VMAs 2011: Best Special Effects

10 Aug

This is an difficult category. Last year’s winner, Muse’s “Uprising,” is full of obvious effects work that culminates in a giant teddy bear revolution. Yet in 2009 Lady Gaga’s “Paparazzi” took home the title for much subtler work, which is actually somewhat difficult to initially spot. This year’s spread is similarly diverse. Some of the videos just use basic effects to spice up an otherwise conventional film while others take advantage of impressive CG imagery to create strange self-contained worlds.

The craftsmanship is quite good across the board, yet that’s not always enough. Winners in the category are sometimes just autopilot wins for a popular video, but more often tend to be very impressive examples of over the top effects tied to the themes of the song. Think Robbie Williams’ down to the bone striptease in “Rock DJ” or the crazy robots in Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit.” The best effects engineers in this category not only experiment with fancy CG imagery but help their films build a clear visual milieu.


Chromeo: “Don’t Turn the Lights On”

Effects by The Mill


The Mill is hardly new to the special effects game. Founded in 1990, they picked up an Oscar for “Gladiator” and currently engineer the charismatic visuals of “Dr. Who” and “Torchwood” for the BBC. Yet their work on this Chromeo video is unique even in the context of their other projects. The visual concept of “Don’t Turn the Lights On” is the kind of gimmick that would only work in the short format of a music video. Playing around with darkness, The Mill isolates the eyes and mouths of the Canadian electrofunk duo. It produces an oddly retro feel, reminiscent of “Rockit” and its mid-80s video robots. The song needs the whimsical bounce of the effects to keep things interesting alongside the repetitive techno rhythms, and the creativity is ratcheted up as the video moves forward. From apparating extras to floating eyeballs, this video runs with an otherwise one-note effects idea and affirms the all-important electrofunk beat.


Linkin Park: “Waiting for the End”

Effects by Ghost Town Media


I love concept albums, and as it turns out they make for eminently cool videos. Ghost Town Video has done the effects work for all four videos tied to Linkin Park’s A Thousand Suns, which extend the album’s esoteric artwork into the realm of the moving image. The VMA-nominated “Waiting for the End” is a trippy experiment in digital representation and the most effectively otherworldly of the bunch. Rendering the members of the band as composite constellations in space, intermingled with eerie animal imagery, creates a chill atmosphere to accompany the song’s ambiguous sense of mortality. Director Joe Hahn was pushing the video along a digital route to spirituality, and that absolutely comes through. It’s the most experimental work in the category and is more deliberate in its use of effects than the competition.


Manchester Orchestra: “Simple Math”

Effects by Daniels


This music video reminds me a lot of the Michael Bay-directed Meat Loaf videos I wrote about on Spout a while back. Like the appropriately long-winded “Objects in the Rear View Mirror May Appear Closer than They Are,” Manchester Orchestra’s weepy “Simple Math” is a ham-handed Freudian trip down memory lane. A car crash induces its driver to think back upon his childhood and the source of his daddy issues, to the point that time seems to rip at the seams. His tipping automobile blends with a father-son hunting trip and some melodramatic breakfast at home, causing various liquids to behave strangely. The effects themselves are pretty good, though not particularly mind-blowing, and they add very little creative energy to an already derivative and deeply uninteresting video concept. And while the entire narrative idea fits with the song lyrics well enough, the text is so open-ended there are probably countless other possibilities that would make this a more compelling film.


Katy Perry (featuring Kanye West): “E.T.”

Effects by Jeff Dotson for Dot & Effects


Obviously “E.T.” is the big budget heavyweight in the category. There are robots, spaceships and impossibly fluid make-up etchings on Katy Perry’s surreal alien forehead. Yet it never feels excessive, primarily because the absurdly intricate visuals actually become less over the top as the video moves forward. Perry enters as a purple mass of silks floating through space, with one of those classic alien heads, and grows increasingly more human. If you can ignore Kanye being obnoxious (and floating around in a surprisingly terrestrial and uninspired get-up) the video artfully uses its crazy effects to build up a neat visual articulation of the song’s themes. At the end we see Perry and a recently robotic Shaun Ross standing on the surface of a barren planet, two exotic and unique individuals made more natural in the context of the video’s overall psychedelics.  The whole thing manages to be delightfully trippy yet curiously balanced at the same time, much of which has to do with pitch-perfect effects work.


Kanye West (featuring Dwele): “Power”

Effects by Nice Shoes and ArtJail


As Kanye himself tweeted, “Power” isn’t a video so much as it is a painting in motion. And while his cocky demeanor gets in the way during “E.T.,” it’s perfect for a short concept film like this one. It is in essence two minutes of effects work with the rap track laid over top of it, and like a finely detailed fresco it takes a lot of close attention to get the full picture. Watch it a few times. Sure, Kanye’s irritating persona is the entire point of the song but the special effects work is so fantastic that it transforms “Power” into art instead of just more musical grandstanding. The strange blend of various ancient cultural aesthetics, slowly floating fabrics and constant subtle movement turn a bland video of Kanye surrounded by naked women into something a bit more intriguing than your standard ego-plus-video-hoes-formula.


Summing up:

This is a tough one. “E.T.” is the most lushly impressive, yet some of its elements are a little lackluster. Kanye’s detached and occasionally misogynistic contribution is not only musically unnecessary, but seems to have been ignored by the effects team as well. In contrast, “Waiting for the End” is not only the most thematically ambitious but also the most effective in bringing out the full scope of its vision. Well done, Ghost Town Media.

Verdict: “Waiting for the End”


One Response to “VMAs 2011: Best Special Effects”


  1. VMAs 2011: Best Editing « ShortStack - August 11, 2011

    […] you’ve read yesterday’s Special Effects round-up then you know that I cannot stand this video. Yet again I find myself compelled to say nice things […]

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