Shrinking Music Videos: More Thrills, Less 'Thriller' As MySpace, iPhones and YouTube allow music videos to be seen anywhere and anytime, directors are discovering that viewing habits aren't the only things changing. The best new videos are superfast, supervisual and superclever.
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Shrinking Music Videos: More Thrills, Less 'Thriller'

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Shrinking Music Videos: More Thrills, Less 'Thriller'

Shrinking Music Videos: More Thrills, Less 'Thriller'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


An entire generation once sat before their televisions waiting patiently for MTV to play their favorite music videos. Now, of course, that's changed. You can watch nearly any video whenever you want online or on your cell phone. NPR's Neda Ulaby wondered how music video directors have adapted from the small screen to the smaller and much smaller screens of MySpace, YouTube and iPhones.

NEDA ULABY: It's not the little screens that annoy Grammy-winning music video director, Sean Drake. It's all the noise around them.

Mr. SEAN DRAKE (Music Video Director): When I make a video, I just assume the majority of watchers are going to be A, on the Internet, and b, in between, you know, AIMing someone and some chat and doing some other task on Word and checking their Facebook.

ULABY: So Drake must somehow command their attention. One obvious trick, flashy visuals.

(Soundbite of song "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" by Panic at the Disco)

Oh, well imagine As I'm pacing the pews in a church corridor And I can't help but to hear

ULABY: For a song by the group Panic at the Disco, Drake frontloaded the video with clowns, fire eaters, pink-haired strippers and accordionists, all guests at an over-the-top wedding.

(Soundbite of song "I Write Sins Not Tragedies" by Panic at the Disco)

Well this calls for a toast So pour the champagne

ULABY: Think Fellini on acid. It's hard to look away.

Mr. DRAKE: There's just a lot of costuming and makeup, but there's also a lot of face shots, a lot of close-ups.

ULABY: Compare the bright, shocking colors with a classic from 1983, "Thriller"

(Soundbite of song "Thriller")


(Singing) It's close to midnight and something evil's lurking in the dark

ULABY: Michael Jackson leads a huge cast of zombies dancing in the darkness. So many zombies, it's hard to tell what's going on when you watch it on the Internet. There's relatively few close-ups, and it looks terrible on tiny screens. There's something epic about "Thriller," something complicated and baroque. It seems squished and muddy in this new format. It's like watching "Spartacus" on an iPhone.

iPhones are fine for music videos, but they might also be watched on a range of different-sized boxes and rectangles. So, says music video director Joseph Kahn, now there's a tendency to center frame, to put the image smack in the middle.

Mr. JOSEPH KAHN (Music Video Director): I can almost look at every video, and it's pretty much a center-framed video. And the reason why is because you see the whole image all at the same time. Like, the whole image is completely seen at first glance on a tiny little rectangle or a tiny little square.

ULABY: As an auteur, Joseph Kahn is actually not a fan of center-framing. He says it's not really cinematic. But because Kahn also works in reality, he's using center-framing in a new video he's making with a singer, Lady GaGa.

LADY GAGA (Singer-Songwriter): Are you getting my face like that?

Unidentified Man: I'm checking the data Mike on…

ULABY: Kahn's says he's managing hundreds of crew members and dozens of dancers during a grueling two-day-shoot.

(Soundbite of song by Lady Gaga)

ULABY: You can use center-framing in smart, artistic and unexpected ways says Kahn. Take one brilliant video he did not direct.

(Soundbite of song "All the Single Ladies")


(Singing) All the single ladies, all the single ladies, All the single ladies, all the single ladies, All the single ladies Now put your hands up

ULABY: The "Single Ladies" video puts a barelegged, black body-suited Beyonce and two dancers in stark contrast against simple white backdrop.

Mr. KAHN: And it's very effective, because it doesn't rely on any format whatsoever. It's essentially just a dance video in the center of a screen.

ULABY: For the first few minutes, the camera just moves in and out as the dancers go through a complicated Bob Fosse-inspired routine. Then, the video switches techniques, using the quick cuts that MTV made famous 20 year ago, but even more intensely. Kahn says there's a reason for this explosion of editing. Lots of fast cuts work better on little screens than on big ones.

Mr. KAHN: Your eye has to actually scan the screen a bit, you know. And now, when you see like really small things. I mean, things are getting cut even faster now. It's cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut, cut.

ULABY: Kahn estimates that these days, he cut's about five times more than a video from the '80s. But if you can't afford fancy editing or elaborate productions, all you need is a great concept. One of the most successful music videos of the past few years has no cuts at all.

(Soundbite of song "Here It Goes Again" by OK Go)

It could be ten, but then again I can't remember half an hour since a quarter to four

ULABY: The band OK Go was still relatively unknown when they made a music video dancing on treadmills.

Mr. KAHN: And really, I mean, it looks like it was made for 20 bucks or something.

ULABY Roger Beebe is a professor at the University of Florida. He just co-edited a book about the evolution of music videos. He says the genius of the 2006 video for "Here it Goes Again" is not that it's center-framed, well lit and simple, but it's compellingly clever.

Professor ROGER BEEBE (University of Florida): It's sort of beautifully crazy in its choreography. And they come up with trick after trick. At some point they seem to be ice-skating, at another point, sliding through each other's legs. And, you know, I don't know that that band or that single would have made the cut back in the glory days of MTV. I don't know if it would have passed through the filters.

ULABY: And that's what Beebe loves about music videos online. That it comes down to creativity more than bloated budgets or great cinematography. Music is big he says, even if the pictures got small. Neta Ulaby, NPR News.

WERTHEIMER: You can see the videos Neta mentioned at our website, -

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