How we made a music video for FREE.

March 2, 2010 at 2:39 am (Art and Photography, Music) (, , , , , )

I already posted in-depth about my experience shooting our first-ever music video as a band.  (My first ever music video on my own music.  My first ever music video at all was acting in the Baghdaddios’ video, Gutwrench.  They have their own interesting story about filming a low-budget music video- ask them about it!)  It is a very long post.  But I thought I’d write about it again with a little more of a how-to flavor, skipping over the details about how cold it was and how much my feet hurt, and concentrating more on what we did right and wrong to make this happen.

Music videos cost thousands of dollars.  Even a low-budget music video can run you 5 grand.  They aren’t money makers- more like infomercials.  Of course, if they get play on MTV (not likely without a label, which I am decisively without), or better yet go viral, you can get crazy attention.  OK Go! was wayyy off most people’s radar before the treadmill thing- although they had my heart when I saw their first choreographed dance, to Cinnamon Lips, when they opened for The Donnas on Pier 54.

Anyway, I am doing the rockstar thing, and to truly be a rockstar I need a music video, and I knew somehow this would happen, even though I have no money.  And it did.

To be just, I didn’t spend NOTHING on the video.  I spent about $20.  $15 buying coffee and pastries for my bandmates, and $5 on tolls.  Still, this is a lot better than $5000.

So here’s how it happened:

1. I knew a guy who used to be my driver for some work I did in NJ, who was a film student at Montclair State University. When he told me that’s what he did I asked him if he could send me some clips of his work, ’cause I was going to be looking for people to do music videos for my album.  He said he was definitely interested.  I made a mental note.

2. My guitar player, Ross, is a video editor as his day job.  One day after the album and release were all done he said somewhat out of the blue, “If you want to do a music video, if you can get somebody else to film it, I’ll do the ‘post’” which I learned meant like the editing and stuff.

3. Except he didn’t really say that right out of the blue, because I had been saying for months that I was intending to make some music videos, somehow.

4. So I got the two of them together and we had a production meeting.  I decided to do the song “Toyshop” because:

a. It’s one of the shorter songs

b. it has no swearing

c. it has colorful imagery

d. it’s not a narrative- it doesn’t tell a specific story from beginning to end, which I knew would be a lot more complicated to film.  None of my songs are really strict narratives but some (like Monica’s Getting her Tits Done or ‘Kay) have more plot and precise imagery than vague ideas, thus calling for varied scenes and locations, extended lip-synching, and having to match different visual ideas to different lyrical ideas.

So Toyshop would be the most practical song to do on no budget.

5. I laid down an extremely simple concept: Get a lot of old toys and destroy them with power tools.

6. Steve, the film guy, could use free equipment at school, including the a film studio.

7. I freaked out about finding power tools- I wanted very large pieces, table saws and the like- until Steve said he could get us what we needed from his dad’s house.

8. I freaked out about finding toys that we could destroy.  I thought I could get enough by asking friends, as I have a lot of friends with kids, but people were not coming through for me.

9. Then I had a stroke of genius and called Toys for Tots.  They have restrictions on what they can give away and what they can’t, so I asked if I could have their rejects.

10. I made my request by calling the number of my local branch that was on their website, and announcing to the answerer that I had “a really random question.”  That’s the best and most honest way to handle this kind of situation.  It’s sort of pre-apologizing for not knowing which extension you should be calling, and it piques their interest, as well as prepares them for you having something complicated to say that will take more than 5 seconds of their time- if they don’t have time for a conversation then they can put you on hold.

11. I told them up front that it was for a music video.  I didn’t lie and say it was for poor children in Ghana.  People understand that starving artists need help too.  Plus people who are outside the music realm think this kinda stuff is kickass.  (I think they were disappointed that I wasn’t somebody famous though!)

12. I rounded up a few other toy donations from other sources.  There was a lot of running around the city going to as many thrift stores as possible and asking if they had anything.  Some places were very nice (one high-end place gave me a bag full of off-brand beanie babies), some were lame.  Overall it was a lot of work for little payoff.

13. I also kept on tweeting for help, until finally a friend came through with a box of old dolls that were a wonderful help.  Though interestingly, she was actually responding to a different tweet for help, but we realized the other thing wasn’t going to work, and then this came up in conversation, and voila.

14. We also decided to film an opening scene in a toy store, since Steve mentioned that he had connections at a mom-and-pop toy store.  Things got complicated when our appointment there fell through, but we kept it very simple with just me in the scene, not the whole band, so it was easy to reschedule.

15. The main shoot itself took hours and hours and hours and hours.  Wear comfortable shoes.

16. Almost everything was improvised, which saved a ton of prep time.  We just worked with what we had, and no lip-synching except at specific, pre-determined moments.  That way any shot could fit anywhere.

17. Of course we filmed the band playing.  This took a lot of time because we had to do it over and over in different ways- group shots, close-ups, focus on each of the band members for one or two runs.  But it’s good because it’s easy, and since there was very little other lip-synching it gave us a chance to do that.

18. There was a lot of me going to Ross’s place to go over the editing with him and make suggestions.

19. The files he was sending me at home were too big to get by email, RapidShare, or YouSendIt (unless you paid), but he pointed out that he could send them to me over iChat for free.  Smart!

So that’s how we made a music video in I guess 19 steps.  But a lot of mistakes were made, as well.  Here’s what they were, so you can avoid them:

1. I wasn’t always on the same page with the film crew (who were basically acting as directors), although we thought we were by conversation.  But when I got to the film site a lot of things were not as I’d wanted.  They brought small tools instead of large ones, they gave us a small area to work in with one table instead of a huge room with lots of tables.  We should have communicated more visually- even though I don’t think we needed story boards, I should have drawn sketches of what I wanted, and had them take pictures of what they had arranged.

2. During the main shoot I didn’t look once at what was filmed.  I dunno if that’s cause no one invited me to or if I didn’t want to spoil the surprise, but that was stupid of me.  I was shocked when I saw the results to see how shadowy everything was, and how unflattering the lighting was on me for my close-ups.  If I had just looked one time, right at the beginning, I could have said “Wow that’s way too dark,” but I didn’t see it until it was too late.  I actually should have been checking the whole time because there’s a lot of stuff that I would have done differently if I’d seen how it was coming out.

3. Even though I was wearing relatively comfortable shoes, my feet were KILLING ME by the end of the night.  I should have sat down more.

4. I wasn’t careful with my make-up bag and didn’t bring all the pieces I needed for the second shoot (the beginning) which happened a few weeks later.  In fact, I didn’t remember exactly how I had done my make-up the first time.  I thought I would remember, but I really should have made notes somewhere.

5.  Despite all our planning around it, there was lots, and lots, and lots of traffic, severely delaying the starts of both shoots.  NEVER UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF TRAFFIC IN NY AND NJ.

So this is a How-I-Did article, not a How-To Article.  But of course people read How-I-Dids to get extract the How-To inside.  So let’s see what kind of ideas of lessons we can extrapolate from our experience.

1. Network.  You might be saying “Sure, it was easy for her, she knew people.”  We all know people!!  But you have to talk to the people in your life (like your driver, or your old pianist), and you have to want not to use people, but to involve them.  It’s a subtly huge difference.

2. Make the cold call.  It takes so much guts to pick up the phone and make a completely cold call about an extremely random situation- especially when you’re asking for a big favor from people who have no reason at all to help you out.  But you gotta do it.  If you have a good phone personality you will face a lot less rejection.  And remember- be honest about who you are and your situation, and don’t be afraid to start off “Hi, um, sorry, but I don’t know which department to ask for, I have a really random question.”

3. Some people communicate verbally, others visually.  If you don’t already totally know who you’re dealing with, err on the side of BOTH.

4. None of this would have happened if I hadn’t been determined from day 1 to do a video, and talking it up (while admitting I had no budget).  Ross wouldn’t have offered to edit, I wouldn’t have asked Steve if he was interested.  A dream becomes a plan when you start talking about it.

5. I’m not saying you have to start off having a plan B, but if plan A isn’t working you gotta turn to something else.  If I had just kept tweeting over and over that I needed toys and power tools, I wouldn’t have gotten far and would have pretty much had to abort the whole thing.

6. A props checklist is a good thing to have.  Somehow it didn’t occur to anyone to bring a microphone.  Fortunately I had a Barbie Hair Dryer.

7.  If you are going to wear a “fuck the pigs” t-shirt, cover it up when the cop pulls you over.  (That one’s for Steve!)

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