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Awesome . . . I Shot That! (The Beastie Boys)

by Alex Munt

High profile musicians typically turn to established directors to document their live concert experience, for theatrical and DVD release. One thinks of Radiohead?s Meeting People is Easy (Grant Gee, 1998) or Neil Young?s Year of the Horse (Jim Jarmusch, 1997) and Heart of Gold (Jonathon Demme, 2006). Indeed, the Beastie Boys (MCA, Mike D and Ad-rock) have, in the past, pursued such collaborations. Their video clip for Sabotage, (directed by Spike Jonze) is particularly memorable ? a parody of an opening credit sequence to a 1970s television cop-drama.

This time, however, the Beastie Boys decided to recreate the live concert experience ?in-house?. The result is a film and interactive DVD entitled Awesome?I F**kin? Shot That! (Think Film, 2006). The project was conceived and directed by ?Beastie? Adam Yauch aka ?MCA? ? under the pseudonym ?Nathaniel Hörnblower?. Awesome?carries the tagline: ?Finally, Hornblower is taking back what's his?. The film premiered at Sundance 2006, followed by worldwide theatrical and DVD release (distributed in Australia by Hopscotch Films).

Awesome?is introduced (in the opening credits) as ?An Authorized Bootleg?, scrawled in a graffiti styled font. This represents the genesis of the project:

One night, I was prowling around on our Web site's message board and found a phonecam video clip that someone had taken at one of our shows. It was really grainy and shaky, but I loved how it was shot from eye level and showed a personal take on what was happening onstage. I thought it would be cool to apply that approach to a full-length concert film, so that it actually feels like you're watching a concert and not some big, overblown MTV video. (Yauch quoted in Steuer 2006)

On 9th October 2004, for their sell-out concert in Madison Square Garden, New York, the Beastie Boys distributed fifty Hi-8 video camcorders to a select group of audience members. The cameras were allocated by seat number, to ensure maximum variation of coverage. In addition, six ?official? HD cameras (on the rigs above) and two digital cameras (over the DJ booth) recorded the concert. Some friends of the band were also supplied with DV cameras, to follow the Beastie Boys to restricted (backstage) areas.

In total, over sixty cameras were used to document the event, which varied in format (digital/analogue), resolution (Hi8/DV/HD), location (fixed/handheld) and in the proficiency the operator (professional/amateur). The beginning of the film reveals the fifty selected fans being told ?the Rules?: of which there is really just one ? that the camera must be turned on when the stage lights come up and remain recording for the entire duration of the concert.

The Beastie Boys have (in their twenty-five years together) accrued a diverse fan base, which straddles the socio-demographic, cultural, aesthetic and political spectrum. Awesome?is a project which exists at the threshold of entertainment and art (or perhaps ?art-rock?). The film is marked by a multiplication (or excess) of ?vision? and utilises amateur cinematography constrained within a simple rule-based approach. In this light, the project can be situated within an avant-garde and experimental tradition of the moving image. Furthermore, the (intensive) digital production process for Awesome?speaks to a range of issues surrounding digital media forms and aesthetics.

Fig 1

Fig. 1: Digital Aerial Cinematography

The opening shot of the film presents a striking aerial view of Manhattan at night. The shot is taken from a helicopter on trajectory towards Madison Square Garden. The distinctive Manhattan grid of lights is warped through a fish-eye lens (perhaps done in post production). The aerial shot reveals the (new) scope of digital cinematography and recalls Michael Mann?s recent experiments, shooting the city from high above at night,  in both Collateral (2004) and Miami Vice (2006). The next sequence of the film places the viewer within the live concert arena. The sounds and images of ?Mix Master Mike?, at his DJ booth, are cross-cut with the rush of the band backstage.

The single screen then dissolves to a ?super-grid? of 64 (8x8) ?micro? screens. Here, the cinematic spectacle of the city zooms in to Madison Square Garden. In Awesome? the cinematic grid is a formal device used to organise an excess of POV (Point of View). The film/DVD oscillates between a (default) single screen, to the ?supergrid? (all cameras) and other variations, mainly a four-screen and sixteen-screen grid.

Fig 2

Fig. 2: The Super-Grid

Fig 3

Fig. 3: Fan-Cam

In Awesome?the multi-screen grid represents the ?real time? narration of the concert. A ?real-time-multi-screen? mode of cinema has been popular of late. It appeared in Mike Figgis? experimental digital feature TimeCode (2000) (a screen divided into a quadrant of four real-time takes) and resurfaced in the hit US television series 24 (2001) (24 real-time hours of a single day, revealed across one, two, three and four screens). The use of the cinematic grid foregrounds spatial montage over (Classical) sequential montage. The new media theorist Lev Manovich posits that contemporary multi-screen narration presents a renewed opportunity for the “suppressed” (since Soviet cinema) form of spatial montage to re-emerge (Manovich 2001: 324). The multi-screen format has also been dubbed the “desktop aesthetic” ? where the multiplication of screens (as ?windows?) becomes a “site for the collision, layering, interpretation and general orchestration of disparate elements” (Willis 2005: 38). 

Details of the post-production process for Awesome? (Gained from various online interviews) reveal the use of three editors, working over the duration of a year. Each editor was initially allocated ?rushes? from around twenty cameras each and asked to complete a entire ?rough-cut? of the project ? from sixty plus versions down to three. These three alternate versions were then re-mixed for the final 90 minute release - after some 6,000 edits). Awesome? is a project which embodies the ?digital aesthetic?. It is a film created from the manipulation (via selection and combination) of a database composed of moving images (sixty cameras) and sounds (track list).  The interactive DVD can be considered a ?new media object? since it adheres to Manovich?s New Media Principles of “Variability” and “Modularity”: in Awesome? sixty alternate versions of the concert exist as self-contained ?modules? which can then be (re)assembled into ?variations? of larger scale objects such as the feature film and the interactive DVD. Under this new media framework, Awesome... supports the idea that the digital feature film can “exist in different, potentially infinite versions” (Manovich 2001: 36).

More specifically, the DVD release of Awesome?presents the opportunity for the viewer to explore alternate versions of the live concert event, via a DVD Extra called ?Detour Mode?. With this activated, via the interactive menu, a series of flashing icons appear (in the right hand corner of the screen) to prompt the viewer to take a detour to an individual ?fan-cam? - presented in its (unedited) real-time mode. For example, one detour (?Camera #29?) takes you to the inner sanctum of the men?s bathrooms, another to the bar for another beer. The detours, however banal, do contribute to the verisimilitude of the film, a familiar experience to live music goers. This is enhanced by the use of diegetic sound. Detour Mode confirms the formalist nature of the project?and situates the work in proximity to other ?Gen X? creatives, such as Indie director Richard Linklater - who has constructed entire (fiction) films from ?plot detours?.

Fig 4

Fig. 4: Detour Mode

Detour Mode is only one of many interactive features on the DVD set: Disc 1 is devoted to the live concert experience (with associated detours) while Disc 2 contains supplementary media and the opportunity to re-mix  Beastie Boys samples ? in a DIY recipe of official ?Visual Styles? and ?Audio Styles?.  This is a good example of what has been described as the ?cinema of complexity?, where DVD ?supplementary-ness? allows ?for an increasingly complex relationship with the core film? (Harper 2005: 99). Another DVD Extra is ?Full Length Alternate Angle? mode ? which allows the viewer to switch to the version of the concert captured by the six professional (HD) camera operators. If the conceptual basis of the project remains impressive, after almost thirty minutes of (grainy and shaky) ?fan-cam? I did find myself desperately searching to switch to ?Full Length Alternate Angle? mode for some temporary audio visual relief (?I want my MTV?). In general, the DVD navigation menu is well designed, as a graphical interface based upon a Hi-8 camcorder manual.

Fig 5

Fig. 5: The ?Zone?

In their recent article on the transformation of film practices and aesthetics, Adam Ganz and Lina Khatib ask: “what are the defining characteristics of a digital cinema?” (2006: 22) One such characteristic, they propose, is the reconfiguration of filmed space -  from the traditional mode of ?coverage? (which sacrifices space to two dimensional planes) to a filmic ?zone?:

We have a different kind of access. We never watch the story directly, instead we are present where it occurs, we overhear it. The analogy is with a camera at a football match that films the players in the tunnel before they appear of the pitch. We are present before and after the normal boundaries of the story. (2006: 26)

Awesome? supports this idea, in that the live concert venue is exploited as a holistic three dimensional ?zone?: from the stalls to the mosh-pit, the bar to the bathrooms and backstage to the stage. Also, the relationship between the audience, performers and filmmakers is blurred, with the audience (as cinematographers) and band (as filmmakers).

Awesome?, as a collaborative mash-up film, also works within Lawrence Lessig?s definition of ?remix culture? as: ?creativity of remixing other creativity? (Koman 2005).
The Beastie Boys, as one of the first high profile bands to (attempt) to make mp3 downloads available from their website, remain strong advocates of mix culture.  Currently, fans can creatively remix their A Cappellas, at the ?Beazley Boys Re-Mix Forum?.

Fig 6

Fig. 6: The YouTube Aesthetic

The decision by Adam Yauch to go for Hi-8 camcorders, over the increasingly affordable and high quality digital video (DV) cameras can be situated in relation to the Beastie Boys principle aesthetic ? part punk/part retro. The band initially formed in 1981 as punk rockers and the punk attitude has informed their take on diverse musical genres (Funk, Hip-Hop and Rap) and forged their idiosyncratic sound. Their affiliation with all things retro is evident from both their fashion (matching green and gold Adidas tracksuits) and fetishisation of technology (vinyl, 80s computers and Hi-8 camcorders).

The digitised, grainy, shaky, Hi-8 moving images read as a (feature length) YouTube video, a reference to the ?mass-amateurisation? of moving image production in this domain. From Dogme95 to The Blair Witch Project (1999) the home video aesthetic has come to be the definitive marker of ?authenticity?. And with YouTube, this is now complete. The Lonely Girl 15 (video-blog), which was recently exposed as fictional, was largely due to growing skepticism of  images which were too well lit, too in-focus and a mise en scène too considered. 

Fig 7

Fig. 7:  An Open Letter to NYC

The live concert experience, which unfolds as a song-list, presents an inherently episodic (or tableaux) structure from which to assemble a feature length film.  Awesome? has capitalised on this given structure ? for the live performance (lighting, staging and themes) and later, in the digital edit suite. The performance consists of three main parts: the opening section is a hip-hop/rap set, the middle section has the (extended) band performing a more subdued (funk) set on a lit-up gazebo and the final section includes tracks from their latest album To The 5 Boroughs (2004). 

For the track ?An Open Letter To NYC? giant projections of a (gothic) New York city are used as a projected backdrop to the performance. The ?live? images used for this track have been augmented (in post-production) using high contrast filters to (re)present the visuals as a dynamic series of abstract patterns. Within the episodic structure of the live concert film, the tone shifts: from a hip-hop styled collage of images to something more akin to experimental cinema. The encore performance, of the hit song ?Sabotage?, presents yet another shift in tone. This sequence, dedicated to George W. Bush, is bathed in a digital stream of red light (blood?) and marks the ongoing political engagement for the Beastie Boys ? whether it be on the issue of Tibetan human rights or the environment of post-9/11 America.

Fig 8

Fig. 8: ?Sabotage?

In Awesome?the digital compositing of the live concert footage, intensifies the (already kinetic) live performance into a ?hyper-kinetic? media experience. This might be read in relation to Manovich?s claim, that all of the modernist avant-garde operations are now encoded within discrete software commands (Manovich 2001). The array of digital effects used for Awesome? is evidence of this. For example, one sequence fuses the space of the audience with that of the performers: Mike D is superimposed with a young fan in the audience who is mimicking his dancing style. In another moment, fluorescent green spray-paint is scrawled over the live-action footage: a digital revival of direct painting.

Fig 9

Fig. 9: Superimposition

Fig 10

Fig. 10: Direct (Spray) Painting

In another sequence, an amateur camera operator turns the camera on himself, to capture an ECU [Extreme Close Up] of his eye. The image looks to have been (digitally) enhanced with desaturation and high contrast filters which serve to highlight the reflection of the band in the iris. This shot reveals the richness of Awesome?, as a project which fuses amateur cinematography and a (well established) collage/hip-hop aesthetic, in the digital domain.

Fig 11

Fig. 11: Digital ?Kino-Eye?

The ?fan-cam? shot of the eye is also reminiscent of that supreme image of modernist film aesthetics, from The Man With a Movie Camera (Vertov 1929), which reveals the reflection of the human eye in the lens of the camera. In fact, Manovich?s description of Vertov?s masterpiece could well apply to Awesome?I Shot That:

“As the film progresses, straight footage gives way to manipulated footage; newer techniques appear one after another, reaching a roller-coaster intensity by the film?s end ? a true orgy of cinematography” (Manovich: 243)

Dziga Vertov meets the Beastie Boys, a kinetic rendezvous.

Alex Munt is an Associate Lecturer in the Media Department at Macquarie University.


Ganz, A. & Khatib, L. (2006) “Digital Cinema: The transformation of film practice and aesthetics” in New Cinemas, vol. 4 no.1, pp.21-36

Harper, G. (2005) “DVD and the New Cinema of Complexity” in New Punk Cinema, ed. N. Rombes, Edinburgh University Press

Koman, R. (2005) “Remixing Culture: An Interview with Lawrence Lessig”, O?Reilly Network,, accessed October 23, 2006

Manovich, L. (2001) The Language of New Media, Cambridge: The MIT Press

Steuer, E. “(Beastie) Boys on Film”, Wired, 14.04, (April 2006), accessed 19 November, 2006

Willis, H. (2005) New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, London: Wallflower Press