The Rules to Making Perfect Emo Music Video, According to Shane Drake

Yoshiko Yap

My Chemical Romance is touring again, Paramore and Jimmy Eat World are headlining a major festival this fall, and there’s a skinny, tattooed white dude with a guitar dominating the charts. In case you haven’t heard, emo is back, baby! In honor of its return to prominence—plus the 20th anniversary of the first MCR album—The Ringer is following Emo Wendy’s lead and tapping into that nostalgia. Welcome to Emo Week, where we’ll explore the scene’s roots, its evolution to the modern-day Fifth Wave, and some of the ephemera around the genre. Grab your Telecasters and Manic Panic and join us in the Black Parade.

By the mid-aughts, emo bands surprisingly found themselves competing for mainstream attention with pop acts and hip-hop artists. To stand on equal ground with them, they needed music videos, which at the time were still getting played on MTV and its sister station, MTV2.

Shane Drake was a go-to music video director for emo groups since the start of the decade, becoming a particular favorite of labels including Fueled by Ramen. He helmed early videos for acts including Fall Out Boy, Hawthorne Heights, Silverstein, and Say Anything. As the reach of emo grew, the size of his videos grew with it. Videos Drake shot on consumer-level digital video cameras turned into major productions with budgets in the hundreds of thousands. Paramore tapped him six times across six years. In 2006, Drake’s video for Panic! at the Disco’s “I Write Sins Not Tragedies” won Video of the Year at MTV’s Video Music Awards, upsetting clips by Madonna, Shakira, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Christina Aguilera. It was the band’s first video and also the first of their six collaborations with Drake.

Though he eventually transitioned to mostly making country music videos (he was raised in Redding, California), Drake established his directorial approach during that era. He’s now shopping a TV show set in this world. Here he gives his guide on how to make a successful emo video.

These answers have been edited and condensed for clarity.

Get in Early

I came on the scene around 2001 and 2002. I was being mentored by another director named Darren Doane, who was pretty prolific in punk rock, in terms of music videos for bands like Pennywise and old Blink-182 and AFI videos. So my first foray into this whole market, I was doing videos that he was handing me. My very first time on set where I was getting to call action was Slick Shoes, which was a punk band on Tooth & Nail Records. That quickly transitioned to me and Darren taking a trip to Alabama and shooting videos for Underoath, Norma Jean, and mewithoutYou.

That was incredibly impressionable on me. I had not really been exposed to this music. I was married. I was nearing my 30s. I was a little bit older than the other people in the game at the time, but I was just finding my footing as an artist. I got to direct the mewithoutYou video for “Bullet to Binary,” which is very aggressive, very post-hardcore, experimental and screaming—all the elements that blended into the harder side of the emo world. At that level, it was four or five guys crammed into a really small van and peeing through the bottom of it as they drove.

Shooting that video was a blast because I got to experience a cathartic new expression of music. It was a moment of wonder for me. That piqued my desire to continue in that genre for the next 10 years. That video opened up the door to do more punk and more hardcore, but that hardcore started blending into screamo, and then underneath that there was this whole melodic pop world of emo that was coming in that was going to be a juggernaut.

Those first couple years, there’s a lot of videos I did that no one’s ever seen. I mean, someone’s seen, but not the masses. That was really my film school, learning through doing. I already had a pre-med Bachelor of Science degree. I’d already had some years I had trained at Princeton Theological Seminary. This was the first practical thing I was doing artistically where instead of going to school, I went out and did it. I got in at the time when this new scene was burgeoning and really taking on shape.

The Performance Is the Focus

Back then, you weren’t always competing. The label comes and says, “We’ve got this band (or these three bands), can you do a video for this budget?” And the budget was like three grand or five grand or eight grand. It was nothing exorbitant. If you say yes, you took the money and they trusted you were going to go make a video and deliver something to them. As emo developed, the competition element started entering pretty quickly where basically now a label will come to you and say, “We’ve got a couple directors writing on this, are you interested in writing an idea?”

The early emo world wasn’t like the ’90s music video industry where it was gonna be some glossy, big-budget, over-the-top-choreographed eye frenzy. This music had more depth. It had more intentionality. My goal as a filmmaker, when it came to the treatments, was always to find the soul of the song and the soul of the band. I would always be on a vision quest to find the truth in these songs that I was being sent.

I remember when I was first sent “Pressure” for Paramore. It was the very first video they did. That song was written by a very young girl who was dealing with very real issues that were causing her distress. And she was echoing the concerns of girls and guys across the country. We came up with a story line about this model who was under pressure to get the perfect shot and her boyfriend who couldn’t get it right at his blue-collar job just trying to be like, “Let’s escape this and let’s go be in love.” But what I found on that was that the real heart and soul of these videos was in the musical performance. It didn’t matter what I did for a concept, it’s the performance.

That became the magic of every video I did for them, for any of these artists—from Fall Out Boy to Panic to Armor for Sleep. It was about how they delivered that performance. The concepts, they got better and they got more poignant. When it came to Panic, we had really cool narratives, but when you break those videos down, the part that’s amazing is Brendon [Urie]. In “I Write Sins,” the wedding stuff is crazy and it’s fun and it’s irreverent at times, but the performance that he gives when he’s in the camera, you can’t look away.

Find the Energy at Every Level

The first time I ever saw Underoath play, it was during that Alabama show [Drake was the director of photography for the band’s “When the Sun Sleeps” video]. They played so aggressively. They were dropkicking each other on stage, as they always did. They were just going ballistic to 20 or 30 kids who were also going bananas down below. That was a dazzling experience because not three years later, I was backstage in Ventura at Warped Tour, watching them play for thousands and thousands of kids. The performance was the same. This is who these guys have been.

Their music spoke to people—to the energy, to the dynamics, and to the lyrical content that the kids were looking for. It didn’t seem odd at all to have seen them at both those levels, because their performance was consistent. Did they get better? Sure, they all got better. They all got tighter. But the level of energy, the level of like commitment to this music was there from day one.

Same thing with Paramore. I saw Paramore play to 15, 20 kids at Universal Studios. I knew [how successful they’d be] on set with “Pressure,” but I really knew the first time I saw Hayley Williams perform on stage to hardly anybody. She is so incredibly gifted with the ability not only to perform, but to write, and her vocal ability is very unique. Obviously she had a number of lineups with Paramore, but the real show has always been her. Even in all the music videos, as much as I’ve loved the different lineups, my focus is her. Because she’s a dynamo.

Embrace Your Character

Here’s the start of the day on the set if I don’t know the band. I obviously like the song or else I wouldn’t be doing the music video. I already am coming on as a fan of whatever piece of art they’ve put forward. I’m not coming on to fight them, I’m not coming on to change them, I’m coming on to support them and make them the best them possible.

When they’d show up I usually would pull the band aside and walk them through the day, but then say, “Here’s the thing, I want you guys to play the character of you, whatever it is that you see yourself as. Are you the wild man? Are you the sensitive man? Are you the expressive man? Are you the woman with grit? Are you the woman with charm? What is this persona that you feel the most when you’re performing? On camera you’re going to feel way more exhausted than you do on stage because you’re going to blow it all out. You’re not going to be able to gauge how much energy’s coming out because you’re not having actual monitors hit you back, because you’re lip syncing. It takes a toll. But what I also need on top of that is you to be 1,000 percent the person you are trying to be on stage.”

Everyone’s got this alter ego when they get on stage and that’s a critical part of performance. Your performance is theater. And that’s a big part of why we’re showing up. Is that theater authentic? Is that theater derivative? Or is that theater completely generic? That’s where we see the wheat separated from the chaff.

I love a blistering drum. I love a guy who’s got poor technique and high arms and comes crashing down like Animal from fricking the Muppets. But usually if it’s a good band with real talent, they’re perfectionists. They’re band kids who are really talented. A lot of times, you want to say, “You got involved in rock ’n’ roll because you have an alter ego you want to express. You don’t want to be the guy playing the clarinet in band class. You want to be the guy ripping the guitar on stage in front of a million people.” So I’m trying to encourage them to embrace that.

When it comes to the narrative, I’m telling a story. I’m going to get them into whatever character they’re in and I’m going to lead them through the narrative moments. And they’re either good at that or bad at that. But even if they’re bad at that, if they kick ass at the performance, it doesn’t matter.

Bigger Budgets, Same Band

When I got to the level where I had a few hundred thousand dollars to play with, I got there by finding my colors and my characters and my style. I had developed a recognizable form. I was able to maintain a lot of what I did at the lower budget level on the higher budget level, just with more talented crew and more elaborate sets and more fancy wardrobe. That first video we did for “I Write Sins” for Panic! at the Disco was $30,000. We immediately did “But It’s Better If You Do” like two, three months later and that video was $80,000. I got to hire more extras. I got to put them in crazy, era-specific clothing. I got to rent out a really cool old club that doesn’t even exist anymore called the Derby. I got to hire choreographers. I got to have dancers. I got to have a much bigger production. It still didn’t do as well as “I Write Sins” because “I Write Sins” was a smash single, but it still was very intimately Panic! at the Disco.

Then the next video we did was “Nine in the Afternoon” for the next album cycle. That was almost twice that budget. Again I got to do more characters. I got to do more elaborate costumes. I got to do multiple sets. We found a place to put that money, but we still did it in a very Panic way. It’s not like we turned them into Coldplay. Don’t get me wrong—I love Coldplay, I love their entire trajectory, it’s just a different trajectory than Panic.

There’s a lot of bands I didn’t get to go to that next level with—some for good reasons, some for sad reasons, because they should have done better. The ones that really got that opportunity to do really low and really high with me, we were really able to keep them who they were because the model didn’t change, we just got to amplify it.

You Can Do Whatever You Want

There were not a lot of boundaries. There was a lot of open space to create, explore, express, and take chances. When I worked with Tom DeLonge on Angels & Airwaves’s “Everything’s Magic,” it was a real honor for me. There was a part of me that was going to set like, “OK, this guy’s made a bunch of music videos, he’s made a bunch of hits, he’s responsible for a large reason why this scene even exists, what am I going to tell him he doesn’t already know?” When I got there, he pulled me aside and said, “Man, I love what you do. You tell me where to go, tell me what to do and I’m going to do it.” And I was like, “Holy shit, this is why this guy has had the success he’s had.” Don’t get me wrong, Tom has a lot of specific directions that he wants and a lot of specific visions for what his goals are. He’s got a brilliant mind, but in terms of being an artist in the scene at that time, he expressly told me that he trusted my creative vision. He really embodied this idea of let’s get weird.

In high school, bands come from the theater kids and band [class], and these are traditionally not cool groups of kids. When they take those talents outside of high school and actually parlay them into acting or music or whatever, they get a chance to let their freak flag fly. All of a sudden we’re wowed by that talent and we realize, “Whoa, these were the superstars all along.” When it comes to this generation—the My Chems, the AFIs—there were some people who embraced that artistic, theatrical side from the beginning that ended up having successes, which did open the door for bands that followed to embrace the same creative freedoms.

You see bands like Refused, and “New Noise” was the video that changed everything for a lot of people. It was so theatrical and so bizarre and so out there, but that made everyone go, “Oh, so we can do whatever we want.” There was a precedent set by some of the more successful marquee bands like My Chem that sort of took the reins and said, “We’re going to go full-blown musical theater” and made it a spectacle.

Recognize Your Conventions and Move On

I think [the theatricality] got played out. There was a time where I felt like I had to incorporate masks into everything. I had masks in a Red Jumpsuit Apparatus video. I had masks in a Gia Farrell video. And then I had masks in my Trick Daddy video. [The record label cut the mask setup from the video’s final version, but kept the red curtains throughout.] All that came from masks in my “But It’s Better If You Do” video for Panic, and then “Nine in the Afternoon” for Panic. Eventually, you’ve got one of your anchors and you realize it’s no longer keeping you steady, it’s holding you back.

It wasn’t necessarily because it was theatrical, it was because it was an element that was given too much power and attention. I don’t know if anything was ever too theatrical as much as there were elements that were too repetitive. And that was a big part of the scene too, trying to not overdo something. Inherently everything got overdone.

Eric Ducker is a writer and editor in Los Angeles.

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