Music videos slowly earning some respect as a creative medium


Lavonn Battle, Tabitha Duncan and Athena Cage, three petite young rhythm-and-blues singers known collectively as Kut Klose, are strutting down a glistening SoHo sidewalk, smiling and miming the lyrics to their latest Elektra single, "Lovely Thang."

An evening summer downpour soaks their high-heel sneakers and wilts their ornately styled braids. It is the second and final day of the shoot for Kut Klose's new music video, however, and their director, David Nelson, has no choice but to keep the film rolling.

"Keep it hype!" an assistant with a megaphone exhorts a soggy crowd of club-kid extras, who obediently continue dancing.

This shoot is crucial for Kut Klose. "The pressure is insane on videos," says Sonia Ives, the Elektra executive in charge of the production. "It's borderline hysterical." Based on the surprise success of Kut Klose's previous single, "I Like," Elektra increased the budget allotted for the four-minute video from some $80,000 to more than $100,000.

Between takes, the lanky Mr. Nelson, dressed head to toe in storm gear, talks about his job: "People say a video is a commercial for the act. And that's true. But in the commercial world, the director does not have nearly as much creative involvement. There's an ad agency that you hire for that. A music video director is responsible for everything, from the color and look of the film to the clothes that the act's wearing."

Consequently, Mr. Nelson, 27, a graduate of the New York University Film School, may be under even more pressure than Kut Klose: Elektra is expecting him to create a new platinum-selling image for its potential stars out of a mere two days' worth of raw film.

Since 1981, the year MTV first went on the air, music video has transformed itself from a marketing afterthought to a full-fledged creative medium.

Within the film industry a new subcategory has emerged, a brave new world in which Los Angeles-based production companies like Propaganda, Oil Factory and Palomar hire dozens of directors to pump out hundreds of three- to five-minute music videos each year on production schedules that rarely exceed a few weeks.

Because they possess neither the prestige of feature films nor the generous commissions of straightforward commercial work, music videos have long been considered the smallest fish in the Hollywood food chain.

These days, however, directors are more likely to embrace as an artistic challenge the obvious restrictions of the format: that the clip must feature not only the song but also the artists, or at least some likeness of them.

Music videos provide neophyte directors with a taste of full responsibility and the potential for immediate exposure to a wide audience. There is also an opportunity to pick up the fundamentals of a highly technical trade.

In the words of Stephane Sednaoui, 32, a French-born fashion photographer who started directing videos five years ago: "Music video has allowed me to experience some different techniques, to become more aware of what production and post-production are, what special effects are." Mr. Sednaoui, like many successful music-video directors, has had no formal film training.

Skeptics of music video's artistic pretensions might be astonished by some of the minor masterpieces in the genre.

There is Mr. Sednaoui's award-winning 1992 video for the Red Hot Chili Peppers' "Give It Away," for which he painted the band, a kinetic product of Los Angeles, in silver and filmed them in black and white cavorting around a desert setting.

Or there is Samuel Bayer's lush, dreamy clip for a forgettable song, "No Rain," by a middling band, Blind Melon, that nonetheless floated to the top of the singles charts buoyed by Mr. Bayer's memorable video, which starred a charismatic young girl dressed in bee costume.

MTV (and its easy-listening sister channel VH1) began presenting director's credits alongside the names of the artist and song two years ago. The practice further encouraged previously anonymous music video directors to view themselves as small-time auteurs and their videos as experimental shorts.

"Once their name was on it, I think it required them to raise their standards a little bit," says Andy Schuon, head of music and programming at MTV.

Since then, music video has produced a handful of authentic behind-the-camera celebrities. Last spring, for example, the 25-year-old director Spike Jonze was hailed in national magazines like Entertainment Weekly and Newsweek as an alternative-culture visionary for his kitschy-cute work with Weezer and the Beastie Boys.

Mark Romanek recently made headlines for directing the video for Michael Jackson's single "Scream," made for a record $7 million.

And as the list of directors who have crossed over to feature films from music video grows -- David Fincher ("Alien 3"), Michael Bay ("Bad Boys") and the brothers Allen and Albert Hughes ("Menace 2 Society") are just a few -- so do the ranks of painters, photographers, art directors and fashion designers who, along with young film makers, are flocking to the medium.

"Music video is the gallery of the '90s," says Mr. Bayer, 33, who has directed approximately 90 music videos over the last four years. "This is how children learn about art. That can sound a bit pretentious, but it's also very true: Kids learn about culture through rock 'n' roll."

Whatever the attractions of music videos for young directors, they don't include the potential to become rich (directors usually earn 10 percent of the total budget).

Video budgets, which today mostly fall between $30,000 and $300,000, have actually declined on average over the last five years as the competition to get on the air has become tougher. While time on MTV, the premier venue for music videos in the United States, remains limited, the number of new videos has increased exponentially over the last decade.

"In the film industry, music video is still considered the poor cousin," says Nick Egan, 37, a British-born director who designed album covers for the Clash and Bob Dylan before switching to video direction in the late '80s. "But that just makes me laugh, because music video is probably the only instance involving film where the director has complete control."

"Music video's the most Pop Art way to open every door that you want as a director," says Christina Wayne, 27, a 1991 Columbia College graduate who moved to Los Angeles three years ago and has since directed a half-dozen videos. "I think Andy Warhol would have liked it."

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