After lugging rigs, cameras, a mandolin, a guitar, a snare, a cello, a violin and as many microphones as they could carry out to a spot in the middle of the woods, a handful of musicians and filmmakers found themselves standing in complete and total darkness. The generator they had also carried had run out of gas, which posed a bit of a problem: they needed it to run the lights they’d use to illuminate Josh Garrels, a Portland-based singer/songwriter, and seeing as they were stuck with all that gear in the remotest of locations for the acoustic set, heading out to the closest gas station wasn’t exactly going to work. The production crew broke out their flashlights, glancing the curves of the instruments and the earnest faces of the musicians with an eerie glow, but not for long: in the middle of “Fire By Night,” the bulbs strung between the branches above, lit up. Everybody cheered, those at the mics stood up and those with the flashlights sat down to enjoy the performance of one of the most aptly named songs of the shoot.
This is one of the many moments of multifaceted creation caught on tape in The Sea In Between, a music video documentary of sorts presented by Mason Jar Music, a Brooklyn audio/visual collective that seeks to redefine the mediums through which we discover and consume our new favorite songs.
Familiar with the kind of uncontrollable aspects of documentary filmmaking that lead to pitch-black shoots and last-minute improvisations as seen in The Sea In Between, Mason Jar Music got their start by filming videos of their favorite artists performing in the more urban recesses of abandoned banks and churches with the accompaniment of a hand-picked mini-orchestra (including some Juilliard-trained talent). The Sea In Between literally and figuratively threw the collective from the reaches of their comfort zone when they received an invitation to fly from New York to the remote islands of British Columbia, where Blayne Johnson, a fan of Garrels, was interested in hosting Mason Jar Music and the artist for a week to see what they’d come up with on his home on Mayne Island. The result is an 80-minute testament to the joys of the creative process, equal parts candid rumination and jaw-dropping performance all taking place on the rocky peninsulas and pine-lined shores of a location Wes Anderson would drool over. It’s a cohesive work whose frames and choruses compliment each other with each downbeat and shadow, and for Dan Knobler, a Mason Jar Music co-founder and producer, this duality was one of the goals from the outset.
“We were all sitting around thinking, ‘Okay, if we film 12-14 performances in random, beautiful locations on this island, what’s the point? Why are we there? Why does someone sit down and watch an hour of that?'” he says of the initial stages of production. “From there, it very quickly became, ‘What’s the story of this trip? We have to tell this story of the way that Josh has built his career.’ We knew that we would have a handful of really good performance videos, at the very least. Our goal was to capture enough footage that we could really tell a story that was worth watching to non-Josh Garrels fans. I think that people discover their music through YouTube, and to give them something really compelling both in musical performance and the visuals, that’s undeniable that people will be drawn to that, even if it isn’t necessarily their genre of choice. If you present something that’s well-executed and thoughtful, a lot of people will react to that much stronger than they will a well-performed, well-recorded piece of music alone.” The midnight dawn caught on tape beneath the trees is a stand-out moment, but each of the vignettes of The Sea In Between — a romantic, lighthearted duet between Garrells and his wife in a meadow; a sea shanty sing-along for newfound friends on Mayne Island with a lighthouse in the background — serves as a postcard with a soundtrack. They obviously couldn’t include every song from the week-long shoot between the opening credits and conclusion of The Sea In Between, which is why Knobler is thrilled for the fact that the film will see a DVD release — or, as he puts it, the “visual LP” — on January 29. Mayne Island may be a continent away, but Mason Jar Music will clearly reap the benefits of their northern sojourn in future productions.
“I think we’re all even more in tune to finding cool spaces in anything, because a lot of those videos were shot just in a little corner of the woods,” says Knobler. “On a musical level, that trip really solidified that the most important thing we can do is put talented, good-hearted people in a room together. The trip to Mayne Island was pretty short, and none of that would’ve come together if the members of that ensemble weren’t open to trying stuff and checking their egos at the door or their own preconceptions of who they are as a musician. That’s something that all of us have carried over in the past year, being really intentional about who we work with, because really, a lot of those people have continued to work on a bunch of different projects because they’re so enthusiastic about trying stuff and collaborating and working without egos, both in film and in music.”
Mason Jar Music will be screening The Sea In Between tonight at the 92Y Tribeca. For more information on Mason Jar Music and the formal release of The Sea In Between in 2013, visit their website.
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