Most people will enjoy a good music video from their favorite artist, but far less are aware of who actually produced it. Lifting the lid on the real stars of MTV, we bring you 10 music video directors worth knowing in their own right...
We’re living in a post-MTV generation. Long gone are the days of staying glued to the television in the hope that one music video you’ve been waiting for will appear for three glorious, fleeting minutes. With the advent of YouTube and the increasing affordability of camera equipment these days, the pool of music videos out there has become not only deeper, but a lot harder to wade through, and staying on top of things has never felt more difficult.
While celebrity directors like Spike Jonze and David Fincher all made their names producing music videos in their early years, the majority of today's talent remains largely unknown to the public. So who are the directors you should be paying attention to? And is there much to gain beyond the work of your favorite musicians? The answer is: yes. A thousand times yes.
Here are just 10 people whose work you should investigate, regardless of your thoughts on the soundtrack.
Hiro Murai’s background in illustration and visual effects means his videos are full of incredibly subtle tricks and motifs, forcing your eyes into every inch of the screen just to make sure you’ve taken it all in. While this alone is enough to make a strong impression, when combined with such compelling visual concepts as he is known for, the results are nothing short of mesmerizing.
Take St. Vincent, transformed into an eerie Ron Mueck-esque work of human sculpture; The Shins, kidnapped and dragged by their feet through the suburbs by sinister anime demons; or his chilling, tentacle-filled work for Childish Gambino and it’s easy to see why he’s on this list. Meanwhile, his video for Flying Lotus’ ‘Never Catch Me’ is a stellar example of how he doesn’t need excessive special effects to craft something that’s still hugely visually engaging.
Eric Wareheim, along with Tim Heidecker, rose to fame with their cult Adult Swim TV series Tim & Eric’s Awesome Show Great Job – a show that saw them take deliberately DIY, amateurish green screen effects and marry them with absurd and often grotesque situations to huge (if profoundly niche) acclaim. This experience, combined with Wareheim’s personal background in music and photography, has allowed him to create some of the most bizarre, memorable and hilarious music videos of recent years.
These have included John C. Reilly in a fat suit getting caught in a bloody gunfight for Mr Oizo, three girls getting their asses artificially inflated by Major Lazer, and Twin Peaks’ own Ray Wise taking on the role of master of ceremonies at an absurd new sport for Beach House (seen above). One of the most compelling things about Wareheim’s videos is that, buried underneath all the surrealism, is usually a scathing indictment of the video’s own target audience. Record labels come to him knowing full well that nothing is sacred and anything could happen – that makes him a force to be reckoned with.
Ace Norton has been a consistent source of great music videos for the last ten years. In 2007 he was nominated for a Grammy for his work with Death Cab For Cutie (although he lost out to Bruce Springsteen). In that same year his darkly satirical video for Simian Mobile Disco’s "Hustler" was named as one of the 100 best music videos of all time by the NME, and since then his videos have been routinely applauded for their combination of curious imagery and bizarre optical illusions, all of which are likely to elicit more than the occasional double-take.
While an affinity for practical effects, analogue formats and a largely handmade aesthetic have helped characterize Norton’s output in the past, recently his work has taken on a more narrative quality. In particular, his award-winning fashion films have allowed him to develop a more polished and refined look that has seen him transition from working with indie rock heroes like The Mountain Goats (see above), to superstars like Jennifer Lopez.
DANIELS is the collective name of directing duo Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert – a pair who’ve cut their teeth at the more surreal end of the spectrum (hardly surprising when you learn they were both interns for Eric Wareheim). Since going it alone they’ve established themselves with an incredible body of work that combines very physical comedy, bizarre choreography and an irrepressibly immature charm.
Like almost no other directing force out there, DANIELS’ ability to take an oddball idea and run with it as far as humanly possible shows off their confidence in their productions. One cursory look through their videography and it’s clear to see why they’ve been twice nominated for a Grammy in their short careers. Whether they’re reanimating the corpses of Foster The People, impregnating girls at a glance for Chromeo or awakening the libido-to-end-all-libidos at the behest of Lil Jon (above), their videos spread through the internet like clickbait wildfire. Meanwhile, last year’s short film "Interesting Ball" is further proof they’re developing a great comedic voice all of their own.
Emily Kai Bock
Canadian director Emily Kai Bock began gaining widespread attention thanks in no small part to her video for Grimes’ "Oblivion." The video, shot on film in a series of huge, floodlit stadiums, challenges the masculine energy of sports, creating a beautiful and fearless juxtaposition of gender, emotion and macho mentality.
From this, Bock developed a style centered very much on powerful emotional character studies, such as that of the struggling figure skater in her video for Grizzly Bear (above). With a storytelling ability that allows her to switch between music video and documentary seamlessly, her style has taken her from strength to strength as she delves more into narrative with each video. Her recent work for Arcade Fire on "Afterlife" saw her team up again with cinematographer Evan Prosofsky to create a moving portrait of a father struggling to raise his children, winning several awards in the process.
No matter where you stand as a music fan, the world of pop still dominates the industry. Its carefully polished aesthetic has been shaped and refined by committee for years and years, and cynics would have you believe that this means there’s no artistic merit to be found there. They’re wrong.
Maintaining such a sheen while keeping things fresh and within pop’s rigid parameters is no small task, and doing that without stepping on the toes of what has come before you seems almost impossible. Still, it’s something Hannah Lux-Davis manages to accomplish time and time again. With a client list that includes Jessie J, Nicki Minaj, Miley Cyrus, Lil Wayne and Paris Hilton, Lux-Davis has produced videos that act as vibrant, conceptual mission statements for the some of the biggest names out there. In a world driven by excess, indie cred isn’t everything. Sometimes it’s enough just to see something cool.
With a background in Art Direction, Warren Fu’s style is very visually orientated. Before stepping into music videos he was designing and developing imagery for LucasFilm, and through this work he’s refined a retro-futurist aesthetic that has carried over to bands like Daft Punk, HAIM (above) and The Killers. Fu is famous for his use of large-scale signage, with huge illuminated signs acting as the centerpiece for many of his productions (HAIM and Weezer being notable examples), before being later rolled out on tour as part of a band’s live performance. This level of influence shows just how much respect he is afforded in terms of shaping a band’s image – no small thing when the names involved are as big at the ones he’s working with.
Probably the closest thing to a household name on this list, Michel Gondry made a name for himself in the ’90s and ’00s with iconic and instantly recognizable videos for The White Stripes, Björk, Foo Fighters and The Chemical Brothers, before moving into cinema to direct masterpieces like 'Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind'. Much praise has been showered upon him for his expressive, childlike imagery, use of incredible camera effects and fondness for optical illusion (all of which he talks about in great length in the documentary I’ve Been Twelve Forever).
While other great directing names of the ’90s have since slowed their output (Spike Jonze and Chris Cunningham, to name but two) Gondry has continued to release consistently strong material (the latest of which dropped just last week) and remains a powerful influence on many young directors just starting their careers.
David Wilson’s music video career is deeply rooted in animation and practical effects. He first garnered attention for his wildly colorful animated video for The Japanese Popstars before establishing himself in the live action medium with a stylish video for Metronomy’s "The Bay" that makes Torquay look like the French Riviera. Since then, Wilson has combined his animation and live action prowess to create seamless transitions between a stylish, grounded, cinematic world and a vibrant, ultra-violent cartoonish one.
His work on Royal Blood’s video for "Out of the Black" (above) switches so gracefully between a simple robbery and a sci-fi horror that it’s impossible for the audience to know exactly what’s happened, even when it plays out right there in front of them. Meanwhile, his recent Grammy-nominated work on Arcade Fire’s "We Exist" proves he can work just as capably with purely live action, even shooting on location somewhere as wildly unpredictable as Coachella and still emerging with a highly polished piece of work.
Sing J. Lee
Sing J. Lee has come a long way in a relatively short space of time. His first music video for Pins’ "Eleventh Hour" established him as a director with an eye for style and supremely striking looks. Following this, his work for CHVRCHES, Avec Sans and Years & Years saw him further establish a trademark look of bold lighting, carefully chosen colour palettes and subtle illustrative flourishes that allow each video to feel both nostalgic and contemporary at the same time.
Armed with such a distinctive vision Lee’s simple video for Charli XCX’s "Boom Clap" earned him a BRIT Award nomination for Best British Video, while his documentary and fashion work with Vogue has allowed his style and voice to develop and become stronger with every video. As is the case with many of the directors on this list, you can’t escape the feeling his best is still yet to come.