Is it possible that Taylor Swift, the music video director, outdoes Taylor Swift, the music artist with "Anti-Hero"?
I recently saw Taylor Swift's music video that she directed for her song "Anti-Hero" (the video is posted below), and I was excited to see that Swift utilized pretty much every Best Practice that I've been yammering on about for years as an indie filmmaker, film festival director, and adjunct video production instructor.
Here are a handful of Best Practices I generally recommend to all music video directors, which I feel Taylor Swift utilized expertly in the "Anti-Hero" video:
Emphatic Opening Shot
The opening image of a music video should set the tone for the rest of the piece both visually and emotionally for the audience. Hopefully, it is a memorable visual that sticks with viewers even after they're done watching the video.
"Anti-Hero" achieves all of the above masterfully. It begins on a simple shot of of Taylor Swift centered in the frame with her back turned to the camera as the frame slowly pushes in:
This is not a super flashy or complicated shot, but it sets a dramatic tone, mood, and "feel" of the piece. Additionally, it gives the audience cues to the visual language to expect throughout. Which, interestingly, Swift changes up later on to create a jarring feeling with the audience.
"Dramatic" is a catchall term that doesn't do much to explain what the tone actually is, so here's a bit more detail:
By placing herself in the center of the frame and in alignment with the light fictive, as well as the placement of the windows and chairs to her side, it creates a "balanced" frame which communicates to the audience a sense of seriousness, order, deliberate structure, and focus.
In conjunction use of the stark "practical light" that draws our focus in to the center of the frame and creates a lighting scheme that is usually in alignment with darker films, even perhaps one described as horror films.
What's interesting about this is that throughout the video, Taylor Swift plays with this style a bit by populating the screen with absurd and humous visuals.
Hinting at a Deeper Meaning
For my personal taste, it is a striking and memorable image on its own regardless of context. However, what makes it even more interesting to me is the following:
Historically, one of the main goals of music videos is to feature the artists and turn them into "stars" rather than than simply celebrate the music they create. As we likely all have seen, many music videos focus on how a star dresses, acts, and presents themselves...in other words, how they look.
By beginning the video with a long drawn out image of the star with her back turned, the message to the audience (or at least to this viewer) is that this video is about "who" the star is as a human being rather than their "physical appearance."
This approach subtly sets up a theme of Taylor Swift "in real life" and Taylor Swift "in character" for the video, looking inward at the different sides of herself rather than focusing on the external.
On a related note, having a performer's back turned to the audience creates a felt distance between the two. Often times, humans connect through eye-contact, even if it is just a collection of pixels on a screen representing eye contact. Later on, when we talk more about composition, I'll go over how the video continues to play with this effect to create a different emotional reaction, from structured and ordered, to erratic and chaotic.
The lesson is that with your opening shot (or shots) you want to be mindful to let the audience know what to expect moving forward and to begin with an image that is both emotionally impactful while visually interesting.
From the first frame of the video, production design plays a strong part in creating the mood and tone of the piece. Colors, patterns, even specific props, all work together to create the environment for the action to take place.
The space Taylor and the other characters occupy feels real, "lived in", specific, and thought out--designed to create a specific effect and a feeling from the audience.
What I love about the the production design in the video personally is that all the choices add up to create a world that feels like another character to me.
The lesson here for folks is to spend as much time as one can on production design.
Just because your script says "average-looking office," doesn't mean you only need whatever office you can find to best tell the story (or to create the desired emotional experience for the audience).
An average-looking "anything" on screen and one in real life are not the same. The details make a significant difference, especially to those eagle-eyed Swifties combing each of her videos for hidden "Easter Eggs."
Production Design is often an overlooked element of production, which is unfortunate because it is a huge opportunity to tell your story more effectively. One way I think about it is that everything you fill the frame with is a chance to tell the audience something, to affect them, to move them, and better tell your unique story.
The image posted above is just one example of how Taylor Swift uses Production Design to more fully and mindfully set the tone [OF?] and tell a story. If you scroll through the video itself and press pause randomly, my guess is that you'll see further examples in each moment.
The camera angles, camera movements, and overall framing of the shots are well composed and often place Taylor in the center of the frame, which creates an intentionally awkward feel. Generally speaking, both IRL when talking with others, and in "film language", a person/character is set a bit off angle so it doesn't feel like the person is staring directly at us, which often feels uncomfortable.
Taylor Swift understands this and uses it to her advantage to both engage us and to create a bit of emotional "edginess".
Combined with the lighting choices, use of "practical light", and the deliberate framing, the piece reminds me of a cross between Directors Wes Anderson's and David Fincher's visual style.
The lesson here is that different styles of camera angles and camera move choices create a different emotional effect on the audience.
In this particular case, again, the combination of having the subject centered and adorned with production design and lighting that lead us to look directly at the Subject, creates a slightly awkward feeling, draws our eyes into hers-- And it mirrors how Taylor the physical character is at the center of the action, while Taylor the human being is taking a long look at her choices, behaviors, and her past.
Whether you decide to go with highly composed shots, Steady Cam, handheld, or beyond; each approach gives the audience different emotional and visual cues and therefore each tell the story differently.
One other note: If you look at the image just below as well as all of the images above, you can see how Taylor utilizes the "Rule of Thirds" (dividing the frame into equal thirds) to create a cohesive visual style, visual motif, and mood.
Using physical objects within each frame, lighting techniques, and where she is placed in the frame, the image is often divided into three different sections visually, which produces an emotional effect in how the audience feels in each moment.
A lot of videos that I've reviewed tend to cut back and forth between 2-3 "storylines" (though that term isn't perfectly applicable to what I'm talking about, I think you'll see what I mean):
An example might be cutting back and forth between 1.) Shots of a band performing on stage, 2.) The band vamping in front of random street art unrelated to the band, and 3.) A linear storyline of a relationship from meet-cute to breakup.
While these elements aren't positive or negative innately, setting up a predicable visual pattern can make the audience lose interest in watching the video to the end.
I suggest always giving the audience a reason to "make it to the next moment", a reason for them to want to see what happens next.
You can set up an expectation of continually showing the audience something that they haven't seen before, or the same types of images but in a new way.
While a super fan will watch the video from start to finish regardless of what happens in the video, the average fan or non-fan often will not make it through even half the video.
The idea is to keep an audience interested, regardless if they have any prior knowledge of the music artist or not.
Taylor Swift deftly shows us something new and intriguing visually with each moment, and at the same time, she maintains a narrative story structure that builds as the piece progresses.
This combination serves to keep us intrigued as to what will happen next with her "character" so we are likely going to keep watching to the end to see how the story unfolds and resolves.
The lesson here is a music video can't just be a collection of interesting shots without any "build up", story, or evolution. It also cannot be a solid story told without utilizing interesting visual elements to do so as both are essential together to tell the story.
Show Don't Tell
"Show Don't Tell" is advice often given to screenwriters as a way to remind them to express their story visually and through character actions rather than by their dialogue.
When it comes to music videos, this axiom is even more important. If you can create imagery that can be understood without any sound, it means you can get your message across easier, to more folks, and more clearly overall to the audience.
Similar to what I mentioned early, the "Anti-Hero" music video is so great to me because it both presents to the viewer iconic imagery that keeps one interested because of the uniqueness and audacity of the imagery, but it also keeps a solid progression of a storyline that can be followed with or without music.
Choosing specific colors for costumes, lighting, props, production design, and overall tone is incredibly important to creating a unique, impactful, and mindful music video.
Colors of each element set the tone for the mood of the piece and can explain subtextual elements, such as relationships between characters, or shed light on the meaning of the piece.
With "Anti-Hero," the use of lighting, choices of colors (and style) of props, costumes, and the overall color correction creates a specific "feel" that is unique, interesting, and on point.
Long story short: Being specific and mindful of these elements creates a deeper and nuanced music video.
Change Things Up with a Tonal Shift or Unexpected Moment
As I've talked about, most of "Anti-Hero", the composition of each frame and Swift's choices for camera movements are very uniform, deliberate, and linear. However, near the end of the video, during the funeral scene, the camera style turns from composed shots to a "hand held" and deliberately erratic and shaky style.
This camerawork style change matches and enhances the tonal shift of the storyline itself. The action on screen becomes chaotic and erratic, and the camera matches that energy.
What's even more interesting, is that during this scenes, the characters start speaking dialogue, whereas before this point, the video has simply been scenes of action without dialogue happening as the music plays.
Whatever way that you decide as a filmmaker to do it, adding in a moment or two that "mixes things up", bucks a trend, or takes the video in a new and unexpected direction, is an important part of storytelling.
Message, Subtext, & Meaning
Ideally, you are able to sum up what your video is "about" in a word or two or up to a few sentences. I'm not talking about explaining the plot, or what the characters say, or even "what it all means," but what the underlying message it is communicating.
It could be as simple as "Family" or "The Search for Truth" or "How Finding Yourself Doesn't Solve All Your Problems", and so on.
The point is, I feel that a music video should be about more than a series of scenes, or even just a coherent story. I feel that each scene, each moment, each visual should help tell the story, but also point towards a deeper meaning.
The first step is to decide what the message of the music video is that you are seeking to portray. After that, determining the storyline, (or what each scene entails), and how the scenes relate to each other is in order.
Once you have the general visuals you want to make your point, you want to make sure each scene has subtext or visual cues that support what your message is. It could be something as simple as having ghosts haunt a character and that each ghost represents a figurative "ghost" from the character's past actions.
An example from "Anti Hero" includes having a literal Taylor Swift "shadow self" interact with her actual self as a way to illustrate Taylor Swift facing the aspects of herself that she's not comfortable or happy with.
The bottom line is: If your music video is about something of meaning and emotional depth, you'll connect stronger with your audience, have more fun finding ways to tell your story, and it will be a more impactful and transcendent work of art.
Themes & Visual Motifs
Related to imbuing meaning and subtext into music videos is the use of themes and visual motifs to illustrate your point. As an example, in "Anti Hero", Taylor Swift is both literally and figuratively facing versions of her self, her personality, her choices, and her past. This is a major theme of the music video.
This theme is illustrated and the message conveyed via recurring visual motifs of meeting her versions of her "self" throughout the video.
There are a few other themes in the video such as a nod to "Alice in Wonderland" (or that's how I interpret it), as she grows larger after drinking a potion. I also wonder if by the end with the three "Taylors" meeting, perhaps the director is alluding to the Id, Ego, and Super Ego.
There's a lot going on thematically in "Anti Hero," which makes it more interesting, more engaging, and a deeper piece of art than a lot of music videos I've seen in my lifetime.
Tone, Vibe, Mood & Emotional Impact
In the case of "Anti-Hero," this topic could likely be first on the list, partly because of the connection between the song lyrics, the accompanying visuals of the music video, and the emotional impact created by the combination of the two.
My guess is that it is hard for most people to proclaim: "It's me, I'm the problem, it's me," even when they are seeking to look inward and to "do work on themselves."
These days, it's hard for folks to take the time to look inward, to look at their past choices and perhaps unhealthy patterns (and what resulted from them) and to address them as a way to learn and grow as a person. The realization and the ability to take responsibility for certain things in your life that are within your control, and to give yourself the compassion and understanding to work through what can be healed is incredibly difficult for anyone.
To write a song and create a music video that proclaims that statement while illustrating it in a way that is at the same time sincere, serious, humorous, clever, authentic, creative, topical, clear, ambiguous, and on and on---And set to a catchy tune and memorable chorus--Is in my opinion truly brave, an impressive accomplishment, and a work of art of the highest order.
End on a Big Note
Similar to starting off on an iconic and visually interesting note, ending on a "big" note is important as well. "Big" doesn't have to mean an explosion, a shocking twist, or complicated camerawork, but it is important for it to be impactful to the audience in some way.
"Anti-Hero" ends on one such note visually, from a standpoint of subtext, and being memorable in general. Plus, it is ironically "big" in the sense that a "giant" Taylor Swift meets her "other selves."
Again, the more a director can incorporate iconic, impactful, and memorable images into the final shot or scene, the stronger and more impactful the music video will be overall.
One Last Thing
Those are my thoughts. What are yours?
Feel free to email me here if you'd like to comment. Also, If you'd like to watch the video, you can click on the video below or go to YouTube. Please give it a watch! and let me know what you think!