Music Video Director
How To Become a Music Video Director
Music Video Director Ernie Gilbert says, “My day on set varies a lot but it’s always pretty packed. Budgets and band availability usually mean that a one day shoot is all we get, [with] twelve hours from load in to load out, which equals very little time if you’re shooting both a performance and a narrative.
“Add in some location changes, special effects, wardrobe changes or complex props/gags, and it’s a rush to get the bare minimum of what you need to tell your story.
“My job is to lead the team that runs that day on set. A good team will keep things running smoothly and a solid plan will help shoot in the most efficient way possible. As the Director, it’s my job to be involved in everything on the set but to also trust my team to bring their own creative and technical expertise to bear. It’s a balancing act for creative expression and coming in on budget every time.”
Depending on the production and its budget, a Music Video Director may work with some combination of the following: 1st Assistant Director, Cinematographer, Script Supervisor, Producer, First AC, Second AC, Gaffer, Film Electrician, Cameraperson, Sound/Boom Operator, Key Grip, Production Designer, Actors, Props Master, Costume Designer, Production Assistants, and of course, musical artists.
On average, Music Video Directors usually make around $71,500 per year. The salary range for Music Video Directors runs from $17,000 to $160,000.
Rates for Music Video Directors can vary widely based on the geographical region, the budget of the band/label, and the Director’s level of experience. “Music videos are usually done work-for-hire, at a flat rate,” Gilbert says.
“The budget is split up to cover your production expenses and post-production expenses, so each Director handles their directing fee differently. Some opt to waive their fee in lieu of making the budget produce a better project; some will just take a certain percentage of the budget. Overall it depends on your goals and if you have another job to support you.”
The competition in this business is stiff, and Music Video Directors (at least those who aren’t household names) often have to hustle to get work. Gilbert describes what he does, saying “being a Music Video Director is probably 75% writing treatments, 10% planning for a shoot, 5% being on set, and 10% running things through post/editing. In order to stand out from the growing competition, you have to write original treatments that are compelling and workable in the budgets.
“You need a unique perspective, and to pull from a large library of references in art and visual mediums. This leads to writing a whole lot of treatments, and [when] starting out, it also means probably not booking a lot based on those treatments. Requests for treatments come at all hours of the day and oftentimes need quick turnarounds.
“Labels generally work long hours and have schedules to meet so this means nights and weekends you’ll find your average Music Video Director toiling away. Once you’ve booked a video, it’s the race to get the location in place, your cast, your crew and all the pieces lined up. This involves meetings, emails, and phone calls and again, these are happening all hours of the day.”
Music Video Directors usually begin their careers working on no-budget projects or student films, working their way up the career ladder over time by directing videos with better-known artists with bigger budgets. Some may come from other areas of the film world, such as Producers, Directors of Photography, or even acting talent, having learned many of the necessary skills while on the job.
The best way to get a job as a Music Video Director is to start building your film portfolio as soon as possible. “Find local artists near you — artists that haven’t signed to a label yet but have a good following,” Gilbert recommends.
“Become friends with these bands. Go to their shows and figure out how you can help them with video content. Start small, but be effective. Think about concepts that are unique but don’t need large budgets to pull off. It’s a snowball. Make something good and it becomes a seed. It’ll grow in ways you’ll never expect. Make something else.
“Eventually, you’ll have so many little investments and relationships growing you can be selective with what you work on. The key is making good work. I don’t know any labels that would hire a Director without a portfolio of any kind.”
- “Make stuff. You don’t need a better camera. You don’t need a bigger budget.
- Find an artist to collaborate with. Grow with them.
- Find a team to work with. Grow as they do.”
Experience & Skills
“Music videos require dedication and a little bit of personal insanity,” Gilbert says. “Most of the Music Video Director friends I know talk about a love/hate cycle with them. They’ll take time off from directing music videos and feel drawn back in. Narratively, there’s nothing else like them in the film world. It’s 3-5 minutes to play, to experiment, to take risks, and create something never seen before.”
To be able to do this, Gilbert suggests “I’d argue that having experience in all aspects of production and post will let you be a more effective Director. It’ll let you know your limitations and how to work around them. Even if you have no desire to edit, or do cinematography or act, in the long run, trying these roles and learning as much as you can about them will only improve your ability to get your vision to the screen.”
In this creative field, certain personality traits can mean you’ll be more likely to succeed as a Director. Gilbert says, “You have to balance on the tightrope. On one side, you need conviction and vision: a drive to push your idea forward, support it, and live with it. On the other, a desire to see what the artist/label wants and bring these two perspectives together.
“You need to be confident under pressure and sure about what you want, but you also need to be able to explain to others what that vision is. Being able to set expectations and have people tapped into your creativity is more of the job that picking what camera angle to shoot next.”
Education & Training
A good deal of Music Video Directors come from college film programs, especially those in media centers like New York or Los Angeles. However, a degree isn’t a requisite for the job, and if you’re driven, you can learn many of the skills necessary through classes, online tutorials, and self-education.
“The best training/education I’ve received personally is by doing, hands down,” Gilbert says. “High school/college students today have more access than ever before to the gear needed to create compelling and cinematic imagery. I’d encourage those interested in making music videos to reach out to their favorite Director, their favorite production company, etc. and ask questions.
“Read everything you can get your hands on. Watch the several decades of music video classics that exist and then take all of that and go make your own stuff. Make a cover video for a song you love. Find a local band that needs something for their new album. It’s through these experiences that you’ll find your voice and what’s most important to you.
“The internet is full of filmmaking websites and videos of people teaching the craft of filmmaking. Get plugged into these communities, too. It’s cliche, but make mistakes and have fun with it. If you aren’t having fun and learning, why do it?”
Unlike Film Directors, Music Video Directors in the US do not have their own guild. However, Gilbert believes the best way to network and learn from your peers is via online resources.
He says, “IMVDb.com and VideoStatic.com are both great places to get your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in the music video world. Music videos are a tight-knit community. Look at who’s making your favorite new videos; you’ll start to see the same names popping up. Get to know the players and start offering your help.”
What is the single biggest suggestion you would give to someone wanting to get into this career?
“Figure out the stories you want to tell and do whatever it takes to tell them how you want to.”
What’s the #1 mistake people make when trying to get into this career?
“Waiting for the perfect thing: the actor they want to work with, the perfect project, getting the script just right. Nothing is ever going to be 100% perfect and even if you could get it near perfection it’s all going to change when you shoot and then again when you edit. Stop waiting. Start shooting.”
If you could describe in one word what makes you successful, what would it be?
“Success for me is realizing that the process is as important as the end product. If you enjoy the process, you’ll always succeed no matter what the product ends up being. And at the end of the day you’re being paid to tell a story and make art. That beats selling cell phones any day.”
Extra Credit: The Beatles or Rolling Stones?
“Beatles for sure.”
Ernie Gilbert is a Music Video Director/Editor based out of Los Angeles. He has directed music videos for Bayside, Sullivan, Hands Like Houses, Attila, letlive, I The Mighty, A Skylit Drive, We Came As Romans, and many others. His documentary work with Underoath, Bayside, and Sullivan has been distributed internationally and earned him recognition at Full Frame Documentary Festival in Durham, NC.
He was nominated for a best editing MTV VMA for Childish Gambino’s GRAMMY-winning song “This is America.” His work on “This is America” garnered him a Gran Prix at Cannes Lions. He has edited music videos for John Legend, 2 Chainz, ScHoolboy Q, Trippie Red, Linkin Park, Portugal the Man, Shawn Mendes, OneRepublic, and Death Cab For Cutie.
He has been interviewed by Pro Video Coalition about “This is America” and by Premium Beat about his directing work on the Constance Wu-starrer Nine Minutes. You can check out his music video discography via IMVDb and watch selected works through his Vimeo channel.
Ernie also works in television, serving as an Assistant Editor on Emmy, Golden Globe and Peabody award-winning shows Baskets (FX), Atlanta (FX), and Barry (HBO). An expert in buffalo wings, Ernie also loves to tell stories, create things, and hang out with his English bulldog Zooey.