« Back to home

Rock Stars, Furries, Dandy Vampires: A Look at the Music Video Work of Alan Ferguson

by Mary Borsellino

Originally published: Sequential Tart, September 2007.

The delight was as secretive as it was infectious - journal post after journal post popping up, encouraging fellow fans to watch the new Gym Class Heroes video, never explaining the specifics of why it was so urgent that they do so, only that they should try to before someone ruined the surprise for them. It was like viral marketing without a virus; grass-roots word-of-mouth in a time when everyone knows how to spot PR-generated astro-turf.

The Gym Class Heroes are one of the bands on Fueled By Ramen, the record label that's also home to punk-pop superstars Fall Out Boy. The Ramen bands have a reputation for popping up for cameos in one another's music videos, so fans already knew that something of that variety was probably in store. Sure enough, there was Fall Out Boy bassist Pete Wentz in the background, dressed as an Elvis impersonator and trying his luck at the slot machines.

The video, for the track "Clothes Off!", takes place in a Vegas casino full of girls, glitter, and a gang of gambling, dancing furries. Then, in the final moments of the video, the furries take off their oversized heads and reveal themselves to be Panic! at the Disco, a Ramen band who had been out of the limelight while writing new material. As soon as the video hit the internet, the 'go watch!' game of passing on the video's URL began among fans of each of the three bands.

"We put that in as a gift to the fans," Alan Ferguson, director of "Clothes Off!", says of the final reveal. "Because they hadn't seen Panic in a while."

It was also an instance of what Pete has termed the "gateway drug" effect, in which the fan base of one band cross-pollinates with the audience of another: Panic fans were now, thanks to the video, listening to Gym Class; Gym Class fans were introduced to Panic's lineup, and both bands were being presented - by way of Pete's cameo - to the legion of Fall Out Boy fans, whose ranks grow larger every day.

Helming videos for bands like these is no small task, with both the artistic and commercial requirements of the assignments demanding everything the medium can offer and then some, but Alan Ferguson is one of those creative people who're so obviously completely on at their game that they make you feel exhausted just talking to them. He's also articulate, enthusiastic, and friendly, which is plain old unfair - someone this good at what they do should at least have the decency to be a surly recluse.

"I try not to have a signature style with my videos," he says of his varied body of work. "I try to work in different mediums - 8mm, 16, up to a 35 glossy.

"Some things show up frequently, though. A lot of animals and a lot of kids ... a lot of furry costumes." He laughs.

Unlike film, music video is a field where directors can often avoid the limelight even as their work becomes widely known. Alan, while not wholly anonymous - a chimp named 'Alan Furryson' appears as a lead character in one of the Fall Out Boy videos he directed, and many of the band's more dedicated audience members would recognize his name - has remained mostly off to the edge of the limelight.


"I got involved in film when I was at Howard University," Alan recounts. "After that, I decided to come up to New York and try my hand in the industry. About 6 months after coming up here, I fell in with some directors that were doing a music video. I was mostly a cinematographer at that point, and I didn't intend to do music videos, but I kind of fell into it.

"It seemed exciting, because I had been working with small crews and very minimal equipment, and all of a sudden I had all these toys to play with, doing these bigger videos, with these directors with stars of hip-hop and R&B. I worked a lot with Hype Williams and Paul Hunter and Billy Woodruff - people who were doing a lot of rap and R&B stuff back around 1996 and 1997.

"After I started to get the notoriety as a director of cinematography, I got offered some jobs as a director. I did some work with Rock-A-Fella; I did about three or four Jay-Z videos; I did some work with a lot of the artists I had worked with when I had worked with Hype.

"That was for about two or three years, and then I just went away from it totally for about seven years and traveled a lot, and got more into my still photography. I shot some independent African cinema pieces that were with the filmmakers that I had met when I first started out.

"Then, about two years ago, some friends of mine, bands who I had done photo shoots for - we just had a really great rapport - they had seen some of my older videos and asked me why I'd stopped. And then one of them asked me could I shoot a video for them, and that was actually Gym Class Heroes.

"We did a couple of smaller videos for about $5000 or something like that. Then progressively, another friend of theirs would see the work and they would like it and then they would ask me to do a video. And then another band that I did a photo shoot for would ask me to do their video, and it just kind of got progressively bigger from there.

"Within all that it was Fall Out Boy. The ones that I'd shoot videos with most typically, I did photo shoots for early on, and then smaller videos, and then we all just started doing bigger things together. It grew very organically."

View of the Music Video Medium

"I was kind of playing around a little bit at first," says Alan. "I never really stopped loving the medium of music video, I always loved it so much! But I couldn't find a way to do it in a way I really wanted to do it back when I was doing those videos, back in 1999.

"It's like ... you go away from something and then, sometimes you have the opportunity to come at it from a whole fresh perspective. So now I feel like I'm really able to do much more of what I always wanted to do, on a level of craftsmanship, on a level of ideas, a lot of the people I work with are very open to do things that are kind of a little left of center, a little unique or whatever. So I'm just very blessed in that regard.

"I've always liked stories. Even when I used to do hip-hop videos and R&B videos, they would always have stories.

"When I came from film school, when somebody said they were going to do something for $75,000 or $100,000, that seemed like several million to me. I said, 'if somebody's gonna give you that much, tell a compelling story'. That's where I've always been rooted.

"I do like other things, too, and I want to branch out and experiment with other things that are more purely visual, but I think I just naturally gravitate to a story. And I think a lot of people just call me for that and they expect that.

"With music videos, what's great about doing something that has a progression of events that lead somewhere is that it sets up a situation where the viewer wants to watch it several times because they can get different things out of it. And it has tension and release that pushes you to the next thing, and then the next thing, and then the next thing.

"So I think that story's very applicable to the music video, and that's why I like to do it."

Approach to Creating a Video

"Usually, I listen to the song, and I really try to get a wide grasp of where the artist is right now in their career," explains Alan. "It's art and commerce together, so I think about it from a lot of different points of view. I talk to the artists a great deal, learn what they want to get across in this album. I look at the art direction and the packaging on the album; I can reference some of the things that they've been trying to put forth visually in the stage shows or whatever.

"I take those things, and I usually write all that down and listen to the individual songs, and say, 'OK, well, that's the background, now let's listen to the song and see what that has in it that can point me in a certain direction', because the video does have to fit the vibe of the song. It should create a mood that is in tandem, is going to enhance the experience of the song.

"I'll listen to the song a hundred times; I just put it on the iPod and listen to it over and over again. Sometimes an iconic image or an idea will just pop right there.

"It's different every time, every single time. Sometimes I hear the song and there's one line in the song from which I get an image, and build it from there. Sometimes I go through a lot of different ideas until the artist like really attaches to one. The last one I did for Fall Out Boy, 'The Take Over, The Break's Over', I told Pete about three ideas, and he liked two of them a lot, and he wanted to choose between those two. But he called me back two weeks later and said, 'I think we can go even further'. I was like, 'oh man, it's getting close to the time we have to do it!' I spent the whole Memorial Day weekend trying to think of what we can do.

"You also have to think of what the budget is, and you also have think about how much time you have to shoot it. You work within the limitations and you say, 'Well, OK. When I just hear this song, I might want to do this thing', but if you write it out it would cost a million dollars in budget. So then you say to yourself 'But what can I do for $100,000, what can I do for $200,000?' It's thinking with all those different parameters in your mind at one time.

"It's quite a challenge, but you have to trust that it's going to come out great in the end, that you're gonna nail that idea, and it's gonna be great.

"Usually, before I even write a treatment, I visualize pretty much the whole video in my head. Some people are a little bit different, and maybe I'll change a little bit, but usually what happens is I'll get a basic scene. Then I might call the artist and just bounce it off them, and sometimes the artist might have a scene themselves, and suggest 'I think that we really need to have this element in it,' and that's a good clue, so you can build it off that.

"It's good to have something that's grounding. From there you start to build what's going to be interesting and compelling about it, what's going to move this story along, what are going to be the tensions and releases. What's going to be the big pay-off at the end.

"No matter what video I do, I have certain principles that I use as a basic structure. One is the video has got to start out really with some compelling imagery or action. Something that's going to grab the viewer and pull them in.

"Then it's got to end with something that's super-memorable, to get the emotional response. That last thing that happens on screen, that last ten seconds is so very important. I put the most emphasis on the first ten seconds and the last. What's in the middle is very important, but I get those two first usually. Sometimes I try to figure out the ending and it comes later, but usually I see a flow and I know that it's going be this building up to this thing.

"So then it's a matter of the middle section, setting up tensions and releases. It's almost like making a little feature film - a three act play. You set up the characters and the story and then you develop it. You set up all the tension and then you pay them off.

"I used to watch videos with my brother, back in the early 90s. We would just love them - we'd love the music and all that - but I'd notice that we'd start watching and about thirty seconds in we'd be like, 'Well, where is this going now?'

"I would see some directors, like David Fincher or even Spike Jonze, who would have more, but a lot of the work out there, it was just like they would give you some pretty imagery and have a few things that were memorable. I always used to wonder what it would be like if you really sped it up, so there'd be constantly things going on that would make people smile, laugh, be repelled, throughout the whole thing.

"It's so funny I got involved in music videos later, because it's a perfect medium to kind of experiment with those things. And I really do think about it in that way now, and I don't want there to be ten seconds that you're watching one of my videos that you're not entertained or compelled or made to think about something. We've got three and a half to four minutes, use that thing to the fullest! Don't waste a second of it!

"I might be guilty of packing it too dense sometimes, but I don't know. I don't even get into that; it just kind of happens, and I'm learning as I go along. I'm very excited about the work because it's growing and involving, and I think I'm getting to a place where I can do it more efficiently, have more fun with it, and take it to a higher level."

Fall Out Boy's A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More 'Touch Me'

One review at the time of this video's release described the impact it would have by stating, "Consider this step one in a transformation of Fall Out Boy from a rock band into true matinee idols", a prophecy which proved true - the band's steadily-growing popularity bloomed suddenly into something even larger.

Often it's the truly audacious, out-of-left-field music video which lingers longest in public memory and propels its performers furthest; Michael Jackson's mini horror movie Thriller is the obvious example, but similar could be said of Guns n' Roses' wedding-and-a-funeral November Rain, the cheerleaders and ennui of Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, or the gothed-out funeral ballet of My Chemical Romance's Helena.

A handful of the Fall Out Boy videos directed by Alan could be argued as the band's seminal MTV moment. There's Dance, Dance, a love letter to eighties teen pop culture; the whirlwind tour through a tabloid version of the band's imagined life in This Ain't A Scene, It's An Arms Race, or Thnks fr th Mmrs's monkey-themed love triangle. When you put Fall Out Boy and Alan Ferguson together, audacity pretty much seems to be the name of the game.

A Little Less Sixteen Candles, A Little More 'Touch Me' is arguably the boldest in a bold line-up, however. Lasting twice as long as the song itself, the video tells the story of a gang of vampire hunters - Fall Out Boy - trying to protect a city overrun with rival undead gangs. One of the hunters, played by Pete, has been turned into a reluctant vampire by the most ruthless of the gangs, the Dandies.

Cameos from across the Fueled By Ramen line-up make appearances as vampires who tangle with the hunters, from bands such as The Academy Is ..., Gym Class Heroes, and Panic! at the Disco, along with various members of Fall Out Boy's management and road crew. The video feels like a glimpse into a fully realized schlock-horror world; no mean feat for six minutes of screen time.

"The first video I had done for Fall Out Boy was Dance, Dance," Alan says, when asked about A Little Less Sixteen Candles. "And that one was heavily narrative. It had the story arc, and people responded to it really well. Fall Out Boy was doing really great, and that record blew up, and the previous record blew up ... it was almost like it was their time.

"In talking about doing the next video, we all had a sense that we could take it a little further than we might usually be able to. There are moments in time when certain bands or certain acts get hot, and they can kind of do something a little different. I was kind of feeling that way about it. I was a little cocky - I guess we were all feeling a little cocky.

"When it came time to talk about the next video, one concern that the record label, the management and Pete all had was that when you listen to the song, it's poppy and doesn't have much edge to it. We wanted to put some edge on it.

"At that point, as when I did Dance, Dance, I immersed myself in Fall Out Boy's world and looked at all the history and all the pictures and everything like that. What I do with any group is find out what they're all about and what they like, what they're attracted to and drawn to.

"One thing I noticed about Fall Out Boy was that they were attracted to things like the Nightmare Before Christmas. The symbol of Clandestine Industries - Pete's clothing line - is a bat. I was talking to Fall Out Boy's manager, Bob McLynn, about that bat fixation, and we started talking about how some of Pete's favorite movies are vampire movies; The Lost Boys and some older vampire movies.

"I called Pete and we agreed, it's gonna be vampires. I listened to the song and I was trying to make something to suit the song, and I came up with this idea about Pete having a relationship with a girl, and he was a teenaged vampire. He could never see her during the day, only at night - it was like a little romantic comedy, and it really related exactly to the lyrics of the song.

"I liked it a lot. It would've been really cute, but after I started to work with Pete a while, I said, 'This is just too sappy and too cute. Let's do some hard-ass vampires!'

"I remember exactly the position I was sitting on the couch. It was 2:30 in the morning. I was like, 'We need to have gangs of vampires. Like the movie The Warriors. I took this concept of kids dividing themselves into cliques that's so prevalent when you're in high school, and people will do it their whole life.

"Then I went 'Well, what kind of cliques would it be if there was this town full of vampires?' That night I didn't go to sleep until 9 o'clock. I was like, 'All right, there's got to be definitely some vampires from the hood, and there's definitely got to be some vampires that are punk vampires, because Fall Out Boy's linked with the punk-pop scene. Then I made that a little harder, and made it Sex Pistols-influenced punk.

"And then, early in the morning - I remember, the sun came up - the idea of the Dandies came. British vampires with a really strong fashion sense. I started to draw them, what a Dandy looked like. I went online and found all these pictures of the top hats and things like that. I remember the next day, I was so tired, but then that night I woke up and started to write the stuff.

"I called Pete and I said, 'Pete, I'm really excited about this thing, and I'm going in this direction with it, like these gangs', and he was like, 'Cool, let's go all the way with it.'

"I told them that I wanted to have them as vampire hunters, and he loved that, too. But if you look at The Lost Boys, those cool vampires were actually the evil vampires themselves. I wanted Fall Out Boy to be sympathetic, so with Pete being a vampire it's more like Blade, where he's a vampire but sworn against other vampires.

"There's a lot of different tales like that throughout the vampire folklore. There's one anime film called Vampire Hunter D, and that was a big influence. It's about this guy who's actually a vampire - he's a half-human, half-vampire - and I love that film, visually.

"Pete's got a dark side. Pete's the most generous, beautiful guy in the world, but then he's got this dark, moody side that sometimes he goes into. You just won't see him for a little while. He'll kind of retreat a little bit. When we were making Dance, Dance, I saw some of that.

"The overwhelming thing is he's got that great presence, that charisma, but like every other great, charismatic, interesting personality - James Dean or Marlon Brando - they had that little Thing, y'know?

"I said, 'Let's play up on that Thing'. And that was a central theme in Sixteen Candles - I was trying to write a character for Pete that was based on his dark side, and the whole idea of the choices you make in life. He really opened himself up to me; I'd ask him questions and we would develop things together in terms of what's in his character that I could put in that character.

"And the thing just expanded and expanded, and I wanted to get all these ideas in it! It was going to take longer than three minutes and thirty seconds to tell this story! I didn't really tell that many people before I did it. My favorite moment I've ever had in a conversation with Sheira Rees-Davies, the director/producer at Anonymous Content, was when I said 'Sheira, this thing's gonna be six minutes long!'

"I didn't even tell the label, really, but I knew this thing was going to be epic. Everybody asked, 'How are you going to fit all that in?' I'd answer, 'I'll fit it in, I'll fit it in!'

"Patrick - the composer of the band, and the lead singer- he wrote an interlude section to open the song out and extend it. I had a section in it that was without music, too. So it just built to the point where we just went for it - and surprisingly, MTV played it! They actually played it!

"When I used to sit and watch music videos, the one that really stuck in my mind was Thriller. Michael Jackson was at that stage where he could do something like that, and people would just pay attention to it. I guess we were just cocky enough to believe that maybe if we made our video halfway interesting, people would play it and people would be interested. I didn't know if it would happen, and we ran into some stuff, but ultimately they played it - and they played it a lot! It went to number one on TRL."

Tackling Challenges and What Comes Next

"Music videos, as a medium, are ripe," says Alan. "I want to do the maximum that can be done with the format, and that means learning every line item of the budget. I learn the preliminary budget like the back of my hand and I sit with the producer, working out how to make possible the seemingly impossible. You have to be smart about how you allocate what resources you have; sometimes it's a matter of switching small amounts from one department to another. Sometimes it's calling in favors.

"You have to be tenacious, and you have to have belief, and you have to love what you're doing. I have a great rep at Anonymous Content, Molly Bohas. And all these bands I work with are crazy-ambitious - if you want it hard enough, you can make it happen.

"Commercials are a format with more resources and time; they'll be ten shots or twenty shots. In my music videos, it's eighty to a hundred and twenty shots. I'd like to go on to something feature-length. I'm ready to explore more realms.

"I think of what I do as a bit like when you go out to Broadway on a date. You sit there, anticipating, and the curtain comes up and you expect to be entertained and compelled.

"I want to give the audience that Broadway experience with my videos," Alan concludes. "Craftsmanship. Quality. Fun stuff."

Thanks to Molly Bohas and Paige Gatreaux for their help in making this article possible.

« Back to home