Interview with Garrett Gibbons, visual storyteller and master of the music video

Garrett Gibbons describes himself as a visual storyteller. He’s actually an autodidact jack of all trades in the direction and production of film of all kinds. According to his bio, he has worked with clients from Sony Pictures, Paramount Pictures, Island Def Jam Motown Music Group, and musicians from around the world. He has also worked with LDS musicians Colby Miller and Alma Sanjo. Garrett lent us some time to answer a few questions about Seattle-based Indie hip hop, the blending of dance, video, and music, and of course, Justin Bieber.

Introduction to the world of music videos.

You got your start in music videos from in the Seattle hip hop world. From the outside, it looks like that scene is hitting its stride after slowly building national attention starting in the mid-2000s. At that time, Common Market and Blue Scholars were all over the place. This year, Macklemore & Ryan Lewis topped itunes and Billboard charts and got worldwide attention. What is the atmosphere like in-person?

Seattle is a challenging and beautiful place for artists. Unlike New York and L.A., where there’s a critical mass of full-time entertainers and performing musicians who are funded by record labels, Seattle is filled with independents who take a very different path to bringing their art to audiences. There’s a lot of innovation and experimentation in terms of distribution, funding models, and other business aspects of the music industry, as well as innovation in the music itself.

It’s bizarre that Seattle has such a vibrant hip-hop community, considering our lack of involvement in the rap boom of the 90s (and the fact that Seattle was then branded for our grunge and punk bands), but nobody is complaining. The city mayor shows up at the occasional Blue Scholars, Common Market or Macklemore show, local businesses show all kind of support to the music, and even other genres of music within Seattle are spilling into and out of the hip-hop community. It’s not uncommon to see a folk singer or concert violinist perform a set on stage with an emcee, and live hip-hop bands like Theoretics, Dyno Jamz and The Physics are characterized by a multidisciplinary musical background, both in terms of the music and the lyrical approach. There’s a ton of cross-pollination.

How did you come to be connected to the scene?

Heard Common Market on Pandora during my last year at BYU, got very inspired, THEN found out they were in Seattle. Got to Seattle, volunteered to take photos at a Haiti benefit show right after the earthquake in Haiti, met Ryan Abeo/RA Scion and his wife there, bonded instantly for whatever reason. They came over for dinner, we talked music videos. They took a huge chance on me since I’d never done a music video before. It was the beginning of a still-strong friendship. Ryan’s wife, Mariangela, is also a strong figure in the Seattle underground music world and having her as a friend was helpful. They were happy with the final product and other rappers heard about me as a result. Also interesting: their 15 year old daughter has been in a lot of my videos. She was the queen in Soothsayer, the ballet dancer in Alabaster’s “Overcome,” an extra in Kirby Krackle’s “World Full of Heroes,” et cetera. She’s a ballet dancer. They’re a great family and we still get together whenever possible.

The creative process.

Your music videos tend to feature extensive dance sequences. Do artists come to you if they want to feature dancing in their videos, or is that something that you tend to suggest?

A few musicians have come to me for a specific project because they had dance in mind. I try to be very open about the fact that I’m obsessed with dance (as well as music), and I’ve been trying to work on every major dance/film project I’ve been presented with, but I don’t think that most people know all of that about me. Usually, I just throw it out there like it’s the first time I’ve thought of the idea. “I know! We can feature a few dancers in this music video! We can get a krumper and some poppers and it will fit the theme perfectly!”

I love working with dancers, but I haven’t put dance in every video I’ve made: I do make a point of exercising self-restraint when dance isn’t going to help the video.

How much of your work is making the musician’s artistic vision reality versus selling your ideas to the musician?

There are generally two types of creative genesis behind most of the projects I’ve been involved with: group collaboration and personal vision.
I’m a firm believer in collaboration, and often I’ll just start talking through ideas with the musician and see where it leads. I tend to feel that all ideas should be spoken and considered, even if it seems stupid at the time. As a result there is often a lot of brainstorming and creative resonance during the project development. That environment tends to be very organic, and if the creative relationship is strong between me and the musicians or producers, the sum usually becomes greater than the parts that went into it. In that type of environment it’s hard to say who owns which aspects or which ideas of a project.

In other circumstances, there’s an initial and prevailing creative vision that informs the entire project. In those cases, the musician usually comes to me with a song (or an album, asking me to pick a song), and asks me to come up with something. I listen to the song over and over again, sometimes for weeks, until I can visualize the music video in my head every time I listen to it. Then I do my best to write the vision down and communicate it to the artists. It always shapes and develops and changes during the course of production, but it’s based in a strong initial visual concept (be it a storyline, a world, a lighting style, an editing approach, etc…).

I occasionally also have musicians approach me with their idea and ask them to make it happen. That’s a similar process that’s almost entirely reversed, where I’m trying to translate their mental vision into something that I understand, kind of like transcribing someone else’s dream and then making a movie about it. It’s intimidating and challenging to take on someone else’s vision, but that approach is as important as the reverse situation.

In the case of the music video I directed for Theoretics’ “Jekyll & Hyde,” you can see evidence of both strong creative vision and group collaboration: the first time I heard to song, I had this melodramatic, dark comedy story play in my mind, almost like a 21st-century Tex Avery cartoon. I told Mark Hoy (one of the emcees) that we needed to make a music video for that song, but we weren’t ready for it yet. After months of brainstorming with the band, hearing their ideas and pitching mine, they turned it over to me and I wrote the screenplay which closely resembles the final product.

As an experienced dancer yourself, you’ve been on both sides of the camera. Do you find that you draw on your performing experience as a director?

Absolutely. My performance experience and my directing experience directly feed into each other.

The Bieb.

Is Justin Bieber equally dreamy, somewhat more dreamy, or significantly more dreamy when viewed frame by frame and close up?

In 5k resolution 3D, wearing those annoying glasses for three days straight while editing hours of footage without sleep to make the short deadline for “Santa Claus is Coming to Town,” everything was a bit dreamy.

How much Hollywood magic did it take to make it appear that he was actually playing the drums?

Surprisingly, Justin actually is a great drummer! Fun fact: his manager randomly purchased that custom steampunk drum set during filming. I believe that he took it home, but I’m not sure how he got it on the plane.

Another fun fact: Justin actually is also an excellent singer. I expected an auto-tuned teenager and was shocked at his serious vocal chops. That’s all that I’ll say about Justin Bieber.

How did you come to edit his 3D steampunk-pop-and-lock Christmas tune movie?

I doubt that many people see the connection, but that music video was almost entirely produced by the team who made The LXD, a reasonably-high-budget web series created by Jon Chu (director of Step Up 2 and 3), which is kind of a breakdancing X-Men sort of story. I was involved in season three of The LXD and ended up editing an episode for director Charles Oliver (who directed roughly 1/3 of The LXD episodes) to help make the short deadline.

Charles Oliver was later asked to direct the Santa Claus Justin Bieber music video. The turnaround was insanely short (about three days), especially for a 3D music video with a theatrical premiere (it showed in theaters immediately before Arthur Christmas during November and December 2011). Charles called me up and asked if I could be there for filming over the weekend and then edit the video during the first part of the following week. I opted out of being there for filming but flew down to L.A. and barely left the editing chair for 72 hours until it was finished.

It was fun to work again with Charles Oliver, an excellent director, as well as D.P. Alice Brooks and a slew of dancers who had LXD connections. I can’t say that I’m a Bieber fan but it was a good gig with good people.

Production, direction, & editing.

Aside from budget, how do you decide whether to do mini-films with a story line, high production values, props, costumes, extras, etc (a la Theoretics “Jekyll and Hyde”) versus a near straightforward performance (like the Alabaster “Overcome”)?

Since you mentioned those two videos, I should note that they were filmed during the same period. I wanted to make sure they weren’t too similar (since I was in a serious Jekyll & Hyde mindset for a few months there), so part of the feel of “Overcome” is in response to not being a story like “Jekyll & Hyde”. Some songs and topics lend themselves more to a more narrative-based storyline, while others seem to lend themselves more towards the abstract. The third music video I made for Theoretics (“Go”) is entirely abstract and has far less story than Alabaster’s “Overcome” (which actually has a pretty concrete storyline between the dancers, as I’m sure you noticed).

You work in many film genres including your forthcoming full length documentary on Gibraltar. What is your preferred genre? Do you enjoy the wide variety, or would you prefer to make your living in a narrow specialty?

Like many these days, I’m just sort of improvising as I go along, trying to make a living and make a contribution to the community. As a result, I’ve been doing weddings, music videos, TV commercials, documentary film, and all sorts of other projects.

In an ideal world, I’d make feature-length narrative films, with a few music videos on the side. Music videos are a very free, unconstrained medium, and it’s great to take the occasional romp through the creative hinterlands of my bizarre mind and the bizarre minds of musicians I’ve chosen to work with.

Who are your directorial and editorial heroes? Do you ever intentionally crib from them while you plan your work?

I definitely have my unique style and approach, but I borrow heavily from a few key filmmakers, especially in terms of music videos. The Cohen brothers taught me to use wide-angle lenses well. Wes Anderson’s insane level of involvement in his sets, costumes and props is something I admire but can rarely even approximate. In terms of filming and lighting dancers, I borrow heavily from cinematographer Alice Brooks and her use of silhouettes and backlighting. I steal from Naruto (the manga/anime) often when I need ideas for dynamic camera movement. Carlos Saura is probably my top film inspiration, both in terms of his narrative style and his use of dance, and if you look closely at my work you can see a lot that’s borrowed from “Flamenco” (1995) and “Tango” (1998), two of my favorite Carlos Saura films. Jacques Demy’s “Les Demoiselles de Rochefort” (1967) makes its way into almost everything I do, as well.

The purpose of music videos has gone from trying to get on MTV to collecting youtube hits in the last decade. What do you see at the future of music videos?

I have no idea. I’m just glad that it’s not on MTV anymore (though I loved watching MTV for hours on end as a teenager). Web video is an awesome and equalizing force for independent musicians, and the future looks bright.

Spiritual dimensions.

Common Market reminds me of early Common and Tribe Called Quest and other Native Tongues Posse-types in their articulate attempts at consciousnesses-raising. I imagine that this is influenced by their own spiritual paths. Did you ever have a spiritual conversation or experience with an artist you’ve worked with?

Ryan Abeo, also known as RA Scion (the emcee of Common Market), is a very spiritual person, as are his wife and daughter. We’ve had a number of spiritual conversations in relation to making art. Spiritual beliefs are often closely linked to our artistic expression, and I’ve found that it’s common to have spiritually-charged experiences with other artists during the development of a music video or film project. I’m not sure if it’s possible for someone to make sincere art without being spiritually sensitive to a certain degree. I often get to hear about the genesis of a band or an album or a song during the process of making a music video, and that sensitivity and respect for the various sources of artistic inspiration seems to be a very common trait that many musicians hold.

How do your spiritual/religious convictions impact your artistic expression?

My values and beliefs shape the projects I take on and the way I execute them. That said, a director isn’t a dictator, and at the end of the day I don’t have full creative control over anything I direct. Collaboration is filled with compromise. That becomes most obvious when a song has swears that I’d rather it not have, for example, but sometimes the contract is in place before the lyrics are recorded so it becomes tricky. At the end of the day, my goal is to inspire and uplift and bring beauty and understanding into the world, even if it’s just by asking questions or presenting challenging material to my audiences. People have talents, and I see my primary job as helping other people to bring their talents to new and larger audiences.

Check out more of Garrett’s work and follow upcoming projects at his personal site, twitter, and facebook.

Interview with Garrett Gibbons, visual storyteller and master of the music video

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