We interview six Film Production alumni on their collaboration with pianist Mélodie Zhao, for her 'Breakout Rhapsody' music video.
So you think classical music is boring, huh? The stuffy, semi-white noise soundtrack to Christmas dinner at grandma’s. Or worse, the hold music that invades your ears, all mellow violin, while you’re waiting to complain about some company’s small print. Young, exciting, powerful… sexy? Don’t be so last century! That’s like mutton music dressed as lamb.
Hah. Well, you’re wrong – and we’ll prove it. We bet you’ve never seen classical music like this!
‘Breakout Rhapsody,’ is pianist Mélodie Zhao‘s battle cry against the stereotypes. The first ever 100 percent classical music ‘pop’ music video, the Swiss performer gives 19th century composer Franz Liszt’s ‘Hungarian Rhapsody II’ the badass image it deserves. Emphasis on image: just because it’s classical music, that absolutely does not mean it should be heard and not seen.
Working with the multitalented Mélodie to bring her vision as director to reality were Catalyst Film Production alumni, Gerard O'Keeffe, Roman Koblov, Silvia Cannarozzi, Anna Bellettato, Caterina Stolzi, Lawrence Bolton, Jay Harris, and Mélodie’s sister Cadenza Zhao. That’s not to mention Felix Arogundade, who swapped sides of the camera to feature as one of the dancers. Having crewed up throughout their diploma, there was no question that the talented recent grads would make the perfect team.
Dying to find out what it was like for the filmmaking fam to collaborate on the hit production, we caught up with six of them for a Q&A.
We love how you used a posh dinner party setting to illustrate the stereotypes about classical music, before completely and utterly bulldozing them. How did you and Mélodie come up with this vision?
The concept and idea behind the video was Mélodie’s. She has wanted to make a music video to accompany her work for years. For her first music video, she wanted to reflect on her own experiences as an artist and performer. Although she usually plays in big concert halls, she told us that once, when she was invited to play at a private event, the audience paid no attention to her. It is a craft she has worked hard to master throughout her life and that’s why its so baffling an audience would not engage with the performance and give respect to the artist.
My job as a co-writer was just to put some structure in the story and frame it into a more linear narrative. It is amazing to work with someone who is so clear about their creative vision and so sure of what she wants to achieve.
Did working on a music video, as opposed to a short film, present any new challenges?
I found working on a music video gives you more creative freedom. Most of my experience has been working on narrative short films so I found working on a music video extremely liberating. You don’t need to be so uptight and concerned about continuity. Even though there is a story running through this video, while we were on set, we did not have to make sure every shot led to the next. The edit has more freedom and you are aware of that while you shoot. It means that you can take more risks and be more adventurous with the shots.
As a cinematographer, the main challenge is making sure that you create a balance between telling the story and showcasing the artist’s talent. You have to constantly be aware of those two focuses.
You and Gerard have worked together in similar roles before. How did you both create the visual identity of this music video?
We met Mélodie at the end-of-year final film screenings. She approached me and Gerard after watching Fractures, a film for which he was director and I was director of photography. From Mélodie’s connections, we secured a beautiful dining hall in Potsdam called Palais Lichtenau. The other location was the stage area in Theaterhaus Mitte. As far as the visuals were concerned, I worked with Gerard to create a shot list based on Mélodie’s concept. The ultimate goal was to showcase classical music in a contemporary way. The outfits, choreography, locations and set design really elevated the production value.
We were also fortunate to have been given free use of an expensive Kino Flo RGB [red green blue] light by the kind folk at MBF Filmtechnik Berlin. We used that light especially for the strobe effects you see in the video. We also used it as a hair and back light in the dining hall scenes, after the tungsten stage lights we intended to use had burned all of our CTB [colour temperature blue] gels. So a big thanks to Michael at MBF Berlin for being so generous!
For the scenes in the theatre, we used heavy fog, as well as the practical stage and LED lights already present. As the majority of the lighting was tungsten balanced, we set our white balance to tungsten (3200 kelvin). It created a nice contrast with the daylight-balanced LED lights, making them appear more blue. In general, we wanted to clearly contrast the lighting of the scenes set in reality with the dream sequences (the ones where the dancers are present). For the scenes in reality, we gravitated towards warmer hues such as yellow and green. Whereas, for the dream sequences, we focused more on blue and colder tones.
The video is extremely dynamic. How did you approach the camera work?
For the vast majority of the film, myself and Gerard shot in tandem simultaneously. We were both on gimbals to allow us more freedom in our camera moves. One of us generally focused on close-up shots and the other on medium and wide shots. We shot for two full days (over 12 hours each day), amassing hours of footage. Silvia Cannarozzi, another former dBs Berlin Film Diploma student and a talented video editor, managed to go over the footage and create a final cut in just a few days.
You could say that the sound is the most important character in the music video. Can you explain your approach?
For me, sound can play interesting roles in music videos – aside from the song itself, of course. With just a bit of sound (whether its someone writing or talking or moving) you can enhance, or rather create, an atmosphere to clarify what the music video is about. Just like in movies, it can create a story in itself. For instance, the sound effects in Dizzee Rascal’s ‘Bassline Junkie’ video clearly show comedy. With human interactions, they create a fun atmosphere. There are plenty more examples.
Specifically in Mélodie’s music video, she’s been able to take a song from long ago and make it her own. The piece was recorded by Meng Cao in Beijing’s National Centre for the Performing Arts. I was working on the non-musical sound. The sounds of her somewhat dramatic entrance, the interruption in the middle, and the exit at the end are all plotted to emphasise the expression of her character.
Music production is your main hobby. Did you learn anything from the experience that you’ll carry forward to future productions?
I’ve been interested in music ever since I can remember. Because of this, I felt I had an idea about how music can work in films. I always thought it was cool, seeing how the Catalyst Music students produced. And since I was familiar with the instruments, I took the project with me to the studio one day. It was fun!
And as I lingered through the school every day learning film, I also saw and even took a sneak peek here and there at all the talented music students. I learned a lot from observing – enough for me to continue in film as sound or composer.
Describe your role as camera assistant.
I helped with the camera equipment and mainly with the lights. On the first day of shooting, we filmed in the Theaterhaus. There, I was in charge of turning the stage lighting on and off where Mélodie and the dancers were. I did this with the guidance of Gerard and Roman. But it was Mélodie, of course, who told me to listen to the rhythm of the music in order to know when to introduce the lights.
How did you choose the parts from which to create stills?
We created the stills from the most theatrical parts. For example, the ones where the composition of the picture was planned to make the video stand out as intriguing. Mélodie’s silhouette as she lies on the piano and seems to be floating in clouds is one of the first images we see when the pianist is lost in the music she is playing.
As the director, Mélodie had a clear idea of how to promote the music video. Therefore she knew exactly which parts were good for stills and she asked me to take pictures of them.
Which parts of the production did you coordinate?
I basically made sure that everyone on set was well fed and had everything they needed.
How did it feel to collaborate with your sister on her first music video?
It felt great to collaborate with my sister! It wasn’t the first time we worked together (as she also composed and performed the music for my last short film) and it certainly won’t be the last! I think I can speak for the whole team that being part of the making of this video was enriching and an amazing experience for all.
You were a major part of this production. How did you bring all of these roles together to ensure an amazing final product?
I love classical music, especially the composer Liszt, and I saw a big potential in this video. Both because Mélodie is super talented and the concept is interesting: breaking the stereotypes of classical music’s ‘old’ image. So when Gerard O’Keeffe and Mélodie Zhao asked me to jump on board, I wanted to be involved as much as possible.
I have to say that Mélodie made my role as a producer much easier because she was already working on it, looking for locations and arranging costumes and choreography. I decided to take all of these roles because they would allow me to be in all three stages of the production, supporting Mélodie in achieving her vision as director. Also, the picture and sound editing were meant to be done in four days, so it was useful to know exactly what was going on on set in each shot.
What was your proudest moment?
My proudest moment was during the second day of shooting, right before we started to shoot. We had to gather around 20 extras in Potsdam to make it look like a fancy dinner. After all the effort we made to make it happen, when the set was dressed, the lights were on and the extras were sitting at their places, I realised that everything looked perfect and I felt very proud of myself and my team.