The ‘90s were an excellent time for special effects, unless you were trying to work with water. Huge budgets and major advances in rendering technology brought us realistic dinosaurs, horrific natural disasters, and better aliens, but digitally rendered H20 from the era of JNCO jeans looks more like something you would slap onto a nasty wound than, like, drink. Think the laughable mud-tsunami in Deep Impact or the taunt silver goop into which both Alex Mack and TLC (see right) morphed.
CGI water was also, somehow, the most futuristic effect imaginable circa 1998. I actually have no idea if Hype Williams was thinking about how forward-thinking CGI goop was when he directed the sci-fi masterpiece that is Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson’s "What’s it Gonna Be." Surely there must have been some fantastic pitch that got him then-unheard of amounts of money to transform the artists into weird, undulating, totally fake-looking water-beasts.
Or maybe it was just that Williams and Rhymes and Jackson were superstars, each in the middle of fervently productive periods, working in a time in which music videos were the defining medium for recording artists. Williams, by the way, was averaging 30 videos a year in the mid-’90s. June Ambrose, who styled the video, has dressed so many celebrities she basically invented what hip-hop looks like. She was responsible for Missy’s trash bag / balloon deal, for Puff Daddy’s silver suits, and most recently, for putting Jay-Z in a T-shirt that was the subject of an entire Radiolab episode. So perhaps some exec simply had the good sense to hand over the $2 million to make this video, no questions asked.
I’m not going to say that music videos aren’t as opulent and fantastic as they used to be, or that the ‘90s were better. But just to recap this video, which is maybe one of the best ever made: Busta Rhymes, then still sinewy and staccato and sporting deranged pigtails on occasion, starts off as a glass of water at 0:13. At 0:48 he’s a waterlogged cyborg knight, then around 1:45, a monstrous water-worm. Janet, fresh off the Velvet Rope tour, is in 2-inch-long goth-black nails and a purple leather dominatrix gown. She raises her upturned face and little CGI Busta-drops sprinkle down on her. It’s completely, fantastically, insane. And it all looks very little like the water it's supposed to be.
It’s nice to live in a world where special effects are realistic. But long live the weird stuff like "What’s it Gonna Be?", a video that turned bad CGI water into a wholly new substance: an odd, ever-morphing future-serum only an out-of-control director like Williams could make sense of.