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Lighting and Camera tips from a master DP: Mike Pecci
DP's are like real-world 3D artists.
Think about it. They have to take a three-dimensional world and use cameras and lights and objects and people to produce an image that is two-dimensional. It's a difficult task, and anyone who's ever opened up Cinema 4D understands the challenge in using 3D tools to create an image that isn't 3D.
Meet Mike Pecci.
Mike Pecci is a master of his craft. He's a Director and D.P. who has been creating stunning imagery for clients as varied as Bose and Killswitch Engage. In this episode of our podcast Mike talks about ways to think about camera and lighting (among other things) that have helped him learn to hone his image-making ability. All of this knowledge can be translated into 3D, and if you use Cinema 4D you're going to want to take notes.
Enjoy this episode, and make sure to check out the Show Notes below to see more of Mike's amazing work.
DIRECTORS AND CREW
MOVIES & TV
BANDS AND MUSICIANS
Suicide Girls (NSFW, EXPLICIT CONTENT! You've been warned.)
Joey: Motion designers today are finding that having some 3D skills is enormously helpful in getting work, and the thing about transitioning from 2D to 3D is that it's easy to forget that in the end, you're still just creating a 2D image, in most cases. You still have to think about the same design principles in 3D as you do in 2D. Composition, lighting, texturing, these are all tools to help make a better 2D image. Now, cinematographers have known this fact for over a century, so I thought it'd be cool to talk with an amazing director and DP, my buddy Mike Pecci. Mike is one half of the directing duo McFarland & Pecci out of Massachusetts, and together with his partner Ian, Mike has been shooting music videos, commercials, and lifestyle-and-editorial photography, and even short films. His most recent film, 12 Kilometers, is a horror film set in Russia in the 1980s, it's really cool, and the cinematography is incredible. Mike is a master of lighting and framing and camera movement and I wanted to talk to him about all of these things, to see if any of his knowledge might give us some insights to think about the next time we open up Cinema 4D, for example. Now, I have to warn you, if f-bombs offend you, you may want to skip this episode, because Mike does tend to curse like a sailor. Alright, you've been warned, so now, let's chat with Mike Pecci. Mike Pecci, buddy, it is so awesome to have you on the podcast; thanks for coming by, man.
Mike Pecci: Thanks for having me, man. It's been too long since we've actually sat down and had a long conversation, so this will be fun.
Joey: It has, and the only thing missing is some cheap beer. So obviously, Mike and I know each other, but our listeners are used to hearing from animators and designers on the podcast, and you are not those things, so why don't you just tell everybody a little bit about your background and what it is you do? And what would you call yourself, what's your job title?
Mike Pecci: These days, it's been more... I consider myself, first, a director, so I direct films, I direct music videos. With my company and my business partner Ian McFarland, the two of us have been either coMike Pecci:directing commercials and music videos, or individually directing it and putting it through our brand, McFarland & Pecci. I also have a career as a photographer, which is a funny story, actually started out as a way for me to practice being a cinematographer, 'cause when I first started in my career, Jesus, like 17 years ago, I came out of film school as a director, had no money, and didn't really have a crew at that time and I couldn't afford to hire a good cameraman or a cinematographer, so I taught myself how to do it. One of the methods for that at the time, because it was still in the early stages of the digital revolution, I would practice using still cameras and I would shoot with a film still camera, and then slowly and strangely, I ended up getting a career in photography, so it was these parallel careers of director, photographer, and cinematographer for years. But as I get older now, I've transitioned more into directing and my love of directing, but more often than not, I'll get a directing job because I can also shoot it, so it's still all in there.
Joey: Awesome. Well, we're gonna link to McFarland & Pecci's website, which has tons and tons of your work, and you can also just Google Mike Pecci and you'll see, Mike's also written articles and even made little tutorial videos, and you can see his work. What I love about your stuff, Mike, there's a look to it. Every image that you make, it feels deliberate; it doesn't feel like you found that image, it looks like you took time and thought about it and composed it, and that's why I wanted to talk to you, because when you're doing that, you're doing the exact same thing that I do when I have to sit down and design something that I'm gonna animate, like my client's logo or something like that, and I think there's a lot of similarities between the two. So, why don't we start with this. The way that Mike and I met, for those of you that don't know, which is everybody, was we met because we worked on a music video together that had some visual effects, shot on a green screen, that sort of stuff. So Mike, do you work with animators, visual effects artists, often, or was that rare for you?
Mike Pecci: I think that was a rare moment for us, 'cause with music videos in particular, in the beginning, both Ian and I thought that we were going to be music video directors full-time and then working towards being film directors. This has been a tested path for a lot of really famous directors, David Fincher being one, and then Mark Romanek being another one. So we really thought that that's what we were going to do, was do music videos full-time, and we came to a realization that the music industry was plummeting and the record labels weren't making any money, and music-video budgets were plummeting hard. So when we got into this stuff back in 2004 or 2006 or something, I don't know, sort of at the beginning of the death crawl for music video budgets, and we were dealing with a lot of low-budget stuff, which really wouldn't allow forextras. Extras, as we would call them: having a great graphics guy or being able to do 3D animation or do all this stuff, just because you just couldn't physically afford that. So a lot of our early stuff was stuff that I could do in camera. It was a lot of camera trick work and really cheap photography work that would make the video seem like it cost 100,000 bucks, but really were working with pennies. Then, this video that we worked on together, Ian and I both were like, "Wow, we gotta do something "with some sort of green screen," because all of our competitors were doing it, and we hadn't done it yet. We had tried something with the Meshuggah video before that, I think, and when we had done it with the Meshuggah video, we weren't very happy with the way everything worked out, so we wanted to do something better, and I think that's why we ended up contacting you, 'cause I hate promising to a client I can do something without being prepared to do so, and I don't have the skills. I'm a genius at Photoshop, but you gotta put in the hours for AfterEffects, you gotta put in the hours for that stuff that I just don't have to be good at it, and I think one of the tricks to being a decent director is understanding when to delegate and understanding who to cast as your crew for these pieces, and I think, ultimately, that's why we approached you for it.
Joey: Right. So, first of all, I have to say that since you brought up the Meshuggah video, I now get to kick something off the bucket list, which is I get to put Meshuggah in the show notes for the podcast, and introduce my audience, because I'm sure a lot of them are metalheads, but maybe there's a lot that aren't. Anyway, the music video thing is interesting, 'cause that's also another, well, I guess at this point it's fair to call it a pipe dream for all motion designers to work on music videos. What were old budgets like for music videos, and what are they like now?
Mike Pecci: Okay, well, I have never experienced the heyday budgets. You're talking back when we were kids and watching MTV, and you had Michael Jackson and Guns N' Roses on, and I think Guns N' Roses at one point, it's either Michael Jackson or Guns N' Roses that had the most expensive video; there was a few million dollars for the music video. I think average prices for music videos were about 100 grand, like 150, and it just has completely plummeted, and we have been very fortunate to work in bright treatments for Ozzy Osbourne and we've done treatments for Korn, and we've done music videos for Fear Factory, who was huge when I was a kid, and Meshuggah's a big, influential metal band, and then lately, we've just been working for Killswitch Engage, 'cause we really like those guys. We've done stuff with Inspectah Deck from Wu-Tang Clan and all those dudes, but the budgets are pretty low and they continue to drop, and really, the truth of the matter is when you stop buying CDs, the money that goes for advertising that comes out of the label, it's not there anymore. This is really funny, because I've got my own podcast, as you know, I've just started it, and we have a new episode coming out where I sit down with Jesse from Killswitch and we go over this: a lot of bands haven't picked up the notion that, "Hey, maybe we should pay for our own videos," 'cause they're so used to getting it paid for by the label, or advanced by the label, essentially.
Joey: Yeah. And it's probably hard to measure the ROI of a music video. You can get impressions and you can have a YouTube count and that sort of thing, and maybe, if you're Killswitch Engage; for those who don't know, it's a very, very popular metal band, they're amazing. Maybe if they put ads and they can monetize that a little bit, but I could see why there'd be some hesitation. So what's a budget these days? And you don't have to name any names or anything.
Mike Pecci: High-end budgets? High-end budgets for stuff in that scene, you start dealing with Lady Gaga and brands, you know what I mean? Like Beyonce, they're brands, and might as well just be working for Kmart at that point, or Walmart. They have a whole marketing division. So they spend good money on their videos, 'cause they understand the power of the visual aid to sell tours and to sell gear, and then there's a lot of stuff going on now with sponsorships, like actual brands will sponsor artists to do stuff, like OK Go does a lot of this, but the average music video these days, if you're a big act, like a legacy act, then maybe you're in the $20,000 range.
Mike Pecci: Maybe $20,000, $25,000 range. If you're an average act or an upcoming act, you'll see that stuff as being as low as five grand and if not, smaller, and a lot of the times now, what the labels are doing is they will call you on the phone and go, "Hey, we got a great budget," and you're like, "Okay." "We got a $25,000, $30,000 budget." Like, "Alright, I might be able to make something "out of that," and then they go, "Yeah, but we want to do three videos for that."
Mike Pecci: "So we want three videos from that."
Joey: Yeah, just the post-production on those things, you're essentially, maybe paying for your time, but--
Mike Pecci: Not even. Not even. Not even, dude. The only reason to do it;it's hard. At one point, I feel like when there was more gravitas put behind music videos and it was like MTV, and you had this idol-building stature that was happening, then it would be worth the experience. You'd say, "Hey, look, I'm gonna get the exposure from this, "I'm gonna do this and put it out there," and we've done plenty of those. But these days, it's weird. We had videos in the beginning that were on MTV and on MTV2, and we won Best Metal Video, or were nominated for Best Metal Video of the year, a bunch of that stuff, but we never saw the results of it. It was like MTV2 had Headbangers Ball; sure, there's a bunch of fans that watch that, but how many people actually are watching Headbangers Ball at midnight on whatever night it was on? Now, with the Internet, our highest-grossing videos I think are like 18 million views. Meshuggah, I think, is like 18, and I know Killswitch is like 12, so that's a lot of people
Joey: It is, that's a huge audience.
Mike Pecci: I know, it's a lot of people. If it's a big band like that, you can get your work seen, but then, I don't know. It's a bigger story on how we're processing stuff now, where most people are just looking at something on their phone and they just ingest it and then they just go, "Okay, good, good," and half the time they don't even get through the whole clip, and they're like "Okay, that was great. "Cool. Done." And it's not on this continuous cycle and it's not being fed to us as being rockstar material, it's just quick Internet content. The payoff, ultimately, professionally, the payoff really hasn't been there.
Joey: Yeah, I was gonna ask you about that. There are similarities in the motion-design field, you can do a motion-design piece and it's a breakout hit and everyone loves it, and it ends up on sites like Monographer or maybe Stash picks it up, and it spreads all over Facebook and Twitter and it gets 150,000 views on Vimeo, that's a huge number for a motion-design piece, and I always wonder, like, that's awesome, but does that translate into, now, more people hire you, you can raise your rates; does it do anything professionally other than maybe, if you're starting out, gets your name out there, but other than that, it's just stroking your ego. So when the Killswitch Engage video gets 12 million views, does that help your career, or is it just like, "Oh, that's awesome! "I'm glad it really went well," but the phone doesn't ring anymore.
Mike Pecci: Well, you know, it's funny, man. This is something that I'm getting into a lot lately with filmmaking in general. If you're in this business to make a lotta loot, then get out.
Joey: Good advice!
Mike Pecci: If you're in this business for approval, like if your dad never paid attention to you and you wanna stand there in front of him and go like, "Look what I made," you know? Then get out. The reason why I love doing what I do so much is that I've been working either as a freelancer, or at my own company, now, since I was 22, or 21, and I haven't had a real job since. Before that, I was a car mechanic, an airplane mechanic, a house painter, worked in music stores; I did anything I could possibly do, and at one point I thought I was gonna get into the car-mechanic field, and as I was working everyday, I'd smell like gasoline and my hands and knuckles were bloody, and I just decided that, no, I don't want to do this, and I made this jump into a profession that is a big risk, it's the artist profession. There isn't a plan. It's not like you go to school, you learn how to do this stuff, and then you walk out and you get a job; it's not the same thing. So everyday that I have not going back to that stuff, I have to earn it, and I have to go through this process of making those days really special, and these projects, to me, are the actual process of making the the projects is the reward, more than money and more than fame. To break that down a little bit easier, I get to meet people like you. For instance, I did my horror film, 12 Kilometers. I put together a Kickstarter; we can get into that. I put together a Kickstarter and self-financed a 30-minute proof-of-concept horror short that I shot. It takes place in Russia, 1980s, and I shot that here outside of Boston. So it was this huge undertaking, and I was working on that for at least two to three years, and in that two- or three-year time span, I went on so many cool adventures, I got to hang out with a biochemist and shoot practical special effects in a basement in Amish country. You go on all these really wild adventures, and to get back to Killswitch Engage, the biggest video we did for them was Always, this video called Always, which is a narrative video about a brother who comes down with cancer, and he calls up his other brother and they decide to go on a trip together, and they drive down the coast of California. We came up with this idea, and I talk about it on the podcast, and I laugh because I don't think Jesse knew about it. We came up with this idea, initially, because we just wanted to go on a trip. We wanted to go to California. So we wrote this whole idea of driving down the coast, and at the time, a friend of Ian and a friend of mine, he was also living in California and dealing with cancer himself. That was very personal to us, so we ended up working in a personal story based upon a friend that we knew, but we went on this life adventure, and I ended up going out to California for a week, renting a convertible, because it's in the music video, and I had to scout the coast of California, so I drove up and down the coast like four or five times with two friends, Tony and Jarvis, and we went on adventures the whole week. Got to stay at shitty hotels and go out and have beers at places that were laminated with porno magazines, there's all sorts of really cool stuff, and now, when I look back on it, the video came out, we got a ton of traffic, a lot of fans loved it, we got to interact with a lot of fans' feedback, but that isn't important to me. When I look back on it, I think about running over sand dunes on the top of a cliff, and hanging out in a hotel room where the bedsheets had cigarette burns; there was submachine gun spackling up the wall 'cause someone apparently had fired a gun in there. So all of that has shaped my life more so than the results of my work.
Joey: You know, I wish as a motion designer, I had stories like that, because you're right. In order to last in a creative industry and to have any chance of leaving a mark, you do have to be in it for the process, not so much the result, a lot of the times.
Mike Pecci: Yeah, and really, the thing that's really interesting, I'm not a motion guy, but I know what it's like to be trapped in a room with photography and dealing with Photoshop and editing, 'cause I'm also an editor, so I know what it's like to be stuck in a space, and just you and a computer and a render screen and shit's not going right. I get that, and the thing that I love about filmmaking is that it is a collaborative process. It is completely collaborative, and I now, in my older age, am now relying upon that process in the elements to make my work better. So I'll come up with a good plan, and I'll definitely do my homework and have the answers to everything, but I'm also leaving room for really interesting stuff that I would never think about, because I'm not a fucking genius; none of us are geniuses, and any of these directors that get promoted as a genius, it's bullshit. You're essentially surrounding yourself with really talented people, and really interesting people that come to you with problem-solving things that shape your film, and ultimately become your style, because then you end up taking that problem-solving mode that you were in, going, "Oh, we came up "with some really cool shit there, so the next project, "I'm gonna make sure we leave room to do that," and that ends up becoming a running theme in what you do.
Joey: Yeah, that's really smart. You surround yourself with the best people you can and then you just get out of their way, and it's a difficult thing, I think. That's actually something that personally, I've always struggled with, like when I was running the studio in Boston, that was really the first time I'd had to be the boss and lead the team, and it's really hard if you, I don't know, I hate the word, but like a, quote, perfectionist, you know? Did you ever struggle with that as you moved into directing and you had to let other people light your shots and handle the camera, was that ever a challenge for you?
Mike Pecci: Here's an interesting story for that. When I started, I went to film school years ago, and I went to a short-run program at New York Film Academy, and when I started, I was always the type of person, I was like, "I need to have a plan, "I need to have a shot list." I storyboard most of myself, so I would over-prep, and I did my first film at school where I story boarded everything, I put everything together, I had an entire plan, and then I arranged to shoot it. I got the location and I went in and I shot exactly what I had in the storyboards, I shot all that stuff. I was finished early, I actually finished my day early with it. Then I went to edit it, and at the time, we were cutting on old Steenbecks, which is 16-millimeter film, cut the film, tape the film together, old-school technique, and I just went through my shot list, found the shots, and I cut it together, and I was done early with that. The majority of that process was really boring. The only stuff that was interesting to me was the boarding, the story boarding part, and I was in this space with a bunch of fellow film students and I got to look around and see them discovering and finding these things, 'cause they weren't as prepped, and they accidentally came across this, and I found myself going and hanging out with them as they were editing their films, and the sense of surprise and wonderment that came out of it really affected me. When I made my first film out of school, I tried to leave room for that, and since then, I've learned that I am definitely a visual storyteller, I definitely tell stories with pictures, I'm definitely very meticulous about how I do that, but I've also trained myself to allow room for improvisation and to also allow room for input, 'cause at the end of the day, by myself, I would, and then my movies would be really one-dimensional, 'cause it would all be from my perspective. Everything would be processed specifically through my brain, which I guess is a cool thing, but if you're working with somebody else, for instance, on 12 Kilometers, I usually shoot and direct everything that we do, but I decided for that movie, it takes place in Russia, and I was gonna do it in the Russian dialect with subtitles, 'cause fuck it, I'm the guy financing it, let's make this as real as possible, and what I ended up doing was making my life five times as difficult as a director, 'cause I do not speak Russian, I had to have translators on set, I had to have everything translated, scripts all the way through, and I realized that that was going to take up so much of my time, and I couldn't be that guy that was giving a director a direction and then dealing with a gaffer that was running over going, "Where do you want the 10K?" I couldn't do both those things, and so I knew I needed to find a shooter. I wanted to find somebody who was better than I am. I needed somebody who could do the job better than me, because ultimately, I wanted to be able to learn from them, steal some tricks from them, you know what I mean? All that stuff, but I needed somebody that could handle himself on his own, 'cause there's problems that come up to the top that come out of left field, so it's like, "Go, please, go figure that out. "Go figure out what the problem is." So I ended up teaming up with David Kruta, and his work was amazing, and he had a lot of the same sensibilities for color that I do as a photographer, and for him, it was a little interesting because he's working with a director that's a cinematographer, and I wanted to make sure that that transition was seamless and calming for him, so I ended up just doing all my homework and doing all the storyboards for the entire movie ahead of time, and then we would have multiple dating sessions, essentially, it's like we'd go on dates, and he was like, "Let's watch some movies!" and let's talk about stuff that we like, and then it was like, "Let's get into fights now "before we get on set," and we did it so well that when we got on set, and I had never shot with him, and we got on set the first day, and the first shot, very difficult shot, and I let him do his thing and I walked over to the monitor, and we rolled through the first take and I went, "Okay," and that was really the last time that I looked at the monitor for anything that had to do with camera stuff, 'cause I knew he was fine, I knew he knew the plan. I'm on a ramble, I'm on a rant here, but there's something to be said about collaboration, and with Kruta, we both made this movie, 12 Kilometers, into something that is massive, and it's so gorgeous, and he just won a cinematography award for it, and we're doing the pitch to Hollywood and there's all sorts of stuff going on that I really can't talk about but are really exciting, but yeah, it's all because I opened up the game to collaborate with someone like him.
Joey: That's amazing story, man, and just for everyone listening, we're gonna link in the show notes to the 12 Kilometers. Now, is the whole film up on Vimeo now or is it still just the trailer? I don't know.
Mike Pecci: It's just the trailer, and I can't release the whole film yet, because of things that are happening, but if you write me an email and you're really cool, then maybe I'll send you a link.
Joey: Nice, nice. Well, at the very least, we'll link in the show notes to the trailer and the website for it. The thing about it is it looks expensive. It looks like a studio movie, and what was the budget for it? I know you Kickstarted it.
Mike Pecci: Yeah, I Kickstarted it. I'm not gonna give you the final figures for it because there are things going on, but I would say that, what did we raise for Kickstarter? It was like $16,000, I think--
Joey: That's nothing.
Mike Pecci: And then I self-financed the rest of it. Let me just say that it's well under $100,000 for the short, and it's a 30-minute short, so when I'm throwing the numbers out like that, it's not like it's a two-minute short.
Joey: With visual effects, too.
Mike Pecci: Yeah, yeah. Yeah.
Joey: That's super impressive, man. Okay, so you brought up this interesting world that I think motion designers can probably relate to a little bit, which is you're trying to create an image, and this is one of the things that's interesting to me. Calling myself a photographer is being far too kind to me; I'm an amateur photographer, like most motion designers, we're into that stuff, right? And when I see an image of something you've shot, I'm like, "Okay, there's a pretty girl in it and there's some lights, "and there's some shallow depth of field; cool. "I could go do that," and the tricky thing with photography, and actually, it's interesting, 'cause I think there's a lot of correlation with motion designers who work in 3D software: your eyes see this 3D world, and they see a person and they see a light, and they see four feet between those two things, and then they see a wall in the background, and when you look at it through a camera, it's tempting to try and say, "Okay, I'm looking at those things," but what you're really looking at is a 2D image that is created through the lens, or through the virtual camera lens, and that's always very hard to reconcile. So you're dealing with 3D stuff but your end result is a 2D flat image, and I'd like to hear how you approach thinking about the image that you're after. Let's just start there, because then, the next problem is, "Well, how do I manipulate my environment to get that image? "How do I use the gear and the environment "and a bunch of tricks to do that?" But even before we get there, when you have a shot, a scene in your movie, how do you arrive at the, "Okay, this needs to be a closeup, I need this lens, "I want it to be high-contrast light, "I'd like a silhouette;" how do you make those decisions?
Mike Pecci: Well, really, you have to start with why you're making it. So, for me, I'm not really making movies for myself. I mean, yeah, I'm making movies for myself, but, ultimately, I'm making movies for an audience. So, I'm telling a story for people that are going to watch the thing, and A, enjoy it, but B, understand completely where all these emotional beats are that I'm selling to you. 'Cause there's multiple aspects to a story. There's what is happening on the surface, like, okay, a guy has to grab a flashlight and descend into the basement, looking for the source of trouble. It's like, okay, so you read that on the page and go, "Great, so we're gonna shoot a scene "where a guy walks down a staircase, goes down stairs, "the flashlight will probably be the main key light "that's in there and we'll go through," but you have to ask yourself, "Okay, what's the subtext? "What is the theme, what is the real story "that we're giving the audience visually?" Is the descent down stairs a descent into madness? Is the descent downstairs an opportunity for courage, for a character that can't find courage? What are those things? 'Cause then, what you're trying to do is hunt for that emotional, guttural response that you want people to have when they're watching that scene. And then, in the larger picture, you figure out how it fits into the overall theme of the film, but that's bigger. If you're talking about a scene, you're just trying to figure out what that guttural response is--
Joey: So then, I was gonna say, so then, at that point, you figure out, okay; do you see an image in your head or are you trying to use some formula, like, "Okay, silhouette means it's scarier, "so I'll do that."
Mike Pecci: Yeah, yeah. There's some of that. There's a language; cinema's been around for 150 years or something, or longer. There's a language that is set right now, just through time and experience, that if you use certain things, that they will convey certain things. Like if you go into silhouette, there's a mystery involved, and then everything gets broken down, from an illustrator's perspective, everything gets broken down to simple lines. It gets broken down to the silhouette, gets broken down to very basic body language when you start to do silhouette stuff, which is cool. If you're talking about lens choices, right? If you use a fish-eye, or a real wide lens, like an 18-millimeter, and you go right up on a person, like if it has that focus depth where you can get nice and tight on them, then you're in that whole Peter Jackson, old-horror, very neurotic and very scary vibe that comes from that lens. The contrast to that, if you were to use an 85-millimeter or 100-and-something millimeter, which literally takes everything and puts it on a very small focal plane, so that way, just eyes are in focus or just the faces in focus, and the entire space is just all out of focus and bokehed, what that tells an audience through the language of cinema is, okay, this is a very personal moment, this could potentially be a very internal moment, and this could also be very claustrophobic and confining. So, there is a language that comes with the tricks, and everything from camera movement to lens choice to shutter-speed selection to color, there are so many tricks in your bag to convey or to trigger that emotional impact that you want. You want someone to be hungry, you want someone to be scared, you want someone to be turned on, you want to make your lead actress into this sex symbol; there are so many tricks in your bag that you can do to do that, and the other way to learn that stuff, the easiest way to learn that stuff, is to watch movies, and when you do watch a film and you do feel a certain way in a sequence, like if you watch Guardians of the Galaxy. I think Guardians of the Galaxy, my favorite scene in that movie is the opening, and they start with that famous track, I forget what band it is, but it's nostalgic, especially someone from my age, so immediately, I'm like, "Oh, I remember this track! "Oh, yeah!" So you're thinking about where you were; as you're seeing the production logos run on that screen, you go, "Ah, I remember being a kid, riding in the car with my mom," and then boom, it opens on a shot of a kid, my age, listening to a Walkman, and it's shot on this wide, but it's so beautifully composed, he seems so small and insignificant. That opening sequence, from there all the way up to, spoiler alert, when his mother dies, that sells the entire movie to me, and that sets the tone, the connectivity, and James Gunn just did such a really good job of taking light, of taking focal length, of taking sound and music, and blocking, to really sell that emotional connection. Does that make sense?
Joey: That makes a ton of sense, and what it kinda made me think of is, and I'm gonna ask you about this too, but there's a trend right now, and what I wanna try to get at are the similarities between the way that you use a physical camera and physical lights and the movement of the camera and the lens choice and all that, you're using that to tell a story, and you're thinking really hard about what that story is before you make any of those choices. There's a trend in the 3D realm of motion design right now where what I see is a lot of people skipping that step and going straight to the aesthetic part, "How do I make it pretty?" And I was gonna ask you, because up until now, you haven't even mentioned that. You haven't even mentioned, "And I need to compose it well, "and it needs to be pretty, and the light needs to be "in the right spot." It's almost like, in a way, that's less important than, "It needs to say the right thing." Is that how you look at it?
Mike Pecci: Yeah. Really, when you're younger, when you suddenly figure out a skill, like if you figure out how to create anamorphic lens flares, then you're using them like fucking crazy.
Joey: Yes, of course.
Mike Pecci: You're like, "This is epic," because you suddenly, tangibly, through the art of a plugin or some sort of overlay, it seems like you're one step closer to Michael Bay. You know what I mean? Because you have the ability to create these blue flares. But, why? And there's something nice about when you're younger and you're just recreating stuff that you really like, and you're learning how to use it, and you're using what emotions these tools convey; that's important, go nuts. But when you're actually making something that has a root, there's a story involved, why are you gonna tell this story? Why would I sit down and tell this story of the Watertown bombing here that we were a part of, 'cause I live in that neighborhood? It's not just to be like, "Wow, I did that," it's like, "Let me give you the emotional connection "that we had," and how best do I do so? When do I put pauses in my speech? When do I raise my voice? You know what I mean? And it's the same thing with camerawork, so at the end of the day, you just want that audience member to feel what you're feeling. So whatever tools you use, whatever you use for it is insignificant, and half the time, you have to use tools that you just have. Like sure, I could get a fucking Techno crane, and I can work with a crew of 45 on my camera-and-lighting team, and then completely wreck down our entire street and neighborhood, light every house and do all that stuff to create a night scene, or for a film like we did with Moped Knights, I could have done that, but I didn't have that. I had a bunch of battery-powered LED lights, a shitty smoke machine from some party store, and a DSLR, and I was able to create that same vibe and that same feeling without all that shit. That's not to say that it wouldn't be as good, if not better, if I had all that, but I don't, and I still have to tell you this story, I still have to convey this emotion to you. So, I think the first thing you gotta do as you're coming up, learn about these things, learn about all the tools of your trade, definitely find all that stuff, but also, still keep a grasp on what voice you want to have in storytelling, if that's why you're in it. If you're in it to be a button-pusher and you're in it to be a problem-solver, and you're in it to be a guy that works on my team and that's what you're doing, like, "Mike's got the grandiose fucking ideas "and I'm the guy that figures it all out," then great, I need you. So if that's your thing, thumbs up. But if you're in it to be a storyteller and to tell stories, then you definitely have to tell stories to people in real life, and watch how they respond to it.
Joey: Right. You know, a lot of what you're saying about the language of film, and understanding these visual cues that say dread, or say mystery, or say sexy, I think if you understand those at a high enough level, you understand how much of the little attributes are needed to get that across, and you don't have to overdo it, and that comes with experience. I think the same thing happens in motion design too, and I wanna talk about some of the similarities, because, you know, there's subtle differences, for example, between the camera pushing in towards a subject and the camera pushing out towards a subject. There's a difference between a zoom and a dolly, you know, it feels different, and even in motion design, where you don't have the advantage of having a human being onscreen that can look afraid, or smile and look happy, you still sometimes need these little subtleties, so I was wondering, 'cause your use of cameras is really amazing, Mike, so I'd love to just dig into some of the really nitty-gritty choices that you make. Why do you move the camera in towards someone, why do you move it away from them? In a lot of your music videos, you have the shot where you're following someone from behind. How do you approach camera movement, and how do you think about that, and why would you do a tracking shot, like moving sideways with someone, versus being in front of them, moving backwards with them?
Mike Pecci: Well, this is a bigger conversation. I had my mind blown a few years ago, because when you don't have money, you usually start out camera on sticks, camera on tripod. You figure out how to tell a story with camera on tripod, and that's all blocking of the actors, basically, so the movement in front of the camera is how you deal with that. Then, you go handheld, and as cameras got lighter, and as cameras got easier to move around, and now you can strap them to yourself and jump out of a fucking airplane, the movement and the kinetic energy is almost a performance in itself. So, we would work with bands that you would put a camera on a tripod and you would look at them perform, and you go, "You guys suck." And so we would have to pick up the camera to add that energy and perform with them with that camera. That's why we would do certain stuff handheld, but I got into thighs I wanted to learn Spielberg, 'cause a lot of 12 KM is Close Encounters and The Thing, so I wanted to learn Spielberg, and Spielberg is the man when it comes to dolly work, the fucking man, and his work is so seamlessly invisible.
Joey: He's pretty good, yeah.
Mike Pecci: So that when you watch it, you don't even realize how complicated what he's doing is, and when you're dealing at that level, you're talking about a Fisher 11, you're talking about dolly track, you're talking about four or five hands just to put the fucking dolly together, you're talking about a lot of extra shit, and as a director, cinematographer, in which you have to convey to all these hands the height of the camera, where you want it to go, that gets really complicated, because I'm still trying to figure it out in my head, 'cause really, I haven't had the time with it to just go, "Hey, here's how it works "and this is what I want," and I was talking to, I think it was Mike Henry, who's an amazing key grip. He works on all the big movies that come into Boston, and he's a great dolly guy. I think I was talking to him, and he had a good point. 'Cause in the beginning, I was trying to figure out what am I moving through and where's the camera going and what angle is the camera shots at, and Mike was like, "Where does it start "and where does it end? "What is the shot that you are at, "and then what are you transitioning to?" And then as I did the more research on professionals that were using this stuff, like other directors and other cinematographers, they would say the same thing. It's basically a transition without cutting, so you're moving the camera to give more information to the audience; that's basically what you're doing. So, at that point, I learned to set my start frame and my end frame, and then we'd figure out how to get in between, and as we build the in-between, it's like, okay, so if it is moving past something, is that giving us new information? And if it is moving at this angle, does that mean something? It goes thighs Okay, here's a great example. Close Encounters. There's that bit in the beginning when they show up to the airfield in Mexico, and all these World War II planes just show up out of nowhere, and there's this huge dust storm, and there's this one sequence where, basically, the scientists go into this field of airplanes and they investigate everything and they're looking at the numbers on the airplanes and they're looking in the cockpits and they're doing all this stuff; it's on one shot, and it's on a dolly shot, and in this dolly shot, Spielberg goes from a closeup reveal to everybody looking, to a wide shot of the whole field, as the camera moves down the track, it pans to a wide, you see everybody working, then it goes over to a medium as the guy climbs up on an airplane, and then it pans further to another guy investigating something else, and as the camera comes back down along that same line of dolly track, the lead steps into frame for a closeup and delivers a line in that closeup, and Spielberg has done the coverage that I would have normally done on sticks, it would have been like 12 shots, he's done it with one blocked dolly move. It's genius, because it keeps you in the scene, it keeps you in the moment, and subconsciously, you're not thinking, "Hey, oh, jump cut, jump cut, jump cut, "insert, insert, closeup, wide shot." You're actually with these guys and there's a sense of urgency, and there's a sense of really deliberate storytelling. The only way I could process that shot as a filmmaker is go, "Here's where the start is, I want to see "a closeup of the dude as he gets here, "I need an establishing, I need a wide, "I need to see an insert of him looking at this airplane, "I need to see an insert of this, "and then I need a closeup at the end. "how do we do that all in one dolly move?" Does that make sense?
Joey: Yeah, and actually, you said it blew your mind, it kinda blew mine too, because I... Here's what I'm taking away, and tell me if this is the way your brain is processing it. I don't go out and do cinematography, so for me, the example would be, I'm doing a spot for, I don't know, some restaurant, and we've got a CG cup over here and then a CG product over here, and then the logo, and I want to get all three of them in one cool camera move. Instead of trying to think of that camera move as the thing, it's three shots with no edits, and then it's just how do you get from shot one to shot two to shot three, and really, I guess I've done that without thinking about it, but then in thinking about it, it really seems like the whole process gets a lot simpler then too, even if you're talking about a subtle camera move, it still makes sense. You start wide on, I don't know, let's use a logo, 'cause it's the dumbest, simplest thing there is, right? So you start wide on a logo, it makes the logo seem less important. Shot two is, you're closer to the logo; the logo's more important. And there is your motivation right there, you don't have to think about psychology, we're moving towards it, and human beings, when we move towards something. I'm sure that's part of it, but I like this system, Mike, this might revolutionize the way I do camera moves.
Mike Pecci: I think that's really where it starts, man. If I'm gonna walk onto a set and someone hands me a scene, clean, and I try to figure out what the emotion is, what the core is, that's where I start, and then I sit there and I go, "Okay, how much time? "How much time do I have to shoot this?" And they're like, "Okay, you have 45 minutes "to shoot three pages," and I'm like, "Well, fuck you," A. B, normally, if I was to do all those other insert shots, then that would take time to move the camera, set the camera up, put the shit together, light the stuff, tweak the stuff, roll. Good; roll again. Good; we gotta move on. Boom, boom, boom, boom. You're doing this 12 times. Now, to set up a dolly shot, that takes a fucking long time, because you're setting up all these bits and pieces, but then you can roll through the whole thing, and at that point, you're designing your lighting to be a lot more open, so that way you can see 180, or maybe 360, if you're building units into the space, so it really changes your thought process on it, and I think Spielberg started with directing episodes of Columbo, I think. So he started in TV, and in TV, they don't give you a lot of time to do that shit, so dolly work was always a very efficient way to get coverage for a scene, and I think that's where his style comes from, the training that he got doing early television. And then, through that med, he ended up really making it amazing. You watch movies like Munich, or even War Horse, where he does these amazing storytelling sequences in one-shots or in dolly moves, where what is revealed onscreen, how the characters walk on- and off-screen, how they interact, how close they are to the camera, all those things tell us a story about who the character is emotionally, they tell us a story of who's in control of that scene, and they do it in front of you. It's magic, and it just feels very magical when you're telling a story that way and it's conveying all these steps and this emotion to it. And how does that affect motion graphics? Here's a good thing. We've been dealing with some motion-graphic artists because of title sequences, and title sequences is a huge thing, as we all know. You had movies like Seven, and every television series that exists right now, that do really interesting title sequences, and I think the best sequences, like Seven, tell the story of the character, and actually delve into who this person is, and I just remember sitting there and receiving the information that I "have to," in quotes, get: who directed it, who's in it, what's going on, all that stuff; it's also telling me a bit about the world and the character that I'm involved with. So, just rehashing cool focus tricks, or a couple of really cool plugin effects and doing that stuff on a title sequence, you can just tell that it doesn't mean anything. You're looking at it, going, "I guess that's cool, "you guys used some really cool plugins "and you were able to replicate the look "of the True Detective fucking opening, "like everybody else," but what does that say about the story, what does that say about what it is that you're doing? What does that say about the product, you know what I mean?
Joey: Yeah, and the True Detective title sequence, that's a perfect example, because the technique used there, and that technique wasn't invented for that title sequence, but it was the perfect application of it, because the subject matter of that show about the demons that live inside of--
Mike Pecci: Yeah.
Joey: When it's done for a reason, it's great, and then when it's done because it looks cool, and you mention, that is kind of a beginner mistake, to skip over the "what does it mean?" and to say, "now, how do I make it look pretty?" So, let's talk about the pretty part, though, for a little bit. One of the qualities of a lot of your work, your photography is ridiculous, man. It's very pretty to look at, technically, creatively, and all that stuff. So, I'm hoping that we can pick your brain and get some tips out of you, because a lot of the techniques, we were talking before we started the interview, saying that there is now this blooming, it's actually called the render wars. There's all these different companies creating different render engines for 3D software, and they all work differently, but what they are all trying to do is to create, basically, a physical reality inside of 3D software, where you can literally pick the exact lens you want on the virtual camera, and a real light that you can go buy or you can just pick out of a menu, and then you can have a library of surfaces, like weathered wood, and you can just put them on things, and it does all the hard work of photorealism for you, essentially. I mean, I'm oversimplifying it, but that's essentially where it's going, and now, you can create, and I mentioned this earlier, there's just this endless stream of really cool-looking, soulless shit coming out, but it looks really pretty. But I'd love to know when you have, I don't know, you have an actress, and it's just a shot of her thinking hard about something, but when you do it, it looks really pretty; how do you do that? How do you compose, how do you know where to put people? How do you know what to focus on, and where the lights go? We haven't even talked about lighting, so how do you make pretty shots, Mike? What's your process? Just give it to me. Gimme the answer. It's a plugin, I know, but just tell me which one.
Mike Pecci: Well, here's a funny story. When I started doing photography, I started shooting for the Boston Phoenix, which was a alternative mag that went everywhere, and I had a really great relationship with the editor there, and they would only call me to do the big stuff that was really high-concept, which was a lot of fun to do. I got to do that, and I had taken a few cover images, and apparently, I started to develop a style, or what you call this pretty thing. So I was like, "Okay." You don't get credited for magazine covers, really. Maybe you get a little, like in the crease of a page somewhere, it says, "photographed by so-and-so." It's not like it's on the cover, it's not like it's like, Mike Pecci's fucking image, you know? So I was doing a bunch of these, and I would have people call me up and go, "Hey, did you shoot this cover image?" And I was like, "Uh, yeah, how'd you know I did it?" And they'd go, "Oh, it's totally your stuff." And in the beginning, I was like, "Fuck, man, "I don't want to just be pigeonholed to one specific style. "Fuck. "Alright, so I'm just gonna fuck it all up. "I'm gonna that on my next shoot," which is we used different lights, we used weird lenses, I'm gonna use all this shit, and I shot another shot and I put it out there, didn't take credit for it, and then, I'd have people go, "We love your new image," and I was like, "How the fuck do you know it's my image?" And they're like, "Well, it's you! "It says you, it's your shit." What I realized at that point was that it wasn't about technically what I was using, it was about how my brain processes the world, and how I actually, subconsciously, frame things. I subconsciously put a lot of stuff; let me think about this. If I'm looking at the image, I subconsciously weight people to the left side, which is weird, so I have this weird, sort of subconscious thing that happens that I'm usually battling when I work with this. So that being said; I know I'm avoiding your other question here. That being said, how do you make it look pretty? Well, there's a bunch of different ways. If you had to break it down to a formula, if I'm gonna shoot a girl, 'cause in the beginning, I did a bunch of stuff with Suicide Girls, and I've done a bunch of ladies stuff, pin-up work. If you're gonna shoot a lady, ladies have angles. Every human being has a different face, and if you're modeling this, you know this. Every face is different, the landscape of every face is different. The way light reacts to nose and forehead, to are the eyes deep set, are they a fucking chubby person and you need to make cheekbones for them; there's a bunch of different ways to actually manipulate what I see, as the viewer, from what is actually real. Then, you get into post, you get into Photoshop work and all that shit, but in photography, I find, with ladies, a soft source that is in front of them, higher than they are, like basically ceiling height, but slightly in front and slightly tilted towards them, is very beautiful on women. Because it helps form the cheekbones, it really showcases where the face sits really nicely, and if you slightly overexpose it, then it starts to get rid of the stuff that I love, which was crow's feet and all that stuff, because I feel like that's a human roadmap to experience, but a lot of insecure folks are like, "I look like shit," so you have to get rid of all that.
Joey: Right, of course.
Mike Pecci: And then, if you're picking the right lenses for people, really, you don't wanna have a lens that bows and distorts them, unless that's a style thing, unless that's what you're doing, but if you're doing a real pretty portrait, you wanna pick like a 50 or above, and a 50-millimeter is what our eyes, quote-unquote, see; 50-millimeter is standard. But if you start cranking above that, you start getting up into the hundreds, or the 85-to-hundreds, then you're cutting out all the background, the background is not important, and you're just bringing that person to the front. So if I'm doing a very emotional photograph, I would start there with those elements, then you asking yourself, "Okay, color." If you do the research online, every color means something. I think red is with food and hunger, and I think yellow is curiosity; there's a bunch of shit, you can look it up online. So, you look up what sort of emotions you want based upon that color, and then, from the illustrator in me, you are ultimately just shooting a 2D image. A photograph is either gonna be a flat panel, a fucking iPhone, or it's gonna be a printed piece of material on some sort of paper; it's a 2D image. So what you're trying to do is add depth, you're trying to give the illusion that inside this box is a whole world that you want to go into, and there's multiple ways to add depth. You can add depth through lighting, so brightness and contrast adds depth. Contrast will take a face that is normally flat, and if you move the light to the right spot, it'll make that face seem like it's popping off the page. With color, you can add contrast in colors. Get yourself a trusty color wheel and look at the opposite ends of that color spectrum, and when you lay those colors on top of each other, they work really well together, because it's adding depth. And focus is the final thing. You have focus, you have color, and you have lighting. All those things, for a photography standpoint, are the tricks to get people to fall into the image emotionally, and then it's really your connection with the subject, and this is something that a lot of young photographers forget, that technical shit is pretty important, and you're deep in technical land when you're doing photography, but at the end of the day, a good photograph is all about the person you're shooting, and one of the things that I do, and I did a lot of, was I felt like I had to fall in love with the subject first. So I would actually find a reason to fall in love with this person, 'cause I felt like if I could fall in love with them, then I could shoot that and everybody else would fall in love with them, because I could figure out what that thing is. When you're younger and you're single, you end up getting crushes on a lot of the people you're taking pictures of, because you're physically putting yourself in that position to fall in love with them. I think my best work has been work that I have a very close connection to the subjects in, because I am physically in love with that person, you know what I mean?
Joey: Right, so when you're doing motion design, when you're doing really technical 3D, it's also extremely technical, but it's almost like you have to go into it with the right motivation, like, "I'm creating this image because," and then once you can answer that, once you've got the technical skills, those things take care of themselves, 'cause I'm moving the light here because what I'm trying to do is make this person's cheekbones look higher, and using an example of a portrait for photography, it's a little difficult to correlate that to 3D, just because a lot of what we do doesn't have people in it, it doesn't have realistic people, but I'm looking at some of your newer work, Mike. You did a McFarland & Pecci film with gourmet food, and I've heard that food is notoriously difficult to photograph, 'cause it looks delicious in real life, and then on camera, it just looks gross, and it's all about the lighting and all that. So how would you approach lighting something, like a plate of cauliflower with a big piece of meat on it? Something with a ton of texture and different colors. Lighting is one of those things that motion designers always say, "Oh, lighting's really hard," and I don't know, you seem to have a knack for distilling the why of things down. I'm curious, how do you approach lighting, is there some overarching philosophy to it?
Mike Pecci: Lighting's interesting. Lighting's always been fascinating to me, and it really isn't just with motion designers. I think a lot of people in general don't have a grasp on lighting, and it's this foreign element, and it really took me a long time to get into it and fall in love with lighting. Strangely, when I see light, I see light like fluid. I almost see light like a liquid. It has its source, it comes from a place, but a lot of what you're seeing in the world is light bounced off of something, light splashing through something, light being absorbed by something, so it isn't as simple as setting up a light and turning it on, and the difference between movie photography and photography photography is that movie stuff is a little bit more real and it's constant light that's always on, so you can walk through it, you could feel it, you could put smoke in the air and get volumetrics since you can see it, and you can see how light coming from a 10K put through three steps of diffusion and then bounced off a yellow wall onto a subject's face or onto the scene looks, 'cause you're in it, you're with it, and it's a very living thing, which is really kinda cool. And for me, lighting, lighting is just... Okay, let's go back to your question. Lighting food is like lighting a car It's kinda the same thing. With cars, it's always about one big source, because cars are very reflective. So cars are like, whatever you put on that car as a light, you're gonna see it in the car. So they tend to want to do the biggest soft sources possible because in the reflection, it'll just look like a white bar, or like a plume, or something. But food's kinda similar to that. Food wants to be soft, bright overhead light, and the rule of thumb these days for food photography is the whole Foods Catalog shit, which is like, use daylight, you know what I mean? Set your shit up next to a window, because the window and the sun is the biggest, softest source you can have, and it kills the contrast, and it just makes it appealing to you, because when you look at food, you don't want it to be... Like if I pulled salami out of the fridge that I'm gonna make a sandwich, then I look down at it and it's green tinted, that just means sick to me. That means that I'm gonna be throwing up for 12 hours. You don't want to be adjusting the color of the food, you want the food to look as natural as it should, because then you're gonna be hungry for it. And then you don't want it to be scary, unless it's very specific. But even if you watch a show like Hannibal, Hannibal had some of the best food lighting ever, and it was very high-contrast stuff, but it was gorgeous, it was very gorgeous stuff, and everything that he made, whether it was someone's body part or a really great pork shank, you physically wanted to be there and eating it, and I think that is just simply done by one soft source, usually from above, very little contrast and manipulation. Food's very easy. Food's very easy to do.
Joey: Do you think that, I've seen, and I've been guilty of this too, just over-complicating lighting setups to try and make up, probably, just for a lack of knowledge? Do you see that as a thing beginners do, adding too many lights, trying to do too much, when really, it may be simplicity's better, or does it really get to where you need 15 lights to get something that looks really simple onscreen?
Mike Pecci: Well, it depends. I think, in the beginning, when you're shooting, especially on low-buck stuff, a lot of filmmakers and producers spend their money on the wrong things. So they'll blow loot on, "Hey, we gotta shoot this "with an Alexa," and you're like, "Okay, great, that just cost me all this money," and then they will say, "Hey, we need this lighting kit, "we need this lighting package," and you go, "Okay, great, but what is there?" You gotta spend the money on wardrobe, you gotta spend the money on production design, what am I shooting? I can have the best gear in the world and shoot into a white corner, it's still gonna look like shit, and I think that a lot of younger filmmakers are dealing with that, a lot of young DPs are dealing with that, where they don't have in front of the camera what they need to look really great, so then they're over-compensating with lighting setups and they're trying to make it look cool with light and do all that stuff, and when you're dealing on a cheap, indie level, you really can't afford, I mean, prices are coming down now, but you really can't afford to have those big, soft-source units that do a lot of what we see in cinema and big movies, because they're just too expensive, and so you're trying to replicate that look with small LED lights and small, tiny sources and units, and then your set just becomes this collection of C-stands and light stands, and you're trying to shoot around that, which gets really difficult. It just depends on the project. I'm about to do an interview series in a couple weeks where all I want to do for that interview series is get a big HMI and probably like an eight-by-eight silk that I'm using as a soft source, and then light the background and then that's it, because I have like 15 to 20 people coming in through the course of the day, and I just want to get through with them, and I think it's gonna look really great, but we also, contrasting that, we do stuff for Bose, at McFarland & Pecci, we do stuff for the Better Sound Session Series. that's very complicated, where they have a musical act come in, where they record their song live to be able to use in stores, and they've hired me to come in and make a music video, essentially. But they'll only run that song four times, at most, for the live recording, and I have to get the coverage for a music video in those four times, which means I bring in like 15 cameras, and every take that we do, I move those cameras to another covered shot, except for the one closeup on the person singing, 'cause they sing differently every time. But I'm trying to get as much coverage as I possibly can, and then you're in a room that's basically a boring, white-walled room with six or seven musicians, so I have rigs all over the place. I've got backlights for each individual, I've got soft lights in the ceiling, I've got volumetrics and smoke and haze, and I've got all this stuff because I basically have to light this room 'cause of the schedule, I have to light this room so I can shoot 360 in it and get as much coverage as I can through the process of that day. So, it just depends. Those light setups are ridiculously complicated, but some of the most beautiful stuff I've ever shot has been Terrence Malick-style, which is just put a subject in front of a window, and then maybe have a little edge light, and you're good to go, you know what I mean?
Joey: Yeah. I realize I keep asking you for the secret, and the secret is, there is no secret.
Mike Pecci: I know, I keep going off on these tangents.
Joey: Yeah, no, but it's true though, it's true. And you brought up another point which I wanna call out too, which is this is another trap that beginners can fall into in motion design, is you see something really cool and you say, "Wow, I wanna learn how to do that," and you find out that the person who did it used a software package you don't have or something, or that image was created with this light that I don't own. "Oh, I should run out and buy that light." You're trying to solve problems by buying gear. I'd imagine that has to be pretty common in your field, right?
Mike Pecci: I would say yes, and I would say that that thought process is bullshit. I think thata lot of this fancy photography gear, like black wrap; do you guys know what black wrap is? It's essentially this dark foil that you surround your lights with to control light, and you can actually shape it and do whatever you want with it. That fucking thing started as someone just taking tin foil and spray-painting it black, you know what I mean? So that's where that comes from, and you look at flags, get a pizza box and spray-paint it black. It does the same fucking thing. So when people say I need to own all this gear and I need to own all this shit, most of the time, especially with lighting gear, C-41s are clothespins. It's all these little things that you bring on the set because you think they're gonna work, and then some clever lighting technician/gaffer/grip goes, "I can monetize this," and they develop it and they make it into a piece of gear that they overcharge like 700% on and they make a good profit on it.
Joey: Right, right.
Mike Pecci: And I feel like when you look at a lot of lighting gear in particular, that's what that shit is. Someone on set came up with a really innovative way of taking poster board and making it into some sort of bow source, and then they figured out how to make it into something more expensive to sell to you. So, I think if you are relying upon the gear to make your work better, then definitely change that mindset, and I know it's a very easy mindset to be in, because we're a very consumer-based generation, very consumer-based market right now. I'm gonna be out at NAB, that's what that whole fucking convention's about. It's really just manufacturers and marketing teams from manufacturers selling us this shit, and there's a lot of great tools out there, there's a lot of great ways to do things, but a lot of these tools were developed by storytellers that didn't have the tool at that time to do it, so they had to create something new in order to make this story that they had in their mind for it, and then of course, it gets packaged and it gets sold to us, and the consumer goes, "Oh, cool! "I wanna make fucking Avatar," and they go out and they buy the same shit, and then there's all this content that's released online, and even in cinemas now, which is just people recreating the look of something that really spoke to them before, but the process of doing that, you're just diluting down what that original message was, and you're just going, "Cool!" You see movies like Battlefield LA. It's like, cool, I saw District 9 or whatever Blomkamp's movie was, and you guys just fucking decided that you wanted to do that same thing 'cause you thought it was super cool, and this movie means nothing. It means absolutely nothing, doing it. So, I'm rambling, but tools are your tool, that's it. You're not owned by your tools, you're not owned by these companies that are selling you shit. I've got a MacBook Pro laptop, which works really well for me. Does that make me a good director? No. I could have a fucking $200 laptop to be a really good director, it doesn't make a difference. Do I need to own a Red camera or an Alexa to be a DP? No, I don't. I don't have to own a camera to be a DP. I just have to go and be a really cool person and hang out at a rental house and have a relationship, and then I have literally every camera on the marketplace at my disposal, whenever I want. Do I want to have a camera on hand so that I can practice my own stuff, and not have to pay for it? Yeah, get yourself some cheap fucking DSLR that has the ability to swap lenses out, and then you can teach yourself lens choices, and compositions, and all that stuff. You could go super pro and spend like three grand on it or you can spend $700, $800 on one. You know what I mean?
Mike Pecci: Or not; just sign up for fucking borrowed lenses and then, every once in a while, drop a couple bucks and get a couple lenses in for a weekend and then play with it. You don't have to own gear. That's the big thing that drives me crazy, and I think that if you are that person that has to buy these things, you essentially become slaves to your gear, because you're blowing all this loot on it that you somehow have to make back.
Joey: Yeah. What you just talked about is one of the most important lessons, I think, that motion designers can learn too. When you see amazing, amazing work, a lot of times, if a studio is doing that work, they have to crank it out fast, they have a client, they have to deal with revisions, so it makes sense for them to spend eight grand and get a liquid-cooled computer with four GPUs in it and the latest software and all that stuff, but when you're learning, when you're a freelancer, you can make the exact same image, literally on any computer capable of running Cinema 4D, and it's kinda the same thing with photography. It's probably convenient to have an enormous, some light that costs 2,000 bucks a day to rent, but I bet if you're clever, and you have a big white bedsheet and you go outside on a sunny day, you can probably get pretty close, right?
Mike Pecci: Yeah, yeah. For photography in general, I can shoot, I can do anything with anything that's in the house. I can get a roll of paper towels and a lamp and make something that's really cool, but if I'm working with a client and I'm on a job, and the client is like, "Alright, guess what, Mike? "Our schedule's ridiculous today. "We're gonna give you five times the amount of work "than you can physically pull off in the hours "that we're gonna do," I don't wanna be dealing with paper towels and a lamp, because that shit's just gonna take me so much time to manipulate the right way, so I'll go out and rent a pro photo, ridiculously expensive kit that simply can be popped open, slipped on a light, dials are really easy to change up, and I can try to keep a pace with the demand that the client is asking me to do. That's when I would get into the big gear, because then, usually with clients, they expect you to do shit at their speed, and they have no consideration of how much time it actually takes to render, or to do this or to do that, and so at that point, you have to compensate for their craziness with that pricey gear and all that shit, but that's what you charge them for.
Joey: Exactly. Yeah.
Mike Pecci: So why put yourself through that beforehand?
Joey: So, we've had a motion-graphics creative director on the podcast, his name is Ryan Summers, and he actually gave this recommendation to everyone. He said, if you wanna get better at figuring out how to tell stories as a motion designer, get a camera and take a lot of pictures. So, in that vein, let's say someone listening says, "You know what, this sounds like a ton of fun, "I wanna get a camera and whatever I need "to be able to start learning the craft," learning a little bit about lens choice and how to get depth of field and lighting and stuff like that, what do they need? Do they need to go out and buy a Mark III or whatever the newest one is for a few thousand bucks? Is the iPhone enough? Do you need something in between? What would you recommend, Mike?
Mike Pecci: The iPhone, really... If you're talking about telling a story with visuals, you want the ability to change your focal length, and they do make zoom lenses. The problem with a lot of zoom lenses is that it's infinite focus with those, so you can't really get that shallow depth of field that you want. If you're starting, I would suggest going on eBay or wherever the fuck you wanna go, and I would buy refurbished, I would buy used, get yourself a camera body that has interchangeable lenses. This could be Canon; I'm a Nikon guy just 'cause I've always been a Nikon guy and I have a bunch of Nikon lenses. Honestly, there's very subtle differences between the both, it doesn't make a difference, and then they make the Sonya and the Canons. For photography, I stick with Nikon or Canon. I trust the both of them, they seem to be very focused on photographers and photographers' needs, and yes, Canon has gone off into the whole videography world and Nikon has dabbled in it, but if you're talking about photography, stick with a company that still deals with photographers primarily. Get something cheap, get something that you can change your shutter speed, you can change your aperture on, because those will affect your lighting and your depth of field, and then go cheap with the lenses, man.
Mike Pecci: Well, that was a very strange video for us, because we ended up doing that one in Los Angeles. Ian and I are here in Boston, and we shoot all over the place all the time, but when you're shooting in another city, it's difficult, because you have to make sure, especially early on, you have to build a career, you have build people that are remote, so you can trust them to put things together, and Ian, I think Ian had the idea. We had this idea to put Burton, who's the lead singer of the band, the video was called the Fear Campaign, and so we wanted to give him this militarized vibe, so he's like a priest in it, and he's a controller, so he's just very much manipulating your point of view and controlling society with fear, and we wanted to symbolically show that by having a standard guy, your regular dude, stripped down naked, cowering in front of him as he's got these two vicious attack dogs, and he's dressed in almost like a Hitler outfit, and he's got these two vicious attack dogs that look like they want to just snap their leashes and tear the face off of this naked guy on the street. Now, we don't have a huge budget for this, and this was one of those learning lessons where we were like, "Well, we never really worked "with animals before, "so how do we make that work?" And luckily, it was Los Angeles, and I was really worried about this, like how do we get dogs that do what you want, because there's horror stories, kids and animals. Kids and animals on set are the fucking horror story show. So,we ended up shooting this in some industrial area, like downtown LA, and we really didn't tell them what we were doing, and we hired this actor, I think we got him on Craigslist or something, poor bastard. And you know, LA, starving actor kinda stuff, and we said to him, "Look, we want to have you cowering," I don't even think we told him that we wanted him naked yet. We were like, "We want to have you cowering in front of these dogs," and he was genuinely scared of these dogs, 'cause they were wolf/German Shepherd/whatever-the-fuck hybrids, and when they showed up on set, the trainer was there, and the dogs were very docile. He brought them in, and I was like, "These dogs look really cool, but fuck, man, "they're just really well trained. "Is the shot gonna be cool?" And the guy was so cool about it, he goes, "No, no, watch this." And he would place just a shingle from a house, he placed a shingle on the ground, and then he snapped his fingers a certain way, and the dogs would walk over to the shingle, place their feet on it, and stay there.
Mike Pecci: They would just stay there on this thing, and you're like, "Holy shit, okay." And then he would get down low and make some noise, and then they suddenly turned into these ravaging beasts, and they were fucking foam coming out of their mouths and everything, and then he would snap his fingers and they would go back and stand on the shingle and sit there, completely docile. Blew my mind, I was like, "Holy shit!"
Joey: That's amazing!
Mike Pecci: These dogs are better trained than most actors that I work with, so this is outstanding. So we get outside, and the guy's out there, and he's seeing these docile dogs, and he's like "Okay, this is fine," and then I think we had the idea later on that we was gonna be naked, and we just went over to him, and we had no permits, we're out on the sidewalk, and we go over to him and we go, "You know, "it would be really great if you were naked in this." So, he takes off his clothes, and he gets down in this crouching position. Now, Burton, who hasn't interacted with these dogs yet, has to hold these leashes. So he gets into position, and we're all ready to go, the dogs are standing there, and the guy whistles or whatever the fuck he does, and the dogs into animals. You know what I mean? Like, and I'm shooting this with a Red and super-slow motion, and I'm in the camera and I'm just infatuated with this horror that is being captured on the camera. I'm like, "This is super cool, this is really amazing," and Burton is struggling to hold these dogs and still look cool, but they're two massive dogs that literally want to tear the face off of this poor naked kid, and almost do so. Then they call cut, and Burton's like, "I couldn't even hold them, man, "I couldn't even hold those dogs," and the poor kid was just on the ground, shivering, completely naked and shivering, scared out of his mind, and we were just laughing. I could hear it was just my cackling in the background and then Ian laughing in the background, we thought it was a blast.
Joey: Oh my God. Well, if you have a better story than that from a MoGraph piece you did, make sure you tweet it at School of Motion, and find Mike on Twitter and tell him too, but I doubt anyone's gonna be able to top that, dude. That is, that's amazing. And I hope you paid that actor well, I hope he at least got a little bit, maybe you tip him a little bit at the end. Yeah, my God.
Mike Pecci: Yeah.
Joey: Well dude, thank you, this was awesome, man. I know everyone who's listening is gonna get a ton outta this. There's so many tips that you dropped just casually that motion designers can take, and really, I think the most important thing that you talked about was just always having a purpose behind the image you're making before you worry about is it pretty. So, I just wanna say thanks, man, for coming on, this was amazing, and we will definitely have to have you on again.
Mike Pecci: Thanks, man, and if I could, I'd like to just be able to plug a couple things that I'm working on. Keep your eye out for 12 Kilometers, 'cause there's some big news coming with that soon, fingers crossed.
Mike Pecci: And then I'm also doing my own little podcast series called In Love With The Process, which, you can tell just by what we've talked about on this episode, I really get into the life behind being a filmmaker, and I think there's so much out there, and you guys do a really good job about getting into the techniques and the life behind being a motion artist; I feel like there's way too much out there on unboxing videos and gear and all this stuff and no one's really talking about, "How do I survive? "It's gonna take eight years before anybody calls me "or recognizes my work, how do I keep going? "How do I stay motivated? "How do I literally come up with creative ideas on a dime "and how do I flex my muscles for that?" And so, I'm really trying to create a new series that talks about all that stuff. It'll be me talking with other people that I work with and other professionals. The next one is actually with Jesse from Killswitch Engage, and we go into, really, what it's like to be a music-video director, really what happens to your treatments when it gets shipped off, and so, really, come check out my stuff, MikePecci.com, we'll have basically the starting point for you to either sign up for the podcast, or subscribe to the podcast or subscribe to our YouTube channel. Go to MikePecci.com, it's called In Love With The Process, and you can find me on Instagram, and I'm always communicating, so if you guys got questions, if you guys got cool stories.
Joey: Excellent, and we'll link to all of this stuff in the show notes, and I highly recommend you check out Mike's YouTube channel and his podcast, 'cause as much knowledge as you got out of this, there's 10 times more on there, and 12 Kilometers, by the way, you really do need to check it out, it is amazing, and anyone who's in Design Bootcamp is actually intimately familiar with it, because we do a fake project with 12 Kilometers that Mike was cool enough to let us use it for. So, right on, brother.
Mike Pecci: Awesome, always good to talk to you, brother.
Joey: I wanna say thank you to Mike for coming on, he's an absolutely amazing person to work with and a complete wizard at making gorgeous images. Make sure you check out his work at MikePecci.com. You can also check out McFarlandAndPecci.com to see the work that his production company does, and check out his YouTube channel, In Love With The Process, which has amazing tips and insights about independent filmmaking. All these links will be in the show notes, by the way, and finally, thank you for listening, and if you haven't already, you should probably head over to SchoolOfMotion.com to grab a free student account, so you can start going through some of our free training over there, gaining access to our Motion Mondays newsletter, and 20 other cool things for our subscribers. So, that's it for this episode, I'll catch you next time.