Friday, April 27, 2007

Making Movies

There is a new Ludacris video for the track “Slap” directed by Philip Andelman where Luda plays the Travis Bickle role from Taxi Driver. Now that is a weird and inspired choice (though not quite as weird as that Three Six Malkovich clip from a few months back). As I was starting to write about the Luda video I saw that the gloriously “elbow-patched corduroy jacket of videos” that is Obtusity had already gone through all the layers of meaning behind the choice of Taxi Driver as the motif for the new Ludacris video.

Obtusity does a great job at examining what the clip means. Read the post, he is way deeper than me. But the key reason directors pick feature film ideas for the videos is not because of the psychologial weight of the film they are homaging, not just because the video directors are lazy, and not just because the idea appeals to the bloated ego of the artist (though that helps) – but because the label and artist will know (or think they know) what they are gonna get when the director pitches them the idea. Nothing fancy, the “video as movie” style’s main strength is that it books jobs for the director because there is a pre-laid structure (and implied success in the marketplace) to appeal to the people writing the check.

This job obtaining strategy seems especially effective in hip-hop clips from Nas starring in Casino to Young Jeezy biting the urban classic Paid in Full to Busta Rhymes acting out his Mr. & Mrs. Smith swordfight fantasies with Gabrielle Union. Though rock acts do it as well, like Tom Petty getting his Mad Max on to Pat Benatar and the rest of the Dirty Dozen.

Benny Boom is a director who definitely knows what will sell to artists and labels – and everyone loves a good movie. Plus, it seems that Boom provides the voice of the couple's counselor in the Busta clip. Note that guns are verboten on music television so that explains Busta’s sword as well as Luda’s self-destructive finger pointing.

The number of movies that became clips is huge (somewhere on Antville there must be a list of music videos with plots taken from films but I couldn’t find it). Number one on that list (of course) would have to be Scarface – the film that has launched a thousand videos. I don’t have the energy to go into how many times Tony Montana has showed up in music video or dissect why rappers looove them the drug-addicted incesting Italo-Cubano psychopath. (Okay, quick theory – rapper’s DVDs never play all the way to the end so they don’t know Pacino dies, or rappers have even more suicidal thoughts than dentists).

The phrase “mini movie” is job-booking gold. Trust me. “Mini movie,” the labels will eat it up.

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Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Looking Back, Seeing Forward

In last Sunday’s LA Times Magazine (sorry, West) there was an article by noted photographer Robert Landau about his relationship with the massive rock and roll billboards that used to line West Hollywood’s Sunset Strip. Landau grew up in the area and started taking photos of the billboards at a young age. The LAT article is interesting for the great photos which you can sample on Landau’s personal website but there was also this final paragraph that jumped out at me:

The Strip's rock billboards flourished right up until MTV supplanted them in the early 1980s. The importance placed on producing videos for airplay on the fledgling network sucked most of the promotion resources right out of recording artists' budgets. Today the marketing focus is not on gargantuan, hand-crafted imagery but rather file card-size vignettes that dance and sing in YouTube videos.

The more things change, the more they stay the same, I guess. Nostalgia is a bitch, but the billboards sure were cool.

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Friday, April 20, 2007

Always be Closing

How NOT to get the job

Before you can shoot the job, you have to get the job. Here is a quick list of the best ways to not get hired to direct a music video.

10. Focus on the part YOU like
If you really want to blow your shot at the gig, never make the treatment, the pitch and the reference images all about the performance, or the artist’s chance to show off their acting chops or polish their street cred or whatever it is “they” want to be the focus. To completely screw up your chances, tell them you are going shoot a weird art movie about people who have TVs where their hearts should be or spend all the budget to composite some cutting edge effect that only other compositors will understand the difficulty of or break a million fluorescent light tubes in ultra slow motion. If the label knows that you are only interested in the video to add some new element to your reel and couldn’t care less about the artist – you are well on you way to not getting the job.

9. Spell the artist’s name wrong
Or even better, leave it out all together. Or write about your indie movie idea for three pages and then put “I will also shoot a performance in an alley” at the bottom of the last page. That gets ‘em every time.

8. Use confusingly technical terminology
“Slow motion” is such a prosaic term – and you want to really show off how much you learned in film school, so be sure you call slo-mo by its rightful name “high speed.” Those label people will be impressed by your knowledge of filmic technique and they will definitely understand that fast means slow. Trust me on this one. Don’t tell them what they will see on screen, tell them exactly how you will do it.

7. Reference other music videos and directors
Name names. Put in a list of your favorite directors. Name photographers as well. There is no chance they will read that and say, “We should hire that guy” whilst pointing out one of the suggestions you so kindly included in your concept.

6. Annoy the commissioner
Even if the commissioner says “Here is the brief, that’s all I know” – keep pestering them for more details. Since video commissioners are amongst the highest ranking execs at any label they always have a super-secret stash of good info that they will give out to only the most nudg-y of prospective directors. If they exasperatedly say “I dunno, just write something great” – you should always come back with something like “What kind of great?” or “Does that mean a rooftop performance or a narrative about taxi drivers dressed as angels?” Commissioners LOOOOVE those questions.

5. Be indecisive
Labels are usually looking for a director with a vision of some kind, so be sure your treatment encompasses everything under the sun. Vague and poorly thought through ideas like “We could shoot at the beach, or downtown, or possibly even in the middle of the desert” are sure to make them think that you are the decisive captain to sail their ship.

4. Bug the commissioner for the names of who else is writing on the job
(self explanatory)

3. Work out your own personal issues
Girlfriend just break up with you? Make the video about that! Who cares if the track you are writing on is an upbeat pop number? Work with the choreographer to have the dancers form the shape of your broken heart. (P.S. Inserting your own strident political views also works great.)

2. Write a concept that is impossible to film
Waste all their time and get them excited about some idea that really cannot be done for anywhere near the money. This will lose you this job and make them mad at you for years. No better nickname to have than “That Time-wasting Sunovabitch.” That is MV gold, right there. Writing a treatment that would cost 3x the budget to produce might make them suddenly cough up all the extra cash or even fall in love with your genius. This is called “Get them pregnant with the idea, then figure it out.” Great strategy.

1. Get the commissioner pregnant
Seriously. Knock her up. Make her with child. This might work.

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Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Up in the Perms

I always enjoy reading "inside the electric department" posts from Peggy Archer (a nom de blog) over at Totally Unauthorized. She posts about all the lighting work she does, from major music videos, to odd stuff she finds behind the scenes of big-budget movies, the stupidity of shooting in houses with winding driveways to the sofas she finds by the side of the. She is a good writer and her nuts and bolts perspective is always a shot to the beaver board. Warning, Totally Unauthorized is mostly all biggish budgeted stuff in Hollywood and reading it may damage indie street cred.

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Monday, April 16, 2007

The White Whale

Movie reviewers like to criticize certain films that they perceive as being over-cut for their “music video editing” – and it is not a compliment. Some old school filmies blame MVs for ruining the attention span of the planet’s young. But I would say that many video directors and fans are less obsessed with super fast edits than they are with …

One take videos. Every director who has ever made (or thought of making) a music video has considered the idea of a one taker. Even if it is only in his/her mind, every director has their own personal take on how they would do it. Kind of like the Aristocrats of promo clips.

Kev over on Antville compiled a massive list of one take videos a few years back and many added and added to it. Check it out, it is a mighty list indeed. A brand-new addition to that list is …

Patrick Daughters’ new Feist clip. Everyone loves it. Well most everyone.

The reason that this one-take video stands out is because the structure of the clip actually works with the feel of the visuals and the building low-fi emotionality of the music.

So many one-take videos have a forced feel where I end up noticing how much of a strain it is to maintain the paper-thin conceit of no edits. Most one-take directors (MV and otherwise) seem to be shooting for “bravura” and end up missing the point all together.

Watch the Feist "1234" video and try not to have a smile on your face by the last choruses. It is a joy to watch.

Obviously there are many other things the director did right, from the not-too-slick dancers and the whimsical Jet Li wall running choreography, the ZOOM-like wardrobe. The artist and the song are (of course) pretty good, too. But the one-take “gag” never overwhelms the vibe of it all – which is why the video works so well. My only minor ding is that you never really get to see the performer's face very well, a common one take issue.

This clip is about the artist and the song and not the director waving his arms to draw attention to his technical achievement. Like seduction, flatulence and refereeing a basketball game - technical achievement is done well when no one even notices it is being done at all.

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Saturday, April 14, 2007

Weekend link

This is an old piece from studio that gets opinions from a lot of heavy hitting MV directors (Patty D, Sophie, Meyers, Nava) and some high-end tech people on the state of the music video industry as well as their own creative strategies. It is from 2004 and even way back when there is lots of talk about falling budgets which never gets old (okay, maybe a little). Three years on, though there is still a lot of good stuff, like this quote from ultra-DP Christopher Soos:

Music videos, on the other hand, have this pretense that they’re constantly trying to push the envelope. But at the end of the day we’re all pushing product. Sometimes the bands are the clients, and sometimes the record labels— more often these days. Creative freedom is completely dependent on who’s calling the shots; in other words, who’s allowing the director to do their job?
Definitely worth a read. Another post coming Monday.


Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Herd Dynamics

Into the pen

Following the herd is not a lot of fun. The view isn’t so hot and you usually step in much crap. Then, why do so many videos do exactly that, follow the herd?

The herd is eternal
Well, making videos that are largely the same as others in the marketplace is certainly not new. Many folks, me included, remember the past as the good ole days where everything was better than it is now. By and large this is the same BS instinct that makes every generation of parents crankily call their kids’ favorite songs “not music” and “just noise.”

Hollywood released some amazing movies in the 1970s and 1971 will be remembered as the year of The French Connection and A Clockwork Orange. But '71 was also the year for money making exploitation junk like Billy Jack, The Andromeda Strain, yet another Bond sequel, a Disney animated money machine and the year’s top grosser was a family musical called Fiddler on the Roof (which would certainly star Ben Stiller if it were to be made today). My point is that we tend to forget the turds of the past and only recall the things we see as cool or good. The same thing happens in music videos.

1983 was Thriller and the aggressively “odd-ball for such a straight-ish band” “Jeopardy” by Greg Kihn. Those were good videos, but there were also tons of cornball Quiet Riot and Michael Bolton clips that year as well. Music video directors have always followed the herd, and it is not really getting worse today. We usually remember the stand out stuff and forget all the filler. But most music video directing gigs are (have been/will be) just that, filler.

It seems to me, going forward, standing out will be harder (more clips in the on-line marketplace, no big label push to give any a head start) but at the same time more important. A great example is this wild Belarussian video that simply grabbed me and forced me to sing along in a foreign language about Snickers bars.

The labels WANT to follow the herd
It is much easier to market something when you have a road map. Watch how many studios green-light films that look like “300.” As I have discussed before, labels often use the video process to make final adjustments to the image of an artist, and they rarely steer the video away from what has been successful before. A director is free to come up with any concept he/she wants – but most of the working types know that if they ignore the notes for “an upbeat club concept that follows the lyrics” they probably will be home while someone else is shooting the job.

Generic music calls for generic videos
I have written on this before as well. Creating an odd-ball concept for a straight ahead artist is just as wrong (both commercially and creatively) as coming up with a typical performance clip for Bjork. If you don’t see the truth in that statement check out an earlier post I made on craftsmanship. If that doesn’t convince you, go back to commenting on all the video blogs about how every “v1deo suxxx.”

Money (or lack thereof) pushes videos into the herd
This is the one that has changed recently. As “big budget” videos have come to mean “anything over $200k” – it is harder to create something that stands out from the pack.

Some readers may be thinking that 200 large is a good amount of money – and it is. If you are used to working on videos with $8,000 budgets you may be shocked, but 200k is not that much. For big label/big artist jobs they usually have very specific demands like a certain “level” of DP, first class air travel for an alarming number of people besides the artist themselves. Plus there are the trailers. Always the trailers.

Two hundred grand is a one day shoot, in the quickly dying world of high dollar videos. You have to get real close to 300k to get a second day. And this is a simple job without too much post or location costs or stunts or dancers or art direction. The more things cost – the less control the director/producer has over things.

The label on the 200k job likely wants some specific things – 50% performance, nothing too dark or spooky, make the artist look happy and fun, etc. There will also probably be some product placement, which is where part of the 200k comes from. The label’s “requests” often get way more specific and include which choreographer or glam squad must be hired.

This is not to posit a “poor little rich director” scenario – it is to point out that the “big” budget of 200k is 1) mostly sucked up by extraneous stuff the director doesn’t necessarily want to spend it on and 2) comes with LOTS of restrictions and expectations from the label. It is the label’s money, they get to spend it however they want, but …

This is another thing that forces the finished videos into the herd. The label expectations and demands of doing a clip that is expected to sell records have always been there, but with the drop in budgets, it is even harder to make something unique.

If you have to shoot a one day job with daylight exteriors (not much money for lights or pricey locations) and the song is about hot women and hotter cars – you can see how this ends up lopping off the ends of the Bell Curve of creativity.

The best directors find a way to get the job done and add in their own creativity. Building a style has to be weighed against the real-world concerns of getting a coke addled R&B singer to come out of his trailer before his manager beats him up and making sure you have enough left on the budget for a, um, “gift” for the commissioner.

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Sunday, April 08, 2007

Homebrewing it up in the national news

Just a quick weekend note. Once the mainstream media get a hold of something, you can tell it is no longer news ...

The LA Times did a big Sunday Calendar piece on user generated music videos and fan-based stuff.

This critical mass of contest-generated fan videos has got music video-dom's most in-demand director, Marc Webb, for one, thinking about his career. "A music video is a symptom of the marketplace," he said. "If it becomes about kids making videos and that becomes a viable way to get a song out there, so be it. I'll have to find another job."
It is definitely worth a read, but a lot of it is stuff that has shown up here and on the Ville before - not too much new. The thing that really struck me was that none of these contests - shaking hips like Shakira or digging Incubus would work unless the artist is already very well known. Of course, these artists all got famous enough for them to even have fans to make homebrew clips through using "real" professional videos.

Hopefully Webb saves me a place in the unemployment line.

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Tuesday, April 03, 2007


I guess this is just continuing the Zoolander theme established in a hilariously truthful post over on Shots Ring Out. You should check it out, both for the Mugatu image and for the “so crazy it can’t be real” reality of it all. Anyway, read on, once you come back …

In the recent Los Angeles edition of City Beat (our second-tier free medical marijuana and massage parlor ad paper) there was an article about the unintended consequences of the revitalization (or “fascist gentrification” for the antville types) of downtown Los Angeles. For years, downtown LA has been creepily empty after the sun goes down – but the city and developers have been trying to turn the old, decaying downtown around and it looks like they have finally made some changes. Too bad that looks to be bad for production.

As downtown L.A. becomes the city’s newest upscale community, motion picture and television companies are learning the hard way that they are no longer lords of the empty streets. Now, smells wafting from catering trucks and the roar of generators from the 2,235 permitted productions in 2006 alone are barely tolerated and there always seems to be new rules to follow. To date, the city has imposed 150 rules on downtown production, 15 percent more than in other area of the city. – City Beat

It would certainly cramp everyone’s style if shooting in downtown LA became like New York with no audible playback rules and seven block walks to the grip trucks. But at the same time, I would not want a production crew running playback of a Pretty Ricky song until 6am outside my cave.

Downtown is home to such famous music video shooting locations as the rooftop from “Where the Streets Have No Name”, the back of the sign on top of the Orpheum Theater and the Alexandria Hotel where David Fincher used to live. The grungier the place, the more likely it has been in a music video, and that got me thinking …

Why are so many videos (and other stuff) shot in crappy, abandoned, run-down places? I understand (at least some of) the social implications of the underclass or the youth taking over the structures abandoned by the powerful of society. I understand that it is cheaper to shoot in an empty building than it is to rent out the top floor at the new CAA headquarters.

I was recently going to a video location on the edge of downtown near the LA River and taking a kid who had never been to a video set before. I was telling the boy about how grungy the place would be and he asked why. The kid assumed that videos would be set someplace cool and glossy – aren’t musicians rich after all?

The kid had good questions and I stammered to answer them. The one thing I settled on was that abandoned buildings are cool. That’s it, dirty=cool. It’s all I got.


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