Legendary Director Warren Fu Talks The Art Of Making Sh*t-Hot Music Videos
If you're the kind of person who watches music videos, then you've definitely seen Warren Fu's work. The superstar American director has created iconic clips for some of the world's biggest acts, from Daft Punk and The Strokes to HAIM, Grimes, The Killers, Snoop Dogg and even Aliyah (RIP).
And it just so happens he's on our side of the planet this weekend to speak at the CLIPPED Music Video Festival for Vivid Sydney, so we figured it'd be a great opportunity to pick his genius brain about what it's like to be in a position to boss around some of the biggest pop, rock and hip-hop stars on the planet, grab some nifty tips for making top-notch clips on a budget, and of course, get his take on the ever-evolving art form that is music video itself.
MTV: Hey Warren! We’re super excited to chat to you because – not talking ourselves up or anything -- but music videos are kind of our legacy here at MTV. What do you think makes the music video unique as an art form?
Warren Fu: I think that what makes it unique is that there are no rules. It’s one of the rare forms of art where basically anything goes. It’s basically *anything* that you think goes with the song. So, over the years, you’ve just seen a lot of innovation happen in so many different disciplines of art within music video, so you’ve seen – in the early days of MTV – Peter Gabriel stop-motion videos, you’ve seen amazing choreography, you’ve seen technological advances, like the Michael Jackson ‘morphing’ thing [in ‘Black Or White’] was a big breakthrough. A lot of innovation happens in music videos. There’s nothing more exciting to me than visuals combined with music.
Have you noticed that popular music videos tend to follow trends, kind of like the way that popular music itself does?
Yeah, I’ve noticed a few trends. There was definitely a phase a few years ago when there was a lot of ‘shock’ stuff trying to happen. It was the early days of people trying to get viral hits online and so there was a lot of ultra-violence and nudity, and I think it’s appropriate where it’s appropriate. But I think there was sort of more of it for a certain trend one year a few years ago when there was a lot of that ‘shock value’ kind of stuff happening, and it’s kind of subsided a bit.
And then, you know, I keep hearing from other directors that they’ve been seeing a lot of people using drone photography now because it’s become so much more accessible to have cameras hooked up to drones. So there’s always, like, different phases that people go through when there’s a new technology, or something that happens in fashion or trends.
And talking about that ‘shock’ factor, do you feel like it’s still possible for music videos to ‘shock’ people in 2017?
Yeah, I think every year there’s always something that really draws people’s attention. Even just – it’s not so much of a ‘shock’ thing – but even just the way Beyoncé just put out Lemonade as this unique, standalone, multi-film cohesive thing, that in itself was very innovative. I think there’s no more exciting thing than working with musicians, musicians have always been at the cutting edge of culture and fashion and style – especially with youth culture, music is always the driving force. So when you combine other art forms – filmmaking and technology – with music, it’s just a very exciting intersection.
Can you think of any music videos from the past few years that have really made you stop and go “WOW!”
Yeah, for sure. There’s always people that really kind of inspire me. As far as peers go, from the sort of older generation, I’m really inspired by some of the things Spike Jones did back in the early 2000’s. Out of the newer generation of directors I really love Emily Kai Bock, she did Arcade Fire’s ‘Afterlife’ video and she did Grimes’ first video ‘Oblivion’. And those aren’t necessarily anything groundbreaking technologically, it’s just that she made really powerful pieces – the Grimes thing was just conceptually really cool, this kind of juxtaposition, just kind of introducing Grimes as a character, or as this kind of misfit artist in this context of this sporting arena/jock world. Conceptually it was just a really brilliant way to introduce Grimes into the world. And then, her ‘Afterlife’ video was just super brilliant in that it was just very poetic and dreamlike in a very kind of subdued, beautiful way. It was a tragic story without being too kind of heavy-handed, so I was just really impressed by the way she handled that. In recent years,
I also really loved the video that Hiro Murai did for Childish Gambino’s ‘Sober’. And he did another one with him in a diner just with kind of looping visual effects – every time he’d go through the diner there’d be a repeat of Childish Gambino. I don’t know how he did it! It was really just impressive technologically. So yeah – even though the budgets aren’t as big as they were back in the day, when somebody’s able to do something where you can’t figure out how they did it, that’s always really impressive.
And of course you’ve worked with some huge names, and first up we really want to ask you about Daft Punk because you’ve collaborated with them a lot on a bunch of different songs… but to the rest of us they seem like these very mysterious, enigmatic sort of people. Can you tell us a bit about the experience of working with them?
Yeah, I mean I think the reason why they’re successful is because of their restraint. They are very careful with what they do and what they agree to do and they know when to just kind of pull back. In the same way that – in the pre-internet age – there was a lot of mystery and mystique that we’ve lost in everybody kind of being on social media, and them just having a very quiet presence is sort of a nice refreshing thing compared to people who are just constantly sharing. I’m not saying that it’s a bad thing when people share, but there’s something quite beautiful – well not beautiful, but fun and entertaining – if that’s your personality, if you’re quirky and you share a lot of things, that’s great, it works for certain people. But what they’ve managed to do is bring back that sense of mystique. In the same way that David Bowie created characters for every album, they’ve created this character that exists halfway between reality and fiction. So – you know – they’ve appeared on the MTV Awards but it’s almost like these fictional characters are visiting the MTV Awards, it’s like these robots from outer space visited. They’ve really managed to create something special and I’m really honoured that they’ve asked me to collaborate with them over the years ’cause I tend to gravitate towards artists like Daft Punk and The Strokes that create almost a different world.
When The Strokes first came out – it wasn’t just the music – they came out with this whole entire world of what New York could be, or was, you know? I think there was a lot of people 10-15 years ago who moved to New York to kind of chase that world they created in a way.
And when you’re working with big name artists like that, has ever feel surreal being in a position where you kind of get to boss them around and tell them what to do?
Yeah, definitely! I mean, it’s so weird directing Rivers Cuomo from Weezer when I remember, like, listening to The Blue Album over and over again in my bedroom. And usually the timing of shooting videos is so limited, you have usually only a day to fit everything in so usually it’s a whirlwind of non-stop, and I flip into a different personality when I’m directing. Not bossy, but I’m kind of very on top of things. And then, when I get home after a shoot and I lay down in bed, that’s when it hits me. “I can’t believe I just directed Weezer or Depeche Mode!” you know? It’s just weird, like my first mixtape that my older brother gave me was with Depeche Mode songs. So just to be directing them and having them ask me what to do in this particular scene is very strange!
Without naming names, have you ever had a negative experience working with an artist and thought, “yeah I never want to work with this person again”?
No – so far I’ve been very lucky. I haven’t had any big nightmare stories. You know, there’ve been times when scheduling was an issue but I would say, maybe there were some songs that I was lukewarm on? And maybe it kind-of shows that I think the best videos are definitely the ones where I loved the song and it really kind of spoke to my soul – that’s when you give it your all. You don’t wanna let the band down, but you also don’t wanna let the song down.
That’s a really interesting point! How important that natural chemistry between the director and the song itself is in shaping the overall music video...
Yep - and the true test of a good song is, because I have to listen to the song about a hundred times for the treatment, and then hear it on-set all day, and then I like to edit a lot of my videos so I’ve heard the song a countless number of times! And if I still go to a bar or go out somewhere in public and I hear the song and I still like it? That’s the true sign of a good song [laughs] It doesn’t make my ears bleed.
As anyone who’s ever filmed a music video will know, no matter how organised you are, something always seems to go wrong on the day. Have you ever had anything go badly wrong on-set?
Yeah, like, I did a video for this electronic band called Nero and it was this car chase video, we closed down some streets of Los Angeles and we had a really cool 1970’s Pantera – a very rare car – that looked so good! But what I forgot was those cars, the reason you don’t see them a lot anymore is because a lot of them don’t run well. So halfway through the shoot it broke down, and I remember thinking “OK, I could freak out right now but there’s nothing we can really do about it. We can just hope and pray that the people in charge of fixing the car are going to be up in the middle of the night at 3am”, and sure enough, it worked out. But there’s things that you plan for and then things that are unexpected that just turn out better.
There were certain set-ups that we had for the HAIM video [‘If I Could Change Your Mind’], you know, we spent a lot of time thinking about the lights and the set, and then you get to set… and the first half of that video is just the girls on a red background and that was never even planned on, all that silhouetted stuff, like basically we went to set, and we had them standing in the main kind of area – and then, just by accident, the girls were standing in this dark, silhouetted area where the orange light kind of faded off in to red, and we all saw it on the monitors and said “Oh, that looks way cooler than what we planned for!” So the entire first third of the video is just them standing silhouetted in this tiny red corner of the set. And that’s even just the side of the set, it’s not even the main set!
So you’ve already worked with some of the biggest artists in the world… Do you have a kind of wish list of other artists you’d like to work with?
Yeah, yeah, I really love Chance The Rapper out of the newer generation of artists. There’s a few classic people on my list like A Tribe Called Quest, I’d love to do a video for them. Arcade Fire I would like to work with.
Obviously I would like to get in to other areas of filmmaking. I’ll always love music videos, but I’d like to get into some longer form stuff as well just to see what kind of emotions I get out of people in a longer period of time.
Is there anything in particular you’re working on right now?
Yeah, I’ve been sort of gathering ghost stories from different cultures and I’m going to see if there’s anything interesting that comes out of that. But I’m in the early phases, just sort of researching stuff. But I love the mystique of old fables and folklore and that kind of stuff.
Well it definitely sounds like something we’d watch! So lastly, you’ve been here to speak at the CLIPPED music video festival as part of Vivid Sydney, and we know you’ve been giving a lot of advice to budding young filmmakers looking to break into the music video bizz… but we were wondering if you might have any tips for young artists for creating a good music video on a budget?
Yeah, I think it’s just embracing what you *do* have. It’s almost kind of worse if you try to make something look big budget that isn’t. So I think it’s kind of doing the opposite and making something that’s really creative and just acknowledging the fact that it’s low budget but making it sort of subversive in a way, maybe? Or just conceptually really powerful? Of course it’s really nice to have something aesthetically pleasing visually and professional, but there’s also really great stuff that comes out of DIY filmmaking.
But the thing I always hear is that you’re gonna ask a lot of favours, because filmmaking is a very collaborative art form, so if you don’t have a lot of money, the most important thing to do is just make sure the people that are helping you are fed! So at least having some pizza or Subway sandwiches and drinks ready for them is the most important thing to do if you’re not paying people. I’ve definitely had my share of low budget things coming up where my mum would help with some of my early projects and brought a toaster-oven and made pizza rolls for everyone [laughs].
What a legend, go mum!
Yeah, she’s the best.
- Emmy Mack
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