The Dead Milkmen, “Pretty Music for Pretty People”

This was a fun project. Once again, I have to thank Kyle Cassidy for asking me to shoot video during a photo shoot. The Dead Milkmen, a Philly punk band which had hits with “Punk Rock Girl,” “Stuart,” and “Bitchin’ Camaro” (which got some play on Orange is the New Black this year), were working on a new album Miner Street Recordings, with Brian McTear as engineer. Kyle came in for photos, and I brought a couple of cameras to shoot whatever happened.

I wound up with about four hours of really wonderful stuff. To begin with, Rodney Anonymous is one of those people who is constantly, naturally and effortlessly funny, whether he’s talking about his neighborhood, why he wrote a particular song, or why he loves Crudbump’s “Crab Hand.” So while the others are checking their instruments and Brian’s linking the cables up and checking levels, I’m recording Rodney on why living next to a jazz trio has its downside.

That day they recorded the basic tracks for a song titled “Pretty Music for Pretty People.” The first time they ran through the song, all I could hear was Dean Sabatino’s drums. Luckily, I figured that the control room was playing back the signals from all the instruments. So I set a stationary camera up in there with a microphone, where it could capture a more vivid soundtrack–  guitar, bass, Rodney’s keyboard and vocal– while my handheld was capturing the people in the studio, where all you could hear were the drums. Syncing the two later got me several takes of the basic track.

I suggested that I edit the video to the final track, when it was done; I think Dean said they were doing overdubs in two weeks, so I agreed to come in then and get more material. (Sadly, I missed the session when Rodney dubbed in his final vocal, and Joe recorded his full guitar track. )

The material was different on Overdubs Day. There was a lot less Rodney-banter, because he had a cold, but mainly because overdubs of single instruments and vocalists didn’t require the complex miking for the whole band. So right off, I got footage of Rodney laying in two piano tracks: one on a standard upright, but later on a tacked piano for a proper Carnival feel. And Dean used a small electronic keyboard to distort “Laaadies and Gentlemennnnn….” into a sideshow barker voice.

But the real fun began when Joe, Dan and Dean recorded backing vocals for a chant of “Ear candy” in the middle eight. It sounded okay, but I was really lucky to have the camera on Dan when he had an inspiration: why don’t we record this backwards, but play it forwards, and give it that strange, distorted quality? Bingo. Much discussion of Twin Peaks‘s red room scene ensued. How do we do this? Well, we record it forwards, play it backwards, then we try to imitate the backwards version, and then reverse the imitation, so what comes out is a funhouse mirror version of “Ear Candy.” So I wound up with about half an hour of Dean, Joe and Dan recording strange “Yin a Cree” sounds, and giggling over the playbacks.

Amy Morrisey came in to record two parts; the incantation that opens the record, and the “Sleep all night” commentary during the middle. She also had a go at the “Ear candy” chant; on her first try, her “Yin a cree” played backwards was an almost perfect “ear candy.”

The Dead Milkmen gave me an MP3 of the final mix, and I went to work. The first job was to find the video of the bits that were actually used in the final mix: if I’m going to be matching lips, fingers, and drum hits to voices, notes and beats, it helps to have all of that other energy right, too. (Brian’s Tendentious Explanation: You can frequently tell when a performer is not doing the same thing as the audio, even if it’s perfectly in sync. There’s a particular energy: you can see singers put the effort into forcing sound through their throats, the drummer’s relaxed mood in the studio may not match his furious playacting on the video shoot.) So, if I had good video of an original moment, I used it; this was most important for Rodney’s closeups, because when he was singing, I had to use takes where his visual effort was close to the final recording. For the other bits, I used video of alternate takes, carefully synced. (Amy’s takes were very similar to each other.)

During the “ear candy” part, I ran the videos of Joe, Dean and Dan in reverse to match the audio, and flipped them horizontally to make the “backwards” bit a little more noticeable. In my early drafts, I tried to capture the multi-layered aspect with things like split screens and moving wipes. I overthink things way too much: Dean had the good sense to choose the more direct approach we used here.

Romeo and Juliet is completed

IMAG0005Took me long enough, but the Romeo and Juliet project is completed. I’ll be spending the next few weeks getting them out the door for the Kickstarter supporters.  I’m not sure if or how I’ll be getting copies to people who weren’t part of the Kickstarter project, but I have lots of spares, and I can only give so many away as Xmas presents. So if I decide to make them available, I’ll post about it here.

I ought to say that Discmakers made a really nice package out of the materials I uploaded. The DVDs are in good cardboard Digipaks, and the shrink-wrap gives them that joissance of Professional Retail Product.

Romeo and Juliet Kickstater’s met its goal!

It’s happy news here at Siano Heights, because the Kickstarter to fund the Romeo and Juliet project has succeeded! Not only did we meet our goal of $3500, we surpassed it, and reached the awe-inspiring heights of $5100!

I’ll try to post Progress Reports on this website. For now, my tasks are to start editing the project, getting the sound mixed, and prepping the DVD for the final project.


Draft excerpt from Romeo and Juliet

A few days ago, I decided to play with the video materials I have for Romeo and Juliet. I’d just launched the Kickstarter, and had a strong initial response, so I figured I ought to show something as a kind of reward. So here is a very rough draft of the opening scenes.

I said it was rough. I did this mainly because I have to set up the proper workflow for the project. The fastest way to edit this kind of project is as a multicamera project– you run synchronized video streams, and pick the active camara as you go along. However, editing a multicamera setup with Adobe Premiere Pro allows me only four video streams– and I have seven, plus pickup shots. So for the time being, I limited myself to the four cameras on the lower floor. There are three more cameras I’m not using here. (For example, that public official who interrupts the riot? I have him in unused footage.)

I can’t get the sound mixed until the Kickstarter’s funded, so the sound in this excerpt is a temporary track. I have to work out a workflow that enables me to work with a sound mixer as a collaborator.

The link to the Kickstarter’s at the left-hand side of this website.  I hope you can be persuaded to contribute, or at least, get a friend to contribute.

Kickstarter for Romeo and Juliet is Live!

As of March 5, the Kickstarter for my Romeo and Juliet project is live! Please, go to and contribute!

West Philadelphia’s Curio Theater began its 2013-14 season with William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. Since the season was oriented on issues of gender, many of the roles in the play were switched from men to women.

Juliet’s only parent was her mother, Lady Montague. Tybalt was a very different kind of character. And the play was now about a lesbian romance between Juliet and a woman named Romeo.

But there was controversy. Philadelphia magazine’s online article about the production attracted over 1200 responses. People around the country objected to the production’s gay content. They objected to the play being staged in a Methodist church. Some of them objected to doing Shakespeare in modern dress. And there were threats of violence made against Curio Theatre.

Within a few weeks, the story went national on the Drudge Report and Free The New York Times did a special article about the production artwork, including the striking poster by renowned photographer Kyle Cassidy (Armed America, War Paint, Who Killed Amanda Palmer?).

A lot of people did not want you to see this play. But a lot more people supported the production. They felt the play was very important, and that the approach spoke to them. People who couldn’t come to Philadelphia to see the play wrote in asking about tours. So I decided that this play needed to be preserved and shared with a wider audience.

My name is Brian Siano, and I’m a video director and producer based in Philadelphia. I’ve been doing work with Curio for the past few years, and this is a Kickstarter to fund a DVD version of Curio Theatre’s Romeo and Juliet.

I organized a camera crew and a sound engineer, and we captured a performance with seven cameras. Now it’s time to turn all of that video into a professional quality DVD package for people who wouldn’t be able to see this performance otherwise.

Over the past ten years, Curio Theater’s productions have been among the best in the Philadelphia theater. They’ve produced versions of Twelfth Night, Equus, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, and Slaughterhouse-Five. They’ve performed adaptations of Great Expectations and The Iliad, and created original plays such as Madville by Paul Kuhn.

Our first goal will pay for the post-production work, like editing, sound mixing, and manufacturing the DVDs. We want to get the DVDs out to supporters by mid-May of 2014. We’re also planning for two stretch goals. If we can raise a thousand dollars above our first goal, we can pay the actors and technicians extra for being involved in the production: they did a lot of hard work on the play, and if the video takes off, they deserve a reward. If we can raise a thousand dollars above that, we can create a documentary about the production, and interview the creators about the play, the controversy, and more. (Or we can do a second bonus.)

So that’s the project. You get a DVD of a terrific production of one of Shakespeare’s most famous plays. You contribute to Philadelphia theater, by encouraging productions such as these, and by encouraging the creation of video versions of these plays. So please contribute, and spread the word so we can provide a lot of talented people with a bonus for being part of this. Thank you.


A Doll’s House is Completed!

As of November 23rd, the Doll’s House project is as done as we can make it. We managed to upload the DVD image file to Discmakers, and the Blu-Ray file will take a bit longer. We expect to get the discs in early December. If you contributed to the Kickstarter, you should get your discs soon; if not, you’ll be able to visit the Ebeneezer Maxwell Mansion and buy a copy.

In the meantime, enjoy a few selected frame stills.


Menus for “A Doll’s House”

As I write this (Nov. 20,. 2013), we’re into the home stretch on A Doll’s House, a filmed version of a play directed by Josh Hitchens and performed at the Ebeneezer Maxwell Mansion.

I spent yesterday learning enough Photoshop trickery to develop a set of navigational menus for the DVDs and Blu-Rays. We’d been up at the Mansion this past Sunday, shooting a pickup or two, and I took some stills and some video of stuff in the house to use as either a) menu backgrounds or b) inserts for a title sequence. They went into the menus.

Here’s a small gallery.



Together It’s Possible at Kirkridge

TIP Logo color K copyTogether it’s Possible is, as their website says, a group of parents of cognitively-challenged children working to get better support services in northeast Pennsylvania, or the “Slate belt.” They have occasional retreats, where the kids can have some fun activities and the parents can share stories and advice and wisdom with each other. These retreats are held at the Kirkridge Retreat Center in Bangor, PA.

Christina tries my out my TM700. I gave her a camera-person credit in the final video.

Christina tries out my TM700. I gave her a camera-person credit in the final video.

In early September of 2013, a friend was hired to develop a website for TIP, and she hired me to work on a showcase video. The weekend was a terrific experience. There was one constraint, in that we really couldn’t interrupt or interfere with the retreat’s activities. These families were here to give their kids a fun weekend and to share their experiences with others. This meant that we couldn’t sit people down in front of a background, hitch up a lapel mike and start a-interviewin’. Instead, we followed the weekend’s activities with a handheld camera and covered as much as we could. We also shot footage of the parents when they were talking (during schedules discussions during the day, and at an informal after-dinner discussion one night).

The video has some of our interview with Nick, who really enjoys insects and weather.

The video has some of our interview with Nick, who really enjoys insects and weather.

The purpose of the video was to show parents who hadn’t heard of TIP or Kirkridge what the retreats were like, and that they could benefit from everyone’s empathy and experience. And we had a rough time limit of ten minutes. Most of the footage of the weekend’s activities was useful, but the footage of the discussions worked best as a soundtrack (I spent the time swivelling the camera to the speakers). So we decided that it’d be a good approach to show the activities, but to lay in particularly strong or insightful comments that I’d recorded from the parents as a voice-over.

My friend was primarily responsible for creating the following video montage:

And if you happen to be or know someone with a cognitively-impaired child in the eastern and northeastern region of Pennsylvania, please, get in touch with TIP.

Dawn at Kirkridge. I spent some time trying to get good timelapses while I was there.

Dawn at Kirkridge. I spent some time trying to get good timelapses while I was there.

In Progress: Henrik Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House”

Jennifer Summerfield and Carl Guarneri rehearse a scene from A Doll's House while director Josh Hitchens looks on.

Jennifer Summerfield and Carl Guarneri rehearse a scene from A Doll’s House while director Josh Hitchens looks on.

As of August 23rd, I’m in the middle of co-creating a video of a recent production of Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, performed at the Ebeneezer Maxwell Mansion in Germantown.

The production was directed by Josh Hitchens; I’ve been working on a video of his one-man show about Jeffrey Dahmer, and he’s done his one-man Dracula at the Maxwell mansion in the past. Once again, Kyle Cassidy spearheaded a project to record a performamce.

Only this time, we’d try to shoot it more like a movie than like a live play performance. This meant closeups. This meant planned camera angles. This meant reblocking the action for the cameras. This also meant an intense and very rushed preproduction process.

To start with, I shot the play’s dress rehearsal, and the photos you see here are screengrabs from that footage. The play takes place in the mansion’s largeish parlor, and you can see the audience seating in the background. (The blond man with glasses is director Josh Hitchens.) I shot this footage so that I could compile a shot list that we could follow for the final video.

Jennifer Summerfield and Carl Guarneri rehearse a scene from A Doll's House.

Jennifer Summerfield and Carl Guarneri rehearse a scene from A Doll’s House.

We were really under the gun, because schedule-wrangling gave us only two days to shoot a two-hour play: a Thursday night from 4 to 10, and a Sunday afternoon, roughly six hours each. This meant fast camera setups, very few retakes, and severely reduced opportunities for shooting Absolutely Perfect Camera Angles. Also, there were two actors who could be present for only one day of shooting, so we had to rejigger our shooting schedules to accommodate them.

However, we seem to be doing this pretty well. We’re shooting with two camerapeople– myself and Kyle Cassidy– and we have three cameras, making for some swift coverage setups. (It’s tough to get great angles when you’re preventing the cameras from seeing each other, but we manage.) I’ve been transferring my own footage to my hard drives, and so far it looks pretty good.

We hope to have a DVD and Blu-Ray ready by mid-December, so that out Kickstarter funders get a product in their hands in time for the holidays. Which means that I’ll be teaching myself how to design menus in Adobe Encore during November.



The Gambling Room

Once again, I shot video of a play by John Rosenberg at Hellafresh Theater.

This time, I shot the play so I could try two different editing strategies. I shot two performances with two cameras each. I put the stationary TM700 at one side, while I panned and reframed my GH2 from the other, and on the next performance, I reversed the positions.

So there’s two basic ways I could edit these. I could take the GH2 footage from both performances, so the camera coverage would be the better coverage from both sides. But, I’d have to edit it to make the two performances seem like one (as I’ve done elsewhere), and that takes a lot of time and care… especially if the performances varied a lot from day to day.

And that’s what happened. Actors would be in different positions when they’d say the same lines. One day an actor played a scene wearing sunglasses, and the next, he played them without. Another actor would cross and uncross his legs at different points in a scene. After getting about fifteen minutes done, I threw up my hands, and decided to try the other strategy.

This other strategy was to synchronize the two video streams from the same (June 9) performance, and switch between Camera 1 and Camera 2 as though I were directing a live broadcast. Editing is a LOT faster this way– ideally, the project could be done in under two hours. Of course, there’d be tweaking the cuts after the fact, but I had a good First Draft of the play within three days.

Thing is, not everything was covered well during that performance. As I said, the TM700 didn’t move… and there were two or three long passages where the action occurred outside of its field of view. So I edited those sequences using footage from the June 8th performance. That took a few days as well. Once I had that done, I trimmed out the sections where the lights went out and the actors arranged themselves for the next scene.

I also created a small title sequence. One of the props in the play is a famous photo of a Buddhist monk immolating himself to protest the Diem regime; the photo in the play had a handwritten note, attributed to Madame Nhu, urging that we “enjoy the barbecue!” I figured this’d be a nice graphic for the titles. So I found a copy of the original photo, rescaled and cropped it to match the prop, and the did a slow fade so the Nhu-note version gradually became visible over time.