The 20th century is strewn with pop-culture milestones, but music videos have a particular knack for searing themselves into the brains of our collective consciousness. There's something about the combination of brash imagery, loud tunes, and fast-editing that makes them almost hypnotic. Whether Run-DMC are walking this way, Public Enemy are fighting the power, or Britney Spears is giving a womanizer a kick in the cojones, all good videos pack a punch.
Filmmaker Blake Engel has his own theory about their popularity. "They're about immediacy, amazing you nonstop for three minutes," he says. "As opposed to a more quiet film like No Country for Old Men, Spike Jonze's 'Weapon of Choice' has Christopher Walken flying around a room. You don't have to explain it. You're just showing amazing things. You can get away with anything in music videos."
You can even get away with working on a low budget if the tune is good and the filmmaking is inventive enough. Ten years ago, Spike Jonze shot the video for Fatboy Slim's "Praise You" as if it was a performance by an incompetent community dance group captured on a camcorder. It took 10 minutes to film and cost $800 (mostly spent on catering). Yet it garnered countless plays and three MTV VMAs. Since then, lo-fi videos have become an accepted quirk on national TV.
But as digital video technology gets less expensive, cheap shots don't have to look grungy. Directors are able to make their projects look better for less, if they can find a way to make them look amazing. Blake and his brother Taylor did just that for a video for local hip-hop artist Righchus' song, "Ridin'." The 2008 video was made for the infinitesimal sum of $42.
Despite the bargain-basement budget, "Ridin'" was slick and imaginative enough to gain praise via websites like BET.com and Writer's Block Media, building a reputation that helped pave Taylor's way to Los Angeles. But the ride wasn't all smooth. The brothers planned the shoot carefully, but there were plenty of problems to overcome on the road to a finished product.
Blake and Taylor Engel grew up in a sleepy corner of West Ashley. While other kids went out and played basketball, the brothers walked around the neighborhood with a video camera, making strange little movies.
"We would make versions of films we liked starring us, friends, and family members," says Blake. "It was something to do, I guess." Thus Batman and Robin fought crime in their backyard and The Mask made merry in their kitchen.
A decade later, the boys had moved on to original shorts; 2006's "Mourner's Kaddish" was a black-and-white documentary about their great uncle Joe, a Holocaust survivor. In this extended interview, Joe told his story and recalled events that he had never shared before. Although there were too many camera moves, the sound was rough, and the editing was abrupt, the film still had a professional look, and no amount of impatient camerawork could distract from Joe's stark story.
Their next big project was 2008's "Magic Man," a short about a washed-up magician who plans a grand illusion to restore his reputation and his self-worth. With a poised performance by John R. Sexton, this production showed a growing maturity in the Engels' work. It proved that they could tell a dramatic story without resorting to jump cuts and fancy camerawork.
By this time, the Engels had started a production company called Movable Type Pictures. This was made up of a group of filmmakers who, as Taylor puts it, "didn't know each other at all." Their disparate interests and specialties were combined for the drama. By the end of the shoot, they were encouraging each other to pursue their interests; for example, crew member Josh Bishop was interested in Steadicam work ("floating" a camera on a body harness). So an ETV cameraman was invited to come and train him for a day. "Over time he's become really good," says Taylor. "Everyone's gotten better."
We Want Our MTV
As Movable Type considered the different kinds of film they could make, they realized that music videos would be a perfect way to show what they could do. "We want to bring back creative music videos," Taylor says, "where the idea comes first, not the money."
At the time he shot "Ridin'," Taylor was a penniless college student. Since he was studying film at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, he had access to equipment. He and his brother also had ideas for images and narrative structures that they wanted to achieve "sort of on the cheap." But they needed a good act to go with them.
Taylor had been friends with music producer Max Berry since the age of five, and they both went to USC. "When I was a sophomore, he was my roommate," says Taylor. "I could hear him making music through our wall."
Berry works with rapper Matt Bostick, aka Righchus. The duo were putting together strong tracks for an album and were ready to promote one of their tunes with a video. They had no idea how much work it would be.
The Engels assembled their usual team and found a large warehouse location that they could use for free because two of the crew knew the owner. There were a few old pianos in the space, so they became key props. The team created a map of their soundstage, figuring out where the performers had to be. They wanted to shoot the whole video in one continuous take, which meant careful rehearsal, positioning, and lighting of the action as the camera rotated.
The more preparation a filmmaker does, the smoother the shoot will go. So the seven crew members met once a week for two months prior to filming. They aimed to film everything in two days, even though they weren't sure whether that would give them enough time to set up the lights, practice the sequences, and film various versions of the video. It wasn't easy to gain access to equipment either; in exchange for the weekend loan, the team filmed two Public Service Announcements for USC's Media Arts Department. It's an indication of their positive attitude that they saw this extra labor as an opportunity — they used the PSAs to test angles and lighting conditions that would be used to greater effect in "Ridin'."
The company went from having no lights to having too many. The only way to control them all was to hook them up to a switchboard, time the video, and flip them off and on at the right time.
There are some things that aren't so easy to prepare for. When the time finally came to shoot, the first day was spent setting up. They got ready to roll, flipped a switch, and lost power throughout the warehouse. "We couldn't figure out why," says Taylor. Eventually he learned that the main breaker had blown. The day was a bust; luckily, a generator was borrowed for day two.
The next problem: Righchus had to get from one part of the set to another — and not be seen doing it. Remember the video is one constant shot. This became even more of a challenge when the filmmakers evoked a slow motion effect. The song was sped up one and a half times with Righchus gamely lip-syncing and three dancers moving at double speed. As the camera moved away from him, Righchus would run across the set to appear in the next angle, making it seem as if he was in several places at once. When the video was played back in time to the regular track, everything took on a dreamlike quality.
Josh Bishop's Steadicam training served him well for the video's swooping, non-stop shot. Choreographing the lights and performances was tricky — it took 15 or 16 tries to get it right. But the video was brought in on time. More importantly, it looked great even though it had that next-to-nothing budget of $42.
A $60 gorilla mask was cleaned up and returned to a party supply store after filming. Likewise, a $200 external hard drive went back to big box retailer once footage was transferred to a desktop computer. Even the catering was free — the choreographer's mom cooked for everybody. The only expense was gaffer's tape, which could not be rolled back up and returned, although the Engels probably considered it.
"We could use more money," says Taylor. "It's tough trying to make videos for nothing. But we don't want to make million-dollar things. My number one concern is that people are spending their free time making the videos. I want them to be proud of what they did, and showcase their work."
A Righchus Duo
Charleston hip-hop duo Righchus and Max Berry have a lot in common with the Engels: Both pairs are trying to make original content with limited resources and connections.
After they met at the Charleston County School of the Arts, Righchus and Berry would rap battle each other. Later, they began recording music together and tried to get studio time in town. But because their sound straddled the line between rock and hip-hop, they found venues and studios hard to book.
"A lot of bars downtown like cover bands more," Berry explains. "The black clubs like hardcore rap."
So they started trying alternative events like Kulture Klash, an art and music show at the Eye Level Art warehouse, and a charity event at
Infuzions in Mt. Pleasant.
"The craziest thing is, it's so difficult to find a venue," says Righchus. "There's nothing in Charleston that encompasses our original style of music." Despite this, Righchus says they've played over 40 shows in the past year across South Carolina, culminating with a recent support slot at the Music Farm with '90s superstar rapper Warren G.
Righchus adds, "We had to get our own shows and build our own studio from the ground up. We worked hard to get what we wanted, and it makes it feel better because we earned it."
That may sound like typical hip-hop braggadocio, but Righchus is something different. His first album Chaos Theory melds alt-rock, synth sounds, orchestral samples, and rap. It's a good first effort for a homegrown, self-taught producer like Berry. Most importantly, the tracks don't rely on clichéd references to cars, guns, bitches, and bullion.
"Charleston is in the top 10 cities in the nation," Righchus says. "Our hip-hop should reflect that. There is a lot of gangsta rap here, showing the wrong image. It shouldn't be glorified. Music is about the expression of art, love, and creativity. We shouldn't be afraid to get out of our boundaries and rap about betrayal, love, passion, and motivation and try to set a new standard for hip-hop in the city."
Now a journalism major at USC, Righchus grew up in North Charleston. His team-up with the rock-influenced Max Berry helped him break away from the usual stereotypes of rap. "Nothing about me is gangsta," he says. "I've never sold drugs, and I've never shot anybody, although I've been shot at. I want to sound like who I am. Every single experience on Chaos Theory has happened or is about to happen."
While Righchus raps about the real world, "Ridin'" took him into a more fantastical world. As the video opens, Righchus stands on a dark stage. Lights start to come on, illuminating the side of his face, then his shoulders, then his back. Three dancers appear, running to their spots behind them guided by three shafts of light. The camera pans to a group of people relaxing in a room, then on to Berry at another keyboard, then back to Righchus. With sweeping, confident movements, the camerawork defies the usual video formula of not holding a shot for more than two seconds.
"We're very proud that we pulled that video off all in one shot," says Berry. "People like that fact."
Bloggers liked a lot of other things too, describing the film as "epic," (Jaques Morel), "real dope" (2dopeboyz) and "like none other that you've seen on BET" (Kevin Nottingham).
Flushed with success, Movable Type planned another, more ambitious video that evolved into the even more impressive "Go Hard," shot at a car wash for $300 (mostly spent on catering). In this fantastical, cinematic short, Righchus has the shit kicked out of him as he raps before transforming into wisps of smoke, leaving his attackers befuddled by his empty hoodie. Super power or Jedi mind trick? We'll find out in the next video, which promises to continue the storyline.
In the meantime, Blake is concluding his college studies, and Taylor has moved to LA, where he's interning for Anonymous Content and One Tree Hill at Warner Brothers. He's just picked up his first professional assignment there for streetwear icon FUBU. But when he gets the chance, he'll make more music videos.
"I'm not in it for money, but to make something really cool," Taylor says. "I don't have the answer to what to do yet. Maybe something will spawn on the internet."
With the impressive "Ridin'" and "Go Hard" videos doing the rounds and creating a buzz, maybe something already has.
Find the Engel brothers' music videos for Righchus and more at movabletypepictures.com.