Michael Keeling On the “Fast and Furious World” of Lighting Music Videos

Posted on February 28, 2014

If you’ve ever turned on a TV, you’ve probably seen Michael Keeling’s work … make that a great deal of his work!  As a lighting designer, production designer and consultant, this MTV Award nominee has been involved in some of the more memorable music and commercial videos of recent years involving stars like Coldplay, Faith Hill, Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, as well as big name brands like Nike and Microsoft.  Michael spent time with CHAUVET Professional to talk about one of his favorite subjects — lighting music videos.  Enjoy!

How does your process of lighting a music video set start?

The music video format demands a unique creative process from a lighting designer. When the director hits me with a treatment I generate a design based on the style of the artist that supports and enhances the music. The way I approach the design will have a lot to do with the director’s take on the artist. However, the director and I are both going to build our ideas on the music, so a creative discussion with the artist is a big part of things too.”

You’ve been known for introducing new technology to music videos – can you give us some examples?

“Our design for Coldplay’s ‘Speed Of Sound’ video was the first application in the US of LED technology in the MV format. I was nominated for an MTV award for that one!  I had the pleasure of working with Mark Romanek and producer Aris MaGarry on this project as well as with the late DP Harris Savides. My programmer Martin Phillips was a key player on that project just as he was on Justin Timberlake’s ‘Rock Your Body’ music video.”

In your view, how does a music video differs from a stage or concert project?

“Music videos are fast and furious. Production value dollars are extremely limited and the time frame from concept to delivery is minimal. I generally request a period of setup/programming time and always request the producer to allow for overtime the night before shooting for the intense programming to flush out the special look for a production.”

How does your approach change if the music video is for a live performance instead of a studio session?

“The live format is a very different process indeed; considerations have to be made for things like stage size, venue format, how many trucks are needed and whether a 180 degree or 360 degree design is wanted. We also have to consider if IMAG, LED graphics and animation support for the tour are wanted.”

As you know a big difference between music videos today and those of a few years ago is that you’re often blending moving lights with video panels in your current designs – how does that change your approach?

“The answer to that question revolves around the excellent technology that’s available to us today. I am careful to use the tools properly so as not to sharply contrast or distract from the artist on stage. It’s a fine line there and one every lighting designer navigates.”

It seems that people expect a lot more intensity and brightness in lighting designs today, but brightness can cause issues when you work with a camera; how do you address this issue?

“I come from a TV background where I learned early on the importance of composition. Starting in the late 80’s and straight through to today, I often use over exposed lighting to create a special point in a music video. When used within a special cue, it can be very effective. I have also used over exposure of illumination within some of my live designs – but this is a little trickier, because considerations have to be taken into account when there is a video IMAG support on the tour. When doing a music video or commercial format, I consult and work closely with the DP’s to get the  correct FC or Lux illumination allowable for a particular camera used as well as shutter rate, frame rate, F-Stop and aspect ratio.”

Is video production lighting more collaborative than other types of lighting projects in the sense that you have to work with set designers and directors?

“The process is extremely collaborative. I provide the lighting design, then there has to be major collaboration between me and the production designer. An example of a successful collaboration is my work with production designer Tino Schaedler. Our recent work on Daft Punk’s promo was our second collaboration. The process of design collaboration begins with creative conversations which help develop a set/framework based on the lighting elements to be incorporated in the design. In Daft Punk’s case, the band was the director. It was a fun collaboration and can be viewed on my website:

Any other collaborations come to mind?

“The Justin Timberlake ‘Rock Your Body’ music video, collaboration with director Francis Lawrence This concept was a monster; we used just under 10,000 incandescent 60-watt light bulbs. I created design based on a 30-foot by 30-foot performance box/room setting with 4 walls and lighted ceiling and a gloss mirror plex floor that looked like another full floor light treatment.  My goal was to create the design that would allow the techno crane to arm in and out at different times. We accomplished this by designing barn doors in the set.  We also had trap doors in the ceiling to create the effect of Justin flying in from above.  The bulbs were all incandescent clear warm bulbs. When Francis took the captured footage into the edit sessions, he opted to colorize the bulbs for that multi-color disco look via a tele-cine coloring process. It’s an amazing visual experience.”

How has technology changed video production lighting since you started?

“Technology has changed video production immensely; power draw is one of the newest green factors my producers and I are huge fans of. Reducing the amount of heat on the talent is another plus. A room with 10,000 incandescent light bulbs, such as the Justin Timberlake project I just mentioned, can get pretty hot, even with the amount of air-conditioning we pump in.”

Who were the big influences in your career?

“Hard to say — if I miss a few I apologize. My influences are my sons Shane and Lucas; becoming a single parent drove me to believe in my design talents. Thomas Edison, for creating the light bulb, Howard Ungerleider for his show designs on the band Rush, the master of timing, Chip Monk, for his knowledge, insight, and for introducing me to Dave Oberman, who put my young ass on the road, Steven Bickford (an amazing talented LD), Frank Zappa for my first design, Aerosmith for allowing me to go wild, lifelong friend, Music Producer/ writer artist Marty Frederiksen, Mark Brickman for his creative genius and my time with him, and Luc Lafortune for his incredible talent and friendship.”

Do you have any favorites among your video production sets?

“Lenny Kravitz ‘Are You Gonna Go My Way”,’ Puff Daddy’s (at that time in his carrier) ‘Public Enemy 2000,’ Justin Timberlake’s ‘Rock Your Body,’ Coldplay’s ‘Speed Of Sound,’ Daft Punk’s  ‘Lose Yourself To Dance.’”

You mentioned Lenny Kravitz first; what stands out about that?

“Things came together at breakneck speed.  I met with Director Mark Romanek to discuss the idea of a ceiling of glittering lights outside a Las Vegas hotel foyer. I collaborated with the production designer Nigel Phelps. I was sent the music and in 30 seconds had the vision. Nils and my programmer Bill Lotzco went through intense programming.  At 5 p.m., the night before shooting we had a full system of dimmers melt down. My team worked diligently to get the system back on line and at about 10 pm we had success. The next morning at 8 am, we were shooting.  That’s the kind of experience that makes this business so special!”