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Tips for Shooting Music Videos

by Roy Sallows

Script it Out
A music video, like a drama, should be planned, even scripted, before you shoot. Flying by the seat of your pants isn't going to get you where you want to go. Do a little homework. Study music videos and performances featuring music of the same genre and note techniques that impress you. Try to figure out how and why the directors took the shots and made the cuts that they did. You don't have to duplicate what you see, but it won't hurt to borrow some ideas from the pros. Every song and dance that has appeared on film or video has had someone making decisions about what goes where. And, with a little thought, you can usually figure out why that particular image was shot for that bar of music.

You'll find it helpful to get a copy of the song you'll be taping on cassette or CD so you can play it and listen to it before the shoot. As you listen, identify pictures that the music suggests to you. Every song has a story and the goal here is to find and visualize it. To help you decide on the pictures you need, make a simple storyboard. Don't worry that you can't draw. All you want to do is make sketches of the shots you need. Stick figures and visual shorthand are fine. After all, who's going to see these pictures except you?

Check That Sound
If you are shooting a professional performer, use a recorded version of the song being performed as the sound track for the video. Make sure you get the best sound you possibly can, because you won't be able to improve it later.

If there is no tape or CD available you'll be forced to record your audio live. That's all right. Just make sure that you get a good, clean recording of the performance. Your on-camera microphone probably won't make the greatest live recording, but if you must use it, get it as close as you can to the performance for the best results. To get better sound, you can plug an external mike into your camcorder. One of the best ways to get great sound from a live performance is to get a feed from the house sound system, though you may need a few adapters and a long cable. Remember, it is important to ask the sound technician for a mike-level feed. A line-level feed plugged into a camcorder's microphone input will sound heavily distorted, and can cause permanent damage to the camera's circuitry.

Whatever the case, you should set up the camcorder framing a medium closeup of the performer and allow him to play the number all the way through without stopping the tape. This will give you a continuous audio track to work with. This shot will also provide the primary video for your project, with lips perfectly in sync with the music. Simply insert a few cutaways of fingers on the piano or guitar strings and your video is all but finished.

Do it Again
It's a good idea to shoot your star performing the number several times, from various camera angles. If you are shooting a group of musicians, get coverage of each member. You may find that you need to tape the same song six or eight times to get the shots you need, especially if you are covering a group of performers.

Get your performers away from their usual haunts and into a location that supports your interpretation of the music. Let them have fun with the story you are telling. Singers are especially difficult to shoot. Their videos shouldn't just be singing heads. Try to find something else for them to do. Just remember that the music is the star here. Try to make the images, activities and locations support the music.

Better B-roll
All right. You have the music. You've shot a stage performance sixteen times. What other footage can you use to fill out your video? You really have two choices when it comes to B-roll for musical performances. You can mix multiple camera angles and show various shots of the performer performing, or you can cut away to show shots of images related to the theme of the song, like ocean waves or snow-topped mountains.

These related images can be full-motion video, but they don't necessarily have to be. Still photos often work well in music videos. Search old photo albums to see if the images you want are already there. You can use still photos to create a video montage, with the music in the background. Try cross fading from one photo to another or slowly scanning across an array of photos.

You've Got Style
Be creative when you're shooting. Take advantage of things that are usually considered mistakes. A lens flare isn't always a bad thing, nor are reflections, backlit scenes or the talent laughing between takes.

By the way, don't assume that you have to shoot with rapid cuts, Dutch angle (tilted camera), extensive lighting setups, tons of filters, pulsing zoom or digital effects to make your video memorable. That may work for some music, but your project may not need it. The key is to use a pace that matches the music.

Finally, have fun. You'll be amazed at what a little fun will do for your music video.