Many of today's most exciting (and busiest) filmmakers got their start through the medium of music video. Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, and, more recently, DANIELS, made their mark by using the platform to its most exciting potential: as a window for wild experimentation. With less than five minutes at their disposal, they gave audiences a reason to believe in their capability to deliver as a filmmaker. Even established filmmakers such as Paul Thomas Anderson are drawn back to the form as an exercise in finding the aesthetics of their upcoming feature films.
"This is the time to play that then informs your narrative work."
Last week, IFP held a panel at Film Week entitled “Musical Approach to Visual Storytelling.” It featured filmmakers Celia Rowlson-Hall (director of MA), David Svedosh, and frequent Jenny Lewis and Angel Olson collaborators Zia Anger and Ashley Connor. The panelists discussed their varying approaches to collaborating with musicians, how their work on music videos has influenced their features, and the benefits of working on a smaller, more streamlined scale. Below are some of our key takeaways.
Zia Anger's music video for Angel Olsen's "The Tiniest Seed."
1. Making a music video is a more democratized way of working
Throughout the panel, Anger reiterated that her favorite part of the music video process was the blurring of lines as a result of increased collaboration. "There’s a really bad hierarchy where the director is supposed to know and say all," she said, "and I think that music videos especially are really good at saying, 'This hierarchy means literally nothing,' because we’re creating something that’s so based on what the camera is doing. The hierarchy has the opportunity to disappear. Maybe why I continue to do music videos—because it’s a more democratic way of working."
Anger's frequent collaborator, Connor, affirmed this belief. "It’s all a symbiotic relationship," she said. "Camera and directing are very in unison. There are directors [who think] the camera operator is just an operator, and then there are collaborations where it’s more of a conversation and the lines blur."
"When I’m directing and choreographing for the internet, I’m thinking in a totally different way than how I’m thinking for a feature."
2. Use music videos as an opportunity for experimentation
Connor, mainly known for her work as a cinematographer, went on to describe why music videos are the perfect place for experimentation. "On music videos, a director is more willing to fail and try out different styles because there are such low stakes," she said. "You’re doing so many shots already for the video to work, that it’s like, 'Alright, now let’s try this out, let’s give this a go.' I think that being capable of trying things out in a small way informs my narratives because I can bring those experiments back."
"On a narrative film, directors are a lot more scared to experiment, because every single minute is time spent away from making something else," she continued. "Music videos then become something to use as a reference to a narrative director to be like, 'Well, look at it in here and it works.'"
Rowlson-Hall elaborated on how there's much to learn from the contrast between the two mediums. "It’s the exercise; it’s about keeping those muscles fresh and going," she said. "This is the time to play that then informs your narrative work. When I’m directing and choreographing for the internet, I’m thinking in a totally different way than how I’m thinking for a feature. It’s an entirely different beast. I think it's important to be exercising both so you can fully understand both mediums."
3. Connecting with musicians is easy
Music video opportunities essentially come in the form of work for hire. When an audience member asked how it was the panelists found musicians to work with, Anger replied, "In the beginning, I emailed four musicians that I really liked," she said. "Two got back to me. Now what I've learned from having more music videos out there, is that you get emails all day, every day. Even high schoolers email me. So if they do ignore you, it's because they’re probably really busy. It was just a matter of knowing exactly what we wanted to do, who we wanted to work with, and then it was just a matter of reaching out to those people."
4. These days, anyone can make a music video
You have no excuse not to go out there and film something without recording any sound. As Svedosh explained, "I do find with music videos, there’s no dialogue, so there’s a lot less on set to be concerned with than on a narrative. So as a director, the camera and the performances are all of your focus. It's been kind of a luxury to shoot my own stuff, because it’s a really small crew and we’re able to travel quickly and make decisions quickly. It speeds the whole process up."
"It's having a super clear line, and being as much of a director and a performer in the moment."
"I like that people can go and shoot things on their iPhones now and that's totally acceptable," said Anger. "That means that people that can only afford to borrow an iPhone can make things. It’s a democratization of cinema that’s taken 100 years, but it’s been a very exclusive 100 years. You might need a Panavision camera to make something really big look really awesome, but that's not the case with music videos. I’ve made two music videos on iPhone and iPhone-like devices."
5. You should act in them, too
If you're interested in being in your own films (or if you can't find anyone else to act in them), music videos are a perfect place to begin. Take Daniel Kwan in "Turn Down for What," or Spike Jonze in "Praise You," for example. Rowlson-Hall started as a dancer and then moved into choreography before finally becoming a director; she often stars in her own work. For Rowlson-Hall, divorcing yourself from self-consciousness is the key to this process.
"For me, it’s like having to have two distinct persons inside of yourself," she said. "There's the vulnerable performer state and then you need to switch off and look at that same frame. Being in it, I’m always having to review clips before we can move on, since I don’t know what they look like, so I have to look at that person as not me. I can’t be like, 'Ugh, her face looks weird.' I need to be like, 'Are we in focus, is the performance right?'"
"It's having a super clear line, and being as much of a director in the moment and as much of a performer in the moment."