From Notes to Frames: Maxi Curnow's Masterclass on Melding Music and Film
We recently sat down with Maxi Curnow, a renowned composer, music producer, and filmmaker, to delve into the intricacies of combining every step of the production process to attain extraordinary results, particularly when it comes to creating visuals for your music.
"I’ve been an obsessive musician, composer, and producer since I can remember, and when it came to putting my music out into the world, for me it always felt like only half of the story. When I began cutting footage to my music, particularly with a theme that syncs with the lyrics, the piece as a whole began to emerge. Music and video can be intrinsically linked, and for some musicians can become the ultimate storytelling medium.
The fact that I largely taught myself filmmaking has been immensely beneficial. As a musician, you'll find that your innate sense of timing, dynamics, tone, and pacing is directly transferable to crafting music videos. It’s one thing to cut to beats, another to know which ones, where to linger, where to place things. My advice to someone starting? Don’t be intimidated. Jump in with what you can afford (I’ll make a list of lenses and cameras at different price points below) and get started fearlessly, because you already know more than you think you do because of your musical understanding… Here we will discuss the best ways of doing it yourself, and also some groundwork so that you know how to best work with other filmmakers should you decide to hand the responsibility over. A good collaboration will always yield the best results for your vision.
A topic close to my heart is the creation of distinctive and character-rich visuals. Tools like iPhones and DSLRs have their merit, especially for practical shoots like interviews, reviews, etc. However modern clinical footage often misses capturing the emotional essence of a song. There's an argument for the use of lens filters and post-production adjustments to elevate such footage. But just as I prefer recording real drums over programming them, I lean towards a mix of vintage and modern techniques to infuse my work with personality. That’s why I often pair a modern camera with a vintage lens.
The age-old analog/digital flavour in the pro audio world? Exactly the same when it comes to visuals. A vintage, characterful lens in front of a modern 6k rig is exactly the same premise as a tube mic or analog hardware going into Pro Tools. Both industries will trick us into buying clean, “accurate” gear, however, as we can see from emulation plugins to film filters in video editing software - our eyes and ears are drawn more to imperfection and mojo!
Now to understand all cameras we need to have a grasp on some basic principles and vocabulary that I will list below. I will also include a quick start guide that you can skip to:
Understanding the Exposure Triangle:
Diving a little deeper, one fundamental concept that budding filmmakers should acquaint themselves with is the Exposure Triangle. Comprising of ISO, Shutter Speed, and Aperture, it's the holy trinity that governs how light is captured in your camera.
- ISO: This refers to the sensitivity of your camera's sensor to light. A low ISO value (e.g., 100 or 200) means low sensitivity to light and is best for brightly lit scenes. A higher ISO value (like 800, 1600, or higher) will be more sensitive to light, suitable for low-light conditions, but may produce noise in the image.
- Shutter Speed (FPS): This dictates how long your camera's sensor will be exposed to light. It's usually measured in fractions of a second, or “Shutter Angle”. A faster shutter speed (like 1/500) captures rapidly moving subjects with clarity, while a slower shutter speed (like 1/30) can result in motion blur, giving a sense of movement.
- Aperture: Often referred to as f-stop, it controls the size of the lens's diaphragm opening, allowing more or less light into the camera. A lower f-number (e.g., f/2.8) means a wider opening, letting in more light and providing a shallow depth of field, while a higher f-number (e.g., f/16) provides a deeper depth of field but allows less light in.
Each component of the Exposure Triangle impacts the other. Understanding the balance between them is key to achieving the desired visual effect in different lighting situations.
Frame rate: FPS (frames per second) also plays a part in all this. FPS refers to the number of individual images or "frames" that are displayed or captured in one second of video or film. Understanding FPS is crucial as it greatly influences how motion is perceived in a video. This affects how we perceive motion and plays a part in Slow-Motion footage which uses high FPS, whereas for the “Film” look, you want to stick around 24 as the standard.
White Balance: At its core, white balance is about ensuring that what your eye perceives as white in a particular lighting condition is also captured as white by your camera. Different light sources emit different colors (or temperatures) of light. For instance, incandescent bulbs produce a warm, orangey glow, while overcast skies can give a cool, bluish tint. If the camera isn't adjusted for these variations, images can have an unwanted color cast.
Bokeh (pronounced "boh-kay" or "boh-kuh") is a term derived from the Japanese word "boke" which means "blur" or "haze". In the context of photography and cinematography, bokeh refers to the aesthetic quality of the out-of-focus areas in an image, particularly the way a lens renders points of light in those areas. Look out for it in films, distant light sources will have a hexagonal look, rounded look (wide open), or oval look (anamorphic lens)! Shooting the lens “wide Open” (fastest aperture setting) will render a round, pretty look with the highest background separation.
Quick Start Guide:
If you're feeling overwhelmed, don’t fret. Here’s a step-by-step guide to simplify things, so that only a couple of variables need to change per shoot.
Once you are set up, you only need to focus on two parameters: White Balance and NDs.
I'll base this guide on my top recommendation: the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera 6k Pro. If you have a different camera, a quick Google search about its "Native ISO" will help you adjust the recommended range based on lighting scenarios.
With a Pocket 6k, here’s how to get started with a film look:
- FPS to 24 and Shutter to 180
- ISO to 400 in daytime (or 1200 if it’s very dark)
- Lens aperture: A good standard is 2.8 - however if you want to shoot “Wide Open” - there are lots of desirable attributes associated to this way of filming, although focus is often softer and more difficult to nail sometimes. However, it looks stunning and will bring out the character of the lens!
- White Balance: Wherever you are shooting, take a white piece of paper, point the camera at it, and press/hold the “WB” white balance button to set it automatically.
- ND filters: These are basically sunglasses for your camera. The great thing about these is that you can control your exposure without fiddling with the ISO and aperture - both of which make an impact on the look.
Visual Aids - Now let's talk exposure. Guessing this while looking at an unfamiliar monitor is not easy! But we have visual aids - as we would with clipping in a DAW. Set the “Zebra” level to 70-95% in “Monitor” settings. When you are overexposed, you will see zebra stripes. To remedy this without messing with your exposure triangle, use the built in ND filters (or lens-attached filter) to tame the light being allowed into the sensor until the stripes are gone. Other tools like graphs and false colour can also assist.
That’s enough to get you started. Next, let's talk about lenses (My favourite topic!).
A note on lens sharpness. People get way too hooked on these two, assuming that sharper, higher-res is better -i.e. modern = better. In actual fact, it’s what makes so much content look digital and “video” like. For the FILM look, softness can lend itself to that look, people sometimes go so far as to put filters in front of the lens to take the edge off! That being said, modern cameras are important to future-proof and get a balance. You want a 4k minimum camera ideally (6k can offer excellent flexibility when cropping in post) but to take off that digital edge, you want to look at vintage lens choices.
Again you have a choice between modern, automatic, clean, and clinical - or vibey, interesting, characterful but manual. A modern lens will render life accurately, but that’s not necessarily the best way to achieve art. Think of Vincent van Gogh - he moved away from accurate realism in order to enhance his surroundings. IMO, that’s one thing that vintage glass can do for you. For starters, 50mm focal length lenses are often cheaper as there are so many out there (it’s the “real to life” focal length on a Full Frame Sensor) - expect it to be cropped in on a Pocket 6k though. I love a “nifty fifty”, if you’re getting started with vintage lenses and want to check the vibe, this is a good way to go.
In my comparisons, I used a challenging natural shooting environment to show you what the lenses are capable of.
Here are some affordable vintage lenses to consider, some are very popular, some lesser known:
- Helios 44-2 2/58 - (KMZ is the best type) - You’ll find this all over Youtube. Swirly Bokeh is a very characterful look with massive flaring. Very sharp if you get a good one. It’s a fan favourite and will cost you £50 upwards, what’s not to like?
- MC Helios 77M-4 50mm f/1.8 - Similar to the 44-2 but a bit faster and cleaner
- Takumar 1.4/50 Super-Multi-Coated - a faster, pastel look that is smooth and creamy - I love this lens and it was one of my first. Sharp. The build quality is amazing and it shoots like a dream, with incredibly rich colours.
- Canon FD Set (not in the comparison) - Legendary look, similar to that of the film “Her” which is one of my favourites. Creamy and smooth rendering with beautiful bokeh
- Contax Zeiss 50mm f/1.4 MMJ - Most modern and “clinical” of the lot, so highly versatile for many shoots - it’s very contrasty and has a renowned 3D “pop”, with a cooler cast than the rest.
I have also included other focal lengths to loom at - a couple of 80/85mm lenses (Jupiter-9 and Mamiya) and 35/37mm lenses, MIR vs. CZ.
Lastly, you can see the modern Sigma lens, arguably the best and most versatile modern autofocus lens here - although I will say that mine has a special look due to the anamorphic mod I made to it, which is another option to make modern lenses have more character.
Equipment that I recommend:
Blackmagic Davinci Resolve offers exceptional free video editing software. Familiarize yourself with it using phone footage. Initially, it might seem daunting, but you'll soon find a rhythm. It's not too different from a DAW (Digital Audio Workstation). Now the footage we want to capture for the best results is RAW. Raw comes out looking grey and uninteresting because it gives us the most flexibility in post. Blackmagic gear also has the benefit of BRAW, a new type of RAW that allows you to adjust camera settings AFTER the fact. For beginners, this is a lifesaver…
In the realm of cameras, two paradigms exist. Modern DSLRs, often fully automatic, make things effortless. Renowned models like Sony A7siii (or its more economical counterpart Sony ZV-E1) and other brands like Panasonic, Canon, and Nikon provide amenities like built-in image stabilization, autofocus, and flip screens. They offer a user-friendly introduction to the world of filming. Still, I personally gravitate towards fully manual devices because the character and uniqueness of the captured footage are unparalleled. The challenge, in this case, is well worth the reward. You can still merge both worlds by fitting a DSLR with a vintage lens.
Now the camera I will recommend and talk about for best images vs. price is the Blackmagic Pocket 6k Pro Cinema Camera - Used this will run you about £1,800, but this will last you a long time, and honestly, for the money, it’s difficult to find anything else that looks so beautiful. You can opt for the 4k or 6k standard for significantly less money, however, I highly recommend the convenient built-in ND filters (sunglasses for your camera) so that you can nail your exposure while still hanging onto desirable qualities such as depth of field and beautiful bokeh.
This is a big topic and you can add a new dimension to your music.
Maxi has been working in the industry for over a decade, currently working as a Product Developer at Spitfire Audio, and as a Mastering engineer at Horizon Mastering. He’s made many music videos and filmed stadium bands such as Muse, Periphery, Volumes, and companies such as GGD and SFRS. His compositional works are published internationally by Universal Production Music, Chappell Music, and the BBC, with works featured on nominated and award-winning international TV, including BAFTA-nominated Louis Theroux’s “Dark States”, Netflix’s GLAAD-winning Cable Girls, and International EMMY winning “Ouro Verde”. For himself and for clients, he builds a finished production from the ground up - through every stage in the production process; from the idea, recording, mixing, mastering, filming, editing etc. - Including building the guitars and lenses.