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Friday, 12 October 2012 13:35

“Jesse James” Music Video Brings to Life the Old West

Written by  Gordon Meyer
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web_pro_musicvideoproduction_thadd-directing-train-sequence-2Filmmaker Thadd Turner has a special affinity for the Old West, having acted in, written, directed and/or produced dozens of films and videos with a Western theme. So it was a dream come true when Clay Walker, a platinum-selling country artist for the Asylum-Curb record label, recorded the album She Won’t Be Lonely Long. Released last month, the album includes the song “Jesse James,” about a good man who fantasizes about being a bad boy in the Old West — and when Walker and his record company decided to produce the music video, Turner was a natural choice to write and direct the project.

Their Western-themed collaboration involved a few challenges, such as a low seven-figure budget that would be a fraction of what comparable videos cost these days. But, according to Turner, that was just the beginning. In addition to the tight budget, he was approached to take the project on with only three weeks of prep time before production — and he had less than two days to actually shoot it. Turner quickly fleshed out some of Walker’s ideas about how to illustrate his song, and he crafted a treatment for the record executives to approve. He and his team then jumped right into preproduction, even though final confirmation from the record label wouldn’t come until less than a week before the scheduled shoot.

Since Walker wanted the video to be set in the Old West, they shot exteriors at the Bonanza Creek Movie Ranch outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, which was previously home to productions for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Silverado, Cowboys and Aliens and 3:10 to Yuma. And as soon as Cinematographer Paolo Cascio saw the place, he knew it was going to be special. “Just showing up there to scout this ranch, my jaw literally dropped,” recalls the DP. “I felt like a little kid just seeing Disneyland for the first time. You couldn’t ask for a more beautiful venue to shoot in.” Cascio and Turner first met eight years ago at the Golden Boot Awards in Studio City. They instantly hit it off and had been looking for a mutual project to work on ever since. “I had been waiting my whole career to be able to do something like this,” says Cascio. Before the video shoot, Walker invited Cascio to hear his music at a concert in San Diego. “When I heard [‘Jesse James’], it reminded me of ‘Born to Run’ by Bruce Springsteen,” the DP enthuses. “It gave me goosebumps.”

web_pro_musicvideoproduction_girls-on-trainDuring the “Jesse James” video, the limited production schedule and resources made for a challenging shoot. Cascio shot primarily with a Sony EX3. “I use that camera a lot and it’s served me very well over the years,” says Cascio. “It has a very easy work flow. I also used my Canon 5D Mark II DSLR as a second camera for very specific shots. In fact, I did the opening shot of the video on my 5D with a Canon L-Series 100–400mm lens. It enabled me to capture that long-lens perspective. It also helped me for the opening sequence, which was shot inside of an old pickup truck out in the open road without a lot of room in it.”

While the video isn’t scheduled for release until mid-October, I had the opportunity to watch a rough cut with Turner and Cascio at Kappa Studios, a full-service postproduction facility in Burbank. One of the things that stood out was an antique railroad steam engine that the filmmakers used as a backdrop for several key scenes. The engine was adjacent to a museum in nearby Madrid, New Mexico, which featured an old-fashioned, music-hall-type theater, and the doors at the rear of the stage actually opened to reveal the front of the steam engine. “I thought we were going to have to go hundreds of miles away to find a steam engine,” recalls Cascio. “We really hit a home run finding the train in Madrid."

According to Cascio, the train had been a tourist attraction since 1964. He and Turner created some striking visuals by having Walker on stage with the train prominently in the background, and he was surrounded by a bevy of dance hall girls played by members of the New Orleans Saints cheerleading squad. The train had a working headlight that Cascio was able to turn on for the shots in which Walker was on stage with the girls. He also shot Walker performing on the side of the steam engine with his whole band. The train was lit with some 1200-watt HMI lamps, and Cascio used a smoke machine to enhance his backlighting of the train. “I used a lot of tungsten and HMI lighting because I felt that the warmer tones from the tungsten added to the vintage nature of what we were shooting,” notes the DP. “I used the HMI to put a little edge light on the locomotive and to backlight the smoke.”

Unfortunately, the crew didn’t have a generator available to them, and, although they were assured that they’d have all the power they needed at the location, that claim proved to be less than accurate. They kept blowing the biggest lights needed for what Turner refers to as his “killer shot.” Ultimately, the shot looked so good that the record company had everyone freeze in place so they could take the picture that became the album’s cover. “Finally we were able to keep the lights for a 50-minute stretch, which was on long enough to get the shots we needed,” says Turner.

An important part of the video’s look came from the costumes, which were designed and made by the director’s wife Cynthia Turner. “Her costumes, especially the dresses worn by the dance hall girls, essentially became an important set decoration,” says Thadd Turner. “To be honest, I had never really used wardrobe as a set decoration before, but, in this case, it paid off in spades. She built those costumes over a two-week period and kept showing them to me but I had no idea how remarkable they were going to be until she put the girls into them. Everybody’s jaws dropped when they saw these costumes.”

In spite of the abbreviated lead time and two-day shooting schedule, Turner and Cascio are proud about how every element came together for a smooth production, despite the inevitable location glitches. They say that Walker and the Asylum-Curb folks are all thrilled with the quality of the production, which looks like it costs at least three or four times its actual shoot budget. The “Jesse James” video is expected to be out by press time.
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