Insider Interviews: Radar Creative Christopher Arcella

Radar Creative Christopher Arcella has won five Radar commissions since joining us in 2012, alongside gaining a feature in The Beak Street Bugle and winning VOTD three times. Having made videos for Warp’s Plaid and The VO5 Band alongside many other great acts, Christopher has really developed his skills as a director since joining the Radar community. We caught up with him recently to (find out more and get his advice for the next generation of up and coming creative talent…) hear about his experience, grab some tips and find out which are his top 5 pieces of kit…

Khadija Griffith and Daniel Ching in Dance Originality for VO5

How has Radar helped your career as a director?

Radar is a great springboard to becoming a professional director. In an industry that relies heavily on gatekeepers and introductions, Radar has leveled the playing field by providing opportunities to those without connections. Before using Radar I’d been asked by a few bands here and there to make music videos because they’d seen my experimental and narrative films. The bands knew they wanted to hire me before we talked about ideas, I never even had to write a pitch. All of those projects were initiated by word of mouth which was fairly limited. My opportunities greatly expanded when I started working through Radar.

Radar has connected me with music video commissioners I wouldn’t have linked up with otherwise while also teaching me how to pitch ideas in a format recognizable by this industry. By writing pitch after pitch I’ve learned how to better organize and present my concepts which has lead to positive collaborations with artists from different parts of the world. In the process I’ve refined my skills as a director, starting off with the lowest budget projects and gradually moving up.

There’s a lot of great work resulting from Radar commissions. For me it’s a reminder of the vast amount of unrecognized talent searching for opportunities to create.

Matt Atwater and Natalie Cuomo in Draw a Line for Her Magic Wand (behind the scenes)

What has been your favourite Radar commission to work on so far?

I’ve had memorable experiences with every Radar commission. Some highlights include: using an anamorphic lens with a custom motorized panning rig on a Malibu Beach for No Name Hotel, shooting a dance comedy in the pouring rain in Central Park for VO5, designing and constructing a massive rig for actors to hang upside down at Rockaway Beach for Her Magic Wand, renting out an entire historic opera house in a shoot for FLAUNT, documenting a cowboy exploring Manhattan for Cloud Boat and hiking miles through the high desert of a national forest to shoot footage for Plaid.

Claire Louge in Do Matter for Plaid

What is your top tip for a successful pitch?

My top tip is to write something that is true to the music while also remaining true to yourself.

I think it’s important to allow the music to take you somewhere new. If as a director you’re able to let go of your preconceptions, not only will you come up with ideas that mesh more seamlessly with the band and their track, you’ll be challenged to go places you haven’t visited before. There have been times when I’ve been sent a song by a band and as I listen for the first time I’m thinking, “How am I going to pull this off?” To be honest it was typically because the music was far from what I choose to listen to in my free time. In these cases I find something about the song that inspires me, often the lyrics, and make it a focal point.

If you stay true to the track in your pitch I find that bands and labels appreciate your willingness to step into their world. At the same time it’s also important to stay true to your own voice. If the band doesn’t appreciate your directing style and your past work then perhaps it isn’t going to be the best match. Ideally the pitch should sort all of this out. If you’re up front and honest about who you are, where you’ve been and where you’re willing to go then the commissions you receive should work out well. For me the goal is to find a good collaboration, not simply to win a commission. I want to avoid a situation where a band or label is pushing me to do something I’m not suited for. In those cases it would be better for them to hire someone else or direct the video themselves.

Chelsea Yarbrough and Tyler Case in Codon for FLAUNT

Can you share your top 5 pieces of kit?

1. Jupiter-9 85mm f2

My top five are easily all lenses, but to keep things interesting I’ll just mention one. The Jupiter-9 is one of my favorites because under the proper conditions its character is soft and surreal. The lens has 15 aperture blades which give you circular bokeh, if you’re into that sort of thing. You can browse the capabilities of this lens with a Flickr search (generally a great way to research lenses).

2. Eclipse Variable ND Fader

I’ve shot quite a bit under the desert sun where reflections can be so bright that I have little choice but to shoot at a higher aperture. This fader ND gives me the option to quickly and precisely step down to achieve a shallow depth of field while maintaining a high quality image.

3. Manfrotto BeFree Compact Travel Aluminum Alloy Tripod

This is a great tripod that fits neatly in a backpack. It’s perfect for when I’m traveling or shooting a number of locations on foot. Note that this is not a panning tripod, but it’s great for stationary shots.

4. Giottos Rocket Air Blaster

I used to frequently wipe my lenses with a microfiber cloth but more often than not all you need is a little air to blow away the dust. I always have one of these on me while shooting.

5. Domke Protective Wraps

These wraps are a great way to pack and transport your gear. Rather than buying specific containers it’s so much more convenient and space efficient to use these.

Madeleine Rogers in Overhead Light

What is the most challenging part of a shoot and do you have any tips on how to get around it?

From my experience, consistently the most challenging part of a shoot is finishing in time. The way I handle this is to prepare as much as possible before the shoot. I scout every location well in advance, taking the opportunity to experiment with still shots. Then I pick the best angles and sequence them in a video storyboard, essentially pre-editing a cut in sync with the music. Once the storyboard feels right I translate the shots into a spreadsheet that serves as a shot list. Having followed this process for a number of years I’ve arrived at a point where I typically don’t overshoot even by one shot. This may sound scary, but as long as the band approves the storyboard I feel more confident focusing on the performances and details of the shots needed rather than spending time setting up and shooting things that may not even be used. That being said, there are times during a shoot when unexpected opportunities present themselves and it makes sense to break away from the shot list. And as well there may be concepts that by their nature benefit from shooting with more freedom and experimentation. In any case preparation pays off by familiarizing with the task at hand to make better decisions that can save time.

Marcus Crawford Guy and Angela Carbone in Overhead Light

What inspired you to get into directing?

For me there isn’t a short, easy answer to this question. I’m going to dig well back into the archives in order to give something substantial.

I didn’t watch many films growing up in Pittsburgh, I was too busy living my life and didn’t care much for the movies I was exposed to. However when I got older, international cinema allowed me to travel the world at a time when I could barely afford to take the BART from Oakland to Berkeley. Initially it was the films of Kurosawa, Kieslowski and the French New Wave that sparked my interest. By day I was earning a modest living as a designer, but over nights and weekends I was taking vicarious trips to Japan, Poland and France. The adventures I witnessed over many virtual miles inspired me to make what I describe as experimental narrative shorts. One of them, Frequency Response — Observations featuring actor Xan Holston, won an award at the San Francisco International Film Festival. The reception of the short encouraged me to pursue directing more seriously and I sought out ways to learn more.

My dedications to the design profession faded further when I started helping out at the office of Jim Jarmusch. Working for such a well regarded filmmaker showed me first hand how an independent-minded person with a background similar to my own could create quality feature films outside the system. Becoming familiar with his process and films made me feel like I could be a director too and I started writing my own feature scripts.

One of my hobbies at this time was DJ’ing (the two turntables and a mixer kind) which opened my eyes to the music videos that were being released for some of the more popular tracks. This lead to an inspiring realization that the format was one of the few facets of our culture where it was acceptable and desirable to create something abstract. I soon developed an appreciation for videos by Mark Romanek, Jonathan Glazer and Stephane Sednaoui. I was then fortunate enough to intern briefly for Stephane who through example taught me the value of taking visual risks. After all of this research it made perfect sense to say yes when friends began asking me to make music videos for their bands.

I’m appreciative of all the directors who’ve inspired me to get involved with narrative films and music videos. It’s been especially motivating to learn about directors who stay true to themselves to create work in their own voice. What inspires me now is the desire to empower and challenge audiences by creating experiences that take them to new places with new perspectives, like the many narrative films that let me travel the world when I couldn’t afford to and the music videos that challenged me to draw my own conclusions.

Lance Thomas in National Fantasy for bridges and powerlines

What are your ambitions for 2017?

In 2017 I hope to continue to earn a living by working on projects that I feel inspired by, whatever those projects may be. Beyond this I’d like to find representation as a director from either a production company or an independent rep. In addition I hope to finance and complete one of the five completed feature film scripts I have ready to roll. In the new year I also plan to release a narrative short film that was recently completed entitled “Overhead Light” featuring actress and co-writer Angela Carbone and an original score by Plaid. You can keep an eye on how my story unfolds via the world wide web: www.christopherarcella.com

Want to commission a talented creative like Christopher? Post a brief here

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