Comic Book Legend Todd McFarlane Reveals the Secrets of His Iconic Music Videos – Rolling Stone

By Kory Grow
Comic book fame could not prepare Todd McFarlane for music fans. “I found out that rock & roll groupies are way different than comic-book groupies,” says the man who created Spawn and illustrated one of Marvel’s most iconic Spider-Man covers ever. His success led Pearl Jam to ask him to direct their “Do the Evolution” video in 1998, and he’s since made clips for Korn, Ozzy Osbourne, and others.
“Korn was in town here in Phoenix where I live, doing a signing,” he recalls. “One of the band members got sick, and they sat me in the middle. Because they’re a five-piece, I think most of the people thought I was one of the band members.”
He continues, laughing sheepishly: “I had never signed a breast before in my life — you don’t get that at comic book conventions. And my wife was there the whole time, too. The band members didn’t really care. I was like, ‘I can’t touch you.’ It was an eye-opener. ‘Wow, there’s a different fan base than I’m used to.’ I’m used to big, hairy, sweaty guys with pimples on their backs.”

Although McFarlane admits he’s not a music buff — his two most-played tracks are “Rose’s Theme” from Titanic and Zack Hemsey’s “The Way,” both of which he loops while writing — he was a natural for music videos. When Eddie Vedder, inspired by HBO’s Spawn animated series, asked McFarlane to create a clip for “Do the Evolution,” one of the first things McFarlane noticed while assessing the state of music video at the time was how schlocky many of them were.
“I was surprised at how few music videos are edited to the beat of the music,” he says during a late-October Zoom from his Phoenix studio, where he was inking the new Batman Spawn book. “I was listening to certain songs, and then I go watch the video, and go, ‘OK, here’s where they’re gonna do really cool, staccato editing, or something’s gonna happen.’ And it was like, ‘What?’ I’m constantly surprised at how they miss what I consider to be visual low-hanging fruit.”
Whether with the magic bullet in Korn’s Grammy-winning “Freak on a Leash” video or the demented Monopoly man in Disturbed’s clip for their cover of Genesis’ “Land of Confusion,” McFarlane has always come up with unforgettable visuals for his music videos. Here, he tells the story behind each of the five clips he has helmed so far.

A phone call came out of the blue, and it’s Eddie Vedder. His proposition was, “The record label’s bugging us for music video. We’re not really into music videos; we haven’t done one since ‘Jeremy.’ But then I was watching the Spawn animated series, and it was like, ding, the light bulb went off: We’ll just make it animated. I don’t have to star in it.”
The song was “Do the Evolution,” and Eddie said, “Todd, I need the video to show all time, space, and dimension in three-and-a-half minutes. I have a vibe for it, so I’m going to send you something.” And within a day or two, I get a VHS. He had taken episodes of Spawn that he had recorded off HBO and edited them to the music of “Do the Evolution.” It was really quite impressive, so I phoned him: “That’s pretty cool. Who did that?” He said, “I did.” I went, “Who did the editing?” And he said, “I did.” “How’d you do the editing?” “I’ve got an Avid,” which is a video-editing machine. I was like, “So rockers have Avid machines at home? This is what they do in their spare time?” And he was good.
He was good to the point that when we got to the end of the process, he said, “Hey Todd, any way I can come down to California and sit in an editing bay with you guys?” And I was like, “After seeing that? Yeah.” He sat there with us all three days while we edited that music video.

He had a lot of ideas on the visuals and what he wanted. Like, “Hey, can we do some tech things here? Can we do some prehistoric stuff here? I want to do a skull pilot. I want to do some Romans.” My guess is that some of the odder stuff, like the big mechanical stuff that looks like it’s birthing was coming from Eddie, because we probably wouldn’t have been that extreme, going, “Hey, why don’t we do a birthing machine, Eddie?” We showed him something that might have been tame, and he went, “No. Push it, man. I want people to react to this.”

The crickets at the end were Eddie’s idea. He just kept looking at it like, “This is just not landing quite right.” His suggestion was, “Can we put a cricket sound at the end?” It seemed like an odd request. But when we dumped it in, we went, “It’s kind of cool.” It cemented everything.
The other sort of silly story I have about that, which has nothing to do with music, is how on all three days Eddie came to the editing bay, he brought a briefcase. He looked professional. On the third day, I’m like, “Eddie, I don’t mean to pry, but you keep bringing this briefcase with you, but you don’t do anything with it. Why not just leave it in the car?” “Oh, my God, Todd. I’m glad you finally asked.” He opened it up, click, and inside the briefcase were two brand-new baseball gloves and one brand-new baseball. He knew I was left-handed, so he had a left-handed glove for me.
Eddie’s a sort of a baseball fanatic. So am I. I got my college paid for [with a baseball scholarship], so he knew I was a ballplayer. He was like, “I was wondering if you wanted to play catch during one of the breaks.” And to this day, I keep wondering if I’d never asked him about the briefcase, would he have just left that third day and never opened it up?
Now it was also unseasonably hot that day. It was over 100 degrees. And he’s out there dressed in black from head to toe with his jacket with a cigarette. Now I live in Phoenix, Arizona, so I’m like a cockroach; heat doesn’t bug me. And of course, Eddie wants to show off because he knows I’m a ballplayer, so he’s probably fucking giving more than he should. And about 10, 12 minutes into it, I think he’s gonna croak. He’s breathing heavy and finally he’s like, “OK, Todd, you need to take a break?” And I’m like, “No.” And then he asked again, “You need to take a break?” And then I could see, “Oh, he needs to take a break.” It was like, “Eddie, you should probably get a glass of water.” I remember him sitting down, and I go, “Oh, my gosh, I’m going to kill Eddie Vedder here tonight. Maybe we should just call it quits here.” But I liked Ed’s enthusiasm on all fronts: music, sports, editing, all of it. He was he was super involved in a way that was not impeding anything that we were doing.

Korn had done a song [“Kick the P.A.”] for the Spawn soundtrack. “Do the Evolution” ended up getting nominated for a Grammy. I think Korn went, “Todd just did this thing that was kind of cool with Pearl Jam. Let’s give him a call.”
I knew in advance “Freak on a Leash” was going to be half animation, half live action, so my piece of the puzzle was the animation side. The live-action directors — the husband/wife combo [Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Farris] — went on and did this cute little movie called Little Miss Sunshine, so good for them. Our conversations were, “Well, do we want to separate the animation from the live action, or do we want to pass it on?” I came to the decision that we would use [the bullet] as a baton. I would start and hand it to them and they would do their thing and then they would hand the baton back to me and end it on the animation. And it would also play with the imagery [I made] on the cover of the album, too.
I’d looked at all their album covers, and they all had this weird sort of mystery about them, like looming shadows. The one I remember [1994’s Korn] had a girl on a swing, and there was like a shadow on the ground. What was interesting about it was, “Was that shadow a predator or a protecting parent?” It left it to the imagination of whoever was looking at the image to decide. On the Follow the Leader album cover I worked with Greg Capullo, who’s the guy I’m working with on the Spawn/Batman book right now. He and I said, “Well, what if we do hopscotch, but it’s on the edge of a cliff. So the question is, will she keep going or will she do what you’re supposed to do in hopscotch, which is turn around, and come back?” We did that to play with some of the stuff that Korn had already established with some of their prior album covers.
In the video, the thing was that bullets and guns are adult toys, and children are innocent. And although we’ve seen plenty examples where adults’ bad behavior can cost children their innocence and at the extreme, their lives, we wanted to create it as a bit of a metaphor that when the guard comes in, he shoots the bullet, and then you see the potential danger when you cut into the live action of how it’s crashing and blowing things up and barely missing people. But at the end, the little girl just grabs it, and gives it to him. And it was a little bit of, “Silly man, Trix are for kids, not for rabbits,” like, “You’re an adult. This is your stuff. Here, take it back.”

Swollen Members are a Canadian band, and I’m Canadian, so they pulled that card. At that time, they were pretty hot up in the Canadian music world. They were sending me videos they’d previously made in brown packages so I could check them out. I remember the postman would hand the package to me and give me a look. I didn’t pay attention to it until about the fourth or fifth package. The postman was acting weird every time he comes to the door, and then it finally dawned on me that he’s handing me these unmarked brown envelopes, and all it says is “Swollen Members.” And it’s like, “Holy heck, kid, you’re getting a lot of sex toys.” Anyway, that was that.
That video was a little bit different because it was on a limited budget. I had like 10, 11 hours to shoot it. We shot it up in Vancouver at this really cool place where they said they shot a lot of the TV show Dark Angel with Jessica Alba. There were three or four different setups so if the crew moved literally 25 feet, it felt like you’d gone someplace completely different. So I could grab some nice, different backdrops really quickly, knowing that I also have a gun to my head [with time].
In the back, there was this big, giant steel cage like what you put a diver in, and the sharks come. I was going, “Oh, my God. I gotta use this cage.” Now you have to get your video idea signed off by the record company. So they’d signed off on this idea, and let me tell you, the word “cage” was never written in it once. But that thing was so cool. So the cinematographer and I went back to our room that night and essentially rewrote the script. I didn’t have time to get the approval from the label. And oh, by the way, they weren’t fucking paying me enough to even worry about them getting the approval. Who gives a shit if they don’t like the cage? It’s going to be cool.
I remember the first A.D. [assistant director], who was sort of tied to the studios, was like, “What are you doing?” And then I’m like, “I’m gonna shoot this.” “It’s not in the script, right?” But it worked out OK. We were able to use the cage  for the thing that Nelly, who was sort of the vampire voodoo queen, caught the Swollen Members and put them in. Nobody checked to see how safe the cage was. At the end of the shoot, one of the guys’ hands were all bleeding. His manager said, “What the hell you doing, Todd? We can’t injure the guys.” I’m looking at the musician, and he thought it was super cool that literally it was real blood. The manager’s going, “This is bullshit. We’re not doing any of this.” He left to make a phone call. And I went, “Hey, can I film your hands with the blood?” “Yeah, let’s do it.” So we got some shots at him outside. Those were all happy accidents. The great thing about most music people is that they’re young and usually up for it.

Nelly, her only concern was, “Todd, I’ve got I got a couple pimples. Are my pimples going to show?” I’m like, “Nelly, don’t worry about it. I’ll make you look spectacular.” She was quite wonderful. At one point, she went, “Todd, I did some scouting, and there’s something cool upstairs. I want to try something.” It was lunchtime and I said, “OK, if you don’t care to eat, I don’t need to eat.” We went up there, and it was these rows that looked like empty bookshelves. We put a lens on it, so it looked way longer than it was. And she’s doing this weird, spastic movement. And we shot all of that during lunch break, just me and the cameraman and Nelly. I was impressed that instead of being a diva, once she got the confidence that we weren’t going to do something silly, she now became the super willing participant to get some extra shots. We used all of it.
At times, there’s a little bit of guerilla warfare when you’re filming these things that you just like, and then worry in the editing bay whether it works or not. What’s the harm in grabbing it?
The band members in Disturbed had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted to do. They came with the song and had preconceived notions, and now we had to try to service those visual wants and needs. My goal with videos is that if you don’t like the band, per se, or you don’t even like the music, that the video is entertaining enough and interesting enough that you can get past some of the other stuff. And if you like the musician, the music video should just be an enhancement to both of those. It adds the gravy on top.
So with “Land of Confusion,” we were trying to tell a linear story, which was dramatically different than “Do the Evolution.” I worked again with Greg Capullo, my comic book comrade; he was a fan of Disturbed’s, too. So we knew there would be a through-thread of the story for all three minutes. The villain in it — corporate greed, capitalism — looked like sort of a distorted version of the guy that’s in the Monopoly game. That was kind of intentional because it’s a symbol that people recognize.
The band’s mascot guy was an easy visual. He fits the bill of a superhero. He looks the part of a superhero: black clothes, dark face. Iron Maiden sort of set the stage for everybody with that. So not only is [Disturbed’s character] the good guy, but he looks like a tough good guy, which are the people I gravitate towards: the Punisher, Wolverine, and Spawn — you know, badasses. That means he’s not going to put up with stuff. So you could argue that there were moments in there that felt a little Saturday morning superhero cartoon, the crowd dispersing after an explosion or something. But I am aware that the audience is mostly going to be young adults, so we didn’t dumb anything down.

I first met Ozzy when [McFarlane Toys] did some action figures years ago for Ozzy, and Ozzy and I did some PR with that, so we got along. With this video, somebody came to my office and said, “Hey, Todd, Ozzy’s doing something. And Sharon wants to know if you’d be interested.” This was before Ozzy’s surgery, and when I spoke with Sharon, she said, “Todd, we need it to be mostly animation, and we’re only going to have between four to six hours when we do the live action with Ozzy.” I said, “OK.”
They sent me the song, and I was pleasantly surprised at the easy beat. You could catch onto it very quickly. Then we got back on the phone and had some pretty extensive conversations. What we agreed to was [since the song is about a mentally unwell person], “I don’t want it to make any sense.” Ideally, I’d like to have different people watch it and have different definitions of what they just watched. Everybody gets something like, “He’s a bat that turns into a man,” or “It was all a dream; it’s not real.” All of those debates are good.
Then a guy named Mike Wartella and his animation group came on, and they had to move fast. The only real notes I gave him was, “Mike, this makes too much sense. You’ve got to turn off your storytelling. Shoot it as a negative and then do a color pop, and then flipflop it. I don’t care. Take those five scenes and pretend they’re puzzle pieces and throw them on the ground, and then whatever order you put him back in, that’s the order. I don’t even care if the monsters have arms, it’s just gotta be cool.” If [Ozzy in the video] is an insane guy, I don’t think what’s going on in his head can make sense; it has to be erratic. He was like, “I can’t seem to give it to you.” I was like, “Because it’s not fucked-up enough, dude.”
One day, he probably was just so mad, he went, “Fine. I’m going to make this so crazy that they’re not going to like it.” And that was the one, like, “Mike, you finally got it.” It was sort of like The Producers. “What? No, it’s not supposed to be successful.” He was like, “So you’re saying you don’t want it to make sense.” And I was like, “That’s what we’ve been saying the whole time.”

And then how do we get Ozzy to complement what we’re doing? I wanted to do it in a place with a stage where I could do some props stuff. But they put me in a different place with a green screen because it was close to where Ozzy was living; we had made some compromises. It was just, “What can I get out Ozzy in four hours?”

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I knew Ozzy was in pain, so I felt bad. I didn’t want to have him to do too much because I knew his back was killing him. I go, “I’m going to have to get [what I need] in your expressions.” Those faces are so natural to him. I gave him five or six things to do — looking up at the camera on bar eight and then reaching out — hoping he’d do two or three of the things. He just sat there quietly. He was like Stan Lee, just pacing himself. “OK, action,” boom, and he lights up, and he did every single thing I had asked him right at the exact moment. I was just sitting there, almost smiling, going, “I didn’t even think he heard me.” I could see some of the playback as he was doing it, and I went, “I can use that.” Nobody would know that this is a man who was in pain the whole time, but still gave his audience a performance.
A final fun fact is because Ozzy draws, he brought his artwork. So there’s a couple of the scenes near the end when it goes red and sort of bleeds — that’s all Ozzy art, which was really kind of cool and fun.
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