Making the Piece of the Puzzle Music Video:
Notes from a Creative Adventure
by Christopher Kent
Making a video as complicated as Piece of the Puzzle—on a shoestring budget—turned out to be a challenge (as well as a lot of fun!) Here are a few stories from our video-making adventure.
• Getting the concept right. Many music videos are simply footage of the song being performed, but Piece of the Puzzle is not your average song. Part of what makes it special is that it features witty quotes from (mostly) famous people. The video had to reflect that content. That meant creating a more complex video, complete with a script, and that meant settling on a concept: Showing me singing would obviously be part of the video, but what would the rest of the video show?
This was complicated by the way I had put the song together. When writing it, I knew that the listener would need a couple of seconds to digest each quote, so I deliberately left space after each quote. Now that we were planning the video, the question became: What do we do in those spaces? (I wasn’t going to stand in front of the camera and just play the guitar and smile until the next quote came around … way too boring for a modern music video.)
The obvious answer was to fill that space with something that illustrated the quote. But what? One suggestion was for me to appear as the person who said each quote, in costume. However, some of the people I quoted are relatively unknown; I don’t know what they look like, and neither would the viewer! Costuming would also cost a bundle. (There are 24 different people being quoted, after all).
The most important reason I decided not to go with that plan was more straightforward: the song isn’t about the people—it’s about what they said! Once that was clear in my mind, I realized what we had to do: illustrate the point of each quote with a brief skit that could fit into those seconds following the quote.
Once that became the plan, it wasn’t too hard to create the script.
• Filming the seagull. One of the most memorable bits in the video is the footage of the seagull stealing a French fry from my hand at the beach. Here’s how that came about.
I’m very fond of the Jersey Shore; I’ve spent many happy weeks at the beach over the course of my life. During some of those weeks, my wife and I had observed seagulls swooping down and stealing food right out of unsuspecting people’s hands. (In fact, a seagull once stole an entire piece of pizza out of Lynn’s hand in the middle of a crowded boardwalk, causing her to shriek with surprise, in turn causing people to duck for cover on all sides!)
Knowing that seagulls didn’t need much of an excuse to steal food, we decided this would be a great bit of footage to accompany the Bill Cosby quote: “You can survive anything, as long as you can laugh.” So, we took our video camera and set up shop on the boardwalk one summer afternoon. I held up a piece of bread, with my back to the ocean (we knew the birds wouldn’t come if they saw me looking in their direction). People passing by asked what we were doing; when we told them, they were highly skeptical that a bird would take the food out of my hand just because we wanted it to. “That’ll happen!” they’d say. After an hour with no takers, we started to think maybe they were right, but we decided to try again the next day.
That night a friend who owned a store on the boardwalk heard about our project and told us what we were doing wrong: bread is no big deal to a bird, but seagulls LOVE French fries!
Armed with that important piece of information, we tried again the following afternoon. Our friend was right: after about an hour, one eager bird could no longer resist and snatched the French fry out of my hand! The burst of laughter you hear was totally authentic—we thought it was insanely funny that the bird actually did take the French fry on camera!
• Filming the blackboard scene. To illustrate the wonderful Timothy Leary quote (women who want to be equal to men lack ambition), I deliberately chose to show myself being bested by a woman at mathematics. Studies have found that women are just as good at math as men, but young girls often deliberately avoid excelling at math because some guys think it’s a turnoff. The unfortunate side effect has been the creation of a stereotype that women are not as good at math as men. (A few years ago there was an uproar because a talking version of the Barbie doll said, “Math is hard!”)
I selected a number of complex equations to have on the blackboard. The idea in the skit is that I’m pleased with myself for working with a single equation; then I look up and realize a young woman has run circles around me, mathematically speaking. A friend helped me locate a young woman getting her degree at a local university who was game to appear in the video. I didn’t expect her to actually know what the equations represented, but to my pleasant surprise, when she saw the equations she recognized them!
Ladies, take note: Men who actually have a clue love a woman who is good at math!
• Creating the disappearing puzzle piece effect. I wanted to include something in the video that referenced a jigsaw puzzle; I thought a transition between scenes in which puzzle pieces disappeared to reveal action happening underneath would be a great way to add a puzzle to the video. But there was no easy way to make that happen. So, I decided to create the effect myself.
First I bought a green screen—basically a large, sturdy piece of cloth that’s a bright shade of green, allowing a computerized video editing program to replace the green in the footage you shoot with another image of your choice. (As you probably know, this is used all the time in movies and TV. The action is filmed in front of a green screen; the computer later replaces the green with whatever backdrop you choose, such as an alien landscape.)
Next, I bought a giant jigsaw puzzle with pieces that were several inches across. On a warm day, I spread a drop cloth outside and spray-painted the puzzle pieces black on one side. After they dried, I assembled a section of the puzzle and sprayed the other side with a light coat of repositionable spray glue. I then stuck the assembled mini-puzzle to a large piece of glass and fastened the glass, with puzzle attached, in front of the hanging green screen. Then all I had to do was position the camera in front of the black puzzle and shoot a series of pictures, each time removing one more piece of the puzzle, revealing the green color behind it.
Later, when editing the video together, we simply replaced the green with the opening video filmed driving down a country road. The black puzzle pieces drop away, one by one, to reveal the video happening underneath. At the end of the video we ran the effect backwards to cover up the final video clip.
Filming the Einstein skit. For the first skit, about Einstein’s observation that imagination is more important than knowledge, I wanted to contrast a scientist studying a lump of clay with a creative use of the clay. One of our friends, Ziggy Coyle, a well-known sculptor, kindly agreed to help us shoot that footage. She provided both lumps of clay and created the sculpture that appears in the video, on the spot. I provided the old-fashioned balance scale, ruler and magnifying glass—mementos from my childhood. Ziggy’s husband Dave was game to help as well; he appears as the scientist studying the un-sculpted lump of clay. (Several people have commented that he looks a little like Einstein!)
Lucky for me, Ziggy was kind enough to let me keep the sculpture as a souvenir. It sits on a shelf, smiling down at me knowingly.
Filming the bus stop scene. To film this scene we scouted out bus stops that had a shelter open on one side and were located away from heavy traffic, so we could shoot without having to stop because of cars and buses going by. Prop-master Lynn (who is a perfectionist) created a fake bus schedule that hangs on the back wall of the shelter. To our amusement, when a bus finally did pull up to the bus stop during the filming, the bus driver noticed the new sign and freaked out. “NOW what are they doing with my route??” he cried!
• Filming the roadside quotes. I’m not sure what inspired me to open and close the video with additional quotes, but I thought it was a cool idea. Maybe it was the idea of doing something very visual that people wouldn’t be expecting, while still making sense in the context of the song. (Plus, it gave me the chance to share another couple of great quotes.)
Of course, I wasn’t the first person to think of this. The idea of sayings placed on a series of roadside signs originated with an advertising campaign created in the early 20th Century by a company that sold a brand of brushless shaving cream called Burma-Shave. At the time, most people were just starting to drive around in cars, and plugging a product on TV wasn’t an option. (TV didn’t exist yet!) The company would place a series of signs along a road, with short, usually funny poems printed on them, a few words on each sign. As people drove down the road they’d read the lines of the poem, which usually ended with “Burma-Shave.” The idea was so popular that it lasted for decades; the signs could still be seen long after television caught on. (You can google “Burma-Shave” if you’d like to read some of the many verses that appeared on those signs over the years.)
Once I’d settled on that idea, we had to find a stretch of road that was clear of overhead wires (not attractive) and trees (that might shade the signs). Luckily, we found a road a few miles from where we live that fit the bill. It was along the edge of a farm, so we did a little homework, found the owner of the farm and got his permission to place and film the signs along the edge of his property.
Once the signs were made, we waited for a day when the weather was good. I pounded the stakes into the ground along the road at the spot we’d chosen and we drove slowly past them with the camera running, multiple times, stopping when traffic was too heavy. Getting the footage was far more challenging than we expected; in fact, we ended up having to film again on another day a few weeks later. But eventually we got what we needed.
Filming the bathroom scene. It took us a while to find a bathroom that looked right on screen with me standing on a scale, but the hardest part of that shot turned out to be finding a pair of bunny slippers large enough for me to wear! (I thought it was a great visual joke to add to the scene.) We tried to order a pair for a guy with size 15 feet (hey, I’m 6’5”!) but no one on the Web seemed to have any for sale. In desperation, prop-master Lynn attempted to make a pair by hand, but it turned out to be a tough assignment.
Finally, we took one more look on the Internet, many months after the first attempt, and there they were. I suspect that the simple act of searching for something on the Internet is often sufficient to inspire someone to create it!
I haven’t been wearing the bunny slippers around the house…but it’s very comforting to know that Icould if I wanted to!
All in all, it took us many hours of shooting at multiple locations over a period of about a year to collect all the footage we needed to make the video, with help from dozens of people. Then, it took many hours of working with a professional film editor to put all the footage together and create a good-looking video that—hopefully—does a good job of showcasing the song and capturing the spirit of all the great quotes in the song.
Speaking for everyone who helped put the video together, we hope you enjoy the result!