When most new filmmakers think of making a Music Video, images of beautiful dancers, exotic locations and slick musicians come to mind.
On big-budget productions that scene sometimes plays out. In the low to no-budget realm of independent video production the "scene" will be far more modest. Despite real-world limitations facing indie video producers, there's nothing limiting you from creating a visually artistic and memorable video to highlight a song.
Where to Begin?
Before you can make a memorable music video, (often called MV in the trade), there are two critical areas you must consider first; the Aesthetic Style and Logistics. Logistics involve the hard realities of how your video will get made. Ultimately, the size of your production budget and available resources will determine your options. For more information on MV logistics see our article by Michael Fitzer; The Art of Making Music Videos. Aside from logistics, the biggest influence on your MV will be its aesthetic style. In a nutshell, aesthetic style relates to the artistic elements and manner you present your music video. Aesthetic Style is what we'll focus on.
During your initial brainstorming session, seriously listen to the music and let your ideas flow. Filter out all the "wouldn't it be great if..." ideas like explosions and car chases from the process. Extravagant ideas will cost time, money and resources you most likely can't afford. Since the music is the force driving the video, you'll need to decide what style of video you want to make. The most common styles feature the Musician(s) only, a Narrative Story, Musician(s) - Narrative Mix and Abstract Montage.
These basic styles break down as follows: Musician(s) Only feature the artist or band onstage or on-location with no other elements. Narrative Story typically involves elements which tell a short story reflecting the lyrics or sentiment of the song. Narratives usually also involve on-screen talent as story elements. Musician within the Narrative includes the artist(s) as story elements. Abstract Montage is a combination of images or artwork that may have no relationship to the music but are visually stimulating.
Music videos have been around for a long time and many of the top producers today started from humble beginnings. Two individuals whose names are rising in the industry are MTV contributor Ali Santana and independent film director Jessie James Jackson, Jr. Their videos Automatic Writing (Santana) and Oh Jesus (Jackson) are great examples of mixing aesthetic styles and keeping it simple. I took the opportunity to speak with them about their differing approaches to creating aesthetic styles:
Videomaker: What is your main job in the Video-Film Industry?
Ali Santana (Automatic Writing) - I'm primarily an Editor but I also Direct.
Jessie James Jackson (Oh Jesus) - My main job is film Directing but I also write, edit and produce.
VM: How did you begin making MVs?
Jessie - In the '80s I worked at a broadcast link company for live sporting events. I became interested in camerawork and enrolled in the Vancouver Film School to learn cinematography, but fell in love with directing. After working in Canada for a few years, I came back to the States and started my own production company.
Ali - As a teenager I always had ideas of how to make MVs. It wasn't until college that I gained the skills to make them. After college I started collaborating with Rapper "Spec Boogie" (Robert Cave) on my first real MV. We worked well together because I had met him years before when he was still a Graphic Designer so he had a good aesthetic sense.
VM: Do you alone come up with your MV's aesthetic style?
Ali - Usually yes. I start by listening to the music and imagining what is happening on-screen. Then I write a treatment and afterwards it grows into a collaborative project.
Jessie - Yes. I also listen to the song and then, based on the budget, I'll come up with an aesthetic style for the video. Most clients want to put in a lot of nonsense like explosions and lots of girls, but don't take their budget into account. Initially, most don't understand that the budget decides how to shape the look of the video.
VM: What influences do you draw on for your aesthetic concepts?
Jessie - Sometimes I'll close my eyes while listening to the music and think about situations. My concepts come from both mine and the client's experiences and those ideas go into the video.
Ali - Growing up with a film director father and a photojournalist mother, I can't help but be influenced by their work. As a kid I would go with my mother on the job and I would sit on my father's lap while he edited movies. I also draw inspiration from art, movies and personal experiences.
VM: Which style of MV best suits your aesthetic style?
Ali - I love it all, but the song really dictates what I make. I also love telling a story. Abstract style is a favorite since I was exposed to artists like Keith Harring and Jean Michael Basquiat. I prefer art that streams from the subconscious unfiltered and not "too clean".
Jessie - I also like abstract imagery, but I think you can do so much more featuring the musician to best express the song's theme. I prefer working with Jazz because you don't always need as much coverage for your ideas.
Ali - The work I've done for MTV reflects the sense of cutting edge abstract style that influenced me as a teenager. I wondered what it would be like working for them and now it's pretty fun doing that kind of crazy looking video work.
VM: With so many MVs posted on YouTube and other sites, what advice would you give indie producers to help improve their video's aesthetic?
Jessie - I think simplicity is something most MV producers don't understand. To convey a concept you have to understand the pieces you have to work with. Instead of trying to copy work that cost millions of dollars to make and have it look awful because you didn't have the budget isn't too smart. When you keep things simple, you can always add to it later. Basic shots are invaluable when making your videos. As a director, you also need to understand basic editing as it will make your life easier!
Ali - I have to say there are a lot of questionable stuff on YouTube because these days there are no "gatekeepers" like on TV to say you can't make something. So everyone is making stuff exactly like the last person did.
VM: Tell us about the styles used for the videos Oh Jesus and Automatic Writing.
Jessie - The concept for Oh Jesus came from a blues song from my film The Bridge.The video was intended to look like the musicians were having a jam session beneath the bridge featured in the movie. I kept the camerawork really simple with basic cuts and slow camera movements.
Ali - Automatic Writing's concept came from a conversation between rapper "Elucid" and me as we walked around NYC one day. During our walk we saw so many things relating to the song I created a document with hundreds of reference images. We liked the idea of messages being hidden in everyday life so I went out and shot lots of guerilla style footage in addition to using stock footage to build the aesthetic look. To me, the artist's lyrics are like a movie script and as a director I must visually interpret those words into video.
VM: What tools do you use for your work?
Jessie - I use a Mac Workstation and FCP Studio for my production work.
Ali - To do my work, I primarily use a MacBook Pro, FCP and After Effects to edit and composite. I also use Vegas for audio work as it is one of my favorite programs. However, AFX is my "wife"!
Jessie - I want to add that the MV world has changed. You now can make films from the comfort of your home. You don't have to chase after technology because it will kill you financially! Get something you can work with and master it. Just because you have the latest gear doesn't mean you know what you're doing. Chasing after the latest gear can be like a drug and I can't tell you how much money I wasted doing that.
Ali - I'm passionate about coming up with an idea and can't understand how someone can be happy copying someone else's work. Today you don't need a $100k workstation to make a great music video! Because of that it's so much easier to get your own ideas out there.
Music Videos are pieces of art just like any painting or sculpture. Memorable 'artworks' come from the artist's own ideas or personal experience. Though your budget will create limitations, limits are just like rules as they can be bent or broken. Some of the best creative solutions in filmmaking have come from budget limitations. Yeah, you might not have those hot girls and explosions, but they might not have been necessary. Remember that you are an artist and your canvas is video so your MV's aesthetic style will be limited only by your creativity.
Writer-Producer-Director H. Wolfgang Porter is a former U.S. Naval Combat Cameraman who now produces independent film and published works.