In the obsessive world of idol groups and fandoms, visuals are everything – here, three experts discuss what makes their videos pop
The numbers on an anticipated K-pop music video, or ‘MV’ as they’re often referred to in the industry, can go up fast: 50,000 views within a few minutes, then 150,000, then 400,000, until the YouTube counter freezes and the comments section rapidly fills with adoration and critique. Over on Twitter, the group’s fandom will be rallying each other towards a goal – to break a record for one of the most viewed K-pop videos ever, or to become the fastest MV to reach a certain number of views.
Given this frenzy, it’d be easy to assume that the MV is just an asset to boost streaming figures, but that would ignore the creative ambition that goes into creating a spectacle that must not only impart a story, song, and dance within the course of a few minutes, but showcase a group at its very best. It must transfix, endear, emotionally connect, and contain enough visual ideas to hold up to repeated views and changing trends.
Despite K-pop’s year-on-year growth, the number of video directors – particularly those taking on high profile commissions – remains small. But while teams like Lumpens (who work closely with BTS) or Zanybros (who have made videos for (G)I-DLE, Wanna One, and B.A.P) have become known for their close work with selected artists, there are directors who create unmistakeable visual canons that span multiple groups. Between them, they’ve helmed some of the best and biggest MVs of recent years. Here, they discuss what goes into making a killer K-pop music video.
STORY IS GREAT, STAR POWER IS BETTER
Whether they’re racking up two million or 200 million views, the ability of the K-pop MV to infiltrate social media is remarkable. No video is merely watched – every frame is GIFed, stills are memed and frames reinterpreted, members’ outfits are priced and posted on Twitter accounts that exist only to catalogue idols’ wardrobes. Over the last few years, high concept has veered towards the highbrow. BTS’s MVs, which draw on philosophy, art, and literature, lead the way; the contents are parlayed into fan-led analytical discourse, usually presented in Twitter threads or theory videos. These practices aren’t new in pop music (see the way videos by Childish Gambino or Beyoncé and Jay-Z have been unpacked), but what’s staggering is the scale – a YouTube search for ‘BTS theory’ turns up 365,000 results.
In order for fans to care on this deep level, though, they need to be fully invested in the artist, which is why MVs should always start with one guiding principle – to render each idol irresistible. “The priority is to bring out each individual idol’s image,” says Jo Beomjin of VM Project Architecture, whose cameras have captured large groups like EXO and Seventeen. “The influence of the fandoms, and the profit from the idols’ imagery, cannot be ignored. The rapid growth of YouTube has contributed to this phenomenon.”
Beautiful videos don’t come cheap – many cost up to or above six figures – but it’s an investment that’s necessary to stand out in a saturated market. “The enormous cost of production for K-pop is not enough to be covered by the small market in Korea,” says Seong Won-Mo of Digipedi, who’ve worked with WINNER, EXID, Heize, and PSY. “K-pop has moved towards global content, seen by people who do not understand the lyrics. That’s why visual devices like dance, design, fashion, and characters are as important as music.”
FIND YOUR CONCEPT AND MAKE IT YOUR OWN
A typical MV will include numerous outfit changes, wide externals, and extravagant sets, and dance choreography. There’s no hard rule, but MVs tend to fit a group’s original concept – whether it be sexy, weird, funny, cute, or dark – and push it forward in some way. Jo Beomjin’s client list is predominantly made up of boy groups, some of whom contain K-pop’s best dancers, such as EXO’s Kai and SHINee’s Taemin. Camera techniques like tilting to emphasise a specific move, or a fast close up/pull back combo to accelerate the action, are common in K-pop videos, but Jo’s editing process is distinctive in that he tends to favour holding a shot for as long as possible, placing the camera fluidly within a moving group, over rapid cuts. His narratives tend to be abstract (see EXO’s “Love Me Right”), creating an overall visual experience that skims close to sensual. “When all the shots tell a narrative, it feels a little stiff,” Jo explains. “But when you use abstract imagery to convey the same intentions, the audience gives new interpretations that even I didn’t know.”
Humour also plays a big role in music videos, whether satirical (PSY lampooning the wealthy elites of Gangnam), surreal (Orange Caramel dressed as sushi), or physical (iKON fighting with oversized prosthetic hands). Variety shows that feature slapstick comedy, like Saturday Night Live Korea and Knowing Brothers, are popular in South Korea, and tap into fans’ desire to see an idol’s lighter side. Production studio Tigercave (who’ve made videos for IMFACT and BLOCK B) uses a naturalistic, tongue-in-cheek feel in its videos, while Digipedi (Gugudan, N.Flying) excels at the surreal – the latter’s Seong Won-Mo says that humour is “crucial” to their work. “In college I watched all kinds of comedy – Hong Kong films by Chow Sing Chi, South Park, Woody Allen, Kitano Takeshi, and Park Chan Wook,” he says. “A scene from Lovelyz’s ‘Ah-Choo’, where shoes are found behind the curtain, is a borrowed scene from Jim Abrahams’ 1984 movie Top Secret!”
STAND OUT AND BE REMEMBERED
“I realise that surreal stories, small rooms, and specific colours appear (often) in my videos,” says Digipedi’s Seong Won-Mo. “I try to make every piece of work look like someone else, but most people notice that I made them.”
If Digipedi’s altered reality, detailed sets, and rich colouration is at one end of the spectrum, then Tigercave, which works with Korea’s R&B and hip hop artists as well as with idols, is the opposite – an affinity for location shoots, blue and pink lighting and set colour, lens flare, neon and glitch effects. “I watch all visuals,” says Tigercave’s founder, Lee Gi-Baek. “Dadaism from the early 20th century, silent films, American pop videos, Indian films.” Lee breaks his work down by eras, or “seasons”, from early years creating heavy CGI visuals for the likes of G-Dragon and rappers Dynamic Duo to more maximist “flashy hip hop videos” for Jay Park and ZICO more recently.
VM Project Architecture also uses several of the above hallmarks, like glitch/cloning effects and saturated primary colours, but Jo Beomjin says that although he prefers these, “I don’t think that’s my style. The minimal set and colours emphasise the silhouette of the subjects and the special effects are merely parts of the video situationally allocated.” Inspired by “Monet, Edward Hopper, James Turrell, Le Corbusier, Radiohead, Oasis, all the great rock and pop musicians and the directors who expressed them”, Jo’s difference is “that I don’t focus only on the subject’s face but the overall mise-en-scene. I’ve been finding new ideas from the emotional sensibilities of extra experimental B-grade films, and ideas from specific choreography also play a big role in spatial production.”
NEVER SHY AWAY FROM A CHALLENGE
One glance at a K-pop MVs will tell you that they’re a lot of work. Filming idols can take several days, during which the artists and crew work around the clock, and that’s before even mentioning the level of post-production needed. Seong Won-Mo’s Digipedi has created 16 character-led MVs for the 12-member girl group LOONA, where each MV must stand alone yet be “organically linked to create a large narrative”. He isn’t shy to call it “an experiment”.
VM Project Architecture’s videos “Dumb Dumb” video for Red Velvet and “Remember” for newcomer Katie have been Jo Beomjin’s biggest challenges. “Both took three to six months (to create),” he recalls. “Red Velvet’s had to show the commercialised concept of a factory. The amount of post-production was tough. Katie’s video’s objet was gold, and to express gold’s material and light through the eye of the camera was very difficult. Plus, we had around 50 extras, and during post-production we had to manage graphic artists between Seoul, Paris, and Istanbul.”
For Lee Gi-Baek, ZICO’s “Artist” video (which involved working with children and animals, and multiple location shoots) was exciting and fraught. “Because I knew it would turn out so well, it made me more anxious,” recalls Gi-Baek, “From prep to editing, it was careful and challenging.” He’s also frank about some of the compromises video-makers have to make, which includes a lack of options: “Korea is small, and not everyone gives you a huge budget to create a set, (so) locations for shooting are limited. In K-pop, there’s lots of overlap.”
KNOW THE TRENDS, THEN BUCK THEM
As K-pop becomes more competitive and more pressure rests on the shoulders of the industry’s image makers, several issues play on their minds. Digipedi’s Seong Won-Mo sees companies heavily analysing what’s working and what isn’t, then requesting “things based on the data”, which slows down K-pop’s progress as a trend is overworked. “It’s important not to follow what people like,” he stresses, “I sometimes (deliberately) exclude what people expect. You have to try a risky way to find something new.” Lee Gi-Baek also offers a warning – “Music companies should be cautious. To exhaust the fans, that’s the issue” – but he’s also aware that K-pop, like every other pop music industry, is a machine. “You have to be sensitive to trends and observe everything,” he says. “Be objectively critical of yourself. This industry doesn’t wait for your slump.”
VM Project Architecture, however, is pragmatic – even enthused – about what lies ahead. “It’s becoming natural to engage the fans with unique settings showcased in a series or with complex world views,” says Jo Beomjin. “Music videos have surpassed the role of just an MV. The market encourages hardcore competition, and the charts are chaotic, but the fans seem to be enjoying the ride.”