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  • Annette Dawm

Making a Massive Splash with Stephano Barberis

Stephano Barberis has been Music Video Director of the Year at BCCMA Awards each year for the past two decades. He has directed over 180 videos for various artists, including Dean Brody, Dallas Smith, Chad Brownlee and Madeline Merlo. Just in case you were discovering his work for the first time today, he would want you to know this:

“I would want them to be surprised by how varying and dynamic all the projects are. It's great to have a bit of a motif throughout but it's also important to constantly reinvent oneself. That and that I prize quality and authenticity above all else. If people get a sense of the epic, the passion, the dramatic, the beauty, and the emotion, then I'm happy…. My two favourite things to do are either debut an artist, or reinvent them… and making a massive splash. I usually need to be brought back down to Earth during the concept-writing stage because everything I come up with initially tends to be far outside the box. I also notice that when artists have a massive hit song, they often come to me-- which I am so incredibly appreciative of. It's such a huge compliment.”

Barberis began his path to storytelling and directing at an early age, without realizing it.

“I would love playing with Star Wars figures when I was a child, and often would tell my friends they couldn't stand where they were because the camera would be there. Basically, I was directing before I was even a teenager and didn't even know it. I would even use toques, twigs, rocks, and broken toy parts to create stories and noticed that my friends were riveted for hours as I crafted sprawling epics. They would even stop playing and watch me as I played the storyteller. Teachers in elementary school would also post my short stories to the wall in the library for others to read, so I think I've always been a creator of stories - hence a roundabout way to my work now,” he explained.

However, directing was not initially what he pictured for his career. Calling it “the most irreverent path”, Stephano started out with eight years of post-secondary education to become an urban planner (partly due to an obsession with maps). He also had dreams of becoming a pilot before switching to marketing communications/advertising.

“I was working as a marketing assistant for a film production company for a summer. One day, I just blurted out some ideas for an artist when the producer had other directors around a table to get some ideas. The artist and their manager pointed at me and said, ‘That's it!’ I knew nothing about film and was thrown onto the set a month later. The video became a hit and that set off more. For the first 20 videos, I would go around to the crew in the morning upon arrival and apologize to everyone for not knowing what I was doing (most people assumed I was the actor).”

Twenty videos have now turned into nearly two hundred, and twenty years have gone by. When asked what motivates him to stay creative after all this time, Stephano replied, “I think because I love visuals, creating, and dreaming, that I am passionate about it. If I wasn't passionate about it, I would not have been doing this, so my passion to do things unlike anyone else is what keeps me around. I want people to get goosebumps or tears when watching my stories and visuals, and the constant potential for that happening is the energy that keeps this soul going.”

Known for his work with Canadian country artists, Barberis’ workflow changed significantly in 2017 when CMT announced that it would no longer have music videos featured as part of its programming: “Oddly, when CMT stopped funding and airing music videos, I got busier. Clients had to use their own money or depend on other sources, so they wanted to go to someone who was the safest bet, and since I have been doing it with some good success for a while, I was in that position. The only problem is that I got more projects-- but the projects often came with smaller budgets than before, so we all had to get more creative. I edit and colour all of my videos as well, so it's become an all-encompassing thing. It's a bit sad, but everyone has to wear multiple hats now to the point of less people working for less money doing more things with no change in expectations (maybe with higher expectations!). Thankfully, some provincial governments have picked up some of the slack (Conservative ones have actually cut back the grants, though), and the federal government remains committed to the arts. When a society loses its artists, it loses its soul."

With various funding cuts, it can be difficult to find an appropriate location for each video. According to Barberis, “….It can often be heartbreaking because I tend to fall in love with locations that we can't afford, and that location may charge 5-10 times (daily) the amount a music video can afford (movies and commercials have much larger budgets). I wish that locations would scale their fees to the budgets but it's their prerogative. It's strange to think some places would rather have no one shooting there than someone who may offer less.” Despite these challenges, the director continues to create more content.

In 2019, Stephano directed the video for David James’ song, “All the Time”. The video shoot marked the first time that he had worked with a female cinematographer. He is not sure why it took so long for this to occur, other than that the film industry can be seen as an “Old Boys’ Club”. This has made it challenging for women to be visible and taken seriously in “higher up roles”. He added, “The good news is that I've never seen so many female directors and cinematographers as there are now, so we are definitely changing for the better.”

“The cinematographer for ["All the Time"] is Gabrielle Paciorek and she was utterly magnificent at her job (and such a great person)…. I've always absolutely loved working with women and for women, so I've never seen what the issue is. Perhaps people think that film needs a male aesthetic or viewpoint, which doesn't make sense. For me, everything is merit-based. If you are better at something than someone else, I want you on my set. I don't see male/female, gay/straight, different ethnicities, etc. I see souls with talent and that's all it should have been from the start. These employment and social constructs need to become completely blind to gender, sex, race, and preference.”

Another milestone was achieved when Barberis directed “Country Thunder” by The Washboard Union. For the first time ever, he was able to work with puppets! “I've wanted to shoot a puppet video since I began directing but most artists didn't feel it quite fit the songs I was proposing it for. Finally, I hit Washboard Union with the idea and got them to fall in love with it. Then the label fell in love with it as well, and it was all history after that. The song has such an innocence to it but also a feel-good, march down the street, uplifting vibe, so the puppets-- I feel-- gave that vibe a nuclear power-up. It just makes sense. I love when artists trust me with the bonkers ideas I come up with --which are most initial ones! I can also understand why a client wants a safe concept but, you know, less risk, less reward…. I remember telling the band that this video could be of them pooping in the street for three minutes and it would still be a massive hit. The song is just so good that even a terrible video couldn't put a dent in it. ‘Country Thunder’ is just a titan of a song; a sure-fire, gargantuan smash.”

In terms of his future goals, Stephano has many things in mind, including a puppet trilogy which would possibly see the same characters with different bands and in different locations such as outer space. He would also like to work icons like Madonna, electronic artists like Goldfrapp, or with Erasure, a band he was raised on. “Three years ago, I was asked to write a treatment for an Erasure video and I had to be careful to not accidentally walk into oncoming traffic or off the roof of a high rise,” Stephano said that this opportunity put him into “complete shock”.

“I keep telling myself that I will finally direct my first feature film but I keep being busy making music videos. Maybe 2020 will bring that. Every single day is so exciting for me due to how weird my life and career are. I don't have a regular 9-5 job, so it's a brand new universe every day and every morning is as exciting as it is terrifying. I'm just so happy to be alive and taking part in whatever this is with so many people I love surrounding me. As long as I can still create, be around love, and move people, I will be happy.” He continued.

Finally, when asked for advice for aspiring directors, Stephano Barberis replied: “I think the only thing that I am qualified to give as advice to aspiring directors is to just follow your heart. I didn't choose this profession - it chose me. So, I think it would be so disingenuous of me to try to advise on what road and method people should take. The way this industry has evolved, unfortunately, isn't the safest thing in the world. There literally is no money in it except for a very select few and the path is strewn with intense heartbreak, pain, and humiliation. It often feels hopeless. The ceaseless competition can embitter you and turn you into a Gollum. There are a lot of talentless fakes, and a lot of those talentless fakes will often soar above you and far ahead of you via lies or because they know people or are connected. The people that make it ‘big’ are like lottery winners. You will be poor. Maybe for your entire life. Everyone now has a camera on their phone that is of satisfactory quality, and everyone wants to be a filmmaker. Now, if you can handle all that and still tell passionate, original stories with a voice that is unique to you and not a facsimile of someone else's, then charge forth. If you do it, do it with every molecule of your heart and all the incandescence of your spirit. The good days are rapturous, but the bad days are cataclysmic. You can never take your suit of armour off -- but you can paint flowers on it and decorate it with lights.”

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Photo courtesy of Stephano Barberis.

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