But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct!
Image: Raul Casares

But What I Really Want To Do Is Direct!

Music videos are everywhere: pop artists create videos designed to go viral and to sell albums. Budding directors often cut their teeth making music videos and big names like M. Night Shyamalan, Gus Van Sant, Diane Keaton, and even Martin Scorsese have directed music videos, seemingly for fun. (It is way fun.) Formidable artistry sometimes emerges from the genre, like Beyoncé’s ingenious all-video “visual album” Lemonade, with seven directors working on the project, including herself.

Technology is no longer a barrier (even a mobile phone will do) and musicians with far smaller budgets than mega-stars are making music videos. New music folks have found their way to the medium—from cinematic works like The Lotus Eaters by Sarah Kirkland Snider featuring Shara Nova and directed by Murat Eyuboglu; to James Moore’s stunning virtuosity in his rendition of John Zorn’s The Book of Heads: Etude 33, intimately filmed by Stephen Taylor. I’d love to see even more “new music” music videos out there. Our media-saturated culture is a perfect landscape for indie musicians’ videos, and websites and social media outlets are great ways to share and promote music and artistry.

My own music video obsession began with making sure my performance work was documented, and then I moved into creating my own stand-alone music videos. (Actually, it began even before then with wanting to be a rock star and growing up with MTV, but that’s another story.) My neighbor and friend, Raul Casares, is a pro director of photography and I inadvertently apprenticed myself to him a number of years ago as we began to film my performances and music videos together. He patiently stood by as I drove the creative direction of the projects. I was hooked: the creative possibilities meshed with my aesthetic sensibilities and my lifelong adoration of film. I also love the creative control of the medium.

Misha Penton and cast inside the Silos at Sawyer Yards, Houston, Texas.

Misha Penton and cast inside the Silos at Sawyer Yards, Houston, Texas.
L-R: Misha Penton, soprano & director. Neil Ellis Orts, Michael Walsh, Sherry Cheng, voices.
Photo by D. Nickerson.

Since the release of my first music video in 2013, my work in this area has grown significantly. I’ve directed and produced four others, advanced to doing some shooting, and am now finally editing the work myself, with the last two videos being experimental new music pieces for which I also created the sound scores.

Threshold is my latest music video excursion—a work which began as a live, site-specific postopera (as musicologist Jelena Novak might say) created for The Silos at Sawyer Yards in Houston: an enormous mid-20th century rice factory, now a space offered for artistic use. It’s a labyrinthine complex of silos with a many-second sonic delay.

During the rehearsal period for the Threshold live performance, I filmed just about everything we did, either with my iPhone, my heftier Canon DSLR, or both. The process videos, dress rehearsal, and live performance documentation created an archive of material to support the work while also serving as material for stand-alone pieces. Part of what drives me to video is the unrealistic, resource-gobbling nature of contemporary music’s (too often) one-off live performance model. Creating multi-form, many-versioned projects gives the work a longer shelf life.

In the early stages of planning Threshold, I knew I wanted to create a music video as the final version of the project. I’d worked similarly on several other pieces, creating music video versions of live performance works, and I like the longevity and archival nature of media. During the rehearsal period for Threshold, when we were in the Silos space, the music video was filmed. After the live performance, the recording process began, and those audio files became the raw material for the edit and mix I created for the film’s sound score (polished and mastered by Todd Hulslander). I approached the video similarly: after filming with Raul (and Dave Nickerson), I chose all my favorite clips and created the video, adding the sound score last.

After about a year and a half of work—from conception to live performance, and finally the music video version—I now consider the Threshold project complete:

Tips & Toolkits

A music video is simultaneously an art form and a promotional tool.

I work very intuitively, and I like to think I’m pretty resourceful. I often ask myself, “What do I have at my disposal, right now?” rather than “I need seven countertenors and a goat, or I cannot realize my creative genius!” Budget is always a looming consideration, but doing a lot of the work oneself will cut that down quickly. To diminish the financial demands of making media projects, increase your technical independence overall (more on that later) and be as inventive as possible: take advantage of natural light, use interesting outdoor locations, incorporate abstract elements, and think outside the box when it comes to production.

And never underestimate the power of your mobile phone.

In addition to making creative media projects, it’s also possible to get good live performance documentation (in an intimate venue) with a smartphone mounted to a tripod—and although the resolution isn’t quite as high as still photos, video screen captures or exporting still images from the film is possible. A number of major releases have been shot mostly on mobile phones—like Sean Baker’s Tangerine (2015) and Steven Soderbergh’s Unsane (2018)—and many film festivals have categories for mobile phone (and music video) submissions. Enchant(ed) was made on my iPhone and filmed impromptu (and handheld) on a crazy-beautiful winter day in Colorado. (The voice-scape was created later in Logic Pro X.)

Although the arts are highly collaborative by nature, you should consider seeking grants or using resources to buy gear and software to become more self-sufficient—at least some of the time or as a choice—instead of using resources to pay for technical support to document projects or to realize creative media ideas. To put it plainly, instead of paying someone else to do it for you, invest in equipment over time and learn to use it. I’m one of those hardheaded, odd creatures who likes the experience of learning things on my own, so my tech skill set is largely self-taught. However, there are many options for upping technical expertise: local filmmaking and photography organizations usually offer classes, as do community colleges and continuing education departments at universities. Perhaps you have a friend or colleague who is into cameras and making films—as rock guitar icon Robert Fripp aphorized, “If we wish to know, breathe the air around someone who knows.”

There are many options when it comes to gear and software, and these tools effectively document live performance as well as realize creative media works.

Newbie Kit:

A smartphone and a tripod with a phone mount, and maybe one of those cool new gimbals from EVO (hand-held camera stabilizers). Many companies make clip-on lenses for mobile phones, like olloclip and AMIR. For live sound, something like a Zoom H4n is excellent.

Entry-Level DSLR Kit:

Canon EOS Rebel series or Sony Alpha a68. Both can be purchased bundled with an 18-55mm lens, plus you’ll need a tripod. I still use a Zoom H4n for live sound, so keep on keepin’ on with that little device.

Although a dedicated digital camera will increase quality and offer more creative flexibility, push your smartphone to its limit. I love my Canon dearly, but I recently upgraded to the iPhone X and it shoots gorgeous video with enhanced image stabilization.

Oh!—and for the love of all things sacred, always shoot in landscape and not portrait orientation: meaning, hold your phone horizontally so the image is wider than it is tall (like the wide rectangle of a computer, TV, movie screen, or proscenium stage). Also, keep your music videos under five minutes (don’t worry, I’ve broken that rule)—pop songs are usually around four minutes, so I say stick with broad audience appeal, and with the idea that a music video is simultaneously an art form and a promotional tool.

Video and Audio Editing Software:

Entry-level apps like iMovie (Mac) or Story Remix (PC) are pretty powerful. I’m Mac-based, but here’s one scoop on free PC video editing software. More powerful editing suites include Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere, and for audio editing I like Logic X, but there are many PC kin, some free. Home studio and pro audio recording options are beyond the scope of this article, but research recording resources in your area, like university studios or your local PBS affiliate.

External hard drives are essential because you will never have enough room for media on a laptop or on a standard computer set-up. I edited Threshold entirely on my late-2015 Macbook Air with an external hard drive (not ideal, but bless that little machine). Be forewarned: computer and external hard drives will fail at some point. Always back up full versions of your projects on two separate external drives.

I prefer Vimeo over YouTube as a distribution platform for my work because it’s ad-free, beautiful, and customizable. However, YouTube is free to use, while Vimeo charges a monthly fee for most of its plans (it does offer a free ‘Basic’ plan). Vimeo also has a number of technical advantages over YouTube, but if you’re just starting out, you may want to go with YouTube. Once your work develops in such a way that it benefits from a slick showcase, move to Vimeo.

And always credit collaborators. It’s surprising how many directors, filmmakers, and videographers are uncredited. Put all the credits and video info in the text below the video and not just at the beginning or end of the film itself. This text is search engine friendly.

My video work started when I got my first iPhone many years ago and my gear acquisition and skills built up over time. I am, by no means, a tech expert, but if you have a terrible aversion to gadgets and software, proceed with self-compassion and patience! Be resourceful, take baby steps, and make do: creativity best emerges within constraints.

Inspiration

The number of artists working in media is staggering, and the technical options range from guerilla filmmaking to extremely high-tech operations. Here are a few very cool artists whose work I find compelling that demonstrate this wide array of possibilities.

Jil Guyon is a performer and filmmaker whose surreal work, Widow_remix (trailer), is a collaborative project with composer Chris Becker and the voice of Helga Davis. Jil conceptualizes, directs, and edits, and Valerie Barnes is the cinematographer:

Zena Carlota’s ensemble piece, Lolow Kacha, features the kora, a traditional 21-string harp from West Africa, and was filmed in an intimate documentary-style by JJ Harris:

Nterini is a big budget music video by one of my favorite artists, Fatoumata Diawara, directed by Aida Muluneh with director of photography Daniel Girma:

And finally, animator, director, designer, and performer Miwa Matreyek composes music and collaborates with a number of musicians for her stunning multimedia live performances. Her website is a deep dive, so get comfy. Here’s a clip of her work, This World Made Itself:

Getting the Word Out

Beyond standard PR practices like social media posts, newsletters, press releases, and developing good relationships with arts writers in your community and beyond, submit your music videos to film festivals and find outlets to showcase and write about your work yourself. No one knows your work better than you. Blog about your video creation projects, trade guest posts with other writers in your area of interest, and always embed your video projects in posts.

Your website is another great way to showcase and organize work: performance history, videos, audio, and creative process writings. I love composer Caitlin Rowley’s vlogs. She is deeply honest and comprehensive about her approach. Her work with sound and performance, and her experiments with palimpsest-like hybrid journal / visual art is meticulous and fascinating. Soprano and artist-scholar Elisabeth Belgrano creates hypnotic and maze-like pages, and her iPhone and iPad voice recordings in Swedish churches and cathedrals are quite stunning. Interdisciplinary sound and performing artist Leona Jones, whose work centers “around a celebration of the hidden,” has organized her site beautifully with lots of headphone-friendly audio. My own work is organized in the Project section and Production Archives of my site.

Lastly, share the work with daring confidence: as the inimitable Dolly Parton is credited with saying, “Sometimes you just have to toot your own horn. Otherwise, nobody’ll know you’re a-comin’!”

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Misha Penton is a soprano, performance creator, experimental vocal composer, director, and media artist. Recent projects include Threshold, a site-specific experimental new opera created for the cavernous Silos at Sawyer Yards in Houston; Anecdote of the Spirit, a contemplative music work for the Rothko Chapel; and The Medusa Project with its premiere performance at the Women Composers Festival of Hartford and a film version created for Bath Spa University’s 35’ high MediaWall in the UK. Misha has conceptualized, produced, and directed 16 original evening-length performance works and more than six... Read more »


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