The Other Side with Bleary-Eyed Brooklyn's Melissa Soltis
Originally from South Side of Chicago, Melissa Soltis, founder of Bleary-Eyed Brooklyn, relocated to Williamsburg, the home of hipsters and lucky for her, an abundance of rock clubs, to pursue her dream of becoming a music documentarian. For twelve years, Soltis worked as a camera assistant, helping to create TV shows, movies, music videos, and commercials, until making the decision to leave her day job in search of more creative work. Her pursuit of happiness eventually led the videographer and blogger down the path of documenting live rock shows, which she explains, began with “shooting at the Merge Records' XX Merge Anniversary Celebration in 2009.” Melissa cites the invention of digital SLR cameras as a major contributor to helping her launch her latest career, because they “offer great quality, but aren’t ridiculously expensive.” Over the past year, Melissa has shot over 120 rock acts, including some of her all-time favorites, Guided By Voices, Superchunk, The New Pornographers, Yo La Tengo, and The Clean.
Green Light Go: What are some of the prerequisites to becoming a live music documentarian and what initially sparked your interest in this field?
Melissa Soltis: The only prerequisites to doing this work are a decent camera and a borderline-unhealthy love affair with music. I grew up in a family that loved listening to music, so once music videos came onto the scene, my love for music evolved into an obsession. Seeing live music videos predated my first concerts, so this exposure really built up excitement around that experience for me.
GLG: When you set out to film a live band, how do you prepare for the shoot?
MS: If I’m less familiar with a performer, I prepare by listening to as much of their music as I possibly can. I prioritize the songs I want to target and make notes about specific aspects of the songs I’d like to feature, like solos. Working with only one camera angle is challenging, because I have to maximize coverage of these key points and transition between them smoothly and efficiently.
GLG: In the past, you worked as a camera assistant for The Rolling Stones documentary Shine A Light and you more recently shot live videos of artists like Death Cab For Cutie’s Ben Gibbard, Wilco's Jeff Tweedy, Local Natives, Neon Indian, Bridges and Powerlines, and Wye Oak. What bands are you working with now, or who would you like to work with in the future?
MS: I’m continuing to shoot new bands all the time, most recently Ducktails and Woods, while getting ready for the musical onslaught that is SXSW. I’m also in talks about a possible role in an upcoming music video shoot, but I don’t want to jinx it by mentioning specifics.
I’d love to shoot Destroyer this year, his most recent record Kaputt is just killing me. Papercuts is very high on my list too, because that new record is gorgeous. I’m also very excited for the next North Highlands and Shark? records…what I’ve heard from both so far is terrific.
GLG: What are some of your favorite music videos or music documentaries?
MS: My favorite music video directors include Anton Corbijn, Sophie Muller, Jean-Baptiste Mondino and Tamra Davis. Back in my film days, I had the opportunity to speak with Tamra Davis one day at a craft service table and it was her words that inspired me to start Bleary-Eyed Brooklyn. There’s no way she remembers this, but speaking with Tamra about her challenges and the changing landscape of making music videos really got me thinking about creative solutions. Eventually, I figured out a way to follow that dream in my own way. Tamra is definitely someone I’d like to work with in the future.
In terms of awesome music docs, not much can touch Gimme Shelter and Rattle and Hum. My first concert experience was seeing U2 on their Joshua Tree tour, which was being filmed for Rattle and Hum. I loved seeing the cameras and the crane almost as much as seeing the band. When the film came out, it felt like a miracle to be able to relive that amazing experience over and over again; it was definitely a formative moment.
In Gimme Shelter the Maysles Brothers captured the glitz and the grit of live rock n roll in the late 60s. On one of my last film jobs, I had a chance to speak with Albert Maysles while he was shooting behind-the-scenes on Scorcese’s Shine a Light, which is another film about The Rolling Stones. I asked Albert how it felt to be shooting The Rolling Stones so many years later. He said for years he thought The Stones were angry with him for how Gimme Shelter worked out, but when he was asked by the band to participate in Shine a Light, he said he was relieved and happy to know there was no animosity. That chat was an all-time highlight for me.
GLG: What is the best piece of advice you could give a band that wants to hire a filmmaker to shoot a live video or music video?
MS: I’d recommend to look for someone whose images you like, but who is also a good communicator. You need someone to ask a lot of questions about the band’s inspiration and their goals for the video. A shoot is very collaborative, so it’s important that everyone is on the same page.
GLG: What are the most rewarding and challenging things about being a filmmaker working in the music industry?
MS: So far the challenge is to keep growing technically and creatively without falling into too tight of a pattern, especially when you shoot at the same clubs over and over. Also, access can be very challenging. Reaching out to bands means sometimes going through labels or (ahem) PR folks who don’t have a lot of time to deal with shoot requests. You have to think on your feet and do what you can to ‘get’er done.’
Shooting a band is a reward in itself; it’s exhilarating and it enhances my experience of connecting to the music. I always feel energized and inspired by a band’s songs and their performance, so the most rewarding thing is when a band gets excited about my footage and shares it with their fans. To hear good things from the musicians and their fans is truly the best.
This week’s Other Side is brought to you by: Lauren M. Roberts