Thursday, March 03, 2011


Let’s talk about references in music videos. Yes, again. But I don’t wanna delve into who copied whom or how the new Gaga clip is either aping a variety pack of science fiction films or maybe just the opening credits of Tom Cruise’s Legend. Anyone who actually makes music videos getting worked up about this stuff is either lying to themselves that they haven’t ever included reference images and ideas in a treatment or they’ve never really made a music video.

I am interested in WHY this conversation about references and who is ‘stealing’ ideas seems to be coming up more and more in 2011 than it has in the past. It does seem to get mentioned a lot these days, or am I tripping off my Tigerblood again? Discuss.

Anyway, the recent examples of Rihanna, Kanye and Gaga are what prompted this noodling. Maybe the internet makes video directors - who have always borrowed from others - more open to criticism. The rise of commenting on the 'Net is certainly a small part of this. No one was whinging that Fincher had copied from Fritz Lang back when Express Yourself came out – mostly because there was no place to do said whinging.

A bigger factor in my mind is that record labels are now asking for videos that look like specific references. It seems clear to me that IDJ wanted a LaChapelle day-glo bondage kind of concept for the Rihanna track. Why wouldn’t they? The song practically begs for it with a peppy beat and the tile being ‘S&M.’ Joseph Kahn’s Tweetage about how the label on some un-named job was asking for exact photo reference ‘guidelines’ further convinces me that the powers that be on that Rihanna job are at least as responsible (if not more) as the director for the law-suit threatened state they are in.

Most music video briefs to directors, however, do not come with a pre-made visual direction from the label. What the labels usually want is for the director is to create a concept and provide a sheaf of visual references – photos, Youtube clips, whatever – that will show them what the finished clip will look like. In order to win many jobs, the prospective video director in 2011 has to pull dozens of images that illustrate everything from the locations, the wardrobe, the lighting, the hotness of the hoochies, and so on.

Even with all that, I have still had conversations where the label is looking at a reference picture in a treatment and they’re confused that there is a blonde model in an image when the artist for the job in question is a brunette. “Yeah, well that picture, as you can see with the words across the bottom, is a lighting reference, the video we’re gonna make will have your artist in there, not a blonde Czech model.” I usually have to bite my tongue to not add – "and you’ll be able to hear the song and the image will move" and other snarky, ‘won’t get hired’ kind of things. I usually don’t say that stuff out loud. Usually.

In this bidding environment it is dead obvious to every director that while a reference picture is good, ten reference pictures are better. And a commercial/video clip with the soundtrack replaced by the song they’re writing on is even betterer. Even more than when labels were spending $600k on a video – they now want to see exactly what the finished clip will look like before they sign off. Not on every job but on many - the more a director can say ‘the video will look like THIS’ the more likely it is he will actually have a video to direct.They don't just wants hints or elements, they'd rather see the whole thing before they buy.

My guess is that music video budgets are ever tighter so the risk is higher for the label and they want to ‘know’ what they’re getting before they write a contract. Hollywood does this with many films being ‘inspired’ by other movies, video games, theme park rides and the art-work on breakfast cereal boxes. Somehow, having pages of reference images pulled from magazines and gathered off Flickr makes this whole MV game seem less risky. However, a completely fresh idea that no one has truly ever thought of before is unlikely to have any cool, high-quality images depicting it. Even in Italian Vogue.

This batch of ‘that video director stole from XYZ’ conversations is happening not because the director is lazy, it’s because they won’t win the job without it.

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