Work / Art + Music

“Don’t be a dick” – Us talks us through creating great music videos

Chris Barrett and Luke Taylor met on the graphic design course at Kingston University and went onto to form Us, a directorial studio based in London. The award-winning duo have created commercial work for Airbnb, Honda, Nike and The Sunday Times but today we’re particularly interested in their music videos, as they’ve created inventive and engaging work for the likes of Labrinth, Dels, Benga, Foals and Wiley. We sat down with them this week to pick their brains about the art of making great music videos and found the boys in fine form, happy to share what they’ve learned about this creative craft.

On the director/artist relationship

The best kind of outputs we’ve had is when the artist has given us a little bit of freedom. They’ve not tried to be too imposing and there’s been quite a fluid process; here’s my music, here’s something of a starting point, a mood or a feeling. What does the song mean to them? What’s it about? What kind of visuals do they have in their head? Any good relationship works better when it’s a mutual thing – a little bit of freedom to explore but a bit of going back and forth.

We try and cut out design by committee. The ideas we create are built on multiple layers and everything happens for a reason. It’s like a puzzle. But for other directors some of their most amazing ideas arrive when an artist comes to them with an idea and they bring it to life in the most amazing way. If we know an artist wants something very specific we’re better off saying ‘We’re not that.’”

With Labrinth he wanted to be really involved and it was great because we had his full attention and it really felt like a collaboration. But we had a crisis meeting two days before the shoot. We went to his house and he was really grilling us, asking “what would his audience would take from it? Why was it entertaining?” It’s weird because you don’t want to give away things too quickly but you have to do something. It’s a hard one to balance.

“If it’s good enough people will share it. We never use the word viral.”

Us Studio

On the relationship with a song

You have to listen to it too much. But by the point you get to a shoot – Labrinth must have listened to that song millions of times because he’s such a perfectionist and then you’ve done the same thing, so when you’re on set you’ll say, “You know that bit when you’re singing under what you’re singing, can you lip synch that?” and he’ll say, “Oh I didn’t think anyone else hears that!”

It’s the songs that we’ve loved that have been the better videos. You have more of an emotional connection to it but sometimes you can like a track too much and in the pitching stage, and we try too hard. It’s like a really attractive girl, you’re trying to chase after it. Also some songs you hate because you can’t think of an idea and then as soon as you do think of one you think it’s the best song ever.

The song becomes like a script, like a roller coaster and you pick up on comments in that journey. We always try to embed those into the track so it feels more connected. Most of our ideas will come from the track itself; it’s like there’s a visual musicality to what you’re hearing.

On the significance of simplicity (at the start)

We like to be able to sum up the main idea in one sentence. For us, coming from a graphic design background, we like to break everything down to what is the core idea and everything answers that as we go through. Also it helps in pitching. If they get what you’re doing after one sentence you’re off to a good start and then you can start trying to convince them about the details.

On battling for attention

We don’t know what the number of seconds is before you lose a viewer, but we always say – why would I want to watch a three minute music video beyond the song? It should be there to entertain you and it should give you some kind of reaction. It has to give you something or it’s not worth spending the time and the money doing it.

It’s not really about the technicality. That comes secondary in our minds to the core idea; the “ah jeez how are we even going to do this.” It should be an entertaining thing that surprises people rather than them worrying about the technicalities. That should come at the end; “how did they even do that?” We don’t want people being taken out if it; it’s more about the narrative or the emotion.

On the dangers of trying to make something shareable

If it’s good enough people will share it. We never use the word viral. It’s very common to get a brief that says, “We want to make a viral video” and that’s when we go back and say “let’s just make something good and hopefully it will get picked up.” There are definitely videos you see where you can see the brief was to “do something viral.”

It’s more about doing something that has never been seen in this light, thinking this is such an interesting perspective I am sure people will find this interesting. It’s not, “oh wow this cat is going to get loads of likes.” Most of our videos that have gone the most viral are things that we had no idea were good. You never know what people will pick up on.

We do find OK GO a bit too much. We think they sit down and think how they’re going to get the next viral hit. They started in this place with the treadmills which was amazing but now they’re constructing these worlds. The funny thing is I couldn’t sing one OK GO song…

“Don’t be a dick is a good rule we try and stick to. [Shoot day is] one of the most stressful days in terms of what you have to get done. If you’re being a dick that will be amplified even more.”

Us Studio

On looking at an artist’s back catalogue of videos

We would definitely look at them, to analyse them as a performer – when does he perform best? When is he most comfortable? What can he pull off? What does he look good in? We try and break it down.

I remember speaking to Jonathan Glazer about when he did Virtual Insanity with Jamiroquai, he looked at his old videos and saw one where he danced in the most amazing way. He decided he wanted to make a video all about how he moves, so he built this idea around that and it’s one of the most amazing performance videos.

With a new artist it’s an interesting proposition giving them a visual identity. It’s their first exposure to the world; it can stunt them or they can become the coolest thing ever. That campaign of music and videos is a really strong package especially because people are using YouTube to listen to music with playlists and things.

“You hear horror stories about how directors build this tension and piss everyone off. We both believe if you have a positive vibe on set then people will work harder and better for you.”

Us Studio

On the atmosphere on set

You hear horror stories about how directors build this tension and piss everyone off. We both believe if you have a positive vibe on set then people will work harder and better for you. If you piss them off and ask things you shouldn’t, they’re not going to want to do a good job. That seems like common sense. Once you get to a shoot day you’re the captain of the ship but you’re really just another cog in a series of cogs, and if one of them goes wrong, it all goes wrong.

Don’t be a dick is a good rule we try and stick to. It’s one of the most stressful days in terms of what you have to get done. If you’re being a dick that will be amplified even more.

On friendly competition

We watch a lot of music videos. There’s definitely friendly competitive camaraderie. A lot of the time you’ll all have the same brief and we’ll go in to meet an artist and another director we know is coming down the stairs!

I love it when you see something and think, “Damn that’s good.” Not only does it inspire you to make better work but it’s just great to see the industry doing interesting things. We were pitching on a video for Duck Sauce but Keith Schofield got it and when it came out we thought we’re so glad this exists as a video. We would not have done that at all.