Frames Per Second: Sam Jones on Directing Video Projects Large and Small

November 9, 2012

By Greg Scoblete

© Sam Jones

A screenshot for John Mayer's "Queen of California" music video, which Sam Jones directed. You can watch the video as well as Jones's short film Thirteen Shady Characters at the bottom of this article.

Not every photographer who grabs an HD-DSLR can legitimately call himself a director. Over the course of an 11-year directorial career, however, Sam Jones’s work in film and video has been anything but monotone. He cut his teeth as an Associated Press photographer, gradually assembling a portfolio that includes covers shot for Vanity Fair, Rolling Stone, TIME and GQ, to name a few. In 2001, he added motion to his toolkit. Since then, he’s racked up an equally impressive list of credits shooting music videos including “Walk” for the Foo Fighters, which won an MTV Video Music Award; commercials for clients such as Skype, McDonald’s and Sonos; and documentaries like the feature-length I Am Trying To Break Your Heart: A Film About Wilco.  

While Jones has done his fair share of marquee projects, he also relishes the opportunity to downsize a bit. “I like moving back and forth” between projects of varying sizes, he says. “I certainly admire people who can do one thing consistently well, but for me, it’s a breath of fresh air to always be doing something different.”  

Here he talks to PDN about his approach to two assignments, each produced on a very different scale.

California Dreaming
John Mayer isn’t exactly known as a man of limited appetites. So when he approached Jones about directing a video for “Queen of California,” a single off his latest album, Born and Raised, he set expectations accordingly. “He began by saying he wanted to make a video that was surreal and beautiful—that really increased everyone’s expectations for what a music video could be,” Jones explains.

No pressure there.

Yet as Jones tells it, it was an invigorating challenge. “The reason directors do music videos isn’t for the money, but to express an idea,” Jones says. “These videos are like the editorial shoots in the motion world … where you develop a concept and follow it through.” The process usually starts by “getting the picture you have in your head into the artist’s head,” Jones says. It can be anything from a one-page treatment laying out the video’s scope to something more robust. “I once made an entire music video for a song … just to get a job making a video for that song,” Jones recalls with a laugh.

For the “Queen of California” video, the concept evolved through a back-and-forth between Mayer and Jones. “I wrote up a description of the concept and the idea just got bigger and bigger because John kept asking to make it bigger.”

The premise, which Jones says was only loosely related to the lyrical content of the song, was to have what appears to be one long Steadicam take of Mayer strolling through a variety of sets that change seamlessly around him as he sings and strums his way through the song.

“On this project, everything was expensive. We had to build a lot of sets and backdrops, we needed a lot of props and extras. It was a massive undertaking.”

But even big budgets have limits and after some exchanges with the record label, it became clear they would end up with “not quite enough money” to underwrite the original plan. Jones, though, is quick to add that “when you have an idea, you can’t execute it half way.”

Cue the green eyeshades.

The first calculation Jones made was the strengths and weaknesses of various camera systems. “Can we do it with less expensive cameras?” The answer was no. For the Mayer shoot, Jones believed the gear was the last place to cut corners. “We needed an ALEXA—just about the most expensive digital package there is—but we needed slow motion, Steadicam and multiple lighting cues with plenty of contrast. We really needed the most flexible system available.” He explains, “A DSLR doesn’t shoot variable frame rates and doesn’t do any slow motion in HD.” Where Jones did pare back was on the number of sets.

Despite the budgetary concessions, the production was still considerable: a crew of roughly 150, including 50 cast members, housed in a 650,000-square-foot hangar previously used to build the space shuttle. Choreographing the Steadicam shot with multiple set changes and extras flowing in and out was a lot like “orchestrating a live event,” Jones recounts. “As a director on a larger project, you have to figure out the important thing to watch over; you have to focus on a lot but something has to be at the top of the pile,” he says. “If there’s a lot of dialogue in a commercial, I’ll watch the performances. If the commercial is heavily visual, the important place to be is on the camera.”

What made the “Queen of California” shoot so challenging, Jones recalls, was that several elements were at the top of the pile. First, naturally, was monitoring Mayer’s performance. A close second was ensuring that all the cues—lighting elements, fake snow—were executed properly. What helped, Jones says, was intense preparation. The 14-hour shoot was preceded by three days of prep and set building. Jones carefully plotted out the course Mayer would travel, counting the steps and coordinating the various elements and cues. It didn’t hurt that Mayer was adept at hitting his marks, Jones adds.

Having a rock-solid crew on hand was also critical. “When you get into the motion world, you have to know and trust your crew. If you have weak departments, it can sink a project,” Jones says. Fortunately, they stayed afloat.

Shady Characters
While no one would argue that maneuvering a pop singer through a space shuttle hangar isn’t invigorating, Jones relishes smaller scale projects too. Working within a tight budget isn’t a creativity killer, he says. “Your limitations can create the best accidents and inspirations. An unlimited budget can be your worst enemy.”

Inspiration borne of limitation characterizes Jones’s quirky short film Thirteen Shady Characters, a project that grew from a still photo shoot for Vanity Fair.

The original assignment entailed photographing 14 well-known, but still largely anonymous, character actors (Margo Martindale, Richard Jenkins, Christopher McDonald, John Hawkes and others). Initially, the magazine wanted to bring in a separate film crew to record behind-the-scenes footage of the shoot. Jones wasn’t keen on the idea.

“I used to not enjoy any motion rolling on a still shoot because it’s distracting, but in this case, we decided to do it ourselves and turn it into an opportunity to do something that, we hoped, would be interesting.”

Rather than a typical behind-the-scenes montage, Jones decided to pull the actors into a small, (mostly) soundproof room above where they were shooting stills and have them improvise. “We weren’t sure they would do it, but we approached it as a real low-expectations thing: If they could do it, great; if not, we’d lose nothing.”

The shoot was simple: Just a Canon 5D Mark II, a boom mic and an audio mixer. “It was myself, a camera assistant and a lighting assistant,” Jones says. He filmed seven of the actors on camera, monitoring the audio through headphones (with one ear free so he could feed the actors lines). Then he brought them downstairs to shoot a group portrait with the remaining seven. When the group shot was complete, six other actors did their video performances.

When it was done, each actor’s ten- to 15-minute session was edited by Jones and a partner, Brian Bennett, into a short film.

Editing his own work has given Jones some valuable insight into crafting a compelling visual story. “The single most important thing you can do” to understand the nuances of video production, Jones says, is “to go edit something yourself.” That way, he adds, you can see how the audio and visual elements you’ve gathered for your film can “help or hurt you.” Once you learn how to “tell the story in the editing room” from these disparate pieces, Jones observes, you’ll know how to assemble the story on set. No matter how large or how intimate that set is.

Watch “Queen of California” and Thirteen Shady Characters below:

13 Shady Characters from Sam Jones on Vimeo.