Meet Jacob Niedzwiecki

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Jacob Niedzwiecki has worn many hats over the course of his career. Among them: Film-maker, Choreographer and Creative Technologist. All of those passions came together in the creation of Buck 65‘s Who By Fire video.
Credit to our own Holly Thomas for photos

The video – a collaborative effort with Director of Production James Sainthill – premiered as part of the 2013 Dance On Camera Film Festival at the Film Society of Lincoln Center. We got a chance to ask Jacob some questions about the process, challenges and accomplishments involved in putting this piece together.

Describe the planning and concepting that went into this video.

I probably did more advance work on this project than I have ever done. I knew it would take a lot of experimentation to find the right location (both aesthetically and practically — we needed somewhere with an overlook as we didn’t have a crane). Because the concept is essentially algorithmic, I also wanted to make sure I took time to explore different parameters and combinations. And finally, it was a weird enough idea that I knew it would take animated, visual concept pieces to pitch Much and my collaborators. So I did two animated renders — the first with Processing, just animated geometric shapes, then the second with a walk cycle animated through (I think) Poser. And then four studies where I just walked every part and composited to test out locations and rhythms. I calculated that I walked three CN Towers’ worth of stairs just on the concepts…you can see them at http://jacob-n.com/works/who-by-fire.
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How important was collaboration to this video?

As always, collaboration was massively important. And the concepts demonstrate it so clearly — with just me involved, it’s stuck in sketchy, animated territory. With James Sainthill (my DoP), and the performers and crew, I think we achieved something remarkable in a day of work together.

 

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The song itself is a juxtaposition of the classic (Cohen’s song) vs modern, digital sound. What role did that play in the way the video was shot?

The song seemed to call out for a degree of restraint, which is not something one normally associates with music videos. But it is a litany — it’s actually based on a Jewish text that is just a list of causes of death — so it felt like rather than telling a story or creating visual novelty, the right thing to do was set up an intriguing, almost clockwork system, and then unwind it all the way to the inevitable end.
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Describe the app, and the role it played in the video?

We actually used an app called RjDj, which functioned as an iOS host for the Pure Data audio framework. This app has now been discontinued (as the clever people behind it have moved on to incredibly nifty movie tie-in soundtrack apps), but if you’re interested, they very graciously open-sourced most of the code for it as pdlib. RjDj let us host a micro-app using Pure Data that contained fifteen different audio tracks (one for each performer) and let us trigger all those tracks over WiFi, on different devices, in perfect sync. I’ve kept developing this idea since, and actually used a custom native iOS app based on this work for my recent show Jacqueries. I’m hoping to release this app soon for use by other artists.
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What was the dancers’ reaction to the app? How well-received was it?

They saw the need for it and the problem it solved, but anytime you introduce experimental technology into a production process you’re going to get things going wrong, and we had some good laughs on set. The important thing is to do as much advance testing as possible and to have fallbacks and contingency plans in place.

 

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Can you see this as being a more regularly used part of video shoots and choreography in the future?

I think so. The ability to create a shared soundscape over headphones that can be customized to individual performers or audience members, while remaining in sync, is really powerful. That said, it was a complex response to a complex problem (lots of different audio tracks starting at the exact same time), and there are simpler responses that are appropriate in other situations (multichannel radio, PA, visual cueing, manual mp3 ‘sync starts’, etc)

 

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What was the go-to gear in the shoot?

We had about four DSLRs, mostly Canons, and a nice Panasonic broadcast camera. Vistek kindly lent us a lovely Manfrotto fluid-head tripod. After finding it pretty quiet on our advance scout, we showed up to the location and discovered hugely increased security because of an NFL game the same weekend. So we travelled pretty light and shot guerrilla-style. The SLRs and natural light worked to our favour as they kept it from feeling too much like a film shoot and arousing the interest of the authorities. I would like to give some credit to my sneakers as I was climbing up walls for our aerial master shot.

 

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Texture plays a major role in the final product. What equipment was used to really bring that out

We couldn’t afford to get too fussy with lighting and lens choices, so we framed carefully (avoiding NFL iconography, blue sky, and network broadcast trailers) and I spent quite a while on the lab pass for the film. We worked through a number of different looks, but in the end warming up and saturating the midtones while cooling off the highlights was the basic look. So the greys almost take on the warm feeling that you’d normally associate with skin, and the flesh tones desaturate. Even basic Canon lenses give good detail, and mastering for web leaves you quite a lot of room to play with subtle sharpening & textural adjustments.

MUCHFact is all about innovation on a budget. What were some of this video’s challenges, budget-wise?

My principle for low-budget work is to focus on finding the right people and paying them as much as you can, and then sorting out what you can afford for gear with what’s left. I think on a low-budget project you will always get more value out of the best people than out of equipment. In my experience if your concept is strong and original and your shoot plan is clear and well-organized you can usually get talented people interested, and if you can pay them reasonably, you will get amazing work in return.
With fifteen people in the cast, we had to mount a very fast shoot (a half-day rehearsal and a half-day shoot) and had very little cash left over for gear. James heroically managed to pull together three cameras, and I think we borrowed another two.
And that’s where all the concept work became vital, because we could plan exactly what we needed to do and not worry about experimenting with eighteen people standing around. A higher budget gives you more latitude as a director to chase the happy accidents that happen while you’re shooting, or the inspiration that only hits when you’re rolling on location; working on a web budget means you have to shift those moments to earlier in the process. The creative play, the experimentation, has to happen — but it all has to get done long before you hit the set. It’s also important to only chase your most kickass concepts, and to think about how you’re going to pitch them to your funders and collaborators before you even hit pre-production.

For more information on the video, including behind the scenes and concept videos visit Jacob’s website If you want to keep up with Jacob’s day to day or if you just want to say hello, you can find him on twitter @jakemoves

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