Along with his partner Ian McFarland, Mike has written and directed intricate and compelling videos for Killswitch Engage, Fear Factory, As I Lay Dying, Agnostic Front and many others (but not Nickelback - they turned that one down). Here, he talks about the making of some of these videos and what goes into a McFarland & Pecci production.
Mike Pecci: My experience growing up with the hardcore scene was non-existent, which is fine. When I was growing up as a kid, I was listening to a lot of metal. I worked in a music store for years, so I was listening to a wide range of everything, but it wasn't until I started working with my business partner Ian McFarland that I got into the hardcore scene. And then we started doing music videos together, so I got introduced to it in my early 20s.
Songfacts: In a lot of these videos you really have to get the trust of these dudes to get the buy-in. Tell me about that.
Mike: Well, it's something that we do. One of the big things that both Ian and I are fascinated with is the dark side inside people, because everybody has some dark history. Everybody has some story that they don't want to tell you, and it's that kind of stuff that I feel like you learn more lessons from. If you're hanging out with an average Joe and you're having that dumb conversation of like, What's your favorite movie? What's your favorite music? You're not really getting to the source of what makes them a human being.
If you and I went out and had beers, we'd eventually start talking about that stuff, because that's what fascinates us and that's what drives us. And we're very honest about our history. I'm very proud of the steps that I've gone through to make me this 37-year-old dude that I am right now. It's these trials that you go through that make you a human being.
We're very open about ourselves and we've very honest about what we're doing when we deal with anything. So, whether it's a documentary or music video, we always talk to whoever we're working with to find out what their motivations are. Sometimes we'll work with somebody who just wants to create a persona and a marketing scheme for what they're doing, and that's fine if that's what they're setting out to do and they're not bullshitting you about it. But I find that with the hardcore scene, you wear your heart on your sleeve, and you're very proud of where you come from. So if you are willing to sit down and have an honest conversation with these guys before you start working, you really earn their trust. And then once you get to set and you start that process, they trust you when you say, "This doesn't look good," or "I don't want you guys wearing all-black T-shirts. Let's change that up." They'll trust you because they know your intention and they know your history.
Songfacts: Yeah. And a lot of times people don't realize these things can be a slog. People always say, "We had fun doing it." A lot of these, they're not fun while you're doing them.
Mike: Well, I had this conversation the other day with Tony, who has been with us for like six, seven years. He's kind of the third person and the behind the scenes guy in McFarland & Pecci. We were talking about work and jobs. Everybody that comes to you for work, it's the most important thing in the world to them. They're blowing more money than they have, normally. And it's like the end of the world. Like, you have to drop everything and do this. And my whole philosophy is, the experience itself should be fun. So, we're very fortunate to be employed to do this sort of thing – to be artists about what we do and to meet really cool people and travel all over the place.
So, that's the first thing: If you're not having fun, and the people that you're working with aren't having fun, it completely translates on-screen. There have been a few projects that we've done that were not fun, and when you go back and you look at that stuff, you can tell.
It also becomes this sort of marker in your life, and when you're living this life of being a director or a media maker, it takes over your world. When you work on these projects it's 14-hour days, and it's four or five weeks straight of doing this one thing. Your life starts to fly by, and you have these marker points.
I'm turning 37 this year and it's like, holy shit. Like, where did the time go? As I look back, my life is bookmarked by the different projects that I've done. So, if that's the case and that's ultimately what ends up defining my time, I should have a good time with it. It should be fun, and it should be something that's healthy.
Songfacts: Let's take a specific video: the Meshuggah video for "Bleed." I'd like to hear how you came up with the concept for it and how it was created.
We pitched them and said, Look, the cover art really inspired us. This guy is like a demon, and he's on this plane of hell. Wouldn't it be really great if we did a video that had 12 steps to hell, like 12 different levels of hell? And we have one character that's dropped in and has to work his way through it all the way to the final demon, which is the guy on the cover.
They loved the idea, and the label loved the idea. They said, "Great, we have a budget." It was an okay budget. We can make that work. So, we started to plan it. We started to go through the process and put the concept together. A few weeks later the label contacts us and says, "Hey look, we spent a lot of money on the album art and spent a lot of money on the concept art, so we need to cut your budget more than half for the music video."
Songfacts: Oh no.
Mike: We were like, "Well, I guess it's only going to be three levels of hell now." The guys were pretty understanding about it, but they were giving us a fraction of what we needed. And so, we went back to the drawing board and we worked out the details.
We shoot out of Boston, and Boston has it's own film industry that's actually pretty busy these days. We put together a crew, and we were location scouting in Boston. We found this old, abandoned ice cream factory - this place that used to make ice cream and package it. It still had a lot of machinery in it and really cool texture on the walls and stuff. We thought, This should be great. We can build a level in each one of these rooms. We can build a version of hell.
So we talked to the landlord, and right before we were supposed to start shooting, it turns up that he has some sort of weird gangster history and was involved with some people that we didn't want to be involved with. So we had to pull out of that location.
And so, our budget was cut, our location was lost, and it was right before the shoot. Ian and I were sort of frantic. How are we going to make this work?
We talked to our production designer at the time, Larry Sampson, and we said to him, "Look we're screwed. We can't figure out what location we're going to do this in."
He had an art studio which was a 20x20 room – it's a small room. He said we can use that and we'll just try to figure this out. I'm like, "How are we going to do hell, and these different levels of hell, in one room?" We sat down for a few long, long days and came up with some camera tricks and some lighting tricks, and the entire video is shot in that one space. It's a 20x20 space.
When we shot it, we went through two days of hell filming this thing, between props and heavy-duty makeup and everything else. Between the budgetary problem and stuff just falling apart, we felt like we were frantically running away from this tidal wave the whole time.
Ian and I frantically shoot for two days. We get the footage back, and we're looking through the footage. We had planned out this epic scale and scope, 12-level thing, and we look at this footage and we were really bummed out about it.
We start cutting it, putting it together, and we realize that we don't have enough stuff that we need as we're doing it. So, we're kind of panicky. How do we do this? What can we do? So we wrote that whole bit up about the bugs and the creatures that are sort of crawling through it. We went to the hardware store and bought a five-pound bag of sand, poured the sand in the edit room, on the floor. Then we got our hands on these bugs, and while Ian was editing on the computer behind me, I'm shooting with bugs on this pile of sand in the edit room for that video. We were really pulling out all the stops to make that work.
We cut the video and we like it. For the bullshit that we went through and everything that happened, this video's amazing. We shot bugs in our edit room. We shot the whole thing in a 20x20 room. This video's really great.
"Oh, okay. That's cool." "The band's coming to town and they want you guys to hang out with them, chat with them, and go from there." We're like, "Okay, great."
So we're completely celebratory. Ian and I go to see the band. We'd never met them face-to-face - it was always Skype calls, because they're from Sweden. We go to the show, and we're feeling like a million bucks because the label's pumped, everybody's pumped. We go to see the band, we get on their bus, and we go into the back of the bus where the band is sitting. The label guy introduces us, and we say, "What'd you guys think of the video?" And they're like, "Oh. We haven't seen it yet."
We were both like What? The label guy gives us this look, and we're like, "What are you doing man?" And the guy's like, "Play it for them." So, we put this thing in, and we start watching this video. The whole bus is quiet. Like, quiet quiet. They watch the video in its entirety and it stops. It's dead silent. Then the guys start to talk to each other in Swedish, which Mike and I can't understand. And Tomas, the drummer, goes, "You guys did a really good job for what you had."
It was just this crushing blow, like the lead singer was not happy with it. So, we're both crushed. And they're like, "It's okay. It's alright."
We both get off the bus and we're like, damn it. Ministry was playing that night with Burton C. Bell [Fear Factory lead singer], and both Ian and I wanted to meet Burton. I grew up listening to Ministry, so we really wanted to see them perform. We ended up going and hanging out with Burton, which led to us doing that Fear Factory video for "Fear Campaign."
So, we just go home with our tail between our legs. The guys were not happy with the video, and we went through hell doing this thing. The label still loves it though, so they put it out. And the video is massive. Like 10 million hits in the first couple of weeks. Massive for the guys.
The video gave us a lot of street cred in the metal world because that band was on the rise and that was like their song. And everybody really loved the video. We ended up talking to Ozzy Osbourne's people. We ended up talking to Megadeth. We ended up working on a lot of different videos because of that Meshuggah video. Ian ended up going on tour with them and doing a live DVD after that, and we've been friends with those guys ever since. So, it's a really funny backstory for how that thing came about.
Songfacts: Well, it's also interesting because sometimes if you do something wildly successful like that, you're expected to just replicate it. But, you didn't. Like, that Fear Factory video you did doesn't look anything like your "Bleed" video. And what really doesn't look like it is your Killswitch Engage video for "Always," which is a narrative video. How did you manage that?
Mike: When we finished the Meshuggah video, everybody wanted us to do those. Ian and I were aiming to be music video directors, and we sort of jumped on at the end of it, after Rage (Dale Resteghini), Zach Merck, and all these other guys had set the playing field. It was dying, and no one was buying CDs. There was no money going into the labels. The budgets started to plummet, so we had all these different labels calling us up with small budgets, saying, "Will you do 'Bleed' for this act?" And both Ian and I feel that once we do something that's successful, let's do something different.
And because I don't come from the hardcore scene or really even the metal scene, I start to see these similarities that run through all of their stuff: black skinny jeans, black T-shirts - it's the same thing. Shooting in a basement with fluorescent lights... we've done enough of that.
We're at this point where:
A) I don't want to become a commodity. I don't want to become something that can be easily purchased.
B) There's plenty of room for us to change the way everything looks, because who said that metal has to be black? Who said there has to be fluorescent lights? Who said there had to be any of that?
And that was our pitch when we pitched to Fear Factory. That's why Fear Factory is so radically different, because the first pitch was: We want to do vibrant color. We want to do golds, blues, and reds. At first they're like, What? Fear Factory comes from this history of tech: greens, blacks various other techno, organic shit. And we were like, no, we want to do bright colors and really slick, weird stuff for you guys.
Burton was super into it, and he really wanted to do a montage video, but he didn't want to just do stock footage. We were like, "Cool, we'll shoot photos. We'll shoot a ton of that stuff. And then we'll shoot your performance as photos and we'll montage all that stuff in." And he was like, "Yeah, that's really cool." He's said, "I really want to see the fastest montage, like the fastest cut video." And to Ian's credit, who did all the editing on that, that video will give you an epileptic fit. It's insane.
I love Burton. We still talk at least a few times every month. He's one of my favorite artists that we've worked with because he really let us do whatever we wanted. He's incredibly supportive.
Songfacts: Well, he had to be supportive to let you do the dog bit. Who came up with that idea?
Songfacts: And then you end up doing the "Always" video.
Songfacts: Talk about that one a little bit.
So, back when their first album came out, back when Jesse [Leach] was with them before Howard [Jones] came through, I was a huge fan. And around the Howard timeframe, they were doing soundtrack work for Resident Evil. I was sitting in the kitchen in my apartment watching MTV2, which was the only place that you could see metal at the time. They were doing Headbanger's Ball or some sort of metal show, and I was sitting in there with my friend, and we watched the video for the Resident Evil one ["The End Of Heartache" - here's the video that got Mike fired up], which was like mixed clips from the movie, and then really lame, sort of pushing in and out of effects, skin scales, and whatever the fuck they were doing. I said to my buddy, "This video sucks. The band's really cool, and the video sucks." And he was like, "Well, what are you going to do about it?" I said, "I'm going to tell them."
So I went on the Internet and found Roadrunner – because they were on Roadrunner. I went to find who their A&R rep was, and I found the guy. I sent him an email saying I just watched the music video for this track, and it's terrible, absolutely terrible. And being a fan, and someone that does this stuff, you guys should be ashamed of that video.
Then I called Roadrunner and I asked for him, and they said, What's your name? I told them my name, and she puts me through. The guy picks up and he goes, "I'm reading your email right now. Just stay on the phone." He reads through the email and he says to me, "Who the fuck do you think you are? What have you done?" I hadn't done many music videos, so I came off like an arrogant little shit. He goes, "Well what do you know about doing music videos?" And I said, "It can't be that hard. I've done films and stuff." So he goes, "What's your idea? Give me your pitch for the video right now."
So right off the top of my head, I pitch him on a video that's set in World War II – because this is right around the time of Saving Private Ryan - so it's like this World War II beach scene, and this epic thing that happens. And he's like, "You have no idea about budgets. You have no idea how to make the budgets work." And I was like, "Well, I could do that. I could make that work." And he said, "You'll never work for Killswitch Engage." And then hangs up the phone.
They had approached us about doing a video and they said, "Look, we really want to do something that brings Jesse back into the band and shows the family element of what we are. Can you put this together?"
Ian and I, at the time were really busy and we said, "We have a relationship with a studio right around the corner. Why don't we just do what we've both done with our docs and just really get to the core happiness behind these guys and shoot that way."
And so, we pitched it, and Adam and Jesse loved the idea: "Make it happen." The day we shot it, we made sure all their friends were there. We made sure that the set was a blast to be on. When you watch that video, the crew's in it. Everybody's laughing, working, and running around. They loved it. And then when we sent it to them, they were blown away.
We're constantly getting treatments from directors that's like a guy coming home from the military and his wife is crying - it's the same old cliché stuff. And they said, "You guys really captured the essence of who we are." Sweet. And since then, we went on to do a documentary on the making of their album, and we got to hang out with those guys even longer.
Ian has a great relationship with the guys from Roadrunner, and they said "Hey, do you guys want to write on 'Always'?" And we were like, "Yeah, sure." We originally wrote this treatment about having the band involved, and we were going to go to Europe. We were going to shoot while the band was on tour in Europe and find a place to do a video. But the drummer ended up getting into a bicycle accident, and I think he broke his collarbone, so he couldn't go on tour. They had a temp drummer on tour with them, so immediately they're like, "We can't do a video without the drummer, so you guys need to come up with something else that doesn't include us." We were bummed, because we were going to go to Europe.
I had driven down the coast of California years ago, so I thought, Let's write something around the coast of California. We'll take a couple of the actors that we really love, and we'll drive up and down the coast of California and shoot beautiful footage.
That's how that idea started. And as we went through, we wrote a really great story about brothers dealing with death. That was from Jesse's input, because Jesse says that a lot of people when they hear this song, they assume it's about a girl, and they assume he's singing about that. But, he said that really, it's about family and it's about family members that go. Ultimately everybody dies, and how do you handle that?
So we spent a lot of time writing that story about the brother who is diagnosed with cancer. He calls his younger brother out of nowhere and he says, "What do you want to do?" And he's like, "Let's just drive." They drive down the coast together and they deal with it. And it's intercut with the brother doing it a year later after his older brother dies.
So it's this very emotional piece about him reliving this impromptu adventure that they go on, which ends up being one of his best moments that he shared. It became a very emotional track, but its core was the initial idea of going to California because we were bummed we weren't going to Europe.
But whenever we do anything, we want to make sure we're conveying what the band wants us to convey, and making something that people haven't seen before. But it's also rooted in having a really great time doing it. As you watch "Always," you see the actors playing pool, and you see them hanging out in different places. We just went to different spots in California and asked those people if they wanted to be in the video. So, everybody that's in those sequences, those are real people. And we were able to create an environment where they're having a great time. The two girls that they're playing pool with, we found them at the bar. All that stuff was sort of dogma, impromptu directing. It was a blast.
Songfacts: I was watching the "In Due Time" video, and the thought crossed my mind that there are only so many stage moves that haven't already been done in the Van Halen video for "Jump." And when your job is to shoot guys in a studio setting like that and get them to look cool, that seems like it's enormously challenging, because what are you going to do that hasn't been done before? How did you conquer that?
Mike: Well, that was the joke, believe it or not. The joke was, Have these guys sort of performing, and being in an environment where they're relaxed. Normally you would go film in a rehearsal space, but I'm very much a visual person, and so is Ian. So it needs to be more colorful, and it needs to be more vibrant. And how are we going to set the stage for that?
Our idea was, What if we film the guys fucking around while they're making a real video? So when they're playing and they're around their road cases and stuff, that's just them practicing before they get in front of the lights. And when you hit that part of the video where it's slo-mo and the guys are jamming and jumping off drum sets and doing all of the Van Halen shit, that's the making of the video.
Then when we cut away, we show the guys laughing about it, doing fun stuff, and being assholes to each other off camera. They are a big concert band, and I wanted to make them feel epic and show the performance as epic. But at the same time, the core of it, and what we were asked to do, was just show the family element, so we came up with that treatment.
Mike: Yeah. I went to school and I was taught to cut on Steenbeck, and I actually shot 16 mm black and white, and cut and paste. One of the reasons why they call it an editing "bin" is because it was literally a bin that you would hang cuts of film on.
Songfacts: So you came from a time when you couldn't just move your clips around on a computer. You had to actually think things through and go from start to finish. Does that give you an advantage over the kids today that are coming up and don't know the old way to do it?
Mike: I think so. There's an advantage to learning that way, because it is so difficult to see your shot. So before you go through the process of doing it, you really have to think about whether or not it's going to work. So, it has more meaning.
This is something that I use a lot as a photographer, because I've been a photographer for years, and a director/photographer for years. First, you think, Here's how I'm going to edit this scene to start. Here's the base. Here's the bare minimum of what I need. Or, if I'm taking a photograph, This is the bare bones stuff that I need.
I just did a big commercial shoot last week in Detroit that I think is going to end up on billboards out there. I shot my shots and I was looking back through the folders, and I was like, Wow, I only shot like 60 shots. As opposed to people that are shooting these days who have to sort through 500, 600 shots for that one portrait shot. In my head I'm like, I didn't shoot enough. But then I was going through the stuff and my selects are all there. I have like 20 options that are fine, because I have a greater respect for every time I snap a photograph. I have a greater respect for every time I shoot coverage or shoot an insert, because I come from that background.
I come from that time period where, when you're shooting on film you have to pay for every foot of that film to be developed. Then you have to process it - you can't see it immediately. So, you're crossing your fingers. You do two or three takes and that's all you can do, because of the cost.
And then, when you're cutting each one of those shots, you're actually cutting the raw film. So, every time you put a slice in that film, you have to tape it back up. You hit this point where you're tired of taping clips up, so you go through, make notes and mark it: this shot, this shot, and this shot. Instead of just being able to move it all around.
Now, that being said, there's something really wonderful about the new edit system. I'm editing my horror movie right now. If you look at my timeline when I start, I actually go a little crazy with it. I treat a digital timeline like I would a tabletop for a collage, where I'll throw a bunch of stuff down on the table and see how it sticks. I will reverse clips, move clips and shift stuff around just to find the thing early on in the edit stage that I didn't think about.
That's how we ended up coming up with the reversal loops in Meshuggah, was me sort of messing around with reversing and looping. At that time, I was doing living images, which was at the forefront of the whole moving GIF movement that was happening - like the animated GIFs. And I was doing high definition, looping images until my head was wrapped around reversal and how you can have someone continuously looping and breathing.
So, the cool thing about the new edit stuff is that you can find these things that are really interesting that you could've never imagined without having the ability to toss shit around. No way in hell would I have ever tried to figure out how to loop a film clip.
In the long run, it comes down to story and it comes down to charisma and what is interesting. You either have a really great script or you have someone in front of a camera that no matter what, you want to look at. I am amped about Mad Max because of George Miller and because I love Tom Hardy. That guy can just sit in a room, eat a sandwich and breathe, and I just want to watch him the whole time.
Those are really important elements, and when you're dealing with musicians, my first question is, What do they look like when they play?
We usually try to find footage online of them performing, because if they're great musicians and they're great performers, I don't have to do a lot with the camera. I can set up a shot on a tripod, have them perform in that space and be fascinated with that. In the early 2000s, what you were seeing with the metal scene was the camera shaking, a lot of handheld shots. We would end up planning an idea out and have it be stationary to get a beautiful, composed shot. And then the musician would come in and perform for us, and it would look like crap, because they didn't understand what their body was doing - they didn't have any charisma. So as a director, at that point you pull the camera off the tripod to create the energy that's supposed to be sold with his performance.
We're hunting for acts that when we see them, we're blown away. I've been talking on and off with Killer Mike for the past year and a half, because I love him. I think his stage presence is amazing and his voice sounds fantastic.
Songfacts: When you were talking about that, I was thinking about that Czarface video when you put Deck in that suit and Boom! That's all you need.
Mike: Yeah. That's a whole other story that one. [The Czarface video for "Air 'em Out" - here's the behind the scenes.]
Mike: What do you mean?
Songfacts: Well, you could optimize them for an iPhone, or you could make them so that they're going to look great on 60-inch TVs.
Mike: When we do anything, I usually ask that question first, more so with commercial stuff, because a client will come to you and everyone gets boners for gear. Everybody seems to know what to shoot something with. I can go off on a tangent about this, but it's largely because of these companies that create cameras and equipment: they put out these trade magazines for free, and everybody can pick up a trade magazine.
And the whole philosophy these days is: You're not a filmmaker unless you are on a Mac. You're not a filmmaker unless you're shooting with Canon. You're not a filmmaker unless you're shooting with RED. So, we would have people contact us and say we want this shot in RED. And my response to them would be, where's it going? Because for me to use a RED, it means I have to spend all this money on accessories, and then I have to have a three-person AC department [AC=Assistant Camera - more on that later]. I have to spend all this money on that stuff.
If it's going to a phone, or if it's going to be seen mostly on the Internet, I could do the same thing with a DSLR and make it look just as beautiful. We could spend that money on wardrobe and locations, which is more important because it's the stuff that's in front of the camera.
Back when we were doing stuff for MTV, our stuff was being put on Headbanger's Ball in the lineup with Zach Merck's work and all these other guys that were shooting on 35 mm. And people would say to us, "What film did you guys shoot this thing on?"
It was before DSLR. And I was like, "That's a video camera with a lens adapter and Mini DV. And you can't tell the difference because it's about the content."
It's about what goes in front of the camera more than it is about the format. Why the fuck do we need 4K TVs? What do we need 4K for?
Songfacts: To crash your system.
Mike: Yeah. All that does for us is require an upgrade. The audience just got adjusted to having 2K and having a larger TV. There's constantly that battle on our end in the format game where none of that makes any sense.
It took forever for me to throw out my TV/VCR combo and get a 1080 TV. I literally got my 1080 TV three years ago. So, for the rest of that time, I'm watching all of my stuff through a shitty DVD player on a TV/VCR combo, and all the movies felt the same. The story felt the same, and I would fall in love with everything that I was watching.
People get so caught up in gear, equipment, and buying and consuming all this shit when it really comes down to the story and the characters – whether or not you're identifying with them, and whether or not you give a shit about what you're looking at on that television. You can watch that stuff projected on a sheet in a garage and still feel that connection.
So, that being said, do I think about screen size? I do. And the reason why I do is because it comes down to budget, because most of the time no one actually wants to pay what you're supposed to pay. They take what they're supposed to pay and more than often give you seven grand less than that.
So it always comes down to this game of, Where am I pulling that extra money from? And more often than not, when someone says, "I want to shoot this 4K with a RED Dragon," I'm like, "Most people are going to be looking at that on their phone, so let me get the same lenses and shoot it with a C300 instead. I'll be able to wrap the rest of that money that I needed into getting a location for that so I can do 12 steps of hell instead of six." You know what I mean?
Songfacts: Yeah. I know exactly what you mean. Go Pros can now shoot 4K, but by the time it's on the screen, it doesn't look any better than it would with a normal Go Pro.
Mike: Yeah. A great example is Martin Scorsese. He shows back up with The Wolf of Wall Street and just knocks it out of the park. People sit there and they're like, "Well, it's because it's Scorsese."
Yeah, but examine his camera work. Examine how he shoots things. Examine how weird his stuff is. And a lot of those techniques, and a lot of his setup, his reversals that he does, and his really weird close-ups that he does – it's based upon what he loved when he was growing up, which was something completely different.
A lot of filmmakers are obsessed with making everything as clean as possible, making sure that it's the highest resolution possible. The whole idea of shooting for post: Shoot it flat and we'll color correct it in post. But in the mistake process is where I find a lot of the little things that you fall in love with later. So, in the process of trying to shoot with stuff that isn't optimal, you'll get there.
When we did the "Always" video, we hunted all over the place to find crappy lenses. I wanted to find a set of lenses that were not coated that would flare, and I wanted to find some real busted old lenses for it. We found some, and they gave these really cool ring flares, and they had this really awesome saturation because they were older film lenses that weren't built for the digital camera. Now, they're creating filters that you can put on the front of pristine lenses that create a similar look, but they're just degrading these super fancy lenses that you spent thousands and thousands of dollars on.
Songfacts: There's an analog to that in music production, because most good music producers like Todd Rundgren will make it sound like it's going to sound as they're playing it, as opposed to just recording it flat and then throwing effects on afterwards. And the results are far better if you get it right going in.
Mike: Exactly. And then you end up forming limits. This is something that I learned when I was a DP [Director of Photography]: it's easier to shoot on location than it is to shoot in a studio, because when you're on location you have limits. The location comes with its own limits, and your budget will limit you. So you end up having these boundaries that are put into place for you and then you go, "Well, I've got to make this work." And then you do really wonderful work with that.
When you walk onto a soundstage, it's pitch black. And you're sitting there going, "Shit, what is the light doing in here?" You have to start from the very beginning and figure that out. It takes so much longer to do.
I've spent enough time in studios where I have my system in place to build something, but when I first started, it was very daunting because you're in there going, "Where's the light going to come from?"
And I think that's the same way when you're dealing with 3-D animation and you're dealing with these big movies where you can do anything - there aren't those limitations. I think that's why a lot of directors like shooting as much as they can practically, because it sets the rules for what they're going to do with CG, and the emotional rule for the actors.
Songfacts: Well not only that, it sounds like you're in kind of a constant creative state where you're coming up with all these ideas as things go along. And when you're on location in California, going up and down the coast, it's easier to engage your brain than it is when you're in a sound stage with four walls around you.
Mike: Yeah man, I just went through the process of shooting the first part of my horror film, and a lot of that's based on a sound stage. My film takes place in Russia in the 1980s, and I'm shooting it here in Boston. So I had to really sit down and figure out ahead of time how this stuff is going to be. It was three months of prep, just searching for research images that will give me a point of origin and a point of gravity so I can build off of that.
It can be done. It just takes a lot longer to do. And with music videos, there's never time for that. We've had many pitches that were grandiose period pitches. We almost did the new stuff for Czarface - Tony wrote the script for it, but there's not a director doing it because we didn't have time or the money to do what we wanted to do. And the main goal behind music videos is to sell the tour or an album. That's it. The act releases a single, or they're going to be releasing a single, and the label needs a commercial for that. That's what music video's always been, and usually it comes down to four weeks out where it's like, Okay, we've got to have concept, a frugal shooting, and edit done in four weeks. So your budget is nothing. Then you're starting with your first restriction, which is your budget. Your second restriction is time, and then you're creatively writing in the reverse of that.
It's one of the reasons why I hate doing the dropping-in treatment game. You spend all this time writing an idea, writing a treatment, and it gets tossed in this pile of like 15, 20 other treatments from other directors. And then they're handed to a band on a bus while they get off stage. They flip through these things with no personal connection to them, and then they're like, "Yeah, but my buddy has a camera and I want to work with my buddy." And they hire him.
The whole game of giving treatments to the band and trying to get your stuff in really sucks, and these days, we kind of refuse to do it. We'll have a label that we have relationships with contact us and ask us to do stuff, and we always ask to speak with the band first, because we don't want to write something out of left field without knowing the restrictions and without understanding what these guys are trying to pull off.
Songfacts: Well not only that, if the band just wants to bang it out, then your project is not going to be anything special.
Mike: We were asked twice to do stuff for Nickelback, and both times it just felt like the band just needed something cool, quick. And it's just like:
A) All my friends are going to make fun of me for doing that video.
B) There isn't any emotion behind this stuff. There is no reason for us to be doing this, other than just to help you sell your album. And if that's the case, then you better pay us a hell of a lot more money.
Don't give us the privilege – I hate that too: you're privileged to work with us. No. My work will sell concert tickets for you. So the privilege goes both ways. But that's me getting dark.
Songfacts: Earlier you mentioned the AC department when you were talking about the RED camera and what you need to support it. What's that?
Mike: Assistant Camera. What a lot of people don't realize is that RED cameras are about accessories. You have to buy the monitor, and then you have to buy the rails, and you have to buy batteries and buy the charger. By the time you assemble this rig, it's got all these odds and ends like a little erector set.
I've used them plenty of times, and I find that when I use them I need at least two assistant camera people. I need someone that's in charge of just getting all that stuff mounted to it, checking all that gear out, making sure it all works, making sure it's all accounted for; and then someone that's dealing with the monitor, and dealing with data transfer. They end up becoming very expensive.
For a while producers were assuming that digital made everything cheaper, and the truth of the matter is the only thing you're saving on is your processing cost. The rest of it is just as pricey, especially now when you're having to go buy four-terabyte drives, and then you have to get two of them: one for back up, for insurance reasons, and one for regular.
Everything else is basically the same: You still have lights. You still have crew. You still have all that stuff. So if someone comes at you with a budget to buy a Honda Accord, but they want a BMW, you're sitting there going, I can get you a really cool Honda Accord, but you can't afford a BMW.
Songfacts: What's going on with the documentary you're making about Agnostic Front?
Mike: The Godfathers of Hardcore is a new film that we're producing and Ian is directing. Ian has been friends with Agnostic Front - we've done multiple music videos for them, and they have been begging Ian to do the film. And recently everything sort of aligned and Ian agreed to do it. So he's doing the definitive film on the band – the one that's 100 percent supported by them. It's going to get into their history and the birth of the hardcore scene in New York.
They just started shooting a couple months ago with Roger Miret in Arizona, and then with Vinnie Stigma in New York. They're going on tour to Europe.
The KickStarter has been incredibly successful. We hit our initial goal, and we're about I think like $900 away from hitting our stretch goal, which is to try to send the band to Cuba to film them doing free live shows in Cuba. Roger's family is from Cuba, and he hasn't had an opportunity to go back and see any of them. So, to be able to film that stuff would be pretty cool.
Songfacts: Wow. I love how you work on these projects where you just have total buy-in with everybody on board. And I also love that your signature look is not cheesy effects, but whatever works for the project, just total custom jobs. I love that, Mike.
Mike: Thanks man. It's really a long and hard process for us to come up with stuff that feels very organic. And whenever we write ideas, or we write treatments, we don't watch other music videos. We don't watch other movies and try to recreate them. We really attempt to come from like a very honest place with everything that we do, and I think it shows in our work.
June 4, 2015. Get more at mcfarlandandpecci.com.
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