Let’s talk about music videos.
This is a medium that I have sort of mixed feelings about. On one hand, music videos are very much an art form unto themselves: little packets of the craft of merging music and visuals into a cohesive experience or narrative, or at least complementing each other thematically (or you could be like OK Go and show off how mind-bendingly good you are at prop-based one-take choreography). On the other hand, I’m a rather literal-minded individual and I like to come up with my own mental images of what should accompany the music and/or lyrics of a song. In other words, I tend to pass up most music videos because I’ve learned that they likely won’t conform to my preconceived notions of what the visuals should be like. For instance, I’m pretty convinced that “Judas” is my favorite Lady Gaga video specifically because it’s about what’s actually happening in the song.
One of these days I may do a post about the bones I have to pick with Lady Gaga’s music videos, but not today.
Today I’m going to talk about one of those rare music videos that takes such wonderful advantage of music as a mode of storytelling that you’d almost think the music was made for the video and not the other way around. It’s a little track from 2011 called “The Murf” by Rendezvous and its video is a fantastic gem of the Internet by illustrator and animator Scott Benson (who did the curious a wonderful courtesy by writing a “Making Of” blog). It’s epic and intimate, not about humans but all about life, beautifully designed with remarkable attention to detail, and my personal gold standard for how one person can turn a wordless melody into a complete and fitting story.
“The Murf” starts at the beginning. The very beginning. The opening riff of escalating choral huffing sounds could easily be taken as the labor gasps of this planet about to give birth to life. With the start of the actual music we meet this world’s first single-celled organisms, which quickly merge and evolve into ocean life, which in turn lead to the dinosaurs. Their swift destruction at the hands of the obligatory meteor give way just as swiftly to the early developments of the humanoids which will become the planet’s next dominant life form. Benson explicitly states in his blog that these people are not humans (even explaining that they are a unisex race) but never names them, although I guess we can deduce from the title that they are called the Murf. Regardless, we get to see their world as a direct parallel to our own as the Murf progress through basic hunting tools and cave paintings to civilizations and revolutions and advanced science and eventually space travel. Throughout this sequence the music runs in a basic loop that becomes gradually more layered with each “verse,” creating a build of hope and positive advancement occasionally punctuated by a simpler but more striking dip to minor chords that the video pairs with significant moments in the Murf’s timeline, such their first look under a microscope at the microorganisms we saw at the very beginning. The final act follows the last of these “dips,” which accompanies the discovery of a giant incoming comet, and creates a strong sense of foreboding and urgency but also highlights the determination of these people to survive.
As I mentioned before, one of my favorite things about this video is Benson’s attention to detail. Each major advancement of the Murf (discovering fire, inventing the wheel, landing on another planet, etc.) is symbolized by a Level-Up burst around their head, a Destruction of Life chart cleverly singles out cockroaches as the sole survivors of the apocalypse, and the images of hunting always feature a deer-like creature, just to name a few. The most notable detail is Benson’s use of the images of a squid and a whale as a recurring motif throughout Murf history. The squid and the whale are their first constellations, which continue to live on as iconic images in their culture. They form the basis of their art, their religions (note how the dances the primitives do in front of the statues are the same ones used by the futuristic preachers near the end), their scientific progress, and eventually become the heralds of their impending destruction. Considering the chunk of space where the constellations are found is the first and final image in the video, they’re almost like the Murf’s guides. They watch from afar as life begins on the Murf’s world, form the outline of the star map that helps them locate the deadly comet, and watch even closer as the Murf sail past them in their hundreds of pod-ships to repopulate on a neighboring Mars-like planet.
Scott Benson’s “Making Of” blog entry can be found here.