Interview with Renowned Music Video Director – David Herrera

For ten years, David Herrera (who also works under the alias rebus101) has been recognized as one of the most esteemed and respected music video directors in the business today. Drawing on his experience as a musician, illustrator, and filmmaker, Mr. Herrera has worked with artists ranging from Erykah Badu and Kyle Krone to Mnemonic and Andrew Bird. While still in film school, Herrera created an unofficial video for Radiohead’s “How To Disappear Completely.” While most unofficial or fan videos are immediately removed by the artist, their management, and/or label, the video for “How To Disappear Completely” was so beloved it has actually become a veritable official video, unofficially. It even landed a spot on Paste Magazine’s list of the 50 best music videos of all time and has amassed well over a million views on YouTube.

In the past year, Mr. Herrera has added ‘college instructor’ to his résumé, having been enlisted by UCLA to teach the first ever, music video production class in the entire United States.  And, as if that weren’t enough to keep him busy, Herrera is also in the process of illustrating a graphic novel, GÖLDEN, with plans to record an album to accompany its release. And even so, somewhere between brushing his teeth and flossing, David Herrera found some time to do an exclusive email interview with Think Like A Label.

Do you feel your education properly prepared you for the realities of your career or has it been more a matter of “learning as you go?”

My first education was just as a “musician” with my family, and then playing in all kinds of bands growing up. But I guess my relationship with formal education is kind of complicated. I have always loved art education. My mom bought me one of those “Learn to Draw By Mail” courses when I was a kid, which I loved. I mean, later on, in college studying film theory, there were times when education was tedious, but I feel like those times were even helpful. At the same time, there is also something to be said about not being “an artist,” locked up in my room, writing or painting or playing music, and just getting out there with people and making films. That is still difficult for me and I tend to really just tell people in the crew “this is what I want” and not really collaborate or interact too much. I’m really lucky for the auteur theory allowing me to be a sort of dictator, one of the very last professions that allow that, because otherwise I would be terrified to be so demanding of other people. Because I really spend a lot of time learning about things on my own and feel that I know what I’m talking about and have made certain decisions in advance already; my crusade is structuring those creative decisions in a very deliberate and systematic way, to create specific ideas expressed in a certain way, that I really don’t want to be messed with.

But education is all about teaching yourself and making that effort alone. I actually have spent years in libraries just wandering around and reading about things that interest me. I guess I was lucky to have always had an amazing public library nearby. And in L.A. they are full of VHS and DVDs of classic Hollywood and foreign art films. Some of my education came from teachers at NYU and Berkeley, but I’d have to be honest and say that the people who really didn’t really want to learn more about the art of “cinema” didn’t really ever do well in class, or do much in or after college. The ones who just went out and made films without any thought behind it just landed up some kind of assistants for their careers before quitting the business entirely.

For me, self education is an obsession and that’s why I’m primarily self-taught. But, without the academic environment, I think my obsession would not have been accepted as legitimate by the people in my life and I guess that has even helped me to keep pursuing it, even during very tough economic times. That’s why I teach a Music Video Production class now, at UCLA. It’s just that it gives me a reliable income so I don’t have to take on unwanted projects for strictly commercial reasons. And at the same time, I want to keep that art alive, and to do that because those sensitive people, those young filmmakers, need to feel like they are a part of something bigger than just working alone at home at their little desk and fulfill their dreams as a director, a hero, even if it is as David Bowie said: “Just for one day.”

How do you find balance between staying true to what you envision artistically, or cinematically, to what will fit a particular artist?  

Early on, I just made the videos with very little input from the artists because I was afraid the purity of my concept would become corrupted. I would describe in great detail and make drawings and then just say this is what  it is going to be and this is how much its going to cost, and they would just give me the money and let me be. But as years have gone by, I have had some “situations” where the recording artists think they are directors. I won’t name names but there are more and more of them that think it’s easy. My answer to those rare people is always, “if you think you can do it better than why did you hire me in the first place?” I even walked off a project with one artist because it became clear that she wanted me to make her vision of the video and not mine. That is stupid. I set her up with a crew and said “here you go, you direct it”. And she did. And it came out terrible.

Now, I actually try to gauge in early talks how much respect they have for me as a creative artist before we even get started and save everyone a lot of time. I’m not a craftsman. I work not only with my hands, but with my heart, and I believe that is what makes someone an artist. But, I have always welcomed their suggestions. Musicians tend to be some of the most creative thinkers I know and to throw away their good ideas when they have them. And if those ideas can be done cinematically, within the budget we are working with, then I would be a fool to waste those ideas. It’s just that their ideas usually tend to be amateurish or not too well defined. And it’s not their fault; they are musicians, not directors. But, I will be teaching a new filmmaking class at Musicians Institute in Hollywood tomorrow and I am sure a handful of musicians will be taking the class to learn tips on how to direct music videos.

We’ve all seen examples of music videos attracting or isolating an audience. How important do you feel the relationship between the music and the video is? 

There are many different theories about the relationship of how to attract or “distance” your audience that I won’t get into because they are very dry and academic, but it is suffice to say that I am a director who likes to challenge my audience, always, just enough [for a reaction]. I really believe that if all you do is give an audience what they expect then they will hate you. They actually want to be surprised.

As far as the relationship of the music to the video, most of my videos are only thematically related to the music. They are set in the same mood. That is done through selections of color schemes, composition, camera movement and other nuances of cinema language. They have to give the music another dimension, otherwise, why even watch them? The worst thing you can do is make a music video where someone sings about a horse and in that shot at that moment you see a horse. That still irritates me when I see it to this day. There is a whole new generation of kids with DSLR cameras who have no artistic sense or education but they have amazing technological polish. We have a word for them: “hacks.” It’s really stupid. I hope the audience is not that stupid. I really do. That’s why my videos tend to be something you may have to watch a second time to understand. My videos are like puzzles. That’s where the company name comes from. A “rebus” is a picture puzzle that creates a statement by sequencing what look like random images. [Example: Puzzle =A picture of a bee, a plus sign, the letter “N”, and a picture of an ice cube. And the solution would be: “Be Nice”. That’s kind of the way cinema works. The audience has to put it together for themselves and they love you for respecting their intelligence enough to let them do that.

Given the storied career you’ve had thus far, and the caliber of the artists with whom you’ve worked, you must be in quite high demand. How do you select what projects to work on and which to pass up? 

You would be surprised. Every recording artists seems to have a friend now that has a DSLR camera and is a “Director”. Especially in Hollywood. Its an epidemic. After quitting from a big music video production company once I learned how they are made, I decided to go against the system as it is and actively seek out new music that has personal value to me and make efforts to reach out to work with those bands I think have talent, usually well before they often become popular or famous. I just listen to a lot of new music, all day. I talk to record store freaks and other musicians to see what’s new and good. I spy, I guess, and do reconnaissance.

What makes me land up making the decision are a few factors. First, the music has to be great to me. That’s how I get to work with bands before they get famous. I take that risk. Second question is “are the guys in the band respectable?” If people are saying “that guy is an asshole” or if he/she is rude when I meet them, or I see the guys just snorting cocaine all night, then me, no, I’m not getting into a creative project with them. Lastly, the budget has to be in line with their notoriety. And this is a new rule for me, even.

When a famous guy puts out a video, people expect a lot more than when it’s the hottest new band in the local scene. I will do a cheap lo-fi video for a local band if they are open to investing some money, but there are two things I won’t do (and too many new hack filmmakers will do) and that is to do a free video as a favor, or to do a cheap video for a famous band, as a favor. It’s not that the videos are bad when they are done below the level of spectacular production that their fans are expecting, it’s just that some people, a lot of people (let’s be honest), are just kinda dumb and don’t want to be challenged to appreciate a video as a work of art. They just expect a mindless spectacle. That has never, and will never, be my thing. I want the video to be something the audience remembers because it was challenging. But if a band is down to invest in their own video, by all means let them check out my website. My contact info is there. I work with new artists all the time.

I happen to adore the work of Anton Corbijn, but many people complain that the videos he makes are ‘too Anton’ and don’t allow room for the identity of the artists he’s working with. Do you ever feel like your work is too ‘you’ and not enough of the artist? Since modern day music videos are so much more than literal translations of lyrics, as they were in their early days, should it matter?

I think artists can only be “too Anton.” I mean, once again it’s important to include the suggestions of the recording artists and sometimes even the record label people, but it’s impossible to expect anything but me being me and making something that represents my personality. That’s what happens if I’m lucky. If I’m lucky, it’s a very clear representation of my vision. Bands or label execs who complain about the video being too much a reflection of the director need to either find a hack they can boss around, which will make a terrible video from an artistic perspective because it will lack perhaps the most important quality in art–which is unity–or take more time in selecting the director for a specific song. I mean you wouldn’t get Chris Cunningham to direct a funny song for the Beastie Boys or ask Spike Jonze to do a dark techno, sci-fi video for an atmospheric and moody Bjork song would you? No, that would be a mistake. But a big part of surviving as a record exec is blaming your mistakes on other people so… whatever. Let them complain. As far as the audience’s expectations not being met, those are fans. Let them make fan videos if they don’t like my vision. We live in a time where that is possible.

In the music industry, artists are having to take on more roles than in years past. Do you find this is true for the visual aspects of the industry, as well? Are you finding yourself having to take on responsibilities you didn’t before because labels aren’t spending the money they used to, and more artists are funding their own projects?

Absolutely. But, I mean, I have always done everything on my own videos when the budget is small. But, when they are bigger, I hire better people for the production, as needed. I’m not an octopus. I only have two hands. But the budget doesn’t matter for the actual artistic quality of the video. It’s the creativity of a concept, the clarity of vision, and the best execution within your means that matters. Some people insist on using a ridiculously high-end camera and then make a stupid but beautiful video. I just hope recording artists don’t get caught up in the vanity of just being made to “look cool” in their videos. That is always embarrassing, even when its pulled off as requested. Vanity is a really unattractive quality in a person, or a star. It’s the disease that plagues entertainment. Vanity sucks. The recording artists understand that ever since the work of Gondry and Jonze, people are expecting something conceptually interesting. It’s not enough anymore just to stand there playing and looking “cool.” I like to think that the art form has reached a certain level of expectation, but even if the budgets are lower than the Golden Age of the ’90s, we still have to live up to that standard somehow. Which is the way I like it.

In an interview you did with Lively in July of 2011, you suggested people trying to establish themselves in the industry; “choose one thing and be the best at it.”  Do you think this is increasingly difficult in today’s climate? Touching again on if/how your responsibilities have changed with the evolution of the music industry as a whole, do you think it’s still best to isolate one talent/skill set and try to do it better than anyone else, or do you think everyone is now expected to be a veritable expert on just about everything?

You can try your hand at as many things as you like; all those artistic skills will help you in any art form you land up making your focus on. But, I believe it’s important to eventually choose one thing and be the best at it, even when it’s other people telling you that you are better at one thing than another, you can’t listen. I mean, I might be a better musician than filmmaker or illustrator, and I still make time for all of those things and they all inform my work as a music video director. I understand music better than a non-musician. I can do good storyboards because of my illustration training and experience and that painting experience helps me make better lighting, composition and color palette choices in my music videos. But making music videos is the summation of all those years of training in all those other art forms, and those opportunities only come with the determination to be that one thing called a Music Video Director.

My music video work is starting to lead to opportunities in developing my own feature film material at the major Hollywood film studios these days, which is great, but I still need and want to keep making music videos because that is the summation of all those skills, and it’s the most fun to do for that reason. But yes, I’m illustrating a graphic novel called GÖLDEN right now because I wrote an album of music for it. When it’s done, I’ll put together a band and record the music. Then, I’ll use those video skills to direct a feature film based on it. That’s my goal. I always go back to music and illustration whenever I’m not directing videos. The first issue of my comic book series will be done soon, and I will publish that too. Keep an eye out for GÖLDEN at your local comic book stores soon.

You’ve had work featured everywhere from film festivals to art museums. With music videos being so highly respected in all artistic circles do you think it affords more freedom creatively or is the scope so broad now that it’s more difficult creatively?

I don’t know if it’s more difficult now because I’ve gotten more comfortable in the process, just as slowly as it has declined in budget. It’s been a very gradual change for me, so I’m probably not the best guy to ask that. When I entered the music video industry after college in 2004 it was still very big. And I left the big company early on when finding money was so much easier. And then the money became slowly harder to find but my budgets went up, ever so slowly, with every video. But once again, the artistic quality comes not from the size of the budget but how you choose to use what you have. I remember reading about the exam for entrance into the Beijing Film Academy, the one big career-launching school for the billions of people in China. There is just a room with four heads of the departments sitting there, and a chair with a broom on it in front of them. When the applicant comes in, they simply say: “Tell us a story with this broom and that chair.” When Zhang Yimou came in and amazed them with his story, it launched his career. And its not just like that for artists in China, that’s how it is everywhere. And it always will be.

*For information on hiring David Herrera, or simply to check out his amazing body of work, visit www.rebus101.com

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