MTV made them famous. YouTube made musicians famous for them. And some of the most iconic ones have stuck with us over time. Music videos have had a massive effect on popular culture over the last four decades—and even longer than that if you consider early musical short films from as far back as the 1920s—and they continue to be an ever-evolving genre of filmmaking.
Essentially, a music video is a short film that lends a visual story to a piece of music, most often a lyrical song. In most cases, a band or vocal artist is the centerpiece, and a narrative story or vignette plays out around them. There is no prescribed style though, and throughout the years music videos have run the gamut from bands simply playing on a stage to complex animations—or even still imagery slideshows. In many of the more iconic music videos, the visual story that unfolds in the video is a direct representation of the song, but other times it is more abstract. As a music video filmmaker, you have an almost unlimited creative license—in fact, the more you distinguish your music video from others that have come before it, the more impressive it can be.
That said, there are a few general guidelines you can follow to increase production value and simplify the overall process of making a music video.
1. Make music. It is of the utmost importance that while filming a music video, you have a recording of the song or piece of music that you want featured in your project. It doesn't have to be the final, digitally mastered recording, but something close to final that you can play in tandem with your filming. How you play it while shooting is up to you, but an easy, inexpensive method could be loading it on your smartphone or other mobile device for replay on set, and maybe a set of smartphone-compatible speakers.
2. Sing! If your music video features actors who sing on camera, make sure they know the song from memory and encourage them to sing it out loud during filming. There's nothing more distracting to a viewer than mismatched lip-synching!
3. Play it again, Sam! You are not going to get away with going through the song once during filming. You'll need to have go through it at least three or four times, if not more. This is necessary to be able to capture different angles and different actions choreographed to the music—whether it be singing, dancing, or otherwise. It will be impossible to put together a decent music video without hitting replay multiple times, as you will have no fallback if a shot fails or falls short of expectations once you start editing the footage.
4. Shoot the moon. Along the same lines, you will want to get as much footage as possible of elements of your video other than the singer, so that you have choices for cutaway shots. Although you can make a great one-take music video—like Coldplay did with “Yellow”—if you're not going for that specific style, you will need to vary up the shots to have the footage that will allow you to tell a coherent story.
5. Sync it up. The editing portion of the project can be the most difficult part of it, we're not going to lie. It's going to take a lot of patience and a lot of small tweaks. A good music video relies on accurate syncing, because best practices dictate that you need to lay down a clean song track separately from your video track. Ultimately, you'll have to silence the audio your camera recorded (unless portions of your video will purposely feature raw sound from your footage). But before you do, you'll need it to align what's happening in the video in time with the music. There are different ways to do this, depending on what works best for you, but this video has a great technique you might want to try if you're just starting out.