The field of music video production design can be wildly creative and experimental, as well as a whirlwind of logistical and artistic challenges. Our colleagues discuss their process and inspiration.
"The best music video experiences offer a dynamic of inspired, highly creative individuals making a little dream together in a short amount of time"
"I always try to come up with something that fits my visual language, and that works for the project"
"You’re moving at warp speed and every idea is still on the table"
"Like seeing a million scattered points that slowly come together"
May 1st, 2021
How do you design for music videos?
Sue Tebbutt is a Los Angeles based production designer. She started her career working on award winning music videos and commercials in Toronto Canada. Her work today includes feature films, commercials, music videos, and live music events.
Working on music videos early in my career, I was constantly faced with a steep and complex learning curve that evolved with each project I took, each project vastly different than the next.
As a new designer, I had to learn quickly how to achieve the fantastical in a practical way: How to make black snow, how to make a chair fly through the air across a set, how make an edible black apple (and often on a shoestring budget). I had to be incredibly hands on and experimental at times, in order to figure out how to do all of these things on my own. The learning curve was incredibly rewarding and became a large part of the creative process. My DIY origins in the music video world made me very resourceful and established in me a well of knowledge that I would later in my career use to achieve similar feats on larger commercial projects, functioning at higher levels with much higher budgets.
When you begin the work on a video, at least the ones that I’ve worked on, there are ideas, and visuals to inspire but there is not always something concrete like a narrative to follow. You kind of just figure this out when you start to prep. What you build or the locations you transform can be as much about symbolism as any story you are trying to communicate. Initially I spend a lot of time researching and pulling references to flesh out and enhance the directors initial ideas. Sometimes these ideas end up in a completely different place than where we started.
One of the directors I have worked with on many projects is Floria Sigismondi. It’s always a great collaborative experience with her and it makes the designing really fun. You really get to go the distance with your design when you have someone supporting it. She delivers detailed, deeply artistic concepts in her treatments. When starting on a project with Floria, I dive head-first into the worlds she’s conceived, or the symbolism she wants to communicate by researching and pulling references to expand and dimensionalize her ideas. We spend hours, sometimes days, together hashing out the ideas and designs needed to realize her vision. We’ll continue to work this out until we feel wholly confident that we’ve come to a place where, going forward in pre-production and beyond we know our ideas will naturally fall into place in an interlocked way. From the aesthetics of the set design, color palettes, props and special effects to how those elements will meld together in service of the larger narrative of the video. Floria is also a director who likes to have the flexibility on set to find something special where we wouldn't have expected to shoot. I have to be prepared to create new environments whether they are practical or completely abstract. Having spent time working everything out together makes theses challenge possible to achieve.
The best music video experiences offer this dynamic of inspired, highly creative individuals making a little dream together in a short amount of time. I worked on Floria’s David Bowie video, "The Stars Are Out Tonight". Bowie approached Floria with the idea of famous people stalking regular people which was a fantastic premise about reversal that we had a great time playing with. It was a rewarding music video project because there was both a freedom and respect for creativity that started with Bowie himself and affected us all. When you design for videos, you have a fleeting experience but one that memorializes a piece of musical history and that is unique to the genre.
Managing practical aspects of video production eventually becomes an integral part of the creative process when it comes to designing a music video. Savvy production designers, especially those who work on music videos, quickly learn to work with all kinds of budgets while still delivering the design needed to see the director’s vision through. we must come up with creative solutions to achieve the desired scope of the set without compromising the artistic vision and hopefully not going over budget
When I worked on the video for Sigur Rós’ "Vaka", I was faced with having to build a large set on stage that is too small. we needed to create a custom large-scale background that we could afford on our modest budget. To achieve this and because nothing had to be based in reality, we painted a cyc wall on a stage a gradation of reds, added simple hand-cut silhouette of mountains and added forced perspective burnt down trees made out of black wrap. We also had to create different forms of practical dyed black snow - fallen snow on the ground and falling snow coming from the sky. My team learned to achieve these effects on our own practically, which helped enhance the actors’ performances as they were able to interact with a real set as opposed to one created with digital visual effects only.
Ethan Tobman is a Production Designer born in Montreal, Canada. Recent film and TV include the upcoming "Free Guy" and the films "Room", "Beautiful Boy" and the "The Report". Ethan won an Art Directors Guild award this year for Beyonce's "Black Is King" and has been nominated for Taylor Swift’s "Cardigan", Kendrick Lamar’s "All The Stars" and Ariana Grande’s "No Tears Left To Cry". Other notable music videos include Beyonce’s "Formation", "Lemonade" and "Run The World" and "On The Run" tours, Madonna’s "Gimme All Your Lovin", Eminem’s "Not Afraid" and OK GO’s "The Writing’s On The Wall". Ethan’s short film "Remote", which he wrote and directed, was selected for the Cannes International Film Festival.
It was never my intention to design a music video.
I studied film at NYU, graduated in 2001, and intended to pursue work in the art departments of feature films. This is what I (mostly) production design today.
Yet somehow - in what seems hyperbolic now, obscenely so - I have managed to design over 100 of them. And though I mostly design feature films today, many of these videos, despite their fleeting one week prep and two day shoots, have become more culturally and creatively relevant than films I spent a year on.
For me there are two things that make a music video deeply satisfying and unique:
First, that you’re jumping in to tell a chapter of a story of a much longer book, one all of us have read and are culturally aligned with. A powerful example of this: when the lyrically complex "Formation" was released, Beyonce performed the halftime show two days later and the entire stadium knew the words. We had only shot the video two weeks earlier.
Second, that you may be fortunate enough to work with the same people over and over again, some of them generational icons, thus allowing you to dig deeper and more personal into the source material and design more nuanced, abstract stuff.
For example, Taylor Swift began directing as I worked with her, and suddenly the director is also the song writer and performer and record exec, and the ideas and imagery and the entire process really becomes so much more pure and unfiltered. You may have a similar experience to this with a writer-director, but a studio will have notes, actors and producers have notes. This is the rare genre that can evade muddling compromise.
We start by pouring our eyes into research, sometimes without hearing the track. Thousands of images from Pinterest to obscure photo books get shared back and forth, because most 4 minutes songs require 8 environments, and stringing them together is a jigsaw puzzle with many discarded ideas. Typically speaking, you have only have two weeks from the moment you get the call to the moment you shoot the video. In the case of Ok Go, this was a six week process experimenting in a warehouse and culminating in a single shot of illusions, rehearsed hundreds of times with a crew of 50, with ideas being added and subtracted until the last evening. This is the part of the process I have come to enjoy the most, because you’re moving at warp speed and every idea is still on the table. On "All The stars" for Black Panther, we had THREE DAYS between Marvel first calling about the job and the first shoot day, and we filled FOUR SOUND STAGES to the brim with sets TWO DAYS BEFORE CHRISTMAS. Big music videos are not for the faint of heart.
Generally the next part of the process is selling the idea to the artist while parsing out what will be done in VFX vs practically, given the speed of prep and inevitable budgetary limitations. Fast concept art here is key. Sets are being drawn often at the same time that they are being built, and while precise, the process becomes more fluid and less previz’d than on movies. Given how quickly most labels drop tracks to avoid leaks and stay ahead of tours, the video is rarely released more than a month later, often with no warning, another huge disparity between the film and music video process.
At least a dozen times, in my eighteenth hour on my tenth straight day, I’ve said I would never do a music video again. But then halfway through a movie you really start missing them. And then the entire process starts again.
JC Molina is an award-winning production designer based in Los Angeles. His music video credits include work for Beyonce', Donald Glover, Lady Gaga, The Weekend, Jay-Z, Eminem, The Rolling Stones, Nicki Minaj and more. He also designed the feature film "Honey Boy" directed by Alma Har'el. On his days off he rides his horse and scuba dives whenever possible.
How do I design a music video? Well, it all starts with either the director or the artist contacting me about the project. Usually they send over a visual treatment, but sometimes they just have some basic ideas of what they want, and they want to develop something with me.
To be honest, I always look at treatments as bullet points, just like when I read a script for a film. I never take it "100%" for what it is. I think, especially in the music video world, artists and designers can get too caught up on references and oftentimes end up stealing each other's work. I always try to come up with something that fits my visual language, and that works for the project. I pitch these ideas to the director or artist, many times informally, and through conversation (depending on the relationship I have with the person). Once we land on ideas, I start concept sketches and renders for what I’m specifically thinking.
Depending on the scale of the music video, I have to think about the budget, and how these ideas affect what the producer/production company originally bid. I find it's always best to keep the producer in the know about budgetary concerns at all times on the project. It's one thing to give them fair warning about being over budget, and another to be forty thousand over budget, and waiting to tell them at the end. No bueno - You probably won't get the next job with that company or producer.
For my renders,I find it insanely helpful to incorporate lighting and FX to really show all of the details. I think the relationship with the DOP is very important here, as you don't want to step on toes.
Alright, so you’ve got the renders, and hopefully the budget approved, now we start building the drawings and set dec team full on. Sidenote - I like to start the set dec Day ONE, when I start, so I can add their pieces to the renders from the beginning. If not, I update the render as we find pieces. I am a "no surprises" kinda dude, so I like to update the render every second of every day.
I like to move in and live at the shop where they're building my pieces, as I think it's really great to make sure there are no slips or misunderstandings. Also, it could be that the color swatch you picked looked great in a 2”x2” card and now, as a 100’ wall, it looks repulsive. The pace of music video is usually quite quick, so I like to be there every step of the way.
When load-in day comes, typically, at this point everyone knows the marching orders, and its smooth sailing. Unless of course the artist decides that they had a remarkable idea at midnight. Haha
Fernanda Guerrero is a Mexican production designer based in Mexico City. Her music video credits include Billie Eillish's "Hostage", Coldplay's "Champions of the World", Rosalia's "Di Mi Nombre" and Katy Perry's "Hey Hey Hey".
I start with the instructions the director gives me through his/her brief. From there I develop my idea while also having in mind the story and the character.
I continue by pulling basic references of what I have in my head, and at the same time I find other elements along the way that help me imagine, create and design a path that takes me to the final result.
This process in my brain is like seeing a million scattered points that slowly come together with a connective thread until they turn into an image :)