I’ve Directed Music Videos for Big Artists. Here’s What My Job Is Like
  • Music video director Hannah Lux Davis grew up watching TRL and always loved music videos.
  • Today, Davis has made a name for herself as the go-to director for popular artists like Ariana Grande.
  • She says video budgets aren’t what they seem — some artists have more money to spend than others.

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Hannah Lux Davis, a film and video director based in Los Angeles. Her words have been edited for length and clarity.

I took out a student loan to pay for my first two official music videos. I flew a band I grew up with from Seattle to LA to film them.

I had to pay back that loan for awhile, but after film school, I was commissioned for an $800 video, then a $3,000 one, and so on until I was directing videos for some very well-known artists, like Ariana Grande, Doja Cat, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne and many more.

I was a teen during the height of TRL, which really spurned my love of music videos 

While in film school, I knew that I probably wasn’t going to be writing short films and trying to get into festivals — I wanted to direct immediately, and consistently — so the music video industry seemed like a great path for me.

I always loved music videos and was very passionate about them. I grew up watching MTV’s music video show “TRL,” and was inspired to be a director by music videos from Britney Spears, Backstreet Boys, NSYNC, Christina Aguilera, and Janet Jackson.

Hannah Lux Davis directing 'thank u, next' music video, Jennifer Coolidge

I directed Ariana Grande’s “Thank U, Next,” “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” and “7 Rings” videos.

Courtesy of Alfredo Flore

I used to think a show like TRL should still exist, but music visuals are just too on demand now with YouTube, Instagram, TikTok and the rest. There are still audiences who love to dissect whole videos, especially die-hard fans, but a lot of people only watch short clips on social media. That’s really changed the way I approach the videos I direct.

One thing I do is change setups a lot. It’s not about cutting back to the same setup over and over again throughout anymore, like you’d see in older videos. It has to feel like the video is always changing and giving something new. It’s less about the subtleties now and more about making a big splash.

My first very well-known video was for a collab with Lil Wayne, Future, and Drake

I’ve done lots of big-budget videos, but I still always feel like I’m trying to get my next big one. The first video I did for an artist that everyone knew was the Lil Wayne video for “Love Me” in 2014, featuring Future and Drake. That was the first one that was like, “Okay, this is a big deal.”

I was one of the first female music video directors to work with multiple Cash Money Records rappers together in one video. It was a big deal at the time because I remember the artists were a little taken aback that I was the director. They were like, “There’s a girl directing.”

Today it’s expected and there are many female directors, which is amazing. But at that time, I was very nervous. I worked through it by approaching the job with a sort of naive confidence. I had a great team around me and I knew I had a lot of support. You really just have to fake it ’til you make it sometimes, and this was no exception.

Pitching for a music video is about selling how your vision can convey what the artist wants to say

Hannah Lux Davis directing a music video with Demi Lovato

I’ve also directed multiple videos for Demi Lovato, like “I Love Me” and “Cool for the Summer.”

Courtesy of Jesse Dacri

Video directing gigs always start with relationships and who I can reach out to. Directors can reach out to managers and artists directly and side-door the usual process more often today than when I first started out. I have a great rep who will get me in with video commissioners and with managers, too.

When I’m trying to get a video job, first I’ll get the song, the parameters of what they’re looking for, and what’s called a video brief  — which includes the budget, the dates they’re looking to shoot, and the type of video they’re looking to make, whether it’s a narrative, a performance video, or some sort of theme.

Once I have those things, I’ll listen to the song over and over and over and try to come up with a concept I think feel feels right for that artist at that time in their career. When I have a good sense of what the artist wants, I’ll put together a treatment, which is an eye-catching PDF with images and text that really sells my ideas. 

People don’t realize how little time we have to make a video — and we often have a lot less money to work with than people think

It’s insane how fast we work in the music video industry. Once you’re awarded a job, you could possibly end up shooting it by the end of the week. Sometimes we have to start moving on the job before it’s officially booked because there are permits, casting, and other things that need to happen really quickly. If we aren’t awarded the job, then we just scrap what we’re doing.

I think fans are maybe a bit more clued in to how money works in the music industry now, but it still seems like a lot of people think our budgets are bigger than what they really are. They assume some artists get more money for a video, so they’re comparing their videos to other artists’ videos. With Taylor Swift, for example — everybody knows that she’ll spend a lot of money on a video, but not all artists can do that.

The scramble begins well before shoot day — shooting a music video is always chaotic

My role is to communicate to every single department what I want everything to look and feel like, from the way the actors look, what the lighting should look like, and what the inspiration and vibe should be. Sometimes it’s tricky to explain things and find the right references to make sure everyone’s on the same page, especially because we don’t have a lot of time. 

The shoot date itself is always insane, no matter how well you plan — but to start, everything is very timed out, down to the minute. We usually have about 12 to 14 hours to make the video. Most videos are shot in a day; a really big budget video might take two days. Once everything is planned and we’re set to go, I get to do my favorite part of the job — making sure the artist feels good, working with them on their performance, and helping them navigate the day and what’s coming next.  

The most stressful videos are the ones with the higher stakes — the bigger the artist, the higher the stakes

Some of the more stressful projects for me have been the ones with the highest stakes. With Ariana Grande, we did the “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored” and “7 Rings” videos together around Christmas of 2018 — and those just felt like a lot of pressure because it was four days of shooting two different videos.

Hannah Lux Davis directing Ariana Grande

My favorite part of the job is making sure the artist feels good and working with them on their performance.

Courtesy of Alfredo Flore

It was a lot stacked onto itself, and the stakes are so high because she’s such a well-known artist. At the same time, you’re dealing with scheduling issues because Ariana was obviously very busy — plus there are story changes she’d want last minute, which really affects a lot of moving pieces.

Other videos that are a lot of pressure are the ones where you have multiple artists together in a collaboration, because it’s always a moment when certain artists are on-screen together. As the director, you really want to make sure you’re capitalizing on that moment. 

Being a music video director isn’t for the faint of heart

I love my job, but you’d be crazy not to question your career path when you’re under the stress and pressure that a music video director is often under. It’s a really hard job — and I don’t even mean because of the pressure you put on yourself. It’s a very high stakes career because you have to create a video that’s like that artists’s baby — it’s so important to them.

It can add up to be a lot because of the timelines and the demands of it all: it’s constantly really late hours and it’s a lot of work trying to think of ideas all the time. Creativity is a muscle you have to work — it’s not a skill you can just call on if you’re stagnant. 

If none of that scares you off, there are two big pieces of advice I have for anyone trying to break in or stay in music video directing.

1. Stay on top of networking with artists and managers. Keep in touch with people, but don’t be annoying about it. People want to work with their friends and people they know — so being in position for that is really important. If you want to be in this industry, you really should be in LA or New York where everything’s happening.

2. If you want to direct, you should really learn how to edit. That’s how everything you shoot comes together. So much problem-solving happens in the editing room, so it’s helpful as a director to understand that process while you’re shooting.

Lastly, I think you have to check yourself — if you don’t absolutely love this work or you’re not crazy-obsessed with it, then you probably shouldn’t be doing it. 

If you work in Hollywood and would like to share your story, email Eboni Boykin-Patterson at [email protected].

By Indana