“In anything I do, whether scripted or working with real people in a narrative-documentary hybrid setting, I have a general rhythm in my head.”
Music has been a part of Andrew Ryan Shepherd’s life for longer than filmmaking - and growing up in a family of musicians, that’s hardly surprising. After a transformative experience listening to Pearl Jam’s 1994 album ‘Vitalogy’ - not to mention the awkward experience of an on-stage choreographed rap while part of a church choir beforehand - Andrew was hooked on music. He taught himself instruments, was in bands and had numerous solo projects on the go all at the same time. He was determined to make it big and moved to New York City in his attempts to do so.
Eventually he realised the need for more “professional” skills which led him down a more visual path. He would take 100s of photographs everyday and head to unknown neighbourhoods in order to capture them. He’d morph them using Photoshop and Illustrator or via things he’d drawn and scanned in. Eventually he began experimenting with combining the images he was capturing and the music he was making, which in turn led to an obsession with music videos. Lo and behold, he is a now a commercials director, repped by Lucky 21.
We caught up with him to find out more about his relationship with sound and picture.
Q> You’re always making playlists. Tell us about them…
ARS> For me they are a bit of a postmark. I like to explore different themes of what I am experiencing at a moment in life, whether researching for a project or in the downtime between that, making a statement about how I feel.
I consider my playlists more like journaling and creating a format of sharing, where other people can enter these worlds. It’s a fantastic way to look back and remember feelings, as music has a way of encapsulating that to the deepest levels of the human experience, and with that, I’m able to find inspiration when exploring new ideas or characters who are truly human. Here’s a recent sample
Q> How does your connection to music affect your approach to directing?
ARS> In anything I do, whether scripted or working with real people in a narrative-documentary hybrid setting, I have a general rhythm in my head. I’m listening for cadences in speech, matching an aesthetic arc with a story arc, I’m watching for timing, I’m analysing frame rates — there’s a pulse to everything, and I’m always walking the line of projecting it and gracefully allowing my characters to feel it themselves.
Q> You also write music, when did that start?
ARS> I started singing when I was about five and at age seven was when I had my first awkward platform: the church choir. I did some embarrassing choreographed rap about a false god in the Pentateuch. It was terrible.
At the time, I was a bit too young to realise that my introspective tendencies in creating work had their own possibilities of how I could express myself (I could work behind the scenes and would eventually excel there), but without knowing it, music became the backbone for everything I did from then on.
Q> Tell us about your journey to becoming a musician.
ARS> I come from a family of musicians, and my dad was a guitar player and a trumpet player. When I was about 12, I realised it would be super uncool to stand at a microphone and have nothing to hold on to. I was listening to Pearl Jam’s ‘Vitalogy’ and was ready to be Mike McCready. I don’t know that I really ever wanted to be the lead singer — I was too interested in the melodies that filled the spaces between vocals.
By the time I was in college I had taught myself to play piano by ear and just being surrounded by my bandmates I picked up bass and drums. As technology began to change, I started sampling music, creating beats. There was a gateway app back in my college years called FruityLoops, where I began to better understand the possibilities of song structures, mixing and composing.
My band bought a Korg Triton with weighted keys and I was making loops and beds of music for live shows. You couldn’t trigger anything very well with the computer back then, so a lot of it was just playing a little backing melody and keeping my foot on the sustain pedal while I played my guitar parts. I bought some ‘70s over-the-ear headphones from an Arkansas thrift store and started my own electronic band as a side project of the ‘Indie’ band, and an escape from melodic rock of Death Cab for Cutie and Sigur Ros and Sufjan Stevens, who all dominated what I was listening to at the time.
FruityLoops was a gateway into Reason, which was its own gateway into ProTools, especially as my other bands began to record more. I started spending a lot of time alone making albums no one would ever hear, and making graphics, album covers and websites for these semi-imaginary bands. I was hooked on creating the overall package. Looking back, it was using these tools that allowed me to learn Final Cut 7 pretty quickly, and later, Premiere and Resolve.
Q> What was the catalyst that launched you from music to directing?
ARS> Music has been the backbone of what I make. There’s tone, rhythm, storytelling and an unconscious emotional effect it creates on a person, lyrics aside.
After college, I moved to New York with big ambitions to be a full time musician. It’s a perfect age to allow naivety to protect you from the realities of ‘making it’ or at the very least ‘surviving’. I was blinded from everything that could prevent me from freely creating. I didn’t realise how much of a gift that was.
After a year in New York, I realised I needed to diversify my skills to become useful in a professional setting - that’s where I fell into graphic design and photography. I was taking hundreds of photographs a day, of the 200-year-old walls of the buildings around me in Spanish Harlem, of the foreign cobblestone sidewalks on the edge of north Central Park, of all the interesting murals and of the thousands of strangers who passed in and out of my north-of-96th-street neighbourhood.
I planned trips through the city based on Mapquest (that’s right, MAPQUEST) and took trains I never had, through neighbourhoods I never knew existed, whose symbols and signs confused and inspired me.
Here, I fell in love with combining my aesthetic adventures. I paired music I was making in my tiny Harlem apartment with images I had taken that day, and experimented with graphic treatments I’d created in Photoshop and Illustrator, or painted and scanned in. At this point, a whole new world of possibilities opened for me — that while each of these skill-sets could live independently of one another, when working in tandem they created something wholly new. Something more layered but also specific and interactive.
From there, music videos became my new obsession. They took every skill and love I had and put them all in the same format. Advertising would soon follow.
Q> Blending your love of film and music, what’s an approach you would like to implement?
ARS> I do everything I can to work with original composers in my work. It not only gives me great satisfaction to speak in musical language about pacing, tone, story beats and transitions, but it allows me to help produce a specific piece of music dramatically suited to the images.
I love the idea of writing almost every piece of music before the project is shot (as with Paul Thomas Anderson and Johnny Greenwood, take ‘Phantom Thread’ for instance), and using that music as inspiration for the actors in tone, and also for what their motivations are in the scene.
An editor friend relayed in a quote from Robert Bresson, which merits debate but intrigues me: “If it’s possible to replace an image by one or more sounds, you should do it without hesitation. In essence: aim for the audience’s ear more than for its eye. The ear is far more creative than the eye.”