This Sunday, March 23, the second annual Prism Prize will be announced for best Canadian music video of the year, chosen, like its big brother Polaris, "based on artistic merit." The 90+ jury of industry pros and music journalists were given a set of criteria - originality, creativity, style, innovation and effective execution - and used it to select a shortlist of ten videos. Watch and read about all of them here.
We gathered the eight Canadian nominated directors (Emily Kai Bock is nominated twice, and Anton Corbijn is Dutch) with a similar objective in mind: to lend a platform to an otherwise overlooked medium. There's been plenty of ink spilled about film directors' processes, but not nearly as much on music video directors, even as directors like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry have proven the next auteur might be lurking in plain sight on MuchMusic (or more likely YouTube).
So we asked them to speak on all the benefits and issues involved with being a Canadian music video director: funding situations in Canada, grants, the art of collaboration, adapting to a unique, evolving medium, calling in favours, and much more. Read their collective wisdom below.
The video starts with the concept, and the concept starts with the song:
Director X (director: Drake, "Started From The Bottom): The concept was Drake's idea...I’ve been making concepts for music videos for well over a decade, almost two. So when someone comes to me and says "I have an idea," I can just go straight to execution. There’s no ego, there’s no "it’s my idea!" shit.
Lee Skinner (director: Jessy Lanza, "Kathy Lee"): The concept for "Kathy Lee" was primarily the vision of Jessy [Lanza] and Jeremy [Greenspan], who wrote and produced the album together. They approached me in April with the idea of a gritty video featuring Jed Lifeson ("the dancing guy") dancing around [Hamilton] as he does...
Che Kothari (director: Shad, "Fam Jam (Fe Sum Immigrins)"): G [Shad's manager Gaurav] and Shad hit us up wanting us to create a video that recreated the energy of one of those "fam jams" that us kids of immigrants all knew about and grew up going to.
...then the director takes over:
Lee Skinner: I believe Jess originally wanted it to be 100% Jed, but this changed as our concept took shape over preproduction. Instead, we planned to shoot scenes of Jessy performing in a heavily vandalized local band shell, which suited the look and feel of the video, but her face would always be either out of focus or just out of frame, thus making Jed truly the face of the video.
Director X: You’re the director, you’re there to make sure the whole things gets shot, it gets shot well, that it looks good, that you’re making the right decisions, you’re advising the creative...you’re a technical director, you’re a client liaison. You’re doing all these things at once, and thinking forward at the edit.
Get ready for a struggle:
Kheaven Lewandowski: It was such a challenge to make this video because of what we wanted to do, versus the amount of money we had to work with. We went through a series of false starts with a number of producers in Japan that all fell through because they told us there wasn’t enough money to do all we wanted. We spent several months simply corresponding with people trying to find a hungry enough producer to take on all these demanding requirements.
Emily Kai Bock (director: Majical Cloudz, "Childhood's End" and Arcade Fire, "Afterlife"): To be a music video director you have to be okay with the fact that, although you yourself are an artist, you are making a video that represents another artist. You essentially have a client, so you have to be alright with changing things, humbling yourself to make everyone happy while at the same time dealing with a cripplingly small budget. I really don't think people understand how much work goes into these things. Often the musician doesn't realize it either, which can make you feel pretty undervalued.
Sometimes your best network is the one you already have:
Emily Kai Bock: Devon [Welsh, Majical Cloudz lead singer] enlisted his dad to play the old man character.
Lee Skinner: My crew consists of a small but trusty group of colleagues. We graduated from the same film school, and some of us even lived together for a portion of that time.
Che Kothari: The most beautiful thing about the video in my opinion was that it truly was a fam jam. Shad’s mom, sisters, cousins and other family members came through and gruelled out a long day up until the final shots when even the extras had left.
It's in the details:
Kheaven Lewandowski: I liked the idea of taking these very universal themes, and injecting them into a niche character and subculture...I keep a little database of subjects I want to explore, and it’s thrilling when I get to collaborate with other artists that encourage really ambitious ideas.
Lee Skinner: For "Kathy Lee" I actually wanted to avoid showing skylines or landmarks (the bandshell being the only exception) to give the city an anonymous feel, almost as if Jed could turn up in anyone's city at any time. We deliberately chose areas that would show off an unapologetically gritty side of Hamilton, which was a nice compliment to the cold and minimal track.
Director X: Favourite moment in that video: I like the idea of what we had going on with the snow in the car. On a hip-hop level that’s great. White car, white outfits, snow...
Music video is a distinct medium, so treat it as one:
Marc Ricciardelli (director: Hollerado, "So It Goes"): I love music and film. Music videos can be short films .It's an opportunity to be creative without too many restrictions (sometimes). Hopefully the music inspires a great concept but mostly the idea is to try come up with something original.
Kheaven Lewandowski: What draws me to music videos is the fact that I get to grow and develop as a filmmaker while working on exciting short-term projects with enthusiastic and passionate musicians. It’s an expensive medium to get experience in, so if I can work with some of my favourite bands in creating visual companions for their work, then wow. Win-win.
Che Kothari: I try to create things to live on all platforms and reach as many people as possible, however understanding where we’re currently at with technology. I’m also extremely excited about connecting the music video platform to further technologies that can enhance the storytelling. Things are about to get crazy in the online rich media content world and I want to be all up in there.
Emily Kai Bock: It's funny, I think about seeing them on a large screen. I know that ultimately theywill live online, but I want them to be good enough for cinema. I think that is partially why I fight to shoot my work on 35mm, though the budget is tight (we shoot short ends). I want an unsurpassable image quality.
Director X: To make a video powerful in this day and age is not what it was, because you have to compel the audience to go look at it. Opposed to television, where someone just puts it on TV, you know you see it. There’s a lot of rules about what's going to be shown. Now [with the internet] it’s a wide open territory.
Bring the Canadian flavour:
Che Kothari: The Canadian flag backdrop was a reference to the American flag in the Jay Z and Kanye "Otis" video, as the "Fam Jam" track references that song in its line "Not bad, huh, for some immigrants." It came to my mind last minute and there was no budget or staff left to work on any of it. We had to paint the mural in the middle of the night before out shoot night, and went out there at like 3 in the morning and projected a huge flag with a battery pack connected to a projector.
Lee Skinner: We presented a version of Hamilton, disguised as its own stereotype, not only to a national stage, but internationally as well, due to Jessy being the newest addition to the acclaimed Hyperdub roster.
Mind the strengths and limitations of the Canadian industry:
Mark Ricciardelli: Challenges: budgets. Benefits: getting to shoot short films. Usually more freedom with indie labels.
Che Kothari: The least has been zero dollar budgets with me paying out of pocket to make a vision reality. Make something out of nothing. Get out of my way if you can’t make it happen, because I will.
Kheaven Lewandowski: We were awarded a MuchFACT grant for “River” and it was the only way we could have made this video. What we quickly learned was that the money we had wasn’t going to go as far as we’d hoped in Japan… I feel very grateful to be a director in Canada. There are plenty of opportunities for grants to fund music video projects. Not many other places in the world offer the same opportunities to hungry filmmakers and musicians. We are incredibly lucky in this country.
Emily Kai Bock: Canada has some great art grant funding programs. I haven't received a grant from them yet, but I hear a lot about this. Unfortunately, a lot of talent from Canada goes to the US or Europe to get success. There seems to be bigger acts and budgets in the states, but that doesn't mean the music is better. I try to avoid commercial music that isn't inspiring and is pretty impossible to make a good video for. I was blessed to fall into the music scene in Montreal, which fostered my career in video making, based on the rich talent there. Montreal is also very affordable place to live, so I was able to work a part-time job, while staying up all night editing.
And maybe you'll get a Prism Prize nod:
Lee Skinner: Right from when I first heard about it last year, I thought the Prism Prize was a fantastic initiative. I still believe people are doing great things with the music video format, and it's great to see them getting the recognition they deserve. Last year's shortlist was a really impressive selection of Canadian music videos by some great filmmakers, and also a snapshot of some of Canada's best musical exports. I'm honoured and beside myself to be among them this year!
Marc Ricciardelli: The Prism Prize is great. Recognizing the art and artists behind the scenes is always appreciated.
Kheaven Lewandowski: I think it’s great the Prism Prize exists. It’s comforting to know there’s a united body of intelligent and informed industry professionals trying to highlight this country’s best video work that isn’t predicated on popularity or view count, and rather on quality and innovation. Guess that works out for us videos with limited views!
Tips for aspiring directors:
Director X: I don’t know about this day and age, brother. My first instinct would be to get out there and shoot. If you've got the talent, you can be seen.
Che Kothari: As the godfather Maestro Fresh Wes says, "Stick to your vision."