From birthing a concept to choosing the right director, there’s a lot to be considered before making a great film clip for your song. A standout music video ideally looks smooth and effortless, but like a duck paddling in water, there’s a lot of work going on beneath that calm surface.
We’ve asked some of Australia’s most accomplished music video directors three big questions for insight into what makes a music video so important, and how to make one well:
– Why should an artist make a music video for their song?
– What’s the best approach for crafting a music video idea?
& – Any tips on creating an effective music video on a budget?
Our panel includes:
Videos Include: ‘Somebody That I Used To Know’ by Gotye feat. Kimbra, ‘God Told Me To’ by Paul Kelly, and more.
Videos Include: ‘Act Yr Age’ by Bluejuice, ‘Hard Act To Follow’ by Grinspoon, and more.
Videos Include: ‘Covered in Chrome’ by Violent Soho, ‘She Only Loves Me When I’m There’ by Ball Park Music, and major talking-point video ‘The Truth About Money In Music’.
Videos Include: ‘Trippin’ the Light Fantastic’, ‘It’s Nice to Be Alive’ & ‘iFly’ by Ball Park Music and ‘Scattered Diamonds’ by Hungry Kids of Hungary.
Videos Include: ‘Just A Boy’ by Angus and Julia Stone, ‘Wild Eyed Boy’ by Birds Of Tokyo, and more.
Why should an artist make a music video for their song?
Natasha: That’s a great question in this current landscape, because in truth, I’m not always sure making a music video is a good idea! There’s so much content out there, I’m sure it’s tempting for an artist to contribute to that and put a picture to every single song they make, because the song is going to be represented on YouTube anyway, right? The audience might as well have images to reference the song when they’re listening to it.
But the thing is, there’s a lot of time, money and effort that goes into every video’s production. You don’t want to be too casual with that decision. Sometimes a video can be more harmful than its value if it’s not exactly right for you and for your brand and for your song. You don’t want to just respond to an urge to make content, to make art, without thinking too solidly about the potential ramifications of it. Sometimes silence is your best friend. The other thing to think about as an artist is whether you want to create a conceived piece, or whether a live performance might be better for where you’re up to in your career. Sometimes it might be better to start off by giving your potential fan base a chance to look at the real you and see what you’re like in your natural setting before you start creating a character or persona for yourself.
People often equate simple ideas with the most cost effective ones, which in my experience is rarely the case. In fact, it’s often the other way around – sometimes a video that looks simple is the hardest to achieve, and comes with the greatest expense of time and money. So, I guess what I‘m saying is, the videos we admire and usually use as inspiration from which to launch our own original work are often ones that come at the greatest cost. Unless you’ve got those resources to devote – and I don’t just mean money, I mean time and effort and energy – then sometimes nothing is better.
Samuel: It is both an artistic expression for the artist themselves and more or less a big ad for how they feel about the song. It’s a way for them to directly connect to their audience on another level than the music, or simply media exposure, and concerts – another string to their bow, as it were. But as an “advertisement” for the song and band, I think they are extremely important. A music video is a strong talking point for the public to engage with the band and the song as they, themselves, see it. I remember being on a boat in Sydney harbor and hearing a group of models talk about Bluejuice’s ‘Broken Leg’ skipping video. They were arguing about whether they had been a band who had learned to skip, or skippers who had become a band. Both were complete nonsense, but the fact that they were talking about the song and the band, to me, meant that I was doing something right – they were getting the exposure they deserved.
Dan: Despite revenue streams from music videos shrinking dramatically, they are now more accessible than ever. If fans want to hear a song, many will simply type the name into YouTube. So if you’ve got a captive audience, you may as well use the opportunity to cultivate your image, and employ the one-two punch that a song perfectly matched with the right visuals can give. Personally, I know a lot of songs have meant more to me after viewing the music video than they otherwise would have.
Alex: The most important reason for an artist to create a music video is to establish and create a visual brand that ties into their music. Aside from print and photography the music video really showcases who the artist is and what imagery they want audiences to connect with.
Before committing to making a clip I’d make sure you’ve tested the market with your single first before rushing in. Professionally speaking, It can be an expensive and time consuming process that might not reap as many rewards as you first thought. I know these views are a bit against some managers and labels but I think its worth having the idea for a video ready to go… and IF the single builds enough traction, strike while the iron is hot and deliver a video that will become a second wave of promotion for the marketing push. But if that first single doesn’t gain as much traction as you first thought, well it might be worth saving that time, money and energy for the song that really cuts through. In the end its going to come down to personal choice. On the flip side of all that (and without sounding too contradictory) If you’re a new artist, you’ve got friends, time and favours up your sleeve why not experiment on something and just make it?
Josh: More than ever before, we’re a predominantly visual society, with social networks like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook relying heavily on visually-based click bait. To drive traffic towards your band, and hopefully on to your live shows, albums and merch tables, you need to provide a memorable music video to catch the eye and spark a reaction within the viewer…
Also, it creates a brand, an aesthetic that people can associate with your music. I know, for me, music that had the deepest and profound impact usually has a visual component – such as a sequence from a movie, TV show or music video.
What’s the best approach for crafting a music video idea?
Natasha: When crafting an idea, I prefer the first listen of the song to be completely untainted, ideally, with no filters. As a director, it’s also good to have the lyrics – many people forget to give them to you, but that’s part of your source material, so it’s super informative. Also, having the song as a file. People often link you to Soundcloud, but I like to hear the song on various devices out in the world when I’m cruising around. If I’ve got it on Soundcloud, I’m pulling data all the time, so I prefer to have it to keep and be able to listen to it wherever I am (of course, with an agreement that I’ll keep it confidential, and not send it to anybody!).
After that, it depends. You can sometimes get a spark of a really strong concept that you love and connect with and want to keep developing. But once you have a sketch, so to speak, it’s best to be open to how you’re going to colour it in. It’s always good to have artists’ input, as long as the input is coming from the same place, and not from competing ideals. Artistic, or even ephemeral or abstract ideas are really good. Hearing something like, “When I wrote this song, I kept seeing headlights,” or, “It felt like the colour blue” – those sort of insights are really great, because they help you to be authentic to the artist’s experience of the song, which is ultimately what your goal is.
Sometimes you get input that’s not productive – like, you may have a really strong idea, and the band’s like, “Yeah, that’s cool, but we all want to be in the video in equal amounts”. If the input is outside of the concept, it’s rarely a consideration that helps to deliver something meaningful. Sending other music videos for reference isn’t usually useful, ‘cause you’re not really in the business of emulating other people or their work. When it can be useful is once you’ve all decided everything, and you use other videos to make sure you’re all on the same page. For example, if you’re envisaging a one-shot video, and the band is imagining a fast and furious MTV editing style – that kind of misunderstanding becomes clear when you watch some other videos together.
Ideally, a band comes to you with a blank slate, otherwise your role feels more like a service technician rather than a craftsman. The best videos I’ve made, and the best experiences I’ve had, have usually been with artists who are the most confident to give you the most control – when they trust you and let you do your work.
A strong DP (Director of Photography), a really professional, experienced, talented DP is without a doubt your most important tool in music video. They save you a million times. They help you see how the thing’s gonna cut together, make sure your screen direction is correct, that the timing and pacing feels right. Aside from being artists, they’re also excellent technicians. You might find a director who’s a great artist, but has no technical acumen for music video craft work, so definitely populate your shoot with people who are solid professionals, as much as you can. At least for the Heads of Department.
Samuel: Always start with the song and what it feels like. I hear music and think of the film that it would play in. What scene in a longer movie would use this song? What feeling would it have? We then craft the idea around it, making it true to the song and the band themselves. With videos for bands like Grinspoon or Fur Patrol, it was about existing relationships and trying to make the video feel like the guys and their music – trying to be true to their ethos, but telling it like i saw it. A creative amalgamation of both of us and the way we feel.
Dan: As a director, I get a lot more excited when a band comes to me with a blank canvas. From there, I’ll put together a rough treatment and depending on how motivated the artist is, we workshop the concepts from there. The work I’m most proud of originated that way. If an artist does come to a director with pre-existing concepts, I think it’s really important to know you’ll be creatively compatible and that both parties are equally invested in the production.
Alex: Firstly, look at something that will stand out from the pack, try not to replicate videos others have done. Aim to create something unique and original that will stand on its own. One of the biggest let downs in music videos is not delivering on a concept or promise from the start of the video. I often find music videos will flat line by the second chorus or half way through and become stale imagery that we’ve already seen. Think about what you’re making and how to reinvent the video by half way in. Remember internet audiences are less patient these days and will switch off quickly if they’re not drawn in. Deliver on that promise from the start of the video and surprise audiences towards the climax. Finally make sure the concept and overall video stays true to your artist brand and image.
Josh: Love the song. First and foremost. You’re gonna hear it 1000 times in the process, so choose a song you can live with – or this is gonna be very painful. Know your limitations. Most importantly, the budget and timeframe for delivery. Then work within those constraints. A great idea will always trump an amazing camera or lighting setup, especially nowadays with so many people viewing the finished product on a thumbnail screen on a computer or mobile device.
(A director should) be upfront with the band about (their) creative intentions before investing too deeply into the writing and pre-production process…making creative decisions by committee is very tricky – so the sooner everybody can be on the same page, the better.
Be weird and different. Don’t shoot another band performing the song in a white room clip, it’s been done to death and it’s boring.
Any tips on creating an effective music video on a budget?
Natasha: I started making videos in 2007, and budgets had already taken a major downtown – it was like reverse inflation! Maybe 20 years prior, you would regularly see a video budget of upwards of 100K. In ’07, 20K was the new 100K, and now 10K is the new 20. And it’s weird, because everyone wants the same quality without any concessions. They’re still showing you something like a Taylor Swift video and say – “Can you do this for like, 10 grand by tomorrow?” So I haven’t been making music videos for a while now, mainly because it just became impossible to work the way I want to work. I mean, I make low budget videos, sure, but if I don’t have enough budget to work with, I need another resource. Like, time.
That’s kind of my major tip: you’ve gotta give us something. If you don’t have money, and you want high quality, you’ve gotta give us more time to work, more flexibility. If you haven’t got time then, I’m afraid, you’ve gotta give us more money. Because we can’t pull in favours on a deadline, without paying others commercial rates, you know? The other important thing is to take your time to pick the right idea. In rare cases, your first idea is your best; sometimes lightning just strikes in the most perfect way. But a lot of the time, that first idea you’re having is just the most obvious one that everyone else is also having, so it may not be the best one for you or the song.
So my advice is to then go through everything else that’s possible and make sure that ‘amazing’ first concept is still the best one before you decide to go forward. The concept must be lifted from the song. If it’s totally outside of the song it will seem like visual wallpaper – that can get really tedious. I think ultimately you’ve just gotta realise that there’s no real shortcut. If you’re not spending money, you’re spending something else – like sweat equity. It’s very rare – I mean, it happens, but very rarely – that a work of great quality that will penetrate the public consciousness will not take any time at all to make, and cost nothing, and just kind of ‘occur’ in perfection. Animation is an interesting model. A lot of the time you hear people say something like, “Oh, I’ll do an animation, that’ll be really cheap”. Yeah, it can be, and that’s because basically you’re paying someone one cent an hour, and asking sometime to work like it’s a sweatshop. If you are the animator yourself and you want to spend 1000 of your own hours, then that’s fine. But asking someone else to do that for you, just so that you can get your song out there and get famous, is pretty uncool in my opinion, unless that animator is also going to get something equally artistically gratifying and professionally beneficial from taking on the project. In music video, you really need to pick your favours – and pick your battles – super carefully.
Samuel: I always say that a music video is about “the hook”. You want that thing that people can talk about and get behind. The whole “have you seen the video where the (insert hook) happens?” thing is what I think is important. For example “have you seen the music video where the guy is in the tunnel getting repeatably hit by cars?” or “did you see the video where the two Star Wars-coloured humanoid robots kiss”?
I think if you have this hook-slash-talking-point, then you have almost won the battle. So, in terms of budget, look at music videos like Fatboy Slim’s ‘Praise You’ or Mansun’s ‘Taxloss’ – wouldn’t have cost much at all, but they have a great hook and hence the massive impact. In the age of Youtube, I think bands and filmmakers should be bold with their idea, give their fans and potential fans something to talk about. The less money you want to spend, the bolder and braver I think you should be.
Dan: Music video budgets are 1/20th of what they were when I started, but the expectations remain the same. A lot of successful low-budget clips use the novelty/DIY approach to their advantage (eg. early OK Go), but that usually takes a high level of time investment from the artist. Regardless, your number one consideration should be holding the viewer’s attention throughout. I’ve done a couple of single-shot clips and I found that was a great way of maintaining interest on a low-budget, provided you give the viewer something unexpected along the way. The braindead approach has always been to edit the artist’s performance together with some arbitrary (and often irrelevant) storyline using handheld blurry DSLR footage. I’m far more interested in concepts that either involve the band in a way you wouldn’t expect, or leave the artist out entirely and focus on a good visual concept.
Alex: In my eyes creating a stand out music video on no money is all about innovation and clever use of technology. One of my favourite low budget videos is a clip for the song “WTF?” by OkGo made back in 2009. Its a video that could literally be made for $0 and a few friends in an afternoon. If you get the chance I’d highly recommend checking out the making of the video so you can see how simple but effective the idea is. The video is all set on a green screen and plays out as one continuous take – in true OkGo style!
Josh: Like I said before, a great idea on no budget is always gonna be better than throwing a shit ton of cash at an average idea. Be risky, take chances, shock people – even offend people – do something different to cut through the noise. There’s so much content out there, sometimes you need to push the boundaries in order to break through…
Our directors seem to have reached a general consensus on the following:
1. Dare to be original: Try not to go for the obvious. Dig deep to find an interesting or thought-provoking concept for your video.
2. Give your director a blank slate – A good director is an artist, like you. Let them do their thing and don’t crowd them with too many ideas upfront.
3. Understand what a director does – Do you have a clear idea of exactly what you want to do? Do you want to stick to that concept firmly? If so, you’re not leaving much room for the director. You might want to consider directing the video yourself, and finding a talented DP (Director of Photography), and/or Cinematographer, and film crew, to help create your own vision.
4. Expect to spend some money – Unless your best friend is a music video director, you’re probably not going to get an amazing clip for free. Set a budget for your video and expect to spend money, time, and sweat making it come to life.
Coming Up: In Part Two of this series, we’ll be talking to musicians for their tips on creating music videos.