Alabama Shakes partnered with creative community platform Genero to invite filmmakers around the world to create short films featuring ‘Gimme All Your Love’ as the soundtrack. After receiving over 100 submissions, the band chose the film by Clayton McCracken, Andy Koeger and Dan Frantz as a Runner Up. Mikey Pehanich, Color Assist at The Mill Chicago, graded the short film, which depicts a gas station attendant on the graveyard shift who becomes seduced by a video slot machine.
We caught up with “The Dream Team", Clayton McCracken (Director), Dan Frantz (DoP/2D Lead/Editor), Andy Koeger (Producer), and Mikey Pehanich (Colourist), to discuss the competition and their process of creating this short film:
How did you find out about the video competition?
Clayton McCracken: We found out about the video competition because I had been involved with a Genero competition for The Velvet Underground in the past. We thought that creating a "short film music video" suited the kind of project we were hoping to hop onto next. Both Dan and Andy had learned so much from their respective internships over the previous summer that by the time they were back at school, they were extremely motivated to get involved with something they could harness and apply their creative inspiration into.
Dan Frantz: Andy (Koeger) & I were hot off our internships (Andy - Ways & Means in LA, Dan - The Mill in Chicago) eager to put our new skills to work. We all met up for the first time and Clayton pitched us this concept of a gas station attendant being seduced by a video slot machine. It was a wacky fun concept that we could flip quickly. All of us were on the same page in terms of the visuals right from the start, so we pulled the trigger and started working that day.
What was the process like for getting your team together?
Dan: The video was due three weeks from our initial meeting, so we were on a tight deadline from the beginning. Luckily, the stars aligned and all the best players in Savannah happened to be available for our four-night shoot.
Everything really just fell into place. For instance, during a pre-production meeting we were still missing a gaffer. I glanced around the coffee shop we were in and low and behold Alex Dubois, one of the best in Savannah, was sitting at a table with a bunch of film guys. I pitched them the project and they hopped onboard for the shoot. Savannah's pretty magical that way. We had the dream team, our masterful 1st AC Jon Klepfer is 1st AC'ing a big budget indie feature now, and Alex was on the camera team on The Walking Dead. We had the best of the best!
Clayton devised a really clever casting process. We had a bunch of actors audition. Clayton gave each one a scratch=off ticket and some direction to the effect of "you've just spent your last dollar on this ticket". Then we cast based off the reactions. He also found our two great designers, Cody Sampson and Bobby Hanley, who built the slot machine animations.
Clayton: After developing this concept involving a man's love affair and bizarre addiction to an inanimate object, I approached Andy and Dan with a pitch. From that point onward, we were all pretty invested in the concept and--through a huge stroke of luck with timing--we were able to commit our next four weeks entirely to this production. With even more luck, Andy was able to assemble a crew comprised of SCAD's best film, sound and motion media talents (previously referred to as "The Dream Team") that was willing to get together and do this project for no compensation. It's worth noting that this production was completely independent from any SCAD classes, so everyone who hopped on board was hustling on set and then going back home to study right afterwards.
Andy: Our crew was somewhat of a film school dream team that finally assembled to kick off our senior years at SCAD. We swiftly began production on the video right at the start of a new school year. There was a lot of fresh energy at the time. We all wanted to prove ourselves in one way or another. Everyone brought their best work to the table. I saw a lot of us grow as artists during the creation of the video.
What feedback did you get from Alabama Shakes/competition organizers?
Dan: It was all positive and super smooth. Both Genero and the Shakes dug the video. The only adjustment was simply cutting an extended version of the video where the song is continuous. Our original cut dropped the song out and went full filmic sound design for the middle scene. That was a lot of fun in and of itself and certainly a technique I want to explore in future narrative music vids.
Andy: The client pretty much liked everything we sent them. It was a relatively smooth process.
Does the machine have a malevolent or manipulative side to it? Did you take any inspiration from how AI is portrayed in sci-fi or is it all in the clerks’s head?
Clayton: I've always been fascinated with assigning personalities to inanimate, man-made objects. Now that we've evolved far beyond the arrowhead and on to bigger and better things like prosthetic limbs and slot machines, there's a lot of room to play with the emotional qualities of our newest "tools" and that sci-fi notion has left a big imprint on this video. More than anything, I wanted to play around with the idea that all the primal struggles, and losses and victories of this particular protagonist are completely detached from the natural world.
All the florescent lights, and snacks, and alcohol, and slot machines, and cigarettes, and lotto tickets--each vices of their own--are enough to drive someone mad. On top of that, we added these fantastical details--such as the lighting change and the beans rolling towards the slots--to indicate the machine's clutch of the attendant as he descends into this state of madness. This brings us full circle to the question of whether the man-made machine is truly evil or whether it's man himself who can't handle the temptations of machine.
Dan: Absolutely, we talked a lot about the slots having a sort of gravitational pull in the store. We wanted the machine to be in control and draw the clerk in. It was a lot fun to blur the lines between reality and fiction with the slots.
Andy: Definitely in the clerks head. It’s his addiction manifesting itself in his workspace.
Tell us about how you and Mikey worked together. What tone did you want the grade to set?
Dan: Working with Mikey was an absolute dream. Couldn't have been smoother. Our initial submission had a rough grade that I rushed through like a madman with only four hours until the deadline. My grade was an ugly, green, power windowy, mess. But it served as a reference for Mikey for the mood we were aiming for.
I wanted the piece to look gritty and grimy, lots of punchy contrast and bring out the green/teal of the fluorescents we lit the gas station with. Then when the big lighting queue happens I wanted the gas station to feel warm and stagey but still retain a sort of Top Gun sex scene vibe.
Mikey executed it flawlessly, he was able to push all the fluorescent green into the image while still feeling totally natural. He also cranked up the contrast giving it that punchy look but without losing any detail in the highlights or shadows. It was incredible how much production value Mikey brought to the video. His grade took the entire production to a whole other level.
(Top)Before / (Bottom)After
When I pulled down Mikey’s initial grade, I couldn't believe the difference. I spent a good hour toggling between his grade and mine studying the color. It was a huge learning experience. Particularly looking at the orange and blue shots toward the end. Mikey pulled out all this rich golden orange and cool blue that I didn't even know was possible to push into the frame. He made bold decisions with color and really pushed the image as far as it could go.
That was a big takeaway for me with this whole experience: be bold in color.
Did you listen to the song a lot before starting? How did it play into the look you wanted to create?
Mikey: I had only heard the song maybe once before seeing the offline for the video but after seeing that, I listened to it a bunch. Clayton and Dan did a fantastic job of bringing the song to life all around; the actors did an amazing job of using their surroundings to help highlight their emotions, helping to dissect the story. The location was key in helping drive the grade as there was so much to work with; the gas station interior had several different lighting setups (although some were subtle) that were emphasized to help keep it colorful and vibrant without losing detail or becoming too saturated.
How did you approach giving the gas station and neon lights that great filmic quality?
Mikey: When Dan and I had our initial conversation about how we wanted the film to look, I already had an idea in mind after seeing the offline; I've always appreciated the late night gas station/corner store aesthetic (this is most likely a Midwestern trait). Oddly enough, right before I had seen the initial offline I had spent a weekend in Southeastern Wisconsin and stumbled into a gas station that is eerily reminiscent of the one the guys shot in; everything from the attendant to the gamble games so that was fresh in my mind and definitely a huge inspiration to where we took the grade.
We wanted to stay true to the gas station grittiness so we went with cyan tones and rolled off warmer blacks to help emphasize the fluorescent lights, accompanied by scanned film grain for a bit of texture. For the ending scene, we went full Top Gun "Take My Breath Away" and emphasized the change in lighting with deeper, cooler blacks and warm highlights; the fridges in the back helped to accentuate the change and bring it all together.
Tell us about how the relationship develops between the clerk and the slot machine, and the influence it had on the grade.
Mikey: The relationship between the clerk and the slot machine is a very unique balance of romance and obsession that certainly everyone has felt over something at some point (or not?). I think it's extremely relatable to anyone who's ever been to a casino; the whole "only one more dollar" feeling is unfortunately very, very common and we wanted to use that feeling of obsession and loss to help us in creating the grade.
Did you find yourself having sympathy for the clerk?
Mikey: I’ve found myself in those shoes before; only I don't think I've ever won my money back and never fallen in love with the machine...but I've definitely felt that feeling of loss and defeat from a gamble game before. So, naturally, I sympathize with him 100 percent.