Following the recent post about choosing the right song for your commercial and the more technical one about making a song fit your video perfectly, I want to address the song selection topic from a different angle - subverting Expectations. Subverting expectations when producing a video may be one of the most rewarding challenges you can give yourself as a filmmaker or video producer. In this post, I want to share a story of how subverting expectations worked well for a project I produced a while ago. I’ll then share the top three benefits to subverting expectations in film and video production.
“All that Jazz”
Before I begin the process of producing a video, I always ask the question: “What’s the objective?” I want to know, as specifically as possible, what result I (or my client) wants to happen after people watch a film. Educate? Inspire Buy something? Sign up for something? Dig deeper? The more specific the objective, the better.
Knowing that objective will help you as a filmmaker (or photographer for that matter) make creative decisions that support that objective. A few years ago, I created a promotional video for the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra. The objective of that video was to inspire viewers to learn more about the band and why they do what they do. I wanted there to be a palpable sense of emotion as you watched. I wanted your heart to beat just a bit faster. I wanted to increase the chance of goose pimples raising on your forearm. In the end, I wanted you to stand up and applaud.
As you well know, music plays a huge role in accomplishing the kind of emotions and feelings I mentioned above. So I had to make a hard choice. Do I pick one of the jazz pieces the band is known for playing, or do I go with something different? Come to think of it, the choice really wasn’t that hard for me. From the get-go, I knew I would NOT use a jazz song.
I’m a huge lover of jazz. I made a documentary short with the SRJO because of my love. This was the trailer created from the improvised set.
But jazz (especially big band jazz) has a feel and flavor to it that, IMHO, didn’t provide the kind of emotion I wanted the audience to feel. Big band jazz is fun and playful. It makes you tap your toes and want to get up and dance. The way I saw it, that promo wasn’t about jazz; it was about two artists who wanted to share their passion with the Seattle area. The audience needed to connect with and be inspired by them.
I gave a guest lecture presentation at Olympic College’s Film School in the Seattle area. In that presentation, I played the promo and asked the class what they thought. Here were some of their responses:
- It felt uplifting
- Felt inspirational
- “I liked how we saw behind the scenes of the performances.”
- It would’ve felt different if we heard jazz music.
- The music wasn’t distracting, Made me focus on what the people were saying.
Only one girl in the class commented that it kind of bothered her that the soundtrack didn’t match what the instruments were playing (although she loved the visuals). What was cool was that another person immediately commented afterward that not hearing the music made him want to go to the site and hear what they actually sound like.
I’m not saying I couldn’t have made a great piece using jazz music. This is not an exact science. It’s all subjective. But it’s nice knowing that I got the intended effect from the small sample audience I tested.
The Top Benefits to Subverting Expectations
You may ask yourself, “What’s the benefit of subverting expectations with song selection? Won’t it cause confusion?” That’s a good question. Let me address that. There are three reasons why it’s a good idea to subvert expectations with your videos.
#1. It leaves an impact
Season 1, Episode 9 of the HBO show “Game of Thrones” had an event that happened at the end of it that rocked the TV world. Readers of the popular book series already knew it was going to happen. But for the millions of viewers who didn’t bother to read the book, what they saw absolutely subverted expectations. (SPOILER ALERT: A major character was killed in a terrible way that no one saw coming). That event created conversation for years. To this day, it is still regarded as one of the seminal events in television history.
Subverting expectations causes the viewers’ senses to be shocked and surprised. That emotional impact creates a strong memory that is strong and visceral. Making your video memorable.
#2. It may better connect with the intended audience
Let’s say you want to make a fundraising video for an inner-city school where there’s a large black population that enjoys hip-hop music. You may think the best song to use for that is a hip-hop song like “Go Get the Money” by ATELLER featuring Phase One. Yeah, that seems perfect. The title and lyrics would be perfect for a fundraising video. But here’s the problem: the audience at the fundraiser is made up entirely of older white people who have a lot of money. So while the expectation that a video for an urban community would be hip-hop, because of the audience, you subvert the expectations and decide on a different song like “The People” by Kyle Preston. It’s beautiful, flowing, and goes great with inspiring images of beautiful black boys and girls playing in a run-down playground. The music will better connect with that audience than the hip-hop song.
#3. It expands your creativity
Lastly, music is so closely tied to how people respond to and even edit video that having a song that subverts expectations exercises your creativity. It’s easy to pick a jazz song for a promo video for a jazz orchestra, or a hip-hop song for an urban video. But when you make a song selection that goes against what is expected, it forces you to look at your video differently and find ways to tell your story in a way that you might not have thought about before. Just like your physical muscles need exercise, so does your creativity. Everything from how you pick the music, to the scenes you pick for b-roll, to the rhythm and flow of the editing will change with an expectation-subverting song.
On the next video you edit, look for a song that subverts expectations. Pick three genres you’ve never used before and see what you find. You may be pleasantly surprised—not just by how much more impactful your video might be, but how much more enjoyment you’ll have making it.
For nearly 20 years, Ron has been a professional video producer, content marketer, and influencer in the visual arts industry. Most recently was managing editor of the Frame.io blog and currently managing editor of Film Riot. He helps brands and creative artists tell their stories using video, content, and words. You can learn more about him at https://bladeronner.media.