from whence the look of music videos from the late nineties?
January 8, 2013 12:10 PM   Subscribe

Many music videos from the late nineties, six underground by the sneaker pimps being the most salient example to me, have a distinctive cinematographic feel and style to them, with very high contrast (super dark blacks and popping-out, almost oversaturated whites); a lot of murky brown/green and pops of red/blue. Does this style have a name? Is it a film effect or some kind of post-processing, or both? digital? Why was it so prevalent in the late-nineties, and, correct me if I am mistaken, mostly just for music videos?

more examples: save yourself by stabbing westward, criminal by fiona apple, and sex and candy by marcy playground

it seems to be a stylistic cousin to NIN's Closer video, which I know was done at least partially on antique film stock

I don't have much technical knowledge of filmmaking but I understand a little. That blown-out contrast, in particular, seems much less popular now. Some of us in the lab I work in who were young in the nineties noticed this and wanted to know why.
posted by zingiberene to Media & Arts (22 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Teal and orange! Not just music videos (previously on mefi).
posted by googly at 12:17 PM on January 8, 2013

The Sneaker Pimps video thing is an approach to lighting (LETS USE ALL THE LIGHTS!) I remember seeing a lot in video and photography at the time.

I also feel like every damn music video and everything all the time had deep red velvet curtains in there somewhere.

My guess is that it was used then because it seemed new and bright and different (remember all the soft lighting in 80's and early 90's TV), and that it's no longer used because it seems dated today.

I vaguely remember the effect coming out of hiphop videos at the time, so that's probably why it was so influential. Anything anybody did in a rap video from about 1994-2000 was a really big deal, aesthetically, and immediately carried over to other aspects of pop culture.

The "Criminal" video was extremely aesthetically influential, too, I remember. You can trace a direct line from there to all the topless Abercrombie & Fitch models, ever.
posted by Sara C. at 12:23 PM on January 8, 2013

Another idea -- all the videos you link to and the phenomena you talk about are basically the 90's version of cupcakes and moustaches, nowish. It's just the particular aesthetic markers that decade chose to surround itself with.

My guess is that it comes out of grunge and the Pacific Northwest, and a general sense of cynicism and degradation which seems hilarious in hindsight because it was such a prosperous time.

Just like you can probably say that the cutely overloaded pastries and kittens stuff probably comes ultimately out of anime and a general desire for comfort and optimism in the face of the fairly shitty trajectory of the 21st century so far (9/11, the Bush administration, two pointless wars, economic downturn, etc).
posted by Sara C. at 12:28 PM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

I've always associated it with Cantaloop and Never Gonna Get It.
posted by Rock Steady at 12:28 PM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is called the Lomo effect and is named after an analog camera that used to produce this effect.
posted by phaedon at 12:31 PM on January 8, 2013

It was very often achieved with cross processing and bleach bypass, two film processing effects.

Cross processing is shooting on slide film and processing it as reversal (traditional negative) film. Bleach bypass is when you develop the film, but "bypass" the step where you'd normall wash the silver nitrate off the film.
posted by the jam at 12:36 PM on January 8, 2013 [3 favorites]

No technical insights but the look also reminds me of The Crow, and a fascination in the early-to-mid-1990s with Anne Rice's vampires and with the fresh (at the time) theme of making your pop songs about self-hatred, which Sara C. asutely identifies above.

Even Metallica in the "Until It Sleeps" video tried to get in on this feeling of the supposedly psychologically penetrating effect of the bright lights on the faces of people going nuts and wallowing in the dirt with crazy freaks who come out from behind plush red curtains (borrowed from Twin Peaks).
posted by steinsaltz at 12:38 PM on January 8, 2013

FWIW, I never heard of the Lomo effect until well after the 90s, and I was pretty involved in photo and video stuff at the time (though not on the high end, so maybe I just didn't run in the right circles). Cross processing and bleach bypass, for sure.
posted by primethyme at 12:47 PM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Its nothing to do with Lomo cameras (weren't trendy until the early 2000s and irrelevant medium anyway), and it doesn't look like there's bleach bypass or cross processing going on.

It's just a combination of both high key and low key styles of lighting. The other noticeable bits are very strong and stylised colours, which accentuate the contrast, and some minor surrealism.

The only things I can see linking the various linked videos is a combination of low-key, stylised lighting, and a strong colour palette.

By the way, another 90's video which moves between peculiar vignettes is Massive Attack's Protection, by Michael Gondry.
posted by Magnakai at 12:56 PM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

Huh. Well, as a guy in video production now (and a 90s teenager), these videos look fairly different in effects. First, it isn't Lomo, really. No vignetting at the edges, not really going for a lo-fi look either.

The Stabbing Westward video and Marcy's Playground are the closest in style, but that's mainly by color palette as you noted. Criminal is a harsh toplight in stark surroundings, and the Sneaker Pimps is an odd choice in over lighting the principal.

Also, it doesn't appear to be heavy processing effects like bleach bypass. Criminal is even purposefully avoiding effects to achieve that stark look (and it is a great look for that video).

What I will say is some of these videos do capture the feeling of being shot on a soundstage. No attempt at reality, with obvious sets and activity (videos playing on screens behind Stabbing Westward). I think that is a product of the time as music videos transitioned from the 80s also.
posted by shinynewnick at 1:04 PM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

A lot of this has to do with professional studio video cameras of the era finally being able to handle an interesting amount of dynamic range. Previously, cinematic style video basically had to be shot on film and then telecined because the cameras simply couldn't record the full range of light available on a soundstage (much less in real life). Better cameras allowed direct-to-video productions that didn't look like shit. Music Videos, being short and dramatic and shot on a budget, are where experimental techniques are often tried first, and thus: music videos of the era looked the way they did because they could, while the previous generation video cameras could not produce that look.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:46 PM on January 8, 2013 [4 favorites]

N.B. this is why today's music videos are all about the "bokeh" (extreme out-of-focus blurring). They're all being shot on full frame DSLRs, because they can.
posted by seanmpuckett at 1:51 PM on January 8, 2013

it doesn't look like there's bleach bypass or cross processing going on.

There isn't, of course, because these are things you do with actual (photographic) film during processing. However, the cross-processed look had an acknowledged vogue in the 80s and 90s, and its visual style was widely imitated even when there wasn't literal cross-processing happening (e.g. in video and via Photoshop filters).
posted by pullayup at 3:01 PM on January 8, 2013

I also wonder how much of this look isn't a reaction to the self-consciously "futuristic" neon-colored pixelly Compewtor Grafix EXTREEEM aesthetic of pop culture -- and especially music videos -- of the 80's. It's sort of a return to concrete physical object-ness. Saturated colors. Texture. Dirt. Settings that look like physical spaces a video crew would actually have access to rather than exotic otherworldly adventures.

I mean, compare any of these videos to "I Want My MTV", or "Take On Me", or any Prince video.
posted by Sara C. at 3:20 PM on January 8, 2013 [2 favorites]

I would resist technical explanations. It's mostly just the prevalent aesthetic of the time. 5-7 years later everything was washed-out turquoise and grey and indielike.

I would also say it's not so much a reaction to the 80s, which felt distant by then, as to the early 90s, when the aesthetic, was grungey, crunchy, 'green revolution' quirky rave babydoll and color-saturated. In the late 90s, clean up and brighten up got big, and bright bright white background was suddenly big. Hello, Gap Khakis swing, etc.
posted by Miko at 4:04 PM on January 8, 2013

Speaking as a photographer not videographer I'd say that the single common thread (and it's a big one) in all the videos that you've linked is shadows that are black. Like deep dark black. As other commenters have mentioned, video in the 80s had far less contrast and dynamic range.

Another commonality would be that it appears almost all these videographers were using single light sources in a key lighting style, rarely with the accompanying fill or rim lighting found in traditional portrait photography. In the Sneaker Pimps video in particular there's one light on the subject, almost always from directly in front of them. When the camera is also in front it gives a big ring light effect. If you watch 90s music videos you'll see a lot of that white circle on the eye surrounding the iris, aka ring light eye. I'm thinking Savage Garden's 'I Want You' is an example but I'm not 100% sure.

The lighting in these videos is also almost totally white, a far cry from the myriad pinks and blues found in 80s music videos.

The last little thread I see is that some of them have chosen false blurring at the edges - likely not even an artifact of the camera lens itself but a post-production choice to emphasize the falling into shadows theme.

Overall it's my impression they were making deliberate steps as far away from the lighting styles of the 1980s as possible. No more fuzzy soft multi-colored multi-light setups - now just single white lights leaving vast dark expanses. There were only so many ways to accomplish this and after the first director and cinematographer (whoever they were) did it, well, everyone else fell in line.
posted by komara at 5:40 PM on January 8, 2013

I vaguely remember the effect coming out of hiphop videos at the time, so that's probably why it was so influential.

Yeah, the Sneaker Pimps video in the OP seems to me somehow like an exact midpoint between the Missy Elliot / Busta Rhymes ALL THE BRIGHT COLORS!!! approach, and the Every Late 90s Alternative Pop-Rock Band ALL THE CINEMATIC DARKNESS AND SWINGING LIGHTBULBS!!! approach.
posted by threeants at 6:49 PM on January 8, 2013

Not sure why everybody assumes that music videos in the 90's were shot on video instead of film. Plenty of music videos in the 90's (and 2000's for that matter) were shot on film.

The style in question here is a combo of popular lighting techniques, and the following color grading. I don't believe it has much to do with technical limitations or advances.
posted by dogwalker at 8:54 PM on January 8, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dogwalker is correct, these were almost certainly shot on film, not video.
posted by shinynewnick at 10:34 PM on January 8, 2013

I think this trend started a bit earlier in 1993 with Just a Girl. I associate that close up of a washed out face with Gwen Stefani's red lipstick/ platinum blond aesthetic to the point it's the first thing I thought of when I saw your videos.

I don't know if NoDoubt were the first act to use that technique that way but its the first time I remember not being able to see the singers nose because of the light and it was all over the place afterwards. There were also a couple of real influential videos that use vignetting at the edges giving that spotlight kind of look and were in and out of focus and very high contrast, high saturation around the same time. Probably most notably Jeremy (1992).

Soon MTV was a blurry, spotlit, clown infested mess. She Don't Use Jelly (1994), Nice Shot Man (1994), Seether (1994), You Oughta Know (1995), Wonderwall (1995), Zombie (1996), All I Know (1996), Who Will Save Your Soul (1996)

This replaced the earlier trend of interspersing shots of completely random shit with shots of the band playing in meadows and living rooms Black Hole Sun (1991), One (1991?) and, best! I am the Mob (1988??)
posted by fshgrl at 1:14 AM on January 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

dogwalker (and shinynewnick): However, music videos were huge early adopters of digital grading technology--far before O Brother, Where Art Thou? and other feature films switched away from photochemical colour-correcting techniques.
posted by whittaker at 1:04 PM on January 10, 2013 [1 favorite]

Certainly, I just meant those sample videos to me didn't have the look of those specific post effects, digital or chemical. Before my time in the edit suite, so I'll gladly bow to people with experience in that era.
posted by shinynewnick at 1:28 PM on January 10, 2013

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