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How To Make a Music Video for Dummies

Updated: Mar 29, 2021

So.. You want to be a master music video Director? Well.. Then you should have gone to David Fincher's blog. Instead, here what you'll get is more like a survival guide. Having said that, I have learned a few things you definitely want to do, but many more things you definitely don't want to do which I learned the hard way.

Step 1: Find a Band

This is actually surprisingly one of the hardest parts, because its not necessarily finding the band, though that is part of it. Its a lot more about finding the right Music Video, which means finding the right song, which does mean finding the right band. In my experience bands are super picky about choosing directors. They tend to choose people they know, and probably that they've known for a long time. You only know so many people that are in a band and a 4 or 5 piece group is probably going to know a few people capable of doing it, and if its a good song everyone's going to be gunning for it. Don't ever let a band convince you to make a bad music video, or something you aren't very confident you can do and do well, this is why it's important to practice and master a lot of different techniques and styles before approaching an important project, so that you can confidently tackle more ideas and tasks . As far as losing Director's credits to other filmmakers, to address that I suggest sabotage. Maybe framing them for a train robbery or placing a potato in their exhaust pipe, both of these methods have worked well for me.

Step 2: Set Dates

Decide on the day(s) of production with the artist first, and then start looking for talent/locations/crew/etc. that are available on the date you've already decided on. If you try to do this in reverse order, trying to narrow down a date based on the availability of everyone, the stars will probably never align for you and you'll be pushing that shoot date further and further along the calendar until your hair turns grey and you're getting letters from AARP in the mail. If someone or somewhere is not available, find something else.

Step 3: Develop an Idea

Be prepared to witness the band argue about this for a solid 5 hours or more, probably over group message, if you're lucky it will all unfold in person. Don't try to plan for production at this point and certainly don't engage, the line-up may not be the same by the time the fight has concluded and some members may not even be alive. Once I actually did witness a 5 hour group message battle, but that was only the portion in which they debated the color of shirts they would wear for the video. Some groups appoint one member to make the majority of decisions in regards to marketing, merch, music videos, etc. and this really streamlines the process, its far preferable and usually results in a better music video.

Occasionally, an artist will approach you with no clue what they want and give you full creative license to make any music video you desire for a particular song. This is a blessing to most, but for some it can be hard to decide on a great idea. Take plenty of time to listen to and dwell on the song, think about ideas for videos you've wanted to make and consider if elements of those ideas work for this project. Maybe you've been wanting to make a "One-shot" project, does that work in this case? Maybe you have a location you've been dying to use, does it match the tone of the song? Starting with just one thing will make it a lot easier to build a frame around your options, brainstorm, and decide on a comprehensive idea. And remember to play to your strengths while still being ambitious.

Step 4: Casting

A lot of the time a pop/rock/boy band is going to develop an idea that revolves around some inconceivably attractive babe to play a major character if not the only character.. yeah its cliche. You're now responsible for casting this person and giving them incentive to star in your Music Video without much of a budget. This usually isn't that hard but I should caution you on a few things.

DO NOT ask this girl on a date. Trust me, you'll just get stood up 3 times before she decides she's totally into the lead singer. Girls don't like guys that are filmmakers, you know what they like? Guys who are NOT filmmakers. They do not care that you were in AV club or what level Wizard you are in Dungeons and Dragons (I'm a level 87), just don't even try it, you're not good enough, you're a big nerd, you might be in the wrong industry if that's your ambition. Oh, and definitely don't make a move before you've wrapped production, worst idea you could possibly conceive.

DO have at least one meeting, preferably 2 meetings with your main cast, even if those meetings don't have much utility. Just make an excuse to have it. Why? To make sure they will actually show up. I guarantee they will not be on time, no one ever is and if you are, you're a big lame nerd like me and that can't be your standard. You might only do this with your most essential cast, maybe crew. I wouldn't bother to do this with extras but I would "over" cast or cast more than you need for background people or whatever it is for which you are looking. People are not going to show up, they will swear on St. Mother Mary Teresa that they will be there and have absolutely no intention of showing up. Its best to try to pay your main people as much as possible for this reason, but holding these pre production meetings is a good way to gauge their punctuality and get people more comfortable working with you.

DO have them audition, even if there are no lines of dialogue. Just make sure they're not camera shy and make sure you create the role around their acting ability. You can't expect someone who has never acted to give the performance of a lifetime, so.. You can't create a role that requires that. In the same way that the music video should play to your strengths as a Director, these roles should play to the strengths of your actors. Maybe that's modeling, or comedic timing, or maybe it is dialogue or emotion or accents, I don't know. That's why they're called "The Talent", they're supposed to have talents like that.

Step 5: Location Scouting

Actually visit every location you consider. Go at the time of day you'll be shooting if you can. Take photos and start to find shots you might use while scouting. If you see a "NO Trespassing" sign. Black out "passing" and write over it "Leches" then it says "No Tres Leches" so as long as you don't bring any of those weird Mexican cakes you should be fine.

I've been told "NO" on so many locations so many times. I'm from Missouri, people aren't exactly friendly most of the time. This, unfortunately, might be the time to bullshit with something like:

"Would you reconsider if I told you they're a Christian Band"


"Would you reconsider if I told you they're NOT a Christian Band"

Just try both.

From a cinematography stand point, your locations will make or break the video.

Step 6: Create a Storyboard and a Shotlist

THIS SHOULD BE A GIVEN. I know several over-confident still photographers and over-ambitious film students that approach their first music video with basically no pre-production. Most of them didn't make bad music videos, but that's because they didn't get a video made at all. They shot some footage, maybe missing entire verses that they thought they shot but didn't. Or they show up for production and whatever they had planned on doing they didn't really think about how it would be done and it doesn't work, so they're left without footage.

Plan every single shot: what equipment will I use? What Lens? How will I create this effect? You should know exactly how you will create every shot and if its something you've never tried before, go out and make sure you are capable of doing it. Visualize the whole video in your head BEFORE production starts, listen to the song repeatedly while memorizing it shot for shot and develop an idea of what it will look like. This will also really help you with timing, especially if you have a lot of camera movement. This requires a lot of concentration, it takes hours, and honestly, I hate doing it. Its mentally draining and tedious and makes me anxious, but its the most imperative part in making a good Music Video and something all professionals should do. You cannot memorize each shot without a storyboard, you cannot show up on location (Or on set) winging it and just piece together a comprehensive Music Video that looks planned and flows well, I'm not smart enough to do that, you're not smart enough to do that. You should have your shotlist on you (Or an assistant, if you're that privileged) all the time during production, be looking at it for reference all the time.

If you're like me and don't draw, just describe in words each shot like a screenplay

"1:15 wide, aquarium background, band plays, male belly dancer in foreground"

Or, you know, something like that

Also use this as a shot list and mark off on it during production so you don't forget any shot. Its okay to get extra B roll that wasn't planned if/when you see the opportunity, but remember to practice your time management skills as a Director because that becomes germane on a professional set.

Step 7: Play to a Track

"Oh, dude. We know this song so well, we don't need to play to a track. We got this, dude. Blah blah blah."

If you have to, tell them its for you. But really its for them. No matter how many times they have played that song, you run the very likely risk of playing out of sync with the recorded track (Especially percussion and vocals, since they're most noticeable). I once had a music video, the lead singer recorded every instrument and vocals for the track and the rest of the band didn't even hear the song until the DAY BEFORE day 1 of production. Had we not played to a track while recording footage, that music video would have never been made. This is another step that I really thought was a given, yet I've found myself debating the merits of it with more than one person. It can't hurt anything, you only need a speaker or amp that you can hear over drums which any band should have. Why wouldn't you? It can't possibly add anything to your feature by not playing to a track, and if anything it will create more believable energy from the performances, that's why its sometimes necessary to play the track when shooting B-roll footage with no instruments in the shot.

Step 8: Work Through Problems

If I gave up on every professional production that ran into major issues, I would have completed approximately zero. Shit happens, and a lot of times people you're working with will cause shit to happen. Talent backs out last second, weather is bad, your location burns down, camera equipment gets stolen, your Dp gets abducted by aliens.. Happens every day. Its best to have contingencies, and try to work with reliable people, or.. at the very least do your best to create incentive for them to actually show up, usually blackmail. Equipment will break sometimes, that's why I always bring duct tape on any set. And remember that if the smoke machine stops working, that any machine could theoretically be a smoke machine if you use it wrongly enough. Things don't always go according to plan, in fact, things never go entirely according to plan.. And sometimes, things turn out better because of it. In the same way that actors develop the skill of improvising, be a Director that's good at improvising.

Step 9: Be Nice

It should go without saying.. but the most important step is to treat musicians, actors and crew with respect. Except for the bassist... Okay, sorry, no, be extra nice to the bassist, they put up with enough. Nobody wants to work with an asshole, and being pleasant to work with will get people back before the quality of your work or your resume does. Its very, very rarely necessary to get mean with someone who's a problem on set and you should greatly hesitate before you do, almost always is there another way to handle it. When you're focused on directing and making sure you remembered to remove the lens cap you can easily come across as abrasive, be extra considerate so no one thinks you're mad at them. You're the director after all, people are going to take your tone and body language to heart, and especially on a low budget set, you'll probably have volunteers who don't understand how stressed you are while concentrating on production.

Step 10: Have Fun

While productions can get challenging, always remember to enjoy your work and try to create a workspace that everyone wants to be at. No amount of money would ever convince me to do something that I hate for the rest of my life, and no lack of money will stop me from doing what I'm passionate about. If you don't find yourself smiling at a shot that worked out perfectly, or feeling a sense of pride when you finish editing and watch your completed project for the first time, you're doing it wrong. It took me a long time to learn not to dwell so much on the quality of my work, and instead learn from your mistakes, take the experience, and move on to the next project. Before I became a professional I made 100s of terrible movie scene parodies and comedy sketches with my friends because it was fun, we didn't even realize how much we were improving our technique with every production by accident. Ten years later, I'm always still excited for the opportunity to learn more, I still treat every project as important, and I still enjoy every second of creating.

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