Jonny Greenwald gives a behind-the-scenes look at Empyrean.

Empyrean was an incredibly formative experience for both me and Ganesh. It was the first time I was given the chance to  pre-visualize and really hone the look of a video before ever stepping into the studio to shoot. Empyrean was created while we were students, and because of our lack of money, Ganesh and I were involved very personally in almost every aspect of the video’s production from make-up, editing, sound, and even set design. Thanks to this detriment, we were very precise in how money was spent, and tested almost everything to make sure it looked and felt like it should exist in that world.

In all, the process took about a year from initial conception to completion. The bulk of the work was completed in about 5 months, starting in early January and finishing late May. Some of the pre-visualization process I’ll be talking about in this article will be a summary of the blog we created during the project.

Sketches from Ganesh's Notebook

Sketches from Ganesh’s Notebook

When Ganesh approached me about working on Empyrean, it was at the time a part of a much larger world called the Forbidden Circle. From the best of my understanding, it began as a series of dreams that Ganesh would experience then sketch in his notebook afterwards. From there, he and a fellow student, Suruchi Sharma from the Visualization Laboratory, had created several vignettes following two characters, a male and female figure, traveling through a world surreal and pregnant with symbolism. Originally Ganesh worked with Suruchi to create several different worlds and creatures that would be featured in the Forbidden Circle, and while most of these characters have yet to make an appearance, perhaps some day they may. Check out the blog linked at the bottom of this page to see more of Suruchi’s work.

Suruchi's Painting defining the mood for Forbidden Circle

Suruchi’s Painting defining the mood for Forbidden Circle

At the time, we were wanting to create a video that tried to best represent this world, but to create such a world presented technical challenges that neither of us had attempted before. What proved more challenging was how to believably portray this world, what it looked like, and how it moved and breathed. We began by first finding a thematic point from which we could communicate to each other and the audience what we were thinking. Secondly, while interesting and intriguing in detail, each vignette wasn’t so much a story and to try to cover this expansive world accurately in one video would have been impossible for us at the time. What we decided upon was a story of creation. Beginning with one of the first pieces of art created by Ganesh for the video, we began pulling in several different references, including most prominently Hindu mythology.

God Floating on a Lotus

God Floating on a Lotus

Lakshmi seated upon a lotus

The use of the Lotus is a very strong connection to the Hindu Mythology in the video

From there we began building up a library of images from different religions and mythologies to best explain this mode of creation and from that, Ganesh began creating storyboards. Since Ganesh had never really made a narrative using a video camera before, much of this process began by working together with him and our professor, Karen Hilier, to create a visual language through angles and lenses.

Empyrean Storyboards

The Initial Storyboards created for Empyrean

Since I was designated Director of Photography, I was given the job of trying to decipher how to translate the storyboards into the real world, not only technically but also thematically. I started by collecting references from paintings, films, and theater to begin grounding this world into something believable.

Solomon's Ajax and Cassandra

Lighting reference from classical painting

Screen Shot from The Fountain

Top Lighting Reference from The Fountain

At Empyrean’s beginning, we started looking at the videos of Tool to use as a guide to help us understand how to create something so surreal and symbolic. To us, these videos created a world of human-like creatures that were very much inhuman in nature and, from what we understood, that many of the references in these videos were drawn from spiritual experiences exemplified through the use of sacred signs. We studied their atmosphere and shot composition, using them as a benchmark to test our own shots against. For me,  creating shots for Empyrean was about designing a picture that held the same kind of spiritual or sacred gravitas as a painting in a chapel or an illustration from the Rigveda.

Original Head Selection

The original Head Selection already beginning to set the tone

Final Head Selection Storyboard

Alternate angle of finalized Head Seleciton

We found that a low-contrast, diffused light emanating from the top seemed to produce the most intriguing look, giving our creatures a very angelic presence. From the lighting references, Ganesh then painted the storyboards and I began making color palettes, as I learned to create through the lectures of Michelle Robinson from Disney Studios. The purpose of these palettes is to use the mood and feeling of colors to portray the story. For our story, it began with life, backtracked to barrenness, and then again to how it began.

Empyrean Color Script

Empyrean’s Color Script – Telling the story through color

With the guidance of our professor, Karen Hilier, I was able to then further add life to the story by choosing lens and creating lighting keys that best matched Ganesh’s storyboard paintings. This particular stage took quite a bit of time to perfect and required experimentation. Different kinds of materials were tested that would give the correct quality of light and shadows desired. Lighting and set design needed to work together to achieve the kind of atmosphere we wanted to convey. Luckily Ganesh and I were also designing the sets along with the lighting and were able to be flexible with both. There was some talk about using a fog machine but ultimately we decided to create the differences in the space only through  light, lens, and subtle changes in the set. Particularly in the case of the creator, I wanted the space to open up progressively from the moment she chose her head from the wall to creating the other creatures seen dancing in the lotuses earlier.

Initial Wall Lighting Tests

Initial Wall Lighting Tests

Finalized Wall Lighting Tests

Finalized Wall Lighting Tests

After the lighting test, we were told of a Japanese dance form called Butoh. It is characterized by very stiff movement and invloves painting the body with a type of cake make-up made from ground sea shells. Unfortunately, the kind of make-up required is only found in Japan, but we found a good substitute and were able to apply it successfully. As always, we tested the body paint under our lighting to see how it held up on camera.

Butoh Theater Make-Up
Butoh Theater Make-Up

From these tests, I was able to then create lighting keys which informed me and whoever I was working with on how to place lights on the studio grid. This was one of the more challenging processes as I had to begin to really set in stone what I wanted to do and hope that it would be able to come close to the kind of feeling we wanted. Thankfully, because of all of our testing, much of it did turn out surprisingly accurate.

Jonny's Lighting Keys

Lighting Keys beginning to create the finalized look

The process didn’t always go so smoothly and we had our share of  tremendous failures as well. One of our first shoots ended in complete disaster and none of the footage was ever used. I encourage you to look at the blog and read about the creation of the head tubes. The thought and planning that went into this particular part took weeks to design and half of it was never used. That in many ways is just the nature of the beast and sometimes you have to kill your darlings.

In the end I believe we were able to achieve the kind of mood we had set out to create. Empyrean holds a particular kind of mysticism that I am proud of and I believe that we were only able to achieve this look through careful planning. Shoots of this type require a lot of thought before ever touching the camera but offer so much in return when you see on the screen what you had spent hours pouring over in your head and on paper. Below is a comparison of a shot to its storyboard counterpart. In particular, I am most proud of how accurately I was able to replicate the lighting and mood of the original storyboard.

Throne Storyboard

Throne Video Screenshot

Throne Video Screenshot

In all, it was fun working with Ganesh on such an imaginative project. It gave me the knowledge and confidence to direct Escape Plan’s next music video for Mother Falcon’s Serpent Tongues. In this video, we’ve been able to plan just as extensively and I hope that it has a touch of the same kind of visual complexity. Check out the original Forbidden Circle Blogspot to get even more behind-the-scenes details and also director Ganesh Rao’s page for more of his work.


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