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Director Ras Kassa’s Jamaican Roots Keep Him Close to Home

by Robyn Kurth

On Ras Kassa’s MySpace page he refers to himself as “Ras Kassa the Guru,” which is a pretty accurate description based on Kassa’s significant contributions to the music video scene in his native Jamaica. Kassa is a self-taught creative director, editor, writer, producer, cinematographer, musician and painter who has distinguished himself in television, commercials and home DVDs. As a director, Kassa first gained international attention when he directed Damian “Jr. Gong” Marley’s reggae track, “Welcome to Jamrock,” a gritty depiction of the streets of Trenchtown, Jamaica that received major airplay on mainstream stations around the world and a number of music video nominations and awards.

Never one to limit himself to one genre of music, Kassa has also directed music video for country music legend Willie Nelson. Currently represented by Karma Kollective in Culver City, CA, Kassa founded Guru Films earlier this year in Kingston, Jamaica as a production company and entire movement within the Jamaican filmmaking industry. MVWire recently spoke with Ras Kassa about how he broke into the music video industry, and how his Jamaican roots influence his directorial style.

MVWire: How did you get your start?

Ras Kassa: I got my start through music, I was in a band and … you know I play roots – rock – reggae with a kind of Rage Against the Machine vibe, so I used to play guitar and sing lead vocals in the band. This guy called Trevor Bailie invited us to come by the studio a few times and we started practicing (studio) engineering. Trevor was one of the first people to make a music video in Jamaica. So people started calling him up to make videos and he was like, “Yo guys, I am going to get back some cameras and get this going.” All right, cool. From there this cat called Kevin Lee was doing his thing and…I just wanted to help him out on set and did almost everything except the make-up. So, I was preparing myself.

I used to work a lot on sets, before I came up front. X is my friend and he taught me a lot. I worked with Francis Lawrence, Paul Hunter, Marcus Rayboy—a lot of cats that are top name. Back in the day they use to come to Jamaica and shoot a lot.

MVW: What’s the scene like in Jamaica?

RK: Shooting videos is a new thing in this country. Our music and our culture is more than a beautiful image. There is no Jamaican that you know that make it big in the US as a recording artist and they not try to bring that Jamaican vibe across. The culture is very important to making videos down here for reggae music anywhere. Gentleman is from Germany and he makes reggae music and is just like every artist in Jamaica. Where it can’t look too glossy they don’t want it to look too plastic…they don’t want it to come across like they are RICH. Of course everybody wants a pretty car and pretty girls but they want to keep it real. That is a big thing to me because I see myself like somebody that preserves a visual culture.

When I started in this game we were two cats that really make videos and it was a different style. Our film school was watching MTV and watching everything on TV: car commercials, comic books, and fashion magazines. Before I got into video I used to work with this still photographer William Richards (Fuji, Snoop Dogg…) he is from Jamaica but based in New York. Composing a shot is something that I really get into. Back in high school I paint and draw…. I take all those examples and put it into motion. My dream was to have a music video on MTV TRL, so I did that. I was the first director that lived in the Caribbean. When we were viewed on TRL that was a big thing for us and the region because we don’t make it to TRL. Plus shooting on film is something that we don’t get to do too much because our music does not make that kind of money, we don’t have the facilities in Jamaica.

MVW: The difference between a major label artist and local video?

RK: When you have a Caribbean artist that is great big they are going to go to X as the director because he got that Sean Paul hit. That was that, it was fresh and cool but that’s not the culture or the root of what dancehall (music) is about. America still has not seen the real roots of dancehall. Let’s say a Sean Paul video his next album he shoot this big dance in Jamaica called Pasa Pasa that go on from 11:00 at night until 10:00 in the morning (with) people dancing in the street, that’s the real deal. When I did that video “Welcome to Jamrock” that was another video that went places, not to TRL but it went places—and that video was like $500,000 Jamaican dollars, which is like $10,000 US dollars.

That actually got me two Willie Nelson videos…that’s crazy. I would love to make a video for Jay-Z or Naz, Kanye or somebody like that but even if I don’t, being in the Caribbean I made two music videos for Willie Nelson—that’s huge. Come on, I am just a Jamaican….I’m on CMT, you know what I mean? The country music set up—that is a whole different vibe.

MVW: They just saw your work and contacted you?

RK: Jamrock was out and Chris Blackwell (who produced Bob Marley, U2, etc.) from back in the day. He was the producer of the Willie Nelson album; they were hanging out and wanted to make a video. Chris suggested making the video in Jamaica and mentioned my name; they saw Jamrock and were impressed. Christy Barber from Top Gun contacted Yamani and said they wanted to make the video with me. We got the track and still did not believe it and I was like, “All right,” so I wrote the treatment and sent it, they loved it. They said, “OK, we are going to send you another track,” I was like, “Yeah, right”…and the sent me ANOTHER Track (laughing).

Actually my original concept for “Welcome to Jamrock” is actually something that I am turning into a feature film right now. I am in the process of writing that and I am not going to say too much, right now. I have a couple of people waiting on that based on the synopsis that they read. I am not trying to make a Rude Boy shoot ‘em up kind of film, people expect that from Jamaica. I want to make it documentary style, which is the style I love, to keep it real.

MVW: What is it like shooting music videos in Jamaica?

RK: (If only) Behind The Music or Access Granted or one of those shows could come to Jamaica and cover us shooting a local artist on a limited budget—say, $10,000—and come and see all the things that we go through, and then when it get up on the screen… You can’t say this guy John Brown who makes big hip-hop R&B videos is much better, it’s that he gets the budget to make those videos on film and he shoots on film every day. We can do it as well…that’s my point with this right now, using music videos as a skateboard to feature films.

MVW: … and your most popular video to date?

RK: “Welcome to Jamrock”… it is like a version of City Of God Jamaican style, raw, real like you never seen it before. Whatever you see right there… that is the real deal. That video created a lot of vibe in Jamaica as well… like the tourist board—they were saying this video should not represent Jamaica and I am saying what are you talking about, this is a political song, this is talking about issues – this is not a song saying come to Jamaica “Feel All Right” and some fucking hotel. This is a song that is saying, “Yo, this is what (Jamaica) is doing with the money, this is what our country is going through and what the people have to endure.” We have to tell it like it is. This song brought back the knowledge into the street. Where we shot that video is in Trenchtown. (When) Bob Marley came to Kingstown, he stayed in Trenchtown and that is where we shot the video.

MVW: Are there any new projects you are working on right now?

RK: I just shot this video “Rise In Love” for Alaine, she is a reggae artist. I just used our surroundings, a flower garden that looks like a jungle and took her out to the pier where the concrete goes all the way to the beach in the ocean and shot day for night in the evening.

MVW: You never have to hire an art director, just shoot outside!

RK: The culture is an outdoor culture, going to dance outdoors (rather) than going to a club so much. Making music videos in… Jamaica, Trindad, Aruba, it’s a whole different level.

2007 MTV Video Music Awards: Britney In, Art Direction and Cinematography Out

At the 2007 VMAs this weekend in Las Vegas, viewers can watch Timbaland, 50 Cent, and Fall Out Boy perform live and find out if Britney Spears will generate even more news for the tabloids. What viewers won’t see are the awards for two key video production elements, since MTV has eliminated the Best Art Direction and Best Cinematography categories from this year’s competition.

“The Moonman (award) was always a carrot at the end of the stick for us to some extent; it was always out there,” said Los Angeles-based art director Zach Mathews. “Now it seems like it is gone, it really does.”

In response to this recent change, Mathews sent an e-mail to MTV staffers he has worked with in the past, and copied the message to several music video production executive producers. “Within six hours…after I wrote the email, I had responses from nine production companies—I sent it to two,” said Mathews. “People…were sending me their support and airing their own frustrations about the production companies getting shut out this year more than ever before for both voting and the actual show itself.”

Since the VMA’s inception in 1984, numerous directors, art directors, DPs and other industry professionals have built their careers around winning one of these coveted awards. Mathews has handled the production design on about 70 music videos since 2003, and has worked in the art department in lesser capacities on hundreds of music videos since 1994. He won the 2005 MTV Video Music Award for Best Art Direction for Gwen Stefani’s “What You Waiting For.”

“I heard that the nominations were out… I went online to see who the nominees were and was shocked to find that most of the professional categories were done away with or seemed to be done away with,” said Mathews. “It was in fact such a surprise that I didn’t want to believe it was true, so the letter was actually a request for an explanation.”

At this year’s VMAs there are only three categories that represent music video production: Best Choreography, Best Director, and Best Editing.

*complete listing of the VMA categories and nominees

Interview with Music Video Directors Sophie Muller & Logan

Interview with Directors Sophie Muller & Logan on the making of the No Doubt, “Underneath It All” music video!

“It was a really sweet song, so I wanted to make “Underneath It All” a little less innocent, that’s why I came up with the idea to make it a bit sexual.” – Sophie Muller

Interview with director Sophie Muller:

MVW: I really like the new video. It seems pretty straight forward.

SM: It was kind of difficult making a video for this song since it is more of a personal lyric. I wanted to do something really simple. Just focus on her speaking to the camera. It was a very straightforward video. It was a really sweet song, so I wanted to make “Underneath It All” a little less innocent, that’s why I came up with the idea to make it a bit sexual. I thought that would be an interesting and tasteful way for Gwen to perform the video.

MVW: Who worked with you on the visual effects?

SM: I co-directed this video with Logan. They came up with an idea that everyone was happy with and we were all quite keen to work with them.

MVW: How did you come up with the concept for the video?

SM: Each of us tried to think of what we could do. The simple basis of the idea was that I will stick with Gwen giving her really good performance to camera and have Logan do lots of effects. When we actually came down to it, I realized that idea was too random and we had to be more specific. So I came up with the idea that Gwen would do a kind of strip to camera. She started off with tons of make-up and hair, kind of really over done like a stripper. As the video proceeds she looses her make up at the ends the make up and overdone look is gone. The idea was stripping back to being your simple self. We had to do it using visual metaphors. She was going to be talking her clothes off, but that made it too complicated. Instead we made it into sections where in each section she was less made up. In the end section we came up with the idea to include Lady Saw and using the entire band. This was a last minute decision, so we could only include it in the end section. It was a bit like the scene from Sound Of Music, when they were riding bicycles in time with the music. We changed it to show that they were in Jamaica in order to get the Jamaican feel to the video. This is where Logan did their visual effects. Logan was around all the time on the shoot and I was around shooting their bit. It was a good collaboration.

In the background you had the heart in a couple of scenes.

SM: When doing a performance video, I like to have the camera in front, not moving to the side, giving it one angle. Then designing the background to compliment whatever the atmosphere you want in that particular shot. The Heart makes a nice frame, it was based on some fashion we saw. We did it for the one scene where it gets black, then someone took the heart and placed it against the other set and we saw that it fit in that set as well.

MVW: Was it difficult deciding on the set design?

SM: It was all put together really quickly. We all just went in one day and decided what the first set was going to be like. Kind of ornate fancy room. They built that very quickly. We then came up with the heart with much simpler graphic. It then goes to the pink wall which adds Jamaican flavor.

MVW: How did you bring out the stunning look of the colors?

SM: It was simply teasing the colors. We just matched the color scheme. The color that goes with the pink wall is orange, so we had the boys wearing orange track suite. Then there happened to be this lime green crate lying around, which we just hammered on the wall to create a make shift basketball court. That was a really last minute idea and we did not have a basketball set. Seems in Jamaica, they usually use crates with the bottom cut out. I originally wanted Gwen to wear turquoise, but the stylist suggested lime green to match the crate.

MVW: Did you do anything to pull the color out even more in post?

SM: I pushed it a little bit to make it more contracting, but nothing fancy at all. I used Symphony, which is like an online AVID. I edited my section and gave the whole video to Logan so they could put their bits in. We discussed little bits, like in between each section they did little stars and the scene where she kind of slaps her bottom.

MVW: Where did you shoot the video?

SM: It was all shot in one studio.

MVW: Gwen has such a stong camera presence and the
Caribbean vibe to the song is great.

SM: She is a good performer. So I liked the idea of letting her perform alone rather than a band performance. We could not think of a way to make it good and have the band in the performance as well. Because of the shortness of time, we all agreed that it was best to have Gwen do the performance. The song was more of personal lyric, it’s one person’s thoughts.

Interview with Director/Visual Effects artist Ben Conrad of “Logan”

MVW: How did you end up working with Sophie on this video?

We were treating the track and presented a lot of boards and some of the frames we wanted to do. It was kind of a split between the label and the band. The band was comfortable working with Sophie. They liked some of the frames we did and wanted to have just little moments of “Logan” integrated with a real personal piece about Gwen. It was just better this way with Sophie capturing Gwen’s great performance. It was really intimate and their personal relationship evokes a lot of that great performance from Gwen.

MVW: I understand that you did the effects accenting the video. How did you create these effects?

BC: Off set, Alexei and I shot some glitter and water then used those as a star element to make the 3-D clouds. It was made pretty simple for Gwen to just to give it that religious fantastic look. This was directed by Sophie as well. She had a real clear idea of how she wanted to present Gwen.

The bike scene was where we unleashed. This was the one moment where you see the entire band together. For this scene we shot singles of all the band members on bikes in front of a blue screen on a 12 foot turntable. We stood them up there and shot away as many angles and rotations as possible. The band members were rigged to a lift that picked them up above the ground so they could peddle. We laid out tracks so we could shoot two of them together riding side by side and had grips pulling them back and forth on the small track.

When Alexei, Sophie and I originally talked about the idea, it was to include some of the footage they shot while in Jamaica. Gwen wanted to do something about Jamaica of course and how they would get around on bicycles while staying there recording the track. However we wanted to create something unique for that little moment and came up with the scene with the band members. We kind of gave it a “Sound of Music” through Jamaica look.

MVW: There is one scene where she smacks her side and stars came off of her?

BC: This was one of the original frames we submitted to the band. Originally when we were thinking about the track we thought about the peeling away of the earth layers relating to the track and the metaphor of the song. The echo emanation side protruding from Gwen’s shape relates to that within the concept of the song and serves as a graphic treatment in relation to the song. In all the treatments we wanted to stay within that idea of peeling and emanation of layers.

MVW: You usually do more CG kind of work. This was definitely not the norm for you.

BC: We are really trying to combine to more live action, performance, props and sets. It was a great experience for us to watch Sophie work. This was a really great learning experience for us. I have a hard time even thinking about our stuff as visual effects because to me, it’s more of a personal take on graphics.

Production Co.:
Oil Factory
Directors: Sophie Muller / Logan
Visual Effects: Logan

Tarantula The Smashing Pumpkins

P.R. Brown to direct Reprise Records artist Smashing Pumpkins ‘Tarantula’ music video in Atlanta during the week of 6/18.

Island Records artist Fall Out Boy ‘The Take Over The Break Over’ music video was recently shot by director Alan Ferguson on 6/3 in New York, NY. ( based on a dream sequence from Hemmingway – Pete Went’s dog)

Anonymous Content

Converge – House Of Blues Orlando

by Alicia Lyman

There were mixed reviews from many fans, fellow musicians, and industry folk about the set Converge was developing as I waited to meet their tour manager by the back stage entrance to House of Blues Orlando. From this perspective I could see the entire crowd, most of stage left, and most of the security guards throughout the venue a little confused as to why there wasn’t more moshing. There were little sects throughout the sea of people that were chanting along, and pumping their fists to drummer Ben Koller’s beat; but on the contrary, some were just standing there, wondering what was going on.

After their set I eventually got backstage to interview Ben and front-man Jacob Bannon. It was the second date on the “Mastotour” and I asked how they felt about the show. Jacob said, “It was a big stage, but you know…a good vibe. Ben added, “It was definitely a concert at Disney World, so we were kind of out of our element. We would’ve rather played a show in Albany, New York…at a dirt bar, but it was pretty fun.”

A majority of their music videos to date have been live shows shot by fans throughout the years that were captured on a DVD called Converge: The Long Road Home (Deathwish Records). More live videos can be seen on their website by High Roller Studios originally based in Philadelphia, PA (now in NJ) but their most recent video for the title track “No Heroes” was directed by Ryan Zunkley. Knowing that most of the artwork accompanying their albums, promotions and website has reflected some of Jacob’s lyrics, I asked what the process of making music videos has been like for them.

Jacob stated, “Strange. Really odd.” Ben agreed, “Yea!” Jacob continued, “I’d say that our last video was probably the most comfortable video. The environment was really low key, and it was just two brothers (Ryan and Eric Zunkley), two hardcore kids from Cleveland. They just did an awesome job, and it was the first music video they ever did.”

Having been on Epitaph for 3 years now, he said “we’re kind of set in our ways.” There is something to be said for that, and it may describe why some of the audience that evening was confused by the shrill brutality of arbitrary song structures Converge had in their set. These guys have been around for more than a decade. Signature songs like Concubine, Eagles Become Vultures, and No Heroes only proves that they are still way ahead of their time!