Music videos are a great way for filmmakers to hone their craft. They provide us the opportunity to try new techniques that can be applied to a range of other projects, and if done right, usually for pretty cheap. But that's not the only benefit, music videos are unique collaborative experiences that give us a chance to work with other artists and help them tell their stories.
Here's a narrative director's approach to making a music video.
FIRST, LISTEN TO THE SONG.
And I mean really listen to it. Over and over, till the point that you not only memorize the lyrics, but begin to understand the deeper meaning behind them (if there is one). During this time you should let your imagination run wild. Take poetics within the music and find visual cues to communicate them.
Practical point: Study the song like you would study a script. Who are the characters? What's the world? How does the "story" make me feel? Etc.
The primary goal when creating a music video should be to empathize with the song to emphasize the impact of its message. The visuals should always be supplemental. This can be difficult, because as filmmakers, we're visionaries by nature. We have bold new ideas we want to run with–– and we will have the opportunity to do that, but at the end of the day, the most beneficial (and ethical) approach is always listening to the song and the artist and supporting their words with our images.
GET ON THE SAME PAGE
Once you have a personal connection to the song and a plethora of creative ideas to choose from, you should re-engage the conversation with the artist. (On the occasion that you're cold pitching for a song, move on to the next segment.) By choosing to familiarize yourself with the music, you are now (hopefully) on the same page with the artist, and able to move forward.
The biblical passage words it this way, "Can two walk together unless they are agreed?" (Amos 3:3) This applies to any collaboration and basically means you can't get anything done unless you're on the same page. Doing so early on will save you headaches down the road.
If you work long enough, and with enough artists, you'll inevitably face some issues when it comes to getting on the same page... Here are a few scenarios and how you can try to work through them:
1.) You realize you have a different perspective of the music than the artist. It's time for a conversation. Odds are, if you've interpreted it one way, others may interpret it that way too. This could be opportunity for the artist to rework the song to avoid miscommunication, or maybe it's time for you to reset your ideas and develop new ones. During this process, it's important to remember that no one is perfect, and if your study of the song can lend you or the artist room for growth, that's a good thing. Sure, it'll take more time, but it'll be better in the end.
2.) The artist is constantly changing their mind when trying to get on the same page. In this scenario, I would advise you to turn the job down, or step away until they approach you with something solid. James 1:8 indicates that, a double-minded person is unstable in all his ways, and like everything else in the Bible, this is 100% true. Working with someone who thinks this way will cost you time, money, and your patience. Great for spiritual exercise, but completely avoidable.
3.) The best scenario looks something like this: You have a clear visual language of the song (based on listening and taking notes) that aligns perfectly with the meaning the artist is trying to convey. They trust your vision and approach to the music, and together you make magic.
Closing advice, always give room for the artist to communicate.
WRITE THE VISION
"Write the vision and make it plain on tablets, that he may run who reads it". (Habakkuk 2:2) This verse is about faith, or putting your money where your mouth is. When it comes to filmmaking, nothing happens without a script. When it comes to music videos, I apply this verse to the concept of creating a treatment;
TREATMENT;(my definition): 1. visual references arranged in a document to convey story, tone, and flow of a video as closely to the desired end result as possible...
If open/cold pitching an artist, you will absolutely need a treatment. The goal with cold pitched treatments should be to include just enough information to get the idea across. I spent way too much time early on including things like budgets and location details only to get my submissions passed on. The truth is, if the artist doesn't like the concept, they won't care about any of the details. Hook them on the concept, and when they ask for more, give it to them.
These suckers can be time consuming to make from scratch. Luckily for you, I've included downloadable copies of some music video treatments I've made for you to use as templates. (FREE download here)
A PICTURE'S WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS
Alright, you've got your awesome templates, now it's time to search for images. The more specific visuals you can find the better. Places like Shotdeck, Unsplash, Instagram, and Frameset are useful in finding good material to include in your treatment. Utilize search functions and hashtags to find what you suits your style.
I take reference images from a lot of movies, as I like my treatments to feel more cinematic.
FEEDBACK AND PHASE II
Once your treatment is submitted, there will likely be further conversation about the concept. This is the time to iron out the fine details before moving to pre-production. You should make the theme concrete, and get every scene and story beat aligned with it, making it cohesive.
After that, it's time to move forward with a plan of action. This brings us to the pre-production period. Depending on how ambitious your project is will determine what kind of crew you need to bring on to complete it.
My word of advice is to pitch something you're not entirely sure you can pull off, that way you'll force yourself to figure it out and make something awesome. I believe resourcefulness is a trait of a great filmmaker and you never know what you can do until you try.
We'll go more in depth on music video pre-production and building a team in the next post.