Shooting A Rock Band Documentary: Roving Cameras around a Live Gig by Sebastian Corbascio

Reference: StudentFilmmakers Magazine, June 2007. Shooting A Rock Band Documentary: Roving Cameras around a Live Gig by Sebastian Corbascio. Pages 42 – 45.

All bands hunger for exposure. Just a great song is not enough anymore; there has to be a catchy video, and gobs of tschotskies tied into the band for it to stand out. But mostly, bands want attention. But there are trade offs, negotiations and boundaries to be observed and respected, but if the rules are followed, the documentary filmmaker can make an intimate and immediate documentary.

It helped that I had hauled Keith Stater’s huge bass rig for close to eleven years to various gigs with various bands he was in. Keith also has that uncanny knack to get what he wants out of people by finding the one thing that makes them drool. It started with him calling me and asking me to “shoot some footage” of his band, Miller, recording their new album “Electric Buffalo.” They were recording in the Studer Room at Ex’pressions School of Digital Arts
in California. Keith supplied me with two one-chip Sony cameras.

Twenty seven hours of footage later, I asked him why he picked me over another guy he was considering. Said guy had three 3CCD cameras, outboard sound and an editing suite that could launch an ICBM. Keith replied, “He has no vision.” (Drool…)

If you do not have this kind of kinship and understanding, take the slow approach. The first person to approach is the band’s manager, who will be your contact person and hopefully your advocate through the entirety of the shooting. He or she hopefully has a deep understanding of the band members and can OK and veto your various requests, and make suggestions as to what the organization wants covered. Covet the relationship you have with
the manager, they have an intensely difficult job. Being a manager of a rock band is akin to spinning plates and juggling television sets at the same time. If you have the time, I suggest you roadie for the band you are going to shoot. Find out what they are all about and focus in on a particular topic. That way you can safely decrease the
amount of footage you shoot, because you focus in on one story instead of shooting twenty hours of footage a day and then blowing your brains out in the editing room.

One story: Most rock docs are about a particular event. “The Last Waltz” and “Gimme Shelter” are the Band’s last gig and the Rolling Stones’ disastrous free concert at the Altamont Speedway, respectively. “Don’t Look Back” attempts to understand what’s behind the persona of Bob Dylan. “Dig!” (for my money, the greatest rock’n’roll movie ever made) is about how the music industry murders talent and talent murders itself. I chose to focus on Miller recording their third album and focusing on the recording and mixing process itself. The ego battling, the band members
talking about each other behind each other’s backs, unveiling their dreams and aspirations are all juicy and wonderful, but they are not the story. The story is about getting the music on disk. The other stuff belongs there if it pushes the story forward. Figure out what your story is in one sentence, and build your film around that.

Empires rise and fall, but the devil is in the details. Whether the delay on the cymbal should be one full second or half a second can sometimes make or break a song. That was my through-line.

Colin Miller, (Miller singer/ songwriter), tells me he wants everything to stay pretty raw.

The guys argue, Keith keeps everybody in line, and drummer Dave Stephens seems to have a “thing” for transsexual hookers (or at least that’s what the literature he distributes indicates). This is the kind of stuff they agreed to allow to be filmed. In one particularly hilarious scene, Keith and guitarist Justin Pacuska dig through Dave’s gig bag and display the contents and comment on it. These are the kinds of scenes that you will get if you keep a good rapport
with the band. If you are a nuisance in any way, bands have a way of making your life miserable.

The second most important thing to know is the lay of the land.

We were in a recording studio where expensive mics pick up everything, so there was not much latitude in moving around while tape was rolling. If you are shooting in a recording studio, learn how to do all your work quietly. If you are shooting inside the sound booth, the studio while they are rolling, take your shoes off!

Footfalls will be picked up by the mics. Always assume that the mics are picking up all of your actions, so be quiet. If the band has to do another retake because of the noise you make, you have lost major coin with the band. Recording is costly, and inspiration is fleeting. If the band is pissed off about you screwing up a perfect take with noise (or for that matter breaking their concentration by moving around), the band will probably slowly but surely stop cooperating with you and you will have a terrible film or no film at all.

Know when it’s OK to make noise and move around. Between takes is the best time to, for instance, set up a tripod for a close-up, move to a reverse angle, or get a low angle fish eye rock star angle.

You must also be conscious when capture is occurring, since the only communication between the booth and the control room is coming through the headphones (better known as “the cans”).

Technicians are not going to tell you when they are rolling, they are just going to roll, and assume that you know they are rolling.

You can usually tell by hearing the backing track bleeding through the cans.

Bring ear protection. It gets really, really loud inside isolation booths. Many times, amps have to be cranked to get the right tone and warmth. Also, you will have to listen to repeated takes, and it takes a toll on your brain and is exhausting.

If someone is camera shy, don’t film them. Not cool. One of the student engineers was extremely camera shy and told me so. I assured her that she would only appear if she happened to be in frame when I was filming someone else. Remember that you are a guest and act appropriately.

Ask the band to keep all of the sound takes. In post, you will have to loop. Remember, having too much to work with beats having too little. Rock films love montages; so if a shot or a sound presents itself, get it. You may not use it, but you will thank yourself for having it.

Don’t touch anything. If you don’t know what it is or what it does, hands off. Recording mics can cost $10,000 and up. If there is a mic stand all by itself, assume it’s there for a reason. In recording studios, mic placement is an art all its own. The mic stand may be there waiting for the right mic to capture atmospherics. Mic placement comes down to quarter inches, even when miking a bass drum or a 100 watt guitar amp. Assume that a recording studio is a hot set. If you need to borrow something like a cart, ask the engineer in charge if he/she is not busy. If they are
busy, do without until they get a moment.

Lay of the land: If you roadie with your band, make mental notes of the environments that the band is in during their working hours.

A lot of work is done in moving cars, which is the first advantage; you are in motion, which in cinema, is a heckuvalot more interesting than a standing still talking head interview. Framing is always an issue when conducting an in-car interview, and the lighting tends to change drastically (in to tunnel, coming out of tunnel). There is a lot of extraneous noise (wind coming through open windows, etc.). Noise will always be an issue. I feel that bad sound is unforgivable. You will get bad sound, but please, sweeten it. You will not be sorry if you do. The other cool aside is that bands know a lot sound people, and they are usually very approachable for advice and even a free favor here and there if it has to do with the band and if their schedule permits.

Lay of the land: When being a roadie, you as a storyteller should be attuned to the relationships that are going on.

Bands are notorious for fighting, but they are less known for the strong bond that exists between the members. Drummer Dave Stephens commented openly and on camera on how Keith and his wife Carey one night went on a hunt to the seediest motels in the city of San Francisco searching for Dave. No one had heard from him in days, and they instinctively knew that he was on an AIDS depression heroin bender. Dave is also very open about having full
blown AIDS. The first day of recording/ filming, Keith had to persuade doctors to release Dave from Saint Mary’s hospital, against their orders – and then were some strong orders to make the recording session, (Dave still carries the release papers in his stick bag as a reminder.) The scenes where Dave has to play drums while loaded on, morphine, Dilaudin, Marinol and a fistful of AIDS inhibitors is quite hard to watch, let alone film. His good friend
Link was flown up from Los Angeles to tune drums and sit next to him in the studio and acted as a human metronome, keeping Dave on time. Dave soldiered on, even though he was close to fainting most of the day.

Shooting a live gig: If you have two cameras (and you’re only one camera person), find a spot where you can place camera B for a wide shot of the entire band and where you can safely leave it running. Have unwrapped, fresh, labeled and numbered stock ready to go next to the camera. If this sounds close to impossible in a busy nightclub or concert space, you’re right. This is where your diplomatic skills will come in; who gets to watch your stuff while
you are getting shots with a roving camera? The staff. Do they get paid to watch your stuff? No. They are doing it while they are working. Let them know how much you appreciate it, because it is truly above and beyond their call of duty.

For the roving camera, try and move the camera as little as possible. Find your point of interest, stick to it (you have a wide cut away if you need it).When another point of interest presents itself, move as smoothly as you can to it and
stay with it (i.e. guitar solo to lead vocals, etc.) If you have had a chance to roadie the band, you are pretty familiar with the songs and their arrangements, so while you have the camera on one subject, plan how you are going to move to next subject, size of the shot, focus issues, etc. You know where the solos come in, where the verses and choruses come back in, where the lead singer tends to do the splits, and so forth. What is not recommended is going for the
dogma look, there will be plenty of bad footage from people bumping into you, people spilling drinks on you, drunk girls requesting bad cover songs because it’s their birthday, people stage diving, etc.

Once you get to the editing room, hopefully you will have to choose between great footage and even better footage instead of bad footage and really bad footage. Stick to your theme; but if there is something hilarious going on, film it, whether you are exhausted or not. I remarked to one of the engineers as to why it always was that the great stuff
happens when the camera is off.

He replied that it was the same thing in music: a warm up take sometimes is the best take they will get all day. The only thing you can do is deal with it; we’re all there. I suppose the greatest advice I could give would be to have a lot of luck. Make friends like Keith, Dave, Nate, Colin, Justin and Graham. Love making films. Love observing the creative process. And above all, love the living s–t out of rock n’ roll.

Sebastian Corbascio is a two-time award winning screenwriter and motion picture director from San Francisco, California. He is currently writing a film about rock and roll “Electric Boogie Wonderland”, editing a documentary on an up and coming local San Francisco rock band Miller, and writing two novels “The Legionaires” and “The Spartans.” Sebastian Corbascio can be reached at his site,