Don't stop believin'

How I made a music video over WhatsApp

I don’t know about you, but Lockdown One was a bit shit, and while I want to remain fairly optimistic about the sequel, it’s going to eat into Christmas, and that’s also a bit shit. So I thought there might be something I could do about it, for some of the people closest to me.

Last time, towards the end of April, I began hatching the idea of making a music video. I have quite a big extended family, and we love getting together, drinking the bar dry, and belting out some tunes… the singing only starts to get really loud when the DJ has played The Fields of Athenry and is packing up for the night. (Incidentally, I’ve vowed that if I ever get to DJ another party again, I’ll close with That’s Livin’ Alright, from the closing credits of Auf Wiedersehen Pet.)

Anyway… we like a good ol’ sing-along, and I like a project. Back in April, I desperately needed a project, and instinctively I knew I needed one that would somehow bring people together. So I hatched the idea of a music video, recorded from family members’ own homes. I’m sharing my methodology in the hopes that it’s useful for someone else who might want to do the same thing.

I chose Don’t Stop Believin’ by Journey, because it’s pretty much the same four chords all the way through, and the melody is high-pitched but easy to remember. Because I tend to think in processes and I’m fairly details orientated, and I knew I wanted something where the production wouldn't get in the way, I made a guide track for people to follow, in Apple’s music software, Logic (it could as easily have been GarageBand).

What as important is helping the non-musicians in the family know what the key should be, help them keep in time, and tell them when to come in. I then made a short video where I showed them how to record their bit, by playing the music over headphones on one phone and getting someone else to do the filming.

A note I learned from this: ask people to turn their phone 90 degrees.

It then became my job to fit everything together. And for the most part, it worked really well. Two people did the entire song, and everyone else did bits and pieces. One or two didn’t use the guide track, which made life harder as I didn’t want to reject anyone’s submissions, so there was a bit of auto-tuning and editing magic to make it work.

I edited the whole video in Screenflow (which is absolutely not meant for this kind of work, but it’s a simple linear video editor that makes sense, unlike iMovie). Once I edited the clips together to fit the guide track, I threw the audio into Logic so I could mix it. As you might imagine, with video filmed on a variety of smartphones from a variety of indoor and outdoor locations, sometimes the audio is good, sometimes, not so much, so it needed a little bit of mastering.

We ended up with something that only took a few short weeks to put together, and I was incredibly proud of… not necessarily of my work, but of how everyone came together and did it, especially those not normally given to that sort of thing.

I’d love to show it to you, but as you can imagine, with it being family, and with there being a variety of age groups and levels of consent, it’s not something I can share publicly. But at least you’ve a blueprint, should you want to do something like this yourself.

I’m now getting ready to do the next one. This time, we’re tackling Step into Christmas, and I’ve gone a bit further with the production assistance, creating a little secret page on my website that has videos, and downloadable guide tracks with different versions for our various musicians. And this time I remembered to put the lyrics somewhere. I highly recommend this approach, as it gives people a single source of truth and reduces the amount you have to repeat yourself.

I did think about formulating this approach into a little package so that it would be easily replicable for others, but didn’t want to turn something that was for my family into a product. But if this interests you and I can help you put one together, let me know. I’m not the first to have done it, but maybe a few of us can get in on the act before it becomes a corporate morass.

I do not want to watch Dropbox sing Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.

You might not need to be a musician to pull this off, as you can possibly download MIDI or karaoke versions of tracks to use as guides, and as long as everyone’s playing to the same track, you’re golden. But a good sense of rhythm is useful for the edit.

Seeing my 6 year-old nephew earnestly advise us to not stop believing — with the G fully in place and a bashful grin on his face — will be a highlight in what is shaping up to be a nonsense year. And it’s something we’ll all have as a family to remember, and to remind us that we have reasons to smile even if it doesn’t feel like that every day.

Honestly I think most of us will be OK over the next few weeks, but I don’t want to make a blanket assumption. Christmas is just not going to be the same, if you’re used to a certain level of contact with people, and for single people — like me — it really can be a kick in the teeth, but little projects like this can help keep a light on.

If this has given you any ideas, or you’ve heard of other people doing weird things to amuse themselves over lockdown, I’d love to hear about them. Just as long as it isn’t Slack singing Slade.

Otherwise, I’ll speak to you next week, and in the meantime, hold on to that feelin’. Streetlights. People. Oh woh woh.