Back in a prior century, the success of a new music video was generally measured by its MTV rotation rates and perhaps the occasional Soundscan sales tally of the generally infrequent compilation DVD or VHS. These days, though, the tangible impact of a music video is much harder to quantify—made up of some inscrutable combo of YouTube views, music service streams and social media impressions.
The good news is that it’s easier than ever for fans to find their most beloved clips, whether beloved oldies (“November Rain,” anyone?) or fresh off the presses—no more staying up past bedtime in the hopes of catching a too-fleeting glimpse of Radiohead’s “Just” on 120 Minutes. Today’s platforms also make it easier than ever to discover new music video directors, with all of their best work readily available for convenient binge-ability (and obsessive re-watching.)
At least that’s how we became fans of NY-based filmmaker Yoonha Park, whose work creating clips for bands including Liars, Preoccupations and Protomartyr is characterized by elegant compositions, unsettling imagery, vintage film textures and a heaping helping of melodramatic atmosphere.
We recently spoke to Park about his music video work, his early days creating early video content for Pitchfork, collaborating with artists and the Korean punk scene, as well what he’s working on next. Here’s the conversation:
I’d love to know a little bit about your background. When did you first pick up a camera? When did you decide to become a filmmaker?
Park: I think I’m of a generation where the first stuff I started making was when my dad brought a camcorder home. Pretty much immediately my sister and I started re-creating action movies—the first thing we ever made was a remake of Terminator 2. From there, I think around the time I was 14 or 15, I became aware that this [filmmaking] was a job that you can do, so I started to focus on trying to be a director, which as a teenager just meant trying to compile footage of pretty much anything. I took a sort of documentary approach, just trying to capture things around me I thought were interesting. I was living in South Korea at the time and there was a burgeoning punk scene there. I spent a lot of weekends and weeknights at this one club, just documenting my friends’ bands. It seemed like something worth capturing for posterity; I was just as interested in music, so all my interests were able to go in one place. And in 2000, I came to New York to attend NYU Film School. I crewed a lot and learned how to run a set. But my real filmmaking education was making music videos.
Was it a gradual process, or was there one particular project that you worked on that sort of opened the doors for you?
Park: I was doing camera operating on a friend’s cable access show called Juan’s Basement, which was then kind of a public access music show. And at some point Pitchfork started doing video content on their site—this was around 2008. And this Juan’s Basement show was one of their first acquisitions. And so suddenly we had a little more resources. The first one we did was for Liars. So I sort of worked for Pitchfork as a video producer and editor. We were shooting music every day for a couple of years, and I think my teenage experiences came in really handy. We just got really good at shooting music, getting out proverbial 10,000 hours in. And after I left there, the thing that was available for me to direct was music, since a lot of those connections were already in place.
Let’s talk about your actual work. One of the things you’ll catch on to if you watch a bunch of your music videos or commercials in a row is that you have a definite cohesive visual style. Things like your great sense of composition—of creating these incredible tableaux that are both eerie and beautiful. How do you develop something like that?
Park: I was introduced to the idea of formal restriction in my 20s, where in my formative years I grasped this idea that complete creative freedom is actually quite a burden. Did you ever see The Five Obstructions, by Lars Von Trier?
Yeah, that’s an incredible film.
Park: That came out around college. I went to see it with a bunch of my filmmaker and artist friends and it really blew our mind. We were right in that place—trying to encourage each other and juice our creativity. That was really eye opening, just giving yourself a tight space to work out of to force new ideas. And just working in a commercial space with miniscule music video budgets, you don’t really need to add any more restrictions to that. So a big part of the formula is trying to create this sense of intentionality of the creative choices.
To answer you question about atmosphere, in trying to find a point-of-view I try to imagine a character for whom all these [images] are spewing from; they’re what his though process represents. I always imagine that these are characters are from the song. The Preoccupations videos kind of took that approach a lot, like with “Continental Shelf” we kind of imagined this surly teenager. Like this edgelord-type guy, who has all these dark thoughts but doesn’t really know how to articulate them. We thought it would be great to collage these sort of dark fantasies together, but they’re all so mediated through old movies and clips on YouTube and that sort of thing. It’s this idea that it’s made from stock footage, but in fact we shot all the stock footage ourselves.
I think my personal favorite video of yours is for Protomartyr’s “Wheel of Fortune.”
Park: Oh, amazing. Okay.
Yeah, I just love all the images in that one. They’re so striking. How does that sort of collaboration with a band or artist work? Are you the one coming up with ideas and pitching them or is the band coming to you with specific images that they like? Do you develop it together?
Park: I’m trying to remember how the process for that video worked. Overall, my collaboration with those guys has been positive, in the sense that they give me a lot of freedom. That’s not to say they don’t have a lot of input—we talk a lot beforehand. They’re all very smart guys. They’re all cinephiles. Joe [Casey], the lyricist, I think he’s very… Um, protective isn’t the right word…
Like, the vibe of his lyrics?
Park: The tone, I think. There are certain things where he doesn’t want to be misconstrued in his lyrics. He’s aware that if paired with the wrong image he could subvert his intentions. The previous video we’d done had been this single-shot thing, so I said, “What if we just flip it” and do this complete rapid-fire montage? Especially since in that song his lyrical approach is just like this verbal collage, this litany. So I was like, “We should just go toe-to-toe with everything you’re saying”—but not literally illustrate his lyrics, just these suggested images that could of bristle against what he’s saying. So we just had this huge folder of images and just looked at what could go where, around this loose idea we agreed on, which is just this lack of control or the illusion of control.
What are you working on now, or what are you working on next?
Park: I’ve been working on two long-form narrative projects. Features. But I do think it’s kind of amazing, this point where we’re at where first-time directors are looking at a series instead of features. That’s really been in the last 10 years or so, where you have somebody saying, “Maybe you should consider this as a series” and trying to find out what the best format for some of these stories would be.
And these are both stories you wrote?
Park: Yeah, they’re mine. I’d love to direct my own material.
Check out Park’s latest video, for Protomartyr’s “Michigan Hammers,” a Robocop homage (we think) compiled entirely out of pre-existing stock footage:
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