How do you judge cinematography in a music video? On the one hand it’s effectively the same craft as feature film photography, and requires the same eye. Yet the form does need to be considered separately. These videos are almost never going to be seen on the big screen and a good DP should be conscious that the vast majority of the audience will be watching on TV or a computer. Breathtaking wide visuals won’t be as effective as sharp use of contrast or color. It’s far too easy for impressive framing to seem silly or slight in a small YouTube window.
Thankfully, this batch of nominees know what they’re doing. These DPs have an extraordinary amount of experience between them, having framed films like “Enter the Void” and “Top Gun.” The work itself is also wildly varied, from the epic midnight spook of “Hurricane” to the ebullient summer breezes of “Teenage Dream.” Yet there’s also a wonderful experimental fraternity among these videos. They cut back and forth between images connected primarily through thematic intuition, using impressively framed visual symbols to illustrate the music. Such loose metaphor depends not only on high quality editing and direction but also clarity in each individual shot. These nominees more than meet that challenge.
30 Seconds to Mars: “Hurricane”
Cinematography by Benoît Debie, Jared Leto, Rob Witt and Daniel Carberry
Debie has quite the impressive resume, including two collaborations with New French Extremity director Gaspar Noé. It seems “Enter the Void” has more of an influence on this year’s VMAs than Kanye’s “All of the Lights” alone. The rest of the team includes band member Leto, who also directed the video, and two other cinematographers with as yet less storied careers. The work this motley band of DPs has gathered into the epic 13 minutes of “Hurricane” is fascinating. At times boldly cinematic in its wide New York City vistas, there is a palpable sense of grand dread for the duration. However there are also equally intense moments of claustrophobia, trapping Leto in a coffin or wandering around the tight confines of the subway. The dark and unsettling beauty of this intimidating fantasy is captured in every shot, playing with eerie contrast and pernicious sexuality.
Adele: “Rolling in the Deep”
Cinematography by Tom Townend
The camera does not stop moving in this video, not once. Townend pushes in and out in each successive shot, keeping up the momentum in this constant and determined video. It’s not a simple movement either, but rather switches tempo and direction as we are bounced from room to room in this gray house of loss. A constantly fluctuating frame drives Adele’s powerful vocals forward with such vehemence that after a certain point we no longer even notice how effortlessly we are being sucked into this musical locomotive. The content of each frame is equally powerful, from the range of glasses to the perfectly captured gusts of sand stirred up by the mysterious martial artist. Such a collection of impressive individual images raises the dramatic achievement of this video even higher, leaving us shaken and perhaps haunted.
Beyoncé: “Run the World (Girls)”
Cinematography by Jeffrey Kimball
There are some great shots in this video. The problem is that most of them would be infinitely better on the big screen. Obviously most of the nominees would also be more impressive in a theater, but there’s a distinct gap in the merits of Kimball’s work. Perhaps it’s got to do with his long history in feature film (“Top Gun”) and still current work in that form (“The Expendables”). Wide vistas of Beyoncé standing on cars or reigning in some massive lions are cool, but they seem a little lackluster in the now-dominant venue of YouTube. The shots of the intense choreography, meanwhile, effectively show off the dance moves of the ensemble but do little else to enrich the visuals. Kimball relies on the quality of his subject without too much creativity behind the camera. This is quite the stunning video, but its praises should be sung in the categories of Art Direction and Choreography, not Cinematography.
Eminem (featuring Rihanna): “Love the Way You Lie”
Cinematography by Christopher Probst
This is a pretty potent piece of short cinema. Not shying away from its dark subject “Love the Way You Lie” dives right into the visual representation of domestic abuse and its emotional strain. The images begin simply, focusing on Eminem in the sprawling open fields in contrast to close-up shots of Rihanna’s tight red hair style and pulled-in hoodie. Yet as the tension mounts the camera moves back and the flames behind Rihanna widen to reveal an entire house on fire. The violence within the couple of Dominic Monaghan and Megan Fox ramps up as well, Probst following the figures through walls in their home. It’s creative work and the framing decisions are astute, more than worthy of a nomination here.
Katy Perry: “Teenage Dream”
Cinematography by Paul Laufer
The lightly hazy glow of this video is probably its biggest visual strength. It really does feel a bit like a dream, almost an assortment of old vacation photos come to life. There’s also a wonderful lightness to the framing of each shot. The camera moves deftly, with the frequency of “Rolling in the Deep” but without any of its stolid deliberateness. This is a friendly love song and its coyly whimsical visuals need to portray the joyful summer mood. Even though the haze does occasionally bring a bit of dullness to the video, it’s a nice contrast to the overpowering “Fireworks” or last year’s “California Gurls”. Katy Perry has brought a bit of variety to this year’s VMAs and it’s certainly appreciated.
This is a race between Adele and 30 Seconds to Mars, as far as I’m concerned. And while “Hurricane” really is quite the impressive achievement, there’s a determination and ingenuity in the bravura work of “Rolling in the Deep” that has won me over. Both of these videos have some fantastic and memorably shots, however, and I’d be pleased with either of them taking home the prize.
Verdict: “Rolling in the Deep”