Big effects on a low budget: music video production

Creating music videos with big effects, low budgets, and no green screens.

Wons Phreely is an Australian-born, LA-based synth-pop artist who’s been getting rave reviews from all over, including KCRW.

He also happens to make his own striking music videos. One in particular caught my eye where he sings the whole song as a disembodied head who’s carried from place to place.

As a relatively DIY project (shot for less than $1000 and with no green screens), the results are really impressive:

I thought Wons Phreely would have some good advice for indie artists who want to produce their own videos, so I asked him a bunch of questions.

Not only did he give detailed answers, he also provided behind-the-scenes videos to illustrate some of the points!

Here goes…

An interview with Wons Phreely on the making of “The Night Has An Alibi”

CR: Can you break down the costs and hours of making your video? What are we talking in terms of pre-production, the video shoot, editing, and effects?

WP:  The cost breakdown is pretty simple; I collaborated with a cinematographer named Laffrey Witbrod. Laffrey and I worked on a film together that I was acting in. We became friends and decided to make the music video together. I took on the role of director, and he was Director of Photography. I also ended up creating all the digital effects and handling the editing. So the costs were not that high.

Laffrey and I spent five days shooting, and then one extra day for one of the difficult shots that didn’t work the first time round. I then ended up spending two and a half months locked in my room in front of the computer for ten hours a day creating the post production look. So the costs were all about our time, making time, and giving up any other things in life for that time.

There was also time that was spent emailing friends and asking them to be at the locations, plus we spent time driving around Hollywood working out where we could shoot, and trying to figure out if we’d get moved along by police. A little money was spent on food and refreshments for all our extras and actors too.

We did hire a little bit of equipment from a gear sharing website called ShareGrid where you can pick up extra lights, lenses and camera stuff for good prices from people in your neighborhood. All in all the film cost under $1k, but probably about a thousand hours of time I think, but I kinda lost track.

As for pre-production, the first thing that happened here was thinking up the idea, then there was some testing to see if it could be done. I shot the first tests on my iPhone; I just asked a friend to shoot me in various set ups that would be needed to tell the story of the video. Of course there was no point getting the real camera or cinematographer at the first testing stage, because I just needed to work out if I could pull off the shots first, so my iPhone was fine.

Then I took these into Final Cut Pro X (FCPx), and managed to work out roughly how I would achieve the effects. I’ve been using FCPx for a few years and I really like it, plus I’ve been a Photoshop master for quite a while, so even though I didn’t use any Photoshop in the tests, the time I’ve spent in Photoshop in the past gave me an understanding of how I could achieve the effects I wanted using layers and masks in FCPx.

The tests came out pretty well, and the reactions I got from friends was really positive. But the pre-production tests also revealed to me that I’d need a real VFX program like After Effects if I was to make this idea look really great for over four minutes of running time. I also considered getting a practical effects person in to create real physical effects that could be built and shot on set, but after I met with a few makeup artists, I decided that it would be better to do as much of the VFX digitally and just build any practical physical effect myself.

Once I had decided that I could make the film and tell the story in my head, I story-boarded each shot. I’m okay at drawing and it’s nice to use a pencil every now and again. After I had story-boarded each shot I scanned the drawings and took them into FCPx and created what’s known as an Animatic.

This is where you kind of semi-animate the drawings and cut between them and make them play out along with the song, so that you can get an idea of the timing of the shots with the song. It gives you an idea of whether some shots will be too long and boring and whether you need to add some new shots in order to keep the viewers attention. Music videos are typically pretty fast paced; so you can’t just sit on shots for too long.

How’d you come up with the idea? Are you just really into disembodied heads?

The song is about that sensation of feeling a little out of place in your hometown, like you were meant to be something or somewhere else out there in the world, and if you don’t make your move soon you’ll end up dead inside.

The lyric “Sister I know we should settle but I can’t live a lie… I just get this feeling like I might explode inside”… It’s about how we’re all a bit unique in some way and how that can sometimes make us feel like we don’t belong. Like how sometimes I’ll be sitting down with the people closest to me, and not really connecting with the conversations and wishing we were talking about creating art or music.

That’s the lyric “these conversations where it’s like there’s nothing to add, there must be something else… I’m dying just to taste a little piece of action, to find that one place we can be really something.”

So I started thinking about how the video could show a guy who doesn’t feel like he fits in, and that people just kind of carry on with their lives all around him day in and day out, without really even noticing he’s there.

It was going to be a normal sort of dramatic piece, but then I started thinking how when I see short films, it’s the funny ones that I care about, more than the dramatic ones. I feel that in a short amount of time, like a four-minute film, it’s easier to make me care about a character if they make me laugh, whereas if they try to hit me with some hard emotional truth, I’m not really going to care that much, because their isn’t enough time for me buy into their plight or hardship. I feel like good drama maybe needs more character development time.

So then when we released the single as just audio first, it was premiered on NYLON, and they wrote the headline – “The New Wons Phreely Single Belongs On The ‘Stranger Things’ Soundtrack” – and this got me thinking, why don’t I try to make the main character not just have this feeling inside of being different to everybody around him; why don’t I make him have something physically different about him, something strange looking, and keep the people around him still paying no attention to him?

I thought this might set us up to be able to include more humor. Then I started thinking about how I read that the most interesting thing for a human being to look at is the face of another human being. Like most songwriters and singers, I’ve spent quite a lot of time thinking about what makes something engaging for other people to look at in videos and in live performances; how do we connect with other people so we can share our message with them. I think that the best way to present someone who likes to write songs and sing them to other people is to show them doing just that; show them singing. It’s what they do; it’s what they’re all about. Music has become a visual medium, which is quite ridiculous really, before TV and digital media, music used to about listening. In a perfect world, there wouldn’t be music videos, we’d just listen. I think there would be a lot better songs around. But we live in a visual world. I like visuals; I just prefer them a bit separated from music.

The thing I’ve learned about producing songs versus making films is that when you are making songs the only real limitation is your own ability and creativity. If you can think of an amazing lyric or melody, you can put it into a song, and you can record it. With film-making, there are limitations, because to create unlimited film ideas you will need a budget of millions and a team of hundreds of experts. So when I’m writing a song, I don’t place any limitation on myself; I try my hardest to create the song that is exactly what I dreamed of, but with music videos, you don’t have that luxury.

In a perfect world with a 1989 Michael Jackson music video budget, you could say ‘this is what the song is about, how do we want to take the idea or feeling evoked in the song and express it on film in a mind blowing and captivating way’. But music videos don’t come with that kind of budget anymore, so it’s more a case of compromise where you might think, “this is what the songs about, and I’d love to express that visually, but to get that exact expression on film and be captivating enough to get noticed online and be shared, it will take much more resources than we have available to us.”

So now I’m more about trying to create a music video that is share-able, and if that means it doesn’t exactly capture the feeling of the song, then that is kinda just a reality you have to live with.

Will you tell us some details about the preparations: locations, extras, equipment, and so forth?

Preparation is of course extremely important. I created detailed shot lists with each shot timed out with the song and the linked lyric, because each shot also had me singing a part of the song, which meant I had to commit to which part of the song we were shooting before we shot it, which kind of means I’ve already decided on the final edit before shooting, as opposed to what a lot of film-making is, where you kind of work out which shots goes where later on when you are editing.

I think there are about sixty shots in the video, and nearly all of them required some thought first as to how the VFX would work. Thankfully Laffrey was able to sit with me quite a bit and give his input into how he could shoot the ideas in the shots.

Finding locations was tricky. I had to ask people I didn’t necessary know that well if I could shoot in their house and in their rehearsal room, but thankfully they’re all into the music, so they were generous. I really wanted to use a great looking bar I’d seen on Santa Monica Boulevard for an exterior shot, but this bar is open till 2am every night of the week, and they know how great it looks, so when I called them they told me we couldn’t shoot there. I was staking the place out trying to work out if we could shoot there without getting shut down, but it was too hard. I was asking extras to be there for free, so I couldn’t risk getting shut down and then asking everyone to come and try again another night. If the shot didn’t need three crew, and seven extras we would have been able to shoot it at 4am in the morning, but again, I was asking people to come for free, so I couldn’t run the risk of people hitting snooze on their alarm and not turning up to the location.

In the end I found an abandoned building for the outside of the bar scene, and I had to digitally enhance the building to make it look like a cool bar, I added a colorful awning, some flashing lights, plus some neon signs to give it a happening bar feel.

 As for other bar interior scenes with lots of extras, it really is a kind of ‘build it and they will come’ thing. You email everyone you know the day before, and the next day you stress the hell out that no one will turn up, but I was really lucky that so many people did turn up.

There are actually a couple of shots where I worked out how to digitally duplicate the crowd to make it look like there was more people watching the concert than there actually was. That crowd duplication wasn’t planned, but now that I know how to do it, I’ll be able to do it much more effectively if I plan for it before we shoot another video.

Getting great locations really is the hardest thing to get right without any budget. Great films have a lot of production design, and I can spend a thousand hours on pre-production and post, but if the locations don’t look that great to begin with, it can almost be a waste of time. I would have liked to have even better locations. I did try to digitally enhance a lot of the locations, like trying to make the bar look like a real bar because it wasn’t a real bar, and it wasn’t a very big room. That is maybe my biggest piece of advice; if you want to tell a narrative story, maybe you should first work out three or four amazing locations that you can access, and then write the story around them. It would make things look a lot better, which is half the work. We didn’t do that, but that’s maybe what I learned. This is only my third time as a music video director, and my first time trying to do a narrative video with no budget.

What’s the technical trick behind the head effect?

The effect is really about forced perspective. If I wanted it to look like my head was sitting on a bar, I would crouch down in front of the bar, or behind it, then do the performance. Then we’d keep the camera in the exact same place, and shoot my hand or foot on the bar to make the nub of the neck, and then splice the two shots together to remove my body, leaving only the head and the heal of my foot for the neck.

For the shots where my head is balancing on the roof of a car, we actually used my friend’s car who has a sunroof, and then we drove around LA one night for a few hours with my head sticking out of the sunroof and me singing the song into the night. There is no green screens involved. I’ve used green screens before and they always ended up looking fake, so this is a technique I just worked out myself. It’s a bit tricky to explain, but I’ll be releasing some behind the scenes and ‘how to’ videos on my YouTube channel soon.

The technique is actually kind of simple in a way. Like I said, it looked pretty good even when I did the initial test in a simple editing program like FCPx, but to really make it work with an extra bit of razzle dazzle I realized I was going to need to teach myself After Effects.

How much video and editing experience did you have prior to shooting this video? Are you trained, self-taught, or did you have to learn some stuff on the fly for this project?

I’ve worked as an art director before, a little in advertising and at a magazine, so as I said, I was experienced with Photoshop and lots of stuff for still images, but I’d never used After Effects or created composite images for moving footage until this project. The other two or three music videos I directed were more about interesting editing, which was what I’d taught myself up until this point.

It’s kinda funny. I did a degree in art direction, but hadn’t really thought of putting my love of song composition together with my knowledge of visuals until another friend in a band pointed it out to me. I was doing his band’s album and single covers and at the same time I was signed to a label for my own music, and that label would kinda get directors in for my own music videos, and I would always be complaining how much I didn’t like the videos they made for me. They would do silly things like get stylists in to tell me what to wear and all the while I was saying “this isn’t me, man.”

Then I’d tell the label to take the video off YouTube ’cause I hated it. Then one day my friend who I’d been making album covers for said to me, “we love all the stills art you make for us; how about you make us a music video?” And they had a decent budget, so it was like a light went off in my head. Yes, I can do this! And since then I’ve been really interested in music video direction.

Directing videos can be really fun. It doesn’t have to be painful, and for me, the thing I feel that attracts me most to creating any kind of art is the storytelling. I was obsessed with trying to figure out how great songs are written, so I thought a lot about how storytelling connects us all and helps us feel okay about being here on this planet as humans. After a while I ended up winning some songwriting awards and signed a major publishing deal, which in a way lead me to start thinking about other storytelling mediums like film and doing a lot of acting in films for people I know. Which along with my experience in design has all kind of combined now with my interest in music videos. I think understanding songwriting is actually an underrated skill for a music video director; it can help when thinking about sections of the song meeting with segments of the film, like defining the chorus as a visually separate part, and trying to emphasize the song dynamics and emotions with visual cues and cuts in an exact moment. I think some of this stuff has contributed to this music video being nominated for cool awards, and according to a couple of online fashion sites, this music video actually inspired part of the look for the latest Gucci show in Milan where the models were walking the catwalk holding disembodied heads under their arm. (I’m glad I could help you with some ideas Gucci, but where is my paycheck?).

Once it was complete, what did you do to get some blog attention for the video? How many outlets did you contact? What did your “pitch” email say, in a nutshell?

This is how I approached it: I’ve done direct to blog/press pitching myself before, and actually had some success, but this time around I changed my approach because the blogosphere has changed. In the past I would write to them and just say straight up, ‘hey I’m an indie artist, I like your site, it’d be great if you could review my new song’ and they’d often do just that. But now they do seem less able to find time and resourses to be able to cover independent artists who are not helping them with paid advertising. And that’s understandable; everyone’s gotta eat and pay the bills.

So this time around I decided to approach it the same way any label would by getting professional PR help. I figured I’d saved a lot of money on making the music video myself, so why not hire a pro to help get the single some exposure. I did have a good relationship with some outlets like Lost At E Minor who have always been really supportive, so I was keen to send them the video myself. But things like Pop Matters was a relationship that the PR team at Baby Robot had, as was the audio premiere with NYLON.

So NYLON played up the 80’s “Stranger Things” vibes, probably because of the synths and the “Dancing in the Dark” sort of arrangement and groove. Who are some of your other influences besides Bruce?

I do love a lot of stuff from that period of music. I love The Smiths and Morrissey, and I’m a huge fan of David Bowie. Some of the more current stuff that inspires me is Future Islands, The War On Drugs, and Blake Mills.

What’s in the works for promoting your upcoming LP? 

More of the same I think. Trying to treat my own record label like any other decent indie label. So that means more music videos, some live in-studio performances at radio stations, and constantly trying to keep up with the ever-changing landscape of the digital music era.

I’m sure most artists say this, but the LP actually has a lot of singles on it, so one of the things I’m thinking about a lot, as I’m sure we all are, is do I release a whole bunch of singles first and then the album, or kinda make a statement and drop the album as a whole? I understand the logic behind the buildup of releasing singles first, but every now and again I feel like artists come out with complete statement for their debut and that helps create the story in itself, like for example: Bon Iver’s debut coming out of nowhere seemed to help make the story.

So that’s something I’m hoping to figure out, but there’s always so much to keep abreast of. Thankfully what you guys do at the DIY Musician Podcast and the sense of community you encourage does really help.

Thanks to Wons Phreely for answering these interview questions so thoroughly, and for the behind-the-scenes videos too!

Check out more music from Wons Phreely HERE.

For more tips on making music videos, read: