We watch and listen to music for hours every day, and music videos are everywhere. As content creators, some of us also film/direct/edit music videos, may it be for fun or for a living. I caught up with director Cole Walliser, who has directed videos for P!nk, Katy Perry, Laura Marano, and a bunch more. We discussed one aspect of a music video we don’t always think of: art direction.
A Quick Tour of the Music Industry
Today it’s hard to really stand out as an artist in the music industry. New songs and new trends come and go, but music is now a consumer good. You listen to an artist’s album and just move on to another artist on a daily basis.
Also, it’s difficult to draw attention without a video to go with a song. With YouTube being the second most popular search engine after Google and one of the biggest music streaming platforms in the world, new music videos pop up every minute.
Of course, it’s amazing because you can now easily discover new artists and new music. With these new content marketing needs, an entirely new era of young directors came out. At the same time, a new “trend” also came in with all the cuts in budgets allocated to music videos.
Thankfully, technical costs, i.e. film equipment for making a music video that looks “cinematic” also dropped drastically. It started when Canon introduced the DSLR revolution in 2008, thanks to the Canon 5D Mark II. The production costs continue going down, and the technical possibilities are still expanding. It’s an amazing time to work on music videos.
What It Takes to Make a Good Music Video
I ask myself that question a lot: What distinguishes a good music video—one you’ll want to watch over and over—from just an average one?
Of course, there are a lot of aspects involved and also personal tastes. The number one factor is probably the concept or story behind the music video. But for this article, let’s just focus on the more artistic part.
So you wrote your treatment, and everyone is happy with it. The day of the shoot, you have a lot of things to think of, especially with small crews, because low budgets usually mean fewer people on set.
You are on set, and you try to focus as much as you can on your lighting because as everyone knows, it can really make or break a music video. It goes the same way with camera movements, acting, editing, color grading, and so on.
But there is one thing we usually don’t think of because we are too much “into it.” And I have found that all those components—lighting, camera, editing, etc.—have one thing in common: art direction.
Why Art Direction Is Crucial
Personally, I think the art direction is one of the most important parts of a music video. When I talk about art direction, it’s not just a color theme or some outfits for the artist. It’s a comprehensive package that will drive you through the entire project. You have to think about it in the early stages of your project & treatment, and your proposal about art direction should definitely be in your treatment.
If you have doubts about your type of lighting, your choice of gels, your camera angles, or how your editing should look, you can always come back to the art direction that you defined at the beginning of your project. But again, that’s just my point of view.
In order to gain more insights about it, I asked Canadian director Cole Walliser what he thinks about art direction in general.
Could you introduce yourself briefly?
My name is Cole Walliser, I am a Canadian director living in Los Angeles. I’ve directed videos for Pink, Katy Perry, Tinashe, Laura Marano, and more. I work a lot in the beauty space and also direct commercial and digital content for CoverGirl, Pantene, Almay, Revlon, and others.
For you, what differentiates a “good” music video from an average one?
That’s a good and very subjective question! Typically, videos that I find “good” are the innovative ones. They do something a little different. That’s probably why I think videos by the Daniels are always so amazing, but I also find myself liking very simple videos that just hit the nail on the head as far as tone and style that match the music well. You don’t need to be all fancy and crazy—if the visuals match the emotion of the song, I find I’ll label it as good.
Have you seen a change in the music and music video industry in the past years?
Absolutely! The advent of smaller and cheaper digital cameras changed no other aspect of filmmaking more than music videos. Suddenly everyone is a director, and everyone has a music video. I actually view this as a good thing (despite budgets also getting smaller and smaller).
How would you define art direction and the importance of it in your job?
For music videos, it is paramount. A music video can be called good with zero story but amazing visuals. The same cannot be said for films, TV shows, or even commercials. Defining art direction is a little harder—it’s anything that denotes what the video should look and feel like.
How do you work on a concept for a music video? Do you rely on the art direction of the artist (or the label)?
It varies with every job. Sometimes labels or artists have a very specific vision, and it’s up to you to repackage that vision into feasible and creative production. Often it’s very loose, and they want you to interpret it. (We want an unconventional love story, or strictly a performance on a beach, for example.) And then sometimes they just give you the song, and you gotta come up with it all!
For you, what aspects of a project art direction are most influential? Camera and lenses selection, lighting, camera moves, editing, color grading, or all of these?
Personally, I view art direction more like the overall look and feel and production design. It can involve lens selection (if there are specific shots that pertain to the concept’s creative direction). It also can denote the choice of a camera: maybe the idea is to creatively shoot a whole section on 16mm. It all boils down to this: if the visual idea denotes what camera, editing, or color need to be used in order to execute that concept, art direction can dictate what those should be.
Do you think new directors should focus more on art direction nowadays to improve their work?
I think directors can do a lot of things to improve their work! Not that I think we are generally sub-par in any way, but because it’s always an evolution. You are always learning as a director, so I would say art direction should not be excluded from that, but it’s just as valuable as any other aspect of production. If you are asking specifically about music videos, though, I would say it’s marginally more important, as MVs lean heavily on the art direction.
Do you give tips or insights to artists who are just starting out in the music industry about the art direction they should follow?
I really love having these conversations with artists, and especially new artists who are defining themselves for the first time or redefining themselves. The only tip I have, really, is to look at the big picture—how does one want to be represented? Think about what makes an impact and will last, not just about what’s hot today.
If you could pick one music video you are really proud of in terms of art direction, which one would you choose and why?
I think it would be the first Tinashe music video I directed. She was just starting out as an artist, and we had very little money. We bought a bunch of Home Depot lights to recreate Maxi-Brutes and shot a dance video in a single warehouse location. Tweaked the color a lot in post-production. I thought it came out really dope!
If you could choose one artist to work with because you love his art direction, which one would you pick?
Hard to say! I love working with women artists because I feel like you can do more with them. They can be bright, dark, strong, soft, beautiful, fierce, etc… For better or for worse, the range can be so much more dynamic for female artists these days, and with that said, I’d say of course Beyonce.
One last thing you’d like to add?
Thanks for giving me the opportunity to share my thoughts about art direction… I’m going to go think about it a lot more on my next projects now!
Part Two is coming with another interview and more insights about art direction in the music video industry.
Do you work on the art direction treatment at the early stage of your project? Did you find this article useful, and would you like us to do more of them? Let us know in the comments down below!