How do you shoot a music video on a legendary Coney Island roller coaster? If you've got the budget, you could rent the ride for $6000 per day—double director Jeremy Johnstone's budget for the entire video shoot.
Here's how he shot Wye Oak's video for "Holy Holy" in two days in July during a record-breaking heatwave with no permits and no permission—without killing anyone.
Currently nominated for an Emmy for his work on the titles for the defunct AMC show Rubicon, Johnstone, 29, has always been a scrappy director, even though he mostly works on commercials for big companies like Toyota. He started shooting digital at the beginning of his career, when the industry was just starting to switch. "I realized I could fake big budget on a small budget," he told me. "My commercial work is low budget. I just make it look like $300,000."
Johnstone's treatment for the video called for shooting not only on the famously rough-and-tumble, Coney Island Cyclone rollercoaster, but also on the Tickler-a modern steel roller coaster with tight turns and abrupt drops-and the Brooklyn Flyer-a huge carousel of swings that spins riders over 100 feet in the air.
The first challenge: Not getting caught. Johnstone's plan sounds ludicrously simple to the point of being impossible. Oh sure, they'd just sneak bags full of gear past park staff onto the rides, wait until they were out of sight, set everything up before the ride got too crazy and shoot the video anyway. On several trips to the amusement park, Johnstone and his producer meticulously timed the setup time and figured out that they had 20 seconds on the Flyer, 30 seconds on the Tickler and 40 seconds on the Cyclone. In other words they'd have to set everything up in less than the time it takes for a smartphone to power on.
Even after meticulous planning, the rides themselves were a free-for-all. Each called for different shots, for which they'd be fighting against the disabling physics of Coney Island's most violent rides. For example on the Flyer, Johnstone held the camera as tightly as possible while his director of photography watched a monitor and screamed instructions over the noise and chaos of the ride. They then hid everything away, got back in line only to live the strenuous, discombobulating experience again. Johnstone's body suffered more than nausea: While shooting point-of-view footage on the Cyclone, Johnstone split open his knuckle. And for a shot on the relatively gentle teacups Johnstone pressed a monopod tightly into his crotch to steady the shot. "I hurt my nuts pretty bad," he says.
The Gear You Have, Not the Gear You Want
Johnstone knew that despite his preparations they'd still be tossed around, and that the raw footage would reflect the frantic scramble and chaos of the shoot. Johnstone's challenge would be to make the video ambling and ethereal, like the song. To achieve this effect, Johnstone had Wye Oak's lead singer Jan Wasner lip-sync the song in double time whenever possible while he shot the footage on a Canon 7D, which can shoot 60 frames per second. At that speed, the footage could then be slowed down without affecting video quality.