Before launching City of Music, the best-looking local music video show of all time, Dan Huiting was a guitarist without a band, spinning ’za in the kitchen of Galactic Pizza. “It was literally like I hated every second of every minute of my life,” he says. Now Huiting is poised to become more successful than many of the bands he shoots. He has a new day job as director of photography of Twin Cities Public Television’s Minnesota Original program; last summer he co-directed a video for folk-pop sensation Bon Iver; and City of Music, the show that originated on MPLS.TV, got picked up by national music website Pitchfork.
Now that City of Music is on Pitchfork, why do you stay here? Why not shoot national bands somewhere else?
I love it here. I grew up here. It would take some serious extenuating circumstances for me to ever leave.
How did Pitchfork discover you?
I was out in New York with Bon Iver at Jimmy Fallon, and I was chatting with Ryan Schreiber, the president of Pitchfork, about how hard it was getting national bands on City of Music. Schreiber said we were on his radar already so why don’t we do a series together? I was like, “Hell, yes.”
I heard that you met Justin Vernon of Bon Iver years ago at a jazz camp.
Not Justin. But the guys from Megafaun [who were in Justin’s old band DeYarmond Edison]. Phil Cook was my roommate at Shell Lake Jazz Camp. Then when I went to the Gayngs shoot, I showed up and they were freaking out. It was like a big reunion. That’s the day I met Justin. His girlfriend at the time went to Jazz Camp with me, too, and she had these photos of me in this photo album in his den. So he knew about me and had photos of me already. And I’m like, “That’s super weird because I’m a big fan and this is like The Twilight Zone.”
So video killed the radio star and then the reality star killed the video star. But now with the iPad, video is coming back.
Yeah, the big part of it is the iPads and the phones—most people are connected to some device that can always be on the Internet. That’s driven a demand for music videos and live performance videos and interviews. It’s basically the way a label can promote their artists. But along with demand, the other factor is that these DSLR cameras we shoot on are so cheap. Ten years ago you had to have a big budget if you wanted to shoot a music video, but now you can have a camera that’s between $1,000 and $2,000 and go make a music video that looks every bit as professional as anything else, as long as you have the skills and light things correctly. So now anyone can make art.
What were you doing before shooting City of Music for MPLS.TV and videos for Bon Iver?
Well I was a musician my whole life, kind of on and off. My first music video I shot was called “Sharted,” and it was a video about shitting your pants at a party. It was a comedy video. A kind of joke YouTube viral video. But I fell in love with the process: lighting things and shooting. I’d always taken photos, and so I had the idea of going to MCTC, and I thought I’d take a crack at this.
So you were 29 enrolling in film school. Kind of a late-20s crisis.
Well I was doing odd jobs, and I made pizzas at Galactic Pizza for a couple years. You know, I always loved being creative, but the music thing never went anywhere. So this was a way I thought I could be creative but also maybe make a living at it as well.
You don’t think you could ultimately have made money making music?
My sources tell me that you’re a good guitar player.
Well, I think technically I’m pretty proficient, but I don’t sing, so I don’t write songs. I was always joining someone else’s bands. But I never felt at home with it like I do with what I do now. Which is collaborating with people that are awesome.
Does being a former musician make you better at finding the dramatic arc in live performance?
I really like putting additional footage in live performance videos, which I’m not seeing anywhere very much. Most people keep it real time. There’s a Battles video on Pitchfork, and it’s all this footage of driving around and cool imagery. If you pick cool imagery that helps communicate the mood of the song, then it’s all good. And that’s what we’re trying to do on City of Music, to blur the lines between live performance and music video. Location says a lot—it communicates the mood, too. From the start with City of Music it was always about location.
Do you think you’ll ever graduate to making films?
Well, it’s kind of what I do on Minnesota Original. It’s a segment show, and we make short documentaries about artists and painters and stuff. Every day we go into some artist’s studio and make a little short film about them. Yesterday we shot Mason Jennings in this Hollywood Theater. We do documentary work about local arts. I’m super interested in documentary film, and that’s where I see myself going in the future. I don’t make much money on music videos.
Five Things You Didn't Know About Dan Huiting
1) He has never actually owned his own camera. “I don’t think a cell phone counts.”
2) He was a rapper in a viral video called “So So Vegan.”
3) He didn’t graduate from MCTC. “I’m like one or two credits away.
4) Ninety percent of the “Calgary” video was shot in Justin Vernon’s pole barn outside his April Base studio.
5) He recommends Galactic’s Alfredo pizza (pictured).