Thursday, 22 November 2012

Music Video for A level

Probably the most popular task over the last 20 years in the second year of A level courses has been making a music video. Changes in technology have meant that what students can produce has changed dramatically in that time; from the early days of crash editing between two VHS machines, when you had to do every shot pretty much in sequence to today's digital editing, where you can set up multiple timelines, the possibilities for music video on no budget have been transformed.

In this post, I will set out what I think are the key steps that you need to go through in making a music video and illustrate with examples made by professional directors and by students.

First of all, though, I think it is important to determine what a music video actually is; it would be too simple to say well, its a video and it's got music, so it must be a music video, because those criteria could apply to all manner of short films. I would see six key elements which would be there in almost every music video:

The video lasts at least as long as the track (can be longer if you have an intro or outro or both)
The video features the artist/band quite prominently
The video features some element of performance- singing and playing instruments (usually miming) and often dancing or acting too
The video has some kind of concept along with the track
The video does not feature a complete narrative but the concept may involve fragments of narrative
Different genres of music produce slightly different visual conventions in music videos

These criteria are an important starting point, as often student music videos seem to disregard them, which is a mistake. If you don't show some element of performance by the artist you are entering the realm of a small minority of music videos, which are maybe so strong conceptually that the artist doesn't matter or from very particular sub-genres of dance music. I would beware of this. If you are Chris Cunningham dealing with Aphex twin, it's fine, but at a level it is likely to end up looking like it isn't a music video...

My ten step guide starts with some activities to build skills that you will need later on...

Step 0: limbering up

This involves doing some exercises, just like you would if you were a sportsperson getting ready for the race or game. If you try shooting a karaoke-style multi-angle version of a track for fun, you will have the chance to make lots of mistakes and to get some inhibitions out of your system if you are going to be the performers in your own video. See an example:

svens edit of jam malice (tom b, jahmal, sven) from cmdiploma on Vimeo.

Totally improvised (!) but shot from three or four setups, this exercise gives confidence and builds skills with synching up performance and soundtrack.

A second exercise which works really well as a whole class and gets everyone to pay very close attention to how the video is constructed is a frame by frame re-make of part of an existing video. By storyboarding this and then filming shot by shot to stay faithful to the original, it helps give you more sense of how cutting works in real music videos. Student ones are often too slow paced, so that when you look at real ones you might see as much as three times as many shots on average being used than in a student one. Again here is an example, along with the 'original'

Step 1: Choosing your track

for your final production, it can be a mistake to go for something too well known as the image of the original will always be hanging over you, particularly the image of the artist. There is plenty of material available from relatively unknown bands which you could use from MySpace or elsewhere; you can create an image from scratch with your own performers adopting the role of the band.

The other things are to choose a track which stimulates some visuals and which isn't too long. Three minutes for a music video is enough of a challenge, so don't go for some five minute epic- you'll struggle to sustain it for the viewer.

Step 2: Write a treatment

A treatment is your pitch for the track, with a suggestion of what your 'concept' might be. It needs to be clear, workable and realistic in what you aim to do. If your idea is too elaborate, more can go wrong and you'll only be disappointed!

get feedback on this from teachers and fellow students and then review it in the light of their comments.

Step 3: Do lots of research

You should be looking at real music videos from the same genre of music as your own, not to copy them slavishly but to get a sense of what the conventions are. look closely at them and break them down to see how they work. How do they use verse and chorus? how do they use the beat and rhythm? how do they showcase the star? How much do the visuals relate to the lyrics? what's the concept?

You should also look at student videos to identify strengths you can draw upon and weaknesses you can avoid. here are a couple- what works and what doesn't?

L3/13 - Feeling a Moment (Matt & Tara) from cmdiploma on Vimeo.

Step 4: Plan for everything

Storyboard as much of it as possible

It might be tempting not to bother with storyboards but it is a mistake if you do so. You need a visual plan for your work as it won't just happen when you have a camera in your hand! I would recommend using post-its for constructing a storyboard, as you can move the frames around and change the order easily. Once you have done the storyboard, the next step is to turn it into an animatic, which quite literally involves taking a photo of each frame (on your phones or a webcam, nothing fancy) and then dropping the frames onto the timeline of your digital editing program. You can then cut them to length, in time with your music on the audio line and then export the whole thing as an animatic- a moving storyboard. Here's one of the first thirty seconds of a video...

The other crucial aspect of planning is logistics. This involves production management skills, thinking ahead to everything that could possibly go wrong on your shoot and to every little detail of what you will need. Nothing should be left to chance- costumes, props, locations, camera equipment and people all need orgnaising. Don't have your actors just wearing any old clothes- plan what they will wear; don't rely on someone else remembering particular props, have a list of who is bringing what. For a music video, the instruments are props, so don't forget them! Don't assume everyone will simply turn up- make sure everyone has all the phone numbers and everyone knows exactly where they should be and when.

You really will need suitable places for the performances and you will need to think about variety for these. You should also aim to shoot the whole thing well in advance of deadlines, as you may end up having to shoot some of it again!

Above all else, make sure your performers have rehearsed and know the words and that they are willing to throw themselves into it. If they don't look enthusiastic and don't look as if they mean it, the video won't work!

Step 5: set up a blog

This should be the place for all your evidence, showing the journey of your project. You can use it to link to ideas and inspiration, to examples of your research into music video, the genre and your particular artist, to post recce shots and ideas for hair and costume, for your storyboards, your animatic, screengrabs of work in progress and for feedback from others.

Step 6: know your equipment

Make sure you have practised with the equipment and that you know how to set it up and how to get the best from it. Cameras, lights and the edit program are all going to be important to how your video looks, but an easy one to forget is the music- have the track, (preferably with some 'beeps' at the start so it will be easy to synch video material with the master track at the edit stage) and have it on something where it is audible. It is no use just having your singer with headphones on so the camera can't hear the music- it needs to be played out loud!

Step 7: the Shoot

Shoot the performance at least ten times with different set-ups. You may think this is excessive, but if you are going to have something to cut together with coverage of every second of the track, you need lots of material. Make sure you have plenty of cutaways as well, for interesting shots that will retain the viewer's interest. Experiment with extra angles and lighting changes and don’t forget: lots of close-ups, which is the dominant mode of music video !

Step 8: capturing

Label everything you capture and organise it so its easy to find;don’t capture stuff you don’t need, but do capture full takes of the song, as if you stack them on top of each other in the timelines, you can strip away what you don't need easily thereafter. By the way, multi-track timelines like Premiere and Final Cut are ideal for editing music video- iMovie and MovieMaker are much harder to use for lipsynch material.

Step 9: the edit

Synch up performances first and get the whole picture rather than tiny detail
Cut and cut again, aiming for a dynamic piece of work. Do any effects work last.
Upload a rough cut to your blog and get feedback, then act upon this to finesse your final version.


  1. Dear Mr. Fraser:

    My class and I atteneded the A2 media workshop you conducted at the Rich Mix. The workshop was wonderful. However, I am wondering if I can obtain a PowerPoint you showed us about the steps to making a music video. I know these steps are on your website. However, I found you PowerPoint more precise.

    Thank you
    Mr. John Dunford
    Coopers' Company & Coborn School

  2. This is very useful, but a quick question; what grade/level did the first example of the student video get? would be great to show a level 4 if this is one?

  3. Thanks for review, it was excellent and very informative.
    thank you :)

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