Finding the Why: What I’ve Learned About Making Music Videos

Since we released MC Flow’s “Pot in the Latkes” people keep asking me for tips on shooting music videos. I’ve been hesitant to offer any advice because I didn’t study filmmaking and feel unqualified to tell anyone else how to do it. It’s something I fell into because I married a musician and happened to have a camera. I am entirely self-taught (and likely have terrible habits I’m unaware of) and my videos have mostly been shot guerrilla-style. So, while this isn’t a technical how-to guide,  I’d love to share some lessons I’ve learned over the years. I’m no expert, but it sure is fun.

PLANNING

I’m a planner. Or at least I try to be. Working with a lot of non-planners has forced me to develop a hybrid system because I know that on the day of the shoot nothing will go to plan anyway. The clearer I am on what I’m trying to capture the better I can adapt to whatever surprises arise on the day.

As a general rule, whether I’m shooting a music video, promo or live show I like to ask: who is your ideal viewer? I ask to see three videos they love so that I can get a sense of their aesthetic, which is particularly important when it comes time to edit. And finally, I ask: why do they want to make the video?

This last question may seem strange but knowing the “why” is imperative. Is there a story they want to tell? Is this a big concert that signifies a milestone in their career? Is it just for fun? The answer to this question forms the keystone for the rest of the shoot. It’s what everything else builds upon.

THE SHOOT

Once the “why” is established, it’s time to come up with a storyboard that keeps the narrative on track. Sometimes artists are extremely clear and detailed on this front while others look blankly and wait for me to offer ideas. Either way, it’s good to brainstorm and knit together our visions for the most cohesive product and stress-free shoot. Things can get hectic when they don’t go to plan while filming and it’s best to hammer out as many details ahead of time as possible.

Next, I’ll make a shot list. The shot list is my best friend on the day. It frees me from having to keep track of everything when my focus is everywhere at once. I make notes about gear I want to use, lighting, focal distances, wardrobe and location. It forces me to prioritize the must-get shots and reminds me which angles I need for each scene. Plus, I find it satisfying to check them off the list.

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Me with my shot list on the set of “Pot in the Latkes”

EXTRAS

Since I’ve usually worked with friends and fans, compensated with pizza and beer, I’m very conscientious of the extras’ time. My goal is for them to enjoy their experience. I know that their energy high will only last so long and I don’t want to keep them any longer than I have to.

This is important for a couple reasons. First, the energy. In the party scene for “Pot in the Latkes” people needed to look like they were having fun. So we made it into a party, complete with food, drinks and music so they didn’t just look  like they were having fun, they were. If they were bored and tired no amount of technical perfection could save the shot.

Second, it keeps me from being a crazy perfectionist. It forces the whole production to keep moving. Sometimes there are other factors that force the timing and it’s important that we haven’t pushed people too far. For Lee Coulter’sBoss Señorita” the fading sunlight dictated our pace. There’s no arguing with the sun, whether we got all the shots or not. It was important to keep the whole cast comfortable and out of the heat whenever possible so that they were happier and ready when we had to shoot a bunch of scenes quickly.

MY LIST OF REMINDERS

These are the things that I remind myself of before and during every shoot. I use exclamation points because sometimes I can be obstinate and need a not-so-subtle reminder.

Anticipate!

-Pay attention to the musician’s movement patterns in order to anticipate framing for the next shots. The better I do this the more creative my shots get.

 Listen!

-Listen to the music. Are the lyrics the focus? Shoot the singer. Get a close-up of them singing those lyrics. Is there an intricate solo? Shoot those fast fingers. Do we hear the audience cheering? Shoot the crowd. Listen and match the visual focus with the audio focus.

Think About the Edit!

-Get the close-up, mid-range and the wide shots. More footage is better for editing. Find the ambient details, play with blur-to-focus transitions, negative space (for titles or text), shoot the behind-the-scenes and in-between moments. You’ll thank yourself later, I promise.

Pace Yourself!

-I find that my sense of time while shooting is unreliable. Adrenaline tricks me into thinking the shot is getting boring, making me itch to move the camera. I have to remind myself to slow down.

When someone sees it for the first time their eyes need to process what’s happening from shot to shot. Music videos are filled with quick edits and if it feels chaotic it will be frustrating to watch.

If there is a lot going on in the shot, use fewer or steadier camera movements. If the shot is a little stagnant, play around with depth of field and movement. Let the shot dictate. Follow the narrative.

Keep Shooting!

-Keep rolling before and after the shot. My favorite candid moments happen in these slivers of time. It’s when people crack jokes, interact, smile and goof off. We the viewer relate to those moments of authenticity and it will be obvious on camera. It’s why people love behind-the-scenes and blooper reels.

Always look for authenticity. People behave differently on and off-camera. I love capturing them when they’ve forgotten I’m filming and are just being themselves. So bring the extra memory card and battery. Just keep shooting!

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Shooting Lee Coulter’s “Forcefield”

EDITING

The last piece of the video making process is the editing. It’s a HUGE piece that warrants its own post, but without getting into the technical aspects of that right now, there are some key elements to point you in the right direction.

Go back to the “why.” Refer to the storyboard. With those in mind, review the footage and pick your key shots. This is where it’s a good idea to pay attention to films—learn to dissect visual cues used to build tension, move the narrative, and make the viewer feel like they’re there.

If you don’t know where to start, try an establishing shot that orients the viewer. Once you do that, switch the focus to key details. The details can feel claustrophobic if the viewer doesn’t feel oriented yet. Then keep changing it up, directing the viewer’s attention where you want it. Editing is storytelling.

Be sure to check your ego before you start editing. Be prepared not to use shots you love if they’re not in service of the overall vision. Everything serves the “why,” no exceptions. Be prepared to kill your darlings. It may be brutal, but necessary.

And in the end, the product is never exactly as I envisioned, but if I’ve followed my own advice, I’ve been both prepared and open enough to capture the best of what was available. If I’ve kept my focus on the “why” and done my best to tell the story I set out to tell, I’ll be happy. And those things I didn’t get just right will be added to my next shoot’s reminder list.

 

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