Hallyu with James Suh: K pop music-video director's inside scoop.
Updated: Jul 6, 2020
It has been already 10 years since Director Lee You Young has started out his career as a music video director. I had a first encountered Lee seven years ago, for a post-production work that I assigned to him for my corporate client for a global promo films. At the time he had a working partner whom was also a film director. They had a quiet an interesting working relationship whereby his colleague would edit and color grade, and he would film and co-direct music videos. And over the years, I have seen Director Lee take his career as a young music video director, to now as a well-established director in K pop music video scene, having to direct over 100 music videos already with artists like Luna/F(X), Kim Na Young, Punch, Soyou, & Super Junior. This is a short story of Director Lee. Lee would like to introduce to many internationals fans of K pop other genre like Ballad that is different from what we typically observe in the K pop scene for having a clean-cut dance moves with upbeat music.
Interview with Director Lee You Young
I would say that K pop is divided into several different categories in its genre: Hip Hop, Dance, Ballad, Indie etc. I am a director who specialize in Ballad. I first came to this scene by producing and directing Indie music videos And with time, my skills as a director significantly improved and I slowly got to do more work as a director through word of mouth. Music videos is not the only genre that I have had experience of producing and directing, but also found myself directing for television commercials as well as web-dramas. When it comes to K pop music video directing, I personally felt that there are just too much things that director has to do on his own. For example, in South Korean K pop music video scene, the budget and the time line is extremely tight. What I mean by this is that it is not feasible to have different categories of production staffs as you would see in feature film industry. As a director, I did not always have the luxury of relying on a professional department head like the art, film, and light. So, a typical music video director needs to be a very well-versed in different aspects of the business. A standard pre to post production process lasts approximately one month. And because of such tight schedule, there are many nights and days where we would stay up to shoot including the artists. We would typically have 12 hour shoot but many of the times we would end-up shooting as long as 15- 16 hours.
I like to use the story within a song to come up with another storyline. I am not saying that I am completely reinventing the story, but rather adding a personal color and touch to the existing storyline is what I do best as a music video director. During the pre-production phase, I would have extensive meetings with the artist and their producer and about what the song is about. And if there are some key reference music videos they will let the director like myself know what that is. In other cases, I would suggest reference films or visual aids after listening to the artists’ song. Of course, important thing to consider is that reference films and ideas must be feasible within the given budget in mind.
In K pop music videos, one can right away notice vivid colors, and filming techniques. It’s like an instant food. A fast preparation and a fast consumption. Again we have saying in Korean “Pally Pally,” which literally mean “hurry, hurry.” This applies to many aspects of our work. A common K pop music video shoot would have two to four weeks during a pre-production stage. This is the time when I create a story by listening to a artists song and learn about their song concept during an extensive meeting. For many of the chart topping K pop artists in the category of “Dance,” they will have over six figure production budgets. On the other hand, many of genre in “K pop Ballad” are shot under this six figure budget. The production phase lasts roughly one or two days of shoot. For major K pop stars, the days of shoot can lasts a lot longer split between days. The post production phase is composed of editing, and color-grading of raw footages. We invest a lot of time when compare to the total production timeline to make sure every shot color graded and made to a perfection. For example, we focus a lot on the skin tone of individual artists seen in the film. Lastly, every music video produced has to receive a film rating from a government agency for categories such as: General audiences, PG-12. PG-15. And Rate-R. A music video is deemed Rated- R when there is a scene with a cigarette smoking, or alcohol drinking or sexually explicit. I do respect the boundary and the guidelines that are in place to protect young viewers from such exposure and indirect influence a film can have, but there are times when I do feel the need to include a scene of alcohol drinking when there is a “break up” scene and it is a tricky business. Sometimes, we would release the song first and music videos later, when the film rating process takes longer than anticipated. It is because following process can take as little as three days to long as a week.
One can see distinct, individualistic stlye of music video among trending M/V directors. Director “A” may use much 2D & 3D motion graphics through-out the film, director “B” can rely on fast-cut edit and strong color contrast, director “C” may direct films through wide use of “objects” that are used as a metaphor to tell the story. As a director, I am constantly trying to reinvent my directing style to win the hearts of fickle audience groups.
When I first started my career out as an indie music video director, the type of budget I had to work with was less than USD $10,000. After camera lens and gear rentals, crew labor costs, and food costs, there was literally no money left for other things like film sets. So I had to either search out for a location where I could use the place for free or an outside. Also, many of the times, it is even difficult to hire a proper director of photography and lighting director, so I had to be on the camera as well as on the light and put on multiple hats as a director with multiple roles. Therefore, I was forced to think and design more story-driven music video because of my limits in technical know-hows and skills involving using professional camera gears and lighting. But surviving in K pop music video scene for years, I have started to build on my skills in lighting, camera and even spotting a great shoot locations.
Having also had the experience of running a production company that produce K pop music videos, from the interview I was able to very much relate to some of the hurdles of making it in the industry as a K pop music video director. And as director Lee has mentioned, I remember shooting 18 hours + for a music video and artists group would do their full dance routine at least 100 + to get all the shots needed. Currently, we see only handful of designated music video directors that have access to the big three k pop entertainment company, and some globally recognized artist groups are particular to having one director that they have previous relationship with to shoot all of their works. Also, there is a one major company that I will not disclose but pretty much shoots 90% of the music videos in K pop scenes as they bring systematic approaches to shooting the film with in-house talents like cinematographers, set-designers, producers to make the volume of their work met with highest standards in quality. You can find out more about the major K pop music video production in the following link: https://www.dazeddigital.com/music/article/40602/1/how-to-make-an-iconic-k-pop-music-video
Now, when you look at Melon top 100 charts, we see “Ballad” music taking majority of the top spots. From the domestic K pop music perspective, a trend is now leaning towards Ballad when compare to other genres of music. With this in mind, I applaud Lee You Young’s persistence and passion as a director in ever so competitive K pop music video scene.
Written By James Suh / Creative Director, DDB