A Calling Card, not an Income Source
Zero money, but sexy. It’s presumably an oft-heard comment among Austrian film pros when the talk turns to music videos. Because over the past few years, this genre—which had already been declared dead following its virtual disappearance from television—has been experiencing a veritable boom on the Internet. And while Austrian pop music has been making waves internationally for quite some time now, it’s still almost always the artists themselves who not only commission the videos but, frequently enough, also pay for them out of their own pockets.
There were times, remembers Sebastian Mayr, a director and Film Academy alum who’s collaborated repeatedly with the electropop trio Gudrun von Laxenburg, when people even said: Who still needs music videos? “That’s changed again since then, but the budgets haven’t grown accordingly. The labels know that there will always be young film people who’ll go all out and do everything to create something great for nothing. And by now, my experience has made it clear to me that nobody gets paid: a music video is a calling card, not a source of income.”
It’s no less critically that filmmaker Jasmin Baumgartner, who did her first music video in 2010, views the current situation: for her, music videos are a “sore spot in the industry”: there’s no dedicated source of public funding for them, but they’re simultaneously regaining relevance. See Columbo, for example. This video, which Baumgartner made for the lead single from Austrian band Wanda’s new album Niente (2017), has by now racked up ten-and-a-half million clicks on YouTube alone. In it, the band’s ironic and melancholy ballad about wasted days spent watching Inspector Columbo in bed is given an ambiguous reinterpretation: iconographic references to the legendary TV inspector (a raincoat, a cigar, and a toy Renault) more or less frame the further events that show a young couple, lead singer Marko Wanda costumed as Icarus, and the Erzberg (a mountain in Styria).
The average budget of present-day Austrian music videos is probably around € 2,000—which makes it possible to rent the technical equipment for two or three days, but not to pay any fees. “Wanda’s definitely working with different video budgets than other bands are,” concedes Baumgartner. “Which gives you the freedom to put a lot of effort into a video. But that was a best-case scenario to begin with, because the guys from Wanda show a lot of respect to the people with whom they work. The way we came up with ideas was a collaborative process, which absolutely isn’t something that goes without saying.”
Marie-Thérèse Zumtobel, a Vienna-based freelance camera operator, has already co-directed several videos together with Anselm Hartmann for the glam pop duo Fijuka, whose members are both graduates of the mdw’s Department of Popular Music. One of these videos is the fun, action-packed five-and-a-half-minute music video Ca Ca Caravan for the synonymous song from the album Use My Soap (2015); it features the musicians as two girls from the space patrol battling to overcome a toxically green super-snake-woman and an enemy armada amidst a lovingly recreated Starship Enterprise interior.
“Music videos are an interesting format for trying out film techniques,” says Zumtobel. “Depending on the formal choices you make, the inner relationships are less important than in feature films or documentaries, where everything has to make concrete sense. It’s also a short format, which means you can produce something presentable even on smaller budgets—which can make it attractive to young filmmakers.”
Three minutes, maybe as much as five: a music video seldom has much more time to tell its story and advertise a band or a song using the most innovative creative means possible. Though it’s difficult to draw a straight line from the 1920s “visual music” of Oskar Fischinger or from the theoretical musings of Germaine Dulac’s “musique de silence” to today’s productions, the tools used by their creators are, often and not insignificantly, those of the avant-garde. Formally progressive clips go far beyond promotion or mere storytelling; they penetrate beneath stories’ surfaces while also trying to apprehend their “ineffably musical” quality (Dulac).
Occasionally, when the right people come together, the ideas present in a single video clip could just as well make for a good half-season of a television series. As in the case of director Sebastian Mayr and Daniel Helmer, the lead musician of Gudrun von Laxenburg, who himself also studied at the Film Academy. “Science fiction isn’t really my speciality,” says Mayr of his work on Revolution, “but Daniel had this idea and the motto was always: GO BIG or go home!” The result is a dystopian short film (co-direction: Michael Podogil) of seven minutes’ length that’s been shown at several international festivals.
“With Gudrun von Laxenburg, it’s easy realising ideas because the ideas are contagious: you want to be part of it, as does everyone else,” says Sebastian Mayr with conviction. An additional twist is added by the video for Moving Water (realised in 2017), where—after an instrumental intro—everything suddenly starts sliding and protagonist Wei-Da Chen proceeds to dance all over the ceiling like Fred Astaire once did in the Hollywood musical Royal Wedding. “For that, we built a room that we could spin vertically. Everyone said: ‘You can’t do that; you’re crazy.’ So it was truly new territory, and we had an unbelievably fun time working it out.”
Even so, the artistic recognition enjoyed by current music videos is comparably modest: since 2013, at any rate, there’s been the Austrian Music Video Award, which is conferred by FAMA – Film & Music Austria during the film festival Vienna Shorts (VIS). Since then, says festival head Daniel Ebner, the number of submissions has increased from year to year: “This year, we pre-screened around 150 Austrian videos, with 16 making it into the competition’s final round: five of those were by Film Academy students.” Christoph Etzlsdorfer, the programme coordinator responsible for this film competition, adds: “Over the past four or five years, we’ve definitely seen a huge improvement in the quality of the Austrian videos. And in contributions by Film Academy students, you can often see how they enjoy production conditions that are comparatively good from a technical standpoint. For some of them, music videos are probably a sort of experimental lab that’s far more open to freer forms of expression than narrative film is.”
Only one of this € 1,000 award’s six winners so far has been from the Film Academy. That was Florian Pochlatko, who received the 2016 award for God of Ghosts / Nu Renegade by Zebra Katz— which is, incidentally, the only winning video to date that wasn’t made for an Austrian band. “An American friend wanted to work on a film together with Ojay Morgan,” explains Pochlatko on the genesis of this mystically dark video with the rap icon. “And he said he wanted to get music producer Leila Arab from London on board, as well. So we started working on it as a global experiment, cooking up our concept via Skype. And taking it from there, I wrote a script for the project and submitted it at the University; the Film Academy was very open and showed a lot of interest right away.”
What Pochlatko especially likes about working on music videos is the freedom to develop filmic ideas together with like-minded people, ideas that, “ideally, interlock perfectly with the music while still being little artworks in and of themselves.” As a consumer, Marie-Thérèse Zumtobel—who herself last co-directed the video to “Black Roses” by Mother’s Cake in 2017—considers a music video successful simply “if I enjoy watching it. It can be at a sophisticated technical level or very expensively done, but it certainly doesn’t have to be. A good idea that goes well with the music can already be enough, even if it’s totally simple.” And Jasmin Baumgartner, who says that her own films and ideas are really all based on music, has a reminder about what’s most important of all: “The most fantastic music video done to the wrong music is just a fantastic video. People often forget that.”