You Ought to Be in Pictures

HOW TO MAKE A LOW-BUDGET, DIY MUSIC VIDEOBONUS MATERIALMore Tips on D.I.Y. Videos
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In the glory days of MTV and VH1, a recording artist needed a record deal and a fistful of major-label cash to produce a music video that would be seen by the masses. Today, that's no longer the case. The convergence of inexpensive digital-video technology, broadband Internet, and Web-based video sites — YouTube in particular — has made self-producing a credible music video and making it available worldwide a realistic goal.

Will your DIY video have the production values and the audience reach of one of the classic video hits from the MTV days? Almost certainly not. But your video can still have a positive impact on your act's promotion, and there's always the potential for it to become a viral favorite that gets spread all around the Web.

You won't need a ton of gear to produce your video. You will need a digital video camera (consumer cameras work fine) and professional video-editing software such as Apple Final Cut Studio, Adobe Premiere, or Sony Vegas Pro. (Consumer video applications such as Apple iMovie typically don't have the features necessary for some of the techniques described in this story.) Two more essential ingredients are ingenuity and creativity.

If you're not sure you want to do it all yourself, a good option is to find a budding director or film student willing to direct your project at little or no cost. In return for giving you time and expertise, this person will get to use your video on his or her demo reel (for more on this option, see the online bonus material “Catch a Rising Director” at emusician.com).

To get real-world details on the subject of DIY music videos, I spoke with a number of people experienced in making them. George Petersen not only is the executive editor of Mix, but also has produced and directed many music videos and has extensive audio-engineering experience. Michael Coleman of Colemanfilm Media Group has directed music videos and live videos for musical artists such as Ozomatli, David Grey, KT Tunstall, Counting Crows, and the Matches. Tony Swansey has directed indie music videos for Manna and Quail and Ericson, among others. I will also present several examples of music videos that were produced on shoestring budgets and that feature techniques you can apply to your own productions.

Decisions, Decisions

The first thing you'll need to decide is what kind of video you want to make. Will it capture your live performance, or will it be a concept video, where you're lip-syncing to a song from your CD while on a beach, in a warehouse, on a street corner, or in some other interesting location?

These are two very different types of productions, each with its own challenges. This article will focus on making concept videos, but you can read about techniques for shooting a live-performance video in the online bonus material “Shooting a Live Video.”

A concept video allows you to go beyond just showing a band performing. You can add a secondary story line to it, which can make a video more engaging, especially if your band isn't particularly dynamic in its stage presence or performance skills. One big advantage of a concept video is that you don't have to worry about recording the song, because you're using a track from your CD as the audio. That gives you the freedom to shoot in locations that would never work if you had to capture quality audio as well.

What's the Idea?

Not surprisingly, the first thing you'll need for your concept video is a concept. Don't even think about picking up a camera until you have the whole video planned out, down to the shots you'll be using (even the camera angles if possible). Naturally, you can change things on location, but you should have a pretty good idea of what you're doing going in.

One critical factor that can dictate the concept of your video is the type of locations available to you. “Just about everybody has access to some kind of location that would be really cool,” says Petersen. “And sometimes it's cool to script your music video, your concept video, around such a location. Like if you have access to a steel mill and you go, ‘Wow, why don't we use the steel mill as a backdrop and shoot it in there?'' Or you have access to a classroom. Locations like that can give you a lot of production value even though you don't have any money.”

Swansey agrees. “If you have access to actors or old cars or anything that will provide any sort of production values, just exploit it,” he says. However, if you're shooting on someone else's property, Coleman advises that you get what's called a location release and have it signed by the property owner. This document (you can find generic versions online) gives you permission to use the property, generally limits your liability to the property owner, and clarifies various legal issues that could arise from your video shoot.

Sketch It Out

Once you've figured out a basic concept and a location, it's time to get specific with your planning. A good way to get your ideas together is by making a storyboard, which is a graphical depiction of the various scenes and actions in a video. “A storyboard is really easy,” says Petersen. “It's like a comic strip. You say, ‘All right, what is my first shot going to be?'' You can do a storyboard and then deviate from it, if you want, once you get on location.”

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FIG. 1: A storyboard can help you get your ideas together for the video and plan shots and camera angles.
Photo: courtesy Michael Coleman

A storyboard consists of a series of boxes containing drawings that depict the different shots in the video, with descriptions or dialog — or, in the case of a music video, lyrics — underneath (see Fig. 1). You don't need to be a good artist to draw one (although that does help); as long as you can scrawl out a basic sketch of the various scenes, you'll be okay. Use stick figures if necessary.

One way to get your planning off the ground, prior to making your storyboard, is to start with a lyric sheet and a recording of the song and write down the start and end times of each line in elapsed time from the start of the song. This will give you a basic structure to build your ideas around. Coleman likes to use a spreadsheet to get his concept together. “I'll put in the lyrics, I'll plot out times,” he says. “I'll basically start the track and go through it and come up with, ‘At this point this is what we're going to be seeing.'' And according to that field, I might draw out a storyboard frame to reference later on.”

Once you've storyboarded or otherwise planned your video, you'll want to make a shot list, which is a document showing all the shots you'll need to complete the production. “You're definitely going to want a shot list,” says Swansey, “because you're going to have to plan out everything so it makes sense. You [may] have to shoot out of order, just because of [the logistics of dealing with] actors, performers, and locations.”

Coleman adds that a shot list should contain “all the camera angles for the shoot, the coverage that you're going to need, and any cutaways.” (Cutaways are shots that interrupt the main action of the video and typically show something different. You can edit them in for variety or to cover up a momentary problem in one of your primary shots.) Having the shot list on set with you will give you a checklist to make sure you get what you've planned for. You'd hate to get to the editing room and realize that you forgot an important shot.

When setting up the shot list, make sure to plan on shooting one pass of the entire band from the beginning to the end of the song. This will serve as your master shot. Even if it's not integral to the final edit (say, you end up using mostly close-ups instead), the master shot gives you reliable footage you can always cut to if needed. Typically, you'll shoot your master shot from a tripod. Avoid cheap tripods if you can. “It's important to have a really good-quality tripod, preferably with a fluid head,” says Petersen. “You could rent a tripod like that for $20 a day from a rental house.” Quality tripods make for steady-looking shots and smooth pans and can add a lot of production value.

You'll also want to plan to shoot a pass of each band member individually, playing through the whole song. These can be handheld or tripod shots. These individual shots, together with the master shot, give you lots of fodder for editing. (See the sidebar “On Location: In Studio” to see how Blue Ajay of the band Booze Monkey used this approach in an interesting way.)

In addition, depending on what your concept is, you'll want cutaway shots that you can edit in at various points for visual variety. You might want to include close-ups of the instruments as the song is being played, including the drummer hitting crashes, the kick drum pedal hitting the drum, and so forth. Consider shooting cutaways that show something other than the band playing, which you can intersperse with the performance shots. (John Taglieri did a good job of using such shots in the video for his song “Starring Role.” See the sidebar “Almost Live” for more info.)

And of course, if you have a story line going on in the video beyond just the band playing the song, you'll need to plan the shots for that. (See the sidebar “Leafy Dreams” to read about how Swansey produced and directed such a video for the band Manna and Quail.)

Light Me Up

The lighting you use can have a big impact on your video's production values. Although you won't have the benefit of state-of-the-art lighting equipment and experienced lighting designers like you would in a high-budget production, you can bring to bear serviceable illumination for your production without spending a fortune. If you're shooting in an indoor location, unless it's a performance venue with stage lighting, you're likely to need supplemental lighting. Space doesn't allow a detailed lighting discussion here, but you should be aware of the 3-point lighting technique, which is the basic method used in video and photography. This method consists of a key light, which provides the main illumination; a fill light, which fills in shadows caused by the key light; and a backlight for adding illumination from behind. A good basic primer on this technique can be found at mediacollege.com/lighting/three-point.

When you're on location, shoot a lot of tests to see how your lighting is working for each particular scene. Are there problems with shadows on the band members' faces? Does it look bright enough overall? Is the lighting harsh? Just as you'd move a mic around to find the sweet spot when setting up for a recording session, do the same with your lighting, prior to shooting, until you're satisfied with the results.

Petersen recommends renting lighting. “In most big cities there are film/video rental houses. And as long as you have a credit card to leave a deposit, you can rent a kit of lights,” he says. “You can rent a Lowel lighting kit, which is one of the standards in the industry. You typically get three high-output quartz lights with stands and barn doors [shuttering devices for the lights].” (Lowel also has a good site for learning lighting techniques: lowel.com/edu.)

Coleman suggests a more DIY approach: “If you're just trying to do basic lighting and just need some even light, it's so easy to go down to your local hardware store, to Home Depot, and get some clip lights.” Then, he says, “go to a photo/video/studio place and get some 250W, 32K [photoflood] bulbs.” You can mount the lights on tripod stands. (P.A. speaker stands would do the trick, for example.) Coleman also recommends purchasing some gels (translucent colored plastic) for filtering, which can be held on the lights with wooden clothespins. Make sure the lights can handle the bulbs' wattage, and be careful of anything flammable touching the bulbs to reduce fire hazards. If you're shooting for only one day, it might be cheaper just to rent, and you'll get better lights that way.

A less expensive option is to shoot your video outdoors to take advantage of natural lighting. You might want to factor that in when planning your location. Although natural light can make it possible to avoid the expense of renting or buying lighting, it can be tricky because the light changes as the day wears on, and you're at the mercy of the weather.

“The best thing you can hope for is a bright cloudy day — that's absolutely perfect,” says Petersen. “When you look out the window and it's bright sunshine but it's cloudy, with an even light, that's the day you want to shoot.” When doing an outdoor shoot, avoid working at noon, when the sun is directly overhead. “You don't want things to be directly overlit, or top lit,” says Swansey. “The more sidelight you get, the better things will look.” Not only will overhead sunlight look harsh on camera, says Petersen, but “you're going to have all kinds of shadow problems.”

If shadows are causing difficulties at your outdoor shoot, Petersen suggests using a piece of white foam core (aka foam board), an inexpensive, cardboardlike material, as a reflector. “Hold it just off camera, up near somebody, to reflect some sunshine into the person's face.”

I Sync, Therefore I Am

Because you'll be lip-syncing in a concept video, you'll need a way to hear the music as you pretend to play. If no sound system is available in your location, a boombox will work in a pinch. To facilitate syncing your video to the song on the CD, you'll need to make a special version of the song with a count-off added at the beginning. For the sake of this discussion, I'll refer to this as the “CD Mix.” The count-off will allow you to start lip-syncing the song right from the beginning, and the clicks or beeps of the count will also serve as your slate — your master timing reference. You'll eventually get rid of the count-off when you're editing, but it makes lining up the song in your video-editing software significantly easier. Using a CD player, which is frequency-locked at 44.1 kHz, assures that your reference track will record at exactly the right speed.

When you're shooting passes of the song, such as the master or individual shots, you should record the sound of the CD Mix (including the count-off) coming out of the boombox through the camera's mic. Note that you'll be using that audio only for the purpose of syncing. Shoot each video pass from the beginning to the end of the song, including the count-off.

When you're editing, import your various video tracks into the video editor's timeline, and also import the CD Mix. Then line up the clicks on the CD Mix with the clicks on the audio picked up by the camera's mic when shooting the video (which will show up as an audio track in your editor for each video track you've imported in), and your CD Mix will be in sync with the video. Zoom in really close so that you can make sure those clicks start exactly at the same time. Mute all the camera-recorded audio before playback.

If you happen to shoot small video segments that didn't start at the beginning of the song (and therefore don't include the count-off), you can do what's called wild syncing, which entails manually lining up the video with the CD Mix during the editing process, without the benefit of the count-off.

You'll use the audio picked up by the camera's mic for this purpose, too. As long as you know what part of the song the wild footage is from, you can line it up pretty easily. Look for transients such as snare drum hits to use as reference points. “There's always going to be something that you can't line up,” Swansey says. “Whether it's the singer's mouth [or something else], it's really easy to get it within one or two frames. And then after that, you watch it a couple times, it won't feel right, and then you move it one frame over and it will be right on. It's really not a hard process, it's just a little tedious.”

Got the Shot

Space doesn't allow a detailed description of camera techniques, but here are a few pointers. As mentioned, use a quality tripod whenever possible. Avoid zooming or panning quickly; instead, go slowly and evenly.

In addition, learn and observe the rule of thirds, which guides you for framing a subject in a shot. Basically, it says to mentally divide the frame into thirds, both vertical and horizontal, and to place the subject at one of the points where those lines intersect rather than dead center. You can find a lot of camera technique info online, such as at mediacollege.com/video/camera/tutorial.

As for the format of your video, shoot at the best quality you can. If you have an HD capable camera, by all means shoot in high definition. Although HD has a 16:9 aspect ratio (the ratio of horizontal to vertical dimensions), which is wider than that of standard video (4:3), that extra width is often a godsend for band videos, where you need to get four or five people constantly into a single shot. HD video will show up as letterboxed in a video screen, with black fields above and below the picture, but viewers are accustomed to that and it shouldn't hinder you from shooting in HD.

The only disadvantage to HD is that your file sizes will be larger. This brings up an important point. Whether shooting in 16:9 or 4:3, video files take up a great deal of hard-drive space. You should have a dedicated drive with plenty of free gigabytes, and ideally an equal-sized drive to back up your files. You don't want to go through the time and effort to shoot a video and then lose all your data to a hard-drive crash.

To Great Effect

Used judiciously, visual effects can add spice to a music video. You might think they'd be too expensive or complicated for a DIY production, but there are actually some striking ones you can incorporate relatively simply and without spending a dime. Petersen describes one in which you put a camera on a tripod and start with a shot of the whole band playing: “Then you leave the camera exactly where it is on the tripod, or just leave the camera rolling, and you take everything away. Strike all the gear and all the band members,” he says (alternatively, you could leave the gear and just have the band members go). When you're editing, you do a dissolve between the latter shot (with no band) into the former shot (with the band). Petersen continues, “Since the fixed elements in that shot haven't moved — the furniture, the trees in the background, or whatever — the effect is that the people in the band will materialize into the shot. It's really cool, and it's easy and simple.”

John Taglieri used a variation on that effect in the video of his song “Starring Role” (see the sidebar “Almost Live”). “At the end, we took one of the cameras and mounted it on top of a [P.A.] stack and shot the song three times, with all of us switching instruments,” he recalls. “We would shoot and then switch instruments. Near the end of the video — and you'll see that for every beat of the song — we're all in a new place. Everyone went from playing drums to playing guitar to playing keys to playing bass. But the camera never moved, so we just magically switch places.”

Petersen describes yet another no-budget effect: “You can have your lead singer or your band have scenes where they're walking backwards. You shoot the whole scene with everybody in the band doing their actions backwards. Usually you have to storyboard these pretty carefully,” he says. “Then [when editing] take that whole clip and reverse it so that essentially it looks like the band is walking forwards but everything in the world behind them is going backwards.”

Those are just some of the effects that are possible. With a little ingenuity, you can come up with plenty more. If you have some graphics abilities, you can even incorporate some simple animation (see the online bonus material “Acting Animated”).

Splicing and Dicing

Assuming that you have a basic working knowledge of your video-editing software, here are a few additional points to keep in mind: when transferring video into your computer (known as capturing), you should name each shot according to your shot list. This will make the process of assembling your video a lot faster, and you won't have to constantly watch your video clips to figure out what they are.

Adjust your software's settings to match the native format and size of the video from your camera. Keep it uncompressed if you have enough disk space. It's best to have little or no compression on your master video, because you're going to have to compress it heavily when you put it online, and you want to avoid having to compress more than once if possible.

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FIG. 2: This shows video tracks stacked in the Timeline in Apple''s Final Cut Pro. Like in other pro video editors, the topmost track is the one that''s visible in the video (in most situations). You can make a lower track visible by cutting the track or tracks above it for the duration you want it to show.

Line up your various video tracks using the method described earlier (see “I Sync, Therefore I Am”). Once everything is playing in sync, hit Save, and then save a copy of the video project under a different name. If you knock something out of sync as you're editing, you can always go back to a synced copy. You also want to take the precaution of “saving as” every time you make a significant change (or every 20 minutes or so) and naming each successive save incrementally. That way, if you go off in a direction that you later regret, you can backtrack.

In Apple's Final Cut Pro (which is the editor in Final Cut Studio), Adobe Premiere, and most pro video-editing software, the video track at the top of the timeline is the one that is active (not including titles and other non-full-frame tracks). What shows in the top track shows in the video. Because you're likely to be dealing with multiple tracks that are stacked on top of each other in the timeline, the simplest way to get one of the lower tracks to be active is to cut out tracks above it for as long as you want that track to show through (see Fig. 2). Doing so makes it easy to try different shots at a particular point in time.

Putting It All Together

Although I've only scratched the surface with this article, my aim was to demonstrate that even though there are a lot of aspects to a music-video production and many skills are required, you can produce a credible music video if you put in the effort. It won't be easy, but it can be extremely rewarding.

Between you, your fellow musicians, and your friends, you're likely to have the skills and gear you need to make the leap into the music-video world. As a creative musician, you're sure to enjoy the process, and the resulting video can be a great promotional vehicle for your act. So what are you waiting for? Start storyboarding.

Mike Levine is EM's executive editor and senior media producer. He hosts the twice-monthly Podcast “EM Cast” (emusician.com/podcasts).

On Location: In Studio

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FIG. A: The video of Booze Monkey''s “Dick Frankenstein''s Night Out” was shot in the home studio of Blue Ajay, who played all the instruments in the video.

Sometimes you don't have to go far to find a location. Blue Ajay, who fronts the band Booze Monkey (reverbnation.com/boozemonkey), shot his most recent video in his own studio (see Fig. A) for the song “Dick Frankenstein's Night Out” (see Web Clip A). The video features Ajay playing all the instruments.

The video was shot with a Sony DCRTRV-900, which is a consumer model MiniDV camera. “My girlfriend of many years does most of the camera work,” says Ajay. “We went one instrument at a time. Usually there were several takes for each instrument.”

Ajay was able to get enough brightness from the lights in the studio that he didn't need any supplemental lighting. He says that setting your camcorder correctly can be very helpful to shooting quality video. “I only buy camcorders with manual white balance [control],” he says. “If you use manual white balance, you can get rid of that amber tint that usually comes in your household lighting. It just makes the colors very natural, as long as you, between every shot, get your white balance set. Just take a piece of printer paper, hold it up against the wall, and get the white balance as needed.”

When planning the video, Ajay decided to give it a frenzied feel because of the subject matter of the song. “Because it was so chaotic and had a lot of quick cuts,” he says, “I had her do all handheld camera work. And she just moved around and worked the camera. She's very good with the camera. I would go ahead and crank the music up in the studio through speakers, because that way it picks up in your camcorder and makes the syncing very easy after the fact.”

Ajay edited the video in Adobe Premiere. “I'd just pile them [the various takes] on top of each other and tweak the heck out of it,” he says. “The only hard part is all those fast cuts.”

Because the video was shot in his studio, Ajay didn't have the time pressures of being on location. If need be, he could always reshoot something later if there was a problem or if a needed shot was missing. But that wasn't necessary in this case. The video was shot in one night, and the editing took two days.

Leafy Dreams

Director Tony Swansey used a number of locations (mostly outdoor) in a Michigan suburb to shoot the song “Fill Me Up” for the band Manna and Quail (see Web Clip B). When a friend in the band asked him to direct the video, Swansey readily accepted, and soon came up with a concept. “I kind of saw this as this kid on a journey. What looks like a normal day to anybody else is a journey for this kid. It was just the visuals that I saw when I listened to this song. That's how I operate: I'll just listen to a song until something clicks.”

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FIG. B: Manna and Quail''s video of “Fill Me Up” features scenes shot at double speed and then slowed down to 100 percent.

With the concept in mind, Swansey drew up storyboards for the video. Next, he and his camera operator worked out a shot list. The video switches between scenes of a kid walking around his neighborhood and shots of the band playing (see Fig. B). It also includes a group of dancing kids, and actors in animal costumes. The video, which was shot during the fall, features many scenes where leaves are falling in and around the action. (An off-camera leaf blower helped create the falling-leaf effect.)

Because the video was shot outdoors and was naturally lit, it required careful planning. “We had to go scout that little area,” Swansey says, “and we had to basically take note of where the sun was and what time we had to be over there to have our light the way we wanted it.”

Swansey used the sunlight to his advantage, backlighting many of the shots and giving a dreamy feel to the video, which was shot in HD. He accentuated that dreaminess by shooting the footage of the band playing at double speed. Then, during editing, the video was slowed back to normal. “That way,” Swansey explains, “the leaves will fall slower, the movements will be smoother.” The biggest challenge to doing it that way was that it meant the band had to play along to a mix of the song that was at 200 percent normal speed. Luckily, the band adapted well to it. “It only took them one or two times because they knew the song so well,” says Swansey.

Almost Live

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FIG. C: John Taglieri''s “Starring Role” video alternates lip-synced performance shots with cutaways of the band offstage.

John Taglieri's video of his song “Starring Role” (see Web Clip C) was shot in the showcase room of a rehearsal studio in New Jersey. It was directed by a friend who had some film-business experience but was looking to break in as a director. The video consists mostly of shots of the band onstage lip-syncing to the song (see Fig. C), which was playing back through the P.A. system. The band actually played along with the music rather than just pretending to. “We didn't want it to look lip-synced,” says Taglieri.

In addition to the performance shots, there were a bunch of cutaways shot of the band horsing around between takes. These were presented in grainy black and white. Using black and white for the cutaways was done “just to differentiate the two points of view,” says Taglieri. The editing was full of fast cuts and added to the energy of the song.

Although the concept seems simple, it was storyboarded in advance. “We drew out a lot of what we had and we timelined it,” Taglieri says. “Then it was just a matter of recording the song enough times so that he [the director] could get a few takes of every person doing the entire song. And then we had enough footage to go back and choose a lot of different moments to be the right ones for the video.”