Monday, July 08, 2013

Beijing State of Mind

Beijing State of Mind

Over the years along with photography I've enjoyed putting together videos. I started working with Windows Movie Maker and when they rewrote that tool and it become incredibly flakey I switched over to Pinnacle Studio Ultimate 14, which was much more stable and had a ton of features and add ons. However when I bought Stac a Mac and started playing around with iMovie I quickly made the switch to Mac. I was making some pretty long videos using iMovie of my hikes or our family vacations. Making Beijing State of Mind would take me through a whole other evolution.

While living in Beijing, we met Andrew and Nicola Doughtery at our local church. Andrew was an economic analyst who also enjoyed rapping. He had lived in Beijjng off and on for about 5 years. He had noticed my photography and videos and he asked me if I'd be interested in collaborating with him on a rap video. I said yes because I am always open to working on fun projects and learning new things.  We started in April 2012 and the journey took me until July of 2013 to complete. When I said yes, I had no idea what I was getting into and how long the process would take.

Andrew sent me a sample of the song which was based on Jay-z's Empire State of Mind but about Andrew's experience living as an expat in Beijing. Andrew mapped out a set of locations and he first recorded the track with a local artist so that when shooting he would be lip syncing to the same audio track in the video.

We set out on a Saturday in April 2012 with Helen and Stephanie from Andrew's work and Peter as our driver.  Peter was a friend who drove taxi in Beijing that Andrew had been using for years. That Saturday we shot at Temple of Heaven, The Birds Nest, Workers Stadium, the Hutongs, ZhongNanHai, Tiananmen Square, Andrew's apartment outside of Central Park and then over at Andrew's work at World Trade Center building. Andrew's assistants would clear the area of people, hold a iPad with the track qued to the right point in the song and I would set up my camera on the tripod, get focus and exposure right and we shoot the scene a couple of times. I did virtually no direction, Andrew changed outfits and did his thing.

I'd already had a very unpleasant experience shooting video in Beijing, however I was really only nervous about two locations we'd be shooting at : ZhongNanHai and Tiananmen Square.

The ZhongNanHai, is an old imperial garden west of the Forbidden City where Mao lived and is still a central government compound. Security is super tight; they don't even let cars stop on adjacent roadways. We planned to shoot Andrew in front singing the line : "My boys be chillin over there in Zhongnanhai, When I get the invite then I'll know that I've arrived…". Peter dropped us off. I had my tripod already set up and the camera on, we were across the street from the Xinhuamen (The New Gate) by The Egg. We walked to the middle of the block and I set up the tripod and turned the camera on, Andrew stood on the edge of the street and we shot one take. The camera wasn't even quite level and the focus was off (set on the gate vs. on Andrew) but after that one take we saw a guard walking our way and we just folded things up and walked away.  Arrest or detainment avoided!

Tiananmen Square is a heavily visited site in Beijing. Everyone there is a tourist be they Chinese or foreigner and everyone is taking photos. But I wasn't sure how they would feel about someone doing video. There are numerous light stands on the square and each one has cameras at every angle. Security is actually quite tight; you have to pass your bag through a radar screen and walk through a metal detector to enter the square. So I set up my tripod with my camera on it, I got the video focus and exposure right and then I turned on the video capture and hung my baseball camp over the back of the camera so that you couldn't tell it was shooting video. Then we turned on the music and Andrew started lip syncing and I used my other camera as if I was just taking photos of him.

Strangely while we didn't have problems there we did while shooting at Andrews apartment complex. The maintenance worker got testy about telling us we couldn't take video, even pointing to the signs that forbade it.  But this is unheard of in an apartment complex and so we just ignored him and kept shooting. When we moved over to the big yellow horse the maintenance guy came back but this time he had a plain clothes policeman of some sort with him and he made it very clear we had to stop or he'd take away my camera. Since we already had the shots we wanted and he was serious we agreed and left.  It was a long but fun day, and it felt a little bit like being a tourist given how many popular places we hit.

In listening to this version of the song it was clear the local talent Andrew had found to sing the Alicia Keys chorus part was not working. She sounded out of tune and it didn't flow. Andrew came across a band playing at the Xiu Bar in a local hotel. They had a great singer from California : Princess Fortier (her real name). She re-recorded the chorus tracks and we picked another Sarurday in June 2012 to go shoot a bunch of chorus scenes with Princess and Andrew.

Peter drove again and we first headed for JingShan park just north of the Forbidden City. When the built the palace complex they took all the dirt from digging out the moat and they built a hill. Atop this hill stands a pagoda with views down into the Forbidden City. We climbed to the top and shot several scenes among the tourists. Then we stopped by DongDan a local sports complex for some shots on the basketball court before driving 90 minutes outside the city to the MuTianYu Great Wall. We hiked up a ways until we were on a bit of a rise where we could shoot with The Wall in the background. Tourists of course kept walking by and we'd have to wait until folks had cleared out or sometimes they would wait curious to see what we were doing.

The next night we went out shooting after 10pm to get some night footage of Andrew and Princess on the chorus again. We shot at The Place, which has a huge overhead screen and then in front of the Pants (CCTV) building. My daughter Sofi came along to help run the music.

Finally the following week right before Stac and I's anniversary Andrew and myself took an afternoon to drive out to visit a migrant community in Beijing and shoot some footage of him rapping with them.

Any real further editing was put on hold for a bit as I went on my mancation in July and we moved from Beijing back to the US in Aug of 2012. When I finally did get things organized with a place to live and the computers put back together I found that the task of editing together such a large project with so many clips and photos was much bigger than I thought. Andrew was a big help in that he went through all the footage to identify which clips for which verses.

However with the opening photo montage and all the video I was running into limitations with the tools I was using, namely the Mac Mini with 8 gigs of ram wasn't cutting it, and iMovie wasn't up to the task. So I started the process of switching over to Final Cut Pro, which meant I had to relearn how to do everything, though ultimately the power of the software and the features it offered were far superior to iMovie. And then I needed new hardware with more RAM to run such large files.

Not wanting to pay out the nose for a beefy Mac desktop I decided to try to build a Hackintosh (using standard off the shelf hardware and installing Mac OS on top of it). This took me on a several month detour, that involved a lot of light night tweaking. Ultimately I was spending more time on tweaking to keep the system running than was worth and so I decided to sell the hardware for the Hackintosh and buy a Mac Pro. Since I'd already purchased an Apply Display I decided to go with a Mac Pro. Sadly when it arrived the hardware hadn't been updated and it wasn't compatible with my thunderbolt Apple Display. So I had to return the Mac Pro and I got an iMac (which was expandable to 24 gigs of RAM) and I sold my Apple Display.

Finally at the first of April 2013 I was ready to edit again. Andrew and I then went on a tear of back and forth emailing as I worked on editing and tweaking. Integrating new photo montages and getting the cuts just right. I'd do a run and upload to Youtube. Andrew would watch it and send back meticulous notes with the MM:SS marker and the line from the song and what he wanted changed.

We went through 15 versions before we got to where things were mostly done but we were still missing a "city" feel to the final Chorus-bridge-chorus. Andrew and his assistant searched for city footage of Beijing online but all the stuff they kept coming up with wasn't high enough quality for what we had already put together. Finally as I had a work trip planned back in Beijing in June I said lets wait and I'll just shoot some night footage when I am there.

Again Andrew had an assistant, Ebay and Peter drive me around for a night of shooting. We drove around the 3rd Ring Road near GuoMao and on ChangAn Street down past the Forbidden City and finally we went to shoot from the rooftop of Kenny Hunsakers apartment building that looks directly into the heart of the CBD from south of Tonghui river.

Back in the states, the day I arrived (June 30th) I set to integrating the new footage. Then a series of small edits back and forth again with Andrew and finally putting in all the credits and I was finally finished on the 4th of July. 14 months from when I began, a long journey where I'd learned a lot and produced with Andrew a product that I was really proud of.

I hope you enjoy it as much as I did putting it together. Props to the talents of Andrew and his creativity and his sense of vision and quality. Princess is the truth, her singing on the chorus really brought the song home. And finally thanks to the inspiration of Jay-Z w/ Alicia Keys on the original Empire State of Mind.



Yeah I'z up at
Beida, now I'm down in Guomao,...
I started as a student, but I run the show now.
I'm the nouveau expat, livin' in the CBD,
Ridin' on my dianpingche, everybody stare at me.
It ain't because I'm laowai, it's probably cause I'm handsome,
Yeah I'm the only pimp wearing' seer sucker pants, and,
Did my share of modelin, acted with Ge You,
I'm dropping mad tracks I be hotter than Jay Chou.
Cruisin' down to Houhai, people drivin' slow I,
Can't believe the traffic or the awful drivin' so I,
Hop onto the subway, the smell it ain't so lovely,
But at just 2 kuai I don't mind getting cuddly.
I say what up to Jintao, Hu defines the in crowd,
But don't forget about Jiabao, when he gonna change his hairstyle.
My boys be chillin over there in Zhongnanhai
When I get the invite then I'll know that I've arrived in...

In Beijing, commie jungle where dreams are made of,
There's nothing you can do
Now you're in Beijing.
Taiqi will make you feel brand new
The sites will inspire you, let's here it for Beijing, Beijing, Beijing.

Catch me wid my boys at Gongti at a Guo'an game
I made the Guo'an shirt more famous than the Guo'an can
Yeah I watch the Dragons, I'm court side at the Ducks,
Even though the halftime dancing show really sucks.
But that ain't important; that ain't why I came here.
I came for the history, like the Tiananmen Square,
Forbidden City, hutongs always gritty,
Tiantan is hoppin', dancin' like P Diddy.
15 million people, half the dudes is naked,
Pullin' up their shirts, cause the summers they can't take it.
Long fingernail pinky on the right hand,
Cause the left won't pick your ear as well as the right one can.
Babies on the prowl defacating on the pavement;
I just wanna scowl, sayin' son why don't you save it.
But that's the way it is, that's how we do it here,
If you don't like it you're welcome to steer clear of...


Migrants they come here, kids they are shunned here,
Can't get a hukou, so out of pocket health care.
No fear.  They leave their kids for the year;
Grandparents take care, no one sheds a tear.
Gaokao it's over, pressure done abated,
So off to university to get edumacated.
But he becomes jaded after he's graduated,
Cause he can't find a job that's well compensated.
So he hops on Weibo, he surfs kaixin wang,
And he gets on Baidu to download my son.
Head to Dongdan, hoop it up forget your problems.
A plate of hot jiaozi on the corner might solve them.
We come here with dreams, then reality hits us.
Bendi, waidi, laowai drifters.
But we love the energy, that's why this city's great,
So we all work late to "protect the Eight" in...


One hand in the air for the old city.
Gugong, Bird's Nest all lookin'  pretty.
No place in the world that can compare.
Fly your kites in the air everybody say Yeah, Yeah.



John Greene said...


Anonymous said...

Hey. Fine work. Do get in touch:

Unknown said...

Awesome stuff Niffgurd!

Anonymous said...

This is just great! congrats

Robert MacLachlan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Robert MacLachlan said...

Fantastic! Thanks for this!

You're probably already aware that Josh Marshall has just blogged about your work.

Here comes viral.

Anonymous said...

just just just just brilliant. so talented. so excited!

Anonymous said...

Love it! That's great work!

alicia said...

Mark, Andrew, and Princess, you've created a wonderful piece. I've watched it everyday since you posted, it's so well done.

Helena said...

Excellent! 顶好!

Anonymous said...

It almost made me miss Beijing!

maria carolina said...

AWESOME! This is just great!

Anonymous said...

been living gere 21 consecutive years, you are a genius a tip of the cap to all those who put that together..."There's nothing you can do..." love it. Tip of the cap to another couple of expats, lost here.

Becky Hasselle said...

Love it! My new favorite video!

Mo Cheng said...

Props to the Laowai that brought Beijing alive for a Beijingnese in the States!

James O'Claire said...

Why are the lyrics "nothing you can do"?

Mark said...

It's a sarcastic fatalistic play on words that your living in a communist country with still many controls and there is nothing you can do....

Anonymous said...

I love this song so much and admire the talent and commitment of all involved. Truly awesome!