An interview with Blakroc videographer Jonah Schwartz
10-13-2010, 07:40 PM
An interview with Blakroc videographer Jonah Schwartz
An interview with Blakroc videographer Jonah Schwartz
There were seemingly three pillars to the success of the Blakroc project: the spontaneous collaboration between The Black Keys and the various MCs and singers; the music that was produced which rose above cliche despite the frenetic pace at which it was created; and the weekly webisodes which created a visual record of the entire process captured by Jonah Schwartz. Much has been written about the artists and the music, little seemingly has been written about Jonah Schwartz’s contribution.
Jonah has been a busy man shooting various creativecontrol.tv projects, videos for rapper Curren$y amongst others, and additional video production of The Black Keys at Muscle Shoals Sound Studio and their various promotional activities.
The weekly Blakroc webisodes featured a different MC and song snippet each week; they brought the hype week in, week out. The visuals gave a rare insight into The Black Keys and leading MCs at work – a fly on the wall perspective enhanced by slick editing and rich colour tones.
The Black Keys Fan Lounge has been trying to interview Jonah ever since the Blakroc project dropped back in November 2009. Finally we get to speak to him. Jonah is a fan with an acute appreciation for the creativity of the artists he was able to observe. He’s humble about his contribution, proud of it nevertheless and above all relieved that his efforts turned out so well and are appreciated by so many.
The Black Keys Fan Lounge: Tell us about the full length Blakroc documentary?
Jonah Schwartz: A documentary was my original plan from the start. Once we had all the footage, we were like ‘what do we do with it all now?’. You know the webisodes were a given, My idea was that the webisodes would be a teaser, showing a little bit of the song in each one and the makinbg of each song, but for me the websiodes were always a trailer for the documentary. What ended up was, they ended up being so cool and so much fun, I fleshed them out. The documentary is similar to the webisodes but it’s just a whole lot more.
Most people would have thought this was really planned out with the weekly webisodes building up the hype, but sounds like it’s the other way around It was planned out a bit, but not while I was shooting it. The whole project was so organic, everything you did was organic. The first day we went in the studio no one knew what was going to happen – no one knew Mos Def was going to be there, no one knew Jim Jones was going to be there, no one knew they were going to make a song together. For them they were going to have a talk to see what would happen, for me it was like show up with the camera and my style is just to shoot everything I see.
Once we had that first day we were like ‘wow, this is really good.’ It just turned into that [doco], it was a natural progression of – what do I do next? As far as the editing goes, I didn’t plan on it being in the form that it was – it just ended up working that way. It was just the most natural way to assemble that footage and everything that happened – the music, the people, the video. Everything was just totally organic.
Just to be there in the presence of so many talented individuals that I’ve look up to for a very long time, I was just trying to hide in the corner and not get in anybody’s way.
Sounds like you were left to your own devices?
Yeah, there was no other crew, it was just me and the camera. I did all the editing, all the shooting, all of the everything.
Do you think that’s why you got that really relaxed style?
Oh definitely, I don’t think it could have been done any other way. If there were two of me, it would have been too much. It was such a small studio. It depends on the different people, you could tell some people were borderline and iffy about having the camera around, other people didn’t really care. It’s got a kind of intimacy to it.
I didn’t realise at the time I was doing it but if you look at alot of the shots the camera is being held kind of low. I hold the camera kind of at waist level because that way when I’m talking to people I’m not sticking the camera in their face. If you don’t think about it, it’s very easy to ignore it – you just don’t notice it because it’s not being pointed in your face. I would always keep it at waist level, being on the other side of the room was cool [to have it higher], but when I was next to someone I was trying to make it seem like it just wasn’t there. I remember the part where Raekwon is writing his lyrics and it’s just me and him sitting there when he locked the door. I just happened to be sitting there and I’m like ‘OK, awesome I’m in the room with Raekwon writing some gems’ [laughs].
If I had a sound guy there or a director it never would have worked that way. The music would have been made, but you wouldn’t have got the same feel on tape.
I wasn’t shooting to make it look beautiful, alot of the footage is grainy or dark and the sound is rough but I wanted it to be that way ’cause that’s the only I think you can get the reality of the situation.
While some people didn’t like the camera, do you think the camera also enhanced some of the performances?
I think the camera being there upped the pressure on everyone. Some of the artists weren’t used to working to the time pressure, like Pharoahe [Monche] was saying he’s never written a rhyme in one day before because he works so hard to make the perfect song. There’s pressure from all sides, but I’m sure having a camera recording everything that you’re doing kind of makes you wanna bring your A-Game. I’m sure it had some sort of influence. Even without it there it would have been as good.
Was it a conscious decision to not make Dan and Pat the focus of the webisodes?
They are present, but they are never really the centre of attention.
I would say that was more just the way it came together. It wasn’t a conscious decision. There’s definitely more of them in the documentary. Each episode was different because it was a different MC, The Black keys it was a given they would be in the webisode. For the webisode promoting the different song and artists coming in to collaborate, I might have been focusing more on the artist. That’s what made each webisode, was seeing each artist and personality and how it clicked with what Dan and Pat were doing.
You have a background in documentary making. Can you talk about this background and how you came to be involved in the Blakroc project?
I’ve been film making on an independent level for a very long time, since I was in high school. I started making hip hop music videos maybe three years ago in Japan. I used to live in Japan for three years. I ended up through people I knew in Japan I ended up working on this documentary for about a year and a half.It’s about a rapper from Kyoto, Japan, and his whole life story showing a side of life there people may or may not know exists – that people in Japan may or may not know exists. I spent probably a year editing that, I didn’t direct it, I was one of the main shooters.
Meeting all the rappers in Japan I got linked up with making a video for a group who’s pretty big out there, Nitro Microphone Underground. I didn’t direct it but the director who’s doing it is actually a photographer, and they needed a Director of Photography for the video side of it. The Director spoke English too, and I spoke Japanese, and he’s from New York and I am too, and I got hooked up with the job and it came out really good so when I came back to America i went I’m going to make hip hop videos. That’s how it all kind of started from there.
How did you meet Damon Dash then?
We know each other through people for a while. I’d been introduced to him. I just started filming events and I kind of helped him and he was doing stuff with Jim Jones. I had been shooting him and helping him promote his son who’s a DJ. I was shooting alot of events, kind of documenting what was going on with him and Jim Jones and whatever he was doing. I would always be out shooting with him.
Then the Blakroc thing came up and it was out of the blue. Damon just called me up and he was something like, ‘What are you doing tomorrow?’ and at the time I was doing editing work and he was like ‘What would you if you had a chance to film Jimi Hendrix in the studio with The Rolling Stones?’ [laughs] And I’m like, um, I’d like to shoot that and he’s like ‘Cool, cause tomorrow we’ve got like The Black Keys in the studio and Mos Def might be coming through and Jim Jones is coming through…’, so it was like that. He sold me pretty well. It’s safe to say I took off work and said I had to go shoot Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones [laughs].
I was definitely really nervous because that was my first time working with artists of that calibre where it was just me. It was all on me so there was a lot of pressure in the beginning, believe me. I think even for them they weren’t sure how I would perform. I think once everything started coming together, they started to feel better and I started to feel better and it naturally got better.
Was it hard being a fan of those artists and then having to put your professional hat on in those filming situations?
I think that’s one of the reasons why I was able to do it well. Being a fan I appreciate every little detail of everything that those guys do. When I see Mos Def writing down a lyric on a piece of paper, this is the golden moment for me. That’s what you see my camera focus on. I get nerdy on the little tiny details they do. When I see Raekwon coming up with a rhyme in his head I zoom that camera right in on his face ’cause I see him thinking. But at the same time when I have that camera it’s like I’m not even there. I can switch off the fan in me, it’s like zone out into my camera, so it’s all third person for me. I just pretend to myself I’m actually not there so it doesn’t distract me from the job at hand.
How has the use of the 5D camera influenced this project, it’s so small, and the visual style of this project?
I wouldn’t say it influences the visual style I think that is the visual style. I used that camera ’cause I had it at the time. When I started using it for that project it wasn’t being as widely used as it is right now. I had just picked it up about a month earlier when I did that video for NOE. I had gotten it specifically for that video because it was brand new at the time and I had started using it with someone else who I knew who had one.
I would say it gave me a lot more freedom to do what I wanted to do that wouldn’t have been possible to do before with any other camera. I did not need lights. I shot with two cameras, it’s not all with 5D. I only use the 5D for the performance shots because I thought it looked almost too good. I can’t shoot a documentary with this, it looks like a movie. I didn’t want it to look that good. Once you walk in that studio and you got that mic and it’s really dark in there, any other camera is too dark, you can’t see their face, but when I popped on that 5D it takes in light really well. If I brought in lights there and shined on their face it would ruin the concept of what I was doing – pretending not to be there, pretending to be invisible, and you can’t be invisible when you are shing a light in someone’s face.
Or if you’re even setting up lights. I’ve seen alot of studio videos and they make it a production with camera equipment and dollys and this and that, and they set up lights like a scene, and it looks cool on film but it’s not real. That’s the whole thing it’s made for the film, it’s contrived, it’s not reality, you’re creating that light, you’re creating that reality. That’s not what I wanted.
So that camera allowed me to capture alot more reality in a cool looking way. Also shooting with two different cameras, using that 5D camera specifically for the performances differentiated the performances from the other footage taken on a regular HD DV camera. It definitely has a different look to the 5D. Using that camera for the talking looked a little bit more raw, intimate, and then when you see the performances it really makes them stand out.
Is the documantary going to a DVD release?
We are still figuring it out [laughs]
Tell us about visiting Muscle Shoals Sound Studio to shoot The Black Keys making some of their new album Brothers?
I’m not sure how much I can say, what I can say is what an honour and privilege it was to be there to see them create their music. You could feel the history in the place. Apparently it was haunted, it had a real interesting vibe. It was in the country, it was way out there in the country. There’s nothing to do except be in the studio or be in the hotel. I wasn’t there for the entire recording, I was there for the last little bit of it. I just feel really privileged to have been able to see some of that happen.
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