Music Video Reel
S. A. Blake:  Director of Photography

This sampling of my Director of Photography work reflects a broad variety of looks and styles (to view my directorial work, see the clips below). In approaching a project's photographic design, my first step is always to press into and lay hold of the heart and spirit of the song, just as I would the screenplay for a feature. Then, I set about conceptualizing the visual language and landscape that, to my sensibilities, most richly capture and reflect the song's essence. Finally, in partnership with my highly creative, always-dependable team, I bring the concept to photographic life via lighting, coloration, filtration, composition, camera operation, film stock selection, telecine techniques, etc.

One of the great rewards in shooting music videos is that each is a visual universe unto itself, inviting the filmmakers to plumb the depths of their imaginations without restraint.

(The pre-credit imagery was directed by me and photographed by Nancy Schreiber, ASC.)

Holler If You Hear Me
Tupac Shakur
S. A. Blake:   Director, DP, Editor, EP

I had already shot two music videos for Tupac when Tom Whalley from Interscope asked me to direct this one. My ambitious concept, which required a huge number of setups on a very tight budget, struck many as impossible. But as always, my fantastic team made the impossible possible.

The black and white, chocolate-tinted photography is deeply moody, highly kinetic, and visually volatile. Recurring close-ups of a flashing police car cherry serve as editorial transitional elements throughout the video, and bring it to a close. Rhythmically, the editing is mostly syncopated — i.e., anticipating or reacting to the beat — rather than falling precisely on the beat.

To dramatically enhance the opening scene, I composed the plaintive C minor theme for flugelhorn that soars above the ominous bass drone. For Tupac's intro and outro voiceovers, I interviewed him at his mother Afeni's home a few days after the shoot, then edited together the most poignant sound bites.

SPOILER: The ending twist that the "boy" is in fact a girl came to me as an epiphany less than 48 hours before the shoot, and necessitated the emergency last-minute casting of a girl as the lead (a boy had already been cast). Thanks to my can-do team, we were rolling camera two days later with an eminently gifted junior high drama student named Monet Sykes in the lead.

Black Together Again
King Tee
S. A. Blake:  Director, DP, Editor, EP

In this unsettling storyline, police officers and judges are kidnapped by menacing figures, taken to a stark underworld where they are shown the implications of their "crimes against humanity," then judged in a makeshift court by a posse of disenfranchised citizens.

"Black Together Again" is one of my densest music videos both in terms of content and number of setups. Once again, my incredibly talented crew pulled of this incredibly difficult shoot with aplomb. Among our solid cast was Ken Takemoto from the East West Players Theatre Company, who played the judge.

The photography features aggressively pulsating light sources; volatile lightning flash effects; blazing fire barrels; and heavy foreground shadowing. The steely, blue-tinted, monochrome underscores the brutal, icy sensibilities of the underworld. The editing rhythm is highly syncopated. The ethereal tingling sounds heard during the judge-prison montage sequence were created in sweetening, as was the dramatic, modulating bass drone that underscores the ominous ending.

Although conceptually one of my strongest videos, today I disavow the sympathetic depiction of anti-establishment violence. My process as a Writer/Director has always been to immerse myself in the artist's worldview and create authentically and passionately from within it; and at the time, a number of the artists I created videos for held strong anti-establishment views. But since then, my personal convictions have substantially changed, and would bar me from depicting these worldviews favorably. Accordingly, I have deleted a tragic sequence from the ending of the video.

The abridged ending aside, the world has never seen this version — my version — of this video. Due to its violence, Capitol Records subsequently shelved the cut and hired an independent editor to gut the video of its storylines and reconstruct an alternate version from the scraps (viewable on YouTube). Though certainly less offensive than my conception, the version the world knows is, in my opinion, a muddled mess.

Linda Perry

S. A. Blake:  Director, DP, Editor, EP

Tom Whalley phoned to ask if I would shoot a live performance of one of his artists, Linda Perry, at a small park in San Francisco. The micro budget was daunting, but because I had worked with and liked Linda, because Tom was a great client, and because I love a good challenge, I said yes.

My concept was to create a small-scale Woodstock feel, and through extensive crowd interaction evoke a sense of connectedness between artist and audience. So in addition to shooting Linda and her band, we immersed ourselves in the crowd, scoured the myriad of faces, and captured a treasure trove of spontaneous moments ranging from the quirky and humorous to the touching and even somber. We later captured solo performances of Linda in the eccentric world of the Haight-Ashbury District, with she and my handheld camera “dancing” in balletic pas de deux.

In the end, I was happy to deliver Tom a project that, despite having almost no budget and filmed with a skeleton crew, captured the spirit and essence of his artist and her music.

Sister Susie

S. A. Blake:  Director, DP, Editor, EP

The video opens in black-and-white as the artist drifts nomadically along desert railroad tracks. After burying incriminating evidence, he narrates the series of events that drove him into exile. The tale he spins, depicted in dramatic sepia-charred flashbacks, take place in the harsh "dreamland" of Los Angeles. The cast features the inimitable Jimmy Woodard as the pimp, Roy Fegan as the husband, and in the eponymous lead a young actress named Tina Farris that I had chanced to see in a local theater production.

Our "impossibly packed" production schedule comprised mountains of setups in locations stretching from Silverlake to Riverside, but thanks in no small part to First AD Max Day, we nailed it.

Visual sleights of hand were sometimes required to pull the story off: As just one example, the story's climax turns on two fateful gunshots, but at that time MTV had banned the depiction of guns firing and of blood. Solution: We created stylized gun blasts by using radically overexposed bursts of light.

At the end of production, despite getting all of our shots, I had the sense that something was missing – something yet to be captured that would enhance the video. I was aware that the dense two-day shoot had been intensely taxing for Tina, who, as theatre actress, had never been subject to such long hours. On a hunch, I asked her if we could shoot something impromptu as the crew wrapped, just the two of us. She said yes, and we went into a nearby room and closed the door. As she sat on an apple box, I hastily lit her, mounted the camera on my shoulder, and framed a close-up. The air thick with tension, I rolled without a word. I didn't know what to expect, but didn't expect what happened next: In that dense silence, tears of catharsis from the weight of the shoot began to flow from Tina's eyes. Neither of us spoke a word, but by the time I rolled out of film, I knew we had what we needed (see still frame at left).

During editing, I embraced this sublime, deeply intimate, almost invasive imagery; its recurrence throughout the video serves as a raw emotional thread that courses through and underscores the story's tragedy.

Cold World
GZA / Wu Tang Clan

S. A. Blake:  Directorial Consultant, DP, Editor

"Cold World" opens at a crime scene, then flashes back to the dramatic episodes leading up to it. At the heart of the video is a small girl who cowers in her squalid apartment while her mother hits the streets in search of drugs. Alone and frightened in her cold world, the girl's imagination runs wild and fills the apartment with haunting images.

I conceived the look and feel of this volatile, explosive inner city world — a bleak and brutal battlefield of drugs, violence, and murder – as chaotic, disconcerting, and disorienting to the point of being "trippy." This effect was achieved via aggressive editing — i.e., the frenetic intercutting of the present and flashback timelines against sequences of the girl's fantastically terrifying projections.

We filmed in Harlem. The color photography employs a broad palette of exaggerated hues: deep crimsons in the narrative sequences underscore the graphic subject matter, while moody greens illuminate the performance artists. Pulsing blazes of infernal, red light blast in through the bedroom curtains, apocalyptically enveloping the frightened girl (see still frame at left).

"Cold World" sets a personal record for the most edits in a video, with a dizzying 500+ unfolding in about four minutes. But despite the chaotic feel and the relentless intercutting, there is a definite rhythmic flow and logic to the editing which can be gleaned if watched without distraction.

Any Style
Triflin' Pac

S. A. Blake:  Director, DP, Editor

This edgy, black-and-white video was almost completely improvised from start to finish. Our location was a large, uninhabited house in Los Angeles, and we milked it from basement to attic. Apropos of the video's surreal, haunted look, the expressionistic photography features thick diffusion; fiery-hot backlights; pulsating front lights; and explosive lightning flashes. Beam splitters create composited ghostly images in-camera, and slow-motion photography captures the artists in ethereal, otherworldly-feeling performances.

Side note: I don't think I've ever had more fun in the cutting room: Editing sequences like the rhapsodic pool table performance, though intricate and painstaking, was a sheer blast.

No Brothers Allowed
No Face

S. A. Blake:  Director, DP, Editor

This was one of two videos Interscope asked me to direct in New York for the group No Face. The song brims with wry hyperbole and urban tongue-in-cheek wit as it addresses a serious subject. Accordingly, the video juxtaposes pathos and humor to depict a segregated world in which people experience radically different realities — and destinies — based on race.

Conceptualized as an exaggerated, cartoon-esque world, each scene — including "interiors" such as a banker's office, jazz club, and living room — was staged on gritty urban streets and sidewalks, and blocked as if taking place on a three-wall set. Once again, my team delivered on a monstrous shot list.

The black-and-white photography is strenuously unsensational: Exterior "sets" were simply lit, as if from a small theatrical grid. To enhance a series of street-level, fish-eye P.O.V. shots of racist characters looking scornfully down at their victim, sheets of dark gel were sliced up and mounted in front of the lens, creating jagged vignettes that reflect the assailants' distorted perspectives (see still frame at left).

Situation Grimm
Mista Grimm

S. A. Blake:  Director, DP, Editor

This song is from the soundtrack to the motion picture Higher Learning. Inspired by the movie's themes, the video is set on a stylized, post-apocalyptic college campus, the explosive aftermath of violent racist extremism.

Filmed on the campus of Los Angeles City College, the visual elements include emergency flares, blazing fire barrels, sweeping xenon searchlights, recurring lightning flashes, and deep shadows. Fitful light sources pulsate and fluctuate, and in the case of the interior classroom scenes ripple unstably as if nuclear. Several performances were captured in slow-motion. Most of the edits are on the beat rather than syncopated, as demanded by the song's distinct backbeats.

Stephen Ashley Blake