Last fall, Drew Norton set off to change the way music videos are made.
The filmmaker, whose credits include work for Phantogram and Micachu & the Shapes, was inspired by the emergence of British singer Darwin Deez, who used a green screen to catapult his single “Radar Detector” up the charts.
Norton reasoned that a green screen and some technical expertise provided a flexible template for up-and-coming bands, giving them a platform with the potential to go viral.
He saw the upcoming CMJ Music Marathon as an ideal opportunity to test out the theory, and rented out the Seaside Lounge recording studio in Park Slope, setting up Kino Flo lights and draping green on the walls. He dubbed the project Green Screening.
Norton used the website Kickstarter to raise just over $6,000 to fund the project, dangling goodies like mix CDs and other exclusives to donors. Thanks to the effort, he was able to shoot each band for no charge, while still managing to feed himself.
The end result was three video cameras and a battalion of helpers, including David Berman, Jake Kader, Michael Tai, Roy Nowlin, Zandy Mangold, James Wall, Matt Bockelman and Georgia Howe. The team completed interviews and photos shoots with each band.
By the end of production, each band will have an electronic press kit, a goodie bag of audio, visual and written content that publicists and labels pitch to music bloggers and critics. Although Norton had initially pitched the package to labels for a fee, they balked at paying for anything, leading him to pursue a more egalitarian method of financing through Kickstarter.
“People don’t understand how important they are,” says Norton, referring specifically to videos. “They don’t find you on MySpace, they find you on YouTube.”
Despite the early setback, the bands were surprisingly punctual and reliable, with only three of the scheduled 31 not making it. Fueled by booze and the frenetic energy of the week, the result was over a terabyte of recorded material, and limitless possibilities, thanks to the green screen.
“It exceeded expectations in so many ways,” says Norton. “It was one of the weirdest things I’ve ever been a part of.”
Requests for video themes ranged from the ridiculous - a donkey sticking its head into a bowl of chocolate and shooting lasers out of its eyes - to the even more ridiculous. One band wanted to get shot out of a volcano, fly through the sky and eventually land on a “ginormous” private yacht.
Since that autumn week, Norton has been deliberately moving through footage, having released videos from Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. and Soft Black. He expects to spend most of the next year editing footage, and the Brooklyn band Friends is slated to have the next video.
Norton grew up in Reston, Virginia, a planned community with a man-made lake near Washington D.C. Although it was envisioned to be a suburban paradise by urban developer Robert E. Simon, the town had issues with congestion and even endured an Ebola virus scare in 1989.
“He’s called it the biggest failure of his career,” says Norton, although Reston has since attracting companies such as AOL and Sprint Nextel to move into nearby office space.
Still, Norton knew that he didn’t want to follow the path of many of his fellow students, who went to nearby schools like the University of Virginia, James Madison University or Virginia Tech.
With encouragement from his father, who told him to expand his perspectives, Norton went to New York, still remembering the moment when he arrived, traveling up the West Village, along the Hudson River.
“It took my breath away, immediately,” he says.
Norton attended New York University, studying Spanish American Literature and Interwar European Politics. His interest in film came later, post-graduation, when he began working as a production assistant.
He worked at Michael Schrom and Company, doing commercial and television work, but his immediate passion was always music videos.
From the onset, Norton made it clear that his project would be a labor of love, rather than work. Although he had explored some collaborations, Green Screening is currently free of third parties, aside from the uniforms of Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr.
“I think I would take a sponsor, but they would have to be unobtrusive and really care about young new music,” he says.
But for now, he’s managed to keep moving forward, although his focus on Green Screening means that he doesn’t have the time to take on paid projects. And while he’s hopeful that some angel investor will suddenly appear, for now, he’s committed to soldiering ahead on his own.
“I like the fact that everything will be given away for free,” he says. “I don’t want to get rich off other people’s material.”
Videos and mp3s courtesy of Green Screening and Drew Norton.
MP3: Dale Earnhardt Jr. Jr. - "Simple Girl (Live at Green Screening)"
MP3: Soft Black - "Lions (Live at Green Screening)"