In an attempt to stimulate further creative development, I’ve been revisiting primary influences and inspiration in my life. It was with this idea in mind that I came to the realization how MTV was one of my earliest fixations and warranted additional consideration.
In an effort to better bridge the gap between my childhood obsessions as I continue to work honing my current skill set I wanted to write about the music video format, and what I have learned from the countless hours I’ve spent devoted to watching them at first strictly as a viewer and then again through the prism of a working creative.
Growing up in a religious household, I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV or listen to “secular” radio growing up. So, when I caught glimpses of pop-culture, there was always this odd fascination of an outsider looking in.
For me one of the most notable examples and also one of my first memories was the babysitter watching MTV while she was supposed to be looking after my sister and I. Frozen, I stood in the back of the room watching Thriller from between my fingers.
As scared as I was, I couldn’t look away.
During its inception, MTV was a 12 hour-a-day channel, by the time I graduated high school TRL and the music video format itself represented a cultural zeitgeist. Most music videos today for a major lable artist will have a larger budget than an independent film, but though this isn’t always the case.
In the beginning, music videos used to look awful, and I wasn’t missing much by not being allowed to view them. Most videos were usually a couple of film school students following a band out into the woods with fog machines, or in a studio with mirrors. All of the clichés are there for a reason.
In spite of the artforms initial major trappings the music video eventually became a much-lauded part of a musician’s album promotion cycle. For the record labels, the video was essentially a commercial for the band that was aired for free. As an artist, it provided a visual component that could be used to tell a story or support an idea.
All throughout my adolescence music was my refuge, and the videos that accompanied them always fascinated me. I often wondered if I was in a band of my own, what the video would look like. Sometimes I would hear a song by an artist and see a mental image in my head of it and when I finally did see the video on TV, it was often disappointing.
While money is good to have, there are a lot of terrible videos that were expensive to make. (see Mark Romanek below.) As obsessed as I was with music, it didn’t take long for me to realize that a good music video is still compelling with the sound off and how a well-executed idea will win over a big-budget every time.
If a video was good enough, I could see something once and it would leave a strong enough impression in my mind that I could excitedly explain it in detail to someone else later. Eventually, I noticed that the same few director’s names would appear in the credits of the videos I enjoyed.
Starting in my late teens and continuing early twenties I graduated and became obsessed with cinema.
At the age of 17, my first Rated “R” movie in the theatre was Pulp Fiction. It melted my little face off. Shortly after in quick succession I saw Taxi Driver, A Clockwork Orange, Easy Rider, and Reservoir Dogs. My world had been forever changed.
I began researching other auteur filmmakers to the best of my abilities.
At the time watching a movie meant either going to the cinema or renting a movie from Blockbuster. The selection at the matinee and video store was mainstream at best. After renting a few films to rewatch with friends, I also realized that they would even censor rated “R” films if they found something objectionable in it.
I still can not understand why a company would censor something that is already rated. The rating is the censorship. (Notable Examples: Ichi the Killer, Scarface, Natural Born Killers, Bully, The Doom Generation, Irreversible, Kids, Gummo, Boys Don’t Cry, Eyes Wide Shut)
Before the advent of the internet, it took a lot of effort researching film & video. Usually, it involved trips to the library and a lot of conversations with other cinephiles. Often, it meant taking long bus trips to Seattle to rent hard to find tapes from ScareCrow video.
Before YouTube, it also meant staying up late to watch the “cool” music videos that wouldn’t get played at any other time of the day.
You could often find me in back of Y NOT Magazines and Barnes & Noble looking at through the pages of Fangoria, Starlog, and HEAVY METAL. (Don’t look too long or the cashier would yell at you for not buying the magazine!)
Through those magazines, I learned that the format was an easy way for a burgeoning director to build their resume while establishing themselves as artists. Even when looking behind the scenes, it still seemed like a superpower or a magical ability.
In 2003 I came across a magazine article detailing the release of the Directors Label DVD series. It was a collection of discs devoted to notable music video directors. Available in 3 volumes, the work contained most of the videos that I had devoted so much time seeking out.
The day it was released, I quickly secured my copy and meticulously pored over each volume, marveling at the quirky touches, flourishes and hidden elements in each piece.
Recently rewatching the series, it became extremely apparent how much of an impact this collection has made on me not only as a viewer but also opened my eyes to the ideas of limitless possibility as a working creative. In a lot of ways, the collection feels like free film school.
Since its release, streaming sites like Youtube and Vimeo have become the predominant viewing choice for most audiences. Most of the videos in this collection are available to view online for free. Yet, I would highly recommend seeking out the initial three volumes to anyone that is a fan of music videos or is considering a career as a videographer or filmmaker.
Each disc offers not only high definition versions the visuals, which are compelling in their own right but also a wealth of supplemental materials including directors commentaries that transform an entertaining experience into an educational and immersive experience that for me has only increased in value over time.
Volume 1 features Spike Jonze, 2 Chris Cunningham, and 3 is the work of Michel Gondry. Each disc contains, commercials, short films, promos, animations, presentations, featurettes, video installations, storyboards, and interviews.
Each DVD highlights the directors signature style and strengths. The work of Spike Jonze often puts his subjects in a heightened dreamlike reality full of quirky moments. While Chris Cunningham crafts technically complex visuals often utilizing anatomy and robotics. Director Michel Gondry approaches the concept of time with old-school practical effects.
Each voice is singular and unique, but the collection does not feel haphazard.
Some of the musical artist span directors work. Artists like Beck and the White Stripes have multiple entries with different directors. Bjork is the most a notable example as she makes an appearance on all three discs. For me, her work with each filmmaker highlights how a good director will collaborate with an artist, but still imprint their signature style into an artists vision.
Hearing each director talking about working with the Iceland chanteuse also gave me another level of respect for an amazing artist. If you told me, Bjork was a muse summoned by the art gods to inspire directors and other artists, I would believe it. She has a collection of DVDs featuring her amazing music videos which are also worth mentioning but will not be covered in this article.
Volume one in the series is dedicated to director Spike Jonze (Her, Where the Wild Things Are, Being John Malkovich). Mr. Jonze has the distinctions of co-creating producing Jackass at MTV and more recently winning an Oscar for the film HER.
Since the release of the series, he has arguably had the largest upward career trajectory. As a retrospective, the disc offers a treasure trove of insights into not only his craft but his general philosophy.
An early three minute short titled How They Get There tonally matches much of the video work but remains one of the least known parts of his resume, yet it is the strongest indicator of his film work to come. It’s amazing to see a career artist signature style at work in its infancy and realize they are are often spinning multiple plates at once.
Notable entries include “Sabotage“ by the Beastie Boys and Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” video (see above), both videos at the time of their release became so ubiquitous on MTV at the time that it literally changed video trends and the look of the channel overnight.
The “Buddy Holley” clip vent “viral” before things went viral on the internet. Featured on the disc is a CNN story which was lauding the video for its use of CGI Wizardry, on the audio commentary Jonze details how the footage was created by recreating the original soundstage and splicing in carefully edited footage of the original series Happy Days.
He later builds on the idea of heightened reality in the smaller featurette with footage from the skate video Yeah Right!. Using chroma keyed skate ramps he creates an environment where athletes are able to execute moves that are both instantly recognizable as technically impossible, and a wonder to watch.
His work as a skilled, subtle and empathetic documentarian is also on display in the included shorts; What’s up Fat Lip?!, Amarillo by Morning and as the leader of his fictionalized dance troupe from the Fat Boy Sim video “Praise You” in Torrance Rises.
It is worth mentioning that missing the from the disc, is one of his best videos the Yeah Yeah Yeahs “Y Control”, which features murderous children, large amounts of profanity, and knitting. That may be my favorite thing about him, there is a contagious troublemaker with a heart of gold quality that runs throughout his work.
Whether it is making the impossible appear real, or wallowing in the banality of life the lens of Spike Jonze always maintains a childlike innocence and curiosity with its given circumstances. A perfect example is taking the potentially somber task of creating a posthumous Nortious B.I.G video resulting in an homage that is both playful and heartfelt.
Through the lens of Spike Jonze, I’ve learned to stay curious as a creator, and that value and trust involved with keeping an audience curious. That mundane and extraordinary can exist in the same space. Sometimes the first instinct is the best one, and to honor it. Others times it is best to take the instinct and go in the complete opposite direction.
The key to making that critical decision is considering the journey, as it is always as important as the destination.
Disc 2 features the work of director Chris Cunningham. His art combines bleeding edge visual effects with precision edits to create glitched out hyperrealities. The extremely NSFW videos for Aphex Twin’s “Come to Daddy” and “Windowlicker” are perhaps his best known.
The first time I saw the video for Aphex Twins “Come to Daddy” I thought it was the scariest video I had seen since Thriller.
Sometimes his visuals look like nightmarish fevered dreams, and other times hypnotic and hopeful visions of a future alive with humanity, when all of humankind is no more.
His work maintains the odd quality of looking both futuristic and timeless. often by combining precision edits, elements of robotics mixed with anatomy.
The aesthetic for Björk’s “All Is Full of Love” was not only instantly iconic, it has gone on to influence the visuals of major film and television projects like I, Robot and the title sequence to HBO’s critically acclaimed series WestWorld.
Cunningham is the only director in the series to not direct a feature-length film. In interviews that he was approached to direct a movie version of the cyberpunk novel Neuromancer, but nothing came of early discussions.
He has also designed album artwork for a variety of musicians and more recently expanding his skillset to handling audio production for the UK rock outfit The Horrors.
In the commentaries provided by the directors, each artist takes the time to discuss in depth working with the respective collaborators. Chris Cunningham, in particular, speaks very openly about the creative and technical challenges of digitally adding Bjork face to an animatronic robot.
There is something reassuring about hearing a visionary director confess to feeling like a failure until the very last moment.
Each director curates their own volume. As a self-described perfectionist, this leaves volume 2 the leanest of the bunch by far.
In fact, I’d read in an interview where he wished he could have left additional material off of the disc, but didn’t want consumers to feel ripped off. The artist in me understands the desire to self-edit. As a viewer, I simply wish there was more.
Through the lens of Chris Cunningham, I’ve learned that he will not involve himself with a project unless he can be excited about it initially. Because he is such a highly technical artist, he understands that it will involve lots of monotonous detail-oriented tasks and will need the excitement to carry him through.
That realization recently has provided serious food for thought considering current and future passion projects. Since I have started shooting video this has led to me learning the intricacies needed to begin to create hyper-edits.
He has also taught me that as an artist it is imperative to take calculated risks and explore new avenues to foster continual growth and development. Recently this has led me to utilize my own ambient/electronic music in my video work and to create small video mood-related pieces.
Per his website, he is currently in the middle of several projects that are slated for release in 2018.
Volume 3 features Michel Gondry (The Science of Sleep, Be Kind Rewind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) who is a musician and grandson of inventor Constant Martin.
His career as a filmmaker began with creating the videos for his French rock band Oui Oui, in which he was also the drummer. The videos for Oui Oui caught the attention of music emerging artist Björk, who asked him to direct the video for her song “Human Behaviour”.
The has collaboration proved long-lasting, with Gondry directing a total of eight music videos for Björk.
Much like Spike Jonze, there is a playfulness to Michel Gondry’s work, but his subject matter becomes much more compelling when you view it considering his background as a drummer and family history with innovation.
Through his use of rhythm and visualization, he is constantly reintroducing the audience to new ways to perceive time. His video for the Chemical Brothers “Star guitar” (see below) is both genius in its execution and staggering in its simplicity; the tried and true hallmarks of artistic genius and perhaps the most captivating part of his work.
What I enjoy most about the approach of Michel Gondry is that he will use the tool that best suits him.
When tasked with directing a video for The Rolling Stones, he pioneered the camera technique which eventually became known as the “bullet time” which was subsequently adapted for The Matrix franchise. The look was such an immediate success that he parlayed the experience into successful branding campaigns for the GAP and Smirnoff vodka.
After it when it was all said and done and he went to direct a music video for a relatively unknown band at the time called The White Stripes he utilized Legos, stop-motion animation, and old-school low budget techniques. It was wildly successful helping launch the career of the garage rock duo and launching thousands of imitators. (guilty as charged.)
Throughout his oeuvre, there is a sense that the work rooted in something deeply personal, I don’t believe it would be hard for most viewers to a find a narrative thread throughout his catalog.
Elements from his Some of his earliest pieces like the video “Everlong” for the Foo Fighters contains similar narrative elements that would be explored in his later films like The Science of Sleep and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.
In fact, it is putting his personal stamp on his work that resulted in discs most notable absence. His video work for Radiohead’s “Knives Out” was met with difficulty and friction between himself and members of the band. When asked he had this to say about the experience:
“I generally find a good way of communicating to prevent clash, but I had one terrible experience with Radiohead.
I showed [Yorke] a storyboard and every single detail: he was completely excited and happy for it – and then, it turned out, they all criticize me for being selfish and putting my own views on it and my own introspection
… It did not go smooth, but if it went smooth, it would be mediocre.”
Through the lens of Michele Gondry, I’ve learned to stay curious, to utilize and play with how we as the audience perceive time, to remember that I have a wealth of tools and techniques available to me. Some of them cost a lot of money, some of them take a lot of effort anything above ordinary will be met with some degree of difficulty and it is important to think of creative solutions around the challenge.
All video is showing the passing of time, as a creator, we can constantly play with and choose how the audience views time and in doing so change their perception. I’ve learned that I should always put something very personal inside of my art and that I should always maintain the spirit of collaboration with my creative partners to achieve the most original and authentic results.
In the fifteen years since their initial release, my thoughts and approach to viewing music videos have changed considerably. Upon its initial release, 2 of the 3-disc directors had burgeoning film careers and have since become among the most bankable and recognizable names in the industry.
A second series containing the works Mark Romanek, Jonathan Glazer, and Anton Corbijn is also available. While still very much worth viewing, in my opinion, they do not offer the same replay value as the first three volumes.
It is worth noting in regards to the music video as an art form that the most expensive video of all time was directed by Mark Romanek: Michael and Janet Jackson’s “Scream” (1995), which cost $7 million to produce. This is among is one of the small highlights available in the second series.
Though another series has not yet been confirmed. In 2010, several years after the last collection was released, Palm Pictures issued a DVD collection of videos by directing duo Hammer & Tongs exclusively in the United Kingdom.
Personally, I would like to see volumes containing the work of Marcos Siega, Sophie Mueller, David La Chappelle, Hype Williams, Tarsem Singh, and Jonas Akurlund.
The works can be purchased individually or in 3 volume box sets through the Palm Pictures site
Volume 1: The Work of Director Spike Jonze
Volume 2: The Work of Director Chris Cunningham
Volume 3: The Work of Director Michel Gondry
Volume 4: The Work of Director Mark Romanek
Volume 5: The Work of Director Jonathan Glazer
Volume 6: The Work of Director Anton Corbijn
While the way we consume videography has changed, the amount of which we consume has increased dramatically. Amazing videos are still being created by auteurs & amateurs. Personally, I think that it is an exciting time when and formally trained artists work can sit side-by-side in a virtual gallery with like-minded pieces that wouldn’t have been seen previously.
The current developing generation is often creating content with tools out of their own homes that will look like the work of a large studio. I will be very curious to see where the art form, as well as how we engage the content and what format it will be consumed in in the next 15 years.
Do you have a music video or is there a director that you’d like to be featured in the series? Sound off in the comments below!