Carlos Charlie Perez is lip-synching with a pen as his microphone. Bulbs powerful enough for an entire stage illuminate his animated face, painted with a slightly hammy smile and peeking out from under a mop of dark brown hair. A wood-paneled cylinder with rainbow-splashed walls about 16 feet in diameter and eight feet high surrounds his tall, skinny frame, and Buddy Holly's upbeat "Everyday" booms through the set's speakers.
During the instrumental breaks, he cuts into some convincing tap-dancing moves honed at Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. Although his polka-dot collared shirt is buttoned to the top, there's an open seam in the side of his slim-fit khakis to let you know that he's not as fastidious as all that.
This kind of clowning around during a 12-hour-plus video shoot at a New York studio is how the South Florida native takes the pressure off of himself and his crew for a few minutes. It is exactly this sort of tension-breaking that he believes makes his artistry possible.
The artistry in question today is a video shoot for Glasser, AKA Cameron Mesirow, a Los Angeles avant-electronic artist who recently released a gorgeous full-length album titled Ring. For a video to accompany the song "Mirrorage," Perez has created a rainbow world that includes a chessboard floor, a circular dolly track, and a cast of four extras. Glasser, a diminutive creature with fair skin and radiant red-brown hair, switches between elaborate black and white gowns chosen specially for the video.
The late September shoot has been a long, balmy one inside a studio space on 29th Street and Sixth Avenue in New York City, and Perez's tap-dancing bit reminds his crew of the kind of director he is.
"There's no hierarchy," he asserts later that week. "There is, in the sense that I'm a director, but I don't want to take it further than that. As in 'crack the whip' or that kind of thing. I think people work best when everyone feels equal. That's what filmmaking, imagemaking is about: sharing that moment and enjoying it to the fullest."
Perez takes a break from editing the Glasser footage and reclines on a couch in the high-ceilinged room next to the studio. He wears a T-shirt featuring Jankay Nabay, an Afro-pop artist from Sierra Leone whom he has worked with twice (video below).
"Ninety percent of music videos is just producing, producing, producing. Maybe 5 percent is actually shooting," he says, almost wistfully. "It's like a snap and the day's over. You spend the rest of the month in postproduction — and a month of preproduction. If you're not enjoying it, you shouldn't be in the business. Every director works so hard for that moment."
Today's music videos are generally three-minute snapshots that range from high-priced spectacles on down to single-camera affairs assembled on a shoestring budget. In all cases, there's huge potential to help brand an artist through the visuals accompanying the music. Rapper Kanye West elevated his latest video, titled "Runaway," to a 35-minute minifilm and premiered it in New York, Los Angeles, Paris, and London. After Lady Gaga surpassed 1 billion views on YouTube — she has sold "only" 15 million albums — Fast Company argued that this milestone reflects "a more real-time portrait of an artist's success."
Nothing of this sort was on Perez's mind when he launched feet-first into directing about three years ago. More than seven years after moving to New York, his first video grew from a drunken promise made while Brooklyn noise-rockers Fiasco performed at New York's Bowery Ballroom. The intentionally grainy, zombie-filled clip for "Oh You Horny Monster," below, was exactly what the band wanted, even if they didn't know it yet.
The only similarity between Fiasco's eye-pummel of a video and the stylish rush of "Mirrorage" is a fondness for quick cuts. Perez is adamant about bringing new approaches to each shoot. Counting these two, he has directed about 15 projects, including a series of promotional clips for Vampire Weekend's second album, Contra. He also flew down to South Florida for a shoot at West Palm Beach's Respectable Street for area indie rockers Guy Harvey, a band featuring a few of his high school pals.
"I like to represent it," Perez says of his home state. "A lot of suburban, cul-de-sac-ish memories growing up in Florida have a lot to do with what's made me who I am as an artist."
Born to Cuban parents in 1982 in Sunrise, Perez grew up in Wellington and Lantana. After graduating from the Dreyfoos School, he decided to study photography at New York's Cooper Union and has lived in the city ever since. Until the end of 2007, he had worked as a photographer and made photo books and had no direct connection to the music video world.
"I was never on shoots before. I never assistant-directed. I never did anything within music videos or film," he insists. "I always had a notion for making films, but I never knew how to."
He heaps credit for his development to his director of photography, Kitao Sakurai, and assistant director and grip Matthew Turner. Both were involved in the filming for "Mirrorage" and many of Perez's recent projects before that. During the Glasser shoot, the guys barely speak beyond the most technical terms regarding light levels or when to roll camera, mostly relying on one another to do what they do. (That's the finished product in the clip below.)
When Buddy Holly sings "Everyday, it's a gettin' closer, goin' faster than a roller coaster," it's hard not to apply the lyrics to Perez's career gaining speed. Although he loves the cultural aspects of New York, he sees himself eventually moving to Los Angeles to take advantage of the light, locations, and connections. He hopes the move will legitimize his production company as a real day-to-day entity.
For now, he's well-equipped at the studio on 29th Street, and the Ace Hotel's tastefully decorated bar is only steps away. As Perez sips a Maker's Mark on the rocks, the discussion meanders to the first date with his girlfriend (they both wore sweaters, his featuring Mickey Mouse and hers the Eiffel Tower), the mysteries of Belle Glade, and the challenges of writing. As the strains of "Harmonix" by Surfer Blood come on, he recalls seeing the West Palm Beach act perform last year at the CMJ Music Marathon and ultimately getting introduced to the world outside of the Sunshine State.
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"You know you have to get out of Florida," he says, referring to the band's path to success. "You have to get out of Florida to become that. You can always come back. Surfer Blood came up to the Northeast, played some shows, got signed. Boom, done."
Since leaving Florida, Perez has finished a screenplay and wants to start raising funds for a film that takes place in his home state. "A love story that's semireferential to Bonnie and Clyde, but a musical." As far as a directorial style he'd like to employ, he says: "The ideal realm would be somewhere between Kubrick and Jacques Tati, mashed together. Tati offers this humor sensibility, lightheartedness, whereas Kubrick offers monolithic, epic ideas that he's talking about."
It's no shock that a music video director wants to break into film. It requires working every day, even in off hours, on constantly overlapping projects. Getting to this point didn't come without a certain level of disappointment that aspirations to become a painter, sculptor, or even a fine art photographer featured in a gallery were put on hold for something else.
"2007 rolls around and not selling a ton," he recalls. "You make a music video and you get four calls overnight to make more videos. Two years later, I'm making money off this... I thought, this could be bad — or it could be amazing. That's when you're at your best as an artist, when you're not 100 percent sure."