Christopher Sims takes us through his career and explains his process for getting images on film
Creating images for some of the most interesting bands on today's musical landscape, Christopher Sims is a director you should know. Having started his own business to make videos for his friends bands, Sims has expanded his empire far beyond his wildest imagination. Working with the biggest labels the music business has to offer, Sims seems more like a man on a quest than a director. He's constantly thinking in terms of story but more importantly how to get that story across in an interesting way on screen.
Sims recently sat down with us to discuss his career, what inspires him and how he's been able to be so successful at the job he loves.
How did you get started directing?
Christopher Sims: I started shooting documentaries for my friends bands.
At what point did you realize you could or were making a living at directing?
Christopher Sims: I've never really realized that until this moment. Thanks!
What have you done?
Christopher Sims: As far as music videos? I've directed over 30 music videos and a dozen documentaries within the music industry.
What videos do you feel represent your best work?
Christopher Sims: Hawk Nelson "The One Thing I Have Left" video and probably The Kinison "You'll Never Guess Who Died" video. I really liked how the Saosin "Making of the record" documentary came out too.
What filmmakers or artists have influenced you the most?
Christopher Sims: David Fincher, David Slade, Floria Sigismondi, Laurent Briet, Mark Romanek, Jon Glazer, Tony Scott and Samuel Bayer probably are the ones who have influenced me the most.
In terms of moviemaking, what's your take on the current cinematic quality of Hollywood flicks?
Christopher Sims: Dogshit. There are about 2-3 really good movies a year in my opinion. With most movies, as soon as I leave the theater doors I forget I even saw a movie.
When you're watching movies for inspiration and you're let down by the outcome, what elements attribute to that feeling?
Christopher Sims: Story. I can sit through the ugliest looking movie ever if it has a great story and good sound. Its when it has good picture, good sound and good story when it all makes sense though.
You've directed a lot of videos for your friends bands. How do those experiences stack up against directing videos for people you don't know?
Christopher Sims: Its all the same really. I can just use short hand alot easier with friends but to think of it I probably use short hand with the artists I'm not close friends with anyway and they probably think I'm crazy.
Take us through your creative process. What do you do to get the job done, and which part of that process is your favorite?
Christopher Sims: I get a track sent to me via record label asking if I would write a treatment for it. If I'm into the track I'll usually write on it regardless of the budget. I listen to the song over and over and over and sometimes ideas spark immediately and sometimes it takes some collaboration with my DP [ director of photography]. I usually think of a technique I want to try and build something around that. If I am awarded the video its booked and we shoot usually within a week. We telecine the video then I get about a week to cut it. Telecine is my favorite part of the video making process. You get to color it anyway you want and you get to see ALL your footage and you have a real good feeling of accomplishment.
What kind of equipment do you use on and off the battlefield? Anything in particular that really gets you fired up?
Christopher Sims: I usually shoot 35mm with Arri 435 bodies and I usually love to shoot through CF [close focus] Cooke lenses. Thats the trend for me at the moment. It usually changes every few months though.
Lets say you're working an 18 hour day, there's still more coverage or another scene to get, what keeps you going at that point?
Christopher Sims: Just your commitment to the artist and label I guess. I've had a 24 hour day once and I wanted to just giveup but you cant. You really start thinking how stupid of a situation you're in. You start thinking "I'm busting my balls and my brains for a god damn music video?!". Its just show business!
I know you have some spec ads coming up? Can you tell us about those?
Christopher Sims: Yes. I want to get into doing commercial work. A spec ad is a "made up" commercial. Something that will never be seen. Just something for a directors reel to show industry types that you know how to create that medium. So I've written 5 different scripts for these spec ads I'm going to shoot when music videos slow down in the next few months. They'll never be seen publicly but they will be good tools to get my foot in the door at some production companies who are in the commercial industry.
What are working on now?
Christopher Sims: I'm writing on a new Tiger Army track for Epitaph Records. I'm about to shoot a new video for Anberlin in these next few days. I also just booked a video for a band named "Falling Up".
Where do you see yourself in 5 years? What would you like to be doing?
Christopher Sims: I would like to be directing semi-big commercial spots.
Christopher Sims is founder and owner of Timecode Entertainment. Watch some of his videos below...
Ignite - "My Judgement Day"
Chris Sim's music video treatment for Saosin "Voices":
I've been preaching for a while now that this video needs to be more than a quickly acted out story line. "Voices" is a track that bleeds emotional expression. This video for me needs to be more important than just a quick 3 minute commercial for Saosin. It really has to connect to our viewer on an emotional level. I'll be shooting a highly dominant performance inter-cut with an easy to swallow, powerful conceptual narrative.
First to explain Saosin's dominant performance. Please reference Red Hot Chili Peppers video for "By The Way". They are performing in a non-descript dark studio lit hard from one side. The camera is almost always shooting on the dark side of the performers. I want to take this approach in a way and add some textured depth elements. We will be shooting in a huge studio with massive amounts of depth. Saosin will be performing in this non descript studio lit hard from one side as everything besides the performers fall into shadow. I'll be placing 4-5 huge vintage photography umbrellas and old vintage flash units deep in the shadows far into the distant background of our studio. They will be randomly placed in different focal lengths to our camera. These vintage flash units with their umbrellas will never be visible until they are fired. I will trigger these units in random sequence mostly within our chorus' to create energy in the frame. To add one more layer of texture to our performance frame I'll be placing ash particle in the air that falls at an incredibly slow rate. These particles will be few and far between but will add tremendous focal texture between my lens and Saosin.
Shooting Saosin with a long lens at a skinny shutter of 22.5 degrees in the environment described above will further predicate their mystique. I'll be shooting Cove in both the performance and in his own vocal vignette. This vocal vignette will be in front of one of the vintage umbrella flash units. This flash unit will be wired to flicker as if malfunctioning.
Inter-cut with our dominant performance will be our conceptual counterpart. Have you ever noticed the difference of a photograph where the subject is looking into the lens and one when they are not? If you haven't, try it. Everyone has a digital camera these days. Should be easy. You'll notice when your subject stares into that lens that they are really letting down their guard for you in a way and letting you into their personality and into their world. When they don't look into your lens you are merely documenting them seemingly unnoticed and you end up with a photograph with less emotional connection to your subject than if they were staring into your lens. This works on many levels but there has to be other elements to express emotion such as story, structure and actor performance. Imagine a starving child photographed in the deserts of Africa holding an empty rice bowl while he stares down at the cracked desert floor. Now imagine the same starving boy photographed while looking into the lens right at you. For some reason the photograph where he is staring into the lens immediately engages you and makes you a part of what he is feeling.
I want to immediately engage our audience with this video. I want to stay away from complicated story lines that seem to stray from the intent of the song just to create a clever hook towards the third act. I want my concept to create something that is easy to relate to.
I want to create 5-10 different character vignettes. These vignettes will all be set-up in a similar way photographically. They will all show a main adolescent subject staring into my lens while a very expressive feud is happening in the background. For example, a 14-year-old girl stares directly into my lens [shooting her from the shoulders up] while her parents argue in the background. I'll be covering each vignette very simply.
Our main subjects in our vignettes could range from a 15 year old punk rock girl from Venice to a 20 year old skateboard kid from Orange County to a 10 year old black boy from the Bronx to a 17 year old Goth chick from Minnesota to a 20 year old college football player from Dallas to a Hispanic female from Los Angeles. Our emotional background surroundings could be parents fighting, siblings fighting, quiet uncomfortable typical family dinner, older sibling of the main subject packing their bags as if running away from home, a grand parent slowly dying from emphysema while hooked to an oxygen machine sitting rotting away on a lazy boy, etc. etc. etc. etc.. I'll first show a close-up of our vignettes main character staring into the lens of my camera and essentially staring directly at our audience then I'll cut to close-ups of what hostility they are witnessing then I'll cut to a shoulder wide shot of them within the room of the hostility. I also want to shoot extreme slow motion or dolly shots into the eyes of our main subjects then cut to extreme fast frame rate, skinny camera shutter look shots of that particular character. These super fast editorial shots will show our character in close-up within a very elusive environment. I will show them go through a range of emotions within seconds with the help of fast editing; crying, laughing, smiling, being silly, raging, spitting, screaming, etc. etc. etc. etc.. These quick edits will show that our character is trying to feel these emotions but are failing to express them to their surroundings that are so damaging their persona.
Coming up to the bridge of the track I want all of our introduced characters to close their eyes and turn away from my camera, now facing their situation. In similar framing and camera movement I'll show slow motion close-ups of our characters feet walking as if walking up to their hostile environment. Now coming into the peak of the track where Cove unleashes his powerful vocal cap on the track we see that our characters are all expressing themselves in their own special ways. For example, our punk girl turns and screams back at her fighting parents, the skateboard kid turns and hugs his feuding parents, the boy from the Bronx turns and kisses his dying grandmother on the cheek, the Goth girl turns and sits at the dinner table, the Hispanic girl turns and shuts her runaway brothers suitcase, etc. etc. etc..
I want to photograph these situations in a very stylized portraiture method. I wont be shooting typical coverage that hand feeds our audience. There will be instances for example where I only shoot someone's close-up from the bridge of their nose to their chin or I shoot someone's emotion all from a close-up of the corner of their mouth.
I will be doing our telecine with Beau and Marshall at The Syndicate. Our look will be quite desaturated and will mimic the look of a printed negative. I'll be combining both our performance and concept into a masterful edit that will fluctuate between tones of energy and emotion.
Chris Sim's music video treatment for Hawk Nelson - "The Only Thing I Have Left":
This video will focus on performance mostly set within an old vintage junkyard. Our concept will be simple but shot in a highly skilled manner and approach. It'll depend on both the filmmakers and band to convey this highly energetic music video combining a sharp vigorous performance with a short semi humorous concept.
I'll be shooting this entire video on 35mm with a 1.85 aspect ratio. I'll be cutting the shutter on this entire video to 11.2 degrees resulting in a very sharp energetic pace to the image. Most all of the camera work will be hand held allowing our skinny shutter to blossom creating a fast paced image cadence to every cut of the video.
Our performance will be shot within this old vintage junkyard with old cars in ruins and some almost looking fixed up. There will be tires and junk parts spread across the yard adding texture. I want to shoot each member in their own private vignette. Each vignette will be highly covered with wides, close-ups and small blips of detail. I would like to get at least one set-up where the entire band is together, allowing me to pick off some great shots of the band playing together for the edit.
The concept will be inter-cut with our already dominant performance. We begin by introducing a group of small kids ages 10-13 standing outside of a junkyard looking bummed. One kid is standing closer to the junkyard fence than the other three. The three kids are rooting our main character kid to go into the junkyard and fetch their kite [or remote controlled airplane; haven't decided yet] they just lost over the fence. Our main character looks troubled, as there is a guard dog just drooling waiting for the kid to make his move over the fence. A slow push in on the troubled boys eyes as he summons the courage. Slow motion shots of the kids yelling at the kid to jump over the fence and get their lost toy.
Our main character closes his eyes and fantasizes. We cut to the boy jumping into frame dressed as a super hero. Obviously fantasizing he's a super hero just to muster the courage to fetch the kite in the dog-guarded junkyard. He's costumed in a black mask, red tights and a black cape. No logos or salutes to any famous super heroes, it'll seem like a very generic super hero costume. The boy jumps the fence now in full super hero gear and starts running across the junkyard. The dog cuts loose after him. Numerous shots and set-ups will be executed such as the kid jetting across the yard, the dog ripping after him, the boy cutting behind old cars trying to hide, the dog whipping around corners, etc. etc. etc.. All of these set-ups will be executed with the same super energetic and sharp camera work that our performance will be, maintaining a seamless flow of energy within our edit.
Finally arriving at his kite we see his friends cheering him on. He grabs the kite and sprints back to the fence all while the dog is barking and chasing after him. His friends excited and yelling for him to hurry. He jumps the fence and lands on the other side with his cheering, excited friends. Now obviously in regular kid gear, not his fantasy super hero gear. Our main character looks back at the barking dog then turns to continue playing with his friends.
This video will seem very stylized but in a photographic way. It'll depend greatly on our performance from the band and also on the performance of the individuals behind the lens. The performance and the short concept will be cut together in a masterful sequence resulting in a fun but very professionally shot music video.