Visual Notes: Part 1 of a two-part series
Issue: Volume: 27 Issue: 8 (August 2004)

Visual Notes: Part 1 of a two-part series

The sound, and look, of music changed forever in the 1960s when British bands started the pop-music revolution and, unwittingly, jump-started the music video craze. Initially, groups such as The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Procol Harum, and others created films to promote new releases, especially for locations where they weren't touring. But it was the band Queen that set the stage for the first true music video in 1975 when it used videotape instead of film to accompany the song Bohemian Rhapsody and, exploiting the more economical and creative-friendly format, introduced a conceptual rather than concert-like style containing effects created in camera. The video, which aired on the UK's Top of the Pops broadcast program in lieu of a live performance because of the song's complex layering of vocals, received repeated airtime, and helped catapult album sales.

US musicians took notice of the video's success, but without a similar available outlet, few bothered to jump on the music video bandwagon—that is, until MTV hit the airwaves. Seemingly overnight, bands not only had to focus on creating beautiful music, but also on beautiful images to enhance the music. With no clear standard to emulate, musicians and producers were free to create—and innovate. A few years later, some performers, including Michael Jackson, expanded the music video format by creating videos that resembled short films, like the one for Jackson's hit Thriller. Still trying to strike a new chord in the medium, musicians such as Madonna followed with controversial videos that concentrated on "shock value" rather than creative style.

Further eroding creativity was the sheer number of music videos that performers were producing. What once started as an artistic statement, a visual interpretation of a song, became little more than a requisite advertisement for a record or an album. As a result, a number of bands have taken a mass-production approach to their music videos by using inexpensive shots of the group performing a song.

Yet, there are some who have continued to innovative within the medium, most recently through the inventive application of digital effects, whether to create a unique style or to advance a song's story line.

The first part of this series examines how leading-edge effects houses are reinventing the medium with original and elaborate CG-driven projects that are music for the eyes as well as the ears. Next month, Part II will show how some vanguard studios are pushing the traditional definition of music videos into other realms—perhaps creating the next music video evolution.

On August 1, 1981, music was reborn when the fledgling cable broadcast station Music Television (MTV) began playing music videos around the clock, augmenting the auditory experience with a visual one. When MTV kicked off what eventually became a momentous event in music history, its playlist was limited because bands, until this time, had little, if any, reason to make videos. So the station chose the song Video Killed the Radio Star from the disbanded Buggles as its inaugural selection.

Today, that title couldn't ring less true, as nearly every recording artist—from struggling newcomer to veteran with an armful of Grammys—creates an accompanying music video right after cutting a potential hit song. And leading them from the recording studio to the production studio are the record-label executives, who recognize the value of the medium for generating album sales. "A music video, after all, is an advertisement for a band, and it's one of the group's biggest marketing tools," says Ken Locsmandi, visual effects supervisor at FilmworksFX, which recently finished 116 effects shots for Key To Arson's One Last Night video, with Locsmandi directing.

Aside from the obvious commercial aspect, the medium also allows musicians to "explain" their songs. "Music and storytelling fit so well together, and they always have," says director and digital artist Kevin Carrico, whose Skylight Digital Images facility recently created what he calls a "musically based short film" for Robb Roy's What If. "Your ears will lead you to an understanding that a thing exists, but your eyes will make you feel and believe that it actually does. The visuals can provide an extended level to the music."

Helping audiences "visualize" an artist's music are postproduction houses, hired by the director of the video. Often, the two will forge a close working relationship and collaborate on a number of projects, as is the case with Riot and director Dave Meyers. One of their projects was for the Ludacris video Stand Up (which recently won a Music Video Production Association award for best effects), followed by a number of others, including an effects-heavy project for Dilated Peoples' This Way video. Another successful pair is Kroma and director Joseph Kahn, who created unique music videos for Britney Spears's Toxic, the Chemical Brothers' Get Yourself High, and Ricky Martin's Juramento. (See the accompanying sidebars for the visual high notes of these and other recent cutting-edge music videos.)

"Joseph Kahn is constantly testing new effects and pushing limits in music videos," says Bert Yukich, visual effects supervisor at Kroma. "He's always trying to come up with something that hasn't been done before, and it's our job to figure out how to accomplish those things in the most efficient and effective way possible."
A successful music video, like a song, must rock audiences. So for One Last Night, artists created a surreal digital set (right) for Key To Arson by adding CG to plain greenscreen shots of the band (left).

While some facilities have been producing music videos for several years, others are fairly new to the space, having added them to their commercial and episodic television projects during the past few years. Conversely, at some effects and .production houses, including Moneyshots, music video projects exceed broadcast work. Because the equipment, tasks, and approach are similar, studios can transition between the two types of work easily. Generally, both require similar composition, lighting, and form, and entail a tremendous amount of 2D and 3D compositing, in particular, adding special effects and digital imagery to live-action scenes. But unlike episodic TV, commercials and music videos are shorter in length and require effects artists to perfect almost every frame, notes Jason Fotter, lead artist at Encore Hollywood, which completed a number of recent music videos, including Limp Bizkit's Behind Blue Eyes.

While the work may be more similar than disparate, there are some significant differences between commercial and music video projects. Commercials, which run 30 to 60 seconds, are far shorter than their 3- to 5-minute video counterparts. And whereas a fast-paced 30-second commercial may have 30 shots, a video will have between 300 and 400 shots, and a good portion of them can include effects, notes Kevin Fanning, effects supervisor at Shooters Post & Transfer, makers of Wyclef Jean's Industry video. As a result, he says, videos tend to have a lot more edits, effects shots, imagery, and locations that, like shorter works, must follow a theme.

While videos may be longer than commercials, they require a faster turnaround. A large commercial project can run four to five months, whereas a large music video project will have a two- to three-week deadline, and an average-size video will require a week or less, though many studios report having just a single day to complete some work. "It all depends on what the record-label executives are trying to do. They may want to time the video release to the release of a single on the radio or on the Internet, or coordinate the video with the release of an album or a movie, if it's a sound-track video," says Les Umberger, visual effects supervisor and artist at Riot. "Record-label execs make decisions quickly, and they want [a product] just as fast."

Despite the record pace and required work, music videos carry a relatively low price tag compared to the more lucrative commercials. Although some big-budget videos, such as Britney Spears's Toxic, can cost upward of $1.5 million, most fall into the $300,000 range. And there are the "one take, no edit" projects that run only a few thousand dollars.

As a whole, music video budgets have declined by one-half to one-third in recent years. "Yet directors continue to write treatments that involve inventive storytelling techniques and complex visual effects," says Chris Eckardt, lead artist at Moneyshots. "On the post side, we're constantly challenged to deliver new and innovative looks in less time for less money." The reason budgets are shrinking, he speculates, is because of alternate distribution methods such as the Internet, which cannot support the lavish budgets of the once-novel medium. Even MTV, he points out, is increasingly replacing music videos with reality-based shows and other programs, and this is reflected in a project's bottom line.

For 99 Problems from rapper Jay-Z, Encore digitally enhanced the video's black-and-white imagery, giving it a gritty look reflective of the emotionally charged scenes.

Despite those obstacles, music video production is not slowing down. One reason is because the videos are finding alternative airtime, either on other music video stations or on the Internet. "We're now facing double deadlines," says Eckardt, "AOL one day and MTV the next."

With nearly impossible deadlines and little return on investment, why do postproduction houses readily accept these projects? One reason is the creative license that a client is willing to offer. Indeed, a large portion of the postproduction process typically involves "beauty work" to show musicians—most often female performers—in the best possible light. But when money is not an overwhelming factor, clients tend to give studios more creative freedom because having a specific number of band shots and close-ups becomes less of an issue. This, in turns, allows the studio to use a narrative format, for instance.

According to Riot's Umberger, music videos generally pose no creative boundaries for his group. "You receive a treatment from the director that is sort of explicit, but when you get into the effects, it's up to the artists and their imaginations to decide how far to take the concept," he says. "Unlike commercials, which are conservative, subtle, and have a specific targeted message, music videos are open doors, allowing the artists to get as crazy and abstract as they want. As long as it's cool, it's totally acceptable."

FilmworksFX's Locsmandi concurs, noting that another factor contributing to this artistic freedom is the "mystery" of computer graphics. "Many directors and producers realize that CG is powerful, but most don't understand the minute details of the technology," he notes. "CG is still black magic to many people, so they just let the artists do what they do—make cool images."

In addition to independence, music videos also offer post houses an opportunity to test new tools and techniques. "If there is an idea I've been toying around with, if there is a new way of doing something, or if I have a new plug-in, music videos make the perfect testing ground," says Riot's Umberger. "Artists want to be the first to do something. So if you can come up with something that's never been seen before, everyone seems to go crazy over it."

When time is limited, though, artists often must revert to more tried-and-true techniques, but that doesn't mean that serendipity cannot be achieved. "Deadlines have to be met," maintains FilmworksFX's Locsmandi. "Yet, there's a wrong way to do something, and that's to do it slowly and without using aesthetics."

Fortunately, with more sophisticated tools and technology now available, studios are able to offer compelling and photorealistic images faster and cheaper than ever. Ten years ago, $100,000 would have gotten you about 10 CG shots, says Kroma's Yukich, whereas today you can get an entire video done [in CG] for that price.

However, more doesn't necessarily mean better. According to Skylight's Carrico, the earliest music videos were highly experimental; there were no rules, so anything went. Today, however, music videos as a collective whole have lost that early appeal, he contends, and cinematic independence has been replaced by projects that are "copycatted, rubber-stamped, or derivative."

One reason for this, according to FilmworksFX's Locsmandi, is the economic decline in the music industry. "Even with all the new technologies, music videos have become less creative," he says. "Directors are trying to shoot with what little money they have available, and post work is expensive." As a result, music videos have become a mixed bag because the record labels want more of everything but want to pay less for it. So you have to do innovative things that are cost-effective and visually stimulating, he adds.

After enjoying a spot at the top of the entertainment chart for more than two decades, music videos are no longer the novelty they once were. Still, they continue to proliferate, and with good reason: The fans enjoy them, and the bands reap valuable advertising from them. And while some musicians opt for the unexciting "plug-and-play" performances, as Encore's Fotter calls them, there are those who are continuing to find new and inventive ways of visualizing music through the use of cutting-edge digital tools and techniques that enable them to turn up the creative volume.

"Creativity is crucial, no matter whether you are shooting a video in camera or doing it all in post using special effects," says Fanning of Shooters. "The end result can be spectacular as long as there is something interesting."

Eckardt of Moneyshots concurs, pointing out that on a recent trip to Asia and Europe, he had tuned in to local music video stations and found that despite having tight budgets, the videos were very imaginative, with strong narratives, beautiful cinematography, and digital imagery that complemented a particular concept. "The producers seemed to step out on a limb, and inventive things were happening within the videos," he says.

Busta Rhymes's Shorty video soared after Moneyshots added spatial perspective to the footage shot from inside an airplane by integrating CG scenes.

And for the most part, these inventive moments are occurring within postproduction. "Post coupled with CG is the last frontier for music videos," Locsmandi states. This is evident in a number of projects by Kroma and others that promote the medium's creative and wild sides. Among these are cinematic videos, such as Britney Spears's Toxic, that focus on storytelling. Although these videos tend to be more expensive, they are usually better received by audiences, claims Riot's Umberger. "If people feel like they get lost in the video and in the song, and it's a great dramatic or comedic moment, then the public latches onto that," he says.

Video hasn't killed the radio star. But to make music videos the gold hits they once were, all the artists—the performers, the directors, and the digital content creators—must continue pushing the creative boundary in order to hit a high note with audiences.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior technical editor for Computer Graphics World.

For Wyclef Jean's Industry video, Shooters Post & Transfer replicated a complex technique from the feature-film industry to create a realistic moving background for the outside of a cab in which the former Fugees front man is riding.

The video, which was supposed to be shot on location in New York City, was instead shot on a greenscreen set due to logistics and weather-related issues. As a result, Shooters was charged with compositing moving street-scene film footage outside the car's windows, similar to the technique used in the movie Road to Perdition. The group accomplished this complicated effect using Discreet's Flame and Fire, and Adobe's After Effects. To make the scenes look more natural, the group also added realistic shadows and reflections to the windows and glass divider separating the front of the car from the back. Color correction was done using a Da Vinci 2K Plus system.

In the intoxicating, effects-heavy Toxic video, pop star Britney Spears assumes the role of a femme fatale, performing super-spy activities thanks to the challenging "undercover" work by Kroma, which used a wide range of sophisticated digital imagery for nearly every scene in the action-packed, story-driven video.

Among the characters Spears plays are a sexy blonde stewardess, a red-haired spy, and a black-maned superhero. Yet some roles that she didn't have to assume were for a number of intense scenes, including one that called for the singer to race through Paris streets on the back of a motorcycle driven by model Tyson Beckford. Instead, a team at Kroma created a photorealistic digital double of the singer and of Beckford, which were built, animated, and textured using Softimage|XSI, and composited into the live action using an Avid DS Nitris system.

In addition, the artists built a virtual Paris and London, which were constructed from 2D drawings. Though they contain recognizable landmarks, the locales were given a futuristic cast through the addition of colorful CG neon signage and other accents. The artists later integrated the real actors into the digital environments by gathering HDRI lighting information from the live-action shoot and from scenes they filmed in downtown Los Angeles at night. They then used the information to apply natural urban lighting to the 3D street scenes.

For Behind Blue Eyes, a music video from Limp Bizkit, Encore Hollywood decided to break with traditional technology by using high definition rather than the usual standard-definition format, allowing the group to reach a higher octave with the sharper-focused imagery. In turn, the cutting-edge video required a substantial commitment from Encore, whose color correction, visual effects production, and post work had to be flawless in the "unforgiving" format, which is being pushed hard by certain networks, though not by MTV at this time.

In the video to the song, which is featured on the sound track for the film Gothica, actress Halle Berry and Limp Bizkit's front man Fred Durst share a 45-second kiss that ends with the pair having exchanged identities. The scene opens with Durst and Berry in a dream-like setting where they appear engulfed in a thick, white mist. The two were filmed against greenscreen lip-syncing the lyrics of the song. Encore later composited the couple into the synthetic environment of artificial haze using Eyeon Software's Digital Fusion.

The artists then had to ensure that the greenscreen elements blended into the ethereal environment. This required the imagery to undergo an elaborate color-correction process so that the couple's skin tones reflected the white environment. Complicating this task was the disparity in Berry's and Durst's skin tones, a challenge that required the artists to use multiple windows to color each person separately. This enabled the Encore group to achieve a silvery, metallic look while keeping the skin tones intact.

Complementing the song and the overall graphic style of the video was a soft, pale-blue glow, added by the artists in postproduction.

The complexity of the digital imagery used in Nelly Furtado's Powerless (Say What You Want) video is masked by its understated presentation. Yet the imagery proved essential in providing a unique visual reference to depict the classic psychological metaphor on which the song is based: the singer trapped in a box from which she tries to escape. Inside, the box is plastered with digitally crafted posters that act as doors or windows to the singer's imagination.

The video was shot on a greenscreen set with a large crate prop. To create the approximately 25 posters, Moneyshots designed the elements in 2D using Adobe's Photoshop and Illustrator. To build the digital crate environment for the posters, the artists used the 3D capabilities within Discreet's Flame. Later, the team rotoscoped the actual box prop from the scene using Discreet's Combustion and Flame.

Riot artists had their work cut out for them when creating an imaginative, larger-than-life scenario using a range of digital and practical imagery—including traditional cel animation, 3D computer graphics, matte paintings, and in-camera effects—for Ludacris's Stand Up video in which the rapper appears in a number of strange guises, including that of a dancing baby boy.

Receiving a Music Video Production Association award recently, the video features diverse, stylized visuals—oversized LPs, beer bottles, pieces of fried chicken, and more—blended into a bizarre array of scenes reflective of the performer's own wild and eccentric style. Through the use of digital wizardry, Ludacris himself appears in even stranger forms, including one in the final scene where he is sporting a 5-foot-tall Afro.

The team also generated a lengthy animated digital sequence that is used halfway through the video in which stylized images of Ludacris and others appear over a series of pop-art backgrounds. To achieve this result, the artists shot Ludacris and the other performers against greenscreen, and then imported the images into Discreet's Flame. Within that program, they grabbed colors from the clothing and turned them into solid geometric shapes so that the images became flat and simplified, thereby resembling primitive animated characters. The backgrounds, meanwhile, were created as digital matte paintings. Last, the elements were composited in 3D space, giving the animation depth of field. The group further enhanced the animated look by altering the frame rate of the sequence.

The group created the baby Ludacris by employing a compositing technique within Discreet's Inferno, in which the rapper and the baby were filmed separately against greenscreen, with a green-clad stagehand holding the baby and making him appear to dance. Then, Riot shrunk Ludacris's head to fit the baby's body, and digitally altered his neck to resemble the thickness of an infant's neck.

In a unique visual approach, Kroma used a complex, inventive digital remix process to integrate 3D imagery into live-action footage gleaned from a 1978 martial arts film for the Chemical Brothers' hip-hop Get Yourself High video. So in addition to wielding swords and knives, as they did in the original film, the actors are now handling vinyl records, microphones, and headphones while they appear to be singing the lyrics of the song.

To accomplish this scenario, Kroma first motion-captured an actor singing the song, which allowed the artists to record the lip, jaw, and cheek movements. They then applied the resulting data to a CG head crafted in Softimage|XSI that they textured, modified, and blended into various scenes. For other shots, the artists were able to use CG mouth replacements, which they composited onto the live actors in the original film footage. In all, the team generated nearly 60 jaw replacements, which were morphed into the altered scenes with Avid's Elastic Reality.

To augment these shots, the artists modeled a number of 3D objects, which they added to the footage using an Avid DS Nitris. To replicate the degraded look of their poor-quality copy of the movie, the artists employed approximately 50 filters so that the CG appeared to be a natural part of the film.

The complexity of the effects in OutKast's Hey Ya! video is deceiving, but the creative work didn't go unnoticed, as it landed Moneyshots a Visual Effects Society nomination and a Grammy nod.

"The director wanted a smooth, seamless presentation of [vocalist] Andre 3000 appearing as various band members, wearing different clothing and playing different instruments," says Elad Offer, creative director at Moneyshots. "The characters had to mirror one another in terms of Andre's stylized movements and appearance, yet provide the illusion they were different people."

To accomplish the desired effect, the group filmed the singer eight times on a real set, rather than against greenscreen, so he would retain his energy and synergy throughout the performance. During each shoot, Andre 3000 donned various costumes and ran through the song as a specific character, from lead singer to backup singer to bassist to keyboard player and more. In post, the team rotoscoped him from each sequence using Discreet's Combustion, then the artists tracked the image into the final live environment using Discreet's Flame.

Da Vinci
Eyeon Software