The making of a YouTube video is an amusing thing to watch, at least if Alex Boyé is involved.* The British-American singer with millions of views on the video-sharing website was in Newport Beach recently to shoot his latest, which he not only performed in, but directed as well. From an outsider’s point of view, there was a thinking-it-up-as-he-went-along quality to the shoot, though Boyé said later that spontaneity was only part of the plan.
The video was being produced by OC Music & Dance, a newly-launched community arts school in Irvine, as a way to promote its brand and to give its students and faculty, who performed in the video, experience and exposure. Musicians from Villa Park High School, various Irvine schools and the Pacific Symphony Youth Orchestra would also participate. Boyé would be revisiting a technique he had used before, “Africanizing” a hit song — his version of “Let It Go” from “Frozen” has more than 87 million views on YouTube — with the use of distinctive percussion, beats and vocals. This time the song was “Sign of the Times” by Harry Styles.
On a gray morning last month, dozens of young musicians and parents gathered on a dock in Newport Harbor behind a large charter yacht called “Endless Dreams,” where the shoot would take place. The smell of diesel fuel hung in the air. School officials and Boyé could be seen already on board, preparing for the mass arrival. Once the students, all dressed in black, boarded, breakfast was served on the two lower decks. On the upper deck, chairs and stands for a full orchestra were already in place.
Soon the ebullient Boyé is hard at work. On the cramped bow of the ship, the shell of a baby grand piano in the middle of it, he starts the shoot with a young woman, seated at the piano, and a little girl violinist, standing next to it. Boyé puts a splash of tribal paint on the faces of the woman and the girl, just like he has done for himself, “To show we’re on the same team,” he explains. He feels he needs a little wind for the first shot, so Marc Lyncheski, OCMD’s director of marketing, springs to action, grabs the lid to a large plastic container and starts waving it at the performers.
The singer/director turns on the music — it’s on his cell phone, and plays on a small wireless speaker the size of a hefty bagel — and asks the two musicians to mime their parts in time with the music. The little girl actually plays her part with the violin on the recording, the pianist emotes silently, Lyncheski waving the plastic lid, just out of camera frame. Boyé finds the scene “hilarious” and asks to do it again so he can get it for a “behind the scenes” video. He then films it on his cell phone, panning across until Lyncheski is revealed, flapping away. Boyé plays it back and cackles in delight.
A contingent of the Southern California Children’s Chorus is summoned to the bow, Boyé and his cameraman R.J. discuss and then stage the scene, half the chorus streaming in one side of the bow, half on the other. Handing unnecessary coats and eyeglasses to an innocent bystander, they stroll in singing with themselves on the track, which they had pre-recorded in OCMD’s studio. “When the camera comes close just pretend it’s a butterfly, but don’t look at it!” Lori Loftus, the conductor of the group, tells her charges.
And so it goes. “Endless Dreams” is still in dock; a brightly colored speedboat pulls aside, apparently by appointment. On the upper deck, the captains of the two vessels and Boyé confer about the safe and legal transfer of minors between the two boats (they must wear life vests). RJ films two girls first getting in, and then getting out of the speedboat. Then the two professional adult female vocalists, Shardé and Sheron by name, squeeze in behind the wheel and controls. The speedboat captain announces that Shardé is going to drive. A lot of fun is had with this. “I’m scared! She’s driving,” Boyé announces in mock horror, crossing himself. The engines rumble like an arsenal of bass drums and the boat drifts away, Boyé standing on the front of boat, his arms reaching to the sky.
“Endless Dreams” is finally launched and a long period of slow maneuvering and re-engagement with the speedboat ensues. As the speedboat finally nears, a drone takes off from the yacht and films the speedboat’s approach.
Meanwhile, a celebrity has been discovered onboard. Cellist Stanley Sharp, OCMD instructor, has smuggled in his teacher, none other than Lynn Harrell, internationally acclaimed solo cellist. He is introduced to Boyé. “You know you’re playing, right?” he tells Harrell, quickly deciding he’ll make good use of the guest. “Yeah, just give me a cello,” Harrell replies.
“If I could have the orchestra string section up to the sky deck, the sky deck, please,” says an official voice over the PA. The orchestra, not just strings, but winds, brass and African percussion, too, assembles. Boyé coaches Harrell on a few notes to play, singing to him, letting him hear a section of the piece on his phone. Sitting atop a small platform, Harrell looks every bit the gray-haired sage as he is quickly filmed playing his impromptu part.
The deck is cleared of extra chairs, tables and instrument cases for a long session filming the orchestra, and all unnecessary personnel are asked to leave, so they don’t spoil the shots. The soundtrack has criss-crossed the country — from Salt Lake City, to Boston, where the orchestra was recorded, to Orange County — gathering layer upon layer. Boyé heard the latest version only just this morning, at 5 a.m. The young musicians mime to the sounds of the Boston group as RJ shoots multiple takes, sliding up and down the aisles with his steady cam. Two drones fly overhead capturing the scene, the solo singers and Boyé in front of the orchestra now for the climax of the song.
“I wanted to do a song that the kids knew,” Boye said during a break. “It’s a big hit right now and it’s effecting the culture. So I figured that if we did a cover of something that’s so big, that we’ll get more eyes and ears.”
He has his own take on the meaning of the song. “‘It’s the Sign of the Times,’ meaning things are changing, things are not the same as they were, you can make it better, you can take it to a place it’s never been before, with who they are, with their passion, with their creativity, and with what they’re learning from the instructors.” He sees the song, and video, as a message to the student musicians, that this is their world now, or is soon going to be.
The passing of a baton will be the climax of the video. Harrell hands the baton to Sharp. Sharp hands the baton to the girl violinist. This is staged and shot in a matter of minutes, on the upper deck.
“If this thing gets a million views, we’re having a party,” says Doug Freeman, the ball-capped CEO of OCMD.
“It’s a wrap!” Boye exclaims, arms raised, the students cheering.
*Here’s the video: