This post chronicles my experience in being part of the video shoot for the Belle and Sebastian song "The Party Line". Note that I'm writing this before the video has been released (although I was not allowed to post it until after the video was released), so I don't know what scenes made the final cut of the video.
It all started on the Belle and Sebastian twitter feed with a tweet that said they needed extras for a video being made for one of the their songs in Toronto. The website explicitly said that the band would not be present, and even though it was a long time commitment (10 hours both Saturday and Sunday) I could not let a chance like this pass me by.
In the email we got from the production company were were told that for the video "We are trying to recreate the look of Northern Soul Movement from the 70’s" and they sent us some pictures. I hoped I got the look right when I showed up on Saturday morning. I was happy to see a familiar face when my friend Scott was there, I often see him at shows, but neither of us knew the other one was going to be there.
After dropping off our stuff in a room, the 30 or so people who showed up as extras were led downstairs under the main room of the Great Hall in a space called the Black Box Theatre (a venue in west Toronto). The room we were in was relatively large with a balcony around it. During the wait while the crew set up the first shoot, the "fashion police" came by (in reality the woman in charge of the wardrobe) and would point to people who would then go around the corner and come back with a new outfit.
For me everything changed when a crew member came by and asked if anybody had ever DJed before, myself and Scott put our hands, maybe Scott's piercings caused the crew member to point to me and said they needed someone to play the DJ at the club in the video and if I was interested. Obviously I couldn't say no.
Once I got the stage the table they had set up for the DJ it was obvious it was too short (I'm rather tall) so they had to get some risers so it didn't look silly. Although no sound would actually be coming out of the equipment, they wanted the two turntables (without needles) and the mixer connected and plugged in to make it look realistic. They had also got some bins of 7 inch singles (45s) from a local record store to complete the look.
Here is picture of the DJ set up. I tried to get the more interesting singles covers and put them around the turntables, but in the end they were worried about copyright issues so we couldn't show any of them. I also turned some of the singles in the bins as if I was actually DJing I would have some "goto" songs ready in case I needed them. I think it also made the set up look better.
Here is picture of the DJ booth from the floor (picture from Scott):
And a picture of me at the DJ booth courtesy of Scott (note I never wore the headphones like that again as I found they left a weird residue on my neck):
Although I wasn't actually playing the records (we didn't get needles for the turntables until the second day) I just want to note that I did have the turntables set to 45 rpm so that they would be spinning at the correct speed. Even as a fake DJ, I take my responsibility seriously.
As it is typical for these kinds of things, the day consisted of shooting the same scene over 6 or 7 times from one angle, then moving the camera angle and shooting the same scenes again. As well they were using different types of cameras such as a boom camera and a steady cam.
I wasn't really given any direction about what I should do as the DJ, so during the first couple of takes I developed a routine that I repeated throughout the day. I figured that it was important to be consistent if they wanted to put together scenes. So my routine was that as the song hits the first beat after a quiet introduction I would exaggerate starting one of the turntables, then I would stop the other turntable, remove the single, put on another one and cue it up, even pretending to turn it back half a turn like I was taught back in my college radio days. Then I would sort through a stack of singles and take one out. I always took out this one because it looked cool:
I would occasionally adjust some of the knobs and levels on the mixer and have a drink from a fake beer bottle (the bottles were real, but they were filled with water). As my hands are big enough, I can hold a stack of singles using the middle hole and shake them like a maraca, I thought that was a good look as I was grooving to the song.
(While I was doing this I thought that it was probably I good thing I got the fake DJ gig as apart from Scott I don't know if any of the other extras would have actually every played a vinyl record)
I wasn't sure if I was doing it right until the crew member who was moving people around with a megaphone announced before a song that he had to "give it up to the DJ, because he is doing a great job". This made me feel like I must be doing something right.
It should be noted that I had a much easier time than the other extras who were dancing on the floor. Not only did they have to dance realistically during each scene, they also had to stand around as the crew changed a lens or moved the cameras. After 2 days of this they were all pretty exhausted as it was like they were at a club for 10 hours two days straight. At the DJ table I had a stool, so I could rest between scenes, plus when they shot from my direction I just got to watch.
Here are some random shots I took during the shoot from the DJ booth (after I took them I asked a production assistant if I could post pictures to social media, she said she would ask, about 10 minutes later the megaphone guy said that we were not to post any pictures until after the video had been released, as this was about 3 hours into the shoot and there were a bunch of young people sitting around for many hours doing nothing, I'm pretty sure some other shots were posted. They really should have told us about the no posting policy at the beginning. That's why I didn't publish this post until after the video was released, although I wrote it before).
I should probably describe the video a bit. The premise is that a group of friends meets at an apartment and then go to a club, they dance, drugs are taken, hearts are broken. However, apart from the regular club dancing there were also dancers from the National Ballet School who do a modern choreographed dance around the other dancers. I think this was the hardest part for the extras as they had to start dancing, then when the professional dancers started they had to get out of the way, but not too fast, and then merge back in after they were done. Here is a video of the entire sequence from the DJ booth perspective:
As you can see the professional dancers had quite the routine to do and as you can imagine doing it 6 or 7 times in a row was quite taxing on them. Basically, once they warmed up they shot the scenes with them and then they rested over lunch and in the second half of each day they warmed up again and did the routine as many times as they could before they had to stop.
The first day ended off with some scenes on the balcony, however as I was too distinctive as the Fake DJ they couldn't use me as an extra in the group scenes. After I had been "wrapped" for the day, the director of photography (DOP) came up to me and said that I had become an important part of the video and he hoped that I would be coming tomorrow (they probably should have checked before casting me). But anyway, I didn't want to tell him that I would sleep there to make sure I would be part of the shoot the next day, but of course I was going to be there.
They had been hoping for more people, so during breaks the production assistants were going around to everyone encouraging us to invite our friends for the second day. I don't know if they realized that B and S fans are by definition loners who listen to quiet indie pop in our bedrooms, friends? not going to happen.
The second day was similar to the first, just with different camera angles and a bit more of the "story" of the video involving the actors coming into the bar, coming down stairs, and drunkenly kissing each other. For a good stretch of a few hours, the camera was in front of me so I didn't have to do my routine. But this was also interesting as I got to see the camera monitors and it was amazing how different it all looked when the camera was focused on the actors and the extras were dancing behind them with the disco lights flashing. I thought that when the video comes out we are going to say, wow that looks like a really fun party, I wish I was there! Just to realize that we were there and it was actually a really long party, that was really repetitive and at times a bit boring.
There was an interesting separation between the crew, actors, and professional dances who generally didn't really know about Belle and Sebastian (although a few did) and the extras who were mostly obsessive fans (obviously as we agreed to give up our weekend to be unpaid extras in one of their videos). As such, the fans knew that the week before the shoot, B&S had released the cover art for the new album. Scott gave me the great idea of printing out the album art for the new album the night between the shoots and putting it in among the singles in the DJ booth.
I did print out the album art and put it in a plastic sleeve at the beginning of the second day, then I showed it to the DOP and he loved the idea. They made sure to do some shots from the perspective of the DJ with the B&S album cover as one of the singles in the background. I hope that one of these scenes makes the video as it would make a nice "Easter egg" for fans.
As you can see in this picture, needles were acquired for the second day of shooting, this allowed for
some close ups of the spinning records, again note they were spinning at the correct speed:
By the end of the second day we had heard the first two minutes of the song "The Party Line" about 50 times, good thing that it is a great song. However, near the end of shooting everyone was getting a bit tired and goofy, here is a video I took near the end when they were just getting generic dance floor scenes:
During the shooting breaks and during the lunch breaks it was a really nice friendly atmosphere amongst the extras (the crew and actors got to eat upstairs where the food was better). Not surprisingly we all had similar interests and stories of shows we had seen. During the second day's lunch break I decided to bridge from fake DJ to real DJ by playing songs I put on my phone over the sound system.
Once I was "wrapped" for the second day there were still a number of scenes to shoot on the balcony and outside so I decided to help take down the DJ booth. As everybody else was upstairs it hit me that this fake DJ gig was ending just like a real DJ gig with me alone in an empty bar putting away equipment and music. After the equipment was gone they were still shooting scenes on the balcony and playing the song, so I finally got to dance to song on the dance floor. I think this amused everyone who was watching from the balcony.
Talking to the extras we all agreed that although it had been a couple of long days with some boring parts, once the video comes out it will be awesome to be able to say that we were in a Belle and Sebastian video. The production company staff and the crew were all very nice, even the guy with the megaphone who had the unenviable job of yelling at people to move around the dancefloor.
Personally, I had a great experience being the fake DJ and I am thankful to the band and production company for letting us be part of it.
People ask me if I have caught the bug and would try to be an extra in other video and movie shoots. Although I had a good time and it was fun to do once, unless I really liked the band I don't see myself volunteering for something like this for a while. That being said, if anyone out there needs a fake DJ to rock the house for your video send me a note and I'll consider it.