Interview: Director TK McKamy on Creating Cinematic Storylines

Photo by Joseph Lanes

Even by the untraditional standards of creative professionals, director TK McKamy has had an uncouth career path. The Nicholasville, Kentucky native, who took home this year’s CMA Award for Music Video of the Year (Thomas Rhett’s “Marry Me”), has played Division I soccer and PDL in Japan, worked for the U.S. Navy Seals, and won a reality TV show.

“I always joke and say that I have about four lives left,” he shares via phone, shortly after his CMA win.

His numerous roles have undeniably informed his eye, his ethic, and his ability to help tell an artist’s story. “I think that really helps me honestly do my craft and to kind of tap into other experiences that people don’t have,” he continues. “See life a different way.”

McKamy’s work reflects his creativity and distinct viewpoint, from the sweeping shots in Ronnie Dunn’s “Damn Drunk” to the shadow of the confession booth wall on Tyler Hubbard’s face in FGL’s “Confession.”

Signature, too, to McKamy’s work is the proclivity for storyline. “The ones that really make me move and really get me excited are ones [in which] every shot has something to tell you and you can learn something in every shot,” he says. “That progresses the story forward and pulls people into the story and makes them cry at the end—that’s what I really love to create.”

To achieve his goal, McKamy employs specificity. “I take every shot every seriously,” he says. “In ‘Marry Me’ there’s little elements, [like] the t-shirt that she wore at the football game is also the same thing he wraps his gift in at the wedding. I try to put in little nuggets for people to find because I think that’s intelligent storytelling. If I want somebody to watch something for four minutes, I want to tell them something in every shot.”

The top viewer comment on “Marry Me”—”I didn’t think the song could get any better until I watched this video omg”—has 6.3 thousand likes alone, with the video boasting more than 158 million views to date.

McKamy began his video career in high school. His school was given a grant for some film and computer equipment, and gave the students free rein to create their own morning newscast. McKamy wasn’t interested in news, but he was allowed to create his own SNL-type spoof clips for the show. “I had this immediate audience of a couple thousand students,” he says. “I remember just going and standing in the hallways and listening as students respond and laugh as my commercials would air, and it was a boost of confidence that you just can’t pay for as a young creative.”

“My passions were always in entertaining people and telling a story,” he continues. “As a cinematographer and a director, a lot of what we do is creative problem solving mixed with storytelling. For me, the best directors in the world are psychologists who happen to be great artists. That’s what I aspire to be, I aspire to understand the human condition in ways that I can recreate . . . for someone to have a visceral experience.”

He also employs that storytelling in campaigns with Coca-Cola, Verizon, Toyota, and more. It’s something that draws artists and their teams to his work as well. “I usually don’t get a creative brief, they kind of just ask me what would I want to do,” he says. “One of the most important things about music videos is creating a story that aligns with the artist’s style, brand, emotion, and personality.” In the case of “Marry Me,” he and Rhett have worked closely together for so long that connecting with Rhett’s vision was easy. “When I listen to a song for the first time I try to just go into a dream world, close my eyes, and meditate on what the message of the song really is,” he says, “’cause you only get to listen to a song once for the first time.”