When it comes to visual creative freedom, there are not many genres that open the door more than music videos. They've become a form of creative expression ever since "Video Killed the Radio Star" by the band The Buggles made its debut on MTV in 1981.
Some of the most iconic images have come from music videos, and their meanings, choreography, and style have made their way into the lexicon of pop culture. Whether you're just picking up a camera for the first time or have several awards on your mantle, music videos are perfect for trying out new things when it comes to cinematography, lighting, and composition. You can literally throw out the rulebook and connect with the music and artists in ways you couldn't when shooting traditional narrative work.
Filmmaker Courtney Hill cuts his teeth directing music videos and shares his process and tips online for anyone to pick up. Hill spoke with No Film School to dive into the nuance of his work and offer insights to anyone looking to gain experience. Here's what he had to say.
Credit: Twenty517No Film School: You’re the creator behind Twenty517 Productions, directing music videos and films. Is there something about music videos that you’re drawn to creatively?
Courtney Hill: Music is the driving force behind almost every video I create, even if it isn’t a music video. Music moves me and motivates different cuts, transitions, angles and it carries the story forward. I view music as another character in the film. When producing music videos specifically I will say that there are more creative liberties and you are able to get away with more radical visuals that stray away from traditional cinematography.
NFS: Musicians carry their own artistic voice. Do you have any tips you can share about how to approach the creative process for those starting out?
Hill: Very true. I tend to first let the client tell me everything they see for the project. That way I am able to understand their vision before trying to impose my own. Ultimately, I am providing a service, and they have to be happy with the end product. On the other side of that coin, most of my clients are through referral and they come to me for my creative input. I think marrying our two creative thoughts is really the magic of it. Every production with a musician is really more of a collaboration than anything else. There are times when the artist has no direction or concept, and when that happens I would recommend you develop a treatment with a mood board, visual examples, tones/colors because so many of us are visual learners, and preparing a treatment will ensure you properly convey your vision.
NFS: Can you talk about any hurdles and how you overcome them when it comes to shooting music videos?
Hill: One of the biggest hurdles when shooting music videos is dealing with the unexpected. Whether it be limited time, issues with locations, extras, and entourage. The main thing I have noticed is to remain flexible and creative, have a shot list, and communicate to the point of excess. Scout your location ahead of time around the same time of day you will be filming so you understand lighting and any challenges that may arise. Stick to your shot list and allow time to improvise on set and communicate every step of the process with your client so there are no assumptions made by either party.
NFS: Your latest project is with Legend McCall and Doc Heref—a music video short film. Can you talk about how that idea came about?
Hill: Legend and Doc have been long-time collaborators of mine and they reached out to me to film a video for their newly released project, Bad Boys: The Album. I had recently watched the Apple Music Awards and I really liked how they produced these long-form performances with monologues, so we set out to make our version of that.
NFS: You use the Sony FX9 and Alpha cameras on a lot of your work. Anything in particular that stands out on why you lean towards Sony over something else?
Hill: I shoot Sony primarily because they cater heavily to the videographer, with their feature set of VENICE color science, color bit depth, high resolutions at high rates, and the E- mount being supported throughout their entire camera line up. I used Panasonic and Canon a lot in the past but ended up switching to Sony a few years ago and haven’t looked back. I am always open to someone coming along making a better product and taking my business, but Sony has been killing it for some time now, and I think they will hold on to my wallet for the foreseeable future.
NFS: That's funny. Another cool thing you do is share your insights on your YouTube channel. It’s kind of great more creators are doing that today. If you could choose one or two filmmakers to start their own YouTube channel, who would they be?
Hill: Filmmakers turned YouTubers. I would say David Fincher, because I am a fan of just about everything he produces visually, and I hear he is very meticulous about every frame. It would be nice to see his process and day to day. For my second pick, I would say Quentin Tarantino, for some of the same reasons as David but also because I feel like he has the "it" factor and personality to do YouTube differently than I have probably ever seen it done before.
NFS: One of our favorite music videos from you is “Amends” from LocSon. You shot that on the a7 III. Is it easy to jump between the different Alpha and FX bodies or is there some learning curve coming from the mirrorless body?
Hill: I shot "Amends" before I owned the FX9, but that video was one that really motivated me to adopt a cinema camera workflow. Having built-in ND and 10-bit color would have helped me a ton on that project. The jump between FX bodies and mirrorless doesn’t pose a huge learning curve. In fact, it’s more convenient. Having many of your controls be hardware buttons instead of software keeps you quick while filming. Also being that I do a lot of handheld work the added weight and balance of a larger camera makes footage smoother. I would say it’s an easy jump.
NFS: Is there any tricks or advice you could give filmmakers in making music videos—either on the technical side, location front, or building a client list?
Hill: Just put yourself out there more and collaborate. One thing that I have learned is that community is everything in this industry. You have to get to know people and build a name for yourself through each interaction. As creative people, we are more introvert than extrovert, so it’s easier said than done, but it will be worth the effort in the long run.
NFS: What can people expect to see from you next?
Hill: I just plan on pointing my camera at more people, places, and things going forward. More music videos, documentaries, family, life, and love. I am just happy anyone would expect or look forward to anything I produce.
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