Cheap Thrills

Producers in it For Love, Not Money
by John Everson

Call the music video industry a “who-you-know” biz. For up-and-coming bands, it’s the film-makers they know who can get them a video shoot for next to nothing. For established big name acts, it’s the film companies their record labels know that dictates who gets the $100,000 contract to produce four minutes of film.

While such big-ticket videos rarely wind up in Chicago, any band that wants to get anywhere these days has to have a video calling card. Getting that video has sparked a flurry of activity in Chicago’s fledgling music video business. Half the sound and fury, however, is the frantic search for the ultimate low-budget deal.

“The smaller independent labels usually have video budgets of under $10,000,” says Bradley Sellers, a freelance cameraman and experimental filmmaker for Wild Onion Films. His shorts have aired on “Saturday Night Live” and VH-1 and he has lensed vids for Thrill Kill Kult via Wax Trax.

His work with these bands, on independent labels, taught him just how low those budgets can be.

“The problem for a lot of these bands is they may sell only 5,000 or 6,000 records,” he says. “They have to sell a considerable amount of records just to cover one video. A lot of these bands don’t pay $10,000 to record their albums, so it’s difficult for them to swallow spending that much for just one video.”

The solution for some groups is simply to shoot concert footage on 8mm and call it a video. (Sellers shoots with 16mm Arriflex cameras; does his off-line edits on a Showcon system at Wild Onion; and finishes at one or another of the bigger post houses.) But MTV and other music video shows won’t run videotape shoots. Consequently, bands often entreat film students or directors just starting out to help out. The producers often earn nothing more than a sample for their reels. The allure of working in the music business is often incentive enough.

Dion Labriola, a freelance animator and DJ at Chicago’s Berlin club, was lured into making a video by the same thing Sellers was – a Thrill Kill Kult song.

“I had a copy of the song (“Cooler Than Jesus”) in advance and asked the band if they were doing a video for it,” he says. They weren’t. He did one. At home.

He shot with a Bolex 16mm camera and edited at Golan Productions (also a producer of music videos) on a 3/4-inch system, and transferred to 1-inch. “I don’t think we spent $1,400 on it.” he says.

Amazingly, Labriola’s next project for Rights of the Accused was even cheaper – for under $1,000. That did it. The Art Institute grad doesn’t plan to look for more music video work. “I’m trying to concentrate on short animated films,” he says. Sometimes the glitz of the music biz fades quickly.

Mike Coletta, an assistant video editor at Szabo-Tohtz, just finished his first music video production, for local guitar nuts New Duncan Imperials. He admits doing the video was for his own gratification after being “tickled” by the band’s performances.

“It cost them about $1,200-but they got a lot free!” he says. “They would have spent over $40,000 for this if they’d have had someone do it for real.”

Coletta was able to use his company’s facilities for off-line, and he was even able to post in-house. “I got all my buddies who work here in different departments to help me.” he said.

He shot with an Arriflex 16S and a Bolex. He admits the process was as much a schooling for him as it was a favor to the band. “I mainly have a video background. This was my first real experience using film.”

The band will shop the video to MTV, and meanwhile, the glamour bug hasn’t stopped biting Coletta. He’s now talking to another local band about shooting for them-this time for actual money!

Kevin Austin’s Lake Effect company just finished shooting a video for local press darlings Big Hat with director Natasha Sleeuw. DP Scott Erlander, who works days at Victor Duncan, has credits that include videos for The Didjits.

“We decided we’d help ’em out with the backing. We shot over a weekend in a loft building in the Loop,” Erlander says. “Our initial shooting budget was about $4,000 and we’ll probably spend at least that in post.”

One would assume his equipment rentals would come from Duncan, but Erlander admits “you rent from whomever gets you a deal. Budget considerations dictate where you go.” He posts wherever he can afford to. “The big problem is always the low budget,” he complains.

Editel’s Reid Brody is working on a music video package, called “21 Summers,” which Atlantic Records is interested in. He has shot a video on 35mm using a stage at Freese & Friends and finished at Editel. He stays away from producing videos outside of his personal projects because he doesn’t want to compete with clients like H-Gun and Dead Battery Productions. Brody had a hand in editing a recent video for Big Guitars from Memphis by independent filmmaker Hugh Haller in collaboration with Toth/Parsons Productions. According to Haller, the purpose of the video was to get the band a record contract, and it seems to be inciting some interest in Nashville.

Filmed live, with multi-cameras (16mm Arris and a Bolex Pro) at the Elbo Room, Metro Mobile Studios was brought in to record live on DAT. Because of donated services, it only cost the band $6,000 of the $36.000 it should have cost.

While most of the locally-generated music videos Brody sees seem to average $30,000 to $40,000 to produce, most others are forced to find ways to bring the show in for as little cash outlay as possible.

‘Sometimes the glitz of the music biz fades quickly.’

Independent filmmaker Dorn Marpel spent $11,000 on a video for the band Shoes, called “The Way that I Do,” late last fall. Marpel directed, Mark Malboeuf handled cinematography and Steve Hirsh produced. To save money, actual shooting took place in Detroit and was then posted at Optimus.

“We had to beg, borrow and steal to do this, but it was an exciting project,” Marpel says. “A chance to do something crazy.” Most of the budget went into production and few were paid. Marpel did it because he liked the band. Malboeuf did because he’s friends with the band and scores commercials at their Short Order Recorder studio in Zion.

The Shoes video was certainly a far cry from Marpel’s advertising career as an art director at DMB&B, working on the Amoco and American Dairy Association accounts. Now the fruit of his labor is being shown in Japan where the band has a strong fan base.

Capturing live performances is what Ari Golan of Golan Productions aims to do. He is negotiating with several networks to produce a series of live concert broadcasts from World Theatre in Tinley Park this summer. Dire Straits, George Michael, Sting, Whitney Houston and Van Halen are some of the talent possibilities.

Says Golan, “We’ve been doing giant screen video projections at the World shows, and we thought, ‘why not raise production values more and present it for television?'” Golan has produced music videos for Dwight Yoakum, Dick Holliday and the Bamboo Gang, and was just tapped to produce a video for the Swedish band Fra Lippo Lippi via the BMG Zoo Entertainment label.

Budgets for Golan-produced videos have run from $15,000 to $40,000; bigger groups pay from $80,000 to $200,000. “But you cannot do a good video shot on film for under $15,000,” he insists. He shoots with Arri 16SRs and does all his post work on Beta SP at his own studio.

Golan wishes he could produce more music videos. “It’s one of my favorite parts of this business,” he admits. “Sadly, there aren’t many to do. You can’t support a full service facility with music videos, because you’re usually doing them at or near cost as an outlet for creativity.”

Shoestring production stories are typical of videos made by ambitious but undiscovered bands. They too often feel they can get a Madonna video look for a few grand. Without the connections that enable them to use high-priced equipment and editing resources for a song, they’re apt to end up with a celluloid mess.

DP Alan Thatcher, who has shot for The Ultraviolet, Ten City and Cabaret Voltaire, notes that most bands do have to shell out bucks if they want a shot at MTV.

“It’s not a luxury for even small bands to have a video,” he says, “but they seem to work with bare bones production. Unfortunately, their work often looks like it was edited with a mix-master.”

Thatcher is quick to point out that “there are videos that will take your breath away” produced for low budgets. A case in point is the work of Matt Mahurin for Cowboy Junkies, Tracy Chapman, 10,000 Maniacs and others. A level of expertise is involved.

One of the biggest mistakes young bands and budding directors make, says Thatcher, is by not enlisting more experienced people to help out.

“Sometimes when the money isn’t there, the freedom is,” he says. Freedom will often draw high-priced talent away from looking at the checkbook. “There are ways to make strong visual statements that don’t require a lot of money.”

Thatcher’s own work has shown that small budgets can reach MTV. He and director David Wild have worked on MTV Earth Day ID spots and an MTV ID, “Tomorrow Knows Where You Live,”

Still, with all the angst inherent in making do with whatever’s available to get the video produced, or for whatever creative ambition that drives the filmmaker, as Ari Golan says, ” It doesn’ t hurt to have music videos on your demo reel.”

MARCH 18 1991
VOL 13 N0. 11
PGS 15,16,17

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