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.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

BBC crisis- Part Two: what lies beneath?

In many ways this story follows the pattern of the classic moral panic:

"A term popularized by Stanley Cohen to describe a media-inspired overreaction to a certain group or type of behaviour that is taken as symptomatic of general social disorder." (Anthony Giddens)

The scandal(s) bring together a number of themes which have been in circulation for a while. The first is of course celebrity; Jimmy Savile was  an extremely well known personality from TV and Radio, as a DJ, Top of the Pops presenter and as the host of a highly popular Saturday night peaktime programme which bore his name, Jim'll fix it. He was also famous for his eccentric appearance and personality and for his charity fundraising. He had the ear of politicians and royalty and when he died crowds lined the streets for his funeral procession in a way that I can only ever recall previously seeing for Princess Diana and George Best. As the story has progressed and more and more people have come forward with stories of abuse by Savile, others have started to voice their disquiet about what they 'suspected' while he was still alive and very quickly media coverage of Savile has shifted from seeing him as a saintly figure to seeing him as a devil. 

Some commentators have blamed the behaviour of Savile and others on 'the 60s' as an over-permissive period, on pop music and on the 'culture at the BBC'; this celebrity theme has been underlined as other living  DJs and comedians and dead actors have been named by individuals as having abused or harrassed them in the period from the 1950s to the 1980s. Some have had a tenuous connection with Savile, while others have been the subject of rumour in the past. Of course, it has been very easy for newspapers in particular to publish names of the dead and accuse them; interestingly, some of these papers were offered the same stories in the past when those accused were still alive, but showed no interest in running them.

The second key theme is that of anxieties around childhood; periodically this surfaces with a lot of press coverage, usually as a result of a court case or a child abduction and often spirals off into other areas which are only vaguely connected. At the moment, almost every day sees a new headline about child abuse- there have been several involving historical cases against priests and bishops, in addition to Savile-related stories recently. The re-opened investigation into the abuse at the North Wales Children's home, with the suggestion of a paedophile ring amongst politicians played further on this theme. This week, the report into some children in Doncaster torturing and sexually abusing some other children was released and made front page news and today a Barnado's report came out which gave statistics both for the number of children sexually abused by gangs and the number 'at risk' of being so. As many commentators have suggested, quite quickly the victims get forgotten as the stories move to focus on the particular obsession of those reporting on them. Thus the Newsnight stories became more about 'the culture of the BBC' and arguments in favour of its overhaul and the aftermath of the allegations against the Conservative peer about the 'dangers of twitter'. Today, the gang stories have been used as an excuse to accuse the report writers of inverted racism (supposedly under-reporting the role of Pakistani gangs) and several times I have heard mention of internet porn and the 'sexualisation of children' as major contributory factors to what has gone on. It seems that the child abuse stories can be used to back up whatever world view the writer wants to convey.

The third theme, alluded to above, has been the role of the news media themselves. The inadequacies of the Newsnight story were used from the outset as an excuse  by newspapers to bash the BBC, which they see as having been one of their sternest critics during the Leveson inquiry. The Daily Mail led this attack from the moment of the ITV Exposure programme, rubbing its hands with glee over the departure of the Director General. Rupert Murdoch in particular has returned to the theme of abolishing the licence fee, suggesting the BBC has 'lost the trust' of the people, a theme from which his company would stand to benefit, as it would put the BBC in a weaker position against  Sky much more if it had to raise its funds commercially. The rather foolish behaviour of Philip Schofield in handing the Prime Minister the card full of names he had found online has also been the object of newspaper scorn, with speculation that he would lose his job and also that ITV might have to pay substantial damages. As well as this opposition to the BBC, the press has been quick to complain about the role of the internet, where several thousand tweeters are believed to have named the accused Tory Peer. When the mistaken identity was revealed, there was a large element of glee from the press, with accusatory fingers pointed at prominent tweeters who had named him, such as Speaker's wife Sally Bercow and Guardian blogger George Monbiot. A number of people pointed out that less than two years ago, several of the papers themselves were guilty of false accusations, when they ran front page stories about landlord and ex-teacher Chris Jeffries,  accusing him of the murder of Joanna Yeates

Finally, conspiracy theories online have abounded since the Savile story broke. The feeling that politicians are untrustworthy has been around for some time and was particularly prominent during the expenses scandal; people were very quick to believe that they could be a whole lot worse than that as rumours flew around online. A quick search on twitter for the trending word 'Tory' broke it down into 'Tory paedo', 'Tory abuser' and others. Lots of links were posted, mostly to blogs hosted abroad; one that I found with accusations hidden within the site's html code, alleged the whole scandal was bound up with the involvement of security forces in cover-ups of the murders of a TV personality, an MP and a footballer. It was very easy to get carried away with the stories, particularly at a time when a number of historical cover-ups, such as Hillsborough, were in the news. Conspiracy theorists such as David Icke, whose allegations are surely a lot worse than people just mentioning the Tory peer's name on twitter, has been expounding his theories at length for some years. 

So this is a complex story, which could perhaps be seen to allow people to project upon it all their own concerns and anxieties and for some of those in power to use it to attack other institutions. For the ordinary twitter user, it perhaps provides a salutary lesson- don't tweet rumours as you could get done for libel, or at least be threatened by lawyers that if you don't pay up, you will be sued.

Monday, 12 November 2012

What's this BBC crisis all about?- Part One: the background

George Entwistle, former BBC Director-General
So the BBC has lost it's Director General, resigning from the job after less than eight weeks. What is that job and why does this crisis matter? First of all, what happened?

The Job

The Director General of the BBC has a dual role- Chief Executive of the corporation and what is known as 'Editor-in-Chief'. A Chief executive is usually the highest ranking officer of an organisation, in charge of its management. He or she is generally responsible to a board of directors; in the case of the BBC, this is the BBC Trust, which is there to ensure that the BBC delivers its mission to the public, of informing, educating and entertaining, in effect ensuring that the licence payer gets value for money. So the Director General is the top manager at the BBC (a bit like the Headteacher of a school), with lots of other people down the chain responsible for their own departments, such as radio stations, television channels and news. What complicates this slightly is the second part of the DG's role- 'editor-in-chief'- which relates specifically to the content of what the BBC puts out; ultimately, he or she is responsible for the accuracy of its news coverage.

The Crisis

The recent crisis at the BBC really first blew up in early October, when ITV's Exposure programme made a series of revelations about Jimmy Savile, alleging that he had had sex with a number of underage girls, including some on BBC premises. Though these allegations dated back a number of years, the story also broke that BBC's Newsnight had at least part of this story almost a year earlier but decided not to broadcast it. As the story unravelled, it was claimed that the reason Newsnight dropped the story was because it would spoil programmes celebrating the life of Savile scheduled to go out over Christmas 2011 (he had died in October 2011)). It also transpired that George Entwistle, later to become Director General, but at the time Head of Vision (TV), had been 'tipped off' by Helen Boaden (Head of News) that Newsnight was investigating Savile, but assumed that the story had been dropped for lack of evidence.

Following the Exposure revelations, George Entwistle, as Director General of the BBC, announced two enquiries would be held- one into what went on in the BBC at the time Savile worked there, and one specifically on what happened to the Newsnight investigation. By the time he appeared in front of the House of Commons Select committee for Culture, Media and Sport to answer questions from MPs on October 23, Entwistle had been put in a very difficult situation. The editor of Newsnight (in effect the main decision-maker for the programme), Peter Rippon, had been forced to step down from his role after  contradictory versions of his account of what had happened emerged. Panorama had run a programme which delved into what had happened around the shelving of that Newsnight investigation and found that there were many more questions to be answered. Entwistle had a torrid time answering MPs questions and came over as out-of-touch with what was going on at the BBC.

However, though more and more allegations emerged across different news media about the long-term behaviour of Jimmy Savile, the pressure seemed to have eased on Entwistle; then Newsnight, with a new temporary editor, decided to run another child abuse scandal story, some would say in order to make up for what had gone wrong in not running the Savile story. On 2 November, the programme looked at the case of a children's home in North Wales where there had been a major scandal in the 1990s with some criminal convictions of former staff and a massive public Inquiry. The programme alleged that the Inquiry had involved a cover-up of some of the evidence, with some well known people getting away with crimes of abuse against boys who lived there. One of the interviewees alleged that a top Conservative politician of the time had abused him. The programme did not name this person, but speculation was rife online, notably on twitter, and it was very easy to find his name and that of several other alleged abusers from the Conservative party.

Again the story gathered momentum across the media until Thursday 8th November, when on ITVs This Morning programme, presenter Philip Schofield handed the Prime Minister a piece of card with the names of these accused politicians which he had found in a "three minute" internet search. This caused a bit of a storm, but nothing to what happened on Friday, when The Guardian ran a front page story questioning whether Newsnight's witness had made a mistake over the identity of the senior politician. It turned out that he had, that the programme makers had not even checked by showing him a photo of the man he was accusing, and that they had not followed journalistic practice of putting the accusations to the accused. Worse still, a week earlier, former Newsnight journalist, now at Channel 4, Michael Crick, had phoned the man himself and tweeted:

""Senior political figure: due to be accused tonight by the BBC of being paedophile denies allegations + tells me he'll issue libel writ agst BBC."

The man who claimed he had been abused by the senior Tory had to issue a public apology. The BBC had to issue a public apology. The rest of the media went mad, once again revelling in the BBC's discomfort, and on Saturday morning, Entwistle did the rounds of the BBC news outlets- TV news, Radio 4 and Radio 5 and gave a disastrous performance. He said that he hadn't known about the Newsnight programme till after it was put out, that he hadn't read or been told about Crick's tweet and that he hadn't seen the previous day's Guardian, all of which made it very hard to see how he could be 'editor-in-chief' at the corporation. By the end of the day, the inevitable had happened, as in a brief statement he announced his resignation. The BBC was now without a Director General.

Some links: