I had a moment the other day where it occurred to me that I have absolutely no clue when the anniversary of Breaking Point Flix actually is. Obviously I know it was three years ago and I can presume it was sometime during the summer, since I started it after finishing University and coming back to Edinburgh. It's funny, now it seems quite weird that I spent probably a good couple of weeks agonising over the name. In the end it really came down to something as simple as, reversing the words in Point Break (the movie I used to tell people was my favourite film so I wouldn't sound pretentious) and adding the Flix to the end (because I thought productions or films sounded too lofty for the sort of stuff I do). I know that the first ever music video I made was INNER CITY LIGHTS for KOBI ONYAME and that it was probably shot in either late July or early August. But ultimately, I don't really know when the starting point is so I suppose there's probably a reason this anniversary snuck up on me and I'm a bit late writing this.
I've always been a bit of an old man and one of the things anniversaries and birthdays do is they force you to become contemplative and so I've found myself spending the last couple of weeks wondering what these last three years have ultimately meant to me and what I have learned from the process, because lets face, if I haven't learned anything, then what was the point?
I started off naive as I think all people do, you think you make one video and suddenly calls are going to come rolling in. I can remember being surprised and hurt after my first video came out and I went largely unnoticed. Nobody messaged me to say good job, I wasn't flooded with emails asking me to do work for other people and ultimately I got a slapped in the face on YouTube:
"This guy needs to stop using Arial text and learn to colour grade"
It's funny how you always obsess over criticisms, even to this day I remember very few compliments but man, do I remember snide comments. The worst ones of course are the ones that hit you exactly where you;re most vulnerable and this did exactly that. Simple fact was at that time, colour grading was a mystical new avenue to me, as were most aspects of the camera. All through the shoot for INNER CITY LIGHTS and probably for another six months after, I had the ISO on an automatic setting, simply because I didn't even know what an ISO was. In retrospect it seems hilarious that I managed to get a degree in Film and Cinema Technology (key word there: Technology) and didn't know basic functions of a camera, but we'll skate over this for the moment while I take this trip down memory lane.
The key thing that I learned with in that first year is that each experience allows for new chances and film often comes down to deconstructing your own mistakes. So wondering why my images looked so grainy eventually lead me to discovering how to use the ISO settings and brought me into the realm of artificial light.
So a few harsh truths within low budget music videos, your subjects are generally not famous, ergo, people aren't going to be interested in them standing around doing very little, because quite frankly they will look like a million other bands/singers/rappers who do exactly the same thing. So you need a hook. Yes Sinead O'Connor can do an entire video that's just a close up of her face, Alex Turner can stand in front of a white wall for a whole video and Chris Martin can spend a whole video walking along a beach. You know why they can do this? Because people know who they are, they know they have money and they believe in the concept of the video. If nobody has ever heard of you, it looks cheap and boring. A lecturer of mine told me that you always have to look at your work from the mindset of someone who has never heard of you, or the project and to remember you can't sit there and explain things to them. I think it's a good piece of advice, because ultimately, if you have to explain your work, you've failed. And I did fail. Quite a lot actually.
So going through it, INNER CITY LIGHTS I learned you need a clear concept in mind. This sounds simple but is a problem which cripples a lot of music video shoots, the idea being, go to a scenic location, film the person, something good will happen. This is of course in many ways music video making 101, but once again I would suggest that people are not clicking onto your video to watch a slide show of a location, what separates film from photography is the ability to move and change within the image and splice images together to create an overall effect. This should not be forgotten. Make something worth watching, not something that could absorbed in stills.
What I learned from STATE OF MIND by NASTY P, AKIL THE MC and PROFISEE, no matter what the quality of your video, having someone famous ups people’s interest in it. I think it's as simple as basically being a qualifier, if this person is in it, it must have some value. It's sad but true, I know of plenty of over-praised dull short films and music videos which have been widely spread and lofted, simply because someone recognisable was in them and the simple truth is, no mater what the quality of your film is, if it's got someone audiences will recognise, it'll get in to ten times more festivals then a brilliant film with someone nobody has ever heard of. Is STATE OF MIND one of my best videos? No. Is it even mildly interesting, not really, to be honest pretty much anyone could've made it, but guess which video I've had the most attention for on my vimeo page? Ultimately as video makers that's what we have to realise sometimes, you can make something great, but if you have a guy from Jurassic 5 in your video, that's the one people are going to be interested in.
An important thing to keep in mind as well is, you will have falling-outs with people. There will be differences of opinions, you'll end up fighting about some stupid detail that months down the line you realise you didn't really care about in the first place. The simple fact was in that first year, I scewed up quite a lot, but I was too green to realise why I was screwing up and my ego kept me in fear of being discovered as a fraud because I didn't know the answers to questions. You get asked things like, "this video was shot with the same camera as yours, why doesn't it look as good?" That's when you lash out, you imply the ignorance is really on the part of the person asking and you cover your tracks in technical speak you know is gibberish but you hope they don't realise.
I spent a lot of that first year with a very sensitive ego, wondering why nobody took me seriously; scared people would point out my shortcomings. Big ideas with little idea of how to implement them. But this is also part of the process, you don't develop a style theoretically, you develop it from doing and learning from your mistakes, as well as what works for you.
What I learned from A DAY NEEDS MORE LOVE by MOPP, several very important things. If your going to do a split screen, you have to edit it and stage it in such a way so you are guiding the audiences view backwards and forwards with an easy flow, stopping the viewer from becoming overwhelmed with the amount of information they are receiving, because the viewer can only focus on one part at a time, you need to be aware of the shift and allow them the freedom to move back and forth with each image. The problem with this video is it overloads, giving the audience too much at once.
As a result, the artists were very unsatisfied and the video was dumped. And this leads to my next point; you need to get paid, even if it’s very little. A video needs to have value. Now I've gotten flack for this in the past and I know there are people who are against my prices and my way of charging. Simply put, I work by what the market dictates, it's naive to believe indie bands have large amount of spare cash and one of the ways I stop from exploiting other technicians and asking them to work for free is to do everything in house. I approach corporate work with a different pay structure, but I often notice the people who accuse me of under-cutting others seem to have very little experience working with bands of the level I do and seem to believe there's money there that isn't. Simply put, there's no money in music videos unless you are talking about the very high end so really you have to do it for the love of making videos, but you still have to get paid something and here's the reason why. Divorce it for a second from the usual arguments of a fair days work for a fair days pay and focus it for a second on the video itself. That video has to have value, the band have to stand to lose something by that video being a piece of sh*t, because it means ultimately they will put work into making sure they get their moneys worth and they will care what the final outcome is. If they're not paying, then there's no incentive, they can just write it off and say, "screw it, didn't work." Never accept "we're going to promo this as much as possible and talk you up" instead of payment because they probably won't and best they can do is recommend you to their friends who will probably know you did their mates video for free.
And finally learn from your mistakes, so when I attempted a split screen video the next time, I knew exactly what I needed to do
One of the hardest lessons I think to learn was, it's not all about you. The average person watching the video doesn't care who made it. As far as they know, the band did it themselves. They may be aware of the theoretical concept of a director but they will not really understand what it is you do. So no matter what, be prepared to be anonymous and accept that others will get credit for your work. 9 out of 10 times, if the band gets asked about the video in an interview, you will not get mentioned. But here's the thing, making a music video is essentially selling a product. You need to realise you are in service of that product, so you can't make it about you. My example from my first year would be a video I made for FRIDGE MAGNETS call DEATH OF ROCK AND ROLL.
The video includes a character that is basically death. Because of this, I wanted the video to end with a chess match (a reference to The Seventh Seal). The band were sceptical and I pushed but eventually gave in realising that, the video has to be about servicing what they want and something they're happy with. Now sometimes you can talk people out of bad ideas but ultimately, you have realise you are working to create a promotional product for them, not to simply service your only creative needs.
The following is a list of things bands suggest a lot:
-Black and White
-Playing in the Woods
-A twist where someone is dead at the end of a video
-Projecting things on wall while the band plays in front of it
-Doing something in one long take
-making something look like Super 8 footage (which really shouldn't be attempted unless your going to use 8mm)
-having an "instigram look"
-People looking at photographs/some lucky charm wistfully and reminiscing
-Seeing a girl and falling in love with her and then trying to get her attention
-filming a live gig
-having everyone dress up in silly costumes
-someone working in an office and being really frustrated (and then something crazy happens!)
-girl wanders around the woods while something follows her
Now look, I'm not trying to be a hater, I'm guilty of most of these and there's only so many ideas under the sun, but you got to try and find a way to make it your own and if you don't think it'll work, speak up and tell someone because you will get the blame if it doesn't work in the end.
The thing I learned from RED LIGHT LADY by CHA CHA HEELS is a little bit of sex goes a long way. This is symptomatic of what I was already discussing about famous artists being able to get away with simple concepts that come off as lazy within the low budget world. This can work to your advantage with in the realm of sex and violence. Things that would seem very tame in a Rhiana video, instantly seem incredibly sensational with in context of a video where that ora of untouchable fame is gone and people have much more of a sense that they are watching real people.
Viewing the video, there's nothing really on display here that's any more gratuitous then your average day at the beach. But because its low-budget, people are more likely to be shocked if you go beyond the confines of what they normally see real people doing or wearing. It can be a useful tool, after all sex sells and if you can get a thumbnail for the video with a girl in her underwear or a guy with a six pack, I guarantee you're view count will be double what it would've been otherwise (trust me, I've done tests lol). It's possibly a bit cynical but then again, a lot of music is about sex and there's nothing wrong with titillation with in videos, after all, you're trying to create an entertaining viewing experience. This can cross into the realm of crass, I've seen videos where it becomes gratuitous and off-putting (probably even made a few), so you do have to walk a fine line. But it's a good thing to remember, people are far more easily shocked at this level then they are at the high end.
What I learned from working with BWANI JUNCTION is sometimes it's really fun to work with other people's concepts. I have worked with the band on 4 different music videos now, every single one being their concept and their script. This is actually very freeing in a lot of ways. It gives you perspective to come in and try and find a way to make things work, but it also it allows you to go outside your normal sensibility. Anyone who knows me knows I have a fondness for a non-linear style of storytelling and tend to gravitate towards darker more ambiguous subject matter. However when working with BWANI JUNCTION I'm working generally with in a comic storyline with a wackier tone and straightforward narrative through-line.
It takes you out of your comfort zone and allows you to experiment and grow as a filmmaker. One of the key reasons music videos are a great practice tool is simply because you have to make a story work entirely visually and so things such as visual signifiers become incredibly important. Example below would be CIVIL WAR by BWANI JUNCTION.
The video, which I’m for the most part quite proud of, has one very specific problem. The woman who is supposed to be playing Rory's "cougar" lover, looks too much like him and because Rory is quite fresh faced, people assume she's his mother rather then his lover. This is down to a simple visual assumptions people make. Of course with in a film, a couple of quick lines of dialogue could explain this, but because we are working in an entirely visual medium, this immediately becomes problematic leading to confusion for a lot of the rest of the video. Possibly the solution might have been to establish them in a much more intimate looking context but then again, hindsight is 20-20
In this way too you have a band which is much more in control and interested in their public image which ultimately is also more useful for you because it means you avoid anything too generic, because often bands will leap on the vaguest of ideas, just to have something, so when you have a band that have a passionate interest in doing something more idiosyncratic, it's good to be open to trying new things and be willing to go with flow.
The thing I learned working with MISSING ANDY is, do things that scare you. As a band, they've had a habit of coming up with very ambitious and large concepts that have to be shot in incredibly short amounts of time.
DAVE shot in about 9 hours:
MONEY shot in 11 hours
FEELS LIKE THIS shot in 9 hours
Here's the rub, a lot of the time a band can't afford to rent a location for a long period of time or even retain your services for multiple days. So it pays to learn how to work quick and dirty, because my theory is people will always take something which is bold and concept driven over something which is blandly pretty. This is why it pays to be able to edit your own stuff and comes in handy because it means you can shoot for the edit, knowing exactly what you need and not over-shooting. You learn to do things like light spaces so you can move the coverage quickly without having to-set up whole shots and keep changing up angles on a scene rather then try and do the same take ten times, it gives you more to choose from in the edit and means you can sometimes find good stuff as you go. Of course who wouldn't love three days to shoot one of these things but that's often not the economic reality and to be honest, a lot of low-budget people waste far too much time and could do with streamlining their process. All three of these videos I went into with a fear that I was biting off more then I could chew in the time allotted to shoot it, but ultimately that is what drives you on in the thick of it and it is a valuable lesson to learn, having to think on the fly, move fast and keep in mind at all times what the final edit is going to be.
However there have been occasions (and I won't cite them here) of comity thinking killing concepts. It's a story old as time, you start with an idea that people generally like, only one person wants this thing tweaked and then something falls through so we'll change it to this, you make a compromise here and another little change there and then at the end of it, everyone is baffled by what you end up, so you try to shoot a few new things to add in and make it work, however all it does is add to the mess and eventually you realise all those little changes and compromises forever altered the what it was. I like to think of a concept as a car. Now how many things can you alter in that car before it ceases to be the original car it started out as? I feel like if you make enough tweaks so that 50 percent has changed, you probably want to re-evaluate if it is still working in the way your original concept worked. However this is going to stay theoretical since I don't want to roll out the specific examples I'm talking about.
It's important too to remember that song has to be a blueprint for the video. You can't make something fit the song if the songs tone, style and pace don't allow it. Essentially a music video is a visual score for the song and just like a moviescore is made to highlight what's happening with in the film, a music video is made to accentuate what is going on with in the song. It sounds simple enough but you'd be amazed how often people miss this and service ideas that don't work for the song. The way I always put it to bands is, if I showed you footage of a deer and played sweet music in the background, you'd think "what a lovely deer." Alternatively if I play something dark and sinister you think, "something’s about to happen to that deer."
It really is as simple as; if it's a wacky song, make a wacky video:
If it's a sexy song, make a sexy video
Sometimes things work for a reason.
A concept also doesn't have to be a storyline; it can be a mood or certain style. It can be scenes which are there to give an impression or feel of the song. They're what I call perfume adverts (and not in a judgemental way) but they use images to highlight moods and ideas in the song, not really worrying about having a narrative that connects A to B to C. These can be very fun too because generally there's very little limitations, it basically allows you to experiment and play around.
My theory when it comes to telling stories in music videos is it's best to go one of two ways, either something simple and linear, which has an easily understandable beginning, middle and end or going super abstract. By that I mean, themeing the action around one or several characters and play out scenes which add up to an overall theme, but don't necessarily require a conclusion, this works especially when dealing with complex interpersonal relationships. So for example in AUTOMATIC by MOOLI, the song is themed around the idea of a teenage girl coming to terms with her mother dating a woman and the growing distance in the mother/daughter roles, with the mother attempting to be more like a friend. So here's where the difficulty lies, that's not a conflict that be set up and resolved in 3 minutes.
So the trick here is to come up with scenes that accentuate those ideas. Alienation becomes a key theme, setting up the daughter in opposition to the two other women. Showing scenes of the two women in a more intimate fashion and the distress this causes to the main girl, invasion of space and privacy being a good way to accentuate the alienation. Casting comes back into it again, Victoria visually reads as more maternal and the audience assumes that connection more easily then they do with Sandra and once you see her discomfort with Sandra she reads more as the invading force. You then add in scenes of the mother taking cigarettes from the daughter to push the theme of a more adult relationship and then stir in little references to childhood and maternity with things like the baby pictures. At the end of it, people don't necessarily get a complex plot, but they get something which has the themes of the song ticking under it.
Damn I've written a lot. To be honest, if you've read this far, take all of this with a pinch of salt. This is nothing but the ramblings of me trying to reflect and sum up what the last three years of my life and over 70 music videos have meant to me and what I've learned. I've recently had a lot of people ask me about my style and the thing is, I don't really think of myself as having a style. I do what I think services the story and the concept and if that looks right to people then that's all that matters. Above everything, I think the mantra of film should be, "whatever works, works," because there's so much hating that goes into filmmaking and people are always quick to jump up and tell you you're doing something wrong. Filmmaking needs to be about constant experiment and the joy of finding what works for you. It took me so long to realise that and I think ultimately it's the most important lesson I ever learned. End of the day, I'm still a nobody, my accomplishments so far mean dick, but what I can say about these last three years is basically they have been like a 2nd film school and it has lead me to believe that the best kind of learning a person can do is simply going and making some sh*t, figure out why it's sh*t, then go make some better sh*t. Eventually it won't be sh*t anymore and one day you'll get to the point where you’re making stuff that's pretty damn good. But it's a process and you have to trust in that process and be patient. All I know is for the most part I don't make sh*t anymore and that's what these last three years have done for me.