Note: the following blog originally ran last July as part of our coverage of the 2019 Film Independent Forum.
Music videos have existed for longer than you probably think—going at least as far back as the 1960s, when record companies began releasing clips of performance by artists like Bobbie Gentry and Buck Owens as promo clips to local TV. But it wasn’t until MTV hit cable lines in the early 1980s that the form really came into its own, becoming an indispensible part of the music industry ecosystem and serving as a proving ground for an entire generation of soon-to-be feature film auteurs including Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry and Sofia Coppola.
But as MTV pivoted away from music videos in the early 2000s, it seemed like music videos might disappear altogether (the collapse of the record industry in the face of file-sharing certainly didn’t help, either.) But then: YouTube! And whatever the video streaming mega-platform’s myriad imperfections may be, the site’s emerging ubiquity re-ignited a new generation of superstar video directors.
Three members of this new class of music video auteurs—who, increasingly, have moved beyond music videos to great success—were on hand on April 28 to discuss both the form’s positives and negatives, at the Film Independent Forum “Music Video Masterclass” panel at LMU’s new Playa Vista campuses. Moderated by producer and #FiForum programmer Drea Clark, the panel included filmmakers Emily Kai Bock, Daniel Kwan and Hiro Murai.
MUSIC VIDEO MASTERCLASS
Better than film school? “I learned more from music videos than I did from film school, without a doubt,” said Hiro Murai, whose early success working with the multi-talented Donald Glover to create videos for his Childish Gambino musical alter ego launched an acclaimed directorial career—including episodes of Atlanta and Barry. Last year, Murai and Gambino teamed up once again, for the unforgettable “This is America.” Said Murai: “There’s nothing like actually making something to learn what you like and what you want to communicate.
Developing style. “I feel like music videos are the best breeding ground for style. I found my style just because I had to in order to stand out,” said Daniel Kwan, one half the “Daniels” directing duo, with Daniel Scheinert. “In order to make things quick, you start to rely on certain things. “We [Kwan and Scheinert] didn’t have that style before we started making music videos,” he continued. That (unmistakable) style would be evident in their biggest viral smash, DJ Snake’s “Turn Down For What” and their 2016 feature debut, Swiss Army Man.
Rewards aren’t always tangible. The panelists agreed that whatever creative satisfaction they may offer, music videos aren’t lucrative. “It’s a bit of a martyr system, you have to bleed for your work,” said Bock, who began by creating memorable clips for onetime roommate Grimes, and who has since branched out into commercial directing as well as helming the short film A Funeral for Lightning. “The only money I’ve ever made as a filmmaker is in commercial directing, which I was able to get representation [for] from my music video reel.”
On influence and being influenced. “Music videos for me, it was like speed dating with different artists,” said Murai, of the process of submitting proposals to potential employers for gigs. Clark asked if he felt, creatively, if he had taken anything away from the artists he’d worked with. “Absolutely,” he said, “I’ve found out more about myself collaborative working with different people on different songs than I ever could have just producing everything on my own.”
Graduating from the form. “There are two outcomes of the music video industry,” said Kwan. “You either succeed out, or you fail out. And most people fail.” With small budgets, long hours and lack of shared revenue from YouTube ads, directing music videos has long been a difficult field to navigate. But Kwan is working to make things easier for future generations, with We Direct Music Videos—a community-based resources center for music videos creators to share information. With the group, said Kwan: “I just want to create a safer place for newer voices, but also hopefully create a pipeline to something better.
Transitioning to narrative. For Bock, stepping away from music videos to create her 2018 short film A Funeral for Lightning (which Clark programmed at the 2018 LA Film Festival) provided a welcome change of pace. “That film, to me, was like a reaction to making music videos,” she said. “I wanted something deafeningly silent, without a music track, and for the camera to be locked off—I was so sick to editing to the beat.” But she credited videos with giving her the opportunity to develop her creative voice at regular intervals. “I’m able to distill ideas quickly now,” thanks to music videos, she said.
Team up, make stuff. Since music videos are so demanding, said Murai, “the only way that I’ve found it’s sustainable is by working with likeminded collaborators—it’s the only way to make it happen.” He noted that he’s been fortunate that collaborators such as Childish Gambino have become successful enough that there are few restrictions imposed on his work by labels or studios. Said Clark: “If you are a person who wants to be making music videos, make some. Just make a lot of things, you get better with each one.”
Music video subsidies. “I’m trying to come up with a number and a budgeting system that will basically quantify passion and our donations. Directors have been subsidizing the music video industry with our passion—our crew, our locations, favors, equipment,” said Kwan. “These are all donations that we, as struggling filmmakers are giving to [the studios].” The goal is to create a more sustainable industry with larger budgets and lower expectations, he said.
The 2019 Film Independent Forum took place April 26-28, 2019 at the new LMU Playa Vista campus in the heart of Silicon Beach—click here to see what else happened, and don’t forget to come back next year!
The 2019 Film Independent Forum was supported by Premier Sponsors SAGindie, Cast & Crew and University Partner Loyola Marymount University School of Film and Television.
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(Header: Grizzly Bear’s “Emily Kai Bock,” directed by Emily Kai Bock)