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Alumni Spotlight: Mel Soria

Industrial design alumnus Mel Soria rocks the music video world

The MTV Video Music Award-winning director calls his education in the College of Architecture and Urban Studies his ‘secret weapon.’ 

Mel Soria (fourth from left) with cast and crew on the set of Fall Out Boy’s “Champion” video. A 2003 industrial design graduate, Soria directed the video, which earned his second nomination for an MTV Video Music Award. Photo by Bashir Taylor.

By Marya Barlow, CAUS communications director

Mel Soria’s Instagram feed offers a visual tour of the storybook life of a music video director.

In one photo, he’s backlit on the stage set of a Panic! At the Disco video shoot. In another, his feet dangle from an open-air helicopter over the Statue of Liberty. Another shot shows him on a Manhattan rooftop one night and then overlooking a Moroccan skyline the next day.

Since graduating from Virginia Tech’s Industrial Design program in 2003, Soria has gone on to direct award-winning hit videos for bands like Fall Out Boy, Train, Panic! At the Disco, and New Politics. In 2015, his music video for Fall Out Boy’s hit single, “Uma Thurman” won the MTV Video Music Award for Best Rock Video. His video for Fall Out Boy’s “Young and Menace” (co-directed with longtime collaborator Brendan Walter) earned the nomination again last year.

“The important thing is the nomination, because winning is subjective,” Soria said. “Everyone who gets nominated is amazing at their job. As long as you’re in the same breath as those nominees, you’ve already won.”

At 35, Soria has racked up an impressive resume on IMDB, as well as recognition of his work in publications ranging from American Cinematographer to Rolling Stone. The 2003 graduate of the School of Architecture + Design is quick to point out that his education at the College of Architecture and Urban Studies is the “secret weapon” that has allowed him “to hack into the world of film and distinguish myself as a director.”

Soria (left) with the members of Fall Out Boy at the shoot for the “Champion” video. Photo by Ariel Fisher.

“I have a streamlined process for filmmaking that I’ve adapted from what I learned as a designer at Virginia Tech,” he said. “I use it every day on set and it gives me a competitive edge. The Bauhaus approach they teach at Virginia Tech is pure alchemy for creatives. In studio, I honed a critical eye for aesthetics, symbology, the ability to visualize three-dimensionally, and I learned to grow by inviting criticism. Things like the Fibonacci sequence and scale always come to mind when I pick lenses, set up frames and camera positions.”

Soria says filmmaking was a natural leap from being an industrial design student – and one that was in the cards from his earliest memories. He vividly recalls watching “Indiana Jones and The Last Crusade” in a theatre at age 8, shortly after his family emigrated to the U.S. from the Philippines.

“The first time I felt like we were real Americans was in the movie theater – laughing at the same jokes and gasping at the same thrills as everyone else. It was a powerful moment for me, a communal experience,” he said. “I was hooked on the power of the medium. It brought everybody in the cinema together as if by magic.”

After graduating from Virginia Tech, Soria attended film school and worked on TV and film sets before landing in music video direction. Photo by Julie A. Holtz.

Growing up outside Philadelphia in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Soria was a bright, creative student who liked to draw. He was attracted to Virginia Tech for its nationally renowned architecture and design program, friendly campus, and Ut Prosim (That I May Serve) spirit.

“I always tell everyone that Virginia Tech is the smallest ‘big’ school I’ve ever been to,” he said. “Hokies have a different level of devotion and it feels like home.”

He tailored the industrial design program to explore his interest in film, focusing on film production design. For a studio project on vehicle design, Soria created a Batmobile. His senior thesis was a design exploration of a science fiction film concept.

After graduating, Soria served as a team leader for AmeriCorps’ National Civilian Community Corps, building homes for Habitat For Humanity, working as a disaster relief worker with the Red Cross, and organizing mural projects for inner-city schools. He earned his M.F.A. in film production from Florida State in 2007 and spent a few years on Hollywood sets as a director’s apprentice.

Soria always intended to direct feature films, but opportunity knocked first in music videos. His brother’s indie-rock band, Valencia, hired him to shoot one of their music videos. From there, his success snowballed. To date, Soria has directed 14 music videos and is expanding into commercial work.

Soria (with mustard bottle in foreground) directs PANIC! At The Disco video, “This Is Gospel (Piano Version).” Photo by Kevin Johnson.

After landing a video with a conceptual pitch, Soria collaborates with bands to turn their creative vision into a short film. The end result often draws on his own experiences. For example, in the 2015 VMA award-winning “Uma Thurman” video, a woman wins a contest to be Fall Out Boy’s assistant for 24 hours and goes on an epic adventure of errands – including walking zebras, driving a $350,000 McLaren sportscar, performing karaoke with lead vocalist Patrick Stump, and shopping with bassist Pete Wentz. Many of those are duties are borrowed from Soria’s years as a director’s apprentice – though he keeps the details tightly guarded.

Soria’s work takes him all over the world – often in the span of 24 hours. Here he is in Manhattan (left) one day and Morocco the next to work on a video for French Montana. Photos by Nafie O. Nafie and Anas Beriane.

Soria’s life – documented with a photographer’s eye on Instagram – is a series of intense work-related “sprints,” with stretches of off-time. After weeks of planning, shooting, and editing videos, he recharges by taking off on adventures. He’s gone bobsledding with the U.S. Olympic team, written for Outside magazine about his experiences boar hunting, and trekked across glaciers in Iceland.

Though he’s received offers to direct feature films, he’s proceeding with caution.

“On average, a feature film takes about five years from conception to release,” Soria says. “It’s a big commitment and I want to make sure I pick the right project.

“Being a director is like having a VIP full-access ticket to explore new worlds,” he said. “While I love music videos, films are where I’m headed. In architecture you strive to build bigger and taller structures. It’s the same thing in filmmaking. You aim to tell bigger stories and reach broader audiences with each new project. Maybe one day, one of my films will make a new family feel at home among strangers, just like it did for mine all those years ago.”

Soria directs the Fall Out Boy “Uma Thurman” video, which won the Best Rock Video MTV Music Video Award in 2015. Photo by Nani Walker.