≡ Menu

Filming A Hip Hop Cypher

Assasi has a show … of sorts.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

BANGOR, Maine- I can’t say I ever thought I would be filming a hip hop cypher, but I guess the usual effect of documentary is getting into unexpected situations.

I started out shooting a documentary about the Syrian hip hop artist Assasi … and then ended up shooting a music video and, last Friday, a cypher.

What is a cypher?

From my understanding it’s a group of rappers taking turns freestyling in a cycle. So a DJ sets a beat, one rapper raps, and when he’s done another one starts. The events are usually filmed and then edited into videos.

The event on Friday was at the Queen City Cinema Club, which is a place that may prove to be a little too cool for Bangor. It’s a bar / cinema / game hall / social club. Basically, you can go in there with friends, play board games, video games, watch movies, and drink. The guys who run the place are hip hop artists, and they’ve done whatever they could to support Zac … as well as my film about him. We’ve used the place as a filming location twice now.

The event itself went well. It’s mostly about the filming, so the audience just kind of watches as this process goes down — which meant that I could have things play out how I wanted…

Hey man, can you do that verse again…

I want to do another take from this angle…

Let’s do that again with a different lens…

The biggest mistake I see many chroniclers make is they act like flies on the wall with their cameras. They don’t jump in. Instead, they hang back, film sneakily, and look awkward. While the intent seems to be something akin to being obscure or “invisible” or trying to make people feel as comfortable as possible the effect is usually the opposite. That isn’t how people naturally interact and it feels weird for everyone. Instead, being completely at ease with what you do — viewing the camera and filming as something normal — is a far better course of action.

How to get comfortable? Just do it. Be as obvious as possible. Communicate.

To stomp in front of people with your camera and start calling the shots only feels awkward before you do it. Once you cross that line and establish yourself everything usually falls into place — people respond to people who make their intentions known, who explain what they want to do and, most importantly, communicate what’s expected of them.

Above all else, the camera is a social tool.

I left a bunch of my filming gear in Rochester — including my B-cam — so I had to put the Sony a6000 back into service. However, there was no way that I could use it natively. I loathe Sony color science, which seems as if it was designed to make East Asians appear whiter … which, of course, ends up making white people look like death. So I hooked a Blackmagic Video Assist recorder up to it, which gives me 10-bit prores files and Blackmagic color science. The results are surprisingly good, as Sony sensors are excellent and the lenses are decent. So it essentially takes what’s good about the cam and leaves what’s bad. This also allows me to better match the footage with my BMPCC4K A-cam.

The filming went alright. It was fun. I set up my A-cam on a tripod with the subjects centrally framed. I shot into a corner, which added a good amount of depth. My lighting strategy was to have a dark vignette around the periphery of the frame with an explosion of light emitted from the center. However, I overdid it a little — I underestimated the power of the tungsten track lights that were positioned on the ceiling and used too many of them. The results weren’t bad … just something to remember for the future — the building blocks of experience.

Zac is editing the cypher. He’s a skilled editor, and has his own hip-hoppy style that blends well with his music. I will post the video when it’s ready.

At work:

Filed under: Documentaries, Maine, Music

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3704 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

Support VBJ’s writing on this blog:

VBJ is currently in: New York City

2 comments… add one

Leave a Comment

  • Trav May 13, 2019, 5:32 pm

    Looks cool. So they just film themselves rapping? What’s everyone in the crowd doing when you’re having them do everything over and over again? haha

    Link Reply
    • Wade Shepard May 14, 2019, 3:11 pm

      Just hanging out.

      Link Reply