Shooting the music video
1. Record the track that you are playing back on set as you shoot. This scratch track will help you synchronize the shots with the clean track in post-production.
2. Instruct the singer to sing properly – no half-hearted singing or, worse, miming. If they mumble or mime, it will not look right when you lay the shots against the song, because the tension and movements of the face and body will not be consistent with the sound of the song. They must sing as if you were making a real recording of the song.
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3. Remember that recording the singer while you shoot and using that copy of the song for the music video is not an option. It simply doesn’t work. You need the definitive recording of the track before you shoot, and the singer must match it exactly. It takes a little practice, and as the director, it is your job to make sure it is being done properly (check out how to direct.)
4. Shoot plenty of angles, and make sure that most angles cover the entire song. If you do not shoot enough angles of the whole song, the final edit of the video might be too slow.
5. You should also shoot plenty of cutaways, also known as B-roll shots. Use these to give some variety to the video. Some directors intercut performance or dance routine shots with random cuts to shots in which the singer is neither singing nor dancing, but doing something vaguely relevant to the music video’s theme. This jump cut technique is usually disastrous in movies, unless it is used to achieve a specific effect, but it works nicely in music videos.
6. It is inefficient to shoot complicated and time-consuming setups that only cover a small part of the song – don’t schedule too many of these.
7. If there is a dance routine, make sure that the dancers know it properly, and that the lead singer is also completely at ease with it (you’d be surprised).
Editing the music video
Review all the takes and choose your favorite take for every shot. In practice, you may prefer different sections from different takes. For example, you may decide that your favorite beginning of a crane move is in take 2, whereas your favorite ending of the crane move is from take 6. That’s okay, providing of course that there is a cutaway between the two clips. If you want the crane move to be uninterrupted, which is highly unlikely in a music video, you will have to choose your favorite take and leave it uncut.
Use the waveform picture in your editing application to align the scratch track with the master copy of the track. In this way you will achieve perfect synchronization between sound and picture. Having synchronized the video clips with the track, disable the scratch sound tracks, but don’t delete them from the timeline, because you might need them again later. In this way when you scrub the timeline you will only hear the master track and you will see your music video take shape.
A nice trick I have used to edit a music video efficiently is to place all the selected clips on the timeline, one above the other on stacked video tracks. They must all be in their correct positions relative to the song, i.e. they must all be synchronized – except, of course, for the cutaways, which can be placed wherever you like.
To cut from one shot to another, you simply use the razor tool and delete all clips above the one you want. In this way you cut the video without having to drag and drop clips, because that step was taken care of when you synchronized your selected clips with the song. In this way you are effectively switching view from one angle to another, a bit like real-time editing of TV shows. This technique is not applicable to movies, but works very nicely when editing music videos.
Advice for success in the music video industry (includes rant)
One of the characteristics of high-end music videos is their high level of visual and stylistic coherence.
Very simply, that means that every shot in those music videos looks like it was designed, lit and directed by the same person. This makes the whole music video gel together very well.
The importance of this is that many music videos for which I am asked to give feedback tend to lack visual coherence: the shots in the music video do not match particularly well in terms of art direction and lighting, and the music videos just don’t feel like a coherent whole.
For an example of a highly visually coherent music video, check out Mark Romanek’s video for “If You Can’t Say No” by Lenny Kravitz:
The kind of music video that tends to do well: conceptual, non-vanilla videos
The music videos that tend to be appreciated by the industry these days are highly conceptual. This means that the imagery used in the music video is mostly unrelated to the lyrics — sometimes ideas and visuals are shamelessly stolen from famous painters, as if plagiarism were somehow ennobled by its employment in a music video (you know who you are, mister!).
The best way to make a music video that will be overlooked by those who matter in the industry is to make a video that is very obviously based on the song’s lyrics. This is an understandable tendency for narratively oriented filmmakers, but the problem is that, as a music video director, you’re quite simply not allowed to make sense. The further removed from the actual story the images are, the more the music video will be appreciated by those who matter.
Again, refer to the Mark Romanek music video above to see what I mean: although the music video features a man and a woman and the song is about a man and a woman, that is where the storytelling ends as far as I can see: everything else is just extremely stylish, eye-catching shots that elicit the correct mood without actually telling the story directly. I actually like that music video a lot — it is my favorite, and even this one is probably too “straight” by modern standards.
You shoot yourself in the foot as a music video director when you employ a close reading of the lyrics in your direction of the music video. For example, if the song is about unrequited love, shooting a video based on couples walking on the beach and things like that will guarantee that the music video industry will not respect it — it would be too straightforward for them, too vanilla, too 1990s. Yes, there are exceptions, but you cannot rely on them — be smart and let the general trends guide you.
The general trend is that the music video industry disrespects vanilla directors and meaningful storytelling. Just pack as much visually impressive nonsense as you can into the music video and you stand a much better chance of impressing those who can make a difference to your career as a music video director. If you are exceptionally fortunate, you might even impress those who are most out of touch with good filmmaking and good taste, such as advertising creatives.
The only case in which you would be well advised to make a music video that has a strong narrative element to it is when the narrative of the song itself is bizarre and outrageous. If the song is just about a gal who is feeling sad because she cannot secure the commitment of the man of her dreams, you cannot follow that narrative, because it will result in vanilla storytelling. You will instead have to come up with spectacular, impressive and completely unrelated visual and narrative elements.
The 1990s ended a long time ago and this is the reality of the modern music video industry. They can’t afford me and I will have nothing to do with them, but if music videos really float your boat, this is what you will have to put up with.
Can young directors earn a living making music videos?
Back in the 1990s when the music video industry was not yet in its death throes, it was general industry practice to allocate 10% of the budget for the director’s fees. No matter how much or how little money was available to make a music video, 10% of that amount was automatically designated as the music video director’s fee.
Back then music videos were an excellent way for a young director to build a reel and gain some practical experience while at the same time earning a modest living. Most of them were not wealthy by any means, but they managed to pay the bills by directing — imagine the privilege!
Fast forward to the present day and there is no longer any money in the music video industry, for reasons I explained in the past.
The music video industry never really respected directors, partly because directing music videos isn’t really about narrative filmmaking, it’s more about making a commercial for a song that will attract as many views (and therefore sales) as possible, and partly because the music video industry doesn’t really appear to treat anyone particularly well.
The current reality of music videos is that everyone expects directors to work for free indefinitely. There is no longer even the pretence that anyone will get paid — young music video directors are shamelessly exploited and told in no uncertain terms that there is no money in it for them. As far as serious career-oriented directors are concerned, there simply isn’t anything in it for them any more: no money, and above all no prospects!
If you are a serious narratively oriented director — in other words, a maker of films — there are sound financial and philosophical reasons for abandoning music videos altogether. The financial reason is that you are exceedingly unlikely ever to see a penny from music videos.
The philosophical argument against music videos is that they are strongly anti-filmmaker: as a director of music videos, you’re not allowed to make sense, and you’re not allowed to tell a story in any meaningful way. Meaningless visuals and jump cuts are the bread and butter of modern music videos.
If you’re serious about making films that will touch hearts, my advice to you is to bypass the music video industry completely and focus on TV commercials and films. TV commercials are much more difficult to break into as a director, but you will very rarely be asked to work for free, and you will develop more transferable skills that will come useful in feature films. The pay is better, prospects are better, and TV commercials have considerable benefits in terms of professional development. You will have to grit your teeth with advertising agency creatives looking over your shoulder while you direct, but that’s life.
In short, the more talented you are as a filmmaker, the more you stand to lose by involving yourself with the dead industry of music videos. Focus on what you really want to do and stop agreeing to make videos for an industry that cannot and will not ever pay or respect you.
Music video editing – a question from a reader
A reader e-mailed me the following question: “I am in the process of editing a fast-paced music video. How do you decide what cuts to use and how often? How do I know when to cut from a medium shot to a long shot to a close-up?“
My strong belief — and the approach I always use on my own projects — is that the director needs to see the edited film/video in his/her head before anything is shot. Of course there are plenty of opportunities for improvisation and discovery both during the shoot and during the edit, but the product will be a lot better (and the improvisation much more productive) if the project is thoroughly pre-visualized beforehand.
Having said that, you can still pre-visualize the cut of the video to an extent now that you’ve shot it: listen to the track and try to see the music video playing in your head. Seeing the finished project very clearly in your head before it is finished is what directors do; this is what makes us so valuable!
With a bit of luck, specific points in the song will inspire specific cuts. Is there a crescendo? Is there a dramatic change of key near the end of the song? Does the song get faster or slower from beginning to end? These are all examples of aspects of the song that can inspire certain cutting techniques.
Sure, if the song is fast, you can use fast cuts. But your question clearly goes beyond that: you asked what specific kinds of shots you should come to in terms of close-ups, long shots etc. The answer once again lies in the song and what it makes you see and feel. You should be very familiar with all the shots, since you directed the music video: what shots do you see in your head while you listen to the song, and when exactly do you see the shots? That beautiful close-up that you worked hard to shoot…at what point in the song does it pop up in your mind? You get the idea.
In other words, having shot the music video, listening to the track should make you see specific shots at specific times. Cut the music video the way you see it in your own imagination when you listen to the song. This is not an esoteric technique by any means; it is practical, intuitive and generally productive.
Thank you, and good luck!