As a young man but an old soul, I’ve noticed that music videos have become something of a lost art these days, as new bands can no longer count on a big boost from MTV — an era that has long since passed. Instead, today’s artists are able to release tracks digitally and put music videos out on YouTube and other social media platforms.
But even though we won’t see the next U2 lip-syncing the modern equivalent of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” through the streets of Las Vegas anytime soon, music videos have evolved in a positive way, and every now and then, one grabs your attention with its artistry. I may not keep up with modern music all that much, but artists like The Weeknd and Drake have seemingly taken a more cinematic approach to their videos, which is why they often go viral.
Brendan Uegama is a rising cinematographer who was in Maine when he spoke to Below the Line last year about his impressive resume, which extends well beyond music videos. Most of Uegama’s credits are in film and television, including the 2019 Child’s Play reboot starring Aubrey Plaza, Moonshot starring Cole Sprouse and Zach Braff, and the CW series Riverdale, another project starring Sprouse.
Uegama was also the cinematographer for Drake’s music video for his song “Falling Back,” which was released last year. The music video has nearly 20 million views on YouTube between its album and extended cuts, and it shows Drake marrying 23 different women before it transitions to champagne toasts and a club-like wedding reception.
In this long-delayed interview (apologies!), Uegama discussed his impact on Drake’s music video and its lighting, as well as what it was like working with the singer and Director X, with whom he previously worked on Hulu’s Mike Tyson series Mike.
Below the Line: Before we get started, what are some of your favorite music videos?
Brendan Uegama: Oh, that’s a good question. I don’t know, I mean, I’ve gotta think of some of the old-school ones. I would say, Michael Jackson‘s “Thriller,” that kind of thing. I think David Fincher did a lot of amazing music videos back in the day. Director X obviously made some great videos as well, but as far as a favorite, I don’t know if I would say I have one favorite. I really liked Justin Timberlake‘s “Suit & Tie” [music video] that David Fincher directed.
BTL: Are there any tidbits about the making of music videos that the average person may not be aware of?
Uegama: Well, generally speaking, I would say a good tidbit that people wouldn’t know is that [the music video is] really dictated by the artist, that’s for sure. You have a director and you have an idea and you as a cinematographer have ideas, but at the end of the day, the artist is the kingpin on their own music video.
That’s one thing that you have to understand when you’re going into them. And they move fast, they’re really quick, and most music videos are all about keeping the rhythm of the song in mind as you’re shooting, for the most part. This [song, “Falling Back”] was a little different because we were so much more story-oriented.
BTL: Do you have any input in the choreography of a music video, or is all of that figured out by the time you’re brought in?
Uegama: As a cinematographer, I don’t really have any say over the choreography. I’ll come in and what we can do sometimes — depending on what it is — is place a camera in a certain way to capture the choreography better. Obviously, we can get involved with that discussion, [but] usually, if it’s a big thing that’s choreographed, that’s been done ahead of time. That’s been what their dance instructors and everyone like that have come in and [done]. If you were doing a Britney Spears or Lady Gaga music video or something where there’s a big dance group behind her, they’re usually doing that kind of stuff in advance.
BTL: How late into the process do you typically join a project?
Uegama: They figure that out on their end, and then they would bring you in depending on how much is needed from you. If it’s a big build on a stage, you’ll get a few more days to get involved. But if it’s not, it’s [done] fairly quickly. On this video, I had a week; [so], five days of prep. So it’s really, you know… those are done really quick. But I would imagine that the choreography is done fairly quickly as well but then it depends on the artist and how important it is to them. I’m sure J-Lo spends a little more time with her dance crews, getting them all ready and things like that.
BTL: I’ve always been confused by this, but are the people in the music video lip-syncing to the music during the shoot?
Uegama: Yeah, so they’re lip-syncing it to the music; they play the music really loud and they’ll be lip-syncing. Sometimes, they’ll be singing it out loud [and] you can hear them doing it naturally [because] they [might] feel better doing that.
BTL: How were you brought into the fold for this music video?
Uegama: Yeah, so I worked with Director X in New Orleans last year on a show called Mike. I shot it and he was the director for the last two blocks, and [even though it] was just the last two blocks, we worked together for almost a couple of months and got along. And then when this [music video] came up, they called me and it was great. I told him [that] I’d love to do music videos with him, and commercials, so it worked out.
BTL: Was there anything about the music video they pitched you that got you on board or was your relationship with Director X enough?
Uegama: It was mostly the relationship for this one. Obviously, with Director X, [even] if it was a different artist, I would’ve gone and done it with him. But then when he told me it was [with] Drake, it was even more interesting. I [was] extra-stoked to do it. They gave me a quick little rundown [and] made sure [that] schedule-wise [it] would work before they told me anything, and then I had to sign an NDA. Then they sent me the concepts and we [went] from there.
BTL: I know that you said that every artist is the “kingpin” of their own music video, but was there anything that you wanted to bring to this music video stylistically?
Uegama: I mostly wanted to make sure that what I could do is help make it as much like a movie as possible, you know? And that was kind of one thing that Director X was talking about; he was like, ‘We’re not going to do a performance; we just want it to be cinematic and ‘film-like.” One of the things that [we] discussed was just bringing that kind of a feel to it. I had my ideas, of course, [regarding] colors and the way that we would make each scene feel, and [Director X] was very open to everything like that. I just tried to make sure that what we were doing with the time that we had was [as] good as it could be. It was a tough, tight video with not a lot of time. We shot it over two different days, but basically, we ended up with less than 10 hours with Drake.
BTL: What was it like to work with Drake?
Uegama: He was great, man. He was really great, and he knows it. He was an actor before, so he understands the camera. He’s super comfortable in front of it [and] understands what [the] shots are. I believe the concept was [created] between him and [Director] X, so he knew what he wanted and knew what he was getting. And he would watch playback and discuss it with us and say when he thought we had [captured] it well.
BTL: I read about your lens choices and read that you used K35s. What are those exactly, and could you talk more about the specific equipment you used on this shoot?
Uegama: Yeah, the K35s are an old set of Canon [lenses] and they’ve been rehoused to be a little more “film-friendly” with our current-day motors and everything. But they have a lot of character, a lot of texture in them. They’re very interesting-looking lenses [and] they’re beautiful. So we used those as well as these vintage ones, which are made by Hawk, but they’re not anamorphic. They are spherical and they are a T-1 stop; so they’re very sensitive, fast lenses.
We picked those because we knew that we were going to be in a lot of low-light situations with high-speed frame rates, like [with] all the dancing [after the wedding], when all the laser lights come on and everything. So I knew that, you know, we were going to drop all the main lights, [so we] needed to shoot at, like, 120-frames-a-second.
BTL: Would you say that you have a specific style or creative touch that you bring to the projects you work on?
Uegama: I don’t think I put any kind of signature touch on [“Falling Back”]; I don’t think I do that on anything. I try not to, at least. I try to just shoot every project for what it is and try and make it the best it can be. I don’t try to like put my own color in there [all over], or put my own angle; I don’t think [that] I really approach anything that way.
[“Falling Back”] was a really tough video [because of] the speed that we had to move; it was really fast and I think I just tried to make sure that what we were getting was as quality as we could [get].
BTL: Have you done a lot of other music videos?
Uegama: No, I haven’t. I mostly work in features and television. I’ve done some commercials and some music videos, [but] it’s been quite a few years.
BTL: Hypothetically speaking, are there any artists you’d really like to shoot a music video for?
Uegama: I’d love to do one with someone like Lady Gaga because I think she does some pretty cool stuff and I have a lot of respect for the music she makes, not that I necessarily listen to it a lot. Or Beyoncé. I just like artists [who] are at the top of their game, doing really cool videos, and I think both those people put a lot of work [into] their videos.
BTL: I know you’ve done fewer music videos compared to your film and TV work, but do you have a preference between the two?
Uegama: To be honest, I prefer feature films [over] anything. I prefer anything that really allows me to, like, tell a great story with hopefully enough time [where] we’re not really rushed by the schedule too much. That’s one of the hard things about television — oftentimes, the schedules are really quick. The show I’m going to do has quite a few days — almost twice as many as the average show I’ve done — so that makes it great.
But I definitely like a film because I like to approach something, create a look for it, [and know that it] has a beginning, middle, and end. We know it’s going to end and we can all put our work into crafting this one [well-]rounded story without this kind of continuous, ongoing thing [where you don’t] know what’s going to happen in the next episode [or] the next season — that kind of thing, you know?
BTL: If you had to recommend one of your previous projects, what would it be?
Uegama: I really like what we did on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina. The last film I did was called Moonshot and we did some cool stuff on there, [too]. It was [a] different genre, [a] romantic comedy, but [it] takes place in space. We did a lot of fun things with color and that kind of thing, so that was a lot of fun. Those two are good ones to start with.
Since this interview was conducted, Uegama has shot the Season 2 premiere of Prime Video’s genre series Them.