Music videos are an inseparable part of pop culture. We love watching them because they affect us sometimes with their scenario, sometimes with their costume design or sometimes we watch them just to see our favorite musicians in action. But there are some music videos that we as artists can’t stop watching because of their masterful art direction.
Today I wanted to put together a list of a few of my favorite art direction inspirations from music videos we all know, ranging from animation to live action, from the 80s to today. Grab your dancing shoes and join me in this article where music meets visual climax!
Lady Gaga – “911” by Tarsem Singh (2020)
One of the strongest names of pop culture in the 21st century, Lady Gaga has been known for her striking music videos. She didn’t disappoint the fans with one of her hits in 2020, “911” from her album Chromatica that came out in the same year. Directed by the master Tarsem Singh, this music video is one of the best examples that comes to my mind when I think about great art direction. It has everything that you can look for when you think about making a video that is bursting with art: great costumes, scenes that you want to look for hours, incredible attention to detail, perfect color usage, and masterful framing and composition in every second.
Throughout the video, warm and cool colors are used in a great balance where costume designs and the choreographies captivate the audience.
The video is a homage to the iconic Soviet/ Armenian movie The Color of Pomegranates by Sergei Parajanov. If you already watched the movie, you can easily see the similarities.
Also in the beginning of the video, we can see pomegranates spread out on the ground, and –spoiler alert! – when everything is revealed, we see that it was actually apples that fell on the ground. Moreover, the poster of the movie The Color of Pomegranates is also shown, in a theater where an Armenian film festival is taking place, right next to the spot where Lady Gaga had the accident.
What inspires me the most about this video is I just want to pause the video, take a screenshot of that moment, and hang it on my wall as a poster for almost every scene. The composition and the framing is so good that it is hard to ignore the mastery of the team behind this work, first and foremost Sergei Parajanov, who made the movie The Color of Pomegranates in 1969, and Tarsem Singh who we know from his movies The Fall (2006) and The Cell (2000).
Daft Punk – “Around the World” by Michel Gondry (1997)
Those of us who can remember the 90s, know the effect of MTV had on the children and on the youth. Being a late 80s-early 90s child myself, whenever “Around the World” came out, I would be glued to the screen and try to memorize all the choreography that spooky characters in quirky outfits were displaying.
The single was released in 1997, which came out of their album, Homework. The first of the two examples in this article for the impressive music video direction of Michel Gondry, this video is one of a kind in the sense that it is visually replicating all the instruments in the song itself. Each group embodies the different looping samples in the song. Here I would like to quote the Wikipedia article on the video: “According to Gondry’s notes, the robots represent the singing voice; the physicality and small-minded rapidity of the athletes symbolizes the ascending/descending bass guitar; the femininity of the disco girls represents the high-pitched keyboard; the skeletons dance to the guitar line; and the mummies represent the drum machine.”
This video can easily serve as a lecture in combining different forms of art. Not only the pairing of the music and the visuals, but also the color usage and composition at each step is like a masterpiece for photography.
From the beginning of the video where we are introduced to the characters, until the end where we see them all dancing to the music, the choreography by Blanca Li captures the spirit and the uneasy nature of the song.
It is also worth mentioning that Michel Gondry is a renowned director who is known for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), The Science of Sleep (2006), and Be Kind Rewind (2008).
I am not a photographer or a movie maker, but I’m definitely taking some notes on the composition and the color usage whenever I watch this music video!
Daphne Guinness – “Evening in Space” by David LaChapelle (2014)
Striking colors, great costume design, campy attitude: This music video has it all! Being only one of David LaChapelle and Daphe Guinness’s multiple partnerships in art, this video wasn’t shot on a green screen. Instead, the team built everything in David LaChapelle’s studio from scratch.
From the bright spaceship models and the lively interiors to the glorious costumes, this analog-made video is bursting with colors, fashion and creativity. I don’t know where to look; the make ups that are full of surprises, the craftful head pieces, or the always changing beautiful scenery and the costumes that scream “fashion!”?
Not only that but also the very obvious bright color choices, the scenario of the video, the hand painted backgrounds and seeing the ropes on the tiny spaceship are all exuding with the campy feeling of vintage movies, which is something that draws me and inspires me to make more art.
If you are curious to learn more, you can also watch this video giving detailed information on behind the scenes of the video, from which technical tools were used to how the set was built: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GAfDwkpB2BY
Ok Go – “I Won’t Let You Down” by Kazuaki Seki and Damian Kulash (2014)
Now let’s talk about one of the coolest bands on the planet – Ok Go. For me, they are always these artsy guys with the mind-blowing music videos that make us ask, “How did they even come up with this?” It was hard to pick up just one video from Ok Go, but I chose one of their gems, the video for “I Won’t Let You Down”. And trust me, it’s a visual feast!
Directed by the genius duo Kazuaki Seki and Damian Kulash, this video is like an art project on steroids. Picture this: an army of umbrella-wielding people on Honda UNI-CUBs creating mesmerizing patterns. It is literally synchronized umbrella dancing on futuristic unicycles. Yeah, you heard that right – futuristic unicycles!
The video starts with the four band members on Honda unicycles, and slowly other choreography members join them. I’m only saying choreography members but it’s a literal army of professional women dancers, who are precise to every beat.
What’s even more mind-boggling is that the whole thing was shot in one take, with drones. No movie magic, no hidden cuts – just pure awesomeness. The precision, the choreography, the sheer courage of pulling off such a stunt – it’s like a visual mic drop.
As the video progresses, they travel around the studio while drones are shooting them.
And at the very end, the drones keep flying away, the audience can see how big the studios were, and the umbrella choreography makes a sliding text, just like those signs you find in front of many stores. Then the drones fly and fly, until we are left with the stunning views of Japan.
Ok Go’s very own Damian and Tim talk about the behind the scenes of the music video here on this Interview and they give some insights as to how this piece of art came to life. Damian Kulash, also one of the directors of the video, says that he met Kazuaki Seki two years prior to this video in France. And since the day they met, they had been looking for a reason to work together. When this idea came to their minds, Honda was involved too, and the magic happened in Japan and it took a month for them to shoot it.
Another thing that makes this video so visually incredible is the choreography. Damian mentions that the choreography was inspired by the legendary Busby Berkeley, who was an American film director and musical choreographer. They learned that Berkeley shot everything with a slowed down pace at first, and then sped the video up to have a crispy feeling to the motions. That’s when they decided to use the same technique and it helped them give us this video that my mind just can’t grasp.
And the song itself? A banger, of course. Ok Go doesn’t just serve us jaw dropping visuals; they throw in killer tunes for good measure. So, if you haven’t experienced the magic of “I Won’t Let You Down,” go do it now. Trust me; you won’t be let down.
Elton John, Dua Lipa – “Cold Heart” (PNAU Remix) by Raman Djafari (2021)
The topic of art direction in music videos wouldn’t be complete if I didn’t mention any animated videos. One of the most recent examples from my favorites, directed by the talented Raman Djafari, is the video for the collaboration between Elton John and Dua Lipa for “Cold Heart”. Through fantastical elements and the magical storytelling of a night of dancing, the video creates a visually stunning and nostalgic experience, blending the retro essence of Elton John’s iconic past with Dua Lipa’s contemporary style.
The video is mainly made of 3D animation with a claymation look, which is one of the main elements in this work that creates the nostalgia feeling. The filters and the background are in a perfect harmony with the disco beats that the song has. Moreover, throughout the video, there are many 2D animation sequences as well. And after some point, we start seeing the 2D and 3D elements in combination. It is mind blowing!
The transitions and combinations between 3D and 2D elements are executed with precision, contributing to the video’s overall fluidity. With his distinct style, Raman Djafari captures the magic of Elton John’s illustrious career when showing us about a night of partying to the disco music until the early morning lights. The animations are just mas-ter-ful *chef’s kiss*.
Since the 1960s, the disco scene has been influential on the party culture all around the world. Styled with the elements from the same scene, the video tells a familiar story to those who like partying; a story of getting lost in the beats and the charm of the dance floor, and becoming one with the song and the other dancers around. Starting with the four characters’ dance moves, the video carries us through their night, and into the morning, who are then joined by Elton John and Dua Lipa themselves.
I can’t help but stay in awe watching this masterpiece of animation, which serves as a celebration of timeless music and the intergenerational appeal of both artists. I just want to wear my flared pants and platform shoes, and go to the nearest club to dance with my friends all night like these characters do. Who knows, maybe Elton John and Dua Lipa will join us too!
Childish Gambino (Donald Glover) – “This is America” by Hiro Murai (2018)
Now let’s talk about a video that’s not full of colors or polished costumes. This work of art is simple yet striking with its incredible choreography, masterful direction and great storytelling full of symbolism. Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” is a cultural narrative that takes our attention and draws us to reflect on the social problems in the USA. Directed by Hiro Murai, the video is another visual masterpiece on this list, bringing cultural commentary and artistic brilliance together.
The symbolic art direction in “This Is America ” is striking. The strategic placement of lively dance sequences right before and after scenes of violence, and chaos that’s happening at the background while Childish Gambino is dancing on the front, deliver a powerful commentary on how entertainment can act as a distraction from harsh realities. Symbolism, like the choir and the white horse, adds layers of meaning, inviting viewers to analyze each frame.
Hiro Murai chooses to show us a raw way of storytelling and a rather pale color palette accompanied by a genius choreography by Sherrie Silver, capturing the chaotic reality of USA’s socio-political landscape. The intentional use of long takes – there are only three shots in the video- helps the experience become more intense, taking the audience out of their comfort zones and calling them to confront the harsh truths depicted throughout the video. Murai’s skillful navigation between chaotic scenes and moments of stillness feels like a wake up call to reality.
Another astonishing point is the acting of Donald Glover, also known as Childish Gambino, himself. He can switch between poses and between facial expressions so fast and so seamlessly. Through his sarcastic lyrics and his powerful acting skills, in “This is America”, Glover addresses gun violence, racism, and the commodification of Black culture. Such serious and crucial issues can only be told in such an intense way, yet the art direction takes the video to another level, making it not only a political commentary but also a work of art.
In this interview, Donald Glover talks about how the song at first came to his mind as a joke, and then together with Hiro Murai they decided to turn it into a more serious one. He says that for inspiration he studied “Thriller” by Michael Jackson a lot, because he really wanted to get the moves right and wanted to make people care.
If you want to learn more about this music video and the details of symbolism in it, I suggest you to watch this video, where Dr. Lori Brooks, who teaches in the African-American Studies department at Fordham University, tells in detail of the political artistry behind it.
The White Stripes – “Fell In Love With A Girl” by Michel Gondry (2002)
My last pick for the list showcases yet another version of animated mastery. And yes, I’m going to talk about Michel Gondry again, because this video is just too good not to mention. Lucky us, we get to see and fall in love with the beautiful and artistic simplicity of stop motion animation made by -yes you guessed it right- only LEGO bricks!
If you were also a child that liked to play with LEGO bricks, or maybe some of you still do, then you know that it’s really easy to make innumerous variations but it’s not always easy to make the details of your builds so understandable when you are using only a few bricks. But Michel Gondry figured out a way to do it. According to this article, Gondry first shot everything as live action, and then digitized the frames and turned them into pixels, printed them, and built every frame by LEGO bricks again. Isn’t that insane? But that’s what art is!
You can also see the two members of the White Stripes, Jack White and Meg White, and Michel Gondry himself talk about the behind the scenes of the video here. What is so interesting is, in this short interview we learn that Meg’s idea was actually to make a video of themselves which were made of Oreo cookies. Now I’m intrigued to see it, to be honest.
Simple colors and simple pixels are enough to make a historical storytelling of falling in love with a girl, when creativity is present. And considering that it took 2 months of hard work to complete this video, all the rewards they won don’t come as a surprise.
These have been my picks for the great art direction in music videos. Different directors have different approaches in making videos, and it’s always so fun to try to understand the details and the artistic approach behind a work.
What do you think, what are your favorite art direction examples in music videos? If there is anything you would like to add, send us a message on our socials and maybe there will be a Part 2 of this article 🙂
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About the author:
Zeynep Alpay is a freelance multidisciplinary artist and illustrator based in Köln, Germany. Their work encompasses illustrations, animations, paper cut-outs, and traditional artwork.