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Brent Carpenter, Videographer to the (Ringo) Starr
By Matt Hurwitz
/ August 29, 2012
Ringo Starr's On-Call DP Talks About Capturing the Beatle's Rock-and-Roll Lifestyle
All photos by Rob Shanahan
It’s July 7, and Ringo Starr is outside Nashville’s Hard Rock Café greeting fans who want to wish him a happy 72nd birthday. On stage with him are his wife, Barbara Bach, his brother-in-law Joe Walsh, members of his latest All-Starr Band, and, at stage right, a fellow often seen accompanying the former Beatle with a Sony HVR-Z1U camcorder on his shoulder, quietly taking it all in for posterity.
“I would describe it more as ‘lurking,’” chuckles Starr’s videographer, Brent Carpenter.
Carpenter is essentially on call for Ringo, shooting everything from personal web updates at the drummer's Beverly Hills home to creative moments in the studio during recording sessions. He creates Ringo's music videos and directs multi-camera shoots for his All-Starr Band concerts. “Whatever he needs, I’m up for,” he says. “There’s never a shortage of interesting things happening when you’re with Ringo.”
This behind-the-scenes clip, featuring the late Levon Helm, Hamish Stuart, and Edgar Winter, is an example of the video updates Carpenter shoots for Starr's website.
A native of Arizona, Carpenter got his start in television at the local PBS station on the campus of Arizona State University, essentially learning the ropes for no pay. A friend invited him to work at the local CBS station, where he learned to shoot and edit news, which he continued for a few years in Minneapolis and Sacramento. A visiting friend eventually talked Carpenter into moving to Los Angeles to work at Complete Post, where he began editing comedy specials for HBO. “I got to work with some really great directors, like Gary Halvorson, Dwight Hemion and Walter Miller.” After a director on The Larry Sanders Show asked him to step in for a scene, Carpenter began directing comedy, which he has done for a number of series since, including NBC’s Caroline in the City and Nickelodeon’s True Jackson.
Starr drums while Carpenter's camera peers over his shoulder. Photo by Rob Shanahan
It was in July 1999, during his time on Caroline, that Carpenter was asked by record producer Mark Hudson to shoot a chorus session at Westlake Audio for Starr’s then-upcoming Christmas album. “He would always call me up because I had access to cameras and editing equipment,” he recalls. “And with Mark, you never said no, cause you never knew what it was going to be, but it was going to be interesting.”
Though Starr wasn’t present for that session, Carpenter was soon asked by Hudson to create a music video for “King of Broken Hearts,” off Starr’s album Vertical Man. “He called me up and told me to come down, and I said, ‘Mark, I’m in the middle of things here on Caroline in the City.' He said, ‘Brent – it’s Ringo.’ ‘Oh, yeah, I’ll get out of it.’ Not a hard choice to make.”
The video was made up mostly of shots of Starr and Hudson working and goofing around in Hudson’s West L.A. studio, with Carpenter shooting on his trusty Sony DSR-PD100, which he used until 2005, when Starr purchased the Z1U for Carpenter’s use. “It was a great DVCAM — a lovely little workhorse, hard-working camera,” he notes.
The experience was nerve-racking at first. “I was meeting my hero. The first album I ever owned was Meet the Beatles when I was five years old,” he says. “But Ringo came in and he was just charming.”
A few years later, Starr asked Carpenter to shoot some of the recording sessions for his 2003 album, Ringo Rama, for use as value-added material for a bonus DVD. “I had done some behind-the-scenes shoots for Aerosmith, Van Halen and some others, but this was the first time I was actually observing and filming true record production. It was so amazing, just watching Ringo play. You could just feel something special coming out of those drums.” Carpenter was also privy to the usual cavalcade of friends who would show up to record parts, such as Steven Tyler, The Eagles’ Timothy B. Schmit, and Steve Cropper. “With Ringo, no one ever says no. Everybody loves him.”
Some of the album was recorded at Starr’s home studio in England, from which he would periodically send Carpenter his own video recordings. “He sent me a tape with David Gilmour and Eric Clapton. They would have a camera set up in the corner, and Ringo would walk over when they were done and look into the lens and say, ‘Well, Brent, what do you think? Is this gonna work?’ I’m putting the tape together, and there would be these little laughs.”
One song on the album moved Carpenter to suggest a music video – “Never Without You,” Starr’s tribute to his late bandmate George Harrison. “I was sitting there putting the interview stuff together and listening to this beautiful song, and I thought about putting Ringo on a stage, like in A Hard Day’s Night, but with the theater completely empty, and put him together with George somehow in the television camera’s monitors.”
Starr loved the idea, so, working with a miniscule record label budget, Carpenter shot the film with DP Martin Linss on a rainy day in March 2003 at Pasadena’s historic Raymond Theatre. “We had almost no money, so I had to call in a lot of favors to get this thing made. A friend of mine at Panavision got us the camera gear for free,” including use of a Panavision Genesis. The leaky roof of the theater added some moisture, to boot.
The music video for "Never Without You" paid tribute to George Harrison — and cemented Carpenter's relationship with Starr.
As described, Carpenter paired Starr with Harrison, courtesy of several clips of historic Beatle footage. “The classic TV cameras we used were just shells, but had the video monitors aboard. I just piped in the clips from my laptop, running them on Avid. We shot it at 59.97 fps – I didn’t want to bother with a frame lock box.” The video was an instant hit with fans, and has remained so. “It turned out great – the clip has one million hits on YouTube.”
The video also sealed the deal, in terms of Carpenter’s involvement with Starr. “After that, I think he felt I knew what I was doing,” the director notes.
Carpenter was thereafter called upon to shoot Starr’s All-Starr Band tours, in which the drummer goes out on tour with classic rockers, the musicians trading off playing on each other’s hits. The shows are released as either DVDs or television specials. The first one, shot in Canada in 2003 with five cameras, set the mold, combining band performances and backstage banter and interviews (shot handheld by the director himself)..
All-Starr Band shows, such as this year’s at Nashville’s historic Ryman Auditorium on Ringo’s birthday, are shot with anywhere from five to eight cameras, depending on the venue and the shoot’s budget. Carpenter will typically place two at front-of-house (FOH) – one wide, one closeup – with two handhelds on stage and a third at the lip of the stage, though, in the case of the Ryman, that wasn’t possible. “At the Ryman, the seats go right up to the stage, so there’s no front aisle to run a camera,” he explains. In that case, two cameras were set at either end of the stage, with a third running mobile, as a utility operator.
Two additional cameras were set on the theater’s balcony, one on a jib arm, with the two FOH cameras set in the audience. “The balcony at the Ryman extends fairly close to the stage, so there’s a low ceiling, requiring us to have the cameras a lot lower than normal, so you pick up a lot of heads and hands. Which is funny, because Ringo had asked for that – he wanted to get the excitement of the people in the audience.”
Carpenter is always careful to avoid obstructing the audience’s view of the band, particularly Ringo. “The biggest challenge with a Ringo show is that it’s a concert first, a TV show second. The fans come first.”
This performance of "With a Little Help from My Friends" from the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles was part of a multi-camera All-Starr Band show shoot.
Gear is always by a local provider. In the case of Ryman, Carpenter utilized Nashville’s CampDigital, which brought along its Thunderbolt HD multi-format production truck, as well as a collection of Sony HDC1500L cameras and Fujinon studio lenses. “It was a great setup – there was tons of room in there.”
Crews are typically made up of local operators, suggested by local producers or others involved in the tour. Carpenter will have an assistant who keeps track of key moments within each song, to give the director a heads-up of upcoming solos, etc., to help direct his operators via headset com.
Following a sound check run-through, Carpenter will go over the types of shots he likes to see, but usually avoids specific direction. “These operators are all seasoned pros, and they all have a good eye, so I trust them. They always come up with amazing shots.”
Carpenter himself will shoot backstage interaction and interviews, most often during the rehearsal period in Canada each tour. He is careful to remain a fly on the wall as much as possible. “That’s something I learned from my days shooting news,” he notes. “I always try and stay out of the way, to get interesting stuff and not really be noticed.”
Says Starr, “One of the reasons we love Brent is that he’s there. … but he’s not there. He’s not in your face – he’s very subtle.”
Starr, who never lost his Liverpool sense of humor, is always quick with quips. “I usually just keep the camera rolling, because you never know what he’s going to say. And Ringo is someone who has been in front of the camera for most of his life, so he’s very comfortable having it around. He’s able to remain very natural around his friends that way.”
Trust, as one can imagine in such an environment, is key. “There might be personal discussion or something going on, and he just has a look we both know that says, ‘You can stay, but stop recording right now.’ He might even ask for something to be erased, which I’ll always do. I’m in his world, and he needs to know it’s a safe one.”
That's something Starr appreciates. “Trust takes time, and we’ve worked together now for 10 years,” the drummer says. “Whatever Brent takes of me, I know it’s in good hands. It’s not gonna be leaked, it’s not gonna be sold. I trust Brent.”
Starr and Carpenter will try to avoid shooting either the first shows on a tour – which are always loaded with beginning jitters – or the last. “Occasionally, there might be a goof in one of the performances, which I’ll fix by shooting that song the following night myself,” as was the case in one song at Ryman which resulted in a missed sax solo. Every show on the tour is recorded for audio in ProTools, so, with bandmembers wearing the same clothes, the song is seamlessly replaced, both in picture and sound.
All seven cameras at Ryman were recorded separately, with video from each captured through an AJA Kona card. The drives were sent to Carpenter after the tour to edit at his editing studio near his home in Valencia, CA. The director lays in recording engineer Bruce Sugar’s mixes of the show and edits on his Avid Media Composer 5.1 system. “The nice thing about both editing and directing is you have total control. I know where all the good shots are, and it usually comes together in about two and a half weeks.”
Besides big multi-camera shoots, Carpenter will also be called upon to film everything for Ringo from Make-a-Wish Foundation visits with fans who want a drum lesson or a lunch visit with their favorite Beatle, to updates for Starr’s personal website, www.ringostarr.com. “I’ll either call him up and ask him for a web update, or he’ll call me. There’s always something going on with him.”
It all comes together in this 2005 music video for "Fading In, Fading Out," which combines backstage horseplay, recording sessions, and performance footage to build an intimate portrait of a "well-to-do garage band." Photo by Rob Shanahan.
Being around a Beatle means being privy to some pretty exciting events, for which Carpenter will either create something or capture something for posterity. For Starr’s 70th birthday, he and one of Ringo’s co-songwriters, Gary Burr, rewrote Lorne Greene’s 1960s hit, “Ringo,” with lyrics about the drummer’s life – and then recorded and shot it with Starr’s friends, including everyone from Mick Fleetwood and Alice Cooper to Paul McCartney and Beatles producer George Martin. “It was shown once at his birthday party and never again since. But he loved it,” Carpenter notes. “I literally got everybody I had hoped for in it.”
Carpenter also helped get McCartney to surprise Starr at Radio City Music Hall that year, where he was performing with his All-Starr Band, playing The Beatles’ “Birthday.” As always, Carpenter was there to capture the moment for posterity. “Ringo left the stage during the end of the last number, as he always does, but Barbara stopped him. The band started playing the song, and he said, ‘What, are they doing another song?’ I was over on his side of the stage, and Paul ran out from the other side and started playing.”
The surprised Starr realized what was going on, and gleefully got back on his drum set and played along with his old bandmate – Carpenter quickly making his way up with his Z1U to get a shot next to Ringo, shooting across him to McCartney, to capture both in a single shot. “He saw me walk up, and he was just playing his heart out, and I knew it was okay with him. With that little camera, I know where I can be that’s out of the way and still capture what he wants to have captured.”
His approach is the same as for all of his work with Starr. “You want to be close enough that you can get everything, but far enough away that it’s easy for him to be who he wants to be. Then you get to be witness to all these thrilling moments.”
His client expects that trend to continue. “It’s been many years, and Brent’s still around,” says Starr, “so we must have something going.”