You want to learn how to make a music video? Becoming a music video director is a dream for many filmmakers. The good news is that there are many independent musicians who don’t have the money or a record label backing them financially, that are nevertheless looking for ambitious directors for their music videos. There is definitely no shortage of opportunity in this area.
In fact Lights Film School offers a 1 month intensive music video production course online for those of you who are interested.
What projects to work on?
Before we start discussing the technical, structural and design standards of a music video shoot we want to first discuss an important consideration music video directors must fully understand. As a music video director you must realize that music is a product to be consumed. Record labels often get music videos made of the songs that they think will be their best selling product.
All directors (including music video directors) need to decide how to develop their careers as artists. Just because you get an offer to do a music video for a song it doesn’t mean that this job will help advance your career in the direction you want. In fact it could have the opposite effect.
For example, you may want to work with classic soul musicians, or with pop musicians. If you are approached by a band that doesn’t produce a genre of music that you are passionate about then you likely won’t do the best job possible on the video thus deteriorating your brand as a music video director. You will be associated with the people you work with. Working with a unprofessional or untalented band on a bad song Is equivalent to working on a feature film with bad actors and a pointless script. Do you really want to attach your name to that? If you’re not passionate about the song you’re directing then how you can give it your undivided creative attention? If your heart is not in the project it will be visible in the end product. Also, don’t forget as a director you’ll be creating a name brand for yourself. If you’re working on commercial song after commercial song, then you may not be suitable for more artistic projects in the future. This is fine of course, as long as this is how you’re trying to develop your career. These are all things you need to decide. It’s important that you have control over your name and your image rather than allowing musicians and record labels to decide how you will develop as a director. You will be shaped as a music video director based on the projects you attach your name to.
How to direct a music video: Technical and artistic structure
There are no rules to directing a music video. However, there is a common template. This blog post will outline one of the most common templates. As you get more comfortable with directing music videos you will want to start to break away from this template.
Step 1: Record labels and musicians want to establish and nurture an image for themselves. This means that your music video will almost inevitably include footage of the musicians in the group. Most often this footage will be captured in a controlled setting (i.e. a studio, concert hall etc).
If you’re just using one camera you’ll need to shoot this pre-planned studio footage from a few different angles. This allows you to keep up with the pace of your story footage when you start post production (to be discussed next). It’s important that in each of your studio recordings the musicians perform with the same emphasis and acting direction for each of the takes. This allows for seamless editing which in turn makes it appear as if you shot the music video with numerous cameras. It’s also important to shoot from different angles and perspectives because if one take ever lacks in a certain area you will always have other footage options in your other angles to cut to. Small errors and big errors like bad acting, overacting, poor composition and music or lip syncing problems may occur in one shot and it’s always preferable to have other camera angles that don’t have the same mistakes.
On a similar note, it’s a good idea to use a monitor for these shots. The reason being is that small mistakes that go unnoticed in your cameras LCD screen are amplified when blown up for television sets. You will likely want to broadcast your music video, not only over the internet on sharing sites like YouTube but also on broadcast television (on stations such as Much Music, BET, MTV and so on). You will need to identify and fix skin issues, wardrobe issues, acting issues and color issues. These are all things that are much easier to identify using a monitor rather than just your camera’s small LCD screen.
It’s important that while you’re getting your studio footage you direct the musicians as if they were actors. Remember however, that they are not actors and they may not be comfortable in front of the camera. Any hint of them lacking confidence will immediately show through on camera. It shows through in uncomfortable body language or their eyes not knowing where to focus. Never second guess your instinct. If you think something doesn’t look right then don’t move on to the next shot until you’ve fixed it.
Before you start rolling the cameras it’s wise to rehearse the scene. Don’t direct during the rehearsal. Just get a feel for the musicians’ ability to look good on camera. Keep an eye on all of the musicians during the rehearsal and take note of the individuals that will need extra attention.
For example, if a musician is not a coordinated dancer, this is probably not something you can fix on your shoot day. They are either coordinated or they are not. If they are not coordinated you need to think quickly of new ways to frame them in order to hide their awkward body language. Other members of the band may show movement that you think is really interesting and you may want to capture on camera. Some members of the band may over-act or over-sing. You need to identify these problems from the beginning so you can fix them before you start filming.
Step 2: The next thing you need to do is play the music in the background so the band is perfectly synced with the quality production on their CD. No matter how well the band knows the song, they will play it slightly different each time with slightly different emphasis and timing. The video footage needs to sync perfectly with the version of the song on the CD. If there is any discrepancies the music video quality will be compromised. Audience are very sensitive to syncing issues. Even a millisecond difference can cause a loss of the illusion that the band is not actually singing the song.
On a similar note, the amplification and tone need to be similar. The musicians need to play the song just as they did in their recording. If their recording is soft and gentle and on the day of shooting the music video they are singing too loud it will look fake and dubbed.
Step 3: B-Roll Studio footage will be required for backup and to be used as cutaway footage. For example, if in one of your takes you shoot a singer at a microphone, you will also want to get some b-roll of their hands on the microphone, or close ups of their lips by the microphone. In our experience the more B-roll footage you have the easier the editing process becomes.
Step 4: Once you have completed your studio shooting you will now move on to the story segment of the shoot. Every song tells a story and just like you would create a storyboard for a feature film, you will also need to storyboard for the music video. Storyboard each verse and the chorus for the song as well. You will often use the studio footage for the chorus, but storyboard it just in case you end up using story footage instead of studio footage.
To use the most obvious and basic example, lets image that the story segment of the song is a bunch of people at a club. The club then becomes your story. While this type of music video is overdone, we use it as an example because we have all seen this template many times and we are familiar with it.
Story boarding is important because you need to make your audio and visuals “dance” together in editing. There are specific down beats or lyric cues that will prompt you to get certain footage. For instance, if there are three downbeats and the musician says “DJ play that song”. You might want thee snippets of footage. One of the DJ, A second of the close up of the DJ’s headphones and third of a record spinning. As a general rule of thrum you should capture each of these shots for a minimum of 7 seconds. This way if the footage of the close up on the headphones doesn’t work well in editing, you can always run one of the other sections for slightly longer.
Step 5: Editing the footage is the next step. Again, you’ll want to make your music video’s footage work well with the audio. Music videos are often highly edited. Both the colors, effects and composition are all very well thought out. They often don’t look film-like or realistic. Lighting is used to look as exaggerated as possible and costumes are not often very ordinary.
Many editing suits have a “beat detect” option. This allows you to find downbeats that have a certain Decibel difference and time separation difference. Music videos are often quickly edited and highly stylized. This is why having enough B-roll, story footage and studio footage is advantageous. It’s better to have too much footage to work with to keep up with the quick pacing than to have too little and have big gaps in your story or uneven pacing.
How much do music video directors make?
After you’ve worked on a few music videos and you have built up a demo reel of your work you will obviously want to start being compensated for your time and effort. Shooting a music video is not an easy task. pre-planning can often take a week or two, shooting can take anywhere from 1 day to 7 days and editing can take up to a month. Shooting a music video is a huge time commitment. Music video directors generally charge a minimum fee or a percentage of the production budget (generally between 3%-10% of the production budget). For smaller productions generally a flat fee is more beneficial from a directors standpoint but as you build your name and start working on larger projects a 10% commission could work out to be a handsome sum!
Again, there is no 1 right way to shoot or bill for a music video. The ideas outlined above are simply meant to give you an idea of the possibilities and to help you on your first shoot. Feel free to smash this template and use your imagination. Best of luck.