Since its inception in 2013, the Prism Prize has aimed to do for Canadian music videos what the Polaris Prize does for Canadian albums: celebrate them as distinct artistic media, distinct from all the bullshit exterior factors of genre, view counts, and label affiliation. In doing so, they've put the spotlight on the creative people in the music industry who rarely get their own shine: music video directors. And so we've followed their lead, gathering roundtables of Canadian directors to dissect what makes a great music video and then what makes a great animated music video.
This year, with some (okay, a lot) of wrangling help from Damien Nelson at Flip Publicity, we managed to get behind-the-scenes stories from all 10 directors on this year's Prism Prize shortlist. Did you know Harrison's all-text message video required walking around Montreal with a teen couple snapping selfies? Or that Drake went specifically to Director X for "Hotline Bling" because of his love for Sean Paul? Do you know how hard it is to track down fifty fonts from album covers from 30 years ago? Read on and soon you will.
This Sunday, May 15, the Prism Prize Screening and Awards Presentation at TIFF Bell Lightbox will include a screening of the Top Ten videos, and one of these 10 videos will be crowned the best Canadian music video of the year.
A Tribe Called Red, "Suplex"
Jon Riera: The concept for "Suplex" came about when we had a detailed meeting with A Tribe Called Red over some breakfast. We had already thought of the premise, based on the title, and their love for wrestling. Bear, a member in the group, explained to us about the first time his uncle ever took him to the big smoke to see his first wrestling match in New York City.
The intro scene in the video is basically that story. We wanted to show how there could be First Nations superheroes in mainstream sports and entertainment. Not just someone "who plays one on TV".
I'm big into narrative videos and the way that we decided to shoot this one I found pretty interesting, on a technical level. We shot the whole video on one lens. It was a really nice way for me to hone in, along side my starbwoy cinematographer, Fraser Brown, and just tell the story, without presenting too many different options, frame size wise.
On another level it was incredible to see the reach that A Tribe Called Red had over our time shooting. The amount of volunteers and extras that we received simply because it was for this group was quite beautiful. Some people were driving across the province to just be in the video.
We'd also like to shout of Arnie General, from Six Nations, who's the old man in the last shot (my favourite shot) in the video. We've learned that he recently passed away. I have fond memories of him on set that day. Thanks for helping us celebrate this video.
Kevan Funk: I was a fan of BRAIDS long before I was a creative collaborator of theirs. I had reached out to them during their previous album cycle (Flourish // Perish) and nothing panned out at that point. They got back in touch with me a couple years later, quite out of the blue, asking about my interest in working on a video for "Miniskirt." They'd already had discussions with a few other directors about a video for the song but couldn't settle on a concept.
It was a bit of a unique dynamic for me, as I'm used to pitching an idea to an artist and then just running with it without much further interaction. But the process was very collaborative and considered. All three members of the band are very firm in their creative convictions and so there was this very strong, healthy discussion about what exactly the video should be.
I was extremely drawn to the project because of the content of the song and the band's willingness to take a more conceptual approach to the treatment of the video. All of my narrative film work is anchored by some kind of sociopolitical interest, so there was a natural attraction for me to this song in terms of where it came from and what it had to say. The track resonated with me in an incredibly powerful way. It has a dynamic and devastating power as this feminist anthem of sorts, which is something that I think can be, and should be, transcendent of gender in terms of its impact. But beyond that, there was this intangible element of personal courage and vulnerability that seemed so present in the song.
All these elements lead to a huge amount of excitement and energy to try and make a video that properly complimented the song. That enthusiasm definitely carried us through because resources were extremely limited on this project. And in the end (as a small aside) the video came within a minor miracle of never seeing the light of day at all, having gotten both master and back-up hard drives lost on New York City Transit for 36 hours...
Death From Above 1979, "Virgins"
Eva Michon: “Virgins” is a song I knew I loved from the moment I first heard it. I have a tendency to bully projects into fruition, and I believe there may not have been a video for this song if I hadn’t pressured the band, whom I know personally, to make it their next single. I had an idea that there should be a crazy party at the heart of this video, and marrying that with the “virgin” concept meant setting it in an Amish community during Rumspringa. My producers and I spent weeks casting and finding the perfect location, which in the end was a “fat camp” / goat farm in southern California. We shot over the course of one weekend, and it was my first time milking a goat.
(Check out the video with commentary at IMVDB)
Drake, "Hotline Bling"
Director X: Drake normally has a lot of his own ideas, things that he wants to do. This time [his team] said "we don't have an idea, we want you to come up with one, but we love your performance videos." They loved my Sean Paul era stuff, like "Gimme The Light" and those performance videos. They said "come up with something". So I sat there and just kind of mulled it over and came up with this lighting, mood piece.
Me and Drake have a good working relationship. He's dedicated to making something great or something he feels good about. It just makes sense. Creatively, we work together.
I thought people would like it and that definitely in the world of hip-hop people would call it a classic, but I never ever thought that it would be, you know, parodied on Saturday Night Live. That's a whole other experience.
[The way it's received], that's all out of my hands. I'm just going in to do a project. I just do what I do. What happens after it's released and the platforms that it can now be seen on and manipulated and all of those things, that's a whole other discussion. And it's amazing, but that's not my end of the game.
It's been a long time doing this thing, so it feels really great to get that recognition [of the Prism Prize Special Achievement Award]. [Representing Canada] is not necessarily what I set out to do [when I work with Drake]. That happens. You draw from your experience. I tell people 'no one in Toronto can say nothing to me, I got the exterior of The Real Jerk as the very first shot of Rihanna's video. You know what I mean? I got Toronto Parks and Rec [in "Started From The Bottom"]. So it's great when you can do a little hometown pride, you know?
The Elwins, "So Down Low"
Alan Poon: The Elwins had seen some of my past work for Zeus and Broken Social Scene and asked me if I could help them make a stop-motion animated video that used Post-It notes - that was their only guideline!
They were super-keen on participating and they had done a little stop-motion piece before, so I was happy to get them involved and create something with their participation as much as possible. The video starts simple and gradually moves to something much more complicated; each moment raising the bar on the last. The huge grid you see at the end uses over one-thousand Post-it notes to create the final animations!
I enlisted the help of some close collaborators: Stop-motion animator Evan DeRushie, Technical guru Phillip Eddolls, and Doodle superstar Martin MacPherson. We all put our heads together and made the video over the course of several weeks. The band was great to work with and came up with many of their own ideas and even performed in the video using a stop-motion technique called “pixilation” whereby we animate them frame-by-frame to make them slide across the floor and other fun but impossible moves.
It was a really special video to work on and I think the results reflect the band’s energy and enthusiasm for creating all things with a fun and unique quality to them.
Fast Romantics, "Julia"
Matthew Angus: I hadn’t made a ton of music videos. I’m actually just the singer of the band. We didn’t have any funding, but we needed a video. So I went DIY. It was really a lot of experimentation.
The idea came first - to inject us into a famous movie scene - so I set out to find a film that was out of copyright. After digging, turns out some poor, likely-fired schmuck at MGM forgot to renew the copyright on Royal Wedding in the '70s, and we had ourselves a movie.
Then, it was a whole lot of “how the hell?” A lot of trial runs and reverse-engineering. I had a few close friends in the film biz help with some technical aspects of the shoot itself, and then I chained myself to a laptop and figured out how to do it. It took an embarrassing amount of time. I was finally convinced by a pal that it was good enough and that I should probably let it go, and I took back my social life. I’d stared at Fred Astaire for so long at that point, I swore I’d never watch it again.
Grimes, "Flesh Without Blood"
Grimes tells Fuse about the four characters in "Flesh Without Blood":
Maxime Lamontagne: At first, it was not my intention to make the whole music video as a text messages conversation in full screen. The idea came to me because the sounds at the beginning of the song made me think of incoming text messages, but it was only the beginning of the music video that was supposed to be that way. As I was writing the script, I realized that not only I had enough material to sustain the whole music video but also that it would be more efficient to tell the story that way.
I was tempted at first to use lots of different interactions. For example, the girl goes on Facebook, then writes an email, but I decided instead to stay simple and write a straightforward story. My challenge was to maintain the audience attention by keeping them emotionally involved, instead of using only visual stimuli. It was a long and difficult process, especially in order to be in tune with the rhythm of the song. But once we had the final script, the production process was pretty easy, mostly because of my amazing motion designer Daravong Thongsavath. The only “shooting” per se was the photo shoot for the icon of both characters and for the picture the guy sends at the end of the music video, as a reminder of their past memories.
We walked in Montreal a whole afternoon, with a real couple of teenagers and we created fake selfies of them in love. It was a fun shooting, but a bit strange also.
My intention with this concept was to testify how the modern relationships are intrinsically linked to SMS, for better and for worse. The line "Drifting apart, no place to hide" was the spark for me, because there’s still one way to hide from a breakup: behind our phone screen. More than ever, people are connected with the help of technology, especially with mobile phones. Text messages become a new tool to communicate efficiently but also a new way to express feelings. They offer a distance that allows us to say things that we would never say to someone’s face; words are ruthless!
Harrison and Maddee helped me with the different expressions and abbreviations in order to make the dialogues more believable for a younger audience, who are used to this kind of text message slang. I thought it would be interesting to create a music video that speaks to them in a way they’re used to on a day-to-day basis. Plus, most of the younger generation are watching their music videos on their cellular phone anyway, so instead of trying to tell them to watch this music video on a bigger screen, I wanted to find a way to make the most out of the phone screen and that’s how the idea of the 9:16 ratio came along. I will not necessarily do all my future projects with this ratio, but I definitely think we are going to see more and more vertical video.
Kalle Matson, "Avalanche"
Philip Sportel: We originally had two ideas. One was to have Kalle Mattson's hair play musical instruments and the other was to recreate a bunch of album covers. Thankfully we picked the album cover idea, because all the instruments in the song had changed by the time the video came out.
We narrowed the album covers down to about fifty of Kalle's favourites, then I picked out all the albums that we could recreate live, then I narrowed it down even further to thirty-five album covers that worked well in sequence.
I broke the song into short clips and we shot on a single 48 foot stretch of dolly track. I planned it so we would build and light at one end of the dolly track while we shot at the other. I overlaid my voice counting down on three dozen short clips of the song to make sure each shot fit with the right part of the song. For the whole shoot, there was the exact same recording of my voice counting "five, four, three, two, one, go!", then "five, four, three, two, one, stop!" over every take. It was kind of embarrassing, but very organized.
The whole video was done in a seventeen hour shoot. Careful planning gave all the clips a home on the editing timeline and editing went quickly. We ended up with at least fifty unique color grades in the video, about half outside the album frames and half inside. Every bit of text you see is an exact match to the original album. I spent hours chopping and warping single letters to get 'Avalanche' to appear over and over in obscure fonts from thirty years ago.
In the end, it fit together like a puzzle. With such a clear plan from the start, making this video was more a drag race than an obstacle course.
Monogrenade, "Le Fantôme"
Kristof Brandl: Christophe Collette (DP) on the Monogrenade video is the brother of a Monogrenade band member. Christophe ask me to direct his brother's music video and they gave me Carte Blanche to create whatever I wanted. When I heard this super cool atmospheric track I remember that I wanted to create a music video happening in a futuristic spaceship. When I told the producer my spaceship idea they had to bring me back to earth because the budget wouldn't allow it... 15k CND...
I finally came up with this simple idea of a guy injecting drugs to bring back old memories. I wanted the video to be very abstract and loose. So we found a very cool house in Montreal where we shot the whole film in two days. We were lucky enough that Christophe Collette had shot big movies so he could bring his crew to do all the rigging for us. Thanks to them! Regarding the VFX we were also lucky enough to work with Shed (post house) in Montreal to do them all for free. Thanks to them for believing in our project.
In the beginning the music video was meant to be for another song of the band. I was really obsessed with this Fantôme track so without telling anyone I decided to edit on that track.. The images were working so well on the track that for me it was impossible to go back to the original track. Before showing it to them I prayed to god they would want to release it my way... And they finally did. Wohoo!