Something seemed familiar the first time Marilyn Manson saw Radiohead’s “Karma Police” video. Actually, a lot of things.
It turned out director Jonathan Glazer had pitched him the same concept months earlier and he passed.
“Manson was like, ‘F— that,’ ” recalls Randy Sosin, who has worked with Manson on his videos for years. “But you know, a good idea is a good idea.”
In the somewhat limited field of video making, a good idea is golden. As the best ideas of the bunch are honored at next week’s 2004 MTV Video Music Awards, it’s worth remembering that the early development of a video — what happens between when a song is selected as a single and when the cameras start rolling — is just as important as (if not more important than) the actual filming.
Sure, making a video has all the free food, pranks, maybe even the “Making the Video” crew, but planning the video is where the heart and soul are put in place.
Videos come together in a variety of ways, but they almost always start with a meeting between the artist, their manager and what is called a video commissioner, the person at the record label who essentially coordinates videos.
“We determine what it is that we’re actually trying to accomplish with the video,” explained Sosin, a video commissioner at Interscope/Geffen/A&M. “Is there a specific group or target audience that we’re going for? Girls? Guys? Are we trying to make a hip-hop artist look street? Are they crossing over?”
From there, Sosin asks if the artist has any ideas. “Usually, they do,” he said. “And then I take those ideas and try to figure out what director I think would work with my artist in that realm and take those ideas and realize them.”
Usually, the more established the artist, the more elaborate the idea.
“In Christina [Aguilera]‘s case, all of the videos from her last album came from her own vision,” said Hugh Surratt, who, as the vice president of marketing and creative at RCA, oversees the label’s video commissioner. “It varies with our different superstars. Dave Grohl, very instrumental. Dave Matthews has increasingly through the years become more involved in the videos. Artists of that stature get more involved with each album.”
“[Eminem] is very hands-on, which is a pleasure, because his ideas are fantastic,” Sosin said. “He’s so creative. And he’s open to input too. We were talking about the beginning of ‘My Band’ and he wanted to do the massage. And we said, ‘Maybe you should be in a tanning bed.’ And he was like, ‘Absolutely! Naked!’ It’s that kind of stuff.”
Another process that is becoming more common is an artist will not necessarily have an idea, but a certain director in mind. Thus was the case with Aguilera’s Video Music Award-nominated “The Voice Within.”
“Christina and David LaChapelle went in together and came up with the treatment,” Surratt said. “Dave Matthews did the same thing with Mark Pellington for ‘Gravedigger.’ ”
Video commissioners have less to do in those situations. Their work comes when an artist or band has no ideas or just wants to see what directors will come up with. The commissioners know which directors are good with various kinds of music, as well as what sorts of acts the directors want to work with. If a director is free and interested, the commissioner sends a copy of the song along with a note from the artist and label, usually with the amount the label is willing to spend.
“You let them know what the artist is looking for so that the directors don’t just jump off and go the wrong path,” Surratt said. “But you don’t want to cramp their style. You don’t want to say, ‘We want Christina driving in a car in the desert and then there’s a dance scene and they end up in a hot tub.’ It’s the director’s idea.”
“I try and be as specific as I can without writing the treatment,” Sosin said. “For instance, right now I’m working on a Pussycat Dolls video. We have to establish them as a group, not a dance group. That’s our goal right now. We don’t want it to be a story. We want it to be pretty much performance-based with movement, not necessarily dancing. My goal is to make them look like rock stars. That’s my brief to a director: Come up with an environment where those things could be fulfilled.”
Potential directors then have between three and five days to listen to the song and submit a treatment, which is most often two or three written pages, but can be much more.
“They vary anything from a one-page, very brief synopsis to 20- or 30-page notebooks that look like children’s pop-up books,” Surratt said. “It’s incredible, the amounts of creativity that go into the creation of treatments themselves.”
“The more visually minded guys, they’re very computer-savvy, so they’ll create a simple animatic to help you see,” said Sosin. “It’s become extremely competitive because budgets have come down and videos aren’t being made as much. Whereas three years ago I made 120 videos, this year I’m only making 80. So people want it more than ever, so they put more time into their treatments. There’s a little more storyboarding or sketches or references. Stuff like that has become more prevalent. DVDs, ‘This is what it’ll look like.’ And it helps a lot.”
The commissioner then presents the treatments to the artist or band. “What makes a good treatment is when the director’s really lived with the song, the lyrics, and knows the music,” Surratt said. “And then there’s the creativity of coming up with something that is visually enticing. And finally, capturing the artist’s vision.”
Having all three elements is rare, so the artist and labels often send suggestions or air concerns to directors of the two or three favorite treatments. By the time a video is greenlit, it’s not uncommon for the artist to have read upward of 20 different treatments.
That means for pretty much every video made, there are treatments left over. Some, as Manson found out, get used eventually. Most never see the light of day. Sometimes for good reason.
“Somebody pitched a G-Unit thing where they were bank robbers,” Sosin recalled. “I was like, ‘Why would I want to propagate this myth? Why would you write that?’ I can’t ever imagine 50 wanting that.”
Sosin is often reminded of another idea that never made it to film. “I got Spike Jonze on the phone with Em to pitch him this idea where it would be Em’s head on a little kid’s body,” he explained. “And Em thought it was the worst idea he’d ever heard. To this day he makes fun of me. But it’s Spike Jonze, it’s not like it was some no-name.”
Catch all the sizzlin’, star-packed VMA action direct from Miami on August 28. MTV News’ preshow kicks things off at 6:00 p.m. ET/PT, followed by the big show at 8 p.m.