JT on Film
We all know video killed the radio star, but now that ‘reality’ is on a clipicide rampage – on the video star’s mothership, MTV, at any rate – how is a ‘real’ band to make it in Foleywood? How does a poor band stand out from all the Saturday morning soft porn and see-you-in-the-morning performance yawn? How the hell, in other words, do radio-faced musicians compete in the J curve of an increasingly videogenic world, and a rapidly videogenicidal one? It’s a question that vexes Jason Tutty – sorry, JT – so much that he’s made it his job to revivify the video star, or the video as star in your music collection.
JT is the creative director of Taiyo Films, a Melbourne-based music video and DVD production house, and the man behind a whole wad of the more interesting Australian clips you’ve seen on Rage. You know that Bodyjar clip for ‘One In A Million’ with all the dudes dressed up as sperms playing pool in some geeky looking guy’s “Ball Room”? That’s one of his. The Givegoods’ ‘Richman’ video that has the band playing out their homicidal Robin Hood fantasies? His. Jebediah’s Donnie Darko-esque ‘First Time’ therapy session, the paper yeti of Cog’s ‘My Enemy’, The Living End’s ‘I Can’t Give You What I Haven’t Got’, Faker’s ‘The Familiar’ and ‘Hurricane’ – all JT, and all, coincidentally, screened in the recent SoundKILDA Music Video Competition at The St Kilda Film Festival, putting JT in first place just by force of sheer numbers.
Where Mess+Noise magazine first issue’s ‘video star’ Mark Hartley was dismissive about the ‘art’ of music videos, calling them nothing more than a “television commercial for the band” – which they undeniably are – JT acknowledges that they can also be much more. “Some directors or some labels might see the video clip as just some marketing tool,” he allows, “but it’s a statement. I see the clip as such an important tool, as reaching out to people to get to know the band on a level of where their headspace is.” He further admits that for him, “a music clip, if you take the soundtrack out, it’s a silent movie. And as much as a silent movie would have a piano or orchestra accompany it, I tend to score most clips. I’m a frustrated filmmaker. If you’ve got someone’s attention for three-and-a-half minutes, fucking do something with it.”
This makes perfect sense when you consider his background. The son of a Canberra commercial director, JT grew up on TV sets and was always “the film guy” to his muso and skater buddies. He recalls his first job, teaching his high school teachers how to use the VHS edit suite the school had bought, and notes happily that it gave him “an almost Ferris Bueller-esque run!” He frequently spatters his conversation with movie or visual culture references, quoting The Simpsons as one of his biggest influences – watch a clip like Jebediah’s ‘First Time’ and that’s as obvious as the SANE stamp on the back of Kev’s hand.
With dad in the biz, it’s tempting to think JT had it easy but he’s quick to suggest that for aspiring clipologists it’s irrelevant where your background is. “I could have just as easily not taken advantage of my dad’s profession. You really do have to push yourself.” For JT, that initially meant into the merciless world of the news, where he quickly learned the “guerrilla” skills that define the way he works today. “As a news cameraman, you pretty much only get one take to get the shot right. Film students tend to have the luxury of knowing they’ve got twenty or thirty takes. That’s a really expensive way to make films.”
Too many grieving relatives and court cases later, JT left the fourth estate to pursue music clips full time, via a best-forgotten stint in the world of current affairs and proto-reality shows – “I did time on Hinch” he winces, as if recalling a particularly heinous stint in the slammer – and a short while filming stock footage for nature docos in the South American jungle!
Newshound to music videos wasn’t such an odd step. Having grown up with band manager (Grinspoon) and tour promoter (Beastie Boys, At The Drive-In, Beck) Gregg Donovan and label manager (Modular, the now-defunct Fellaheen) and tour promoter (Nirvana) Steve Pavlovic, JT had somewhat of an in to the music scene. He’d made his first clips for Canberra bands The Hammonds and Three (the latter spewing out the relentlessly creative Ben Green, better known for his involvement with High Pass Filter, Legends Of Motorsport and, more recently, Kool Keith). But it was Bodyjar who lured him back to this life. Their track ‘You’ve Taken Everything’ was his first clip for the band, and they clearly liked what they got, returning to him for about a dozen or so videos. “They helped me really cut my teeth on the whole storyline clip thing,” he notes.
Storyline? What storyline? Let’s flashback in this storyline a little, to 1978, when the eight-year-old JT exited the cinema having just seen Star Wars for the first time. That’s when he knew he wanted to be a director, dad be damned. “It was so cool” he grins, like the 14-year-old he thinks his workspace makes him out to be (at 35, JT still has a child-like halo about him). He spun himself out trying to work out how they “tied down all those sets to the moon”, and today shamelessly acknowledges that while the effects had his kiddie brain convinced as to the authenticity of the Millennium Falcon, the effect on the course of his life was greater still.
“As you get older you just remember that feeling of getting totally lost in the film,” he continues. And to this day, JT loves to get lost in a narrative, which is why he has no time for what he calls “performance clips” – those Temazepam videos of a band on stage, souped up with a few washed out lights and chiropractic camera angles. And you agree, admit it: these tedious snooze buttons prolonging your Rage naps are anti-performance, from a viewer perspective, hindering your ability to make it to that 6am finish line.
Watching JT’s reel in his Fitzroy office, I comment that it’s like watching Rage with all the turds removed. He giggles, clearly delighted. ‘One In A Million’ is, perhaps, the epitome of his narrative approach, and JT cites it as one of his favourites, if only because it was so fun – and so weird. “To have fifty man-sized sperms looking at you is bizarre,” he chuckles. “The suits were body-hugging – you couldn’t wear underwear – and when we first handed them to the actors, they were a bit unsure, but the second they put them on they kind of bonded into this Sperm Union and they’d hang out in groups and almost gang up on the non-sperm people!”
Having noticed several props from various shoots decorating the office, I’m keen to know if JT kept a sperm suit. “I keep props all the time,” he says cheekily, refusing to answer the sperm suit question directly, making me wonder if it’s pulled out at night and used to entertain his girlfriend... The other question raised by the sperm people is whether or not JT would consider animation. “Lucy Dyson, one of two new directors [Rachel Hough is the other] we’ve just brought on, is an animator,” he answers. “But personally, I tend to shy away from it. I think it’s because I’m a cameraman, I like to be able to do an effect in-camera, old school, like in the fifties, in Hitchcock films. Instead of animating a million sperm, I’d rather put fifty people in sperm suits and take them down to Rod Laver Arena – where we shot that; for interest’s sake, the John Farnham Room was our testicle – and film that. That’s my thing.”
Just as narrative storylines are his thing. It’s a brave – some might say mad – stance. In fifteen years, JT has probably made only fifty-five or fifty-six clips. “The reason why I’m kind of limited,” he concedes, “is that I don’t like doing performance videos, they bore me. I only like doing storyline videos. Unless you have a massive budget and you can do something like Audioslave and put a band on top of a huge scaffolding with fireworks and shoot on 35 millimetre – now that’s a pretty speccy performance video and I’d only want to do it at that level. I can’t do that, however, so I’d rather make a story and entertain someone for three-and-a-half-minutes. But once you cut yourself out of doing performance videos, you pretty much cut yourself out of about 80 per cent of work that might be offered to you.”
Not that this bothers him. The Pope will sideline as the spokesman for RU-486 before JT shows any interest in working with the Deltas and the Nikkis of this world. “I don’t want to talk to five lawyers,” he sneers about that level of industry video-making, “I want to talk direct to the band. I like getting a correspondence with the artist, which is not so much asking them what made them write the song, because it’s not about that – a good clip to me is the director’s interpretation, as much as it’s a fan’s interpretation. Because a song means so many things to so many people.”
When he talks to bands, however, they frequently tell him: “We really want to work with you but we could never do this” – meaning: act, the primary prerequisite for a storyline clip. JT’s response: “Do you think they thought they could do it? You don’t know. Have you done that before? Do you want to give it a crack and maybe do something that could potentially stand out from anything else you’ve ever done before?” He doesn’t promise that every time, but says that if somebody wants to work with him, he’ll make it happen.
As long as they can pay.
JT freely admits that these days, it does take some coin to work with him. We’re not talking millions, but film costs money; the average clip in Australia is anywhere between $15,000 and $25,000. “Six or seven years ago,” he remarks, “I probably would have said ‘cool, give me what you’ve got and I’ll make you a clip’ – and I’ve done that for a lot of bands; The Living End’s ‘Prisoner Of Society’, for instance, was made for less than $5,000 – but now I’ve got a company with employees and I can’t actually afford to do that anymore.”
So what can The Wannabes, The Newbies, the NextBigThingabees do to get a good clip without jerry-rigging a counterfeit press next to the Brew Meister 1000 in the basement? “Start frequenting short film festivals,” JT quips, in all seriousness. “It’s a two-way street: either bands start going to short films festivals, or directors start going to gigs. I really believe the Australian music industry should get together with the Australian film industry and there should be some kind of conference, or a weekend, or a gig or even just a big-arsed piss-up, where bands that need clips made and directors that want to make clips get together, because they just don’t talk to each other.” He’s almost ready to thump the table with his fist, he’s so passionate about this. “That’s your happy medium there. Maybe it’s some magical, mystical world I’m talking about but they both exist,” he adds, as if he’s talking about elves and leprechauns. And from the looks of Video Hits, he may as well be.
“So the first thing I’d say to people who want to get a clip made is ‘There’s a place down the road called RMIT and there are people there who’re hungry to make films.’ Or, conversely, if you’ve got a digital camera and an edit suite and you wanna do it, then go for it, go to The Empress, go to The Tote, go find a band that stokes you and walk up to them and say ‘I wanna make a clip for you.’ That’s the best way to start. It’s how I got started.”
Meanwhile, JT thinks people – students – spend far too much time trying to get money to make short films that realistically are very difficult to get screened, whereas music clips get played all the time. “I’d rather do a music video than go put something into Tropfest, to be honest. The song is your narrative. Why bother writing a script?” Furthermore, music videos are basically cheat codes for film students, the visual equivalent of the theory: ‘it doesn’t matter what you say, it’s how you say it’ or ‘you can say anything as long as you set it to music’. A poorly constructed, nauseatingly shot music video is always going to beat a poorly constructed, nauseatingly shot short film. And people watch poorly constructed, nauseatingly shot music videos ALL THE TIME.
Extending that logic, people must watch skilfully constructed, beautifully shot music clips even more frequently (though quite how you can do something more frequently than all the time is a zen question for another article). And that’s where DVD steps up. If video killed the radio star, then DVD mutilated, decapitated and clusterfucked the video star. DVDs are for keeps and as DVDs and iPodMovieTM take over from CDs – only a month or so ago, Australia saw its first ever DVD single, released by Melbourne schmegeggies Yidcore – it’s more important than ever to not just Siamese pictures to your sounds, but to make sure they’re pictures people will want to watch as often as they like to listen. And as digital convergence – the phenomenon whereby your mobile phone is now your camera, address book, internet browser and radio/mp3 player, and will soon be your television, bank card, ID, car keys, waffle iron and dildo – speeds up, the aural and visual worlds will become more and more enmeshed, until they’re inseparable. We’re not there yet, but DVDs have already brought out the inner-hoarder in most music fans, and a DVD that’s just a band playing live gets pretty tiresome after several re-watchings. Reality’s great, but a well-scripted story, told visually or any other way, beats it every time. Or as JT sees it, it’s about “the whole package”.
This is the approach he takes with the other side of Taiyo Films’ business: DVD production. So far, JT and Darcy Maine, Taiyo’s producer, have done one ARIA winning DVD – Jet’s Right Right Right and an ARIA nominated The Living End’s From Here On In (both of which were also named in Rolling Stone’s Top 5 DVDs of 2004) – as well as Bodyjar’s Jarchives, The Hoodoo Gurus’ Tunnel Vision, DVDs for Paul Kelly & The Boon Companions and Eskimo Joe, Missy Higgins’ If You Tell Me Yours, I’ll Tell You Mine and The Living End’s How To Make An Album And Influence People. The whole package, JT explains, means treating a band’s DVD like a film. It’s the only way it’s going to compete. “It has to have everything the band has made, and if you don’t want to have everything, at least make it entertaining.” One concept Taiyo have used on most of the DVDs they’ve produced is the fanography: fans are invited to send in their photos, “not just of the band but of them with the band, so if you’re a fan you’re on the DVD and you’ll buy it. It’s really simple stuff; it’s not rocket science. It’s rock music.
“A DVD is such a powerful medium,” he continues. “Realistically, you can make maybe two DVDs in your career in Australia. If you put one out now, you’re not going to be putting another one out until you have at least another six or seven clips, or you’ve done something spectacular on a gig scale. So if you’re gonna put one out, you might as well make the most of it.”
Like “getting to know” Jet. In addition to the band’s clips, Right Right Right features a doco JT made that has been the most reviewed and commented part of the whole release. “Jet are now trying to release that DVD worldwide because it crapped all over the American and British slapdash jobs – because they didn’t know the band. We took the time to get to know the guys,” he comments, revealing the old newshound habits. “I’m just trying to represent the band as honestly and as truthfully as possible. Sometimes,” he adds, “that goes against what the management and labels want, but it’s hard to pull the rock star out of a rock star. Often it’s like they want you to make a horse look like a cow.”
Or a cashcow. Not surprisingly, JT acknowledges that the marriage of art and business is one of the toughest compromises that you’ve gotta make, on any level. “The difference between being poor and keeping your beliefs or actually making a comfortable living off what you do well is an art-form in itself.”
But this is one director, at least, who’s whittled that art form into collector’s pieces. Rage and Channel [V] may be swollen with glib cola ads, but thank fuck we have clip directors who take their art seriously, who know that the music video is more than just a commercial for a band – or a soft drink. Amongst all the ersatz skin clips, barely-disguised product placements and monotonous Clone-O-Matic gig vids, you might just catch something you actually want to watch again. Or you could just cut the crap and get the DVD.