Want to see what a team of dedicated individuals with passion and skill can do? Just watch this music video that was shot all on black-and-white film. At three minutes and twenty-two seconds, this music video for "Better Man" awes with its technical and skillful execution. And that's not the most impressive thing about it.
Mrinal Bahukhandi, the director (who also served as the photographer and editor) of the project did it all with a small crew despite knowing the gargantuan task that was in front of them. Imagine having to shoot 3,700 frames with a film camera, hand-developing and cutting the film, and scanning everything to sew together as footage. It's crazy alright, and we love it.
Filmed in 1921. Out 100 Years Later.
written by Mrinal Bahukhandi
Proof of the pudding is in the tasting, they say. If you have seen the “Better Man” music video then your eyes have tasted already and you know that the video is 100 years old – at least technically and to some extent even conceptually.
Essentially a tiny tribute to early 20th-century cinema, this video is intended towards recreating an authentically vintage video, while still being contemporary in expression.
Our decision to shoot on black & white analogue film was undeniably directed towards this authenticity, but conceptually too, we traveled in time to the fantastic world of Georges Méliès, a pioneer filmmaker from France who innovated “special effects” in cinema and whose stories were often inspired by science fiction novels of Jules Verne, like in the case of his most popular film “A Trip to the Moon” (“Le Voyage Dans la Lune”). The iconic moon landing shot from this film stirred the concept for the Better Man music video.
But, a crucial ingredient required in the recipe was someone who would represent “Better Man”. The protagonist came forward in the form of, “Bip the Clown” - stage persona of another French mime and theatre legend – Marcel Marceau. As all mime acts, Bip represents the common man with all their trials and tribulations.
In the video, Bip travels to the moon, transforms to become an astronaut, and saves planet earth from the clutches of the devil. This one-line concept became a playground for smaller ideas that are now contained in the Better Man music video.
Besides Méliès’s moon motif, we also employed some of his filming techniques, like “substitution splice” (stop block animation), multiple exposures, and time-lapse photography. Timeless tricks that can never go out of use.
A VIDEO IN STILLS
As the names suggest, motion pictures or movies was evolved from still photography where 25 still images are run through in a flash of a second, and owing to the persistence of vision, an optical “illusion” of motion is created. Understanding this phenomenon is at the crucial center of the Better Man music video. Much before conceptualizing the video, its inception started with the purchase of a time machine that enabled this flight of fancy - NIKON F5, the fastest SLR camera ever made (1996-2004). When I first held its bulky body in my hands and pressed the trigger, it fired non-stop at the rate of 8 frames per second on the CH or Continuous-High mode. The sound made my spine tingle. I could see black and white images move at the speed of Charlie Chaplin (silent era movies were shot @ 12 frames per second).
I knew immediately that this still camera is capable of creating motion pictures much like the times of Méliès and Chaplin. Having found the means for this time travel, I was now itching to find a project that allowed for such an exploration. When Ankur Sabharwal sent me the audio track for Better Man, I knew exactly how I was going to go about it and thanks to the blind faith Ankur had in me, this video got made in the way it did.
Using an analogue still camera to simulate motion meant that production and post processes would be quite dissimilar to current practices. We used black and white film primarily because of the genre we were exploring but also because it is cost-effective and simpler to process - so that we didn’t have to send exposed cans to a professional lab. Moreover, it gave us the control to determine the intended “effect” we were very excited about – a look and feel beyond film grain and is commonly referred to as film damage. With a deliberate intent to take advantage of the fragility of the film process, we worked with careful caution through the steps so that all the dust, speckles, bubbles, blotches, scratches, transition flashes, wobbles, etc. visible in the video were naturally created, on purpose. The analogue inconsistency of these effects created a genuinely vintage video that we were looking for.
Yes, we could have shot on digital and used LUTS and filters to replicate this look but that simulation would have been far too easy as compared to a workflow of exposing 600 feet of fresh 35mm film stock (Kentmere ISO 400) that was hand-rolled using a bulk loader into 100 reusable film canisters. Using the Nikon F5 SLR these cans were exposed @ 8 frames per second - that translates to approximately 5 seconds of real-time footage per film roll. At times while shooting we were changing cans within half a minute for retakes. Crunched on resources, we were unable to shoot digital safeties (read that again please). But we trust film just like the good folks back in the era and we weren’t really shooting in the dark anyway.
Each exposed can was labeled and later, hand-processed with homemade D76 developer in batches of 10. The processed negatives were then dried, cut, and sequentially sleeved, keeping in mind that the progression of images was not disturbed. We ended up with approximately 3700 negatives that had to be digitally scanned (on Epson V 700 flatbed scanner) into hi res tiff files. Afterward, all images were luma balanced, then converted to png files, and lastly converted to gif sequences (as individual shots) and eventually time-warped before the edit could begin. We had shoot rushes of approximately 5 minutes sitting on the timeline, for a 3 min 15-sec video edit. Any filmmaker reading this will know what that means. But honestly, we had shot with a plan and I was more worried about losing the extra 1 min 45 secs as vestige that wouldn’t make it to the final edit.
A cumbersome editing process ensued where each gif had to be rendered every time an edit change was performed on a particular clip. This is far easier than splicing and joining the negatives manually for an edit that Georges Méliès would have had to perform in his time. More importantly, as slow as the editing process was, the results looked promising and encouraging enough to help us motor our efforts through the steps needed. Aside from the organic approach for this music video, there are a few shots for which we had to use digital motion graphics, compositing, and simulated layering (double exposures).
BE KIND, REWIND
Considering this was an indie project, a third of our budget went into purchasing stock and chemicals and later scanning the negatives. Moreover, an analogue process required a different prep (loading and processing film) approach besides the usual creative process. But we were not really in a resource crisis. Instead, we were exploring a thrilling opportunity and thankfully the video concept itself allowed for experimentation. However, to work within the constraints we had, a decision was taken to approach this production like a college project. Employing the “Be Kind, Rewind” method (once again inspired by the work of another French legend – Director, Mitchel Gondry), our sets and costumes were DIY and minimal.
The astronaut's costume and helmet for example are nowhere close to what a production designer would fabricate. An abomination, but it worked for us since the Astronaut survived the moon even without the helmet on. The set itself was mostly made of minimal backdrops, the most elaborate one being the cityscape which isn’t far from a child’s rendition of one.
Since we were shooting on B&W stock, we designed everything from set, props, and costume to be monochromatic that made it easier to light and helped us in visualizing the result. We also had a minimal crew of six members and only one cast member – Ankur Sabharwal who had five different looks to change into. Thankfully, we had a studio available to us 24 hours for four days, out of which two were dedicated for the shoot. We had a whole lot of fun shooting with this approach and mistakes made on the shoot were to be included as part of the process simply because we just didn’t have a backup option. Luckily, we didn’t make many and some that happened are now style signatures of the video or what is now the pudding.
I keep referring to this proverbial pudding, the cookery for which I have now explained. But this recipe could not have been dished out without a perfect kitchen crew. It started with Ankur Sabharwal of course. A longtime friend and a talented singer-songwriter, who I knew is also a talented actor. Yes, it took some convincing for him to play Bip the clown. Ankur’s apprehension was that he had never performed a mime act and was naturally hesitant. But with some pep and prep, he was sporting enough to put on layers of chalky make-up and a striped uniform to turn up confident and quirky on camera. It doesn’t end here. Ankur pulled a rabbit out of his own hat by not just playing out Bip, but also the Moon, the astronaut, the angel, and the devil.
Five characters played by a dad of two kids, has a 9-5 job, takes his dog out for a walk twice daily, keeps fit and, persistently keeps making beautiful music writing lyrics for songs that resonate with his personal journey; who also produced this song and took a leap of faith with this music video. Can you imagine a producer's anxiety in the 1920s who cannot “see” what is being shot? That makes him 10/10 to be the Better Man everyone strives to be and he showed how.
This project has another “Better Man” without whom this video wouldn’t have been the gentle breeze it was. Ashish Sahoo is an artist practicing vintage + analogue print-making and photography. Between his experience and mine, I was confident that this project was in safe hands, literally. Together, we hand-rolled bulk film and later hand processed the exposed stock at The Maze Collective, his studio in Delhi which became a base for this production. Sipping on copious cups of coffee and discussing current and future projects, Ashish naturally took on the production responsibilities that allowed me to focus on the creative aspects. I recall him taking light readings on the set and racking focus, while at the same time guiding the art department for the next scene with his usual resourcefulness. It really is impossible to explain how important Ashish was to this production, being a solid pillar of support all through.
If there was a better Art Director for this project, it would have been Shubra Shah again because there was no one a better woman for the job than herself. Shubra understood and executed the “college project” brief immediately and set off to creating minimal sets with available resources and with the help of only one set assistant, working nonstop for ten days while also doubling as a costume stylist. Her skills gave wings to the imagined shots and the bundle of surprises kept coming in the form of what college days must feel like.
Rayan Mehta, was not only the DA but also the official runner, helping the Art & Costume department while constantly updating the fluid shoot order, transporting equipment to set, doubling as a light man on shoot, labeling exposed cans, meticulously taking shoot notes, safely bringing the exposed stock to the lab, cutting and sleeving processed negatives, filing them sequentially and all this while working with a broken rib that he didn’t know was broken until few days after the work was finished. So if you have ever had a fracture, know that Rayan had it better, man.
Thomas George and Aakanksha Arun graciously allowed us to film in their studio, which turned out to be the perfect space for this project. Their unconditional support is truly something that made this video production a possibility. Also, Shrinivas Kuruganti lent us some very essential reusable film canisters which made our shoot flow smooth. Last but not the least, Meesha Holley and Douglas Gracias digitally scanned, luma balanced, and converted 3709 negatives into an editable video format – a Godzilla of a task that they both showed a lot of discipline towards.
For me, there have been many learnings and yet, there is no end to this project. To finish up means, to make dark-room prints using selected images from countless negatives and of course, some flipbooks too. More pudding from this kitchen. Wait for it.
Mrinal Bahukhandi is a photographer working out of Bombay and Goa who specializes in vintage and analogue photography. He is a storyteller who is fascinated by the effects of film and wishes to share this same fascination with readers and viewers alike.
Ankur Sabharwal is a singer, songwriter, and musician based in New Delhi. His work spans across different fields like tv, radio, theater, and many more. Now, he shows his acting skills in the music video for his song "Better Man".
We would like to thank Mrinal for letting us share his story in the magazine. Visit his website to see more of his work.