In k-pop the music video is often as important as the song. I’d even go out on a not-very-dangerous limb and say it’s a lot more important than the song in most cases, and for a bunch of different reasons, ranging from building a brand, to building interest in the performers, to product placement, to connecting to global audiences and more. K-pop is at least as much of a visual phenomenon as it is an auditory one, this much is obvious. What’s a little less obvious to a lot of people is how much money and effort is involved, so that’s what this post is going to discuss… hopefully in a way that doesn’t bore you to shit.
What makes a music video “cheap” or “expensive”? How do I tell which is which? Attentive readers will note that one of my recent Nugu Alert posts touched on the topic of video expenses. However I didn’t go into a lot of detail in that post, and I’ve been getting requests to write something more in-depth about music video costs ever since, so here we go.
Let’s start off by saying that k-pop fans have a funny idea about what the word “cheap” means, k-pop fans will call just about anything that they don’t happen to like “cheap” just because they fell out of the wrong side of the bed that morning or mummy didn’t put enough milk in their breakfast cereal. The average k-pop video costs easily two or three times as much as the average major label western music video, and the average major label western music video costs between $50k and $150k. Expensive high-gloss productions from the likes of SM, YG, CUBE, MBK, JYP, TS etc… you’d be lucky to see any change out of half a million dollars in terms of total expense.
So, what’s costing all that money? Let’s look at some of the various aspects of making a music video so we can get a picture of where all the money is going.
Firstly, you need some people to actually make the shoot happen, obviously. What does the typical staff list on a music video shoot look like? A k-pop film crew may contain most or all of the following:
- Director – the head creative person, who oversees all creative elements and makes creativity-based decisions.
- Assistant director – usually in charge of schedules, making sure shit runs on time etc. On very large shoots there may be multiple assistant directors.
- Producer – think of a producer as a “filming manager” who organises all the staff to turn the creative vision from something inside the director’s head to something that actually happens.
- Production designer – in charge of the look of the film set. Very important for “box” videos where an entire set is fabricated from scratch.
- Art director – oversees the making of props, scene paintings, pretty stuff, to make sure that it meets required standards as laid out by the production designer. The art director says “hey there production designer my art team made a 50 foot gold-plated dildo for Hyuna to dance under as per your diagram” and the production designer looks it over and says “I calmly accept”.
- Set dresser – makes sure the cookie hovering over Raina’s head is sitting at the right angle for the camera to see it.
- Camera operator – self explanatory. May be multiple camera operators, and may have assistants depending on the complexity of what’s being filmed.
- Grip – there are several types of grips, a grip is basically a technician who works with any specialised camera movement. They do things like build train tracks and vehicles for moving cameras around smoothly (known as “dollies”), organise lifts and contraptions, etc.
- Crane operator – sometimes you need a big-ass crane for a camera or a light, these are common for k-pop groups where getting a fast mobile overhead angle is beneficial to filming a dance routine.
- Drone operator – for big outdoor events with lots of people and traffic cluttering up the area sometimes a crane isn’t the best solution. Increasingly camera drones are being used in the music video industry (if you want to see confirmed drone use in action try Wonder Girls “Like This” MV where drones were used to shoot the wide outdoor flashmob dance scenes). Drones are fairly new technology and they are not cheap.
- Steadicam operator – whenever fast action on-the-ground movement-tracking scenes are required, steadicam is often used, it’s basically a wearable camera that tracks movement smoothly.
- Boom operator – a boom is a big long stick with a microphone on the end that is used for recording dialogue, often used for any MVs that involve dialogue. Some poor sap has to stand there and hold that thing above your favourite idol while he’s pretending to cry in the rain over his lost love in some stupid drama MV. Yes, boom operators’ arms get tired.
- Gaffer – basically, an electrician. Because all that equipment needs power somehow. Also handles lights, although in some countries this is handled by a grip (not sure about Korea’s rules here).
- Electric – any assistants to the gaffer, they do stuff like working out where all those fucking wires are supposed to go. Important – technical fuck-ups can delay a shoot significantly.
- Stylists – hairdressers and makeup artists. A typical k-pop shoot has a small army of these people.
- Costume designer – Makes clothing happen. Obviously critical for k-pop where the look of each individual artist is taken very seriously, EXO’s tribal lycra spacesuits need to look just right.
- Wardrobe – manages the workaday aspects of getting EXO in and out of their tribal lycra spacesuits.
- Digital image technician – videos aren’t shot to film anymore, it’s all digital. The digital image tech makes sure that all the digital stuff is happening as it should, so the editor’s got the files he needs in the right format and order to piece everything together once the shoot is complete.
This is by no means a complete list, just the basics for a high-production music video, like the ones you see in k-pop. All of these people obviously need to be paid, usually at hourly rates, plus the equipment they use needs to be hired, usually at daily rates, or sometimes you pay a flat daily rate for a person and their equipment together if they have special gear (a crane or drone operator is a good example of this). Given that these are specialist fields, the wages aren’t cheap, you’re looking at a bill of several thousands of dollars just to get the above staff members together for one day of shooting. Most video shoots are done in one day around-the-clock (i.e no sleep until complete) but if the shoot stretches over multiple days, then double or triple the fees.
Location shoots obviously require access to a location over a consistent time period (several hours) with no interference. There aren’t very many good “free” locations that would work well for any type of k-pop music video (which is why you see certain ones reused in different videos a lot), landlords of prime locations know this and will rent their weird and wonderful areas out to k-pop film crews and rake in the cash. Access to a good location therefore requires one of two things – connections, or money. Even apparently “free” locations can contain a large hidden expense – walking down a street in Gangnam might be free but having a 4-12 member group do their dance unobstructed in that same street so they can look cool and trendy requires a city permit to block off the traffic, which requires money.
The above pic is a still from nugu group TREN-D’s “Candy Boy“. We can see that a street has been blocked off from traffic access. Also look at the angle of the shot – from way above. They’ve either hired a crane operator, or used a drone to get this shot. We’re already talking thousands of dollars for just this scene alone which is one of several in the video, all of which occasionally feature sweeping high camera angles. They might be a nugu group but their video doesn’t have a nugu price tag.
FABRICATION vs CGI
K-pop “box” sets such as the ones many SM Entertainment artists dance in are often the prime target of people who like to complain about k-pop music videos being “cheap”. In truth, these sets require extensive fabrication (i.e they need to be built out of some real stuff), or they require extensive CGI (computer generated imagery) whiz-bang effects. Neither are exactly dirt-cheap (if you want the result to look any good, that is), but what’s the most common option for k-pop these days? Let’s take a quiz with some popular high-technology box MVs!
How many did you get right? Almost all of the videos have completely 100% physical sets. Only Super Junior’s “Sexy, Free & Single” made heavy use of CGI and even in their case, the CGI wasn’t completely green-screened in but added as extensions to existing physical props that were already quite extensive. Now think about the amount of staff needed and hours of labour required to design and build each of those sets, as well as the materials and the scale involved. It’s more than a bathroom renovation (and a typical domestic bathroom renovation costs about $10k). Never again will you think of an SM box video as “cheap” – the fabrication costs for these videos are insanely high and a large percentage of the total budget.
Introducing one of the most expensive k-pop videos of all time: “Honey Honey” by Gangkiz. This video’s expenditure came in at about $900k, just under T-ara’s “Cry Cry/Lovey Dovey” and B.A.P’s “One Shot” which were a cool $1M each.
What is it that makes “Honey Honey” so expensive? Various scenes in the film were shot in three different European countries, and there’s multiple locations for each country. Now take another look at that staff list above. Every time you pick up your k-pop girls from one location and plonk them down in a new location, all those other people above have to go with them, plus all their equipment. In music video industry terminology this is called a “company move”, and “Honey Honey” would have had dozens of company moves before the shoot was over. The MV might look like one cute rented Kombi van full of hot k-pop girls trekking around Europe but there’s probably another rented Kombi plus a minibus behind it driven by far less attractive people and full of all the tech gear.
On top of all this, when you’re shooting your music video all those people in the list above, on top of your idols, are all getting hungry and thirsty. They need to be fed, however if you’re shooting in a snow dune or a desert somewhere or whatever, it’s not like you can go down the road to the local milk bar and get a malted. Even if there was a milk bar there, time is money and there’s not time to be spent acquiring snacks on a busy film set. The answer to this dilemma is “craft services“, friendly guys and gals who provide all-day snack food for your video shoot so your camera guys don’t get grumpy and Krystal doesn’t faint. Of course, they don’t do this for free – from the perspective of anyone wandering onto the film set it’s “free food” (and worth stealing), but it isn’t really because the agency still pays for craft services to be there. And of course, if you’re doing a company move, craft services have to move too or there is no food and Krystal faints again.
So you’ve got your video shot at great expense but now what? Well, assuming that your digital image technician had their shit together during the filming process, you should immediately have a bunch of hot sexy video files ready to post-process and turn into a music video. You guessed it… it’s time to pay another bunch of people a chunk of money to do a bunch of stuff!
Firstly there’s the editor, and you probably all know what this is but I’m going to explain it anyway for those that don’t. The editor chops up the footage from the initial long cuts into something that today’s kids raised on crappy Michael Bay films actually have a mild chance of paying attention to. The more cuts, the longer this takes. Yes, T-ara’s “Sugar Free” would have taken a fucking long time.
Some poor sap had to sit there and make all those edits one at a time. What do you mean you don’t fucking like it? The editor slaved away for days getting this just right so you could whine about it like a little baby.
Then there’s the colourist, and no that’s not another word for a racist (a colourist may be racist as well, but if so that’s just coincidence). A colourist is someone who makes sure colours match between different takes and different cameras and angles, and that the footage is correctly colour-graded. This is super important because films without the right colour grading look seriously amateur-hour, and stuff with good colour-grading (i.e everything SM has done in the last 7 or 8 years) looks hot as fuck. Most people don’t know about stuff like colour-grading in any detail so here’s a short and fun video explaining it visually.
Then you’ve got visual effects design. This mainly means CGI these days, there are other types of visual effects but they are used increasingly rarely, and probably almost never in the high-tech world of k-pop. CGI in most k-pop videos is fairly subtle when it appears – as covered above, many videos have some CGI content but surprisingly few are just a group dancing in front of a pure CGI backdrop. CGI when it appears is usually the icing on the cake, not the cake itself.
Lastly, you have sound design which is adding the music content (obviously) and also anything else that may be needed. A lot of k-pop videos have extensive preambles, sound effects and other stuff that needs to be inserted.
I haven’t even discussed other things like teasers, photo sessions and other promotional expenses tied to music videos, this is all just the basic stuff. By now you probably have realised that even the most basic k-pop music videos are in fact very expensive and you’ll be no doubt asking yourself…
HOW DOES ANYONE AFFORD ALL THIS FUCKING CRAP?
It’s no secret that the music industry has been on the downturn and there isn’t much money to be had. So where are k-pop companies getting the money for this shit? From other industries that do have money, that’s where.
AOA’s “Like A Cat” is an expensive fucking video, I don’t know the exact cost but I’d ballpark it as within the $300k-$500k range (and I’m possibly being a little conservative). It’s got more than one expensively-fabricated “box”, some melee action, hot outfits, sexy props and set design… and a couple scenes where the AOA girls pass time playing a computer game on their phones. The amount of money that the computer game company paid the k-pop agency for that promo probably paid for a good chunk of the video’s expenses. If you ever see a k-pop video where there’s an easily identifiable product, like a computer game, or a phone with its logo clearly visible, or a conspicuously-displayed (and always rented) car, now you know where the money is coming from. Phone and car companies love k-pop because it’s like an ad that consumers actually want to watch! Think about how many videos have performers singing in front of cars… that half the time they’re not even old enough to drive, let alone rich enough to afford.
The above still (from EvoL’s “Get Up“) looks more like a car advertisement than a music video – and that’s no accident because in reality, it’s actually both. Sure, the product placement is cheesy and obvious, but without it the high-end productions of k-pop probably couldn’t continue to exist.
That’s not to say that you can’t theoretically make a video for $500… with today’s technology and a bit of outside-the-box thinking you certainly can, but it won’t look like a k-pop production, it’ll look like something you created for $500. I’ll leave you with my favourite $500 handicam video of the year, and I know most of my readers have already seen this before but I don’t care, I’m going to shove 912 Crew’s “Roller Skate” down your throat again and again until you like it. Peace.