A Phil Mucci music video masterclass – Monster Magnet’s The Duke, style, and political statements

Phil Mucci has made a name for himself with a series of visually striking and distinctive music videos. To coincide with the release of his latest, for Monster Magnet‘s The Duke, I was lucky enough to speak with Mucci about the craft and art of making promos.

We also spoke about why politics are important to both The Duke and his video for Pig Destroyer‘s The Diplomat.

The Duke music video is embedded at very end of this post and I would encourage you to check it out before reading on.

Here’s what Phil had to tell me. We started with him taking me through his video-making process, using The Duke as case study.

Phil Mucci: I was still finishing the Das Muerte video as pre-production started on The Duke. I didn’t have time to storyboard the entire thing. I do really terrible storyboards. My process is generally that I’ll storyboard the whole thing, then I’ll flatbed scan my storyboards. Then I’ll put them in a timeline with the track and if I can I’ll try and trim that as much as possible. Cut the number of shots as much possible. Simplify as much as I can within that edit.

That will be my shot list. I’ll bring a rendered version of that on set and I’ll have all the storyboards with me, numbered. I go to set on the green screen and shoot, shoot, shoot.

Then there’s a green screen edit that happens once I’m done shooting, where I take everything and replace it in the timeline. Because I’ve already figured out where it’s going to go, mostly.

Then after the green screen edit, it gets re-edited several times, obviously to figure out what you’re gonna do. At that point I’m kind of committed to the green screen edit. I offer it to the label or the band and nobody has ever been interested in it [laughs]. Unless they’re in the video, then they definitely want to see it, but I rarely have the band in the video.

You’d be surprised, the only people who care about the videos these days – unless you’re working with Lady Gaga – is maybe the director and the lead singer of the band. Unless they’re higher end and they’re being pushed as a perfume brand or a Coca-Cola type thing, and a lot of pop bands are basically marketed that way. Like product. Where I’m working at… nobody cares. Which is beautiful.

[After the green screen edit] I start with the character animations. Because the character animation for each video is different. To the regular viewer they’re very similar, but they’re actually different. I’m trying stuff each time. But it takes days to work with this specific rotoscoping tool in After Effects. It’s a filter made by Red Giant called Toonit: Roto Toon. It’s really customisable and it takes a while to render so it takes a lot of tweaking to figure out what your look is going to be. Once I have that locked for the characters I just get all the character animation done and rendered out.

There’s not a filter on any of my characters when I’m comping [compositing] them, they’re already rendered animations. If I have a budget, like I did on the Stone Sour video, I’ll farm that part of the gig out. Once I get the green screen done I’ll send it to someone and be like, “Here dude, in two weeks give me back all these guys rendered.” Because I’ll give them all of the settings and the filters.

The comping, I’ll try to start that as soon as I can. If I’m doing it all by myself I may start comping before I’ve finished animating the characters if I’m concerned that shots aren’t gonna work. In After Effects you’re really reshooting everything. The animation I’m doing now in After Effects uses the 3D After Effects field and cameras in 3D. So once you have your stuff in there you can move around it.

After the character animation – that’s generally the labour part – then the comps start getting built, which is the other big part. I’ll then render really rough comps in low res, put them back into the green screen edit, use that to tighten up and then commit to the final comps. I consider it like rinsing. It’s almost like when you’re rewriting a script or something and you go through it and through it and you take out more of the stuff that doesn’t work. It’s the same process. Because the last thing you want to do is render a bunch of high res animation that you don’t use in the final cut. That’s just a huge amount of time wasted.

The Duke was shot in one shoot day. All the actors were there for one day. You couldn’t do that if you walked in and went, “Lets figure it out as we go.” You’d never make it.

[The Duke and the video for Pig Destroyer’s The Diplomat] are both real big political statements. There’s actually an easter egg in The Duke from the Pig Destroyer video. The briefcase passed between the general and the military contractor is the same briefcase.

The funny thing about the Pig Destroyer video is that it ended up being so political that the company financing the video took their name off of it. It came out right around the election in the U.S. – Obama and Mitt Romney – and they thought it was a commentary on Romney, but I was like, “No, it’s actually a much broader criticism of American imperialism.” Financed by weapons manufacturers – that was the point of the song and it was definitely the point of the video.

The only outline I got from [Monster Magnet’s Dave Wyndorf] was that the song was really about how it was the devil, The Duke of Supernature, who tried to start World War II and it was his army that got defeated when the Nazis went down. And ever since then he’s been influencing the world, preparing for his return. Then he gave me a run-on thing of all the stuff that he thought was cool: UFOs, dinosaurs… it just went on and on. It was really vague though, less than you get in a pitch meeting. It’s very little to go on but it’s enough.

I looked at it historically that the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was unnecessary and was a war crime and was the original sin of American imperial expansion. Once we did that, there was no turning back. Once we said we were okay to kill hundreds of thousands of civilians with one bomb, just to show the Russians that we have it, is scary. I don’t buy the line that we did it to end the war because they were surrendering. And as soon as Russians crossed into Manchuria it was over anyway, they would have surrendered. That was my political attitude going into the video.

I’m also very conscious of the fact that we still have all these weapons. And a lot of them we say we’re decommissioning but we’re decommissioning the old ones because the plutonium goes bad. They’re no good for warheads so we replenish them. It’s still out there and it’s something that nobody thinks about. There’s a lot of ra-ra patriotism not based on anything positive that comes out of the American propaganda machine. So this is a way to give people their lesbian, alien, space invasion movie with a little bit of medicine inside.

There’ll definitely be a Huntress video again soon. She was just over here last night and we recorded a commentary track for the Zenith music video.

We’re gearing up and starting to make a list of people who might want to give us money to make a movie [laughs]. Hopefully that’s not too far away.

Thanks again to Phil Mucci for taking the time to speak to me. Here’s The Duke.