“Lights! Camera! Action!” aptly summarizes the major responsibilities of the music video director. Directors are well known for their part in guiding actors, but they are involved in much more—casting, costuming, cinematography, lighting, editing, and sound recording. Music video directors must have insight into the many tasks that go into the creation of a music video, and they must have a broad vision of how each part will contribute to the final product.
Music video producers often work with the music video director by overseeing the budget, production schedule, and other tasks associated with music video production. There are approximately 58,000 directors and producers employed in the television, video, cable, and motion picture industries.
Music Video Director and Producer Career History
Music videos gained popular, mainstream appeal when MTV, the first all-music cable channel, was formed in 1981. But music videos have actually been around more than 100 years. In 1890, George Thomas, a photographer, created the first live-model illustrated song. Set to the song, “The Little Lost Child,” this series of photographic images printed on glass slides (and backed by live singers and musicians) hit vaudeville stages, and later, movie theaters. Customers lined up to see the shows. Suddenly, a new music sub-industry was born: illustrating popular songs to help sell sheet music.
The first music videos, called Soundies, were developed in the 1940s. They were composed of footage of a band or a solo singer simply performing a song on a stage. Soundies were used to promote artists (usually jazz musicians, but also torch singers, dancers, and comedians) as videos are used today.
Richard Lester is considered to be the father of contemporary music video. His exuberant, full-length films in the mid-1960s with The Beatles, such as A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, were groundbreaking explorations of music and storytelling. Many of the musical segments in these movies were precursors to styles that we see in today’s music videos. In fact, MTV took notice of Lester’s work by presenting him with an award for his contributions to the art of music video in the 1980s.
Michael Nesmith, a member of the rock group The Mon-kees, is largely credited with creating the first music videos of the modern era. He made short, musical films for the television show Saturday Night Live in 1979, and the first video album, Elephant Parts, in 1981. The art form grew quickly in the 1980s with the popularity of MTV, which played music videos 24 hours a day, seven days a week. (Today, ironically, reality television shows and other nonmusic programming compete with music videos for airtime on MTV.) Most recording artists released music videos for their singles to generate interest in and sales for their latest albums.
The music video industry has come a long way from George Thomas’s live-model illustrated songs. Advances such as computer-generated animation, digital filming, and digital sound have given music video directors more tools to work with and the ability to produce an increasing variety of looks, sounds, and characters in their finished videos. One constant remains from Thomas’s days: Music videos still play a major role in helping companies sell product—whether sheet music, CDs, music videos, Internet downloads, or concert tickets.
Music Video Director and Producer Job Description
Music video directors and producers often work together as a team to create music videos for record companies and other employers. (Occasionally, a director may be responsible for all of the producer’s tasks.) Though the director and producer work as a team, they generally approach their collaborative effort from two distinct vantage points. In short, the director is concerned with aesthetic issues such as the look, feel, and sound of the video. Directors bear the ultimate responsibility for the tone and quality of the videos they work on. They are involved in preproduction (before the shoot), production (during the shoot), and postproduction (after the shoot). The producer is concerned with more practical concerns such as electricity and catering, logistics, and business-related issues.
To be considered for jobs, music video directors and producers must present a bid (a written estimate of how much money they will need to shoot and complete the video) and a treatment to music recording executives, most often a video commissioner or marketing director. A treatment is a written overview of what a director plans to do in the music video. This is the director’s only opportunity to convince music industry executives that he or she is the right person for the job. Some music video directors write only one treatment for a video, while others write three or more treatments and choose what they think is the best one for submission. Music video treatments are typically two pages long and answer questions such as: How will the video look and feel? What story will the video tell to viewers? Will the video feature music performance only, a story only, or a combination of the two? What type of medium will be used to shoot the music video: 16mm film, 35mm film, video, or a combination of several formats? During this time the director and producer meet with the music video editor, who shares their vision about the music video. They discuss the objectives of the video and the best way to present the artist’s image including settings, scenes, special effects, costumes, and camera angles.
After the director and producer submit the treatment, record industry executives review it and suggest revisions based on the project’s budget and stylistic concerns. The director and producer then submit a revised treatment that is reviewed, and eventually approved, by the video commissioner, marketing director, music artist’s manager, and the artist. Once a treatment is accepted, the director and producer begin work on the music video within days or weeks.
Music video directors are responsible for many tasks before and during the shoot. They interpret the stories and narratives presented in scripts and coordinate the filming of their interpretations. To do this, the director creates a shooting script and storyboards as a guide to assist in making the video. Music video directors must audition, select, and rehearse the acting crew, which may include dancers, actors, stunt performers, and backup musicians, as well as work closely with the musical artist in the video. They oversee set designs and costumes and decide where scenes should be shot, what backgrounds might be needed, and how special effects could be used. Directors might also book crew members, hire vendors, and ensure that gear and locations are secured. Music video producers may handle some of these tasks so that the director can focus on the more artistic aspects of the production.
Music video directors are occasionally assisted by directors of photography (DPs), or cinematographers, who are responsible for organizing and implementing the actual camera work. The director and the DP interpret scenes and decide on appropriate camera motion to achieve desired results. The DP determines the amounts of natural and artificial lighting required for each shoot and such technical factors as the type of film to be used, camera angles and distance, depth of field, and focus.
Music videos, like motion pictures, are usually filmed out of sequence, meaning that the ending might be shot first and scenes from the middle of the video might not be filmed until the end of production. Directors are responsible for scheduling each day’s sequence of scenes. They coordinate filming so that scenes using the same set and performers will be filmed together. In addition to conferring with the producer and the DP (if one is used during the shoot), music video directors meet with technicians and crew members to advise on and approve final scenery, lighting, props, and other necessary equipment. They are also involved with final approval of costumes and choreography.
After all the scenes have been shot, postproduction begins. The director and producer work with picture and sound editors to create the final product. The music video editor assembles shots according to the wishes of the director and producer and his or her own artistic sensibility, synchronizing film with voice and sound tracks produced by the sound editor and music editor.
When the music video is complete, the director and producer submit it to their employer (such as a record company, a production company, etc.) for final review. The employer may return the video for tweaking or major revisions. The video is revised and resubmitted until it meets the approval of the employer.
While music video directors and producers supervise all major aspects of music video production, various assistants—especially in big-budget productions—help throughout the process. In a less creative position than the director, the first assistant director organizes various practical matters involved during the shooting of each scene. The second assistant director is a coordinator who works as a liaison among the production office, the first assistant director, and the performers.
Music Video Director and Producer Career Requirements
The career paths of music video directors and producers are rather nontraditional. There is no standard training or normal progression up an industry ladder leading to the jobs of director or producer. At the very least, a high school diploma, while not technically required, will still probably be indispensable to you in terms of the background and education it signifies. (A high school diploma will be necessary if you decide to attend film school.) As is true of all artists, especially those in a medium as widely disseminated as music videos, you will need to have rich and varied experience in order to create works that are intelligently crafted and speak to people of many different backgrounds. In high school, courses in music, English (especially writing), art, theater, and history will give you a good foundation. If your high school offers film history or film production classes, be sure to take those courses. Visit the Web site of the American Film Institute http://www.afi.com/) for a list of high schools that offer film courses and other resources for students and teachers. Don’t forget to take computer classes, since computer technology plays a major role in this industry. Finally, be active in school and community drama productions, whether as a performer, set designer, or cue-card holder.
High school courses that will be of assistance to you in your work as a producer include business, mathematics, English, speech, computer science, economics, music, and psychology.
There are more than 500 film studies programs in the United States. According to the American Film Institute, the most reputable are Columbia University in New York City, New York University, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of Southern California.
The debate continues on what is more influential in a music video directing career: personal experience or professional training. Some say that it is possible for creative people to land directing jobs without having gone through a formal program. Competition is so pervasive in the industry that even film school graduates find jobs scarce (only 5 to 10 percent of the 26,000 students who graduate from film schools each year find jobs in the industry). On the other hand, film school offers an education in fundamental directing skills by working with student productions. Such education is rigorous, but in addition to teaching skills it provides aspiring music video directors with peer groups and a network of contacts with students, faculty, and guest speakers that can be of help after graduation.
As with the career of director, a college degree is not required to be successful as a producer, but many producers earn college degrees. Formal study of business, film, television, music, communications, theater, writing, English literature, or art at the college level is helpful, as the music video producer must have a varied knowledge base to do his or her job successfully.
Music video directors must have a strong creative vision for their projects, but they must be able to work with producers, editors, record company executives, and other industry professionals. They should be decisive leaders with an excellent knowledge of music videos and the narrative forms necessary to create them.
Music video producers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Some start out as directors, musicians, business school graduates, actors, or production assistants. Many have never formally studied music video production or film. Most producers, however, get their positions through several years of experience in the industry, perseverance, and a keen sense for what projects will be artistically and commercially successful.
Exploring Music Video Director and Producer Career
To see if you have what it takes to be a music video director or producer, the most obvious opportunity for exploration lies in your own imagination. Studying music videos, films, and other types of media and the process of how they are made is the beginning of the journey to work in these fields.
In high school and beyond, pay attention to music videos. Watch them at every opportunity. Study commercials, television shows, and films that incorporate musical elements to see what makes them interesting. Try to imitate their style using your own or borrowed equipment—no matter how basic it is. Learn how to use a camera and how to edit what you shoot using a computer.
One of the best ways to get experience is to volunteer for a student or low-budget film project; positions on such projects are often advertised in local trade publications. Community cable stations also hire volunteers and may even offer internships.
To learn more about the music industry in general, read Variety (http://variety.com/) and Rolling Stone (http://www.rollingstone.com/). The Directors Guild of America’s official publication DGA Magazine contains much information on the industry. If you are unable to find this magazine at a public library or bookstore, visit the DGA Web site (http://www.dga.org/) to read sample articles.
Many camps and workshops offer summer programs for high school students interested in film work. For example, the New York Film Academy offers a summer program for students aged 14-17. Classes include filmmaking, producing, acting, and screenwriting. For information, call the Academy at 212-674-4300 or visit its Web site, https://www.nyfa.edu/.
Music video directors are usually employed on a freelance or contractual basis. Directors and producers find work, for example, with record companies, with advertising agencies, and through the creation of their own independent video projects. Keep in mind that the music video industry is not the only avenue for employment. Directors and producers work on documentaries, on television productions, in the film industry, and with various types of video presentations, from music to business. The greatest concentrations of music video directors and producers are in Los Angeles and New York City. More than 58,000 directors and producers are employed in the television, video, cable, and motion picture industries.
Rarely do people start their careers as music video directors or producers. With no set training methods, these jobs are hard to get just starting out. However, there are many things you can do to break into the industry.
First of all, you need to be willing to work for little or no money to get your foot in the door. To get started, ask local bands if you can direct their next video or see if you can do the same for your church choir or another local musical group. In short, grab any directing or producing opportunity that comes along, whether it relates to music or not.
Once you have gained some experience shooting or producing music videos, you should create a demo reel of your best work and send it to record companies and other potential employers. This will show employers that you are interested in and skilled enough to enter the industry.
Many in the industry suggest that aspiring directors and producers should try to land an internship or entry-level employment as a production assistant at a production company. In addition to your regular duties, you will learn how to bid on projects, get experience writing treatments, and learn production and business tips from directors and producers.
As mentioned earlier, film school is a breeding ground for making contacts in the industry. Often, contacts are the essential factor in getting a job; many music video industry insiders agree that it’s not only what you know but who you know that will get you a job. Networking often leads to good opportunities at various types of jobs in the industry. Many professionals recommend that those who want to become directors and producers should go to Los Angeles or New York, find any industry-related job, continue to take classes, and keep their eyes and ears open for news of job openings, especially with those professionals who are admired for their talent.
Another way to start out is through the Assistant Directors Training Program of the Directors Guild of America (contact information is listed at the end of this article). This program provides an excellent opportunity to those without industry connections to work on film and television productions. The program is based at two locations, New York City for the East Coast Program and Sherman Oaks, California, for the West Coast Program. Trainees receive hands-on experience through placement with major studios or on television movies and series. Programs also include formal training through mandatory seminars. The East Coast Program requires trainees to complete of up to 350 days of on-set production work; the West Coast Program requires 400 days. While working, program trainees are paid a beginning weekly salary of $540. Once trainees have completed the program, they become freelance second assistant directors and can join the DGA. The competition is extremely stiff for these positions; each program usually accepts 20 or fewer trainees from among 800 to 1,200 applicants each year.
In the music video industry, advancement often comes with recognition. Directors who work on well-received music videos receive awards as well as more lucrative and prestigious job offers. Some directors choose to advance by leaving the music video industry for work in the motion picture or other related industries. Spike Jonze is an excellent example of a music video director who made the jump to feature film directing. In the early 1990s, Jonze made a name as the director of well-received music videos for REM and the Beastie Boys, and then used the skills he developed directing music videos to create award-winning feature films such as Being John Malkovich and Adaptation. Other music video directors who have made the transition to feature film directing include Brett Ratner (Rush Hour, Red Dragon), David Fincher (Fight Club, Panic Room), and Michael Bay (Armageddon, Pearl Harbor).
Advancement for producers is generally measured by the types of projects they do, increased earnings, and respect in the field. Some producers become directors or make enough money to finance their own projects.
According to the Music Video Insider, music video directors earn approximately 10 percent of a video’s operating budget before production fees and insurance costs are factored into the budget. Budgets can range from as little as a few thousand dollars to millions of dollars for the creation of a video for a top artist. The U.S. Department of Labor reports that directors and producers earned salaries that ranged from less than $26,940 to $145,600 or more in 2004. The median annual salary for directors and producers employed in the video and motion picture industries was $89,410. Directors and producers who work on a freelance basis must pay for their own health insurance as well as the costs of operating a business.
The work of the music video director can be glamorous and prestigious. But directors work under great stress, meeting deadlines, staying within budgets, and resolving problems among staff members. “Nine-to-five” definitely does not describe a day in the life of a music video director; 16-hour days (and more) are not uncommon. Because directors are ultimately responsible for every aspect of a video, schedules often dictate that they become immersed in their work around the clock, from preproduction to final cut. Nonetheless, those able to make it in the industry find their work to be extremely enjoyable and satisfying.
Music video producers have greater control over their working conditions than most other people working in the music video industry. They may have the autonomy of setting their own hours and delegating duties to others as necessary. The work often brings considerable personal satisfaction. But it is not without constraints. Producers must work within a stressful schedule complicated by competing work pressures and often daily crises. Long hours and weekend work are common.
Music video directors and producers frequently travel to meetings with potential employers and to filming locations. Music videos are made in almost every setting imaginable—from a dark, dingy warehouse to a Caribbean beach to a nondescript sidewalk in a small town. Successful directors and producers enjoy traveling and the demanding aspects of work in this field.
Music Video Director and Producer Career Outlook
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, employment for directors and producers is expected to grow about as fast as the average for all occupations through 2014. Though opportunities will increase with the expansion of cable and satellite television and an increased overseas demand for American-made music videos and films, competition is extreme and turnover is high. Most positions in the music video industry are held on a freelance basis. As is the case with most careers in the music video industry, directors and producers are usually hired to work on one video at a time. After a video is completed, new contacts must be made for further assignments.