While watching a video from a fellow MSU graduate who has recently stepped into the world of shooting music videos for signed, well-known artists, I realized today that the flashy production values I’ve always secretly wished I had can, in fact, actually ruin music videos. This video was gorgeous, which was obviously the only pre-requisite anybody had for hiring his crew as content-wise and atmospherically, it was complete fucking garbage.
If your only goal with a music video is to make somebody go, “that’s pretty” or “wow what a cool shot!”- to make an aesthetically pleasing final product- there’s no shortage of directors of photography that can make that happen. And because music videos are generally lumped into the category of “promotion”, does anything else even matter?
Yes. It does.
Whatever my own shots lack in technical execution, I make every attempt to compensate for it with relevant content. That’s me though; if you want to impress other cinematographers first and foremost, then yeah, your first thought should always be “how many toys can I use to make this video look interesting?” For the rest of us that give a shit about moving people to an emotional response, it’s always “will what’s in front of my camera be relevant to the music?” It’s common sense to make that the order of importance with linear narratives like shorts; for whatever reason the concept seems to have stuck with (most) people there. But music videos? It seems that the aspiring DPs I know working in this medium simply don’t care to extend their train of thought beyond “it’s just promo bro, check out this sick jib shot!”
This is a debasement of everything wonderful about music, turning it into a product where the aesthetic property overpowers the emotional ones without working in tandum. Yes, you can have cool shots, but you damn well better be asking yourself “Why? Why is this in 60p? Does that match the energy of the song or provide a relevant juxtaposition? Is suddenly using a dolly here motivated by a dramatic shift in the lyrics, music, or track pacing? Is this character or scenery related to the emotions the song is conveying?” If your answer to any of that is “no, but-” don’t even bother finishing the thought. Scrap that shot until you find one where the answer is simply “yes”. The only way your content will ever be anything more than a promotion for L glass and Redrock is if you FEEL the music, if it moves you personally in some fashion emotionally. If it doesn’t do that, why the fuck are you even bothering? Money? There’s a thousand other- better- ways to make a living than producing music videos. In the same way that emotions inspire writers to write screenplays based on that emotion, music has to inspire you to want to say SOMETHING with visuals relevant to the track.
The images have to match the song, or they won’t connect. Your audience may not know how to articulate it when there’s a disconnect, but they sure as shit know how to when there isn’t one. I’ve shot my fair share of official videos, but two of the unofficial videos I’ve done- Explosions in the Sky and Agalloch- have netted by far the largest amount of heartfelt, honest, moving comments anybody has ever given me about my work. Beyond the compliments regarding the aesthetic value (which I do appreciate), there’s ones like this, which I received in my Facebook inbox a few years ago:
“Hi Chris, I’m from Italy, just saw your wonderful video on the youtube for the song Have you passed through this night by EIS. So I wanted to tell you it made me feel better for few minutes, and thank you. I have not passed through this night yet.”
And this from the Agalloch video:
“I always come back to this video to remind me that life is worth living.”
I have zero connection to any of these people, they are not my friends or even friends of friends, and yet the videos affected them (and many others) on a deeply personal level. You know why? Because the songs deeply affected ME, and that feeling was present EVERY SINGLE MOMENT my camera was rolling. Of course I wanted to create something visually interesting, but visually interesting and INSPIRED. Never, ever just the former. Climbing up a mountain in the middle of nowhere to get a shot of a dead tree in an open field for the opening of the Explosions video in order to present the thesis for the entire video, or sitting in my truck in the dead of night out in the woods for three hours for a shot that would demonstrate the limitless grandeur of the natural world in a song concerning just that, and a thousand other moments that only I will ever know about, I did none of that out of want for a cool shot or because “I’m totes gonna Facebook about how cool shooting this is!” I did all of it because I love music, and I desperately need to express in some way how that music makes me feel.
That’s why I shoot music videos, and as far as I’m concerned, that’s the only good reason to shoot them. If the music you listen to doesn’t have the ability to completely change the course of your outlook or mood for hours, days, or weeks at a time- you have no business putting moving images to a song, ANY song, and can fuck right off from shooting music videos. There’s a dozen other avenues for producing visuals that you can pursue which don’t involve taking a shit on a medium as precious and wonderful as music.