Directing Music Videos: Then and Now
Back in the day we called them “Rock Docs.”
I did my first rock doc in the early seventies for Lee Michaels, singing Ummmm My Lady, a beautiful song.
We went up to Lee’s house in Mill Valley with a tiny crew and shot him with a 16mm Éclair at his grand piano and in the beautiful woods that surrounded his house. I remember the last shot was with 5.9mm wide angle that panned up into the redwoods.
I remember shooting Don McLean singing American Pie, sitting solo on stage with a guitar at the Troubadour in Hollywood not long afterwards.
And here I am shooting Ry Cooder in a recording studio north of San Francisco.
But it wasn’t until I shot Aerosmith singing Sweet Emotion on-stage at Columbia Studios that I first heard the phrase “Music Video.”
Inspired by Madonna
For me as a Director of Photography and then later as a Director, I found the medium to be a very liberating genre. You could try anything, and more often than not it would look great because no one had ever seen it before.
As a DP I went on to shoot Prince in the bathtub, When Doves Cry.
(In fact for about five minutes, I went on to be Prince’s go-to guy for shooting music videos that he directed. Mostly of Sheila E, including The Glamorus Life.)
Other shoots include:
Rod Stewart Some Guys.
Ronnie Dio Last in Line
But it was when I produced one of Madonna’s first music videos, Borderline, directed by Mary Lambert…
…that I realized the powerful creativity of music videos and decided to pursue them as writer/director.
Creative vs. Corporate
There really is no more pure creative experience than putting on a pair of headphones, writing a concept for a piece of music, and then filming that concept. At least that’s how it was back in the day.
Music videos are a lot more corporate these days and a lot of people will have a say in your work. It’s bit more like the commercial business than it used to be in that regard. But the amount of autonomy that you work under is directly proportional to the success of your career. So keep pushing forward.
How to get started directing music videos
There are basically four ways you will get a job directing a music video.
- 1. You will have a direct contact to the A&R (artists and repertoire) department of a record company probably through a known Music Video Production Company or a Rep for that company. You will pitch your idea. Just like the commercial business you do all the creative work before you get the job.
- 2. You have a relationship with the artist or band and can pitch your idea directly to them. They will then take you to their record company.
- 3. You can make a spec Music Video to an existing hit song, although you will probably not get them to appear in the clip. But it’s good for building a reel.
- 4. You can find an up and coming band and talk them into letting you direct a music video of their latest songs. And hopefully get them to pay for it.
Once I decided to pursue music videos I had a really hard time breaking into the business. As a DP and a producer with a track record in the business I thought It would be easier, but it wasn’t. Just because you have knowledge and ability in one area of a genre, it’s hard to get people to accept you in another.
One of the skills you have to have is the ability write a creative concept. This was a skill I learned from the commercial business. Only with music videos you can go a lot further out and the emotional aspect can go a lot deeper.
But like everything else in a career, you have to do the work and the preparation, and then implore lady luck to smile on you. Which once again she did for me.
My lucky break
A friend of mine, Julia Roberson, moved to Warner Bros Records as the A&R person for new artists. She knew my work and put me in touch with David Naylor of DNA and recommended that he take me on as a Director. It took two years of trying to get started and I never really moved up to huge artists, but I have to say is was one of the most creatively fulfilling parts of my career. So get out there and shoot some music.
Here are a few of my favorite videos. Although old now, I still like the way they turned out and I am glad I was a small part of the golden years of music videos.
Sweet Sensation If Wishes Came True
Hank Williams Jr. All My Rowdy Friends Won me an Emmy!!!
Karyn White The Way You Love Me
Michael Cooper Dinner for Two
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