Music videos are changing—and for the better. Here are tips on making yours more cinematically interesting.
At the film theory level, filmmakers are often characterized in two camps: painterly directors and directors who embrace musicality.
So music videos must be the ones with musicality, right?
Not necessarily. Today’s music videos are moving simultaneously into art-museum status while embracing new styles of visual rhythm.
How? As Josh Olufemii explains in his pretty brilliant explanation, music videos today are taking a departure from the once gaudily movement-centric styles of jibs, dollies, drones, and gimbals, and are heading toward the painterly realm.
To understand what we mean, watch Olufemii’s video essay below, where he gives a brilliant explanation of the basics of music [video] theory, and then read our takeaways.
1) Cutting on the upbeat
The first point that Olufemii makes in his video is how good music video directors and editors go beyond cutting on the downbeat.
By this Olufemii is referring to the dominant beats in 4/4 timing. If you can sense 1, 2, 3, 4 in every 4/4 song, the 1 and 3 are the dominant accents. 1, 2, 3, 4. And for years, many music videos have insisted on cutting exactly at 1 and 3. Boring!
Okay, sometimes it works, but do we always have to do that? Why not cut at 2 or 4, or heaven forbid, on the push-notes of 1 + 2 + 3 + 4. (The + being the push notes.)
In this sense, music video editing is embracing the syncopated style that has been revolutionizing Western music. (Syncopation, you ask? We’ll get into that more below, but know that is when artists deviate from the regular expected rhythmic pattern. It was the introduction of West African music to European music in the Americas that introduced the world to Ragtime, followed by Jazz, Blues, Rock and Roll, and all modern music. You know, all the good stuff!)
As Olufemii notes, “We are trained to cut on the 1 beat…”
But we can and will reach past that, embrace some syncopated editing, and make much more engaging music videos.
2) Make every shot a thumbnail
One of the main points that Olufemii brings up in this video is that music videos are trending composition over motion.
As he explains it, the previous or amateur route of music video 101 is camera motion and shake. Interesting videos today are reverting to feature film origins of composition and lighting.
Within good music videos, like Olufemii’s featured example of Dammy Twitch’s "Lo Lo" by Omah Lay, every shot is a painted portrait. There is no visual real estate taken for granted. There is only depth, color, and light transporting us with the occasional movement.
Here is the music video in question, should you want to soak in the whole thing.
3) Make people pop from the background
Olufemii also speaks about the way that the Lo Lo music video centers on people, and how they stand out in organized contrast with their surroundings.
The way this is done is by taking into consideration the production design with the subjects. Depending on skin and hair color, you don’t make people bleed into the background, you make them pop.
4) Always be intentional
Olufemii shows how even with a rack focus from singer to singer, the director Dammy Twitch is being intentional with every moment of the music video. The essential question that is successfully answered here but should be asked by every music video director is, "How do I capture the mood of this song while still creating an engaging video?"
What do you think? If you have observations about music video trends or techniques of your own, share them in the comments.