On Thursday, October 30th, we had the chance to sit down with Chris Shimojima, the director of Signal Strength, to learn more about the project, his inspiration, and how the idea to compose an original piece of music using WiFi and subway performers even came to be. We met at the Gregorys Coffee near our 1407 Broadway office for the interview, which you can read below.
Hey Chris! Thanks for meeting today. Our team really loved the Signal Strength video. Can you tell me a bit more about yourself and your background?
Of course. I went to school at NYU for dramatic writing and ended up as a production intern at RGA, the advertising agency. My main ambition has always been to write and direct feature films, so my experience there for six years helped me develop the skills to pursue that path. I’ve been freelancing recently on a bunch of narrative and character driven projects and always look for unique ways to showcase my skills and build my portfolio.
Is that how the idea for this project came up?
Well i’ve always had a passion for music. I grew up playing piano and was thinking about becoming a film music composer at one point. My friend Anita Anthonj, who had previously worked with me on a project, shared this idea she had for a documentary on subway musicians and performers. That’s what helped set the wheels in motion for Signal Strength. Then I reached out to Ljova, a composer I had also worked with in the past on one of my short films. I ran the idea by him and he composed an original piece of music to have the performers use. That’s when things started taking shape.
Was it difficult to set up? How did you organize everything?
That was definitely one of the first things that crossed my mind. How will we be able to actually pull this off?
I planned out all the steps and logistical details with Anita, who was also my producer, for about a month. We went to all the different subway stops around NYC to see which had WiFi and which connections were the most stable. We also had to find the actual performers, which I did by scouting the stations themselves and searching online.
We wanted to find stations that were on the quieter side so that the audio wouldn’t be disturbed when it was actually time to make it happen. Once we locked in the actual subway stops we would use, all of which needed (and had) a stable WiFi connection, I worked on getting a permit at Bryant Park as our hub for the performance. That process was relatively easy and my request was approved within a few days. Just in case, we had Verizon Jetpack MiFis with us at Bryant Park for extra bandwidth.
How did the musicians react when you approached them with the idea?
Most of the subway performers we reached out to wanted to get involved. We could only hold one rehearsal with everyone together but due to all our different schedules, not everyone could be present at once. To this day I still haven’t met everyone involved in the project, but Ljova did have the chance to meet all of them individually and record a studio version of each performers track to mix in for post-production.
Our makeshift orchestra included the trumpet, djembe, shakere, bass, accordion, viola, cello, guitar, theremin, musical saw and a beatboxer.
What was it like on the actual day of shooting?
Rich Shurtliff and Jesse Beller from RGA help set everything up. Before we started, they warned me that we had a 50/50 chance of this actually working.
We shot on Sunday, September 14th and started setting everything up around 6:15 AM. We wanted to do it early on the weekend so there were less commuters and foot traffic that could interfere, and also so more bandwidth would be available for us to use. The whole team was about 40 people, including 20+ assistants, production assistants, cinematographers, and the actual musicians. We met at Bryant Park for a team meeting to kick things off and assigned specific devices to each team member and their corresponding musician. We used Skype because it had the best third-party video recording feature.
By 7:30 we were all in our places at the various subway stops and we started rolling around 8:30. Although the Skype connection never dropped once while we were connected to the WiFi, we still had some concerns with lag. To prevent that from being a problem, we streamed a click track to each performer so they knew their queue to play, and they were also able to watch the conductor live in Bryant Park.
We were finished by 10:30 AM and shot 8 takes so we had different camera angles to choose from once we put together the final video.
Did the police give you a hard time?
Surprisingly not at all! When the cops in Bryant Park saw our composer standing around surrounded by chairs with laptops sitting on them, they inquired what was going on, but we had our permit and they actually stuck around to make sure nobody got in our way. At each respective subway stop none of the performers had a problem either.
So how has the public reaction been? What’s your next project?
So far it’s been amazing. A ton of sites picked up the story, including Buzzfeed, The New York Times, Gizmodo and some international publications too! We’ve gotten over 100,000 views so far between the Vimeo and YouTube video
Editors note: At the time of publication, Signal Strength currently has 97,000 Vimeo views and 80,000 YouTube views.
Next up, i’m working on a short spot focused on swimming and planning some feature film projects around scripts i’ve written.
Speaking of movies, lets end things on this question…What are your 3 favorite movies so far in 2014?
Oh that’s easy. Birdman, Whiplash and Boyhood are the best i’ve seen so far.
Awesome, thanks so much for taking the time to speak with us Chris.
No problem, happy to do it.