How to Make a Music Video
Producing and directing a music video is a great way to showcase your talents while also having a fun time crafting a performance — and potentially narrative short film — with creativity and punch.
Music videos have been part of the short form filmmaking landscape since Edward B. Marks and Joe Stern hired an Electrician by the name of George Thomas to use a “magic lantern” to project images simultaneously during a live music performance. This was in 1894 and became known as an “illustrated song.” That was the first step to making music videos, leading to the very first music video to broadcast on MTV in 1981, when the network aired “Video Killed the Radio Star” by The Buggles. After that, music videos would never be the same and are now a staple for any band or solo artist who wants to showcase their talent. Now, it’s your turn.
Here’s what we’ll discuss in this article on how to make a music video:
- Finding bands and artists who need a music video
- Music video development
- Music video pre-production
- Working with Music Video Directors, Producers, and Playback Operators
- Music video production
- Music video editing and deliverables
Finding Bands and Artists
Whether you’re a film student or an independent music video hopeful, the steps of producing and directing a music video are essentially the same. The benefit of being a film student is that both your crew and gear should be easily accessible whereas an independent Music Video Producer and Director may have to source his or her crew and gear outside of the assets a film school may provide. Either way, you need to find an artist who will appear in your music video.
Live music is typically all around you. When I moved to Los Angeles, I made it my mission to produce and direct a music video. It helps that I love live concerts – both large and small – and one evening I was out with friends and caught a band called Sad Robot who already had a strong following in LA. They were making some incredible music that I found inspiring. I simply walked up to the Lead Singer and talked to her about producing a music video and we hit it off. The result was “Automatic Reset” which can be seen here.
At the time, I self-funded the video and hired many of my former Full Sail University graduates who came to the table with gear and experience. The total cost was approximately $2,000 and since I had a full-time job in reality TV, I was able to pay for it. It’s important to note that while your budget is small and money may be tight, paying your crew is an act of respect and beneficial to your long-term relationships. Asking people to work for free is not the way to go. You don’t have to necessarily pay industry rates, but at least pay minimum wage in your area.
There are other methods to finding bands and artists, including surfing Spotify.com for music that you like. Search for lesser known bands and then Google their website and Facebook pages. You can typically write them via email or direct message them on Facebook. Many bands want a music video, but lack the money to produce one. That’s where crowdfunding can come into play.
Another great resource is SoundCloud.com. Tons of independent artists upload their music to SoundCloud but are not necessarily represented by a label yet. That’s good news, because working with a label has its challenges, and it is often best to work directly with the artist when you are first starting out.
Of course, searching for bands and artists on YouTube and Vimeo is still a great way to find talent who may have uploaded their song but could still use a flashy and exciting music video. It’s just important to remember that, in addition to attending live music shows, the web is your next best bet.
Music Video Development
Once you have found a band or artist who wants to partner with you, you need to develop an idea that is affordable and can usually be shot in a day. If your concept is too large, you are going to dig yourself into a budgetary and logistical hole. Keep the concept simple, but make it visually impactful.
Listen to the Artist
You and the band or solo artist should sit down and talk about the image and message they are trying to depict. Listen to their ideas first and write a list of visual concepts based on their thoughts. However, it’s important to remember that they are looking to you to captain this ship and you need to be brave enough to pitch your own concepts especially since this is a shared endeavor. Most importantly, you have to voice your thoughts when the artist treads into cliché territory. You can sink the creative ship quickly when you produce and direct time-worn ideas that have been done before. That’s why Music Video Producers and Directors also watch a ton of music videos. Be a student of the art form before you become a music video creator.
Create a Treatment
A music video treatment is typically a multi-page document that shouldn’t be more than 6 to 10 pages. I prefer to keep them as short as possible, but they need to showcase both the narrative and visual inspirations for the music videos. You will need to explore other music videos, movies, and photographs that illustrate mood, lighting, hair and makeup, costumes, and locations. Usually, the treatment will be designed in PhotoShop or Illustrator, but if you lack those skills, you could design something in Word. No matter what you use to design your treatment, it must be colorful, flashy, and bold.
It’s important to note that while your budget is small and money may be tight, paying your crew is an act of respect and beneficial to your long-term relationships. Asking people to work for free is not the way to go. You don’t have to necessarily pay industry rates, but at least pay minimum wage in your area.
The Label and Video Commissioners
In some cases, you will be partnering with a label and video commissioner. The label and video commissioner have the best interest of the band or solo artist in mind and they need to feel 100% confident in the Producer and Director’s logistical and creative abilities. What is a video commissioner? The video commissioner is typically a representative from the label who hires Directors and production companies. For example, there is The Director’s Bureau in Los Angeles. They are a production company who represent several Music Video Directors, including David Wilson (Chromeo, M83), Ryan Hope (Ty Dolla $ign), and Roman Coppola (Arctic Monkeys, Phoenix) but the video commissioner may come directly from Interscope, Atlantic, or Universal Music. If a label is involved, then a video commissioner will most likely be involved. I just assistant directed 2 Chainz’ latest music video for “Money In The Way” and the video commissioner, who was very easy to work with, was on set to make sure that 2 Chainz was managed properly and that the video was a success. A video commissioner will usually observe and be relatively silent if everything is going according to plan.
Music Video Pre-Production
As with all film production, the Music Video Producer and the Director will have specific tasks he or she needs to accomplish before you shoot the first frame of video. So what should each one be planning?
Music Video Producer
Although the tasks of a Music Video Producer on a low budget, independent project will vary, they should include:
1. Managing the budget.
On larger scale productions, Entertainment Partner’s Movie Magic Budgeting software is standard. However, with a student price tag around $175 (that’s money that could go to a crew member or location), it may be smarter to budget in Microsoft Excel, which most people already have. Your budget must take into consideration the costs of your crew, gear, props, locations, food for crew, and post-production. Leave no stone unturned when it comes to budgeting. Ask yourself: what do I need to make this entire project happen? Don’t wing it, but rather pad your budget and make sure you keep some cash aside as a contingency because unexpected expenses will always arise. On smaller projects, I try to keep $500 set aside for unexpected costs. It’s also important to note that on larger music videos, a Line Producer will “produce” the budget, but on smaller ones, it may fall to the Producer.
2. Hiring the crew.
A strong Music Video Producer will also interview and hire the department heads including the Director of Photography, the Assistant Director, hair and makeup, costuming, a Locations Manager (if affordable), an Art Director, a Playback Operator, and the Production Assistants. It’s important to allow your department heads to in-turn hire their crew. Trust in them to populate their departments with the strongest team the budget will allow.
3. Producing the shoot and paying crew.
A Music Video Producer, along with the Assistant Director, will also make sure the shoot is scheduled properly and that the set is run in an organized and efficient manner. While the Assistant Director should be at the helm of creating the schedule and running the set efficiently, you may not be able to afford one, and that’s when a Music Video Producer must wear multiple hats. In the end, the Producer must also make sure that there is enough money in the bank to pay all crew and will typically write checks for each crew member, preferably at the end of the shoot on smaller music videos. It is highly recommended that a separate account is set up just for the music video so personal finances don’t get mixed in. If you can afford it, hire a payroll company. This way, taxes, worker’s compensation, and checks are managed as professionally as possible. However, budget restrictions may prevent this option.
By no means is the above info exhaustive and there are many other tasks taken care of by a low budget Music Video Producer, but these are some of the more important ones.
Music Video Director
The Music Video Director is the creative leader in pre-production, production, and post-production. He or she will:
- Flesh out the creative with the band or solo artist and the label (if one exists).
- Craft the above-mentioned treatment.
- Partner with the Director of Photography and create a shot list.
- Partner with the Producer and Assistant Director and create the schedule.
- Partner with a Playback Operator on the timing of the song.
- Direct the band or solo artist during performances.
- Partner with the AD to direct any Background Talent.
- Direct the Editor on how he or she wants the video cut.
- And, in many cases, edit the music video if an Editor isn’t in the budget.
One of the most overlooked roles on a music video set is the Playback Operator. A Director will work with the Playback Operator on “timing” the song. This means that the Playback Operator will get the song file, lay it out in ProTools (or something similar), and then assign times to each part for playback. These timing notes are known as “cues” and can indicate the intro, verses, chorus, breaks, outro, and any other important part of the song. It’s important to properly add these playback cues to the song file because you shouldn’t make the band or solo artist sing the song from start to finish every single time. This will exhaust them. A Playback Artist will also create different versions of the track at different speeds so that the singer and musicians can “perform” in slow motion and still be in sync. If you want slow-motion footage that is half speed of the normal 24 frames per second (FPS), then the Playback Operator can create a 48 FPS version of the music track. The musicians will perform the song twice as fast on camera, but the song will playback in sync at 24 FPS for a dramatic slow-mo effect.
The Locations Are a Character
While the band or solo performer are the main characters in your music video, the locations not only serve as a backdrop but should also be considered characters to your music video. Find locations that accentuate the performance. When looking at a classic music video like “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana, the gym, filled with haze and moody lighting, adds to the feel of the music video and elevates the tone to a new, dramatic level. Don’t just shoot your artists anywhere. Find locations that share a theme with the style and tone of the song.
The rules and laws governing locations differ from state to state and even city to city. In Los Angeles, working closely with Film LA is important to locking in locations legally and safely. However, this comes at a cost. The base location fee for up to 10 locations is $650 in Los Angeles and goes up from there. Chances are, you are going to want to save that money. To avoid the risk of getting shut down by local authorities, if you are going to shoot in any residential areas or on streets, you must first secure permits with your local film office. Shooting in public places may require a police presence, too, and you need to start your permitting process no less than 2 weeks in advance of your first shoot date. Film offices are often busy places and you can’t leave the approval of your permits to chance. Granted, on low-budget music videos, you may not be able to afford costs that on the low end may end up being $1,000. Therefore, you may want to find private locations and have zero trucks or crew parking on the streets. It can get sketchy, but if you find a sound stage with private parking, then you should be OK. However, you should research all filming laws in your area before shooting.
Music Video Post-Production
Most likely, you will be cutting your music video in either Adobe Premiere, AVID, or Final Cut Pro. Of the 3, Premiere is my preferred editing software because in many ways it’s very easy to use, there are tons of free and affordable effects plugins available, and the layoff process is easy with so many YouTube videos out there on how to properly layoff your video for YouTube, Vimeo, Instagram, Facebook, and live projection. Most likely, and depending on whether you’re shooting 6K, 4K, or 2K, you will have to lay off your video in different versions for each platform. I personally recommend checking out “Matt WhoisMatt Johnson” on YouTube for the best layoff settings on practically every type of video. Check him out here.
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