When I first started you could make a film for $2,000 and have it screened on MuchMusic a dozen times, 15 times, and that was 15 years ago,” says Walter Forsyth. “You can’t do that now. So even if you have a digital camera—there are always exceptions, of course—it’s hard as hell. But that doesn’t mean that making a good music video isn’t an important component of marketing your band. It’s still crucial. With the advent of that cheap way of reaching people, it still comes down to you have to reach them. You can put something somewhere but you have to draw them to it. So the idea of having a video on rotation on TV is going to draw people to it. Having something on YouTube fits the 10,000th choice,” of where you’d want a video to air. “No one’s gonna watch it. It’s due diligence for a band to do all the marketing and promotion they can possibly do to draw people to their music.”
“Our video is on MuchMusic a lot, Much- MoreMusic a lot,” says JohnMullane. “We’ve gotten a few more e-mails—‘Hey I saw your video, I like your band’—but I don’t know if it’s really changed anything for us financially. It doesn’t feel different. Media is so different now, it’s spread so thin—some people don’t watch TV now, they watch YouTube. They go to MySpace, they don’t go to MuchMusic.
“In the early 90s, when you were at home after school you watched MuchMusic and that’s all you knew about. How else were you gonna see a video? There was no internet. ‘Did you see the new Foo Fighters video? They premiered it!’ Or the new Pumpkins video or whatever. Now I don’t see MuchMusic as being as important as it was. But it’s fun for your fans. It’s fun for the band. It seems to me you need to do everything in your power just to get the word out.”
It’s early evening and the production has moved to West Dover for the performance section of the video after a successful few hours—and only two naked sunbathers—filming In-Flight Safety exploring the rocks and woods of Crystal Crescent.
The shoot is at the crest of a private road built specifically for Kathryn Bigelow’s 2000 Sean Penn-starring film The Weight of Water, which shot in the area in the summer of ’99. The land is owned by a handful of people, and Kouyoumdjian has gone to each person’s house to get permission to film.
The band sets up on a nearby surface. Behind them are huge rocks set amid freakishly green grass. Mullane calls it “the Hills of Mordor.” Many Lord of the Rings jokes are made.
Fatigue and, after a warm morning spent on the beach turns into brisk ocean wind, cold set in. Ledwell, who got his foot caught in a roadside net and took a tumble onto the rocky ground, has rolled his right jeans leg up to air out his wound. (Mullane will later leaves some flesh behind on his guitar strings.) He’s also toting a bottle of whiskey. Nicholson is a part-time rep for Red Bull, so there’s a case in the van. It goes into the cooler around 5pm. As the working hours spent on this day tick into double digits, the stock of energy drink gets lower and lower, reluctantly in most cases, but coffee’s not an option.
A mammoth equipment truck shows up (“Is that our truck?” Mullane asks in disbelief as he watches it creep up the tiny road, like a bear riding a tricycle) and out of it come two more crew members and, most importantly, lights. A make-up person arrives to touch up the band.
On Lightfoot’s command, they run through “The Coast is Clear” a half-dozen times, playing along with a blasting backing track controlled by Kouyoumdjian. On the last few takes, Ledwell takes to flipping his stool as he stands up to mime the final “la da da” of the song.
Lightfoot instructs DOP Jeremy Benning, a renowned Steadicam operator, to “get those little moments.” He dashes between band members, wielding his 70-pound camera like it’s nothing.
When Lightfoot wraps the shoot, the band crowds around Benning’s monitor in disbelief. It looks like a movie.
In the van bound for Halifax, 16 hours after they left the city, In-Flight is stoked as they look back on the weekend.
“‘Surround’ was ridiculous, and this was extra ridiculous,” says Mullane. “Surround” was the band’s video shot on top of the Toronto skyscraper, with added footage taken from a helicopter.
“It was more intimidating, the ‘Surround’ video, with all those people there,” says Nicholson from the driver’s seat. “There was more pressure—it was almost theatrical. We had to put on posture-perfect show, looking nice. We were self-conscious.”
“We tend to be a little tight,” says Ledwell.
“Well it was March so it was really cold,” Mullane reasons, “and I think we were cold.”
“It was 4am, 30 storeys up,” adds Ledwell.
“We put a lot of energy into the performance but it worked for the video because the video’s got a very slow, cinematic feel,” says Mullane. “This one was more like trying to channel more energy into the song and really sell it. if you believe in your songs you should have fun with them. So I think we had more fun this time.”
“The whiskey helped,” says Ledwell.
“The Coast is Clear,” like “Surround,” is a $40,000 video. The VideoFACT grant accounts for half; the other half is covered by services donated “in kind,” that is, a monetary value is assigned to each person’s contribution to the production, what they would charge if they were to be paid. (Which they will not.)
“What’s crazy is, Drew’s not getting paid for hundreds of hours of work,” says Ledwell. “It’s not like we’re getting 100 bucks to be in our video. We’re lugging our gear out there and $20,000 doesn’t go that far.”
“It almost comes back to shoot us in the foot because people look at our videos and they’re like, ‘How much money did you guys have to make that video?’ ‘Surround,’ somebody thought we spent like $100,000 on it,” says Mullane. “But that’s because—and I don’t feel like I have to justify it—we lifted all our gear up ourselves so we save on labourers, we go to great lengths to make sure stuff is done, like producer-type jobs. Brad’s driving to Moncton to pick up ties so that the production doesn’t have to spend money on it. And we did the same thing for ‘Coast’—I’m out scouting with Dan on our own time and money, because it’s a labour of love. And we squeeze so much more out of it because Drew is freed up from having to do menial stuff and having to spend money. And it comes back to bite us in the ass because all the indie people are like, ‘How much money did you guys spend?’ and we only spent the minimal amount you can get from VideoFACT, and that’s all we had. We go to great lengths. A lot of those bands get those things, and they fuck up their video, and they never get played by anyone. That was 20 grand that some younger band could’ve used.”
Nicholson believes it’s up to the bands to get informed about what options are open to them.
“It’s like, these services are there that the Liberal government put in place, they’re not gonna be there forever, you know, it doesn’t take a genius to do a little research or even talk to fellow musicians about the different organizations that are available for bands,” he says. “Whether it be FACTOR, or Music Nova Scotia or VideoFACT. These things are there for you. So to be ignorant to that fact and to be a band that has been around for awhile, is sort of looking to make some different moves and better themselves, to not know about Video-FACT or FACTOR or Music Nova Scotia, or to deny it as not being indie enough—god knows what’s indie enough, I don’t even know, maybe VideoFACT isn’t hardcore enough.”
“It was hardcore enough for Broken Social Scene and Stars,” Mullane notes.
“Sometimes you have other musicians come up and say, ‘How on earth did you get the money to make that?’,” says Nicholson. “It’s like, we filled out a couple forms.”
A native of Lantz, NS, Tara Thorne had no choice but to watch NCN (now CMT), and didn’t have MuchMusic in her own home until 1996. She has much more country music knowledge than she would like to admit, but at least CMT still plays videos, unlike Much. She is arts editor of The Coast.