In this installment of Cheap Trick, music video director Leah McKissock sheds her insight and know-how on making a decent music video with little monetary funds.
No one ever said making music videos was easy. Making good music videos on a low-budget is even harder. I’ve been making music videos independently (outside the system of reps, production companies, and commissioners) for many years and have been slowly working my way up to bigger budgets. However, no matter how much the budget increases, it doesn’t change the process. My producer and I are always trying to find a way to push our budget as hard as we can. We always have to cut our own pay way down (or entirely) and we always have to try to work out deals with everyone. It doesn’t have to be this way, I suppose, but if you care immensely about the quality of your work it kind of goes with the territory. If you’re interested in making low-budget music videos that can stand strong against the big ones, than my list of 7 tips (based on personal experiences in dealing with this) could serve to help you in your difficult journey ahead.
Tip #1: Give yourself time
“Haven’t you heard the saying? Good, fast, and cheap–everyone wants all three, but it’s only possible to have two!” said my cinematographer on my last music video shoot. As I was stunned by the bold wisdom of her argument, I began to realize that this basically sums up the unavoidable problem with filmmaking. In music videos, when you consider the “iron triangle” concept you’ll especially find that what most bands and record labels ask for is impossible. That said, you need to carefully consider all three of these game-changing factors (good, fast, and cheap) before you even start planning the video. Since you can’t make your video good, fast, and cheap all at once, you have to decide which of these are your biggest priority. In all of my experiences, the first thing I choose to let go of is “fast.” “Good” is my main priority because what’s the point of making the video if it’s not. “Cheap” isn’t up to me, but time is just there, so why not spend more of it making the video good?
All of my videos (especially the lowest budget ones) took a lot of time to make. Often 6 months total from beginning to end. This I would say is probably the most important tip I could give. You have to make sure that no one is rushing you to complete the video in an unreasonable amount of time (and by unreasonable I mean “will affect the quality of the final product”). I definitely cannot stress this piece of advice enough. Another important thing to note is that you have to make sure that both the song and artist you’re making the video for is worth all of that painstaking time and energy. You’re essentially spending a lot of free time (yours and others’) to make something that promotes the artist more than yourself, so it’s best to feel passionate about the song and work with nice people who appreciate your efforts.
Tip #2: Make “low-budget” cool
Sometimes low-budget videos have a charm and quirkiness that expensive ones will never have. I say use that to your advantage. Make the low-budget aspects of your video look that way on purpose. To me, this is how all the greatest filmmakers achieved something special on a low budget; and in music videos a lot of the best concepts are simple and done in a clever way.
My video for LBCK, “Start,” for example, cost 1K. We shot it on a Canon 5D over the course of 2 days, with a 15 person crew (that all worked for free), in a small lighting studio at my school. The video relies mostly on a stop-motion animation effect, done in front of a solid white screen and towards the end of the video, a green screen. The idea was for one dancer to do the same choreography over and over again as the color of her hair and wardrobe pieces change to the beat of the song. If we had a higher budget (or if we wanted to be lazy), we could have just keyed out each changing element and altered them in post, but instead I wanted to take the long route and make it look low-budget on purpose. I made our dancer (Eloise DeLuca) do the choreography and change costumes hundreds of times. She knew ahead of time that this was the schedule, but definitely started to hate me by the end of it. When the video was all cut together and done though, it was clear that making the changes in-camera gave the video a lot more life. At the end of the day, I think you have to let the video be what it is. Make your video proud of it’s own low-budgetness!
Tip #3: Keep the crew small
The less people you have on set, the less people you have to pay and spend money on feeding. Obviously, you can’t exploit people. Each department has to be comfortable with their support team for the work they’re accomplishing, but you have to be reasonable. A lot of film sets have too many people standing around doing nothing. You have to really figure out ahead of time (with each department) how many people you reasonably need to pull it off. When on a low budget the simpler the concepts are and the less crew members you need, the better.
Tip #4: Shoot where you know
Locations can be one of the most expensive parts of filmmaking. The best way to get around this problem is to shoot in places you already have access to (like your apartment or your school). The other way to add production value to your video is to shoot guerilla-style in locations with good natural lighting. Often if you have a very stripped-down cast and crew and are shooting on a small camera, you can get away with this. I’ve even done it on larger cameras (like the Arri Alexa) and haven’t gotten stopped because the area was low-key enough and we shot what we needed very quickly. Definitely keep your shots simple and strip it down to less shots if you’re going to take this approach, but I do highly recommend it for low-budget videos.
Tip #5: Get a kick-ass producer
Your producer’s job is one of the most difficult when dealing with low budgets. If you don’t have a producer that kicks ass and truly believes in your project, then they won’t be able to make the tight financial constraints work. The most valuable thing a project can have is a producer with killer connections. You can get all kinds of deals if your producer knows the right people (i.e., good crew members, equipment, and services all for less). My best producer has saved me thousands of dollars and made my projects look like they cost 5xs as much. Find someone that you click with and knows how to stretch a dollar like crazy.
Tip #6: Find student deals
If you’re a band looking for someone to make you a low-budget video or you’re a director looking for a producer, I highly recommend you find a student in film school. A student in any film department will have access to equipment, tons of spots on campus that you can shoot in for free, access to discounted permits, and mad discounts at prop houses. (Side note: *If you live in LA, go to Sony Props and ask about their student discount. It’s insane!).
Directors and producers who are already graduated from film school will have a much more difficult time trying to make something on a super low budget. So bands, go find a talented student to make your video if you’re trying to make it with less than 5K. Trust me, they can stretch that budget way further than anyone signed to a production company can.
For example, another video I directed while I was a student was for His Orchestra, on a project called “Black Coffin.” This video was shot in 1 day and done entirely on a stage of a theater at my school. Everyone worked for free and we borrowed a lot of equipment from the film department. When you’re in film school, a lot of people are looking to gain experience as crew members, but also, all of the dancers in the video were students as well which helped the project out enormously. Finding student deals is the only way I was ever able to pull off ultra low-budget music videos while still maintaining high production value.
Tip #7: Wear multiple hats
Another essential tip in making a cool low-budget music video is to wear multiple hats. Although you can’t do every position on set (that would be suicide), you can however do a couple of jobs that are easier for you to do than to try and communicate what you want to others. For me, the areas I used to do myself while simultaneously directing were usually production design and editing. I still edit my own projects all the time because a) you save money and b) you can get what you want easier and faster. Obviously, the jobs that you take on will be different for each director. Some people shoot their own videos instead of having to hire a cinematographer, other people produce their own stuff, etc. All I know is that if you want to save money in certain areas, find what else you’re good at doing and wear multiple hats. This is crucial for pulling off your vision on a low budget.
In conclusion to my 7 tips, here is a link to my latest music video. Although this video is not so low budget (according to most people’s standards these days), all 7 of my tips were still applied to the making of this project and it certainly wouldn’t exist otherwise. Good luck to your low-budget music video making! I hope my tips and advice will find you well.
About Leah: Leah is a music video director based in LA. She began making films at the tender age of 8, tinkering with her parents’ video camera and oftentimes experimenting with stop-motion animation and in-camera effects. Her awards include the Grand Prize of the OnVidi Student Video Contest and the Best Student Video at the 2011 Los Angeles Music Video Festival (LAMVF). You can learn more about her at leahmckissock.com