Freelancers can’t be too picky when it comes to finding jobs. However, a lot of these jobs tend to be at least a little similar. Short films and weddings might seem completely different, but the amount of prep work can smooth out a lot of the differences until you don’t even see them.
Music videos, however, are a different kind of beast. And since these can be pretty good gigs for freelance filmmakers, you want to make sure you take the right approach.
Otherwise, you might find yourself in over your head.
So let’s try to break it down. Here’s how to shoot a music video as a freelancer, with a few clear steps and some input from Soundstripe’s resident filmmaker.
Choose the Right Mindset
Like any other job, the first thing you’ve got to do is set some expectations for yourself.
Social media gives us a connection to people we wouldn’t normally meet. And for most of us, that list includes our favorite music artists and performers. We get an inside look into their world, their creative process, and even their upcoming music videos.
As a filmmaker, it can be easy to get lost in the production value of these updates — particularly when it comes to music videos with a budget that can be as large as a national TV ad.
But the reality is that music videos are a different sort of project. And that can be a good thing.
“The nice thing about music videos is that you don't necessarily have to burden yourself with the hardships that come with story-based filmmaking. You don't have to make sure you get ‘shot, reverse shot’ coverage of a conversation. You typically don't need to worry about recording sound, and lighting doesn't need to be ‘realistic’. Usually the mindset is more about evoking a ‘feeling’ rather than telling a story.”
— Chris Haggerty, Filmmaker
In other words, don’t fixate on comparing your ideas to a Taylor Swift music video. Think of this project as a chance to do something different, a chance to focus on the creative side of filmmaking rather than the technical or narrative sides.
Craft a Treatment to Pitch Your Idea
Like any other client project, you’ll need to present your ideas to the music artist before you start shooting or even planning out the video. For music videos, that’s called a “treatment.”
In a nutshell, the treatment is just a creative brief. Almost like a visual outline, somewhere between storyboards and an idea board/collage. The artist will want to sign off on your ideas, so you might end up pitching your treatment a few times until you’re both happy with the overall concept.
This process isn’t nearly as in-depth as storyboarding or scriptwriting. Think of it as a Pinterest board, a collage of visuals and color palettes and even animations. You’re trying to recreate your idea for the project on paper without spending any time behind a camera.
One element of the music video treatment is a mood board, which is how you’ll show your idea for the tone and style. (A treatment also includes technical information, locations, gear, etc.)
In fact, it’s not all that different from a mood board that designers use for branding projects.
“A mood board is key. Make sure you think through every aspect of the visuals. What lights are you using? What color are they? What locations? What color are they? What wardrobe are the subjects wearing? What color? ...are you seeing a trend?”
— Chris Haggerty, Filmmaker
If you explore music video mood boards, the color of the lights is by far the most important feature. It instantly sets the video apart from others, and that kind of impact matters a lot to the artist — particularly as a way to establish or maintain brand consistency for their style.
Of course, not everyone has complete control over the lighting at a certain location (or on a certain budget). You can use color grading to get the look and feel you want, regardless of the obstacles waiting for you on set.
And yes, scrolling Instagram and Pinterest is definitely a good way to draw inspiration.
Spend Extra Time in Pre-Production
Unlike other projects you might have worked on, music videos are engineered to highlight (and maybe even improve) an already existing element: the song itself. And the fact that the song is someone else’s work only adds to the complexities of your job.
That makes pre-production especially important.
“You can get as creative as you want with the lighting. It doesn't have to make sense or be based in reality like it would for say a short film or commercial. Your edit can be far more artistic and coverage doesn't need to be as strict. But what’s difficult about music videos is that typically you need to focus far more on the visuals. So getting good locations, good lighting, and a fun concept are key, and a lot more thought needs to be put into those.”
— Chris Haggerty, Filmmaker
First and foremost, you’ll need to get familiar with the song — so familiar that you’re humming and singing it 24/7. Because as you start to visualize the process in more detail, you’ll need to piece everything together around the emotional (and literal) beats of the song.
Some music videos focus on the artist’s performance mixed with some b-roll footage. Others are much more story-driven, almost like the song is background music for something else. Figuring out which direction to take should be part of the treatment you presented to the artist.
Take Advantage of Storyboarding
Storyboarding is particularly important on music video shoots. I mean, yes, it’s an easy way to pitch your ideas to the artist and get approval without long, drawn-out explanations. But you also have immediate access to the music for the video.
The song is the driving force and focal point of the project. And unlike other videos, you’ll be able to brainstorm and visualize each shot with the context of the music. So if you need a tracking shot to follow the artist through a set or some very careful framing in low-lit spaces, you'll want to plan for that as early as possible.
The later half of this video shows how to take your storyboards (even if they’re just stuck figures and arrow pointers) and actually build a sort of pre-viz video around them. That’ll give you a one-to-one comparison for how your shots will line up with the song.
It’s also another chance to show the artist and get final approval before you start committing time and money to shooting on location.
Call in Some Reinforcements
Many freelancers work alone, and that’s fine for most projects. But if you’re taking on client work like a music video, you’ll most likely need a little bit of help along the way.
That “help” can take a variety of forms. Maybe you know of a perfect location for the video, and your cousin’s boyfriend works there. Or maybe you need another camera operator and your coworker used to shoot wedding videos. You can also call on family and friends to move gear, act as runners, or even double as extras for the shoot.
A music video can be as big of a production as you want it to be. But the only way to succeed as a freelancer is to be willing to call in favors and round up some help every now and then.
And if you’ve been making videos for awhile, chances are that your friends and family already know the drill. (They might have even learned some skills along the way!)
Get Ready for the Music Video Shoot
This section is just a final reminder for you. If this is your first time figuring out how to shoot a music video, then you’re probably overthinking a lot of the technical aspects. That’s completely normal, and something that even veteran filmmakers do.
To be fair, it’s something every creator does on every single video, whether it’s their fifth project or their 500th. That passion is part of what drives us as filmmakers, visual artists, and storytellers.
But if you crafted a good treatment and spent time in pre-production, you already have the ideas in place. All that’s left is to capitalize on them, and keep an open mind in case new ideas pop up. And really, that’s the best mindset to take into any video shoot.
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