Friday, March 30, 2007

Cold Lamping with Flavor

Directorial Style

Developing a distinct style as a music video director can be tough to pull off in the marketplace – with the realities of satisfying the desires of labels, managers, artists and product placers making a director’s reel jump around like Everlast.

Do directors WANT to develop a distinct style to call their own? Should they? I don’t think there is one answer to that.

Directors with a specific, easily recognizable style often get more props from the aueterist camp. Guys like Spike and Gondry have obvious things that connect their clips together. Does that visual cohesive-ness make them better directors than someone with a more eclectic filmography? I don’t think so.

Chris Cunningham has done some really cool videos, but I would rather not spend more than a few minutes at a time in the unrelentingly depressive world of techno-doom that Cunningham creates. Maybe Cunningham only likes the kind of song that calls for visual misanthropy, but I get creeped out and need to open the window after just a few minutes. Maybe that is the point – but does that make him a “good” director? BTW – In my eyes, Cunningham is a very good director, but on my own personal scorecard I take points OFF for the same-ness of their tone, rather than considering the Infini-Dread vibe a plus.

In my opinion, music videos are a craft that serve a lot of masters and the same-ness or unity of a director’s output has little to do with how they should be judged.

Hip-Hop videos have lots of the same things in them – cars, girls, shiny things – but then again so do the songs the clips are promoting. Many folks see nothing of value in urban videos because of this. Okay, but how is the output of Cunningham (or Gondry) exempted from the “same=bad” judgment?

When Dave Meyers was rulling the MV world a few years back, people were hiring him as much to get his name stamped at the front of the clip (and his entertaining presence on the “making of” show) as to get his skills behind the camera. But Meyers always delivered something really distinct. Meyers had a certain color transfer look and he was always great at getting fun, comfortable confident performances out of the artists (something recently noted here). This allowed Meyers to shoot videos for Jay-Z, NSync, Pink, Celine Dion and Aerosmith – the kind of varied client list most directors can only dream of. Meyers was also able to photograph a lot of the “same” stuff over and over again – people getting out of cars in slow motion and girls dancing in formation with a style that kept it feeling fresh, even if I had just seen another Meyers video with the same elements two minutes earlier on MTV. Kids, MTV is a TV channel that used to show music videos – oh, never mind.

Meyers was always interested in getting the job (or at least he must have been since he got 92% of the jobs from '99 to '01). If the label wanted dancing and car shots (which they usually do), Meyers delivered dancing and car shots, but with his own, unique spin – just like a true professional. His videos sold records and they all were completely watchable. Could Meyers have put his foot down and said “No more dancing”? Sure. Then, the labels would have passed the work on to Kahn or X. Instead, Meyers injected a lot of his own personal style into the framework of a major label video.

Chris Milk is a young director, who seems to be going in a different direction. I really admire Milk’s output and his stuff has a certain twisted classicism – but other than that his videos seem pretty varied. And rare.

Milk has managed to craft a career where he seems to not do the kind of clips that everyone else is. That certainly cuts down on the number of jobs Milk is up for, since I doubt Rihanna and Chris Brown want burning crosses or weed-whacking Jon-Benets in their clips. I’m sure Milk is fine with that, but it does shorten his filmography.

The best way to create a singular voice is for a director to simply take less jobs. Ignore the label briefs that call for the kind of close-ups or flattering camera angles you don’t want to shoot. I would imagine that guys like Paul Fedor and Milk simply write the treatment they want to shoot – if and only if they are feeling the song. On the flip-side, some directors are busy working with commissioner to write (and re-write) the kind of concept that will book them the job, something that is sure to enhance their chances of employment, but also make the finished product something that is sure to be judged as far less “visionary.”

Maybe THAT is the real determinant of music video director style. Not the framing, or lens selection or art-direction choices, but rather how many jobs he/she takes. How many songs a director wants to write on and how eagerly he/she crafts the concept to meet the brief from the label might be the real reflection of a director’s personal style. In a collaborative medium like music videos, style is where-ever you can grab it.

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Monday, March 26, 2007

Killing the Messenger

No one likes to hear bad news. I certainly don’t. But few people care about bringing me bad news. They just go right ahead and lay out all the stuff I don’t wanna know. Why? Because I am not famous.

When musicians start being called ‘artists’ they start getting used to no one telling them anything they don’t want to hear. Labels don’t want to and the managers certainly don’t want to. Artists become like some delicate Byzantine ruler where the servants lavish them with praise and tell them whatever they think the godhead wants to hear.

On videos, this can be a problem. I have worked on jobs where the artist has had notes like “I want a video where you insert me into a classic TV show, like Laverne & Shirley” – two weeks after Spike's famous Buddy Holly hit MTV. Those notes got passed along from the manager to the comissioner to the director because nobody at the label had the balls to say, “Hey, that idea is on MTV right now, we should do something else for your video.” I guess the artist believes that anything inside their head must be theirs.

The artists being self-centered children is no shocker, but the whole structure built up around them reinforcing that stupidity does seem like a problem. Artists often want videos that are way more expensive that the budget the label is giving them will afford. I have worked on jobs where the director and prod co had to discuss all the details of the concept/treatment with the artists, but they could not, under any circumstances, bring up cost or money – because that might upset the delicate Dauphin.

This situation is especially bad with artists who made videos in the “glory days” and they remember three day shoots with techno-cranes, armies of dancers and Thomas Kloss lighting them. Artists often believe they can get ANY celebrity to cameo in their video – just by the power of their own stardom. I was involved in one job where the female artist wanted a particular NBA player (a sketchy-to-impossible “get” under any circumstances) in their clip and didn’t understand why the guy was unavailable, even as the hoopster’s team was engaged in the playoffs.

When the messenger keeps getting killed (or denied entry) the message obviously stops getting through. The artist becomes more and more separated from reality, and I am not just talking Mariah Carey, either. This isolation in a cocoon of illusory perfection is especially funny when the artist is a rapper who goes on about his street toughness and un-revoke-able ghetto pass – all while demanding a bigger wardrobe budget so he can keep the fur coat wardrobe is supplying for the clip.

This is not always the case. I have heard (unconfirmed rumor alert) that Andre 3000 often acts as his own wardrobe stylist after hearing how much the label (and by extension Andre himself) was paying for a person to choose the clothes he would wear. Apparently, Mister 3K gets cash from the budget and gets the clothes his own self, with just an PA to handle the returns - and doesn't charge the budget any kind of crazy stylist fee. This is a smart move based on how much $$$ the glam people can be.

The real drama in a video production comes when the DIRECTOR starts to be someone who needs protecting from reality. Part of a successful director’s appeal is their charismatic leadership. This is huge element that young directors often overlook. It is about getting the job and executing the job but a big part of those two elements is making the artist/label/manager feel like they are in good hands. That can mean coming across like a rugged street character to make the rappers respond, an artistic fashionista for the divas or a (just slightly) drugged-up rocker who truly “gets” the band’s brand of stylish desperation.

Music video directors are always playing a bit of a role. They certainly need to act calm on the set and smile to the commissioner – even if they know they just ran out of film or the generator is on fire. They need to act like the artist’s best friend when they are suggesting the beauty close-up would go better without the same, ugly shade of overly harsh lipstick the singer always seems to choose.

The problem comes when the director starts to get just as diva-ish as the talent. Not only does that sour relations with the artists – no star wants competition for the spotlight – it starts to keep the messengers away.

I have worked on lots of jobs where the director simply did not get told certain things. Of course, a good production team keeps silly details off the director’s plate (craft services ran out of peanut M&Ms) while having them focus on what is important. But if the director kills the messenger enough times – the team around him/her will stop bearing even the important bad tidings.

On one shoot the director was setting up a specific performance close-up of the artist, a profile look. The director thought this was a bit of genius to have the artist not staring right into the lens – but someone higher up at the label (who was not on set that day) had told the producer very specifically they did not want ANY profile shots since they believed the performer had a too-large schnozz. The producer is stuck now, since if they tell the director at this point, he will pitch a fit and slow things down while also possibly tipping the fragile ego-ed artist off to the label’s lack of faith in their facial structure. So the producer lets the set-up go forward, wasting everyone’s time on footage that is guaranteed to never make the final edit.

Part of the responsibility for this goes on the producer’s shoulders for not having the guts/skill to communicate with the director – but the majority of the blame lands in the lap of the director who responds so furiously to anyone “questioning his vision” that he has left himself messenger-less.

On that note, I am considering turning off all comments for this blog since I cannot take any more people questioning my vision.

(Just kidding, comments are still on. Post a thought about messenger killing on a job, MV or not, you have worked on.)

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Friday, March 23, 2007

Limeys in the Sun

Euros love the desert. Especially those Commonwealth types from England, Ireland and Welsh-land. The love them some videos in the desert, probably because their local “warm vacation spot” is Brighton.

Every Continental director (and most of the artists) I have worked with has really, really wanted to shoot in the desert outside of LA. They all feel that the song in question (no matter what it is) just sounds like the wide open spaces of the America Southwest. My guess, is that the desert is something they don’t have back home, so when they come here – they think it is a great inspiration to drag the camera crew out to the Mojave, or if you are on a tighter budget, Vasquez Rocks.

It is a cliché in LA-based production circles that if the crew is driving out to the desert in the pre-dawn hours – someone important on the job must have an accent. That is not to say that American artists are immune to the charms of the desert, but it seems to have a special draw to those from across the pond.

I started on a list, but ran out of inspiration. Maybe commenters can add in their suggestions for Euros in the desert videos. The Spice Girls were super-heroines in the desert, Radiohead was quirky, the Lighthouse Family was imminently forgettable and so on. The music actually does point to clips from Sting and the Clash being shot in the desert. U2 used an artificial desert, so that only kind of counts, but they did have that whole album called Joshua Tree. Alanis is Canadian, so she kind of counts. I know I must forgetting a ton of the, Surely Westlife and Robbie Williams have shot videos in the desert.

Of course the flip-side of this is the goofy stuff that US directors and artists always wanna shoot in Europe. Jay-Z had his recent “Hey look at me, I’m in Monaco. No really. Monaco. Check me out” moment for his unretirement. If you were in Paris, where should you shoot your video? Why right in front of the Eiffel Tower, just like Mariah and Usher.

What seems “new and exciting” to the person making the trans-Atlantic flight is guaranteed to make the locals roll their eyes and say “We have to get ANOTHER permit for there.”

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Tuesday, March 20, 2007

RIAA = Villain

How evil is the RIAA?

Seriously, how baby-eatingly bad is the RIAA? Are they Hitler bad? Slobodan Milosevic evil? Maybe just Dr. Evil semi-evilish?

The RIAA has been under some serious heat from them there intranets of late. By enacting the strategy of suing anyone who doesn’t genuflect fast enough, the record industry is shooting themselves in their be-spatted foot. Yes, the RIAA is doing a whole lot of dumb things. Many, many stupid decisions are made by the Recording Institute Association of America. That being said …

They are not really wrong. The RIAA is actually right about the core issue. Stealing music is wrong. Yes, I know I just came out for tyranny and against sunshine.

I believe illegal downloading is bad. It is stealing. Taking something that is not yours is against the law and it should be. Recent changes in technology have made it very easy to grab up the music (and movies and software) you want online. But easy and right are not the same thing.

People that want free music will shake their fist at the RIAA and offer many excuses as to why it is/should be okay for them to steal music: CDs are too expensive, labels are the man (and the man is ALWAYS bad), the RIAA sucks, I don’t have enough money, the labels rip off the artist anyway, blah, blah ...

The basic thoughts behind the excuses might be true, but the core of it is that those are just excuses. Just listen to yourself.

It is not okay to steal other things that you find too pricey (jewelry, Ferraris, sushi). It is not okay to steal from places run by jerk wads. If you don’t have enough money for something, maybe you ought to readjust your priorities rather than stealing if you don’t wanna get in trouble. These excuses and justifications are all a bunch of noise. It is wrong to take stuff that doesn’t belong to you, and you know it. (Pardon my use of the second person, it just seemed to work better.)

People who steal music say all kinds of dumb stuff. “I download it first and THEN I buy it later if it is good.” Really? With a straight face, you’re gonna tell me that you had to download the entire Roxy Music Greatest Hits Collection to see if you liked it? What are the CDs you bought after downloading the songs first? What percentage of those “involuntary free samples” given out by the musicians and record labels turn into purchases by you?

There are millions of excuses and justifications and they might bring comfort as Limewire does it’s business and fills your hard-drive with music you love/like/sample – but the excuses are all bullshit. All us humans like stuff for free. And we will take that stuff as often as possible, especially if we have someone else to point at (RIAA) who is also behaving poorly so we can feel better about our own actions.

This blog, jefito, is pretty cool, but on this topic I think he is totally missing the point.

“The sad irony here, I think, is that file sharing probably won’t ever die. It’s just too easy, and appeals too deeply to our need to have common experiences.”

Common experiences? So THAT is why people download? Not for free stuff, but to share the communal e-campfire experience and talk story like our long lost ancestors? The bullshit in that statement is just as stinky (and in my opinion far more-so) than anything the RIAA tries to serve up as the truth.

Scott McCloud draws a cool on-line comic and he has a long post/drawing that explains the theory of micro-payments very well. I think micro-payments will drive on-line commerce, if not all commerce, in the future. Check out his piece, I thought it was great until …

He would pay twice the amount if he knew it was going to the band? Really?!? How Smurfy. Again, I call “bullshit” on that. This is simply not human nature. Downloading is rampant because people like free stuff. Period.

If the RIAA and all it’s dastardliness did not exist, would downloading stop? If CDs (or a comparable download) cost three dollars would internet users everywhere agree this was a fair price and simply pay for their music and not illegally download?

Every time someone makes lame excuses like this, it completely undermines any other salient points they might be making. Which destroys credibility faster? The RIAA’s stupidity and heavy-handed-ness or pretending that stealing songs with your computer is some kind of internet Kumbaya? That is just as BS as wanting to smoke pot, but acting like you are only interested in hemp clothing? How about saying your country stands for freedom while torturing people to support your own lies?

Bullshit positions (no matter how convenient or affordable) don’t lead to solutions. The RIAA posturing that the current, artist-screwing label structure is the only way for musicians to survive is BS. So is pretending that you illegally downloaded a song because you love The Beastie Boys just that much.

Even the Gawker empire (and their month long, anti-DRM rant and their copyright/royalty discussion) might be starting to realize that their RIAA jihad is not where the solutions lie.

April addendum: This is an important point that I meant to cover in another post, but I never quite got around to that "other post" so I will add it here. Pirating music (or movies or Halo expansion packs) hurts you. I imagine that anyone who has taken the time to get to this point on this blog somehow works in music/media/entertainment - or at least has visions of doing so. If you want to be the next Spielberg, why would you want to participate in an action that steals from artists you love AND decreases your chances for getting your own shot to direct a feature film (that you don't finance with Grandma's inheritance). Copyrights (or whatever the "intellectual property 2.0" deal will be called) protect me and, since you are reading this, probably you as well. Why shoot myself in the foot?

I have no idea what the future of the music industry will be. It certainly won’t look like what we have now. There will be many changes, and that is as it should be. But I do know that …

Any effective change will be based on reality. The reality is that people like to get stuff/music for free and right now they are getting as much of that free product as they want. So the solution does NOT lie in acting like downloading is caused by “extreme music love” or “angsty defiance” or “justified disaffection with cultural structures.”

Getting people the music they want, as easily as possible and at a fair price is the goal.

The solution will come from people who understand that illegal downloading is driven by the most basic of instincts. Greed.

Acknowledging that, is the first step. This is one area where the RIAA is actually out in front.

Kumbaya, snitches!

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Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Tumbleweeds 2 - Death of a Salesman

This is a (sort of) sequel to another post.

FM Rocks was the largest music video production company in the world over the last decade and a half. They were the home of directors like F. Gary Gray, Paul Hunter, Dave Meyers, Bryan Barber, Benny Boom, Jake Nava and Erik White. FM Rocks did videos like Notorious BIG’s Hypnotize, Beyonce’s Crazy in Love, Outkast’s Hey Ya and hundreds of others. FM Rocks produced multiple clips for Missy Elliott, Mariah Carey, Pink, Christina Aguilera, Britney, Creed, Celine Dion, Lindsay Lohan, Jennifer Lopez, LL Cool J and Busta Rhymes and so on.

If the music video industry were the auto industry – FM Rocks would be General Motors. And they closed their doors at the end of the year. Check out the “FM Rocks” tag on videostatic to see all the videos they did since the beginning of 2005. And that was while they were "going under."

That’s right, the biggest music video production house in the world went under (or simply 're-organized'). These photos show the building in Santa Monica where FM Rocks was officed until the end of 2006.

By looking at the building you can tell their overhead was probably just a bit high. This building is about four blocks from the Pacific Ocean. Prime real estate to be sure. That kind of extravagance is part of the problem.

But, the industry also changed. That’s probably a good thing – unless you worked here or they owed you money. Maybe they went bankrupt, maybe they just moved away. You can rent the building and find out.

Most of these pictures i took myself driving past one day, but below is a photo I got through a friend of a friend. It is a dumpster full of three-quarter inch video tapes that got thrown away as FM Rocks cleared out.

Try the phone number, (310-587-1501) – it is disconnected. I pity the next person that gets assigned those digits by AT&T and is inundated by collection calls from post houses and camera rentals joints trying to get paid.

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Thursday, March 08, 2007

Going to School on Porn

Music videos have always shared something with pornographic films. Many of the same, smaller San Fernando Valley soundstages are used for both kinds of production. The same kind of “outlaw” personalities were involved with making porn and promos. Heck, Eddie Van Halen is even writing skin flick scores these days.

In the early days of videos when clips were shot on, um, video – the same camera packages were often used on successive days by different companies. There is an old story about an music video camera assistant turning in all the tapes he found in the case after a Cyndi Lauper video shoot and the editor finding a tape of Debbie doing Dallas that had been left with the camera equipment a day/week earlier. So the editor cuts the blue footage in with Miss Lauper’s music vid performance because the editor assumed they shot it for a reason. The label was, understandably, a bit surprised. That story is probably just apocryphal, but it illuminates how similar the roots of music videos and adult movies are.

Oh, and the sexy girls. Music videos have long used sexy girls, and often the very same ones that appear in Chatsworth’s finest films. In one, the girls are the product in the other – the girls are the product OR they are used to decorate the product. This is not a new rap-based phenomenon. Girls on Film, anyone?

But there is a new change on the horizon that is already filtering through the world of pornography that is sure to really change music videos. High definition. The NYTimes even had a piece about how the newest 1080p technology is sending ripples through the adult industry.
“They have discovered that the technology is sometimes not so sexy. The high-definition format is accentuating imperfections in the actors — from a little extra cellulite on a leg to wrinkles around the eyes.

Hollywood is dealing with similar problems, but they are more pronounced for pornographers, who rely on close-ups and who, because of their quick adoption of the new format, are facing the issue more immediately than mainstream entertainment companies.”

Many lower budgeted MV shoots already go down on 24p cameras and in returning to their roots, videos have found a way to save money, especially as video camera technology improves. What does all this new picture resolution mean for videos? Is a new day dawning of visual cornucopias and precise frame-rates? Computer says no.

First up, most major labels still want to shoot everything on 35mm - at least with the "Hollywood" (and mostly non-rock) jobs that i work on. Yes, it baffles the mind why label (or management) Luddites demand this when 16mm or 24p look fine once they are transferred to television (or YouToogle) but remember that these are big corporations run by people as old as your parents. Old people are scared of the tech. Like Grandma who doesn’t trust her shiny Dell so she prints out every jpeg of the grandkids otherwise she might not really “have” it.

Labels seem to believe that glossy film (just like the movies use!!) is the only way to make their star artists look good. On some big budget diva jobs (Mariah, Janet, et al) that does make some sense. But budgetarily and technically, the vast majority of music videos could and should be shot on high def video. But that brings us to …

Would hi def be too clear and crisp for music videos? If the porn industry is worried about pimples on Jenna Jameson’s butt, imagine what Ray Kay or Bernard Gourley will have to do with the $200 per day “dancers” in the next Yung Joc video.

Emo video sets made out of cardboard and dubateen will not seem properly “edgy and intense” when 24p video picks up every last detail like the clothespins and gaffers tape on the backdrop or the clumps in the bassist's eyeliner. Is there enough time for Tony P’s or Saline Project’s computers to render all the effects for their next video if they have to make the images look Hi-Def sharp?

But here is one thing that might save music videos from the “over-teching” effect of Hi-Def, at least temporarily. No one watches videos on TV anymore.

While porn is going to Hi-Def so single guys can fire up the 42-inch plasma flat-screen for Assraelis, music videos are now being seen mostly on laptop screens after the carefully telecine-ed film has been filtered through layers and layers of compression software. It doesn’t matter that the video was shot on Hi-Def or 35mm, if the final product is seen on a web browser.

All that may be changing as new ways of delivering video arrive – a topic I have written on before, including the belief inside the industry that picture quality is vital. Maybe AppleTV will be the wave of the future and THAT will mean all the art-direction currently on Fuse will look worse than a middle school play.

Now that I think of it, maybe the “scratched up Etch-a-Sketch” quality of YouToogle isn’t such a bad thing.

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