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Getting animated about videos with 1stAveMusicVideos' Liz Kessler and Randi Wilens

Getting animated about videos with 1stAveMusicVideos' Liz Kessler and Randi Wilens

David Knight - 11th Sept 2023

When it comes to making pop promos there are few people more experienced than the two women who now head up 1stAveMusicVideos, the new division at 1stAveMachine. We spoke to Liz Kessler and Randi Wilens about their big new challenge - and why it's happened now.

They have each been doing their thing on both sides of the Atlantic for a while now - and occasionally crossing paths and collaborating on projects, which has led to their enduring long-distance friendship. But now they are working in tandem - allowing for ann eight-hour time difference - for one of the big international players in commercial production.

1stAveMachine has grown from originally being primarily an animation production company, when they were founded in New York in the early Noughties, to being wholly multi-disciplinary, and global. And now they have added Music Videos to their offering – thanks to Liz Kessler and Randi Wilens.

It’s fair to say that both women have big reputations in the world of music video production, for both their considerable achievements and considerable personalities.

In London, Liz Kessler first established herself as in-house video commissioner at Island Records in the early Noughties. ("I came in for a couple of weeks to sort out a few outstanding invoices and ended up staying for 5 years," she says). She then moved over to production later in the decade at Academy Films. She remains the only person to have won both the Best Commissioner and Best Producer awards at the UKMVAs.

Over in LA, Randi Wilens came into music video production a decade earlier, at the beginning of the 1990s, and has been representing directors and executive producing their videos ever since, firstly at commercial production companies like Bedford Falls, before establishing her own agency, RW Media.

They both have garnered huge amounts of experience with A-list artists and A-list directors down the years. At Island, Kessler commissioned videos for Amy Winehouse, Busted and Sugababes. For the latter she commissioned the video for Freak Like Me. "Working with not one, but two legends at the same time making that video - Dawn Shadforth and Sophie Muller," she recalls. "And it was my first PROMO magazine cover, which was a bit special!" 

At Academy, she produced and executive produced some eminent directors - including Corin Hardy, Us, Nabil, Bison, Nadia and Martin De Thurah - on videos for The Prodigy, Wiley, Paolo Nutini, London Grammar and many others.

I like breaking directors and I like working with directors that have been in the game for a minute or two.

Meanwhile Wilens started out in videos working with The Black Crowes before exec producing one of the most controversial videos of the early Nineties: Nine Inch Nails’ Happiness Is Slavery. She went on EP the Wayne Isham-directed video for Michael Jackson’s You Are Not Alone. In the Noughties she worked with Irish director Meiert Avis on projects like Audioslave’s Like A Stone.

Her roster contains a smattering of legendary video directors, including Mark Pellington and Kevin Kerslake – who recently directed a video for the current iteration of Smashing Pumpkins. But she also has lots of younger talent on her books too - and Wilens’ management company has always been big on animation - including Anthony Schepperd, Pix3lface, Dessie Jackson, Dusty Deen and more.

“I represent 20 animators. I've got some fabulous female directors, and great young up and coming directors. So I kind of run the gamut. I like breaking directors and I like working with directors that have been in the game for a minute or two.”

Kerry Smart, MD of 1stAveMachine in London spoke to Liz Kessler about creating a music video division at the company last year, who then recommended her old friend Wilens to run the US side. So a few months in, we caught up with them both on a Zoom call to find out how things were progressing…  

PROMONEWS: How would you explain your roles within 1stAveMachine & IstAveMusicVideos?

LK: We’re representing directors, building a new division within the company, scouting talent and exec production.

And how are things going so far?

RW: Well, I just did a video with one of their directors, an animation directing collective in Spain called BRUT, for the rock band Goo Goo Dolls, and I completely oversaw the project. I'm good friends with the band’s manager and close with their label, Warner Brothers. The Goo Goo Dolls loved BRUT’s treatment, and they just let them do their thing. There wasn't even one change.

So that’s been exciting. Firstly, re-establishing a relationship with 1stAveMachine and being excited to get them work and meeting BRUT, this new company in Spain, and Martin Allais, who is their creative director.

What's so exciting about these times, I think, is you can find directors all over the world. [You can] represent directors in six different countries, animators in six different countries. And that's something you didn't do ten years ago.

Above: The Goo Goo Dolls' Run All Night, directed by BRUT

Where did your associations start with 1stAveMachine, and how did you begin working with the company?

LK: I’ve known the wonderful Kerry Smart since we worked together at Academy Films.  She and I spoke about working together on a music video department last year. 
RW: I go back with 1stAveMachine when they were just a very small company, in the early 2000s. We did a bunch of videos with Asif Mian, so I’ve known Serge Patzak, one of the principals of the company since that time. Back then I thought he was amazing and always loved the vibe of the company.

At that point they were based in downtown Manhattan, and I felt they were very underground and forward thinking. I just remember flying into New York [from LA], and liking how they did things, and how supportive they were of their director. We did 4 or 5 videos before Asif decided he really wanted to go into commercials.

So I have history with the company, and was thrilled that they came back to ask me to work with them – and I loved that Liz brought me in. I worked with Liz when she was at Island and I loved that experience. So it just seemed like the dynamic was so fabulous and serendipitous.

Above: PREP's Carrie, directed by Em Cole

What’s the potential benefit for 1stAveMachine in being involved in music videos and other music-related content?

LK: It’s a great way to source new talent and to give existing talent an opportunity for development. Other arms of the industry have always looked at the creativity in the music video world so a great video can also enhance the career of a director.  

IstAveMachine has a really great approach to mentoring and collaboration that’s a perfect fit for music videos. They really support their directors’ creativity so this felt like a very natural move. And there’s nothing more fun than a good video experience...

RW: Doing musical visual content, it just gives you different exposure. People still love looking at music videos, directors still love doing them. You still have feature guys still like doing music videos. I mean, people love music. It's so universal. So I think it's exposure and just accessibility into a market that they're just not in.

Above: Bob Marley's No Woman, No Cry, directed by Ron Broady

Who are the names on the IstAveMachine roster, or creatives connected to IstAveMachine, that either a) have a track record in music videos, or b) you have high hopes for making an impact in this field?

LK: I’ll talk UK: Anthony Dickenson is a fantastic voice in music videos.  His recent experimental films with Friedberg are gorgeous. And of course there’s his classic work with Findlay Brown and The XX.

We have two very exciting new voices - Em Cole and Ricky Rose. They are super cool, very stylish but with something behind the curtain. They’re both innovative filmmakers with something to say. Em (like Anthony) is multi-disciplined with strong fashion and does colourful sexy photography as well as moving image. Ricky has been working with Black voices in London’s dance and art world - he’s done some lovely work with the V&A.

We have amazing animators based around the globe. And I’d encourage anyone looking for animation to check out the guys at BRUT, who did the recent Goo Goo Dolls video, put together by the amazing Randi . They have a wild imagination. We love their treatments.

IstAveMachine has a really great approach to mentoring and collaboration that’s a perfect fit for music videos.

RW: BRUT have a really strong aesthetic that I like - and they also have a great narrative bent. They wrote a great narrative treatment [for Goo Goo Dolls], and when you can do that in animation and you want to see a video over and over again, it just speaks volumes.

I also like Em Cole, and Ron Brodie – I like his work a lot. IstAveMachine has an amazing roster and they're very collaborative and they're very excited about this division. So they've given me and Liz full reign to bring in music.

On some of the directors that don't really have music videos, my goal is to send music to a few directors and see if the song resonates and have them write. Its often an effective way to get directors into the fold. I also ask their directors to give me bands that they want to work with, and then I go after those artists and say, this director loves your artist. I hit up managers.

Above: Friedberg's MIDI 8, directed by Anthony Dickenson

Animation is a big thing for you [aka RW Media], isn’t it?
RW: It has been for a long time. I'm big in the tour visual game right now. I’ve just done huge animated tour visuals for Bad Bunny, Anderson Pak, Blink 182, Odesza, Matchbox 20… It's a big business.
How do you assess the industry – the music video industry - at the moment? 

LK: Same struggles as ever. But also the same passion and love that music videos have always inspired. 

RW: It's kind of the Wild West. I'm finding that artists make decisions. It's really an artist world. They pick the treatment. They know usually what director they want to work with. It's just that budgets are challenging.
What’s good about being an artist’s world is that you cut out a lot of periphery. The artist reads the treatment, knows what they like, gets on the phone with director, and you're shooting it. When you're dealing with the likes of Jack White or Billy Corgan, there’s no downside to that. They've been in the game a long time, and they know what they like. The downside is when you're dealing with an artist that really doesn't know what they want to do, and you go back and forth and back and forth, and then the video goes away. 

But to me the one thing that's so interesting about music videos now, is it's all about the creative. Back in the day, it was all about what the director had on their reel. Now if you write a great treatment and the artist likes it and I executive produce it, I can get you that job - even if you've got nothing on your reel.

Yes, Instagram is important. But if that looks good, and you write a great treatment, I can get you the job.

• Contact Liz Kessler about 1stAveMusicVideos in London here; contact Randi Wilens about 1stAveMusicVideos in LA here

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David Knight - 11th Sept 2023


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