Art Direction in Music Videos, Part One – Interview with Director Cole Walliser

October 16th, 2018 icon / message-square 13
Art Direction in Music Videos, Part One – Interview with Director Cole Walliser

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.

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Photo courtesy of Cole Walliser

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.

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Photo courtesy of Cole Walliser

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.

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Photo courtesy of Cole Walliser

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).

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Photo courtesy of Cole Walliser

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.

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Photo courtesy of Cole Walliser

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!

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Photo courtesy of Cole Walliser

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!

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Ballard Jones
Guest
October 18th, 2018

Honestly, I’m usually spending so much time wondering why the ridiculous rap song tropes (silly hand movements, worshipping money, being in clubs, promoting violence, referring to women as b*tches and h*es, the menacing quality and using the n-word over, and over, and over again) are still with us to think about art direction. #metoo

Jan Kek
Member
October 19th, 2018
Reply to  Ballard Jones

I think there is a difference of what the movie shows you and what the lyrics are about. In rap you have various sub genres and therefore the music videos are different as well. You can have extreme controversial lyrics and you can have the same with video. In some cases you have both like “I Ain’t Gonna Lie by 50 Cent”.
What good art direction (and good art in general) can do here is make is great, one example would be “Peaches N Cream by Snoop Dogg”.

While ramp music is using similar works in texts a lot, the videos don’t have to be this way. Of course there is a stereotypical rap video with girls, money and cars – but you can also get creative by using art and bringing up images. Those can be humorous “The Real Slim Shady by Eminem “, political “This is America by Childish Gambino”, religious “HUMBLE. by Kendrick Lamar” or other. It is important to note that an artistic approach to a video is never limited to one genre in music. Often you can find that directors work on music videos for various artists and genres but their videos are kinda similar.
Earlier today I spent 2 hours researching the use of thermal imaging in music videos and found examples in very different genres and visuals but using the very same technical gimmick.

Art direction is important no matter what the lyrics are. But if you go for something controversial in both, at least put some art behind it that makes it more then a borderline softcore adult movie.

 Mercy Warhol
Mercy Warhol
Member
October 30th, 2018
Reply to  Ballard Jones

I agree, but… Rap music is the only pushing the art of music videos forward. Believe it.

Jan Kek
Member
October 18th, 2018

Okay, let’s examine that question:

“Do you think new directors should focus more on art direction nowadays to improve their work?”

In my taste this question is formulated too vague and also too passive. ‘Do you think?’ really takes this an instance away, similar the idea ‘to improve their work’ the answer is a self starter because everybody wants to an constantly is improving their work.
A more direct question that is easier to ask and answer would be ‘Name one thing that directors need to stop doing and start doing more!’ not even a question, but you can add your formulation for the publication to make it sound more friendly.

Now the answer:
“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.”

The first sentence is a useless statement, there is no value behind it. Of course you can do a lot to improve, but where is the substance? The following sentence almost sounds like a corporate statement and has no place in an interview answer that isn’t scripted by PR.

Now there is the “answer” but what is said here contradicts your prelude. You said that the whole production is important and art direction is the most important for music video. While Cole said it’s “just as important”. Do you understand my trouble here? Your expert is giving weaker answers than you opened your article with.

If you had a concrete question like the one above you could have gotta a great answer and statement that made the headline of this article. A satirical video by a educational YouTuber Tom Scott had better points.

Directors should stop to fill gaps with unrelated slow motion footage of destroying something. And should instead keep a consistent color palette and so the main color and it’s complimentary color are in the frame at every given time.

Just examples that could give directors something to follow instead of ‘try to improve on everything’ answers.

There was also something with connecting the emotional response of the music to the visuals. While it’s known that music videos of ‘see what you hear’ or the kind of ‘hear what you see’ isn’t great. It should also not be temporally disconnected throughout the whole video. Not ‘hear what you will see’ or the opposite ‘see what you will hear’. The quality of direction starts before you wrote the art and concept of a music video. It is possible to tell two different stories in a music video or surprise people with a vastly different interpretation of what you are hearing or have heard for a long time before seeing a video. It’s those videos that stick and change your view on a music video.
Saying that getting some beautyshots and retimed dancing scenes is your best work?

The most useful insight I got from this is the change of technology and reception. YoutTube changed everything and cheaper cameras enable more people to make their videos with lower quality overall due to less experience but new ideas that can shine.

This isn’t the late 70th where MJ dancing in a jumpsuit against a black background and green lasers can be sold as a shortfilm music video.
I want to see innovation like great use of images like ‘HUMBLE’ or ‘This is America’s can make a great video or innovative video techniques, be it over the top practical effects in “Turn down for what” or “Somebody that I used to know” . Effort pays of in the end.

Take this comment from me as a reader of the website, mostly for accumulated news and technical interviews. I welcome to your exploration into new articles, but it’s just not something that brings a lot of value for this long read. I hope you can take his feedback and improve on your upcoming articles.

Jan Kek
Member
October 16th, 2018

I feel like this interview lacks depth. There aren’t any insights and it’s more or less just surface answeres. You normally also ask a question that is focussed towards advice for upcoming filmmakers and directors. That is missing here.

 Mercy Warhol
Mercy Warhol
Member
October 17th, 2018
Reply to  Jeff Loch

Anyone who knows what art direction is would have given the same answer. In fact, ask your grandmother, if she doesn’t know what art direction is, explain it to her and I bet you’ll get the same answer. Take it to the next level, ask better questions. I don’t know what that means, but I’m also not a writer on a blog (or whatever this site is considered to be in 2018). It’s unfortunate, but this is what happens when people just want to add a bullet to their resume.

Member
October 18th, 2018
Reply to  Jeff Loch

This is a great interview because it reminds us what’s important. I can do my research from here. I don’t expect all the answers for heaven’s sake.
Lol.

 Mercy Warhol
Mercy Warhol
Member
October 17th, 2018
Reply to  Jan Kek

I agree. It seemed like I would have gotten the same answers if I just ran in to him at Starbucks. We don’t want dinner party answers.

Member
October 16th, 2018

Put all your energy and money in what’s within the frame. Art direction is key.

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