Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Oakland-based band Thao & The Get Down Stay Down had a problem. Their plan to shoot a music video for their single “Phenom” was abruptly canceled as shelter-in-place orders rolled in. The band, crew, and dancers could no longer meet up in person, and they were faced with a decision: put everything on hold or figure out a way to make the music video remotely. “At first we didn’t know if we would even release the song because it’s about people unifying,” Thao tells The Verge. “So it was never an option for me to shoot the video solo.” But then her manager had an idea. What if they shot the music video entirely within Zoom?
That’s exactly what they did, and the resulting one-take music video was filmed without any of the collaborators ever being in the same space together. Directed by Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux and Erin Murray (who also provided choreography), produced by Victoria Fayad, and featuring Thao alongside eight dancers, the “Phenom” video went from concept to completion within a week. There was one pre-production meeting, one five-hour rehearsal, and one shoot day, all of which took place on Zoom. “If we were going to do such a thing and commit to it,” says Thao, “we had to do it really quickly because it is so of the moment.”
Thao says no one involved in the making of the video was a Zoom power user prior to this, least of all her. As a musician, she says she never really had a need for it. But as things clamped down, she found that it became a part of her life in ways she hadn’t expected. Her partner recently organized a birthday party for Thao on Zoom, and last week, she used it to take a yoga class. “I was late to the class,” she laughs. “It was weird.”
The screen-recorded music video starts with Thao opening Zoom and joining a meeting. As the song starts, dancers join in and pop up on-screen one by one, making a nine-panel grid with Thao in the center. It feels comforting and timely apropos of people’s obsession with using Zoom to connect during social distancing. One dancer is on their phone, another is in the middle of eating a banana. Then, the mood changes as everyone snaps into choreographed moves, which become more complicated and awe-inspiring as the video progresses.
At one point, the dancers grab their screens to turn them on their sides for an effect where they “fall” in one connected motion through the panes. Then, Thao is the head for a Frankensteined body where each panel contributes a body part. Later on, Thao “passes” glasses of water to panels on either side, which are then “poured” on dancers below. In between all of this, panels flicker, go dark, and are moved around. There’s an incredible amount of coordination, and the synchronicity is addicting to watch.
Making it look so easy required a lot of work. Co-director Schaulin-Rioux gave himself a crash course on the software and acted as mission control while recording. Meanwhile, Murray kept watch on the choreography and called out cues for different segments. Everyone had a copy of the song and a list of their respective instructions, laid out by count for the dancers and by lyrics for Thao. There was a click track before the actual song started, “So we all would clap on the fourth beat to make sure everyone was synced up,” says Thao. And the team made sure that everyone involved had a really strong Wi-Fi connection.
Aside from all of this, there were a lot of difficulties to iron out with the choreography and framing that couldn’t be figured out until everyone was in the same digital space. “Certain dance moves had to be adjusted to look good in Zoom’s gallery view,” explains Thao, “and didn’t translate if they were too chaotic. We found that the moves had to be really clean and clear and simple. I had to be the focal point and if too much was happening you wouldn’t know exactly where to look.”
Thao is happy that they decided to plow through and make the video, and she recognizes that this isn’t an option many musicians have. “I do not agree with the notion that this is a great time for making art,” she says. “That puts the onus on an already under appreciated and under compensated field. We didn’t set out to make a video with Zoom. This is the tool that we had to use in order to make a video during this mania.”
Watch the video for “Phenom” on YouTube. Thao & The Get Down Stay Down’s fifth studio album, Temple, is due May 15th on Ribbon Music.