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Behind the Camera with Northwest Video Stars

You would think that Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” might have solved the riddle of the music video: Is it art or advertisement? 

Despite its ongoing title as Most Important Music Video Ever, the 13-minute production only confused the matter.

Directed by feature filmmaker John Landis in 1983, the “Thriller” video was a film intended for the big screen. Landis thought the music video could be distributed to film houses around the world, bringing back the short film, long on the wane in Hollywood. It never happened. Record labels wouldn’t allow it, preferring to spread the vid like wildfire on television and VHS for promotional purposes. It worked. The result was yet another number one single for Jackson—this one an unlikely and cheesy novelty song featuring Vincent Price—and an enormous bump in sales of the album Thriller, making it the greatest selling album of all time. Thirty years later, with a platinum album as rare as an eclipse, it is clear that no music video will ever have the same impact. Not even “Gangnam Style.” 

So now that we're in a post-music-industry era, can the music video be art alone?

Tonight at the SIFF Cinema, I will ask that question and others while hosting Band’s on the Big Screen, a fundraiser for Northwest Folklife being produced by Team Up for Nonprofits. Starting at 7 pm, the event will feature videos for songs by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis, Pickwick, Hey Marseilles, Dark Time Sunshine, Kaylee Cole and many more. But the bands won’t be the stars.

The spotlight will be trained on five directors with Seattle ties, all of whom have experimented in very different ways with the form of the music video. Each filmmaker has his or her own approach, from the raw live concert footage of Brad Curran to the scripted and very literal work of Jon Jon Augustavo, the man responsible for Macklemore's "Thrift Shop" and "Same Love" videos. The two things that all of the directors have in common is a life of exposure to music videos and access to new technologies that have revolutionized the form by democratizing it.

“I was a music video junkie when I was a kid,” remembers Hayley Young, one of the five featured filmmakers who will each be screening three of their videos. “I used to put on little shows in my parents living room with my girlfriends doing dance routines like Paula Abdul.”

Abdul was a groundbreaking video artist herself. Her 1989 video for “Opposites Attract” will live on in pop culture as that time that Abdul tap-danced with an animated rapping cat. By that point it had become popular to go big for a music video and the ‘90s were a heady time for the music video director. Budgets were astronomical and video artists were experimenting with new techniques, creating videos that promoted new technologies (and the directors using them) while upstaging the music.

Then as the millennium turned, MTV, the primary outlet for these videos, realized it could make more money creating low-budget “reality” programming. The heyday for the music video was over. Videos made less and less sense for bands, providing little additional exposure for the amount of money required to produce them. By 2003, even MTV’s pivotal alternative program 120 Minutes was canceled. Music fans began crowing about the end of the music video. Then, as we all know, YouTube and digital video happened. Now you don’t hear anyone grousing about a lack of music videos. They're everywhere.

In particular, the “one shot” style of music video, has become ubiquitous. For young or inexperienced directors without the time, budget or experience for a full-fledged video production, the “one shot” has served as an easy means of sharing a song performed live in an interesting rent-free location on acoustic instruments. It also provided the video maker a modest challenge that could serve as a catalyst for developing a personal style: Get it in one shot.

“Sometimes it feels like a performance for me,” says Tyler Kalberg, a director best known for his "one shot"-style video series, The Doe Bay Sessions. “It’s a very subtle kind of dance.”

Kalberg shot his first music video three years ago as a photographer with a day job in advertising, traveling with his friends in the now-defunct band Friday Mile. The concept was simple: They played, he shot. Though relatively crude, those first videos spurred Kalberg on.

“I have always loved music,” says Kalberg. “But I’m not musical. I can’t sing. I can’t play instruments. This is how I can contribute.”

Since then Kalberg has created 75 music videos. Most are in the one-shot style, along with a few documentary-style cuts that he will show tonight, including a video for Damien Jurado's "Museum of Flight" (above). But the tide is turning in the music video world, Kalberg says, and he is turning with it.

“The ‘one shot’ video is played out,” Kalberg says. “The market is just saturated with these videos, and I’m saying this as someone responsible for that saturation. I'm well aware of that.”

This year Kalberg is giving up his “one shot” ways and focusing entirely on creating videos that tend closer to the “Thriller” model, with a concept, a shot-list and a (modest) budget. 

"There is a purity to the documentary style and working with the bands in that moment is something really special," he says. "But it's fun and exciting being able to create something from scratch. Whereas the documentary approach is more about capturing something, this is completely up to me what world I create." 

Unlike Kalberg, Young started her music video career by thinking big, perhaps channeling those old Paul Abdul videos. When she was asked to create a video for orchestral pop group Hey Marseilles, she utilized the conceptual skills honed in her day job as a professional editorial photographer. With a $1,500 budget, she rented an industrial fan and trucked in sand to create a beach paradise in an old hangar. She shot the video for the song "Rio" (below) in a single, long take, managing to transport the band to various locations and scenes through the magic of intense pre-production and desktop editing software. The video is inventive and engaging and arguably more inspiring than that dancing cat.

"I look at my videos and I know that they're not Hollywood videos," she says. "But they are an offering to the viewer, that I tried to do something you haven't seen before, even though I had no money to do it with and no experience."

Bands on the Big Screen takes place at 7pm on Thursday, January 31, at the SIFF Uptown Cinema. Get tickets here. Mark Baumgarten's At Large column appears regularly on City Arts Online. Contact Mark at markb@cityartsmagazine.com, or follow him on Twitter

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