By Randi Altman
If you have any sort of social media presence, it’s likely that you have seen Playing For Change’s The Weight video featuring The Band’s Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr, Lukas Nelson and musicians from all over the world. It’s amazing, and if you haven’t seen it, please click here now. Right now. Then come back and read how it was made.
The Weight was produced by Mark Johnson and Sebastian Robertson, Robbie’s son. It was a celebration of the 50th anniversary of The Band’s first studio album, Music From Big Pink, where the song “The Weight” first appeared. Raan Williams and Robin Moxey were also producers on the project.
Playing For Change (PFC) was co-founded by Johnson and Whitney Kroenke in 2002 with the goal to share the music of street musicians worldwide. And it seems the seed of the idea involved the younger Robertson and Johnson. “Mark Johnson is an old friend of mine,” explains Robertson. “I was sitting around in his apartment when he initially conceived the idea of Playing For Change. At first, it was a vehicle that brought street musicians into the spotlight, then it became world musicians, and then it evolved into a big musical celebration.”
Johnson explains further: “Playing For Change was born out of the idea that no matter how many things in life divide us, they will never be as strong as the power of music to bring us all together. We record and film songs around the world to reconnect all of us to our shared humanity and to show the world through the lens of music and art.” Pretty profound words considering current events.
Each went on with their busy lives, Robertson as a musician and composer, and Johnson traveling the world capturing all types of music. They reconnected a couple of years ago, and the timing was ideal. “I wanted to do something to commemorate the 50th anniversary of The Band’s Music From Big Pink — this beautiful album and this beautiful song that my dad wrote — so I brought it to Mark. I wanted to team up with some friends and we all came together to do something really special for him. That was the driving force behind the production of this video.”
To date, Playing For Change has created over 50 “Songs Around the World” videos — including The Grateful Dead’s Ripple and Jimi Hendrix’s All Along the Watchtower — and recorded and filmed over 1,000 musicians across more than 60 countries.
The Weight is beautifully shot and edited, featuring amazingly talented musicians, interesting locales and one of my favorite songs to sing along to. I reached out to Robertson and Johnson to talk through the production, post and audio post.
This was a big undertaking. All those musicians and locales… how did you choose the musicians that were going to take part in it?
Robertson: First, some friends and I went into the studio to record the very basic tracks of the song — the bass, drums, guitar, a piano and a scratch vocal. The first instrument that was added was my dad on rhythm and lead guitar. He heard this very kind of rough demo version of what we had done and played along with it. Then, slowly along the way, we started to replace all those rough instruments with other musicians around them. That’s basically how the process worked.
Was there an audition process, or people you knew, like Lukas Nelson and Marcus King? Or did Playing For Change suggest them?
Robertson: Playing For Change was responsible for the world musicians, and I brought in artists like Lukas, my dad, Ringo and Larkin Poe. They have this incredible syndicate of world musicians, so there is no auditioning. So we knew they were going to be amazing. We brought what we had, they added this flavor, and then the song started to take on a new identity because of all these incredible cultures that are added to it. And it just so happened that Lukas was in Los Angeles because he had been recording up at Shangri-La in Malibu. My friend Eric (Lynn) runs that studio, so we got in touch. Then we filmed Lukas.
Is Shangri-La where you initially went to record the very basic parts of the song?
Robertson: It is. The funny and kind of amazing coincidence is that Shangri-La was The Band’s clubhouse in the ’70s. Since then, producer Rick Rubin has taken over. That’s where the band recorded the studio songs of The Last Waltz (film). That’s where they recorded their album, Northern Lights – Southern Cross. Now, here we are 50 years later, recording The Weight.
Mark, how did you choose the locations for the musicians? They were all so colorful and visually stunning.
Johnson: We generally try to work with each musician to find an outdoor location that inspires them and a place that can give the audience a window into their world. Not every location is always so planned out, so we do a lot of improvising to find a suitable location to record and film music live outside.
What did you shoot on? Did you have one DP/crew or use some from all over the world? Were you on set?
Johnson: Most of the PFC videos are recorded and filmed by one crew (Guigo Foggiatto and Joe Miller), including myself, an additional audio person and two camera operators. We work with a local guide to help us find both musicians and locations. We filmed The Weight around the world on 4K with Sony A7 cameras — one side angle, one zoom and a Ronin for more motion.
How did you capture the performances from an audio aspect, and who did the audio post?
Johnson: We record all the musicians around the world live and outside using the same mobile recording studio we’ve used since the beginning of our “Song Around the World” videos over 10 years ago. The only thing that has changed is the way we power everything. In the beginning it was golf cart batteries and then car batteries with big heavy equipment, but fortunately it evolved into lightweight battery packs.
We primarily use Grace mic preamps and Schoeps microphones, and our recording mantra comes from a good friend and musician named Keb’ Mo’. He once told us, “Sound is a feeling first, so if it feels good it will always sound good…” This inspires us to help the musicians to feel comfortable and aware that they are performing along with other musicians from around the world to create something bigger than themselves.
One interesting thing that often comes from this project that differs from life in the studio is that the musicians playing on our songs around the world tend to listen more and play less. They know they are only a part of the performance and so they try to find the best way to fit in and support the song without any ego. This reality makes the editing and mixing process much easier to handle in post.
The Weight was recorded by the Playing For Change crew and mixed by Greg Morgenstein, Robin Moxey, Sebastian and me.
What about the editing? All that footage and lining up the song must have been very challenging. I’m assuming cutting your previous videos has given you a lot of experience with this.
Johnson: That is a great question, and one of the most challenging and rewarding parts of the process. It can get really complicated sometimes to edit because we have three cameras per shoot/musician and sometimes many takes of each performance. And sometimes we comp the audio. For example, the first section came from Take 1, the second from Take 6, etc. … and we need to match the video to correspond to each different audio take/performance. We always rough-mix the music first in Avid Pro Tools and then find the corresponding video takes in Adobe Premiere. Whenever we return from a trip, we add the new layer to the Pro Tools session, then the video edit and build the song as we go.
The Weight was a really big audio session in Pro Tools with so many tracks and options to choose from as to who would play what fill or riff and who would sing each verse, and the video session was also huge. with about 20 performances around the world combined with all the takes that go along with them. One of the best parts of the process for me is soloing all the various instruments from around the world and seeing how amazing they all fit together.
You edited this yourself? And who did the color grade?
Johnson: The video was colored by Jon Walls and Yasuhiro Takeuchi on Blackmagic DaVinci Resolve and edited by me, along with everyone’s help, using Premiere. The entire song and video took over a year to make, so we had time throughout the process to work together on the rough mixes and rough edits from each location and build it brick by brick as we went along the journey.
When your dad is on the bench playing and wearing headphones — and the other artists as well — what are they listening to? Are they listening to the initial sort of music that you recorded in studio, or was it as it evolved, adding the different instruments and stuff? Is that what he was listening to and playing along to?
Robertson: Yeah. My dad would listen to what we recorded, except in his case we muted the guitar, so he was now playing the guitar part. Then, as elements from my dad and Ringo are added, those [scratch] elements were removed from what we would call the demo. So then as it’s traveling around the world, people are hearing more and more of what the actual production is going to be. It was not long before all those scratch tracks were gone and people were listening to Ringo and my dad. Then we just started filling in with the singers and so on and so forth.
I’m assuming that each artist played the song from start to finish in the video, or at least for the video, and then the editor went in and cut different lines together?
Robertson: Yes and no. For example, we asked Lukas to do a very specific part as far as singing. He would sing his verse, and then he would sing a couple choruses and play guitar over his section. It varied like that. Sometimes when necessary, if somebody is playing percussion throughout the whole song, then they would listen to it from start to finish. But if somebody was just being asked to sing a specific section, they would just sing that section.
How was your dad’s reaction to all of it? From recording his own bit to watching it and listening to the final?
Robertson: He obviously came on board very early because we needed to get his guitar, and we wanted to get him filmed at the beginning of the process. He was kind of like, “I don’t know what the hell you guys are doing, but it seems cool.” And then by the time the end result came, he was like, “Oh my God.” Also, the response that his friends and colleagues had to it… I think they had the similar response to what you had, which is A, how the hell did you do this? And, B, this is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen.
It really is amazing. One of my favorite parts of the video is the very end, when your dad’s done playing, looks up and has that huge smile on his face.
Robertson: Yeah. It’s a pulling-at-the-heart-strings moment for me, because that was really a perfect picture of the feeling that I had when it all came together.
You’re a musician as well. What are you up to these days?
Robertson: I have a label under the Universal Production Music umbrella, called Sonic Beat Records. The focus of the label is on contemporary, up-to-the-minute super-slick productions. My collaboration with Universal has been a great one so far; we just started in the fall of 2019, so it’s really new. But I’m finding my way in that family, and they’ve welcomed me with open arms.
Another really fun collaboration was working with my dad on the score for Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman. That was a wonderful experience for me. I’m happy with how the music that we did turned out. Over the course of my life, my dad and I haven’t collaborated that much. We’ve just been father and son, and good friends, but as of late, we’ve started to put our forces together, and that has been a lot of fun.
Any other scores on the horizon?
Robertson: Yeah. I just did another score for a documentary film called Let There Be Drums!, which is a look into the mindset of rock and roll drummers. My friend, Justin Kreutzmann, directed it. He’s the son of Bill Kreutzmann, the drummer of the Grateful Dead. He gave me some original drum tracks of his dad’s and Mickey Hart’s, so I would have all these rhythmic elements to play with, and I got to compose a score on top of Mickey Hart and Bill Kreutzmann’s percussive and drumming works. That was a thrill of a lifetime.
Any final thoughts? And what’s next for you, Mark?
Johnson: One of the many amazing things that came out making this video was our partnership with Sheik Abdulla bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa from Bahrain, who works with us to help end the stereotype of terrorism through music by including musicians from the Middle East in our videos. In The Weight watch an oud master in Bahrain cut to a sitar master in Nepal followed by Robbie Robertson and Ringo Starr, and they all work so well together.
One of the best things about Playing For Change is that it never ends. There are always more songs to make, more musicians to record and more people to inspire through the power of music. One heart and one song at a time…
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.