As the Twin Cities music scene continues to evolve and expand beyond our regional borders to a wider level of national and international acceptance, the focus not only falls on the talents of the bands and musicians who craft these indelible sounds, but also towards the ambitious and inspired vision of the video directors who consistently augment these songs with striking visuals that match the creative spirit of the music itself.
The area has seen a tremendous influx of gifted music video directors and cinematographers as of late, all of them artfully providing a stunning accompaniment to the local songs that continue to move us. And while the bands typically get most of the acclaim and the headlines for their music, the people hard at work behind the cameras making their stylish videos — enhancing the image of the bands as well as their commercial appeal — clearly deserve their own distinct praise and recognition for helping shape and promote our local music scene.
When talking with a small contingent of the innovative video directors in Minnesota, it becomes clear that they all feel that they are still in the process of honing and perfecting their craft, while being driven to authentically capture the artistic vision not only in the heads of the bands that they work with, but the ones in their own as well. “There’s nothing better than collaborating creatively with a band you love,” says Dan Huiting, who has directed videos for Bon Iver, Poliça, Robyn, and an impressive litany of national and local acts through his work with MN Original along with Pitchfork.TV and MPLS.TV’s City of Music series. “Usually the artist will have some ideas going in, and I listen to the song and we figure it out together. They usually send photos or videos with the style and mood they like, and that helps me figure out what the treatment will be, and whether to shoot film or digital.”
While many of the directors have some background in either film or graphic design, it seems that they all have done quite a bit of learning on the job, getting better at their craft through the creative trials and errors that come through experience, as well as gleaning various skills and techniques from the countless contemporaries in their field. “I work commercially as a camera assistant, which allows me to watch and learn from those older and much more experienced than myself,” says Chris Hadland, who directed the recent Doomtree documentary, Team The Best Team as well as Poliça’s “Lay Your Cards Out” video. “I think that’s the best way to learn, as it’s a slower process to do everything by oneself without a strong foundation.”
The music certainly helps guide any video project forward initially, as does the visionary desires of the bands themselves, and its up to the director to find the perfect, seamless union of those distinctive artistic aims. “I try to find a set of visuals or a type of story that I feel is a good fit for the song, like a reverse-soundtrack approach,” says Justin Staggs, who has directed videos for the Foo Fighters, the Melismatics, Communist Daughter, and a wide array of local and national bands. “I try to avoid making videos that are literally about what is being said in the lyrics, which can feel a little ‘on the nose’ for my tastes. The visuals and the music should complement each other and create a new meaning than they would on their own.”
As our scene continues to grow and more local bands continue to flourish, that not only provides for more work for these directors, but also ensures that more people will be interested in the finished product. “This scene is pretty amazing. Hearing all the different music coming from the city is awe inspiring,” says Adam J. Dunn, the director of music videos for Prof, Toki Wright, and many other local artists, as well as the creator of the Let’s Get Lyrical video series. “I think filmmakers are kind of an unsung hero in the scene. There are songs that people do not like until they see the video for it, which I think is powerful and important. It is a two way street though — some songs can take a weaker video concept and make that flourish as well.”
Some of the frequent challenges to these directors during a shoot is the lack of a workable budget and an unpredictable location, but frequently those limitations help them refine their focus while they make the best out of what they have to work with. “Coordinating schedules can be tricky, while editing in high def can be like watching paint dry,” explains Gordon Byrd of Teenage Moods, who has directed videos for Prissy Clerks, Nallo, and Southside Desire, amongst others. “But the biggest challenges are wanting nice things and having to remind myself that I’ve built my whole life around working with what I’ve got — a pair of identical VHS cameras, a duffel bag full of painter’s clamp lights, and a decent laptop.”
Even though modern day MTV is only a dwindling shadow of itself, both creatively and intellectually, the landmark videos regularly featured back when the station actually cared about music still continues to influence and inform a new era of filmmakers. “I grew up with MTV in the 90s, so I love mostly these huge budget video beasts — the obvious guys like Spike Jonze and Michel Gondry,” recalls Marijuana Deathsquads’ Isaac Gale, who has directed videos for Bon Iver, On An On, Dark Dark Dark, and Night Moves. “Jay Z’s ’99 Problems’ video is one of my favorites. ‘Thriller’ is probably the first video I taped on VHS and watched a million times over.”
Those stylistic inspirations of legendary directors of the past have been filtered through the new techniques of today’s crop of video directors, who have access to the spoils of modern technology, but still strive for the classic look of those quintessential clips. But gone are the days when getting your video in rotation on MTV would launch a band’s career — in this day and age, getting someone to concentrate on your video for three minutes at a time proves to be a big problem, especially given all of the constant technological distractions of these modern, socially connected times.
But that makes creating a video that truly connects with people that much more rewarding in the end. “There is a lot of clutter, so to break through is a remarkable feat” says Nate Maydole, who has directed videos for Atmosphere, the 4onthefloor, and Astronautalis. “I’ve always enjoyed videos that are captured in a unique way…the ‘How did they do that’ moment of Mute Math’s ‘Typical,’ or Coldplay’s ‘The Scientist,’ or The Melismatics ‘Digging Deep’ [directed by Justin Staggs]. Bands are artists, and the video needs a direction correlated to their vibe and mystique.”
The best videos boldly add to the band’s aesthetic and allure, while deepening the artistic connection that fans have for the music itself. And when the creative partnership between the musicians and directors is a special one, the burgeoning careers of both artists can ultimately benefit. “One of my favorite videos that has ever happened was City of Music: Gayngs,” recalls Huiting fondly. “It was very special night with old and new friends, and a great performance of a great song. That was the first night I met Justin Vernon and the first time I visited April Base [Vernon's Eau Claire recording studio]. That’s really the point where my career took off. I owe a lot to that dude. I can’t believe people pay me to do this — I would PAY someone to let me do this! The experiences and meeting new friends is the coolest part of the job.”
A unique artistic passion burns within all of these directors, no matter how big the bands are or the budgets they are working with. “There are people pouring everything into their art and that’s really inspiring — because there is almost no money, and certainly not a living as a working class person would expect, for musicians living in Minnesota,” explains Byrd. “Being on both sides of music and video, I can only say it’s a love that finishes anything in the end. An artist should make the same thing regardless of who cares in the end.”
Thankfully, plenty of people in the music world and beyond care quite a bit about the distinguished work and estimable talents of these video directors who are all helping to bring Minnesota music to the masses.