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Quigs sits down with up and coming cinematographer Ben Dundas

Ben Dundas Cinematography

So, I suppose we should start at the beginning: What prompted you to start making films and shooting videos?

Well that’s kind of a long winded question. I’ve been shooting stuff since I was about 15 years old when I used to skateboard and shot videos for fun. In high school I ended up getting a co-op job with a documentary production company, which then led to me going to Humber College for about a year and a half. Ironically I failed my lighting and imaging course, which is basically cinematography (laughs). I started working in the film and television industry as a lighting technician and then when Intervals came along, that’s how I got my start in the music side of things and branching out into shooting my own stuff.

Yeah, you definitely got your start with Intervals; I remember seeing all of that come about while I was in Toronto. How did your working with Intervals come about?

I’ve known Aaron for a long time now. It’s funny because the first time I saw Aaron play guitar I was 16 years old and I had no idea who he was. It’s interesting because his band at that time introduced me to heavier music and got me into bands like As I Lay Dying and August Burns Red and all that type of stuff. Eventually I got to know him a little bit better when he was in a band called Speak Of The Devil and when he parted ways with them, he was just doing his own thing, trying out some new stuff. When he showed me “Still Winning” I said, “I’ve got a camera, let’s try and do something”, and then the playthroughs of just took off after that. It’s become a real niche in our industry and our scene but realistically it’s the thing to do nowadays. It’s interesting because when we started doing it that wasn’t necessarily the case.

67,000 views and counting

So obviously the first video you ever did was “Still Winning”?

In the realm of technical music yeah. In terms of what I do now that was the very first thing that came about and it just exploded. The sheer amount of people who were into it and responded was actually overwhelming, especially since at that time there was the whole Charlie Sheen craze happening with “still winning” and all that stuff, and by the time the video hit if you Googled ‘still winning’ you would find Charlie Sheen and the second hit was our video – so we realized that it was a pretty good idea from a marketing perspective. We did one for every single song from the EP and then we continued to do so for In Time, the second EP. We’re actually planning on finishing up videos for “Memento” and potentially for “Tapestry“, and we actually just recently shot one for “Alchemy” (released today!) as well. So that’s how it started, but once other bands saw the effect it was having and the massive response and virality that could be achieved with them – well suddenly I was in demand (laughs). Everyone wanted one and for a while I was doing it really, really cheap and then it became more a matter of wanting to progress more to music videos and focusing on that type of stuff, so I adjusted my rates and that’s kind of where my head’s at right now.

Looking back at the “Still Winning” video, because on YouTube most guitar play through videos are just “hey this is me sitting in a chair with my guitar” and obviously that’s what this is but you choose interesting shots and you actually add a sense of dynamism by moving around a lot. How did you go about choosing your shots? It’s also apparent that as you made more videos you became more adventurous. So starting out, what made you decide that you were just going to do something a bit different and can you talk a bit about your process for the video?

I think it really just stems from the fact that I’m involved in the film industry. I work professionally in the film industry and that’s really my first job as a lighting technician. I’ve worked on shows like Flashpoint and I did a couple of days on the new Total Recall. I’ve seen it from the other side, so when we get down to the nitty-gritty – these small little shoots – it’s very simplistic in comparison, but I still want to instill it in a cinematic sense that’s not the way that everyone else does it with a static camera just sitting there. I want to add another type of visual interpretation to the music and kind of amplify that a little bit. What I find is that it’s great to just watch someone playing guitar in the shot but it can be a little boring so you want to spice it up and do something that people are more likely to share and say “holy shit, this is fucking awesome I need to show my friend this” and that’s really where it stems from.

Process wise, I’ve always been of the mind that it should be a little spontaneous; it’s not meant to be as complex as a music video so you have a lot more freedom to make it up as you go along. Basically all I end up doing is I find a location that I think is suitable for the song and makes sense and then when we do the playback I just shoot to the song and try to get as much coverage from as many angles as possible so I always have somewhere to cut; always have somewhere to get something visually interesting from. Realistically, the playthroughs are something that I’m really happy with just because of that almost trend setting nature, that kind of occurred when we did “Still Winning“. It’s become a business for me; it’s become something that I can actually make relatively good money doing and I’m starting to switch over my career now from just being a lighting technician and being that guy, to just shooting for a living so it’s been great.

That’s great dude. Congrats!

Thanks man. I appreciate it.

Do you think that there’s a problem with the fact that 9 times out of 10 people don’t really pay attention to who’s behind the camera in music videos?

Not really, because I don’t think that’s where the focus should be. Realistically, you’re there to amplify, not to replace. It’s not your music; you’re not supposed to get in front of it or hog the limelight. The whole objective of creating a music video is to accompany the music and to amplify the power of the music with a visual companion. It’s about the finished product and how the two mediums work together to create something that people can derive enjoyment from. Hopefully the mediums work so well together that the video will resonate with the viewer and become memorable. I don’t want to boss people around or take over people’s musical identities; ultimately, as a filmmaker I act as an advisor to the creative process and my one goal is to make something to please the client and something that I can be proud of – that people will enjoy watching. Hearing peoples’ feedback is enough of a reward for me. Yeah, the money’s nice too, but it’s one of those things. I’m always happy when a band or artist sees fit to share my page or push my name out there a little bit, but it’s by no means the primary reason for doing what I do.

That’s a good way to look at it. On to more difficult subjects, I’ve seen a couple of criticisms of your work where they argue that the point of a playthrough video is that it’s meant to be a bit more straightforward. I know on – I think it was the Structures drum video I saw a few criticisms people who felt jilted because they just wanted to see the instrument and what was being played more clearly. It led to a discussion about the difference between a playthrough video and a music video. What do you think about stuff like that?

Well that’s always a very interesting discussion because I mean really, what is a playthrough video? It doesn’t have a defined set of characteristics or things that really apply to it other than someone playing a musical instrument, so in my mind it’s all subjective to what you can do with it. In the past I’ve played with the idea of having people moving around and do some other different things but I’ve kind of settled back to the idea that the music should be the focus and I shouldn’t try to take away from that, so that’s been the process for me. I do read all the comments because I want to see what people are getting out of it and I kind of adjust as I go through to my own preferences and to what they’re saying. When it comes to the Structures “In Pursuit Of” playthrough I was honestly disappointed when I saw their live music video; it was something that I thought could have been done a little better – I just really don’t think the video did them any justice. The idea with the playthrough was to do something that would be a little more flashy; more intense; perhaps more so than I would normally do, just to put something out there that was cleaner and had a higher production value. I don’t know if you’ve seen the other covers with Andrew (McEnane, Structures’ drummer) we did recently but we kind of went in the opposite direction. We literally did one overhead shot for the entire video, mic’ed the drums for live audio because my concern was that the whole flashiness is great but there is a separation between being able to play an instrument and watching someone dubbing an instrument, so when you see the new ones that we’ve done it’s all shot in one take – there’s no cuts and it’s done specifically in that way to showcase his legitimacy as a drummer because I saw him play “In Pursuit Of” 32 times or however many times it was, perfectly, but no one else got to experience that so I wanted to show the other side, something other than just a flashy video.

Yeah, there are a lot of flashing lights in that one.

Oh yeah, and I do like the flashing lights, it’s a cool effect, but you know, one time right? I never want to repeat myself over and over again. You see it a lot: guys (and I won’t mention any names) put out a music video but it’s the same music video for every single band they do and its really quite disturbing to me because I think that everyone should have a unique product instead of just regenerating the same thing over and over and over again.

Sure. Because that’s one of the things I think is so strong about your video making, that you have (in my opinion anyway) a lot of extravagance but at the same time you know how to reign it in. I don’t think you’ve ever gone particularly too wild. The “Inertia” guitar playthrough you did with Intervals really sticks out in my mind, recorded I believe on the roof of Steve’s Music shop?

(laughs) No, not on the roof of Steve’s actually, that was somewhere near Lakeshore. Someone Aaron had worked with lived in the building. When we got up there, there were people around too, which was kind of interesting. It’s always interesting shooting around people because they’re all a little confused as to what’s happening. You’ve got a live guitar and you’re playing music and you’re over dubbing a song. We did a video on the subway and that was just bizarre, everyone was clapping at the end and getting into it and you know, its heavy music – not something that a lot of people are generally into – and the number one comment was it sounds like Rush because I guess that’s what people who aren’t into this scene see as the musical equivalent to anything that kind of sounds like it’s all over the place.

Interesting. Which one did you do on the subway?

I did it with a band named called Atherial about 8 months ago.

OK, I didn’t see that one. What made you decide to do it on the subway?

Again it was just this idea of having things be unique and different – it’s not my favorite work, per say; the camera was very shaky and it was very difficult to light. The lighting was very erratic because we were going in and out of tunnels so just cutting that together convincingly was very difficult. I changed a couple of things when I did that but realistically it was a lot of fun. We had my buddy Nick Papageorgiou (vocalist of The Northern) on the subway just hanging out with us basically with a laptop over his head just jamming to tunes so yeah it was really cool.

That’s cool. Going back to “Inertia“, how did you make the decision to shoot it outside, in view of the CN tower?

Well it’s been a long running conversation with Aaron because at first he was very set on the idea of being inside, next to his rig, all of his stuff right there and after “Duality” It was kind of my plan to get him out of the house. The first two – “Duality” and “Still Winning” were in his basement and there’s not a of light down there – it’s a little tight, so then I managed to persuade him to shoot in the sun room for “Sonar” and when things really started to take off we tried to think of things that were a little more extravagant and impressive looking. We wanted “Inertia” to have more of an epic visual accompaniment especially with the way the song is phrased, so shooting on a rooftop just seemed like a natural thing to do. I like shooting on rooftops because there’s lots of light, often there’s gorgeous scenery and it just worked out the way that the shots lined up, it kind of looks like he’s sitting on top of the sky dome which is kind of bizarre but at the same time has a pretty epic feel which I really like about it.

Yeah, it really does. So which one is your favourite out of all of the ones you’ve done, and why?

That’s a tough one; there have been so many. I actually looked through the numbers the other day and I think I’ve worked with 30 bands at this point. It’s really difficult to define what’s my favorite; I have to probably say one of the Intervals videos, so between “Inertia” and “Sonar” probably, but that’s just because of the headspace I was in when I did them. I was still very new to it so I had a lot more room to do things that I hadn’t done before; now it’s getting a little more complicated because I’ve done all of the things that I wanted to do so it’s now about trying to come up with new ideas and new spaces and getting into different lighting techniques. I want to really experiment and challenge myself; to push my skills to their limits so that I can deliver higher and higher production value for the bands that I work with. I want to do as much as I possibly can to ensure that every single thing is close to perfect and really helps my clients stand out from the crowd. I want to move as far away as possible from the “easy route”.

So what have you learned most since starting doing all of this?

It’s interesting: I didn’t really understand how the music industry worked, like, really worked until I dived headfirst into it (laughs). Being friends with Aaron and Nick Xourafas from Structures, you get a real insight into the way things actually are. Not only how to be a successful ABDN, but also the virality of the content I’m producing, so that now when I talk to a band it’s not just a conversation of “oh where are we going to shoot this”; it’s just as much about the marketing and how this is going to be seen in the eyes of your viewers and fans. Looking at the whole spectrum is important and I get it – I understand what they’re going through – not having that much money to spare and being limited to the things that they can pull off themselves, so really I’ve just massively advanced my general understanding of the music and the people that operate in this environment.

The other thing that’s kind of interesting is that before I started shooting I didn’t really know what I was doing, so I kind of taught myself every single thing that I know up until this point about shooting and editing and the whole process in general. What I tend to do is if I have a really fun idea of something that I really wanted to do, I just go and watch a tutorial online and teach myself how to do it, because the internet is an amazing resource. You can literally teach yourself how to do just about anything so it’s a great tool. Someone actually recently messaged me on my Facebook page and asked “I’m really thinking about going to film school, what are your thoughts on that?” I basically said – save your money, go out and buy a camera, go shoot because at the end of the day, no-one can do it for you and they can talk at you all you want but to actually do it on a day to day basis – that’s how you learn, especially with arts. I learned the hard way (laughs).