The Making of Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon
It’s just past noon on a cold Saturday afternoon in Waltham, Massachusetts. Light floods through the glass windows around the front foyer of Schwartz Hall at Brandeis University. Rachel Millman is talking to the Brandeis VoiceMale who have just finished warming up. “When you get home this afternoon,” she says, “I want you to all look me up and friend me on Facebook.” Rachel appears at ease and a little playful. But the hard work is yet to come. In just a few minutes, she and VoiceMale will head inside the theater to start shooting takes for her new music video Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon.
Denise Marsa, the president of KeyMedia Public Relations and executive producer of the video, was responsible for bringing Rachel Millman and the Brandeis VoiceMale together around the song Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon. The song was written by Jim Dyke, Marc Nelkin and Eric Sanicola. Denise met Jim in London a number of years back. The song was written in 2005, but when Denise started working with Rachel, it clicked. She called Jim on the phone and said, “hey remember that song you played me a few years ago about the moon? I think I just found the perfect voice for it!”
I asked Denise about how that led to an a cappella remix and she continues, “I was having a phone meeting with a PR associate, Lauren Busch Singer, and we were discussing remixes. Typically remixes in the music business are dance remixes. The idea just popped into my head as I was talking, and when I shared it with a few more folks the general opinion was…very cool idea. Since the song features a 6/8 time signature and the melody is so strong, I thought it might work and be interesting enough with voices only.”
I became involved with the project this fall after meeting Denise in Boston during one of her trips here. I had been blogging for about a year about Nicole Berke – another artist that is working with Denise. And so, over drinks in the lobby of a hotel in downtown Boston, we found some synergy in what we were both doing. As Denise puts it, “we realized that our shared enthusiasm for music and helping new artists was a common bond.”
It was a long road to the shoot at Brandeis, however. Concepts and synergies are one thing, but making videos requires specifics: a score, a film crew, location scouting to name a few. So I got busy on finding locations and a film crew while Denise worked on the music. There is a lot of behind the scene preparation involved in putting this kind of shoot together. I asked Denise to tell me a little about how she prepared.
“We created an itinerary and sent it to everyone in advance so that all parties knew who was doing what and exactly what was going to happen during the 3-4 hours we allocated for the filming and for the promo photos.”
The goal of the video is obviously to increase awareness in Rachel Millman and her debut single, Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon. As Denise puts it, “Our goal from the outset was to create an entertaining and fun music video centered (literally) around singing. The video really captures the joy of singing…the way performers feel when their voices are being heard and they are resonating together as one. Creating harmony is very gratifying. Also, collaboration is very powerful, and you can see the power of connecting as Rachel and the boys are working on the set. They met for the first time the day we filmed the video…their chemistry was natural and infectious.”
Rachel agrees, “I knew from the start I wanted it to be as much fun as possible, and I think it was just that. I definitely practiced “Throwin’ Rocks” a lot more than ever. Around the same time as the shoot, I did my first ever live show at The Duplex in New York City, so I was singing a lot more than I had been in order to prepare properly. I sang along with the tracks that the boys did, also, in order to prepare myself for how it would sound to sing with them. It was really different to hear the a cappella version versus the original – different but very cool!”
But there were other motivations to the project. For Denise, it was a chance to “build alliances with like-minded people in the Boston area.” To that end, my involvement and that of Michael Murie became a secondary goal. We are all music junkies in different mediums. Denise promotes, writes and performs. I blog, photograph and perform. Michael blogs, interviews and shoots video. We all love music and promote and encourage talent in our own ways.
Recording and Arranging the Song
Rachel Millman had already recorded a studio version of Throwin’ Rocks at the Moon when Denise decided to do an a cappella remix. Denise had seen the Brandeis VoiceMale perform and had met Jared Greenberg, the music director, several times. Denise focuses her agency on producing and mentoring young talent and she was already interested in VoiceMale.
“I felt that it was a great opportunity for a talented group of college students,” Denise explains. “I wanted to give Jared the opportunity to write an amazing arrangement, and he did just that! When Rachel and I first heard it, we were really moved. Hearing a song one way so many times, and then hearing it in a whole new light is very inspiring.”
Nevertheless, that inspiration took a lot of hard work on the part of Jared Greenberg. I had heard both versions as well and was very curious as to how he came up with arrangement. His description of the process just goes to show you how much work there is behind what looks like such an effortless performance by the Brandeis VoiceMale. It took about three weeks to develop, rehearse and record the arrangement. Jared knows his performers well, so he had an idea of who would sing various parts of the final arrangement. However, getting the arrangement right involved a lot of detailed work and a bit of music theory.
I started arranging the piece with a chord chart and lyrics sitting up on top of the piano, trying to get a feel for Rachel’s song. I played chords in different inversions and rhythms while singing the solo line. When I found a different inversions and rhythms that I liked, I then took the chords and layered them among the different voice parts that each member would cover with my knowledge of everyone’s range and blending ability. The rhythm that I assigned was designed to give a similar feel to the guitar strumming in the original track. This chord section was the basic sound for the song. For the remaining members without parts, I listened to the track and picked out little instrumental lines that were heard on top of the guitar strumming and I made my own little variations on what I heard and assigned the parts based on the voice quality of the remaining members. Because I knew we were going to make a live music video, I made sure that every important part was covered at all times so that we could have a solid live version. Finally, to add my own touch to the arrangement, in the bridge section and the musical interlude after the bridge, I created parts based on earlier themes in the song and I asked Dotan Horowitz to throw a few riffs in to cover the interesting guitar part in the original.
With the VoiceMale recording in Denise’s hands, it was now time to add Rachel Millman and do some fine-tuning. Denise is no stranger to the recording and editing process and she and Andy Gabrys took the tracks and went to work. They made relatively few changes to the material that VoiceMale had provided – just some tweaks to the bass and drum parts. But using those tracks, Denise and Andy had the unusual and intense challenge of deciding where in the overall mix to position each individual voice.
I ask her about that, and she explains how she produced the mix. “It was really a challenging mix and I worked hours on it- as did Andy. I actually placed voices in certain places- as they sounded different depending on where they were positioned- perhaps on the left as opposed to the right…or center. You have the entire spectrum of stereo to place things and you have depth as well (volume). I had to also mix with headphones…and with and without Rachel’s voice. Once we had the boys where we felt good, we brought her voice in and then made additional moves. It was the most intensive mixing process I’ve ever been involved with.”
Setting Up For The Shoot
An early season storm had brought snow to the Boston area. I arrived early at Brandeis. I found the theater quickly, although I was convinced I was driving on the sidewalk as I drove in to the parking lot out front. The students milling about didn’t give me a second look, though, and I went inside Schwartz Hall to have a look.
Although the foyer was bright and sunny, the theater itself was pretty dark. I turned on all the lights I could find but that didn’t help much. We were clearly going to need some extra lights for the shoot. The rest of the crew soon arrived and we decided to shoot the video in the seating area in front of the stage. The stage itself seemed too formal for what we were trying to do. So everyone chipped in and moved all the folding chairs to the sides. Michael Murie, who was the videographer, and I paid special attention to sight-lines. When you are shooting, especially from all angles, you don’t want anything unexpected to appear in the shot and sometimes you don’t notice it until you are looking at the playback later. For a shoot like this, we couldn’t take that chance. Anything that could be distracting, whether it was a table, a folding chair, or just someone’s personal effects had to be moved so it wouldn’t show up in the final video. After the space was cleared, Michael and his crew started setting up cameras, audio equipment and thankfully, lights. By this time, all of the members of VoiceMale had arrived, gotten changed into their clothes for the shoot and were warming up in the foyer. I ducked out to take some pictures while the setup progressed.
The ensemble finally got a chance to rehearse together after we had finished the setup. Mike wanted to shoot some stock and more casual footage and so we didn’t record those takes. Jared Greenberg was able to make some final tweaks after consulting with Denise on the arrangement . He called for some adjustments to the dynamics of the singers as well. These consisted of things like emphasizing the crescendo in a certain section, or coaching one of the performers about how loud to sing the solo melody line in the bridge. After running through the song a few times, we took a short break.
Finding Common Ground
Rachel and the guys were pretty comfortable at this point and spent a lot of that time joking around and talking about music.
“Who are your favorite singers?” one of the VoiceMale members asks.
Rachel answers using just first names.
“Céline, Beyoncé, Christina…” she goes on. They know, of course, exactly who she’s talking about and they are all soon comparing notes on these stars. I ask her about her top five favorites later.
“For me, the ultimate vocalist is Céline Dion. I have admired her talent since I was a little girl. I remember seeing her in Las Vegas when I was 17 and I swear my mouth was on the floor the entire show. I am in awe of her vocal ability – she does no wrong in my book! And in no particular order, the rest would be Beyoncé, Christina Aguilera, Linda Eder and Idina Menzel. Beyonce and Christina really capture my love for pop vocalists and the style in which they sing. Both of these women have amazing range and pureness to their sound; you can recognize their voices anywhere and I think that marks a truly outstanding vocalist.”
Rachel then starts talking about her experiences with Broadway shows. “Linda and Idina come as a part of my undying love for Broadway. I started seeing shows when I was 5. I can’t imagine my life without Broadway, and these two women have paved the way for Broadway vocalists in my opinion. Linda Eder’s rendition of Man of la Mancha (I, Don Quixote) is one that everyone should listen to. It’s just out of this world…she kills it! My love affair with Idina started when I saw her in Rent over 10 years ago. Since then I had the privilege of seeing her twice as Elphaba in “Wicked,” which was probably the 3rd time in my life I sat through a performance with my jaw on the floor in awe. All of these women, however, really define for me what an amazing vocalist is and I look up to each of them immensely.”
It was clear there was chemistry between Rachel and VoiceMale from the start. They were comfortable together and found a lot of common ground when comparing notes about singing, performing and music. I asked Rachel how she felt about working with VoiceMale. She gushes. “I absolutely LOVED working with these boys. We had so much fun!!! It was great that we were able to feel so comfortable with each other and goof around in between takes; yet when it came down to business and singing, they were always so professional. I especially enjoyed watching them work with each other; they are really in tune with one another and it was really cool to see that.”
Jared agrees. He points out that he’s usually concerned with getting the most from his performers and that they don’t get the chance to work with other artists very often. “The experience was a different side of the a cappella spectrum and we enjoyed it very much. It was also interesting for members of an all-male a cappella group to work with a female artist because her solo covered a range of notes that we do not hear in our regular work. Rachel was so much fun to work with because she was very down-to-earth and she made us feel very comfortable from the start. For those of us who have done relatively little work performing for the camera she just told us to just relax and have fun with it and we did just as she said. It was an experience like none that we have gotten so far this year and it would be nice to do more projects like this.”
We weren’t sure if we’d use the audio from the performance we were shooting, or synchronize the performance to the studio version. That presented a problem – each take needed to have the same tempo as the studio recording. To accomplish this, we gave Doug Freidman an MP3 player and earbud. Since his role was percussion, he’d set the tempo for the song and keep everyone on time.
Before we start shooting, Michael and I have a quick conversation about the setup. There were two lights at 45 degree angles to provide even lighting across all the performers. However, since they were standing in a semi-circle, some of the performers had shadows thrown across them by others. We made some adjustments to the positions of the guys to compensate. Michael had asked me to run a camera during the shoot. I couldn’t take pictures anyway, because the noise from my camera might register on the audio track, so I got some instructions from Michael about what he was looking for and we were ready. Almost.
For Denise, putting the performers at ease and giving them confidence is a big part of the process. She insists on mirror time. It’s a chance for everyone to comb their hair, adjust their clothes and see how they look. If they don’t feel they are looking their best, they’re going to be distracted from what they are there to do, and that’s to sing.
With the break and mirror time over, it’s time to shoot. There are six cameras trained on the group as they perform the song. Most are stationary – mounted on tripods, although there are live operators on three of these.
Mike gets the hardest, and the most fun task. He’s walking around with the camera to get live pans and other angles and shots that can’t be done from a stationary platform. There is a procedure to all of this. First, getting audio ready and recording, then getting all the cameras running. Snap the clapboard, then let Doug lead into the song as he has a tempo reference playing in his ear.
The first take is good, really good. As with all live performances, there are a few tweaks that Denise wants to make. In hindsight, that first take probably turned out to be the best even without her adjustments, but we decide to do the whole song three times with that staging.
The second and third takes are great too – there was never a fatal mistake. But since I’m running a video camera now, I can’t concentrate as much on the music, the voices. I am concentrating on the viewfinder.
After the second take, Denise calls a short break. She wants Rachel to hear the recorded mix to get a feeling for how it sounds. She sits down to review the sound and then calls Rachel over to hear the mix.
This is an important part of the process for Denise, and I asked her later what she did to motivate the performers during the shoot.
“Providing support, direction and encouragement during the shooting lifts everyone’s spirit and performance. The more professional the process, the better the results…and I like letting everyone know they have their responsibilities and we are all accountable for our work. We allowed time for all the performers to warm up their voices and go over their parts. Feedback is important as well. I like to give constructive suggestions throughout the process so that the talent can tweak their performances and get better with each take. Letting the performers look at bits of prior takes or asking Rachel to come over and listen to a take in the headphones helps them to understand what adjustments they need to make. ”
After the three takes, we had all the versions we wanted with the associated audio tracks. We then rearranged the group in a circle and did a few more takes. These were recorded as well, but we didn’t expect to use any of the audio.
The Photo Shoot
With the video shoot completed, we moved the performers out to the lobby again for some promotional photos. It was mid-afternoon by this time, and the light was fading, but the foyer of the theater had floor to ceiling glass windows, so there was still plenty of light to shoot by. We arranged the group in several different positions and I concentrated on getting them relaxed. For a shoot like this, everyone should feel comfortable and look happy, or at least just north of neutral. The pose that worked best was a chevron with the VoiceMale forming the arms and Rachel at the point. It produced this photo, which is currently being used to promote the video.
Since you only have one chance to get everyone together for a shoot like this, we took a bunch of other photographs. Another favorite was the “tough-guy chevron”. We asked everyone to get a little attitude and I snapped away.
After I had enough shots of the ensemble, I let them joke around and took some more candid photographs. It’s important to encapsulate the experiences that these fine young performers had on this day. They had fun and were comfortable together and that made for a great performance. They also bonded together on that afternoon. They were all under pressure to perform and that forged a connection that shows when they were more relaxed.
A lot of hard work followed the shoot. The hardest, perhaps, fell on the shoulders of Michael Murie. He had the task of sifting through six cameras worth of video from all of the takes to assemble the final piece. We decided early on to not use the audio from the sessions in the theater. The studio recording was so good and had been meticulously produced by Denise that we went with that version. The hardest part of editing the video was synchronizing the action from the shoot with the audio. Thankfully, the tempo was the same. This was not an attempt to post-produce a lip-synced version. Rather, it was to showcase the performers and the song.
At the same time, I had literally hundreds of photographs to sort through and process. After a first sort through, I had almost 200 photographs that were well exposed and captured the events of the day. I culled that down to 125 or so and sent them to Denise and Rachel for their input. We finally selected around thirty as being the keepers and many of them are included here in this piece.
Final Thoughts from Denise
I caught up with Denise Marsa after the shoot to ask a few more questions about it. Since she has done a lot of studio work, I wanted to know what was different about the process of shooting a video. She finds it very similar. As she tell it, “I put all the pieces and budget together. I’m focused on the direction, the players, all things functioning correctly in the studio, making sure everyone is on board with the goals of the song or the session, and bringing out the best in all the talent involved. My role is to capture the best performance both technically and artistically, so it’s important that I set the tone and specify the priorities for each take. I find that when people are inspired to do their best, things move faster and more smoothly. Providing confidence and appreciating people are high on my list of priorities. Finding the take that is the “foundation” from which to build is also imperative.”
Communication, imagination, optimism and authenticity are always crucial for the success of any projects with which I am involved. I always tell talent that I mentor, “Be 100% comfortable with who you are and where you are.” That is evident when you watch this piece. Everyone is where they are…and they seem pleased to be at that exact place at that exact moment.
It’s another cold New England evening, a Sunday, and I’m at Toad watching another of Denise Marsa’s performers, Nicole Berke, playing her heart out to an adoring crowd. As I’m talking to people in the audience, someone points me towards Jim Dyke. Denise had mentioned that he might be in town. He is the man who co-wrote Throwin’ Rock at the Moon. So I introduced myself and we got to talking about music and songwriting. He lives in New York and is still writing music professionally. We agree that writing songs is easiest when you are feeling what you are writing. I asked him how he came up with the song. “Well, I had just broken it off with someone. I was writing music feeling down and looking for a concept that expressed how I felt. It just came to me – throwing rocks at the moon.”