In the conversational back-and-forth between Staake and his producers T.S. Pfeffer and Robert McHugh, readers will gain an understanding of the physical, technological, and artistic scale of this project, along with the process behind its shiny, mirrored infinitude.
And before you jump in, keep “cocaine-Vegas” and “infinite stripper pole” in mind as buzz words, for they are perhaps the most accurate descriptions possible.
Diplo – “Set It Off” Music Video
How closely did you guys collaborate with Diplo in conceptualizing and executing the piece? How much creative freedom were you given?
Ryan Staake: The entire initial concept was my doing, and was delivered to [Diplo] and his label [Mad Decent] with 3 words: “infinite stripper pole” and a crudely mocked up test image. Diplo’s a really busy guy, playing shows every night all over the globe, producing tracks for loads of pop and indie artists’ but somehow despite that, he’s incredibly connected, and crazy fast with email responses. We got the bulk of his feedback during post-production, in which we’d talk in vague terms of making it “sexier” or “more cocaine-Vegas”. As the post came together more and more towards the end of the process, I’d get his thoughts on specific ideas of what might appear on the pole as we panned up, and used his, T.S.’, and Robert’s taste as a sounding board. The creative decisions were definitely mine, but your mind can start to melt as you look at the same vertical pole for several months, and it’s crucial to get some trusted opinions on it throughout the creation of the piece.
T.S. Pfeffer: We are currently seeing the “new generation” of artists and with it comes new methods for driving a creative project from inception to delivery. More often then not, the makers are all connected to several other artists at any given time solely through the internet, sometimes never connecting face-to-face… ever. (Laughs.) But because we’re all able to exchange these ideas, or reference images and visual tests in high-def quickly, the collaboration process moves very fast. We all don’t have to be in the same place at the same time to build essentially what is going to be the project’s creative pre-production, and in some cases, even production and post. Ryan and Diplo have this process down to a dime.
Robert McHugh: I am just happy to be here.
How did the decision to use a stripper pole and dancers come about? Were there earlier concepts using the same infinite scrolling type model?
Staake: I’ve always been into creating videos which appear seamless, with little to no sense of edits (not saying this is all I make, but it’s something I love to do and watch come together). Several months before the request to make a video for “Set It Off” came through, I’d shot some test footage of a friend pole dancing, and loved the look of it… there was definite sexiness to it, but the potential to add a bit of class to the depiction of beautiful, strong women showing off their skills. I filed it away, and it came to mind when I begin investigating various treatments for the “Set It Off” video.
Pfeffer: Our processes as a team always begin with us sending things back and forth. Some make it on to become actualized concepts; others sit in the dark. The test footage Ryan is referring to was brought to Robert and I way before it was conceptualized as a music video. At first it was just a pole and our friend dancing; I believe it was used as a lighting test for Ryan’s recent light-kit purchase. Anyway, from here, we’ll usually give him our gut reaction, tell him how it can be achieved from a production standpoint, and then rain little potential ideas here and there for him to collect and carry with him as he goes. Somewhere in the process of back and forth, there was that light bulb moment from Ryan, that clearly only comes from staring at a metallic pole and thinking deeply about its design for too long, where he exclaimed, “I think that if I did this, that this would be possible…”
McHugh: Our gut reaction here was obviously, “Totally.”
The shots in this video are extremely impressive and take on a three-dimensional hyperreal quality. Can you tell us a bit about the shooting environment and the equipment used? Was there much experimentation before deciding on the final visual style?
Staake: Yes, I’m glad this comes across, by the way. The video is not intended to be photorealistic, nor CG, but some weird hybrid of the two; “hyperreal” is a perfect descriptor. We knew I’d need incredibly high-resolution and high-quality footage to work with in post, and T.S. and Robert helped steer the project towards the RED Epic, which offered 5K shooting at 100fps. This enabled us to zoom in and out of the red footage slightly, without losing quality, and gracefully throttle the speed up and down as needed. Aside from the RED camera and the pole rig (a 20x24x16 foot metal rig/pole spec-ed specifically by the AERA dance team), our setup was pretty simple. Lighting-wise, I knew I wanted all of the dancers strongly backlit, just because of the anonymity it gave, and [because it] kept the emphasis on the movements of their bodies. Backlighting was also a practical choice, as it allowed for CG elements to be rendered in a lighting setup that was easier to composite than something more traditionally lit. Beyond the setup, we definitely experimented a bit when shooting — embracing accidents and discoveries… for example, the high heels on Autumn (the 2nd dancer) were slipping off because they were too big, so we shot that a few times, and it turned out to be a perfect introduction to the movement of the pole.
McHugh: T.S. and I are usually the ones helping Ryan frame his concepts as Directors of Photography. That said, we can be pretty particular about image and image quality. (Points to T.S.) For this project, even as producers, we had our eyes on what Ryan had drafted in his test footage and applied our options for producing the best image for him. Our first thoughts were briefly with the Alexa, but we quickly landed on the Red Epic for its monstrous resolution. With the ideas we had been exploring to take advantage of in post, it was obvious that this was the camera that was going to take Ryan’s concept to the next level. Tim found our DP for the project, Aaron Grasso, who owned the Epic, and we paired him with our gaffer Rudie Schaefer to create a pretty stacked team for delivery.
Pfeffer: (Sighs.) I wish we could say we shot it. (Laughs.) Aaron did kill it… come on…like we were surprised?! WE found him. He’s the real deal. I’ll have him back anytime.
It seems that the post-production on this music video must have been a long and quite involved process. How long did that take, and what were some of the challenges?
Staake: Yes, post was a huge part of this project. I did all the post myself, so it took quite some time. The quality of the 5K RED footage was impeccable… with its high resolution output stretching across all 3 of my 24″ monitors. But this massive resolution also had the downside of being incredibly slow to work with, even at 25% quality on a 12 core Mac Pro. There was a lot of experimentation in post, which also added to the duration of the process. I’d spend a couple days working on one 2-second shot, rendering tests overnight, and ultimately decide it was too far removed from the concept of the video, and start all over. But those dead-ends were necessary departures to ultimately get to the better ideas.
Pfeffer: Post was easily the most rewarding experience for us. We were able to watch this thing come to life piece by piece. We knew it was going to be good when Ryan discarded some of his initial ideas and held on the introductory shot of this beautiful toned woman stretching outwards on the pole upside down. The track’s dip, commencing the movement of the pole is classic, jaw-dropping angst for what’s to come.
Is this a bit like building an elevator to the moon — only with strippers?
Staake: (Laughs.) Yeah, it’s drawn some comments that describe it was a Space Elevator, which I love. Or an antenna connecting to the Curiosity rover on Mars. Neil Armstrong passed shortly after the video came out, and Diplo and I unofficially tweeted that it was dedicated to him. I’m a huge proponent of space exploration, so if this video can get one hundredth of a percent of budget added to NASA’s yearly allowance, I’ve done my part for humanity.
Pfeffer: It’s been a long time dream of ours to be the first to film a music video IN orbit. Maybe this is the calling card to get us on Sir. Richard Branson’s list.
Is there anything else you would like to add? Anecdotes, curious points, etc.?
Staake: I will say that I didn’t expect the massive debate over strippers/pole dancers that is going on the YouTube comments for the video right now. There’s 2 sides to the argument: Those that think these girls are definitely Pole Dancers, and those that think they are definitely Strippers. I can say that both sides are in fact correct… The dancers are all professional, highly-trained, incredibly talented Pole Dancers who I asked to play the role of Strippers — and they nailed it. But I love watching the debate; some of the commenters are getting really heated over it.
McHugh: Tell them about the physical version.
Staake: Ah, yes. I’m in early days of preparing to do a physical installation version of the Set It Off video in late 2012. Stay tuned.
Pfeffer: I’m in the early days of preparing to be the pole cleaner for the physical installation.
McHugh: Lastly, something of note, with the whole piece being shot from a single camera angle, principle photography was captured in just a day where we had arranged for the girls to come in one at a time. But since they all know each other so well, it turned into a kind of jam format shooting schedule and that’s how we ended up with the tandem dancers, and the whole environment had a really great energy with everyone being around and encouraging/pushing one another. We filmed at the Automobile Driving Museum which is by LAX, and they had hosted a large pole dancing event the night before our shoot day. Some of our production team went to the event and were blown away by AERA and the rest of the performers. We ended up casting some extra dancers from that event who came in the next day to perform for us.
Directed by Ryan Staake (Pomp&Clout)
Interactive Version: set-it-off.com
Dancers: Marlo, Mina, Nadia, Reiko, Michelle, Prana, Kyra, Autumn, Danielle & Crystal
Production Companies: Pomp&Clout and Pier Pictures
Co-producers: T.S. Pfeffer, Robert McHugh & Ryan Staake
Director of Photography: Aaron Grasso
Assistant Director: Robert McHugh
Assistant Camera: Gille Klabin
Concept & Visual Effects: Ryan Staake
Makeup: Christina Rodriguez & Rana Akhavan
Gaffer: Rudie Schaefer
Key Grip: Jamin Mandel
Additional Footage: Peter Corina
Associate Producers: Kyle McBeth, Kyra Johannesen, Jen James & Liz Kinnmark
Production Assistants: Ian Kaye & Michael Onak
Quality Assurance: Leslie Ruckman
Thanks to the AERA Dance Foundation (aeradance.org) & The Automobile Driving Museum (automobiledrivingmuseum.org)
Shot in Los Angeles on the RED Epic