Director’s Chair: Ian Wolfson
The story behind the TV cross and more.
Mass Appeal’s Director’s Chair turns the lens on the creative minds behind some of the hottest music videos.
If you’re a hip hop (or Mass Appeal) fan you’ve undoubtedly heard Pittsburgh rapper Mac Miller. You know, Easy Mac with the cheesy raps? Mac has been killing it since coming on the scene with his K.I.D.S. mixtape back in 2010. A large part of that is due to his personable videos. For this Director’s Chair we reached out to the man behind the majority of those visuals – Ian Wolfson. Hailing from Allderdice High School as well, the two have been making videos since day one and their chemistry is evident. From “Wear My Hat” to “Avian,” these two have made some massive improvements.
Mass Appeal: You’re from Pittsburgh too, right?
Ian Wolfson: Yup. That’s how I met Mac and where we got that all started.
MA: You’re a little bit older though.
IW: Yeah, so in terms of the Allderdice High School hall of fame; Rostrum Records, there’s Benjy [Grinberg] and Arthur [Pitt], they graduated the year I started at Allderdice. I graduated the year Wiz started. Then Mac started sometime a little before Wiz graduated. So, I’m nine years older than Mac.
MA: How did you and Mac meet?
IW: I met him randomly. I shot a feature film in Pittsburgh and I had a small part for a high school drug dealer. One of my actors who grew up with Mac said, “I know the perfect kid.” He showed up without any costume direction and had on a polka dotted Yankees hat with a hooded sweatshirt that said, “Pimps, Money, and Hoes.” I was like, “You’re perfect!”
MA: I could absolutely see that. What was your first experience with music videos?
IW: Well, my parents were the first generation to experience MTV from its inception. They were there for the Martha Quinn days and used to watch it a lot – they loved it. They taped this special that was MTV’s top 500 videos at that point, I think it was 1988. I just remember as a young kid not understanding what I was watching. I mean, it was old Cyndi Lauper videos, Peter Gabriel videos. I think “Sledgehammer” was number one on that countdown.
Something happened when I was eight or nine years old. MTV was all Hype Williams. I just remember LL Cool J’s “Doin’ It” was like, that took place before my dad’s talk to me about sex – that was the sex talk; the “Doin’ It” video. Then the “Doin’ It” live VMA performance where he rode out on a motorcycle and the woman that sang the hook was straddling him. It was the most insane thing I’d ever seen.
MA: Was there a specific video that you loved?
IW: I think for me, even though I’ve never referenced it visually in any sort of way, Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer” is just so off the wall insane. And I remember there was this shot in the video where a de-feathered cooked turkey, or chicken, is dancing on a stage and it freaked me out; as a 4-year-old.
But honestly, it’s funny. I always joke about this, I have maybe submitted 200 pitches for music videos over the last few years, and I always put strange shots from either “Doin It” or “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See.” I think “Put Your Hands Where My Eyes Can See” for me is just the perfect music video. Like no one before or since has done what Hype did with not just creating crazy set pieces and using vivid colors, but also his syncopation with the beat. I’ve never seen anyone do that since, where Busta walked to the beat, brushed his teeth to the beat, and did everything to the beat.
MA: When did you go from enjoying them to actually being a part of a music video?
IW: In 2007 I wrote a feature length screenplay and made the very stupid decision to quit my job, leave the city I’d been living in for six years, and go back to my hometown and shoot it for basically no money – I think I raised like $10,000. It was a horrible and amazing experience. Everything that could go wrong with the film went wrong and I didn’t end up finishing it the way I wanted to. Then I started editing it and the editing just wasn’t coming out the way I’d originally envisioned. So I remember a point in 2008 just feeling really frustrated with how long that process had taken. It was six months of writing, then five months of shooting, because we were shooting with no money, and then a year of editing. Even after a year I didn’t have anything that I was happy with.
I started thinking about maybe shooting short stuff because at the very least, even if you’re not happy with it, your production time from conception to completion has to be shorter than what I’d just went through. I came up with a couple of short film ideas, but again, to actually do a short film correctly you really do need to put some time and money into it. I started thinking about making these short films that were set to already written pieces of music, where I could just riff off of what the music said to me then make a short film about it. So I made two films; one was dance related, my girlfriend at the time was a dancer. Then a month later I put together a short that was based off a Sigur Ros song. That was basically a music video I just didn’t call it that. I was like, “I’m making a short film.” It was about a gay couple who gets married on the beach at Rockaway, but everything about it is a music video.
MA: You were making music videos and didn’t even know it.
IW: [Laughs] Yeah. That was sort of the initial seed. Then I’d met Mac during the making of my film. When I first met him, he had really just started recording music and he was rapping under the name Easy Mac. We stayed in touch and every time I’d go back to Pittsburgh he’d be like, “I need to see the film. I want to see my clip.” Finally I went back and I brought his clip, he’s in it for like 30 seconds. I showed it to him and was like, “How’s everything going on your end?” He played me some music and it was not what I expected. I was kind of floored by it.
MA: Was he much better than you had thought he would be?
IW: What I really responded to is that some of the tracks had that sort of old school vibe that I gravitated to more. The first video we did was for “Cruising”. I was like, “If you’re down I’d love to shoot a music video. I’d never shot one before, I don’t know what I’m doing, but it’s not going to cost anything, so lets just try it out.”
I had no idea what I was doing. It was Mac’s first video, so he kind of didn’t know what he was doing either. I mean, he definitely had charisma, but it was us sort of fumbling through the dark. So we shot it, completed everything, and then I went back to New York. I started editing at night, and it took about a month. I’d just never done it before, I wasn’t used to tighter turn around times. He was really happy with it.
MA: Were you happy with it?
IW: I was in the sense that it wasn’t quite what I’d pitched to him but there were enough interesting moments. Basically the pitch was I’m going to follow you around for a day, and I want you to just be you. I don’t want to try to superimpose a concept or a feel for what your day is like – I just want you to be you.
We went to this barbershop that was right down the street from his house, Jim’s Barbershop or something. It was one of those moments where I sat him down in the chair and was like, “It would be really awesome if he was giving you a haircut while you’re rapping the song.” Obviously he’d just gotten a haircut for the video, so we had to pretend the barber is cutting Mac’s hair – but there was something with that. I mean, from the very beginning there was always a danger that if Mac took himself too seriously no one else would be able to take him seriously. It’s an uphill battle for a white Jewish rapper from Pittsburgh. But it’s one of my favorite shots I’ve ever done because it’s so absurd. The barber had never been on film before. He literally just stayed in character the whole time. He kept checking to make sure all the lines were even. It’s a hilarious shot in an otherwise straight forward performance video.
I think for me, that was like, I want to somehow channel that every time we do a video. Lets try not to take ourselves so seriously every time we shoot a video. It will make us have more fun and it will help the videos stand out because so many other videos are super serious all the time.
MA: What are other key ingredients to a dope music video, for you?
IW: It’s changed. I think the first half of my career was much more documentary style, sort of a day in the life. Now, because my interests have changed, I’ve sort of put the focus on trying to do things that interest me in terms of concept, visuals, or the equipment that we use.
I think one answer is it’s really important to try to do a video that really doesn’t artificially force an image on the artist. That could mean if the artist isn’t naturally charismatic, interesting, or quirky, then they may not make it as an artist in the long term. I think you have to have that – whether you’re Mac or A$AP Rocky you have to have that thing that draws people to you. I’m always hesitant to sort of superimpose something on the artist. I think the artist has to be interesting. Mac for example, there were so many elements against him in the beginning, but he was accessible and didn’t take himself too seriously. He clearly was enjoying himself and I think people connected with that.
IW: With this new project Mac hit a phase where he was more introspective and that liberated us to be able to go and do stuff that wasn’t necessarily directly reflective of what he was thinking. We could do crazy visuals because a lot of this is dream time, stream of flow consciousness stuff.
What’s really making me excited is finding that concept that’s going to click. Whether it’s “Avian” where we never put Mac in the video and it’s this old man rapping his lyrics with this weird story line about a cult dedicated to the worship of birds and there’s a transformation – that for me, all those elements stack up. Even if those maybe don’t on paper instantly say hit video, they excite me because they’re different and weird and strange. Not just strange for strange sake, there was definitely a reason why we did that.
Some of the other videos from the record, like “Watching Movies” and “S.D.S.,” are very chaotic and crazy, so some of the videos like “Killing Time” and “Star Room” are very introspective, reflective videos and it’s been fun to explore that. I think you just have to have good taste.
MA: Speaking of “Watching Movies,” that’s one of my favorite videos, can you talk about making it? That’s a wild video on a lot of different levels – the TV with the cross is one of my favorite images. What was the concept behind it?
IW: When we were prepping to do “Watching Movies” it was a song that already had been released as a single with no video. The song’s YouTube link had 800,000 views – so clearly this song is going to be a hit if it’s just promoted properly. I went over to Mac’s and we sat down, and it was like, “Okay, we did something that was sort of light-hearted and humorous, what’s the next step?” I think at one point we had talked about doing an entire album campaign doing a video for every song, and having a story line and stand alone videos, and one of the things that had been a seed of that idea was that each of the singles was going to be a different genre play. So if “S.D.S.” was the superhero comedy, then “Watching Movies” is like the horror film. That was the initial seed. We want to make a horror video of some kind.
We just sat down and started knocking around ideas and it was really Mac’s idea. He said in his head he sees us going to a church and just messing everything up. I said, “Okay, let me shape that into something.”
MA: I feel like there’s more than that. I feel like there’s a lot of symbolism in that video. It’s not just like, “Lets fuck up this church.”
IW: Right. That was the initial seed. Then we started doing the pre-production on it, and I just started thinking about what I’d want to see in the video. That’s where the TV cross came in. To be fair, I can’t take full credit for the TV cross because it was actually in a Marilyn Manson video but it’s used differently. In that video Manson is sort of a Christ-like figure that has to carry the cross of TV’s on his back.
MA: Yes, I remember that.
IW: Also, I knew I wanted to have the regular church, and then the messed up church. But really, everything that I think makes that video special for me kind of happened on set. I’m the type of person that can only conceptualize before the shoot so much, I have to get into the space and feel the location and then start to piece together whatever the video is in my head while we’re shooting. I had a production designer build a set because we figured it would be cheaper and easier than going into a church. I don’t think a church would’ve been cool with what we did.
MA: Nah, not at all.
IW: So I just got in there and saw what the church looked like and we just shot that. It was the preacher doing his thing. Then once it was time to mess up the church I let Jimmy, Mac’s friend, and the rest of Most Dope kids come in and tag the walls. I just knew that I wanted to have the hanging lights because it would create this sort of chaotic feel. We had this camera device that allowed us to do the tilt, which gave us that unsettling, uneasy feel.
Basically in both of the setups, the TV cross and the church, I just started with what was there then pushed the art direction a little bit further to make it more over the top. More crazy. More wild. I will say that none of that would’ve mattered if we didn’t have the 30 or so extras who came in and just killed it for two days. I mean like those girls were complete champs, especially because we basically – in almost every shot we’re just asking them to twerk for like a three minute take.
MA: I felt the girls were a nice touch. It just seemed right to have a bunch of women in a church like that. This might be another tough question; What’s your goal when you’re trying to make a music video? Is there something you’re setting out to do, something you’re trying to say?
IW: In any shoot I have to be fair to the artist. My goal is always to try to give them as close to what they want as possible. Now, often times I feel like I’m able to say, “Ok, cool. I know what you want but I think this will be more interesting or more exciting” and usually it works. I think I’ve maybe only had one instance where I really had to go back to the editing or go back to the coloring to make them happy.
Number one is making the client happy. I had that period of time where I was really hustling to make a name for myself, and I’m not where I’d like to be – but I get to make music videos for a living. I’m clearly doing something right.