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.
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.
Many times, though, it was hard enough just to hang on—Wasner couldn't lip-sync on many shots because rides were just too rocky. On the first day of the shoot, Johnstone had to give up his plan to shoot with an SLR on the Cyclone because it was too dangerous—the weight of a five-pound camera setup jammed together with the force of the ride was too difficult to control. Enter the now-definitive camera for extreme HD shooting on the cheap: the GoPro.
While Johnstone was looking for ways to bring order to the chaos of the rides, he wanted the shots of the band walking around Coney Island to be dreamlike and disorienting. If he'd had the money, he would have rented a professional SnorriCam rig. In these setups, a very steady, shock-absorbing camera-mount is tightly strapped to an actor's body. The camera points back at the actor so that they never move even while the background behind them does. (Think the drug binge scenes in Requiem For a Dream.) Since Johnstone couldn't afford one, he and his crew built theirs from plans they found on the internet for $20 worth of materials. For the bodycam footage—and for a few other shots in the video—the crew used a Canon 5D Mark II because it has a full-frame rather than crop sensor, which is good for the close ups because it shoots at a wider angle.
"For me this video was about using non-traditional routes to get things otherwise impossible. Whether its technology or planning and preparation or just pure effort, using what's available in non-traditional ways to create new and unique outcomes. Whether it's the DIY SnorriCam setup or the DSLR mounted coaster shots, the GoPro Cyclone footage or the two person teamwork to get the swing shots, each shot in the video was a unique hurdle and having that crew I could rely on and having everyone pushing ideas out and just putting in maximum effort made it almost magical in my mind. We achieved something I had no idea was possible."