MusicVidFest 2016: the creativity and business of music videos in a day

MusicVidFest 2016: the creativity and business of music videos in a day

On November 9th 2016, the world woke up to Earth-shattering news. Nobody saw it coming and despite all the warning signs, pundits on all sides were blindsided. That’s right: the return of MusicVidFest.

For the third consecutive year at BFI Southbank, industry insiders and enthusiasts congregated and discussed everything there is to discuss about the world of Music Videos. And just in case you missed it, here’s a quick recap of the event that informed, educated, inspired and distracted in the hours following the seismic events across the pond, a few hours before...

Session 1: Late Breakfast with Ninian Doff

Fresh off the back of an incredibly successful year, including sweeping up the Best Director award at this year’s UKMVAs, Ninian Doff sat down with David Knight to discuss his career so far.

Treating us to an exclusive look at the inner workings of his brain, Ninian provided us with test footage, old films and plenty of behind the scenes stories. From his beginnings making scrappy skateboarding films, he talked us through how he’d experimented with videos and VFX purely for the amusement of his friends before realising that the skate films were slowly morphing into music videos.

As well as offering sage advice about making films for yourself rather than making them to impress at a festival, Ninian's reflections was peppered with hilarious stories of going out on his lunch break to film stuff by himself because nobody would help him, and quitting a good job to pursue directing.

Eventually the conversation moved onto his more recent work, and he discussed how learning post production and VFX definitely helped him in the beginning, but that collaboration with others is what really helped push his work forward, allowing him to evolve his ideas into the more inventive narrative-driven stuff he’s rightly praised for.

Session 2: Barnaby Laws’ Keynote Speech

Barnaby Laws, MD of Worldwide Production Agency in London, and longtime friend of British music video production, had the task of delivering this year’s keynote address, and he used it to talk to the room about the motivation to make music videos.

Any why do we make music videos? Because they are a fun, expressive endeavour. Even if the order of the day is to paradoxically make something amazing in no time and with little money, Laws argued that music videos are vital for the contribution they have on the film industry as a whole. London is full of incredible talent, and music videos are where that talent hone their craft.

The elephant in the room is, as always, money – and with promos being the fun, yet rarely profitable bastard sibling of the commercial, there’s a hollow comfort in having great reel pieces. It doesn’t have to be this way, said Laws. With longform video work keeping people on native platforms like Nowness or Apple Music for longer, there’s more incentive for funding.

He used Canada’s government-backed funding model for creative projects as a case study and argued that music videos should not be an expensive crèche for new directors, suggesting that diverting some short film funding into promos (which he argues have a wider reach and far more potential for commercial gain) could be an avenue worth pursuing.

Session 3: The Cinematography Masterclass
Panelists: James Blann, Catherine Goldschmidt, Patrick Meller
Moderator: Phil Tidy

Providing a welcome visual treat on a day of conceptual discussion, DoPs James Blann, Catherine Goldschmidt and Patrick Meller chatted to Phil Tidy about getting their starts in the industry, stealing (borrowing) equipment to make short films, and using 35mm film for the first time on terrible ideas just to get to grips with it.

The overall energy of the cinematographers (god love ‘em) is massively positive, Patrick Meller telling the room that “it doesn’t matter how much cash you have, if you’re with a good group of creative people who want to make something, you’ll find a way to do it.”

The panel then went through some of their recent work, discussing how they created visual worlds in both narrative and documentary format for a music video, mixing formats and choosing the right aspect ratio to tell the right story. 

Creative back-and-forth between the artist and the DoP are a tricky thing, but the panel talked of taking it in their stride. Collaboration is a vital part of the medium, as is a good relationship with the director. Absolutely fascinating stuff for any self-proclaimed camera geeks in attendance.

Finally, Catherine also announced the launch of illuminatrix, a new body for female DoPs, dedicated to improving the gender imbalance in a department of the film industry where women have been, and still are, poorly represented.

Session 4: The Producer’s Panel
Panelists: Katie Lambert, Drew O’Neill, Sasha Nathwani, Liz Kessler, Shabana Mansuri
Moderator: Luke Bather

The producer’s panel got down to the nitty gritty almost immediately (as producers tend to do) and jumped into a discussion about crew rates increasing by 2.5% next year. The panel would be the first to admit that it’s an unsexy topic of discussion, but concerns about who would be taking on that cost in lieu of budgets showing no signs of increasing made it a vital dialogue to open.

Money was certainly the name of the game here, with points being raised about the music video’s context within the wider film industry; how ten years ago you would call in kit hire favours for short films, and now the music video is in the same place quite often – which is an odd approach for what is essentially still a commercial entity.

Is creativity suffering from an edit by committee? Does leaving a director unpaid devalue their work? Well, it sort-of depends who you ask as it seems the producers have more of an issue with directors not getting paid than directors themselves do.

What everyone agreed on is that in order to sustain the industry, discussions need to be had and concepts need to be rethought. Loyalty and relationships are key in the prolonged success of this industry, so when label commissioners in the audience joined in the discussion to welcome the idea of a serious, prolonged industry meeting, the panel greeted them with open arms.

Session 5: Anatomy of a Music Video: The Chemical Brothers – Wide Open
Panelists: Dom Hawley & Nic Goffey, John Madsen, Neil Davis
Moderator: Laura Swinton

Directors Dom & Nic and their producer John Madsen took us behind the curtain on one of the year’s most mind-bending videos. Their eighth video for The Chemical Brothers is an elegant dance film with an incredible post-production twist to it.

The directors, along with The Mill’s Neil Davies break down the long, complicated process of delivering the video, including discussing how it was born out of a desire to create a dance film that could not be recreated live. The duo revealed that they were the ones to get in touch with the band after hearing the track and decided to pitch on it without being invited. Of course their storied history of collaboration probably helped matters but it was certainly a move that paid off.

Collaboration with the dancer and the choreographer were vital to the project, as was seen in the extensive behind the scenes rehearsal videos projected during the chat. The entire video was in fact one continuous, fluid take, and the choreography was fine-tuned to reflect that. Although, as Davies revealed, safety takes were done with a motion capture suit and blank scenes for safety, they weren’t needed in the end.

The depth of work and thought that went into the video was staggering, with The Mill staff actually writing a piece of software to help “get rid” of the dancer as she becomes replaced by a 3D-printed version of herself (and it turns out a real 3D printed version of the girl was made by a fan and sent to The Mill!).

As in-depth as they got, they barely scratched the surface in the 45 minutes they had, but it was a deeply fascinating look into the workflow behind an incredible accomplishment. There was just enough time for Dom & Nic to break down some elements of their recently remastered Oasis video – which looked glorious compared to the standard definition version. The panel revealed that tweaks had to be made to the effects as the SD version was quite forgiving of certain aspects, such as the duplication of extras in the background.

Session 6: The Content Panel
Panelists: Tim Mulligan, Craig Haynes, Johnny Brocklehurst, Amelia Dimoldenberg
Moderator: Caroline Bottomley

Rejoining the discussion from last year, MIDIA’s Tim Mulligan had more statistics about the viewing habits of ‘digital natives’ including the revelation that Instagram has become the main source of video consumption on the web – could the future be in microcontent now that streaming is much more successful than digital purchases?

Tim also looked at YouTube viewing habits – the most prolific musicians are averaging one new piece of video content per week, which is nothing compared to some of YouTube’s top earners who are uploading on average once or twice a day.

The discussion then moved onto the panel, all creating different types of music-related video content, from Festival ‘Aftermovies’ – a highlight reel from a festival used to promote and drive ticket sales for the next year – to new content from Amelia Dimoldenberg’s Chicken Shop Date – a hilarious and quickly growing web series in which she takes Grime artists on dates to chicken shops around London and interviews them. The team talked about how content for content’s sake is not good enough and that personality is key. Bland, expensive content has been shelved in favour of other cheaper videos that have a spontaneous energy to them. “Spend small, commission often” was the mantra from Island Records’ Johnny Brocklehurst.

Session 7: The Artists Panel
Panelists: Connie Constance, Speech Debelle
Moderator: Eliza Williams

Emerging singer-songwriter Connie Constance and established hip-hop artist Speech Debelle spoke of their most recent video output from the perspective of a performing artist collaborating with a director. Both musicians screening recent excellent video output before discussing the creative process at length.

A bulk of the discussion covered the development of an idea between director and artist, and how the artists felt that their initial ideas were vital to the process in order to keep a stamp of personal authenticity on the works.

Lessons for directors included making sure they were familiar with an artist when pitching ideas to them – clichés and assumptions make for tiresome ideas that go ignored. But allowing artists to put big ideas on the table and then letting directors strip them back to the bare essentials is an appealing process.

Touching upon the discussion from the previous panel, both artists felt that content they put out was at its best when it was spontaneous and authentic rather than forced, and that branching out into other creative endeavours beyond music was important to them and their careers, as well as helping to inform their overall aesthetic as artists.

Session 8: The Creativity Panel
Panelists: Claire Stubbs, Eoin Glaister, Hanan Cher, Laura Clayton, Ian Pons Jewell
Moderator: Chris Abitbol

After a long, albeit very interesting, discussion-heavy day WANDA’s Head of Music Chris Abitbol was around to inject some energy into the room with his creativity panel.

The panel chatted about music videos being “the renegade force” in the film and commercial world – where crazy ideas could run rampant and thrive. Echoing some of what Barnaby Laws’ keynote outlined – the directors on the panel talked of music videos as their first step into the film industry, giving opportunity, audience and budgets when the short films route couldn’t provide them.

The subject of how it’s becoming increasingly more difficult for directors to work directly with artists were addressed, with commissioners emphasizing that a lot of effort is being put into opening these much-needed channels sooner rather than later.

Money, inevitably, came up and the panel had some interesting thoughts – with directors treating the video itself as payment that allows them to secure lucrative commercial work whilst still allowing them the freedom to be more creative, but with music videos being seen as a product more and more, is creativity being hampered? Well, that depends on the artist and balancing an artist’s ego with the promise of fitting them into an idea can sometimes mean just writing them out.

Although they could have happily talked for hours it seems, the panel had to quickly touch on the often hushed ‘canned video’ before the day came to a close. With clips of videos that have been shelved for a litany of reasons shown to the audience and discussed. Some in the industry believe it’s happening more frequently of late, but the fact that some of a director’s best work was seen as criminal by members of the panel.

 

Overall, the discussions of the day opened up a lot of much-needed channels of communication between people on both sides of the industry and provided an invaluable level of insight into the inner workings of parts of the industry that often seem to be shrouded in mystery, and what could be better than that?

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