Art Direction in Music Videos, Part Two – Interview with Director Drew Kirsch
As we discussed in Part One of this series of articles, art direction plays a huge role in a music video. It can be easy to come up with big ideas and tons of props when you are working for prominent artists. But how to still get a fantastic art direction when you are working with independent artist and less money? To gain more insights, I caught up with director Drew Kirschwho has directed videos for Lil Yachty, Valentino Khan and more.
Could you introduce yourself briefly?
My name is Drew Kirsch, and I’m a director based out of Venice, CA. In the past five years, I have heavily focused on music videos. I’ve worked with artists such as Lil Yachty, Blackbear, Gryffin, Louis The Child, Bryce Vine, Quinn XCII, and more.
Have you seen a change in the music and music video industry in the past years?
To be honest, I jumped in the music video game long after a big change in the industry. Back in the day before the internet took over (NAPSTER days), music video budgets were huge! We now get about a third of the budgets music videos used to get. Music videos also used to be huge on MTV and now they only really have a strong representation on Youtube.
Other than the budget, what is different to work for a label vs. an indie artist?
The difference is there are fewer heads in the kitchen with an indie artist. It’s just the artist and me making the calls. Also, an indie artist is usually still being developed so there is more room to be creative. A record label has multiple heads making notes about the video. There are so many restrictions with a record label, for instance, a legal team. A legal team has to flag certain shots, so they aren’t at risk in terms of copyright. I’ve had them flag something as dumb as a lamp because they are worried the designer of that lamp may sue them. They aren’t willing to take the risk, but an indie artist doesn’t have as much to lose.
How would you define art direction and the importance of it in your job?
When I pitch a concept, I usually tell the artist and producer “the most important aspect to me is the art direction.”
I come from the art direction world myself, and I heavily rely on it. Pretty much like a painting, I want to make the image beautiful! I always make sure we put a certain amount of the budget aside for art direction. I am particular about color matching in my scenes, and little visual cues that I believe make an image beautiful.
How do you work on a concept for a music video? Do you rely on the art direction of the artist (or the label)?
The record label usually gives me a track, and I pitch a concept/treatment.
A treatment is a PDF full of reference images that explains how the video is going to look. Inside the treatment, I usually have a page for art direction, describing how important it is in the film, and what direction it will have.
Do you look at what the artist did in the past or do you treat every project as a blank canvas?
Initially, I start with a blank canvas and try not to look at any past videos, photos, songs, etc. I want a fresh idea in my head. Eventually, I end up watching to make sure I’m somewhat in line with their brand. I usually take a risk and pitch something that’s completely different from their past videos.
Where do you usually find your inspiration for the treatment? In the pitch, in the music, in the artist?
Finding inspiration for a treatment can come from many different places. It can be inspired by the message of the song, the tone of the beat, etc. Sometimes it will just come right away, and other times it can take days. I’ve listened to tracks over 500 times before figuring out what I want to do. I drive or walk around in public with my headphones in, looking at people and places trying to find a lead. Once I sat inside a Costco for 2-3 hours in one of those massage chairs, until I finally figured out an idea.
In your treatment do you insert pictures, text, or do you prefer drawing some of your ideas?
Most of my treatments are full of images from the web used as references combined with detailed text. I don’t usually draw anything because I’m one of the worst sketch artists on the planet. I wish I were able to storyboard my treatments, but I typically don’t have the budget to do so.
How do you choose your color palette for a music video?
I choose a color palette based on the idea or theme of the video. Of course, I have favorite colors, and I try to use those as much as I can. I love warm colors so if I’m able to incorporate those I will. Again, it depends on your story or idea.
What would be your advice to make sure your treatment is successful and gets you the job?
It’s about the idea. Don’t stress how beautiful your treatment is, and focus on why your approach is different from the rest.
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 really like “Fake Denim” by Quinn XCII. My chief art director, Aunny Grace, worked her butt off peeling 100’s of labels off mustard bottles for a scene. I knew from the start I was going to stick with a color theme, which in this case was yellow. After I made that decision, we moved forward with developing aesthetics around the color yellow. Luckily, we found a location that fit in the same color scheme.
I always wanted the camera to be moving because it matches the energy of the song. The scenes don’t have a ton of movement or action in them so moving the camera helps the video flow in my opinion.
The lighting was a decision by my amazing DP Joe Butler. I told him I wanted “even” light and nothing moody or over the top. For this video, the point is to see the details in the art direction, so making sure everything is lit and not lost in the shadows was important.
The editing was super simple for Fake Denim because I knew where I wanted everything in the edit before we shot. It was all mapped out beforehand and timestamped to the song. There aren’t any VFX or crazy editing tricks. It’s straightforward, minimal, and focuses on the performance.
On the shoot, do you always stick to your treatment, or do you have room for improvisation?
I mainly use my treatment as a blueprint, but there is always changes to the treatment on set. I’ve always looked at filmmaking as problem-solving. Depending on how the day goes, you have to be flexible with your initial treatment.
If you could choose one artist to work with because you love his art direction, which one would you pick?
In terms of an art director, I want to work with a guy named Brandon Mendez. In terms of music artists, I want to work with Tyler The Creator, but unfortunately, he directs all his own videos. Tyler’s videos are A+ when it comes to art direction.
This second article is the last part of the “art direction in music videos” series. I personally want to thank Cole Walisser and Drew Kirsch for taking some time to answer my questions.
What was your most creative independent 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!