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Turn off the music, then turn it on

Tips & Resources

By Cecilia Ang

So I attended a workshop held by TheFilmSchool as part of their First Tuesdays program yesterday. It was a session on visual storytelling and the speaker was Brian McDonald.  He brought up interesting thoughts about how should one pen a screenplay and also what approach should we take in watching films to know if the visuals successfully tell the story. Taking that tip, I’d like to share about how we could view music videos these days, beyond its glitz and glamour of the artist and elaborate set up.

Music video is a highly stylized form of narrative. It allows jumps in time frame without causing disorientation; it allows a saturated use of filters and special effects without coming across as unnatural; it allows an artist to perform, without having to say a word. In fact, if you strip everything aforementioned away, music videos go back to the most basic form of storytelling, just like a silent movie.

Even Miley Cyrus has a reason behind swinging on a steel ball back and forth, naked.

There is a reason why artists make videos out of their music, to put an image to their words, which is essentially like why filmmakers make film isn’t it? So, how then do we know if the images that the filmmakers have created for the music work?

Try this. For the first time you watch the video, mute the video and focus on the visuals. What Brian taught was, if the story is appealing when it has no sound, it would be even better with sound. And it works the same the other way round. Try and see if you are able to pick out the beginning, climax and the end of the story; try and see if you are able to decipher the character and their emotions through their performance.

Perhaps, we could use Carrie Underwood’s Two Black Cadillacs as an example.

The video has a really strong story and dramatic element that even without the music, you could make out the story, could you?

Now, watch the video again with music.

Did you get a better sense of the story, or even an additional new layer of story surfaced with the lyrics?

But of course, not all music videos have narrative as direct as the one above. With music, you can definitely explore other options with the various realms that the music sucks you into. Hence, we also see another kind of music video, the experimental/conceptual genre. And by that, I do not mean the infamous Robin Thicke Blurred Lines video, which created much controversy about sexualizing women through the voyeuristic shots.

I meant conceptual videos that include some form of poetry in its imagery, such as Jhene Aiko’s My Mine. 

With fast cutting images; confusing camera movements and constant off and on focus, we know that this s a story about a woman who’s state of mind is in great confusion. She is trying to get over a broken relationship, and she is not used to living in a big empty house alone. She is lost, disoriented and we know it through a sneak peak of her mind.

I did not turn on the music for the entire 4 minutes but the story struck out.

What we can take away is that, music video is a great form of narrative that in fact, challenges a filmmaker far more than conventional short film. As a filmmaker, we can make use of the simple theories to guide our construction of the story. The three main theories that are commonly discussed are

  • Todorov Theory
  • Vladimir Propp’s Character Theory
  • Claude Levi-Strauss Theory

But once you’ve mastered these theories, remember to throw them away and let the lyrics and music guide you. As Brian said in his workshop, the most important thing a screenwriter does is to keep coming up with the subtext, and let the subtext guide your story. Lyrics provide the main text for a music video so our role, as a filmmaker, is to find the subtext of the lyrics and match it with visuals, even if its pure performance from the artist, you can definitely embed stories using the shots and the set design, like how it is so artistically well done in Sara Bareilles’s Gravity. 

One long take and we see Sara Bareilles cruising through the streets, with everything fall in to place or out of place, like how gravity often disrupts our movements. Her emotional performance; well choreographed movements of the background actors and smooth camera tracking bring us through an emotional journey of loss and gain and finding our own place, out of others’ gravity.

There is no fixed structure of how you can shoot a music video, unlike short films where you have many considerations like time sequences and sound. So go ahead and be free to create the narrative that the music inspires.

Here in NFFTY, we encourage music videos as well! NFFTY opens a category just for music videos to showcase filmmakers’ extraordinary story telling abilities! So if you have a music video to submit, remember to do so asap before the fees go up again after 30th November 2013!




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