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Bringing Norah Jones’ surreal world to life at ARRI Studio New York

May 7, 2024

Singer-songwriter Norah Jones has long captivated the hearts and minds of listeners, so when Joelle Taylor received the call to direct Jones’ first lead single— “Running”—in almost four years, she jumped at the chance to push new storytelling bounds.

Originally hired as a photographer for the album, it was Taylor’s familiarity and recognition of Jones’ career arc in a music video pitch that secured the directing position. “I’ve worked with Norah and her label, Capitol Records, in the past. They approached me about photographing Norah’s new album cover. She was kind of moving into this colourful era and that was fun to work on. We shot it in New York, November of 2023, which is where they asked me to pitch for the video as well.”

Taylor had the idea of Super 8 film footage interlaced and serving as the backdrop throughout the video. However, with Jones being New York-based, it would prove difficult in terms of budget for Taylor to capture on-location footage of Jones in the California desert. So, Taylor discussed with her editor that perhaps a green screen would suffice, though both quickly agreed that the video would in turn lack the emotional depth and realness that Jones’ song warranted.

DP Gourlay operating the ALEXA 35 with vintage Super 16 lenses

“To have someone acting and singing in front of a green screen, where you have no context for what the environment is, feels super removed. It’s a surreal and dreamy look, but it shouldn’t be instantly obvious that she’s running in front of a backdrop, so when we get to the end of the video with the headlights, it should feel like a car is right behind her.”

It was then that Taylor and her DP, Jon Gourlay, began expanding their options and started to research virtual studios. Their first choice? ARRI Studio New York, located at ARRI Rental’s facility in Long Island City, New York.

“ARRI Studio New York was the first production space I looked at, and it was perfect. It gave us exactly the look we were going for. I was able to test it out the day before our shoot and go through all the lighting details with my DP.”

DP Gourlay and Director Taylor discussing next shots on set

While Gourlay had experience with LED volumes before, this music video would mark his first time shooting an entire project with one. “A lot of our prep felt creative in terms of, you know, this is the energy we’re looking for. This is the sort of spirit we’re trying to capture with a lot of these things. We spent our first prep day just experimenting, putting lenses on, and shooting it in different ways. Just seeing what was going to give us the result that we were most excited about and felt like it brought us into Norah’s world.”

After testing different cameras, lenses, and sensor settings, they decided to shoot with an ALEXA 35 along with vintage Super 16 lenses. Crucially, they also chose a nostalgic texture baked into the camera’s sensor. This allowed the footage to match Taylor’s grainy, grungy desert, Super 8 footage projected on the LED volume.

“Sure enough, once we started shooting, we realised that we were capturing so much of a more literal image with the Super 35 that wasn’t quite giving us that cohesive look that we were hoping to achieve. And so, we thought, let’s experiment. Let’s try those Super 16 lenses. And it’s so fun because obviously in a Super 16 format, you have more texture.”

ALEXA 35 shooting Norah Jones for her lead single, “Running”

Once shooting, one of the biggest benefits was being able to see the live composite image with Jones integrated into the surreal backgrounds, ultimately expediting the whole shoot, which wrapped in four hours on the day.

According to Gourlay, “It was just incredible for everyone to be on the same page, get into the energy we created, adjust anytime something wasn’t working, and get excited when things were working exactly the way we wanted them to.”

This real-time feedback directly impacted Jones’ performance. As Gourlay described, “I think as an artist, she really enjoyed that process. And you could witness her positive response to all of that how she changed her performance, or adapted certain elements of it, based on what she was seeing and how impactful it was.”

Norah Jones walking in place maximised by the NY Stage Volume

Shooting on the volume also gave director Taylor the sense of ultimate creative freedom. “We would have had to do one take, like maybe two takes of the sunset. And this gave us time to rehearse and go over different ideas. I wanted her walking in this red light to wash over her. So, they programmed the lights to kind of circle around, and it ended up being perfect. Little subtle red slowly starts coming in, and then illuminates her whole face in red.”

Shooting on the volume also gave director Taylor the sense of ultimate creative freedom. “We would have had to do one take, like maybe two takes of the sunset. And this gave us time to rehearse and go over different ideas. I wanted her walking in this red light to wash over her. So, they programmed the lights to kind of circle around, and it ended up being perfect. Little subtle red slowly starts coming in, and then illuminates her whole face in red.”

Additionally, the in-house nature of the volume, including a dedicated creative producer, delivered major production benefits.

“Having everything contained instead of sourcing from all types of places, that’s always super helpful and it was very easy to ask questions and ask for help on certain things.”

For Gourlay, shooting this music video showed him virtual production’s limitless potential beyond practical effects or compositing. As he explained, “It was really exciting to get to see that this is a whole new world of its own that is also very familiar. And more than anything, I’m just excited to get to do it again, and to see how else this technology can be pushed.”

For Taylor, shooting on the volume was “overall, a really great experience.” It provided an agile platform to manifest her ambitious vision. As she sums up: “I would definitely recommend it.”

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