You recently directed the fairy-tale-esque music video for Tom Petty’s track “Something Could Happen.” Did you need to learn any new skills? I definitely got to exercise and improve on a lot of skills with that project. Due to COVID safety precautions, we kept our crew and talent on set very small, so I stepped into the role of doing some physical performance in the Biggie character suit and some motion-capture acting for the Tiny character. It was also a lot of fun to return to my roots as a conceptual artist and design the characters for the video. The role of a director is a collaborative one, so after those sketches were done, it became about working with the fabrication team and trusting them to put their own spin on those ideas to bring those characters to life.
How did you first discover your love for filmmaking? I always thought it was a slow, gradual discovery, but now that I think about it, watching the documentary The Making of “Thriller” when I was eight years old was a big turning point for me. It was a fascinating look behind the scenes at the choreography, costumes, creature design and special-effects makeup in the music video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller.” All these very different teams and artforms came together on a mission to make a singular piece of entertainment. It’s not one thing that creates the magic; it’s all those things working in harmony. I vividly remember a moment in the documentary where an airbrush artist was creating shadows on an actor’s hand to turn it into a bony zombie hand, and I thought to myself, “I want to do that!” So, it was surreal watching the making of the music video for Tom Petty’s “Something Could Happen,” when I had the realization that I really did get to do the thing that inspired me as a kid.
How would you describe your style, and how has it evolved? I’ve been in pursuit of not having a specific style. There was a period of time—when I started working with Daft Punk, Mark Ronson and The Strokes—where I was put in a box of retrofuturism. Generally speaking, I do tend to gravitate toward a visual style that feels analog, with themes that are a bit on the surreal and fantastical side. But what I’m more interested in is storytelling and its emotional impact, and I find that style is often just the aesthetic choices that make the visuals exciting to look at. In recent years, I’ve been able to spread my wings and push myself in different directions on projects with The 1975, Tom Petty and Hayley Williams, and I hope to continue this journey of exploration.
What are the differences between directing music videos versus commercials? With music videos, there’s a level of trust that an artist gives to a director because they are usually the talent on-screen. So, in that sense, music videos are more of an auteur medium for the director. With commercials, it’s more of a collaborative group effort, where the director has a vision, but also needs to make sure that vision is in line with the various marketing and messaging goals that the brand is trying to achieve. Another huge difference is time. With commercials, you are usually only shooting five to ten shots a day for a spot that is going to be 15 to 60 seconds in length, whereas with music videos, I’ve done up to 90 shots in a single day for a video that’s 4 to 6 minutes in length. So, there is more of a luxury of time with commercials, but those handfuls of shots need to be perfect.
How has your experience at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), Lucasfilm’s visual effects and animation studio, informed how you approach filmmaking? Since I didn’t study film in college, ILM and Lucasfilm were my film schools. There was a style of visual storytelling that was established by George Lucas, Joe Johnston and Ralph McQuarrie that I’ve definitely absorbed into my work. In some ways, I was trained in clear, cinematic storytelling as my background and foundation, and then I have my music videos, which are always pushing to break and bend the narrative rules, where clarity can give way to more-abstract storytelling and visuals.
You designed the concept art for many characters in the Star Wars prequel trilogy, including General Grievous. What insights did you take away from the experience? What I loved the most about working with George Lucas was seeing firsthand how he drew his inspiration from the most unexpected places. If you look at the original Star Wars films, he somehow combined Akira Kurosawa, Joseph Campbell, Eastern philosophy, samurai, cowboys and Flash Gordon into something new that worked seamlessly. He encouraged us to use the research team at the Skywalker Ranch library to pull references from all over the world, which is what I did in designing particular characters.
During my time at Skywalker Ranch, George would be writing the story on the second floor and a group of us would be designing on the third floor. He’d meet with us once a week, review our artwork, get inspired and then go back to writing his story. Initially, I thought I had the coolest job in the world, but after working with him, I began to think, “Wait, he has the best job. I want to do that. I want to tell stories of my own.”
What music gets you into your creative zone? When I’m working on anything visual, I tend to like music that gets me hyped. That can be anything from hip-hop to indie rock to classic soul to cheesy ’80s and ’90s hits. If you were to look at my history tab, it looks like a Frankensteined, random list of clashing genres. But whenever I’m writing stories or treatments, I need the vibe to be super calm and hypnotic. I get easily distracted and have a hard time focusing, so the music has to have no lyrics whatsoever. This usually means Bach, Debussy, Max Richter and Mozart.
What’s the most exciting music video you’ve seen recently? Off the top of my head, I like the music video for DJ Khaled and Drake’s song “POPSTAR.” It was directed by Director X and used Justin Bieber instead of Drake. It was a simple concept that was executed really well, and also serves as a great example of embracing pop culture but putting a twist on it.
What emerging technologies and innovations will have the biggest impact on how you work in the next few years? I think we’ll see more integrated virtual production stages like the ones they use on The Mandalorian. As that technology gets easier to use, we’ll see it applied to a wide range of subjects, such as period pieces and other environments that are logically challenging to shoot in. I’ve always disliked visual effects that draw too much attention or don’t feel integrated, so having that real in-camera lighting from the LED screens is a game changer. As we continue navigating through this global pandemic, travel and talent will be limited, and we’ll need to find ways to keep creating within our limitations. Technologies like this can help.
What advice do you have for creatives who are just entering the field? I recently watched an old interview with Rod Serling, the creator of The Twilight Zone, and he was talking about how often people would come to him with ideas for the show, and he would respond, “OK, then write it.” That is the best advice. There are so many people with ideas who don’t actually follow through. Sometimes, things that seem impossible turn out to be easier than they looked, and things that looked easy turn out to be a lot more challenging. The point is that you have to try, succeed, fail and learn. It’s a long, educational journey with a mixture of disappointments and triumphs. Once you get your foot in the door, the key is to stay curious and open minded, and you’ll have a long-lasting career.