These past four days, I had the pleasurable opportunity to serve as Director of Photography on a music video my friend directed for record producer Jason Miles. Miles contacted a number of film schools looking for eager young filmmakers to create a music video for the new song “Prayer for the Planet” from the group Global Noise, and my friend got the job after an audition process, and asked me to come on board. I had never made a real music video for a band before, so the experience was slightly new to me. However, I had spent most of my life watching and studying music videos, and so the form itself was not new to me at all. In fact, music videos were my first and foremost foray into filmmaking, and the reason I decided I wanted to go to film school in the first place.
The 90’s and early 2000’s served as the staging area for a startling revolution in fusing commercialism with art: this was the decade of the music video. Music videos got their start in 1981 when MTV first began airing them – It is often said that the first official music video was also the first video aired on the network: The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star.” 80’s videos are nowadays notorious for their cheap video quality and cheesy effects, usually just capturing the respective band playing on stage with weird camera angles and video effects. But by the late 80’s, artists and photographers such as Anton Corbijn, David Fincher, Mark Romanek, Samuel Bayer and others began to branch out from their respective fields and started making videos. The freedom of creativity these directors received is unprecedented: record companies invested millions of dollars in music videos, while the directors retained total creative freedom to do whatever they wanted. In the early 90’s, Gondry, along with contemporaries such as Spike Jonze, Chris Cunningham and Jonathan Glazer, joined the fray and led to nothing short of a renaissance.
The music video renaissance came to an end in the mid 2000’s. As Jacob Kunnel explained in an article for CC2K: “But then came Napster and later endless opportunities to get music for free and we all know what the consequences for the music industry were. Nowadays only some real superstars like Rihanna, Kanye West or Jay-Z will be played on MTV (which is not really a music channel anymore), while some avant-garde musicians like Björk can really afford to invest money in state-of-the-art music videos.”
However, the music video directors’ talented would not go wasted nor unnoticed, and at around the same time (late 90’s-early 2000’s,) most of the most successful music video directors of the renaissance – Gondry, Jonze, Romanek, and others made the transition into feature film directing (David Fincher got a head start, possibly foreseeing the decline in the form’s viability early on and making the transition into feature films in the early 90’s.) Thus, the directors could once and for all infuse their visual flair and style with heartfelt storytelling and genuine emotion, and once and for all quash the complaints that there is no heart or soul in the technical work they do. It comes as no surprise to realize that many of the greatest films to emerge in the past decade were directed by former music video directors.
I consider Gondry, Jonze and Cunningham as three of the biggest influences on my style today. As you can see, I am very interested in the world of music videos; so naturally, I reveled in the opportunity to actually shoot one. It was a great shoot – we had a great cast and a dedicated crew, and a very strong concept and visual style for the video. It was also a great opportunity for my creative partner and myself to craft interesting, naturalistic lighting, stylized camera movements and to really paint the unique and creative visuals that truly make a music video what it is. Making a music video is unique and interestingly different from narrative filmmaking. Since continuity, narrative and drama do not take quite as much precedence as visuals and editing, shooting a music video is all about the coverage: The more coverage of actions one has for one’s music video, the better flowing and more dynamic the final result. And flow any dynamics are the two key words in a music video. It was fun for once to let go of narrative convention and embrace looser, more experimental techniques.
Making music videos today is a lot harder to justify than it was in the hey-day of the 90’s-to-mid-2000’s. However, YouTube gave birth to a new form of music videos: the low-budget, DIY videos popularized by the band OK Go. Their videos (most notably “Here We Go Again”) have all become massive viral hits, and were all produced for close to nothing. However, truly artistic examples of these videos are very rare. In actuality, most music videos today are tailor made for online viewing: cheaply produced, featuring far simpler concepts than the artistic risks taken by 90’s videos, and usually shot on DSLRs and with very cheap and simple lighting set-ups. Since record companies don’t really make any revenue off of music videos any more, the art form has kind of gotten lost along the way and videos today exist solely as commercials for their respective musical artists, and often times as commercials for other products as well (product placement is extremely common in music videos these days.)
I feel like the video we made was kind of a combination between the two. Our video did not actually feature the artist performing – it was purely conceptual, featuring a multi-pronged loose narrative reflecting the lyrics of the song. However, I feel like it was fairly conventionally staged and shot, meaning that it did not have the type of high-concept visual hook that characterized the truly inspirational videos of the likes of Michel Gondry or Spike Jonze. I am extremely pleased with the results and it was a most enjoyable filmmaking experience, but I hope that in the future I will be able to make a truly brilliant conceptual video in the vain of the great classics of the art form. For now, I can only hope that someone out there is still interested in this type of music video making!