Fans familiar with early 80s music videos often smirk at the seemingly ubiquitous white background of many English new wave videos. Everyone seemed to have a video set in front of a white cyclorama, or “white cyc” — a enormous white back wall that forms a ramp, giving the impression of no angles or perspectives for the foreground subjects (also called a “white seamless” and modern sets sometimes use white paper). Usually already painted white when the crew would arrive to shoot, the white cyc inadvertently became a go-to look for the cheapest music videos of the day.

Enter video director Brian Grant on his first directing gig in 1979, a promo clip for the band M’s song “Pop Muzik.” With a budget of about 2000 pounds, Brian found himself at Molinaire studios on the white cyc, and with yet another budgetary constraint: no money to edit whatever he shot. As was the custom of the time, Grant used a creative technique to assemble the video on the tape as they shot.

“Editing videotape in those days was very very expensive. Videotape hadn’t been around that long, and editing was quite primitive, so we had the very first one-inch videotape machine that you could spool the videotape and see the image, and previously you couldn’t do that. Before, you couldn’t see the image in rewind or fast forward, you could only see the image in play. So we wheeled the machine into the studio, put the track down onto the tape, pointed the camera at the first shot, put an in-point and out-point on the record deck, recorded the shot, left a black hole, moved onto the third shot, recorded that one onto the tape, and so on and so on, just shooting the part with him and the record deck. So there’s a shot and a black hole, a shot and a black hole, and so on, so I rewound the tape, and inserted the other shots, doing each shot live. So by the time we were finished, there were no rushes, it had been edited as we shot it.

“The truth is, we weren’t doing it to be entirely clever, but rather that is was the only way we could make any money,” Grant admits. “If we’d have spent 500 pounds on editing, we couldn’t have made any money. So that was my introduction to music videos.”

Grant went on to win a Music Video Grammy for Olivia Newton-John’s “Physical,” and direct other memorable videos such as Whitney Houston’s “How Will I Know?”, Donna Summer’s “She Works Hard For The Money”, and Aretha Franklin’s “Freeway of Love”.

Here’s M’s “Pop Muzik”, along with a few other classic “white cyc” clips, and a modern use of the idea: the Mac vs. PC commercials. Oh, and Beyonce.

 

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