Five Questions with Pier Pictures

Pier Pictures is a production outfit headed by Rob McHugh and T.S. Pfeffer that has been around for about 5 years. The duo have produced four short films and made music videos with Nick Hook, Ice Cube, Diplo, Darkside, MGK, Smokey Robotic and many more.

In their newest effort, “Tuna Melt” by A-Trak and Tommy Trash, Pier Pictures joined forces with Ryan Staake to make a music video completely out of dominos and kinetics. The newly inducted members into the domino underground joined me the other day for Five Questions (OK, maybe six) to talk dominos, kinetics, mansions in Minnesota, fortune cookies and  submarines in bathtubs.

1)  What was Pier Pictures role on the video shoot, I saw that the video was directed by Pomp&Clout (Ryan Staake), but what were Pier Pictures’ responsibilities?

Rob McHugh: Specifically, Pier Pictures handled a large portion of the producing roles for the video in terms of orchestrating the logistics of the production, location, equipment, crew, that sort of thing. When production was underway, Tim and I alternated camera operating duties and were also the directors of the photography.

T.S. Pfeffer: The story of we met Ryan Staake is actually kind of cool. We were hired to help out on a music video for an international UK production company within a couple of months of being out here. Ryan, Director of Photography on the project, was making a transition from purely design on the computer stage to more of a visual motion stage. He was sort of new in some areas and so were we. He would teach us and we would teach him. We met him on that project.

Ever since then it’s been a widely collaborative effort when we join a project with him. For the most part, when a project is directed by Ryan Staake it usually means he came up with the concept. We are sort of always involved in the early stages of the concept. We give feedback on how the project could be produced from a visual standpoint. Our job is purely to help facilitate his vision.

2) How did you come with the idea for the music video? Was it something A-Trak brought to you, or was it something you brought to him? Was it a collaborative process?

TF: To start,  Diplo and A-Trak are friends on the music circuit. A-Trak had seen the Diplo video we had done in August of 2012. A-Trak owns Fool’s Gold and Ryan had done a ton of work with Fool’s Gold before. He (Ryan) had reached out to A-Trak and said if he was ever looking for a video let me know.

RM: From my understanding, when A-Track approached Ryan about the video, he said here’s this song “Tuna Melt.” A-Trak had the vision of what dominos would look like falling to the song. Ryan took the concept and had initially developed an idea that was purely domino based, falling in a circular track fashion.

Ryan brought us in at that stage. We looked into a couple of options for how to do that type of concept. Ultimately, in meeting domino experts and learning more about modern domino tumbling we began to see the benefits of potentially diversifying what the reaction looked like.  We wanted to change what was actually reacting beyond the dominos in a straight line or consistent pattern.

TS: When working with Ryan, an artist will either have come to him or he will have reached out to an artist, and have discussed an initial idea. Sometimes it’s an idea we have talked about together like, “Wouldn’t it be cool if there was a music video about three guys wandering in the desert?”

We get the first treatment and give Ryan the first bit of feedback, sometimes before it even goes to the record label. We had seen this particular treatment and had come up with a few ideas about how it could be shot, good locations, and who the best people to film with would be.

We had been introduced to the idea earlier enough in the project that we had a lot of creative input. We got to pick out the mansion which was actually something Ryan just tossed out in the air. We found a house, and Ryan thought it would be really cool. It is definitely interesting dynamic working with Ryan.

RM: We did the research. We figured if we are going to make a music video about dominos we should know something about dominos. Learning about dominos and kinetic art, we started to develop this more diverse concept. Then it was about finding the best person to execute with us.

TF: We found ourselves in this underground domino world. Once we there we kept meeting people. The project evolved.

RM:  The initial concept for the video was that there was going to be this large gymnasium and the camera was going to follow a large oval shaped domino chain. It was going to be all about the speed and how the rhythm of falling dominos paired up with the song. When we started to see there were other things people were doing with dominos that isn’t just a straight line or all about quantity, we thought about doing something with all these different takes in it. We started watching a lot of old domino rally commercials and got really psyched.

Originally there was going to be physical cameos from some artists and other people associated with Fool’s Gold. When the house idea got brought up, we knew we wanted to present something that felt continuously. We felt we could execute that. We actually lived in the house we filmed in. When we started to produce it, the first four days were spent testing things out and practicing what we could accomplish in that space.

3). How long did it take to film the video?

RM: We shot the whole thing, the setup and what you see in the finished product in seven days. We filmed almost entirely in natural light. We would wake up when the sun came up and filmed until the sunset. It took us almost three days to figure out how to get up the stairs without something going wrong.

TF: A lot of things you see in the video are the best stuff that we were able to capture. A lot of the pre-production was spent on figuring out how each room would present a different contraption. It became more about continuing motion through these different scenes in a way that was seamless as possible. Some of the takes we only got one shot at doing.

The last room is one take, so is the second room, and we got two takes of the dominos going down the stairs.

RM: In the finale, the two rooms, where things are starting go nuts and the flags are dropping down, took 24 hours to set-up. We were flying out the next day, so we realized we wouldn’t be able to do this again. There were some tense moments.

TF: I wouldn’t say they were tense. There were moments where nobody would be talking for 45 minutes to two hours at a time. There was one night where Rob was upstairs deciding how to operate and create the feather mechanism while simultaneously Tim Fort (the kinetic artist) was in the dining room area setting up the first tower collapse where the apple falls.

We would test these things over and over again and estimate the timing. We had Ryan’s desktop computer so we were able to take the clips we were shooting and dump them into a timeline and build the project that we shot.

RM: Walking around the house was very interesting because you had to be really light on your feet. Each member of the crew had an “Oopsie moment” at one point, triggering something early. When something like that happens, you had to take a breath, clean it up and start again.

TF: For the record, there aren’t many cuts. What you see is all real. It’s all practical stuff. There is not a lot of CGI.

4.) My personal favorite shot is when you film the submarine in the bathtub, was there any shot that was your favorite?

TF: It’s a great shot first of all. A part of what we got to do was going through these rooms and imagine what was possible. The interesting part about that shot is when your traveling through the house you are trying to figure out places you are going to have to make an edit.

We knew that there would be an audio track that went with it because of how intricate these dominos sound as they move. It’s nice; it complements the track quite well. Rob and I were walking through the bathroom that connects the green room to the pink room, and we thought “Wouldn’t it be cool if it went into the water!?” The track with the underwater sound worked great. We really were responding with what worked well with the architecture.

RM: We had spent a day before with Tim Fort at his studio and gave us the rundown of his capabilities. He was very generous with sharing his techniques which I don’t think you get a lot of from people in his circle. He didn’t have to. We all ended up building the contraptions. I feel most proud of watching something that I placed or something I stuck.

TF: We got to see a lot of Tim Fort’s contraptions. We could name you the herring bone, the string-a-ling, the stick bomb.

RM: The flipside of that is that Tim and I had to shoot some scenes that were very difficult from an operating standpoint. Those portions took on a whole different meaning because of the difficulty and the responsibility of holding the operating camera.

We slept in all the rooms. On different days you would have to clean your room because the camera was coming through. People think it’s A-Trak’s house, but it’s actually an old Victorian style mansion called the Ohage House in St. Paul, Minnesota.

TF: The submarine scene was actually filmed in my room.

RM: We ended up building it as we went along. Timing was really important in terms of getting to certain points. You don’t get a lot of times to test these things.

TF: Each room and shot has its own great thing about it. The kitchen scene is cool because of how close you get to the dominos. I also like the dining room where the camera is able to pull back and get wider. You see a whole room and get the first drop of the song. You really feel it. I really like first shot with the record spinning. It took a couple of tries, but we eventually got it.

What makes camerawork interesting is not exactly what’s in frame, but what is out of frame, the action outside of it. Your leaning the audience into the frame slowly and revealing to them what’s going to happen.

RM: My favorite is the segment that involves the paper airplane. It was planned, conceived, shot and built by all of us except for Tim Fort. It was on us because he was busy with a really long setup. The entire segment came from us, which I like because how novice we were. That was a complete learning experience.

TF: This is the first project where I have worked steady camera on and I was telling someone the other day that each project is about is taking steps to get better regardless of knowing how to do it. We might not have known how to use steady cameras or kinetics but we were able to execute the entire sequence.

RM: That’s why you want to do projects like this. You want to try and do something you’ve never done before.

5.) Why film it in Minnesota?

TF: We had a few different ideas initially. We were close to filming the video in Germany with a world pro domino team and another production team that we hadn’t worked with before.

Our mentality is that we want to work with new people, but we want to work with people on the team we are trying to build. We found Tim Fort in Minnesota and it was perfect because Ryan lives in Minnesota right now also. We made an arrangement to meet Tim Fort, check out his apartment, mess around with his contraptions and it just kind of made sense to film in the Twin Cities.

Instead of taking all his materials elsewhere, why not give ourselves a full space to take control of. We were really able to work well as a team.

RM: We knew we wanted to move into a place we were occupying, instead of leaving every day. We knew we would have to travel to whom would lead the domino building. It just worked that both Tim Fort and Ryan lived in Minnesota.

TF: It became a lot about Minnesota. Part of what we like to do is going in a location and seeing what kind of artists are there. We are good at seeking out people and communicating what we are trying to do as artists. We found a guy who could rent us a brand new steady cam unit. These aren’t people associated with studios, just people who are trying to help others, working on cool stuff.

RM: Being in the Twin Cities was fantastic. We had just finished a project in Minnesota. We dived in, rented local, ate local and lived local. It’s cool to see what living in another place is like.

6.) How was the video received by A-Trak and Tommy Trash?

TF: They loved it. What’s cool about A-Trak is that he’s super talented. He’s been around forever. He’s been making music for some time. He was Kanye West’s tour DJ for a while. He cares a lot about what he’s putting out there and sharing with fans. His fans are very dedicated. The video tied in well with what he’s trying to do. We cut the behind the scenes video and they all loved it. We didn’t even think he would put it out.

RM: Ryan was dealing mostly with A-Trak’s camp. He was very much invested in this. Most of the communication after production was Ryan doing a lot of editing work, consulting with us and then consulting directly with A-Trak. A-Trak really enjoyed our execution. He had a few tweaks. There is only so much you can change on a project like this because of the nature of the video.

TF: I remember we went to a Chinese buffet before filming and I got a fortune cookie at the end of meal that said, “The best way to predict the future is create it.”

Here we were about cool to embark on this project literally setting out a course with dominos. I thought it was pretty  I kept that in my pocket along with a blank domino for good luck during every shot and everyday.

Behind the Scenes video

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