Sing a Song of Seeing

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Videomakers loot every resource for visual vocabulary. A random selection of a dozen clips could easily show influences as diverse as René Magritte and Orson Welles, The Road Warrior and The Three Stooges. Videos are often just as frenetic on the screen as on the sound track. Directors scrape and scramble to pack in the imagery, like so many soda jerks trying to push a quart of French vanilla into a pint container. "The problem is compression," says Julian Temple, who has made some 60 videos, including a current dazzler of the Rolling Stones' Undercover of the Night. "You have to layer each shot with a lot of meaning. When you see a video the first time you should get the overall idea. When you see it again, you should get a little more, and a little more again the third time. It's like the time-release cold capsule."

Videos often seem just as plentiful and, comparatively, just as costly. Their average budget is about $20,000 to $40,000, and the majority are shot in a day or two. That sort of speed, and per dollar value, has its appeal for such film makers as John Landis, Mike Hodges and Bob Rafelson, who have worked within the slower, costlier Hollywood system. Tobe Hooper (The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Poltergeist) shot Billy Idol's Dancing with Myself in two days, edited it in a week, and saw it on the air two weeks after that. "You can have fun and experiment and try new things with rock video," Hooper says. "The medium is so immediate."

Although lean budgets and tight production schedules are still the norm, such exceptions as Thriller and the Paul McCartney-Michael Jackson Say Say Say are stirring interest. Every major record label now has its own in-house video department. Video budgets are getting to be as hotly negotiated as salary increases whenever a performer's contract comes up for renewal. "A video indicates to an artist a level of acceptance and prestige," says Gil Friesen. Says Len Epand, general manager of Polygram Records' video division: "Videos are collectible and deserve to be purchasable. Right now music video is paid for with marketing funds. I'd like to see video financed through sales of the clips themselves."

Video looms so large now that it is putting pressure on the performers it is meant to serve. Rickie Lee Jones doesn't much like what she sees on MTV ("The videos are like old Monkees shows. They're nonsense, a real waste of time and money"), but she is now writing a new album "as it should be done. I'm writing the video as I write the songs." Olivia Newton-John actually hired a video writer to run up a script for an album that will be planned around the resultant scenario. Songwriters will receive a précis and be asked to compose to order.

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