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December Student Spotlight: Rosibel Villalobos

Rosibel Villalobos is currently a sophomore at the University of California Los Angeles, where she studies film production at the School of Theater, Film and Television, a selective program that only accepts fifteen incoming freshmen per year. She is an alumnus of the IRIS-IN program and Ghetto Film School’s Los Angeles fellowship, where she spent thirty months learning the ins and outs of the film industry. She has completed internships at the Museum of Contemporary Art and at SAG-AFTRA’s communications department.

Rosibel has been published by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association twice and was featured in the Writer Guild Foundation’s Youth Spotlight series for her original script Jumbo Shrimp. She holds cinematography and editing credits for her work on Choices, a 28-minute documentary produced for the Los Angeles Unified School District. Rosibel has always considered herself a writer and hopes to expand on those skills as well as work on her directing skills. Visit Rosibel’s website here.

Rosibel’sinterests have recently expanded to music videos, as well. In her words, she feels like music videos are a form of art that allows an artist to expand on the story told in their songs. The ways in which artists express themselves in those videos are ever-changing and constantly expanding. Rosibel cites SWEET by Brockhampton, EMPTY by Kevin Abstract and Stranger by Dijon as examples of this.

Recently, Rosibel interviewed film and music video director Isaac Rentz – whose work includes videos for Katy Perry, Nick Jonas and PRETTYMUCH x CNCO – about his experience navigating both worlds.

Do you believe that working in music videos has helped you grow as a filmmaker? 
Music videos are like a playground where a director can experiment visually and explore techniques without having to worry as much about story structure or keeping an audience engaged for multiple hours. Every time I do a video, it’s something different –  maybe a western, or a car chase, or something with futuristic sets. You get to dabble in a bunch of different worlds and stretch yourself artistically every time.

Do you believe that working in feature films has helped you grow as a music video director? 
Features – especially indie ones – are the filmmaking equivalent of climbing Mount Everest. You’ll push yourself to exhaustion with months of pre-production and long hours on set. You’ll get sick and have to work through it. You’ll have to stay motivated after weeks of barely any sleep. The great news is that once you’ve completed one, everything else feels much more manageable, in comparison. Even the most technically-involved music video only lasts for a day or two, and the atmosphere on set is way more relaxed.

Do the collaboration processes differ? Is one more collaborative than the other?
It all depends on your actors and your musicians. I’ve worked with actors who are extremely collaborative and come to set overflowing with ideas. Other times, an actor will want to know exactly what I want and offers no creative input. On music videos, I usually have the most fun with artists who are really excited about the process and want to make something special. Some musicians are less comfortable on camera and are in a hurry to be done, and that usually means I have to keep the energy upbeat and positive on set to keep them involved.

Do you believe music videos are changing?
In a certain sense, music videos will always be the same. Record labels use them to shape the way we think about their artists, whether that means making them look attractive, relatable, edgy, or controversial. A video for The Weeknd is trying to check the same boxes that a video for Prince or Michael Jackson did 35 years ago. But in the same way that movies look for fresh, new approaches to romantic comedies or horror movies, music videos will always be in the process of reinventing themselves. In the 1980s, a rock band might have made a “sexy” video by shooting a woman in a bikini washing a sports car. These days we’re redefining certain gender stereotypes to create a new visual approach to “sexiness.” The goal might be the same, but the methods are going to look completely different. It’s the same way that pop songs have always been about 3 minutes long and have verses and choruses, but artists have constantly found ways to create fresh music. As long as pop music evolves, music videos will evolve too.

How have storylines in music videos changed over the last few years?
One interesting development is that younger artists tend to see music videos as a chance to curate a bunch of different visuals, rather than one specific story. I think it’s an extension of how they use Instagram and other social media. It’s like, here’s a collection of things that I think look cool, rather than a linear storyline. Also, music videos are digested in chunks now online, so artists would rather have a video that looks cool when they only post 30 seconds of it to Instagram. That doesn’t work if it’s based around a story that you only understand after viewing all 3-4 minutes.

What do you think this means for young filmmakers hoping to work in either the music video or feature film industry?
Right now, there are lots of opportunities in music videos. Budgets have gone back up. Youtube has replaced MTV. And young artists are excited about creative, attention-getting ideas. It’s a great time to be working in that field.

Movies are tough right now. Indies are difficult to make, and even more difficult to distribute. There are a zillion movies on Netflix right now, and you’re basically competing against all of them. It can be discouraging to spend years on a project, only to feel it disappears down the black hole of streaming only a few weeks after it’s released.

Is the indie music video scene changing just as much as the indie film scene? Is there an “indie music video scene”? How does it stray from the more mainstream scene?
In the early 2010’s there was a vibrant indie music video scene. Indie music was big and artists were looking to make music videos that were as abstract and groundbreaking as their music. Around 2014-2015, I felt a shift away from that idea. A lot of the indie artists either pivoted towards pop or disappeared. The budgets dried up, and now it’s a lot harder to make a living as an “indie” music video director. The good news is that mainstream pop artists are much edgier and more interesting right now. Some of the biggest artists of 2019, like Billie Eilish or Lil Nas X, are making really strange, exciting videos. In a way, there isn’t a major distinction between indie and mainstream to most music fans. It’s all just different options on a Spotify playlist which can be oddly liberating from a visual standpoint.

Groups like Brockhampton – who for years shot, directed, and edited their own music videos – developed storylines that were woven throughout them before getting signed to a label. They were making large, viral videos that racked up millions of views in their own backyard. Brockhampton is a great example of a group that has a really forward-thinking approach to videos. They’re like a lot of younger artists, who have grown up with all of the tools to create things themselves. Artists in the 80’s and 90’s didn’t have iPhones or Adobe Premier, but now your average artist understands how editing and shot composition, and sometimes even how VFX work.

How do you develop a voice in the music video industry?
This is always a challenge. If you want to make a living doing music videos, you need to book a lot of them every year. That means that you’ll probably be working with a variety of artists who all have their own sensibility and ideas about their image. That means you need to be flexible enough to not force your own creative vision down their throats. Usually, a video director will have certain visual trademarks that come across over multiple projects. Maybe it’s a lighting technique or a sense of humor. It’s a tough balance to achieve.

Do you keep a consistent tone when creating videos for songs/artists from different genres with different audiences? How do you keep this voice consistent with different parameters?
When artists ask me to pitch them an idea for a video, I always try to pitch something that I’d like to watch myself. If it feels interesting to me, and they respond to it, it’ll usually have enough of my voice regardless of the artist.

What is the process like for building a story in a music video?
I listen to a song a few times, and then I try to imagine what kind of scene in a movie it would score. Or if I can come up with a character for the artist to play. Sometimes I’ll try to put a fresh spin on a performance idea. Like today, I wrote an idea where an artist is performing at a piano bar, but then the curtain behind him is pulled back and we reveal that the band is a bunch of animatronic animals like at Chuck E Cheese. Sometimes an idea comes to me right away, and sometimes it takes a week to figure it out.

Do you think it is more important to tell the story of a song or to convey the emotion of it?
I think the emotion is far more important. Country videos often get criticized for being too literal to the lyrics. If the artist is singing about a dog, they show the dog on screen. It’s boring. Music videos are a chance to create images that work alongside a song and help expand its meaning.

What advice would you give to young artists trying to make it in the video industry?
Get really good at writing. That’s what 90% of my job is. I pitch on between 40-60 music videos a year, which means I have to constantly think of fresh ideas and find ways to communicate them quickly. When I’m not on set I’m sitting at my dining room table creating presentations and pitch videos to book my next job.

 

November Student Spotlight: Michelle Jihyon Kim

This month, we’re featuring IRIS IN student Michelle Jihyon Kim. Michelle is a filmmaker and painter who is currently studying Art at the University of California, Los Angeles. She has been able to create and work on several short films through Ghetto Film School, including the program’s Tel Aviv-based thesis film Charley Horse. Since completing the program, she has gone on to intern at Karga Seven Pictures and A24. When she’s not working on her films, Michelle is busy co-heading the Hammer Museum’s student publication GRAPHITE Journal. Lately, she’s been working on writing her first feature and a series of paintings that investigate the uncanniness of West Los Angeles.

As part of our monthly Student Spotlight series, Michelle told us about her what drives her to make films and other art:

Can you recount the moment when you realized you wanted to become a filmmaker?

I remember watching Dear Zachary in early high school and it devastated me in a way I have never felt before. It sparked this hope in me that video can be an irrevocably moving and impactful mode of artmaking. But it wasn’t until several years later when I watched Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love that I realized films can be treated like art. That an intersection between film and art existed. Watching Dear Zacharyignited my curiosity, and In the Mood for Love really got the gears turning in my brain.

What draws you to film as a medium of art? Are there other mediums that you gravitate towards?

I love that I can not only compose so much in a single frame, but also have that image move and unfold. Film is such a dynamic medium, especially in the sense that it’s reliant on so many factors to make it work (how strong the story is, how developed the characters are, technicality, thematic approach). In regard to the challenge that presents, I treat my work like a puzzle, where I try to fit all of these separate ideas together and not only to make them work but make them work well. I like the problem-solving aspect of filmmaking, especially on-set or when I’m writing. I think it keeps my brain from rotting.

Do these other art forms come into play and/or inspire your film projects?

There is definitely an intersection between my filmmaking and my painting. Sometimes I make a painting that I want to make a frame in a future film or a frame that could inform a painting. Other times, it’s less literal and I like to explore certain themes and how they translate between the two media. A constant conversation is occurring between my works in painting and film, and I try to cultivate it as much as I can.

What impression do you want to make on audiences with your films?

I really do focus on how my work can build certain expectations and how I could disrupt them. I have this personal belief that the audience secretly wants all of their expectations to be broken, which is why plot twists are so popular and so often referenced.

How has your personal background affected your film perspective?

From a very young age, I had instilled in me the belief that I would have to work my ass off if I wanted to be good at what I love and enjoy success from it. I grew up going to afterschool programs with other Korean kids who had very high-strung parents and with teachers who expected all of us to pursue lucrative fields. So, there was already that high work ethic expectation set in place. But I just wanted to direct it towards drawing and telling crazy stories all the time.

Later in high school, I received even more pushback in my endeavors. I think this constant disappointment that weighed on me just drove me more – partially to prove everyone wrong – but mostly to see if I could actually even pursue my dreams. Now when I work on films, I recognize how much of a privilege it is to be able to come onto set and work all day trying to make art. To be in such an intense environment, where every single decision needs to be worked through with a team, is so, so special.

Are there any specific filmmakers or films that have left a lasting impression on you?

Oh boy. As I mentioned before, watching Wong Kar Wai’s In the Mood for Love was what caused the first spark. But after I watched Boogie Nights, I realized I was in love with the craft. On the first day of Ghetto Film School, we watched Do The Right Thing and it paralyzed me. The experiences I’ve had from watching all of these films left me shell-shocked in such different ways and it made me consider that there really is no limit with films.

Other films that have completely blown my mind include Lady Vengeance, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Jackie Brown, and The Piano Teacher.

If you could right one wrong in the industry, what would it be?

Motion smoothing. Or American remakes of Korean films.

What are your thoughts on the future of film and digital storytelling?

Thinking about the future of film scares me. The rise of digital streaming and independently produced cinema is causing a divergence away from the Hollywood pipeline where you could only get your movie made and seen if you begged a company to finance it. While the pipeline is suffocating, it still brought this strange, ironic reassurance: that if you just broke your back PA’ing for a couple years, then you’d get a shot at being behind the camera.

But, the rise of digital storytelling also means there are way more creators and writers than ever before, which is so incredible. I hope for an industry where we can assess films through their ability to prod and stretch limitation as opposed to the traditional prioritization of nepotism and formulaic plot structures – not only for marginalized people’s voices to be heard but to be respected as well.

When you applied for Iris-In, you submitted an impressive video that gave us a glimpse into your background, but in doing so, the video seemed to paint a specific picture of your hometown, Los Angeles. Can you explain your reasoning and process for putting it together?

I created TRASH PRIUS during a NYU residency with the intention of making it as nostalgic yet bittersweet as I could. At the time, I had just graduated high school and was still processing everything. For the most part, I didn’t have many friends, so I was just really obsessed with the internet. It wasn’t until senior year that I made friends outside of school and started interning at MOCA. Looking back on it, I think a lot of TRASH PRIUS was about how I handled my insecurities and the sheer anxiety of navigating these wildly different social environments.

What inspired you to have your classmate, Julia “play” you in the end?

In regard to the credits, there was a long-running joke in my Ghetto Film School class that my colleague Julia and I are the same person because we were the only Asian people in our class. I thought it’d be perfect to have her finish the short, because I felt like she was as much of a reflection of my identity to others as much as the animations and the footage I used.

Watch TRASH PRIUS here.