As the Pandemic Continues, Music Videos Shot in Isolation Reflect the Times

Evanescence, "Wasted on You"
Courtesy Photo

Evanescence, "Wasted on You"

In this era of pandemic-induced isolation, music videos have taken a turn for the lo-fi -- which doesn’t mean there’s any less work involved.

"I felt just as drained at the end of the day doing this as I would if I was running around on a regular set, even though I had just been sitting at a desk all day," says video director Erin Murray, who choreographed and co-directed, alongside Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux, the music video for Thao & the Get Down Stay Down's recent single "Phenom," which was filmed using video conference program Zoom. Choreography is challenging enough in normal times, says Murray, but over video chat it becomes "a test in communication and patience."

As the COVID-19 shutdown stretches into its third month and traditional, in-person music video productions remain on hold, artists, directors and video producers have been coming up with creative ways to collaborate on new visuals with directors and bandmates while hunkering down in their homes. The result has been a flurry of homemade, often unvarnished and occasionally animated videos -- many of them shot with iPhones and laptops and crewed by family members and housemates -- that are providing artists whose tours have been sidelined by the pandemic with a welcome creative and promotional outlet to spotlight their latest releases.

For some of these artists, including Evanescence frontwoman Amy Lee -- who last month released the video for "Wasted on You," the band's first single after a multiyear hiatus -- the process has been a sort of mini film school, with directors offering remote lessons in composition, lighting and other technical aspects of the craft. Prior to sending them off to capture footage in and around their homes, "Wasted on You" director Paul "P.R." Brown provided the isolated band members with a detailed technical guide to their iPhone settings. "He basically just told us a bunch of buttons to push to [make our iPhone footage] 4K, and then he gave us a whole tech sheet about lighting and framing," says Lee, who spent five days shooting footage around her Nashville home.

In total, the band sent Brown over four hours of video, leaving the director to piece it together into a coherent whole -- and occasionally request additional pickups. "Even after the first pass, there were holes of things that we needed to see," Brown says. "[So I would] say to them, you know, ‘Go film some things like this.'"

The creative process was similar for artist and songwriter Matthew Koma, whose band Winnetka Bowling League released the video for its single "Kangaroo" earlier this month. Enlisting family members and roommates to help with lighting and camera setups, Koma and his bandmates were instructed by director Zack Sekuler to riff on the song's lyrics in their own distinct ways. "The cool part was Zack telling us, 'Okay cool, try to do this sort of space theme for the chorus,' and everybody having their own version of what that is," says Koma, who had planned a traditional video for the track before the pandemic hit. The footage that came back was a mélange. "When I got it all, I was actually really excited," says Sekuler, "because it felt like everyone had their own video ... when you put it all together, it [had] a really dynamic feeling."

Other quarantine videos required a more hands-on approach. For "Phenom," Murray had just two-and-a-half days to come up with a fully choreographed dance routine, a task that required hours in front of her computer to puzzle through logistics. That process was followed by a five-hour initial rehearsal with the dancers -- which she describes as "tedious," given the limitations of video-chat communication and other practical constraints. "Especially for dancers, the spatial awareness was not there because no one was around [them]," she says. In the end, she, Schaulin-Rioux and producer Victoria Fayad filmed eight full takes of the routine, with the track slowed to 70% speed to make it easier for the dancers to synchronize. To better cue up their movements, Murray also recorded her own voice counting over the track.

Technically complex or not, the majority of videos produced during the shutdown have leaned into the lo-fi aesthetic. Australian singer-songwriter Saygrace, currently quarantining at her home in Los Angeles, filmed the video for her latest single "Boys Ain't Shit" (feat. Tate McRae and Audrey Mika) using Photo Booth on her laptop. Designed as an homage to the iconic four-way call scene in Mean Girls, the Becky Hearn-directed video also showcases McRae and Mika (who used the same method to film their portions) singing along to the track in their respective bedrooms.

Prior to filming their segments -- all three were provided written directions by Hearn -- the artists sent each other pictures of the outfits they were planning to wear to ensure they didn't clash. "At first it felt kind of awkward" performing alone, says Saygrace. But once she got into the process, she found it rewarding. "I actually enjoyed it," she says. "In a regular situation, it's a little bit more pressure, like there's all these people on set and lights and cameras. I found it kind of refreshing to just be able to do it myself."

Many artists have embraced doing away with the normal constraints and pressures of traditional music video production and taking a more hands-on role in the process, partially out of necessity. "I think the artists are playing [a bigger role] as far as driving the creative right now," says Kenny Weagly, president of A&R and label services at the Warner Music-owned ADA Worldwide, who has worked on post-COVID videos for artists including Big Freedia ("Pipe That") and a forthcoming Dropkick Murphys clip that utilizes pre-pandemic footage. "[Many of these] ideas are coming from the artists themselves as opposed to the traditional going out and soliciting."

As the shutdown has progressed, some videos have become bolder and more polished, with many labels providing professional equipment for artists who request it. "I've gotten a lot of artists green screens and lighting equipment," says Val Pensa, senior vp pop/rock marketing at RCA Records. "We want them to be able to utilize this time, if they're in a good headspace about it, to create." A select few are even venturing out to collaborate in person, albeit carefully and with minimal crew. To shoot her next video, Saygrace -- who recently tested negative for coronavirus -- is getting together with Hearn at her L.A. studio. "Our goal is to make it not look like this was something shot in isolation," she says.

Still, with physical distancing mandates remaining at least partially in place in music hubs around the country, shooting traditional in-person videos remains a pipe dream for those who are abiding by the rules. That reality has led artists including Jhené Aiko, Pearl Jam and Dua Lipa to produce animated clips for their latest songs.

Masked rapper RMR, who shot a live-action video for his single "Dealer" just prior to the shutdown, employed animation for the Psycho Films-created remix video of the song (feat. Future and Lil Baby). According to Warner Records executive vp creative Norman Wonderly, creating the video involved shipping a green screen to RMR's home, where the rapper filmed himself singing to the track, before sending the footage back to be digitally combined with the rest of the visuals. Though a time crunch prevented the producers from shipping green screens to Future and Lil Baby, still images of the rappers were procured, animated and then added to the video.

"In the beginning, everybody thought, 'How cute, we'll do a Zoom video...and then that got old really quick,'" says Wonderly, who adds the video took about three weeks from concept to completion. "[Now] people are figuring it out and getting savvy."

Though the pipeline of music videos has continued to flow, artists are beginning to get antsy. "Like we want to go to a restaurant, they want to shoot a real video," says Wonderly. "But we can't do that yet. They understand, but the desire is there. We've been in this for a few months now, so I think people are itching."

"We don't have anybody doing [traditional music video productions] right now, because, candidly, I just don't think we've had anyone that's fully comfortable yet," adds Pensa. Even if it were possible, she says, insurance companies may not be willing to take the risk with the coronavirus continuing to circulate.

As long as traditional productions remain on lockdown, videos shot in isolation aren't going anywhere -- meaning artists and their teams will have to continue coming up with creative solutions. Which, in a way, isn't so different from pre-COVID times.

"There are always going to be challenges and limitations when it comes to video and content creation," says Weagly. "So really, this is just a new hurdle that we have to work around."

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