How a Free iPhone App Helped Transform Leicestershire Into the American South

By Nick Small on at

Back in the nineties I made music videos for a living, working with acts ranging from the Manic Street Preachers to The Osmonds, with budgets up to £120k. These days, when the fancy takes me, I do it just for fun, with budgets more akin to 120 quid. Which brings me to My Darling Clementine -- their album of country duets in the ‘George and Tammy’ mould had been troubling radio stations on both sides of the Atlantic.

“Let’s make a video” I said.

“We’re skint” they said.

And so it was that we ended up making a video for the song Going Back to Memphis, with no budget at all.

No matter, for I had an idea. We’d set the duet as a dialogue in an American diner tucked away on an industrial estate in Ashby de la Zouche, Leicestershire. If we peppered the video throughout with authentic US road footage, we could pass the whole thing off as having been “shot on location in the US of A”.

Part of My Darling Clementine’s shtick is knowingly retro, so they wanted the video to have a nostalgic feel, with all the imperfections associated with vintage film: flicker, shudder, grain and chromatic aberration. Super 8 film does this. It has nostalgia hard-wired into its DNA because, for many of us of a certain age, it is the look of our old family home movies. That grain, the simplified colour palette with skewed white immediately connects with something deep within us. It’s personal.

So, all I needed was enough cash to get to the States, and film a load of driving footage with an old Super 8 camera; telecine the footage (transfer it to digital files) and shazzam! Job done.

Or not. Without a budget, that wasn’t an option. So, we shot the diner scenes in just over an hour on a Canon 550D, using a Manfrotto monopod as a cheap (un)steadycam.

Fortunately, Michael and Lou are such accomplished and professional performers that we covered what was needed effortlessly. It was all shot using Canon’s brilliant 24 – 105mm L series zoom lens.

So, the road footage. How to get that genuine American highway footage for diddly squat? I looked for a smartphone app that would mimic Super 8's imperfections. The free 8mm app came out best for me. I particularly appreciated the ability to select filters and lenses. Emailing the head of the band’s US label, I got him to download the app, and tasked him with driving around his home town of Albuquerque filming roadside Americana on his iPhone (for the geeks, the settings were "'70s filter" and the “Super 8” lens).

It was a brilliant plan. Within days I had a zip file on my desktop with the fruits of his labour. It was brilliant, apart from the fact that he’d held the phone in “portrait” it was all on its side. I didn’t want to lose resolution by rotating and cropping, so he dutifully went out and re-shot it for me.

The resulting footage was unsteady, jittery, flicker and Super 8 imperfect, making the diner footage look far too clean and contemporary. So, some more editing was needed. In order to match it with the 8mm app scenes, I used Cyberlink’s Powerdirector, which has an excellent palette of easy to use effects. The “Old Movie” effect gives several parameters, from scratches, colour saturation, judder, flicker and other artefacts to play with. I set most of them pretty much to their minimum levels, and shifted the white balance to the warmer end of the spectrum.

You can see the result above; see if you can spot the detail that gives away the UK location, and let us know your thoughts below.