Filming a Musical Number

(This post references iSundae II: Attack of the Cones, part 8. You may want to view the movie before reading this post.)

Some people learn slower than others. That’s got to be the only explanation for why we decided to throw not one, but two musical numbers into our second movie. Wasn’t iSundae I hard enough? Maybe we’re gluttons for punishment. Or maybe the songs just begged to be written. But however it happened, we wound up with two scenes that involved singing. Singing in the middle of the woods, no less. Are we nuts or what?

I have it! We were lured into thinking it would be easier because the basics aren’t that hard. We create the music for the song first, then pre-record the vocals and burn them and the music to a CD. When we want to film the actor singing, we play the CD and the actor sings along. This lets the actor get really close to the original timing of the song and makes the lip syncing look even smoother. Once we have it all filmed, we erase the sound from the visual clips and replace it with the pre-recorded audio. How easy! But wait until you try to film it. Things can get out of hand really quick.

Although we are by no means competent (much less comfortable) with filming musical numbers, here area few tips we want to pass along to anyone who is . . . uh . . . (crazy, nuts, intrepid, confident . . . what do I say?) . . . bold enough to try it.

Make sure the actors can sing the song in their sleep

(And I’m not referring to dream sequences.)

They need to know the lyrics and the tune so well they can sing them backwards! Well, maybe not that well. (Yes, we can sing parts of Cheese Soufflé backwards.) They need to be able to sing the song at a moment’s notice and sing it well. Trust me on this one. As a director, it’s so frustrating when you lose every other take because the actor who is supposed to be lip-syncing can’t remember the words. As an actor, it’s very discouraging when you have to concentrate so hard on remembering the words that you forget little things like moving your mouth and singing to the other characters instead of the floor.

Double check everything, but especially the batteries in your portable boom box

We got caught with this one the day before we were going to film. No C batteries to be found in the house. And the adapter power cable for the cigarette lighter in the van wasn’t going to work.

Streamline your storyboards

If your number has been arranged as a whole song, and you’ve been practicing it as a whole song, try not to film it one verse at a time as you move the camera around. You lose your place very easily and get a lot of messed up entrances and exits. Things flow best if you do them the way they’ve been rehearsed. Set your actors up for success! Put the camera in position once and film the whole song. Move it to a secondary location and film the whole song. If you need an angle that’s weird enough . . . I mean, different enough that you only want one shot of it then it’s okay to just do a piece of the song. I’m not trying to force you into filming the whole song a gazillion times. Just keep your (and your actor’s) patience in mind.

Make lists and prioritize

Time constraints are not good friends of mine. In order to combat them efficiently we need two wonder weapons. Checklists and Plan Bs. Think about it. If you have a checklist that says:

Full Front Shot – entire song
Close up on MC – entire song
Close up on Secondary Character – verses 9, 10, and 12
Wide Angle – verses 2 and 7
Character reactions – entire song

You can hand it to virtually anyone and they can instantly become sub-directors for as long as you need! That will leave you free to think about other things. No worries about them missing an angle or a line. It’s all spelled out. The more detailed the better. Comprehensive lists are your friends. It takes prep work, but it’s totally worth it.

The other necessity is Plan B. Or Plan C. Or even clear through to Plan Z. (I have never personally gone that far.) If you think you’re going to run out of time to film all you had planned, what should you do? The actors and crew are waiting for you to suddenly tell them exactly what they need to be doing to make things work. Do you know what to tell them? Do you have the foggiest notion? Be prepared.
If you know an actor has to leave part of the way through, film everything with him in it first. If you’re getting ready to film for an hour and you look at the clock and almost faint because you realized it took you a half hour to set up, how will you best redeem the situation? Film all the basic shots first?
I think you get the idea. A little thinking ahead never hurt anyone. Just don’t turn your plans into a worst-case scenario survival kit. No need to flip out over something that might not happen.

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