Putting MTV in the rear view mirror 

Visual artist Jason Sievers makes cool music videos

MTV, we don't even know you anymore. You first showed up on our sets in 1981 with the promise of a 24-hour music channel. We fell in love with your edginess and your diverse rotation of music videos. Our love turned you into a cultural juggernaut (and in justification of our love, we turned bands such as Duran Duran into shrewd product movers).

Over time, the honeymoon ended. You changed. It started with Liquid Television and ended with total block-format homogeneity. You had a sad way of sneaking up on us. When we look at you today, all we see are shows like Pimp My Ride, Made, and Real World: Barrow, Alaska. What happened to the videos? There are a lot of us who would rather watch videos--even really bad videos like Journey's "Separate Ways," which features some totally awesome air-keyboard cheesiness--than watch twenty-somethings argue about who got it on with who. Lucky for us, we have a rebound. It's called the Internet. With advents like youtube.com, we're able to see old favorites along side videos we might never see otherwise, including videos by Boise-based director Jason Sievers.

Sievers, who is a graphic designer by day, thinks the music video is definitely a form of art--whether it's Michael Jackson tiptoeing down a lighted sidewalk, or Peter Gabriel whacked out on "Sledgehammer." "It's kind of weird for the record label. It's a three-minute commercial, but as an art, is a great opportunity to create meaning by melding music and visuals," says Sievers. "The Internet has given me the ability to put my vids out there for the world to see."

And making videos is what Sievers has been up to for the last five years. Most recently he made a video for indie darlings The Wrens. "I got their album Meadowlands and immediately fell in love with it. After listening to it a few times, I thought it would be cool to do something for one of the songs. I made a call to the band and they gave me the go-ahead," says Sievers. "I picked the song 'She sends Kisses' because of its powerful narrative." Rather than having human actors play out the plot of the song, Sievers used Claymation: a stop-action animation that takes a long time to create.

"Most animation is done at 24 frames per second. I do my stop-animation stuff at six frames per second," says Sievers. At that rate, Sievers takes 1,500 shots for a four-minute song. Each shot must be precise in its set-up and execution. "I basically use Sculpey with a wire skeleton with softer clay limbs and necks. I set up to get the body position just right, and then take a shot. It took me over 100 hours to do the Wren's video."

For inspiration, Sievers looks to masters of the video artform. "Michel Gondry has been a huge influence on me. The level of artistry is amazing. You see his unique approach in everything he does, not only his videos but especially his movies like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind." Gondry's accomplishments read like a "best of" for the videos of the last 15 years. He has done most of Bjork's singles, videos for The Chemical Brothers and Foo Fighters, and groundbreaking stop animation work for The White Stripes (the Legos-based video for "Fell in Love With a Girl").

Sievers looks not only to other music videos for inspiration. "One of the most creative guys doing stop-animation right now is PES. You can see his stop-animation stuff in the Coinstar and Bacardi commercials," says Sievers. "I've also been watching the Acquired Taste DVD from SubPop. There is so much cool indie stuff available."

Sievers' affair with the music video began as an innocuous crush while he was in graphic design school. "I realized I could do it with minimal equipment," laughs Seivers. "The first video I made was for "Some Sad Song" by Boise band Suffocation Keep. When I first heard the song, I knew I wanted to do a video for it. I basically made the video with a Web cam and some magnets on my fridge." After that first video, Seivers made more videos for local artists including Grant Olsen, Lovey, Pajama Party in a Haunted Hive and Built to Spill. With each new video, Sievers honed his skills as a visual artist. Sievers thinks the Wren's video is one of his best. "Pitchfork picked up the video as a news item. Within a few days, there had been thousands of views," he says with a note of excitement.

Sievers thinks that one of the problems with the majors is they assume folks basically want musicians to pantomime and lip-sync their songs. But it's not like the majors don't ever get it right. One of the coolest videos ever was Johnny Cash's "Hurt"--a poignant tearjerker that ranks among the most acclaimed videos ever made. But for the most part, the majors sacrifice creativity for artist face time. "Last year, Death Cab [For Cutie] gave a bunch of indie directors the opportunity to direct videos," says Sievers. "Monkmus did this really cool video for 'I Will Follow You Into the Dark.' It was basically this creative picturebook story about bunnies. It was very artistic. But then, when the song was released as a single, the label made a bigger budget video that basically featured Ben Gibbard lip-syncing the song. I guess it appeals to the 13-year-old girls or something, but I think it was dumb [not to use the Monkmus video]."

Sievers plans on carrying the torch for art-based videos for a long time. "I am hoping I get the go-ahead to do a video for Yo La Tengo. he says. Who knows, maybe someday I'll even have a budget and a crew!"

Videos are a cool thing. Sites like youtube.com have made it possible for inspiring video directors such as Sievers to share their art with the world.

For a sampling of Siever's work see: www.hardmath.net. For PES's stuff go to: www.eatpes.com.

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