In his speech (and tribute) to Director X for his Special Achievement award, Kardinal Offishall made a key distinction between the MMVAs or MTV VMAs and the Prism Prize. “The MMVAs reward songs. They don’t really care about cinematography or art direction.” But that’s exactly what we were all there to praise last night. All 10 of the nominated videos presented something fresh, innovative, exuberant and most importantly, a challenge to the medium itself.
It should be mentioned that Director X was there as both a recipient of the aforementioned award, and a nominee for Drake’s viral sensation “Hotline Bling”. A quick career retrospective gave us insight into Director X’s stylistic evolution. From his time working with local artists under VideoFact government grants (now MuchFact), the Brampton native has worked with the biggest names in music, including Usher, Rihanna, Sean Paul, Jay-Z and most recently, Drake. While his work can easily be mistaken for yet another series of party videos, Director X’s aesthetic is based on fashion photography – a feat no other video director had attempted, much less accomplished – and made the standard. The shiniest guy in the room with his gold (could have been actual gold) tie, Director X spoke about the disdain in the film world towards music video directors. “Without music videos you wouldn’t have David Fincher. You wouldn’t have Michel Gondry. You wouldn’t have Spike Jonze.”
Director X’s words rang especially true with this year’s crop – but also with today’s role for music videos. Among the videos shortlisted were Braids’ astonishing “Miniskirt”, and Monogrenade’s stunning “Le Fantôme” clips. These were vidoes that seek to entertain, to make political/socioeconomic statements or simply to stretch the limitations of the genre itself. What was clear is that these videos were not the classic promotional piece of old. Some had the artists performing their songs, but others didn’t. Some even elicited to not feature the artist at all. In the case of Audience Choice award winner Eva Michon (for Death From Above 1979’s “Virgins” clip), the band made a cameo – as cops – in their own video. The clip itself renders a party in which Amish teenagers wild the fuck out with magic mushrooms and goat milk – straight from the udder – sprayed like champagne. Michon spoke of the process that got her there. “I envisioned a party scene. The word “virgins” reminded me of the Rumspringa [in which Amish adolescents are invited to leave the community and experience modern life] and how it’s so unique to the Amish. Nobody said that to me in Catholic School!” The video, though shocking, is the result of a tremendous amount of insight – and an exercise in auteur filmmaking.
And while the auteur approach is absolutely a sign of the shift in today’s music videos, a number of nominees relied on humour, including The Fast Romantics’ “Julia”, in which the band plays in the same room as a magically transposed Fred Astaire. Or there’s Harrison’s “How Can it Be” (by Director Maxime Lamontagne), the first-ever vertical music video. Here, Harrison’s breakup song is layered the deathly awkward dumped-via-text conversation. At times hilarious (entirely because of Lamontagne’s expert pacing), the video also gives you a taste of the heartbreak and betrayal at hand. And there isn’t a single frame of footage or dialogue in this one. Incredible.
After much spirited discussion, the Prism Prize for 2016’s best music video went to Phillip Sportel for his contribution to Kalle Mattson’s astounding “Avalanche” video. In it, Kalle chooses 35 of his favourite album covers and spends the entirety of the video jumping from set to set, faithfully recreating each one. To give you an idea of the arduous task of recreating each album (everything from the Clash’s London Calling to Jay Z’s The Blueprint) Sportel says, “we researched every single one of those records; down to the font styles.” When it launched, “Avalanche” received a great deal of traction online, but Sportel is weary of the concept of “going viral”. He cautions, “Some bands like OK GO have made a name for themselves going viral, but in their case, it’s in large part because of a stunt. Watch Kalle perform for 30 seconds; it’s incredibly captivating, and when we went into this, we wanted to create a great video, yes, but I really just wanted to create something as memorable as that experience of seeing him perform.” And just like his colleagues, Sportel had the privilege of experiencing the song well before it was finalized. “When I first heard the song, it was a completely different creature than what you hear now. It was in early demo stages and went through several iterations before becoming what you hear now. One of the earlier concepts we created was animating Kalle’s hair to play different instruments, and it’s a good thing we didn’t go with that, because that doesn’t match the feel of the final version.”
Stories like Sportel’s were quite common, it turns out. The deeper connection with an artist’s work comes from two creative processes overlapping, two visions colliding and then somehow conforming to one another. Every director would love to dominate the news cycle the way “Hotline Bling” does, but none seem to allow that pursuit to compromise what they’ve set out to create. In that way, the 2016 Prism Prize put a spotlight on a fundamental part of the music industry that, if anything, brings music and musicians closer to the artistry that drives them. What better a sales pitch could you ask for?