Steven Gottlieb surveys the music video scene to give some recently highlights of cutting edge visual effects in the medium.
When it comes to music video effects, there's usually an equal split between the CG and the practical. For every video with stunning computer graphics and effects, there's another with something that was achieved by a dude playing with food colors in a fishbowl of water. Add in the fact that there's currently a trend, at least among indie and alternative recording artists, to use imagery and styles that reach back to the era when personal computers were first introduced and the graphics were heavily pixilated and, frankly, not very convincing, you have a weird case of cutting edge tools being used to create things that seem old, and some very old and practical tricks being used to create the cutting edge.
A good starting point is with something called FerroFluid. It's a type of metal goo that can be easily manipulated into jagged designs that look like the stalactites you might find in a cave. Directing team Encyclopedia Pictura went the most basic route in recreating the look in their "Haven't Been Yourself" video for spacerockers Seventeen Evergreen. Set in what looks like a velveteen poster depicting a forest, the video depicts a group of sensualists who come together in a goopy mess (not as perverted as it sounds, actually) and become a multi-pronged FerroFluid flower. Naturally, the directors went the organic route and got their hands on the substance and used unseen magnets to manipulate each rocky peak. It's a striking effect that's hard to explain, yet exquisitely beautiful and weird.
Fast forward a few months and we get to a video by Canadian director Jaron Albertin for "In The Morning," by electro act Junior Boys. In this case, a group of late night street loiterers begin leaching metal goo which, as you may have already guessed, bloom into little FerroFluid flowers. Except, that is, the effect was created through CG -- which makes sense when you consider the difficulty there would be in getting magnets to perfectly push and pull FerroFluid on a practical location, especially on a limited budget.
Budget. There, I said it finally. That, unfortunately, is the word you'll usually encounter the most if you talk with anybody in the music video production business. Budgets are down from where they were five to ten years ago by about half. Maybe more. So, it's not too often that you'll see a video like Kanye West's "Stronger" come down the pike. Directed by music video legend Hype Williams, the clip mixes live action and futuristic CG work in the name of bringing elements from the anime classic Akira to life. The CG in the video was not employed to create a hyperfuturistic version of Tokyo. Most directors and recording artists would be stuck with stock footage and lots of stylized computer work to create something that could pass for this Japanese.
Not Kanye and Hype, however. They actually went to Japan for a lengthy shoot and Tokyo really does look that futuristic. The CG in the video was used to create these elaborate photo-realistic, robotic machines that seem to build Kanye into the superhuman he likes to portray, both in videos and real life. Hype Williams also tosses in a slew of graphical treatments and textures to make it as beyond belief as possible -- even though the most striking element, the city, is a real place captured on-location.
Ever been to a Flea Circus? Me neither. I don't even know if there are Flea Circuses anymore. So, anytime you see a bug in a music video, it's CG. And, usually the bugs are anthropomorphized, which is even harder to achieve in reality. Take the Gnarls Barkley video "Gone Daddy Gone" from about a year ago. Director Chris Milk employed computer animation to tell a tale of some randy insects that have their sights set on a hot housewife. A good example from right now is directing team Artificial Army's work for the aggressively rocking band The Locust's new video "ATOKPTA." Purposely scary, the video focuses on a squadron of 3D CG animated locusts that are swooping in on the attack. Not as cuddly looking as the critters in "Gone Daddy Gone," but really just as nefarious.
Getting retro is a fad mentioned earlier, so let's get to it now. The Strokes use the template of late '70s New York post-punk/new-wave as their starting point, so it's only natural that the futuristic vibe of their "You Only Live Once" looks a lot like late '70s sci-fi classic Star Wars -- this video was directed by Warren Fu, who was actually a designer on the more recent Star Wars trilogy -- and all the time travel in the video lands the viewer back at 1977. Or, take a look at the new video "Boyz" for multi-cultural rap/electro artist M.I.A. Directed by the M.I.A. herself and Jay Will and shot on-location in Jamaica, the video overlays a barrage of 16-bit colors and blocky old fonts and graphics. It's a throwback to the days of Commodore 64 and a welcome respite from all things slick.
My favorite effect is not CG at all. In fact, it's pretty much the oldest trick in the book and always effective -- even if it had its heyday in the psychedelic '60s and Andy Warhol's Exploding Plastic Inevitable happenings. Grab a fishbowl, or a pint glass -- any clear vessel, really -- fill it with water, give it a swirl and strategically drop in some food coloring. Film it, project it. Trippy. In these budget conscious times, it's a sure winner. Director Philip Andelman uses it to enliven the high contrast performance footage in the Silversun Pickups "Well Thought Out Twinkles" video, while director Patrick Daughters uses the same trick to accentuate the crescendos in the video for Bright Eyes "Hot Knives."
Maybe the move to old-fashioned effects and retro styles is a natural response to the dwindling budgets for most videos, but it's probably more than that. I think it's a desire to get back to the organic: Why use effects to create what already exists, when you can use it to create something outlandish. That said, no matter you preference -- whether it be for is the high tech, the fully animated 3D, science fair tinkering, retro styles, or out and out cheap ingenuity: Music videos are, as always, a showcase for some of the cleverest and most diverse effects to be seen in any filmic medium.
Steven J. Gottlieb is the founder and main editor of VideoStatic.com, the leading music video news resource. He was formerly the senior editor of the well-respected music video trade magazine, CVC Report.