Friday, May 25, 2007

Shweddy Balls

The drummer from Semisonic, Jacob Slichter, wrote a pretty cool book about his life as a “sort of” rock star. He has a self-depreciating wit and the kind of insiders perspective that I enjoy.

Slichter did a five minute piece for NPR on his band going through the process of making a video. The clip was from the 2001 movie “Summer Catch” starring Freddie Prinze Jr. and the pre-workout, pre-Jeter Jessica Biel. Check out the NPR piece, it is – like most things NPR – gently humorous.

It also made me think of a few things:

1. Remember soundtrack videos. Remember? They may never come this way again.

2. Wardrobe expenditures are crazy. The amount of money spent on clothes is nuts. On some clips (Christina Aguilera, Manson) the specific wardrobe is key but on a Semisonic clip? You know the $600 belt buckle ended up in the stylist’s private collection or she “returned” it for a bit of cash.

3. No one saw the video. When you meld properties – a movie, a soundtrack CD and a video – you magnify the potential reward AND the downside. In the glory days of soundtracks, the rising tide of synergy raised all boats. But if even one of the pieces goes wrong, it can damage all of them. Three helium balloons tied together help the whole float high, replace just one balloon with an anvil – and the two balloons are now decorations for the relentlessly earth-bound hunk of steel. Anvil, thy name is Freddie.

4. The silliness of the language in treatments and pitches is truly stunning. Slichter is right to be annoyed that he had to read the same buzz words over and over again – but he wasn’t in the meeting where the label people repeatedly jabbered those buzz words like Tourette’s ridden parrots to the directors and production cos which led to them being regurgitated right back to the label/band in the director’s concept. Aah, creativity.

5. Chris Applebaum has a funny voice.

The ‘other’ side of the process is always fascinating.

Please forward along a link to the video for Semisonics “Over My Head” if you find it. I had no luck.

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Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Tick, tick, tick

The Alarm Clock

Wake-up calls are a pain. No one likes to get up before the sun, but music video production usually means starting the day when it still doesn’t seem like day. To get everything done in the time allotted (usually one day in 2007) – things need to get cranking early. The crew arrives, the generator fires up and mmm, mmm “courtesy breakfast.”

But then comes the nerve-wracking part for the producer and the director – when will the artist show up. The call sheet says “9am” – three hours after most of the crew has shown up. Even the glam squad types have been here for an hour or two. Maybe the director is going over the blocking with the choreographer or shooting some insert footage but every knows what to watch for …

The car. The artist’s car. Is it here yet? When were they coming? Have we heard from the manager? What does the label person say? All eyes keep glancing toward the entrance for the arrival of the artist.

Not every artist is late. Some of the most diva-licious glamour-pusses are known for being studiously on time (Madonna, Gwen Stefani). Many touring bands are used to the grind and being carted around by their management team so they might show up even when they aren’t aware they are doing it. And obviously, I am writing here about the big-budget clips with artists that are sure they are stars. Not every artist is a fool, but …

Anyway, back to the waiting. The call time for the artist has been negotiated with the artist’s management team – making sure the production is being realistic. A 6 am call time is gonna get blown no matter what – so the producer picked an arrival time that seems to have a chance of being real. But still, no car.

On a one day shoot – missing two (or even four!!!) hours out of a single, 14-hour day is devastating. How productive could any of us be if we missed 25% of our workday?

And even when the artist finally does show up there will be other obstacles – from image confidence issues that can only be assuaged by armies of stylists to getting a charger for the artist's cell phone. Some musicians might simply have to leave to score some more drugs – the upside of shooting in ratty parts of town is that they won’t have to go far. Other artists will get into screaming matches with girlfriends or dancers from the set. One R&B crooner got into a fistfight with his manager and had a blackened eye for the second half of the shoot. Showing up late only makes all the other problems on a shoot worse. But anyway, back to the waiting …

As the director watches the time tick by he shoots some cutaways of the sexy dancers or smoke rising in super-slow motion. All the while, the director is drumming his fingers and looking at his storyboards and deciding what he tosses overboard first – since the late artist guarantees not everything can get done. He is also eye-balling the label person - who is just as shocked (and powerless) that the artist is late as everyone else. Now the director is realizing there will be a point in the edit when the label person asks where the missing set-up is. The director tries not to grind his teeth.

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Thursday, May 17, 2007

And the Winner was ...

MVPA Awards 2007

Wayne Isham received the lifetime achievement award at the MVPA Awards Wednesday night. There have been twelve other winners, and all of them deserving (Fincher, Julien Temple, Jeff Ayeroff, etc). But look at Wayne’s credit list and marvel that it took as long as it did. My guess is that this is the first night in 12 years worth of award shows that MV’s Falstaffian clip machine has not been working and thus able to attend.

Seriously, look at the list of Wayne’s credits – the only thing longer was the pre-taped intro given by Metallica’s Lars Ulrich. Side note – Lars finally finishing his lengthy spiel may have drawn the biggest cheer of the night. Wayne developed so many trademark music video moments it was shocking to see them all chopped together into the tribute reel. Then Wayne gets up and makes a classically rousing Wayne-style speech – pumping up the crowd on how great and important music videos are, an antidote to the eyes downcast “big changes for the industry” talk from many others on the podium.

The other big winner was Chris Milk. No real surprise there. Milk won several awards (try videostatic for the full list) including director of the year. He spoke about the Kanye “Touch the Sky” clip and reminded the real Evel Knievel (who is suing the production for something) that the clip was an homage. I am not sure how many videos Milk made last year, but there were few (okay zero) weak links.

Another interesting bit was Jonas Akerlund accepting the award for “Smack My Bitch Up” going into the MVPA Hall of Fame. Akerlund said that during the edit Prodigy sent him a fax saying they hated the direction of the clip and they would never use any of the footage under any circumstances. Akerlund finished the edit on his own and an ultra-influential clip was born. Classic story of the long path creativity must always walk. And usually alone.

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Monday, May 14, 2007

Listen all of y'all it's an arbitrage!

First up, this guy DID win “last year's overall CIPS Supply Management Award” which sounds so Straight-outta-Slough I can barely wrap my head around it. So he is “good” at his job, which apparently entails being a major tool.

Check out the photo accompanying the fawning article, he seems to be auditioning for the BBC version of “The Shield.” He is Bob Brimson and he is the guy that makes sure Universal UK spends as little as possible on everything. Now I certainly understand that record labels are businesses and they want to save money – just like I try to save cash by drinking Keystone beer instead of the pricey MGD.

I understand why Bob’s job exists, and there are probably people like this in the States as well. I also get that this article is from a trade paper and is written for purchasing types who must see dude’s gig as “sexy” – he does know Terrence Trent D’Arby. Reading this you might feel like a cow discovering a copy of “Slaughterhouse and Butchering Illustrated” – but it is not meant to be taken personally. All this being said –

He is not wrong. Check out this quote:
"The creative industry is shrouded in mystery because it suits them," he says. "But it's all baloney. When it comes to managing spend in creative services, it's about calling their bluff. Once you hear a creative person going on about creative integrity, that's when they are losing the argument."

I think that is completely true. No one should ever negotiate on the basis of creative integrity. If the label wants to cut out the steadi cam, three hours of shooting or the post effects – they need to understand that the video will look LESS good because of the budget cuts. It is not about the director’s feelings or integrity – it is about the video being the best it can be. If they want to spend less, it is their dollar - just convince them why it is not in their best interest to be penny-wise and pound-foolish. Using "creative integrity" and other artist-speak on business types is about as effective as I was in high-school trying to impress cheerleaders by explaining how to roll-up a new Halfling Thief character with Agility +1.

The charismatic and enticing Brimson – or people or policies like him – are everywhere in today’s MV marketplace. Lots of prod cos took advantage of videos being a seller’s market for years – and soaked the labels in the process. This dude is their revenge.

Read the article and try not to think in terms of how it “should” be – but rather think of the way it IS. It makes it sound like commissioning an exciting new video is about as creative as ordering reams of paper – but the commissioning and budget negotiations aren’t supposed to be the cool, creative part – the video is. So deal with a guy like this, get the monetary ducks in a row and make a killer video. Just try not to laugh when he tells you how he partied with Mott The Hoople.

Bob Brimson profile from

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Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Keeping it Clean

I know the topic of fan created videos has been covered before – both here and other places, but I though recent events justified a new mention.

Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal had a whole article dedicated to the “downside” of fan created videos. Seriously, it is sub-titled “Hundreds Enter, but Some Complain Winners Are Often Pros Seeking Exposure, Not Loyal Listeners.” You can read the WSJ piece here, but you already know exactly what it is gonna say.

Once a mainstream media outlet gets a hold of something from the “fringes” of society – crunk, flash mobs, Scott Storch, lipstick parties, et al – you know the gig is up. If it is getting major ink in Time or the Wall Street Journal, you know the cool factor is already long gone. So I was assuming that fan video contests were deader than Ja Rule’s Reunion Tour until I saw …

A new contest on the horizon. No, not Spielberg's "The Lot" reality show. Seriously, this new competition changes it all. This is a new paradigm. The website even gives prospective directors some great advice:

Think original. Be creative. Impress us. Actually, wow us! Is the idea behind your video fresh and new? Will it make people say, "That was really clever!" Or is it just another version of an idea we've all seen a million times already?

Win us over. Regardless of how original your idea may be, is the video appealing and interesting? Will people enjoy seeing it and watching it over and over?
And be sure to keep it clean. [ARTIST X] is a good guy, so we’ll ask ourselves, “Is it respectful of [ARTIST X]?”

Details, Details. [ARTIST X] sweats the details and knows that even the best ideas fall apart if they're poorly executed. Have you paid attention to the details? Have any embellishments you've added strengthened the idea or do they just distract?

Who could save the world of fan created content and make YouToogle relevant again? Why Mister Clean of course? The above creative advice is excepted from Senor Spotless’ website and you can even watch a sample of their idea of a creative concept on the splash page. (is that Gondry-esque stop motion?)

Check it out and rejoice that fan made video contests will live forever.

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Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Mirage

Some jobs seem just over the horizon and that is where they will always be – tantalizingly out of reach for a director or production company.

Most directors have worked on concepting some job that seems to be within their grasp. They talk to the label. They might talk to the artist. The re-work the idea based on the input and then – the job goes to someone else. As frustrating as that can be, I am NOT talking about that.

The “mirage” is a job that doesn’t really exist from the very beginning. It looks real, but your eyes are deceiving you. It will never happen and anyone with enough perspective can spot the mirage for the time-vampire it is. Unfortunately, a director eager to get the job, almost always lacks that perspective.

So why do mirages happen?

Make the label happy
The commissioner might know that they have no money in their budget for a video for the mirage job, but if they admit they have no commissioning to do, their job could easily go away. So the commissioner types up the spec sheet and creates a brief for a job that they know will never go anywhere. And this is assuming the commissioner doesn't have ulterior motives.

There is also the “third bid” phenomenon – a phrase stolen from the commercial world. It is telling that ad-types are civilized enough to have three, and only three, bids on any job while us MV-ers run around by the kajillions chasing the same gig. The label might already know what director they want but policy/tradition dictates they have a certain number of directors writing on a job – even though they may already have a contract drawn up with someone else.

Make the artist/manager happy
The artist might want some crazy big concept that requires a huge budget (space ships ain’t cheap) so the label puts out the addled suggestions of the artist to prospective directors. Perhaps, the manager is trying to appease the artist and reassure him of his status, and gets prod cos and directors to bid on the wild concept. Directors try to make it work and come back with an idea and a budget that is more than the label wanted to spend (shocking!). The label tells the artist “sorry’ and they start over with a do-able concept and budget. Now the production company looks like the bad guy and the label can insist that they tried to get Paul Hunter for the job. This kind of mirage might actually end up happening, but never in the state the gig originally goes out in.

Make the director happy
Yes, sometimes your production company will lie to you. If a director wants write on the job for U2 and the label has never heard of the director, the rep just might tell the director to write up a treatment. The label won’t be looking for it and they will probably ignore it like the “Lost” producers ignore all my emails about how they should make the island into a Mortal Combat style fight-off. The prod co wants to keep their directors happy so why not tell them they just missed out to the biggest name directors in the business. (Hint: if you never get to speak to the commissioner, this could be happening to you.)

The tournament
Let’s say the label has money in this quarter/year’s budget for one more video, but they have tracks coming out for three artists. One track could be a pop-diva and another a rapper and the third a hard rock group. The label is not sure which artist they should make the video for so they send out all three tracks to three different groups of directors.

They know only one video is getting made and they want to see which concept can catch their eye and win the tournament. That’s right, a director might be pitching his idea against directors writing on other songs in completely different musical genres. Of course, at the last minute some label president steps in to say that one of the videos is getting made – based on a completely different criteria (he just golfed with the rock band’s lawyer, sorry pop-diva).

The realization
Directors are sending in treatments for this big-time artist and the battle over the budget has begun. It is the third or fourth video off the artist’s CD so it is not a sure thing the job will ever get made, especially if the budget is too high. Director A’s concept is more popular with the folks in the boardroom, but his budget is 50k higher than Director B’s. Now everyone likes A better, but $50k better?

And then the manager demands that they go out to a big name director who everyone knows is probably not available and will definitely come back with an even higher budget number, but the process stalls while everyone waits for the new guy’s treatment. A and B have no idea what the hold up is and they deluge the commissioner with phone calls that she cannot really answer.

During all this, the prod cos working on the budgets discover that the cost of the artist's glam squad and posse travel will be higher than they thought so their budgets climb even higher. Now what about if we bring in a guest rapper and shoot the remix at the same time as the original song? (Wait, there’s a remix?) If we spend a few dollars more, everyone can save money.

Now, after all this tsuris, the label executives have a “life’s too short” moment and they pull the plug and the job goes away. As one quasi-celebrity said “[Why am I] spending tons of money and going through lots of hassle that adds nothing to the underlying product. Can't we shoot near L.A. for a fraction of the money?

The directors (and heads of productions) that worked so hard are left with nothing but the memory of the sand they gnawed on when they dove into that cold pool of “water” that turned out to be just a mirage.

The director swears that “next time” he will not be fooled, but when the new track comes in …

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