How to make a legit music video: advice from Wons Phreely

By Chris Robley

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 f