Joshua Mikel hails from Atlanta and graduated from Florida State University in 2007 with a dual degree in theatre and creative writing. He is a playwright and works as an actor and freelance graphic designer via his company Sharkguts Design. He has created music videos for Neon Trees, Fake Problems, Blacklist Royals, Ninja Gun, and Look Mexico, for which he was the long time drummer.
How did you start making music videos?
The FSU Honors office was offering grants; I won one under the proposition that I make the transition from strictly playwriting to screenwriting. So me and my buddy Travis wrote a couple shorts; we rented a camera and shot. Among these three other short scripts, I figured what the hell, we have a camera, and I have a little money, let's shoot a music video for Look Mexico (the band I used to play drums in). That was the video for "Guys, I Need a Helicopter." It was a lot of fun, and I learned a shit ton. Then I kind of took it upon myself to produce/direct the rest of the videos while I was in the band. Those videos led to work with my friends Fake Problems and eventually with Blacklist Royals and Neon Trees.
Do you think being a musician gave you insight into what musicians look for in a video?
I wouldn't say so. I think you have to develop an eye for directing before you really know what folks look for. With that first video, I wanted to basically create something hyper nostalgic. Luckily, this camera we rented could shoot 60 frames per second, and nearly ANYTHING in high speed looks awesome. We really milked that.
What has been the biggest lesson you learned from directing videos?
There's a whole shit ton of stuff involved in putting a film together that most folks don't really take into consideration...So there was a whole bunch of stuff that I needed to take on as "producer" of these things, that I never took into account before I tried my hand at filmmaking.
Just because you act in a couple of short films at your college doesn't mean you know the ins and outs of filmmaking. I was absolutely clueless. I was calling myself director, when in actuality I was just taking on producer positions. Or I would storyboard a video. But when it came to directing, I had no idea what to do.
How do you come up with the video's concept?
Usually it begins with the song. I guess for the Look Mexico videos I just wanted to tell fun little narratives. Kids having the most excellent summer day. A pie eating contest (that ends up being a bit like No Exit). A little boy trapped in this kind of wild dream world, dudes on a hunting trip hunting down real monsters...that kind of shit. With the Fake Problems videos - those were more of a dialogue between the band and the other filmmakers and I. Usually it has to do with finding the coolest visuals. The Neon Trees video was about listening to the song. I created three pitches for the piece, and in discussion with their PR folks, I honed it down to one, and then fine-tuned that before I set in to animate.
You've done animated and live action videos. Do you have a preference?
Well, I tend to like animated videos because those generally are the ones where I feel like I am truly the director. Other times, there are so many variables, and I don't think I've earned a spine on live sets yet. I think I'm getting there, but only recently have I really understood the on set dynamic a director tries to achieve - about the things one has control over and who on the team he should talk to if something isn't panning out the way he wants it...but when it comes to animation, I have the freedom to move the camera around, light it, and animate the actors' performances where I'm getting (not always) exactly what I wanted.
I thought I'd mention two specific videos and have you briefly comment on the process of making them. “Songs For Teenagers” by Fake Problems.
They're good friends of mine from my Look Mexico days, and I had 1st AD'd and assembled some crew for their "Dream Team" video, so I guess the next step was bringing the ball to my court. I produced their next video with some film school buddies for "Diamond Rings," and they eventually got in touch with me about doing this one.
I wrote out a few treatments, which I think they shot down, and then eventually I planned out one they liked; it was a lot less about the lyrics, and more about a feel - which is really hard to get across in a treatment. I worked with my buddy Bobby (who worked on the Look Mexico "You stay..." video with me) and my friend Kyle shot it. Bobby had worked with the Weeki Wachee Mermaids on a documentary, and when Fake Problems showed me a location they wanted to use (the dome buildings that appear in the video - off the coast of their hometown Naples, FL) it only made sense that we'd create a video where the dudes happen upon some mermaids.
It was the first thing I feel like I truly produced. Start to finish I handled the money, made phone calls, got folks on board, troubleshot the fuck out of some shit. It was hands down one of the most stressful things I've ever taken on. I never want to do it again (but undoubtedly will). The video has gotten a great response, and we're all happy as shit about it.
I want to point out that the four videos that I've produced or directed came in under $2,800. Most of them operated on about a $1,000 budget. So when you can make a relatively TINY amount of money go that far, it's something I'm very proud of...although I think I'd be more proud if I could get the crews paid what they deserve...
"Everybody Talks" by Neon Trees.
My buddy Patrick had put me in touch with a guy at Island Def Jam who reached out to me about perhaps doing an animated video for Neon Trees' “Your Surrender.” They needed it in two weeks. At the time, I hadn't taken less than eight weeks for the prior two animated pieces, so I didn't believe I could do it.
The next time they got in touch with me, I was determined to make it happen. This seemed like a crazy timeline still, but I felt I could pull it off. But the catch was, they needed to get the band and A&R folks to approve one of my three treatments. I sent in my treatments around Thanksgiving, and I didn't hear anything. I checked in a few times, but still didn't hear anything. Fast forward to December 15th, I get a call from Jazmine - a band rep - who tells me they want me to do the video. At this point I'm saying to myself, "no fucking way," but I figure what the shit, it will be awesome if I can do it. The next day I have money in my account, so I can't go back. I try and track down a partner animator, but it was the holidays and the last thing anyone wanted to do, so I decided to do it myself. They still needed to see a video by the 4th. Between the 16th and the 4th of January, I put in about 300+ hours on the video. I didn't work all of Christmas or Christmas eve, and I stopped early on new years to go see Fake Problems play with Against Me! here in Atlanta. But other than that, I was drinking so much coffee and chugging Red Bulls, and surviving on Trader Joe's noodle soups. It was a shit show, I lost about 10 pounds, but I couldn't be happier with the reception. It's only meant to be a viral video - so just a couple weeks ago they released a live version.
I just saw today one of the top comments was something like, "I like this one. Better than the live one...," which makes me feel real good. I think execution-wise it's head and shoulders above my Ninja Gun video. And I am just the proudest goddamn dude in the world that I did it in such a short time frame.
So any new video projects in the works?
I'm looking to hopefully do a project for myself here soon. I want to animate my ten minute play The Great Black Vulture. So, no music video stuff for me for a bit. I'm trying to concentrate on acting. I'd like to do at least one animated piece a year. So, hopefully something will come along, but ideally it will be my piece.