Many great directors like Spike Jonze and David Fincher started their careers by directing music videos. I would argue that the distinctively-styled films they are now famous for are a direct result of these beginnings. Here’s why:
1. There’s (usually) no dialogue in a music video.
Without dialogue, you’re forced to show your story, not tell. This is often the most common mistake committed by new screenwriters: feeding the audience the plot through dialogue. If you’re going to do that, you might as well be writing a play or a radio show.
Filmmaking is a visual medium that uses visual language. You can emote so much with the way a shot is composed, where you choose to cut, the color scheme, a facial expression, etc. If you neglect these opportunities, you waste the medium.
For me, making music videos has helped me to grasp tone and atmosphere with much greater understanding than in previous narrative shorts. They have forced me to think outside of the box when it comes to informing the audience of plot points without directly spelling it out for them.
2. Rules of reality can be thrown out the window.
Anything can happen in a music video. I can’t tell you how many times we excused nonsensical elements on the set of Talk Talk by saying, “It’s a music video.” Of course, we said that in jest– you still want to tell a cohesive story. However, deep plunges into the surreal and abstract are far more common in music videos, so directing one is almost like a creatively liberating experience.
You learn that plunges into surrealism and abstraction can happen in any narrative– it doesn’t have to be just a music video. Take a look at any film that involves Charlie Kaufmann, or even that one scene in 500 Days of Summer when Joseph Gordon-Levitt breaks out into a dance number complete with a marching band.
Music videos teach you that sometimes leaps into the surreal carry the story better than simply showing someone in literal reality looking happy.
3. They’re short, so you can make a lot of them.
Because the length of a song is, on average, 3-5 minutes, you can make a very polished product for a fraction of the cost and time that it would take for even a narrative short film. (Not to mention people are more likely to watch a music video than a short film.)
Music videos, when done right, make for impressive reel material, so you can really beef up your portfolio in a short amount of time by making them.
For non-directing-related reasons, I also like music videos because you don’t have to worry about sound. This is a huge time-saver, and it’s one or two less people on set. Also, it allows directors to shout out notes during a take.