Behind the Scenes: How We Make Music Videos
In case you missed it, this week I released the video for "October," the latest single from my new album Boys Do Cry. Mark your calendar for February 7!
I realize this is a process I've never exactly documented before. Most of the time you casually watch three minutes of your favorite artist bringing a visual to something you fell in love with through just sound. If you think about it, it's actually a crazy process.
How do you make a sound become a sight? When you close your eyes, how do you see a song? And how can you execute that as an artist to match what your listeners see?
These are the questions that boggled my mind early on. I was worried about missteps and failures to reach a standard the song released beforehand created. That's why I think many artists tend to release a video alongside the single nowadays. The video is what paints your image of the song, rather than vice versa. For me, I have to hear a bit how my listeners feel before I decide on its visual journey.
But it didn't take long for my inner self to realize that that's all just too complicated. Rather, what viewers really look for is a continuation of the story a song tells. Maybe not necessarily in a time line or the in the sense of a sequel, but the main objective of a music video is to bring a story further to life so viewers can have a tighter relationship with it.
So I'm outlining the steps that align with the thoughts, the actions, and the blood, sweat, and tears that go into creating a video. Luckily, my brand new video for "October" just dropped (coincidence?) so we'll focus on it here. At the end be sure to watch the video to see our final product.
Step One: Visualize
There's pros and cons to being where I am now. Cons being budget. There's no giant suspension cameras or grand visuals we can produce, nor does the feel of the song even propose such a thing. That hasn't been my vision yet, though. My songs are simple - so the videos follow.
The pros though: We can do anything we want. As an independent artist there's no label "suggesting"what's right or wrong, and as the solo writer, producer, and performer on a track like "October," you have just about every piece of leverage there is.
When recording a song I tend to close my eyes, and the picture in my head is painted as we go. When it comes to making a music video, it's about putting together the logistics of how to make that vision... well, reality.
You ask yourself questions like: Do I want to lip-sync? What lighting should we use - so what time of day do we shoot? Indoor/outdoor? Who can work crew? Do we need a specific space? How much footage should we collect?
Luckily, and naturally, as this vision comes to life in your mind you often associate it with vivid experiences and landscapes you've had. The barrier is that sometimes getting to that location or filming in that location may not be all too feasible. So, you improvise.
When listening to a song like "October," one things come to mind for me. Before you continue reading, listen to a bit of the song here and let your own visual come to mind.
Did you listen?
What comes to your mind?
What does the light look like?
What time of day is it?
Who is there? What is there?
October is about fall. It's my birth month and a time in my life for a lot of change. As I get older every year I ask myself the same traditional set of questions: Am I doing everything right? Where should I be going next?
When it comes to the video I wanted to create feelings of solitude, reflection, but of hope. In a landscape of almost nothing, I wanted there to be a breath of fresh air in the reflection, but one that reflected my youth and maturity, especially as I just turned 21 and write a lot about it on this album.
There's a giant park and field by where my family lives, so on a (very) cool late evening in January, we set out to film. It was the perfect location for a moody sunset and isolated scenery.
Step Two: Prepare
Wait, wait, wait. It's not that easy. There's a lot more steps.
Some people like to create shot lists, meaning they outline every frame of the video or align certain areas to a lyric or segment. For me, I'm too much of a perfectionist and one to follow a plan that I don't even write one. In the space I want my creativity and imagination to flourish and be open to adjusting a plan. Different methods work for different people, it's just like any other task, really.
Sometimes we'll head out to the location if it's nearby, but it can be sort of fun to wait until the day of to explore the space. It comes across a bit more natural that way.
To prepare for this video, I know I wanted a bunch of different, casual looks. I wanted it to seem like the video wasn't over-done, but well articulated. We wanted quick shots, which means a lot of footage. I'd say we had about an hour of footage for three-minute song. Just wait until we get to editing...
Step Three: Shoot
By far the most exciting step - but the most stressful, too.
What's important is to stay focused on your vision. It helps to listen to the song on repeat while filming to get in the right feeling.
It's a lot like acting... even though you're just being yourself. It's a lot of fun, too. But if the vibe of the video isn't having a good time with your friends, then you've got to put yourself in a different place mentally.
I've learned over time that you don't stop shooting. Go for extra footage. Often the best shots and moments are taken outside of the plan. This video especially has lots of content from post-takes where the camera continued rolling.
For lip-syncing, we play the song out loud and it's like performing for no audience. Singing the song as you go is actually much easier and a lot more believable, too. It's pretty tough to watch footage back where your lip-syncing is totally off.
My trick? Film at least an entire lip-sync of the song and put general clips (landscapes, movement, etc.) over moments where the song doesn't line up with your mouth all that well. By the end you've listened to the track too many times and are ready to wrap. But always push yourself - one more take! One more shot! One more something! Having too much footage is a bonus. I try to watch enough of the footage while on location to get an idea, but not too much either. Again, the perfectionist in me could want to completely start over. But the truth is it can look a lot different in post-production.
Step Four: Edit
We're almost there. We just have to put it together.
Editing is actually my least-favorite part of the process. It's many, many hours of listening to the song some more and trying to align footage with the song. It can be really exciting too to watch a song come to life.
There's not much else to say. I use Premiere Pro for all my editing. For music videos we like to play around with brightness, filters and other settings a bit just to see if we can create more of an atmosphere to the song.
Once we have a rough cut, I'll export and send it to a few friends to see their thoughts. Just like writing or any other task, after you've done it long enough you tend to not see bits and faults that others catch on to first thing.
From here we pick a release day. For YouTube we look at peak times of engagement and how to create it more of an experience for viewers. This time around we tried the new premiere feature to create a live discussion with the video. With a song as meaningful lyrically and now visually (!!!) it's these little things that make the concept come to full fruition.
Step Five: Promote
We've got a premiere date - now spread it. We edit together teasers to get people excited and put it on every possible platform. Once the video is out too we try to be open for at least a few hours to respond to comments and hear feedback. We spent weeks putting together three-minutes of content, but with as much media as we consume nowadays, it means a lot that somebody just gave us a few minutes of their time.
And the video is out for the world to see. The turnaround is often quick. There was only about a week between shooting and the YouTube premiere.
Which speaking of... you can watch our final product below.
It took me a while to figure out how to do videos. When I first started I would assign a period of seconds to a certain shot just for things to not go as planned. I think the largest takeaway is to let the song speak for itself. And as the writer or producer or director, the song is in your hands. Trust your gut and be dangerous with your creativity. At the end of the day you want listeners to now see the video when they hear your song - and hopefully it was what they saw all along.
Stream more music from my upcoming album on Spotify by clicking below, and let me know just how you see them coming to life.