Meet Ed Houben, a sperm donor who is responsible for 46 children and counting - lovely.

Whether or not you realize it, the corporate visual environment that you live in has at it’s best been designed by a few select people. Ivan Chermayeff is one of those people. With his partner Tom Geismar, he has designed the identities for some of the most known brands worldwide. He has done this with an intellectual sense of elegance and class that has always proved an iconic result. His identities for NBC, Chase, Mobil, PBS and Barney’s New York are all case in point examples. Here is an interview in which a very experienced Chermayeff gives greater insight into his work and process.

Today is Barack Obama’s sixtieth day in office as the President of the United States of America. He is doing the most impossible job at what may be the most impossible time. I was surprised to see how quickly he addressed many of my concerns ranging from Guantanamo Bay and the War in Iraq to issues of social change. Of course, the big topic is the economy. His proposed budget is an extremely progressive sign of landmark change. I suppose it’s fair to say that we all have mixed emotions about the economic crisis as we should, our President included. Putting all of this aside, Barack made history yesterday on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, as the first sitting US President to appear as a guest on a late night talk show. It feels really good to have a president that makes me laugh and smile. I simply can’t think of another Head of State known for his character and affability to Barack’s tune, and this is no small thing in leadership at times like these.

David Lynch is also on twitter and indeed it really is him. Apparently he likes to update with weather reports for LA. I found two gems linked off his page. Here is a clip of David Lynch, the cowboy singing in a studio. And here, he talks about making art. Only Lynch would think to title a painting, Woman with Broken Neck and Electric Knife Speaks to Her Husband.

A dome is such a great shape to project a movie on. I think one day people will have domes in their homes. They’re magical. - David Lynch

Shepard Fairey is a street artist and designer who had always been most known for his image of Andre the Giant’s face. Different versions of the image have appeared on walls in just about every country on the globe, as part of a campaign known as Andre the Giant Has A Posse. Fairey’s Hope posters that have become synonymous with Barack Obama’s candidacy for US President are now an overnight symbol of an unparalleled event. He recently spoke with Charlie Rose about his more than twenty year career that has lead up to this poster. A retrospective of his work is currently on display at ICA in Boston. In a peculiar string of events, Shepard Fairey found himself in prison on the eve of the show’s opening.

Martin De Thurah is a Danish filmmaker with a brilliant mind for creating striking, dreamy visuals. He arrived on the music video scene a few years back with a video for Carpark North in which angst ridden adolescents are seen spastically dancing, tussling, and flying through the rooms of their school. His work is often characterized by moody lighting, seamless special FX, and a painters eye for detail. In addition to videos, he has spent the last several years working on a handful of film projects. In this interview, Martin De Thurah discusses his video work and cinema endeavors. His reel can be seen here. Be sure to check out his latest video for Glasvegas.  Additionally, he talks a bit about that project here.

Some people were born to do very practical things like solve mathematical equations or to put out fires and enforce the law. And then there are the others, the right brained folk. This is an on-going series of interviews with people who have chosen to spend their lives creating.

DAN SULLY is a UK-based music video director. He has become one of Europe’s most unique young voices creating promos for the likes of Elbow, Starsailor, and The Courteeners. His work recently earned top honors at the European Promax and World BDA Awards. He is represented by Flynn Productions.


Can you tell us a little about your filmmaking background. Did you have any sort of formal training?

I studied film at the University of Bournemouth, where I made a few shorts and one music video. I chose the course because it seemed to be heavy on the practical side of things - actually going out there and making stuff.  I’m pretty skeptical about formal trainings in general. I only learnt about filmmaking by making films, and obviously still learn loads with every project I do.  When I left Uni, I wanted to make films as soon as possible - I was really eager and impatient. I love music and at that time the only realistic avenue for getting any kind of budget as a young filmmaker was through record labels, so it seemed like the perfect kind of filmmaking for me to give a go. I emailed loads of labels, but eventually got a project by approaching an artist after a show. I made my first video for a record label at 21 and couldn’t believe it when it got played on MTV - that was for a UK hip hop artist called Jehst. That really spurred me on.

Are you drawn towards making visuals for particular kinds of music or acts?

Definitely. Music video directors always want to make music for their favourite bands, but it is sometimes more complicated than that. You may love an artist but may not be the best person to make them a video. I think every good director has a sensibility which can obviously match or mis-match the sensibility of an artist. I think you get the best videos when those sensibilities are in synch. I was lucky when I made the video for Howling Bells, as I consider their aesthetic to be similar to the kind of stuff I’m into. Whenever I write a treatment, I’m always trying to satisfy my own aesthetic tastes, so it can be an uphill struggle if the band’s aesthetic sensibilities rub me up the wrong way. But sometimes, if the track is right and it all clicks, I tend to drift off and have an idea of what I want to do pretty much straight away. I would love to make a video for Deftones or Interpol.  But I think I’m pretty easy to please. As long as the music has some sort of cinematic or visceral edge, I’m happy.

How did you initially come to work with Simon Raymonde’s label, Bella Union Records?

This was a fluke if I am honest. A friend of mine, David who works at MTV (where I have also worked for the past 5 years) was in touch with Simon Raymonde who explained that he was trying to look for a director to take on a low budget video for Howling Bells. David put him in touch with me and it all went from there. I was in the right place at the right time. That was my bit of luck I suppose. Making videos for Bella Union was a real privilege for me. I really respect Simon and love the label. I was so happy to be able to go on and make four videos in total for them.

What are some of the biggest influences on your creative process?

The kind of film I enjoy watching is when you can tell that it’s a talented crew - a good director and DP just bowling around shooting beautiful images in great locations with great art direction and well chosen cast etc…  I’m not as much into graphic or tricksy stuff, although I can appreciate that too. So, naturally I try to shoot the kind of videos that I like - rooted in strong art direction and good photography. I like taking an aesthetic and pushing it a little so that the film has its own identity - usually an extension of the art direction and sensibility of the band or artist. Some directors come from a graphics background, or a post background, or theatre or whatever - but I just locked myself away for years and watched films obsessively - so my first love is cinema and that has influenced what I like and how I approach videos I guess. Right now I love Roy Andersson and lots of Swedish directors actually, but recently I was also blown away by the film, The Beat That My Heart Skipped. I’d call that film a master-class in direction.

At what point did you start working with Flynn Productions and how has that changed the way you’ve been able to make videos?

Flynn got in contact after seeing the videos I did for Bella Union. At that point I was still unsigned. It was around June/July 2007. They were like ‘ok, we’ll give you a go’. It was incredibly exciting for me. I had been waiting for that moment for about five years, chugging away producing and directing low budget videos in my spare time whilst holding down a day job. Producing the videos myself around my day job was starting to turn my hair grey (literally!). I must mention that I did have some help in that time - people like Verity Wilcocks and Jules Powell stepped in and helped me when I needed it. But working with Flynn was exciting because it gave me that freedom to concentrate more of the creative side of things and I knew that Flynn was a good company. It seemed like it could be the beginnings of me starting a career making films professionally. The truth is that I started to make videos just as budgets have plummeted so it hasn’t been a walk in the park, but I am still positive for the future.

You’ve mentioned that budgets are falling. Yet in the last year, you’ve worked with some of the biggest acts on your reel, including Elbow and Starsailor. Perhaps you can take us through one of these projects. How did it come about? What was production like etc?

The Starsailor job was enjoyable because the idea came very automatically after listening to the track just a couple of times. Also, Carole the commissioner was very organized and gave me plenty of time to pre-produce and post produce the job. The only stressful aspect of it was the shoot, where I literally binned my shot-list after we started running over about four hours into the shoot. I pretty much busked the whole video from there on in, which was very stressful. But everyone involved in the shoot was great, including the band and it all came together in the edit.

Some directors are very hands on in the post process and even cut their own work. Can you tell us a little about your experience in this phase. Do you edit your own projects? How do you like the process to go? Is it a phase in which you like to discover or do you prefer to put the pieces together?

At this stage in my career I really love cutting my own videos. I tend to have a very exact idea of how each sequence in the video is going to be cut before I shoot the video, so a lot of the offline is just piecing those bits of the jigsaw back together. So far, I have cut all of my own videos apart from the video for Joe Lean and The Jing Jang Jong on which I worked really closely with Matt Nee at Flynn Post. That was a really positive experience and Matt did a great job. I recognize that there will come a time whereby, I will regularly collaborate with editors but at the moment I love that intense offline experience where you just shut yourself off in a small room for a few days and cut away until you’re happy. 

If budgets are shrinking, it must be hard to sustain a living on just videos. Are you involved in commercials or any other creative discipline?

I think nine out of every ten directors making videos today are involved in some other creative discipline. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that per se, and it’s not impossible to make a living from videos, but you would have to be making at least one 20k video every month in order to survive in London and that kind of work rate is pretty rare. I’ve balanced making videos with working for MTV; I produce a music show called Gonzo for MTV TWO and direct some multi-camera shows and live music for MTV too (for Duffy, Glasvegas, Primal Scream etc…).  Commercial-wise, there have been a few initial rumblings about a few projects through Flynn and that is something I want to pursue.

What are some of the biggest challenges you face as a young director making videos in the UK?

Lack of time really… because whilst you try and establish yourself, you will always have to balance making videos with other work. But if you are passionate enough and hungry enough, then you will always make it work. I mean, I dedicate a lot of weekends and evenings to music videos at the moment, but I’m happy to keep grafting away for the time being. Also, low budgets mean that you have to be really creative in order to keep delivering fresh ideas.

What is your dream project to direct?

I would like to direct some raw, run-and-gun British features shot on film in London - on the streets that I see every day, featuring people like the people I know. I want to make a trilogy about Love, Work and Death… You know, nothing too big! I want to write the stories, workshop the scenes with actors and then take a small, tight crew and bowl around London shooting them. That would be my dream project right now.

Any advice or words of wisdom to other young filmmakers wanting to make video promos?

If you want to be a filmmaker just go out and make films. I know that sounds flippant, but it’s true. If you want to make videos, just go out there and shoot some music videos for anyone. Don’t worry if you don’t have any money - time is just as valuable.


View Dan Sully’s newest video for Starsailor’s single Tell Me It’s Not Over. See his other works here.

Part of modern civilization as we know it is that we exist in a designed world. Design has permeated every single facet of our lives. In recent history, the branding and products released by Apple are one of our most persistent reminders that our lifestyle is a choice of design. Earlier today, I was having a discussion about whether or not the auteur theory can be applied to a designer. Technology blogger John Gruber of Daring Fireball recently spoke about this very topic at Macworld Pulse. Had Steve Jobs never been so concerned with design, his company would never have flourished. For their iconic logo, Jobs turned to the great Paul Rand to put a visual face on his company. His understanding that to make a good product was not enough, that the product must be aware of the user and reflect upon the user was later echoed in a huge way when the company ventured outside of the computer business with the ipod. So perhaps Jobs really was the auteur all along and created a culture in which great creative talent was fostered. Much of Apple’s success is in response to the talent of one product designer in particular, Jonathan Ive. So then, where did Ive look for his influence? Well the answer is obvious; Ive has always clearly been affected by the work of Dieter Rams. Here is a video in which Rams reflects upon some of his most classic utilitarian designs for a modern world.

 

There is an inherent responsibility that comes with directing a documentary film. With each edit, the director is given the choice to show or not show, and ultimately influence an audience with their version of the “truth” on a given subject. In the last year, there were two particularly important documentaries that saw theatrical release. Errol Morris’ Standard Operating Procedure is arguably one of the most important documentaries ever made, simply because of the questions it raises about “truth,” “documentation,” and “responsibility.” This film is not only challenging for the filmmaker, but the viewer as well. It asks us to step outside of a more comfortable place and forgo the idea of film as entertainment entirely.

The other film that I am thinking of which treads in territory that is both treacherous and necessary comes from the controversial filmmaker, Tony Kaye. After conquering the world of advertising with his own genre defining style, Kaye found the spotlight in Hollywood with his heavily criticized film American History X. The story behind the film’s creation had perhaps become more contentious than the movie itself, leaving Kaye on the outside of a studio run system. He returned to commercials and music videos where his career had begun. All the while, Kaye was allocating his profits into a self-financed documentary project that would take well over a decade to complete. With Lake of Fire, Kaye charges head-on towards one of the most difficult topics of social consequence facing this nation, a woman’s right to choose. Throughout the film, Kaye manages to stay unbelievably unswayed and focuses his efforts on trying to understand what is shaping the argument on both sides. The film is exceptionally hard; there is no question about that. It is also exceptionally important. Kaye did an admirable thing and it’s up to us, the viewer to face it.

Here is an interview with Tony Kaye in which he discusses his experience with Lake of Fire.

(interview continued from part 1)



Though SGF is located in LA and the roster of directors are all American, a great deal of the productions are for UK based artists and labels. How did this come to be?

When we first started the company Paul and I went to London to meet with labels and to look for a partner company or a rep. We met Alexa Haywood who was one of the first independent reps in the UK. She was repping FM Rocks, Stink. Another story that cracks me up - just before I went to London, I called Craig Fanning at FM Rocks to see if he would recommend Alexa. He basically told me that the UK market is a money pit and not to bother, again, cut to … 

Alexa is an amazing rep, she helped me build my company from nothing. Our first video was for a band named, The Glitterati. After that one British job followed the next, before we knew it we were big in Britain. For the first few years we were basically a UK music video production company in Los Angeles. USA / UK video markets are pretty different, it was difficult to crossover to American videos with UK bands on the reels. There were certain videos that we did that have worked well in both markets and we’ve used those over the years to make the transition. I’m really pleased now with the spread we have in both markets, I can’t imagine relying on just one. 

Is it a viable expectation for a director to make videos for a living?

Well, I guess that depends on how you want your DVD retrospective to look. It’s near impossible to make a living if your not willing to bend to market pressures every once in awhile. There are a handful of directors out there that can do less than hip, big budget acts and still bring some level of sophistication and artistic integrity to the project. I think Paul and Charles have been pretty successful walking that line. I would say that if your goal is to get into commercials you shouldn’t expect to make a living in videos first. With a few exceptions, I think career music video directors have a much harder time getting into commercials. To give you a better idea - I have one director out of five that makes his living off videos. 

Do you currently have any plans for feature film work or any other creative endeavors in the pipeline?

Sure, I’m actually developing a feature comedy about daytime TV actors. I’ll keep ya updated.

What projects are you most proud of and why?

I’m notoriously critical of the work that comes out of SGF. It’s really hard to make a great video, I can only count on a single hand the videos we’ve done that I think measure up. I’ve always been proud of Charles’ Duncan James video. That was a super cheesy song / artist (no offense Virgin) that was made into something much greater by the video.  Josh & Xander’s Jakob Dylan video was definitely a highlight last year. Paul’s first FFAF and Skye videos have always been dear to my heart. I was proud of Vince’s Editors video and Keith’s video for BPA wasn’t too shabby either. I have been fortunate to work with such amazing directors,  beats the hell out of rolling burritos. 

 

 

Some people were born to do very practical things like solve mathematical equations or to put out fires and enforce the law. And then there are the others, the right brained folk. This is an on-going series of interviews with people who have chosen to spend their lives creating.

JASON BOTKIN is the founder and Executive Producer of Streetgang Films, a premier music video production company that has produced work for celebrated artists ranging from Muse and Queens of the Stone Age to Jakob Dylan and Editors . He has been kind enough to take the time to discuss the business of making music promos with me as the first subject of the Creator Series.



Can you tell us a little bit about your background as a filmmaker and how you came to eventually open SGF?

Without going too far back I went to film school at Cal State Long Beach, with a concentration on directing. My senior film was in a few festivals including the Maryland Film Festival. Right after I graduated, I was offered the chance to partner with a good friend on a successful chain of Mexican restaurants in Seattle. It was just a two year commitment and I had some sizable student loans to take care of so I agreed to do it. I really enjoyed running my own business so when I returned to Los Angeles, I decided that I wanted to open up my own production company. I was attracted to the business model of commercial production - quick turnarounds on production, low office overhead and freelance labor. I got an office PA position with a commercial company named Cucoloris Films in Venice Beach. I quickly became head of production, working directly under stalwart executive producers, Linda Stewart and Bernie Wesson. After 4 years I moved out on my own and started Streetgang Films. Paul Minor was the first director, we both graduated from the same class at CSULB and had already done two videos together. It’s funny looking back at that time. I remember asking Paul just before we decided to quit our jobs if he wanted to do commercials or music videos, cut to…

How long has the company been around and what has changed since it’s inception?

The company started in 2003. The first few years were a wild ride for sure. Coming from a directing background I tended to EP more for the art and less for the business. We were eager to build the reels and to get noticed by commissioners. I don’t think we made our fees on a single job for the first year. I tried to keep my overhead low by doing all the office / accounting / vault work myself in my living room. We certainly had some rough spots, but somehow we always managed to squeak by. Eventually, it just started getting easier. I think production is really about longevity, it’s about being around long enough to prove to everyone that you’ve learned your lessons. We eventually passed a threshold a couple of years ago where the business was sustainable. Once I was able to secure the business financially it enabled me to find that balance as an executive producer between art & commerce. An EP from another company told me last year that my roster is known in the industry as a group of artists. As we were talking about money, he didn’t intend that as a compliment. I certainly could be rolling deeper but I’m proud that I’ve kept the doors open without the support of a commercial division while maintaining that kind brand identity.

How has the music video industry changed since you’ve been involved with it and where do you see it going?

Streetgang started in the salad days of music videos. I’ve never known the gilded age that everyone talks about. My whole business plan was about being a smaller, scrappier company that can survive in this type of environment. Admittedly, I have said a few times that things can’t get any worse, only to find that they most certainly can. However, I do think we’ve found a nice market niche. Most of my directors are influenced heavily by feature work so there is always an emphasis on production value regardless of the budget. I think there will always be a place for that type of work as there are artists that simply can’t be done on the cheap. I am learning however that there is more to life than lens flares. Keith Schofield is a director that is much more idea driven and I think he rounds out the roster nicely. Where do I see the industry going? It can’t get any worse than this, happy days are coming! 

How has the internet changed the way music videos are made?

As far as I’m concerned, it hasn’t changed much of anything. Label briefs have always asked for conceptual ideas that create “water cooler moments” while making sure that their artist looks great. We’re still filmmakers in the end, it doesn’t matter if it’s on your TV, internet, phone or Sundance - it still has to be cool.


(continued…)