Pentatonix' Daft Punk Video: Low Budget Meets Awesome Creativity

If you are one of the five people on the internet who have not yet seen the new video of Pentatonix covering Daft Punk this week, you're in for a treat.

And as cool as it is, dig a little deeper and it gets way better. This video is one percent budget and 99 percent pure talent and creativity — the latter of which will trump budget and scale every time.

Meet Pentatonix

Pentatonix is an a cappella group out of Arlington, Texas. Already fast-rising, they pretty much went nuclear on Tuesday with the release of their second album and this Daft Punk medley video:

The original core of the young group was Scott Hoying, Kirstie Maldonado and Mitch Grassi, who were long-time friends in High School (class of 2010 and 2011). They added the positively acrobatic vocal bass of Avi Kaplan and beat boxer Kevin Olusola (who's really a cellist, albeit a beat-boxing cellist) and the band was complete.

They won the 2011 season of NBC's Sing-Off1 and were quickly off to the races.

Enter FifGen Films

FifGen Films is a young, bootstrapping boutique film company out of Oregon. They were founded by Jimmy Bates and Reilly Zamber, both of whom are just 24. They have recently increased the head count by 50% with the addition of McKenzie Yoeman. They roll with a 5D's (a 'II and a 'III) and a GoPro Hero3. And you definitely should take a moment to watch their (autoplay, heads-up) show reel at

FifGen's has shot five videos for Pentatonix, one of which is as-yet unreleased. Fun fact: their first RTX video was done ad hoc on one day's notice on a mutual day off.

FifGen had put in some serious shooting and post production time over the last couple of years working with (one-man) a cappella group Peter Hollens. They had developed a synched, multi-window style over a series of more than 40 videos shot for him.

"We've had hundreds and hundred of hours of that basic studio/built-up look with Peter," Bates said, and he wanted to do something totally different but within that genre for Pentatonix' Daft Punk. So he pitched the idea of a multi-frame video, but they were a little hesitant at first to do something so strongly associated with other a cappella groups.

"Let's just do some crazy makeup and have you guys look like fricken' aliens, basically, and have you guys do some Daft Punk-esque craziness on that," he suggested. And they went for it.

How to Hit a Curve

"We originally had a different plan for the video, but at the last minute our location fell through," Bates said.

So at last minute they did something that has become the trademark for the young indie film house. They called an audible. They decided to shoot the video indoors, essentially in a black phone booth.

"We've gotten used to that. We are a pretty young company. All of us are young in age and experience," said Bates.

"We're pretty used to the whole smash and grab style," he said. "We use the resources we hav… well, we don't really have any resources. We're always trying to invent ways to do cool new things."

"We went out an bought black sheets and hung them in the room and covered the ceiling.," Bates said. "We made a 'black box' that was about 20 square feet — if that. And we shot that entire video in that little space in one of their apartments."

For those of you wincing, don't. This is not necessarily a terrible thing, and speaks to a great point: severe restriction may be the absolute best spark for creativity.

When the walls are in close — literally, in this case — the natural reaction is to push against them. Hard.

Light as a Vehicle

With such limited physical space to work with, Bates decided the lighting would be the only thing that distinguished each section.

So he set out to develop his lighting palette, and settled on a series of different looks: Warm tones with some smoke, a ring look with cool tones, clean on black, black light, and finally, using an 18-inch ring as a background element.

The main light, a $250 Stellar CFL ring light, was used both as a key and an in-frame background. (Note: I use one, and it is a legit still photo light as well as an excellent video light. For $250 you get two bulbs and it has a built-in dimmer, albeit of limited range.)

Bates then latched onto the new iOS 7-ish "foggy glass" layer/overlay as a border style template for the multi-window presentation.

The result: Something that would look right at home on the set of Tron or Star Wars — but was shot on a Home Depot budget. Insane.

Made for YouTube

FifGen tends to work with a lot of YouTubers, which lends itself less to storyline and more towards straight performance videos.

"We've gotten used to basically having to sell every sound that you are hearing," Bates said. "I love doing rhythmic edits."

All three people at FifGen had musical backgrounds, singing in choir in college. They started doing short videos at that time and the results started getting noticed. With Bates' major in New Media Communications and Biz major Zamber's focus on entrepreneurship, all of the ingredients were in place.

"Musically, I like to do things on the video side to add a visual that represents and complements the music," Bates said. "A lot of that is improvisation magic in post. We call it 'The Audible.' We go in with a plan and end up coming out with something that is ten times better."

Even as young filmmakers, the FifGen crew are already learning to trust their instincts and to realize that they not only can hit a curve ball, but can frequently knock one out of the park.

"A perfect example is this video. We pulled the audible and came up with the concept on the same day we were shooting," he said. "We were literally in the car going to pick up last-minute supplies and we got the blue makeup and the little glowing things on their faces — the kind of little things that can spice up a video."

The result is a smash visual hit that amplifies a musical tour de force, drawing millions of YouTube views each day since its release on Tuesday.

Many people would be scared by the seemingly random way in which the video came together. But not the FifGen folks.

"We're definitely planning on working more with Pentatonix. We love these indie-style productions where we can call an audible."

Ultimately, FifGen Films wants to do movies. But the next step, they believe, will be to do some bigger production videos first. And given what they just served up, I doubt it will be very long before someone offers them that opportunity.


And yes, I know this is out of niche with only a little crossover into lighting. And continuous lighting at that. But the lessons and inspiration to be gleaned from this are absolutely relevant to photographers. Especially those of you on limited budgets.

You can't help but pull for these guys — and by "these guys," I mean both Pentatonix and FifGen FIlms. And as cool as the video is, perhaps the thing I like best about it is Pentatonix' now traditional "Haaaay!" segment in which they directly address their viewers. How fourth-wall is that? Love it.

Just something a little different today, hopefully to inspire you even a tenth as much as it did me. And if you had to watch the video more than once, fess up in the comments.


:: ::
:: :: (Pentatonix' website)
:: Purchase Song on iTunes ::

Photos via FifGen Films. Used with permission.


New to Strobist? Start here | Or jump right to Lighting 101
Got a question? Hit me on Twitter: @Strobist
Have a passport? Join me in Hanoi: X-Peditions Location Workshops