How do music videos and visual albums live within the category of branded entertainment?
Creating visuals in the branded content world is always about the message. Whether you're creating a music video, an ad, or a short film, the focus remains on the message. The feeling or emotion that message creates is what you want someone to take away from your work.
My goal is always to create something that is massively shareable. I want my work to make a huge splash, I want to have massive views on the first day it’s dropped. Of course, it's becoming harder and harder to do this. There is so much content being released on so many different platforms, the environment is oversaturated. You can drop the biggest music video in the world one day, smash beyond smashing it, and then in a week, it’s forgotten.
[Pop culture] is about knowing where you come from and what you want to say and making it a genuine response to what is happening, with a heart and soul that is rooted in authenticity. Anything less feels exploitative.
In the past, if you dropped a massive hit it would run for a while, building momentum as more and more people watched. Now, everyone watches in a day or two and then they move on. It’s still a massive audience, they’re just moving faster and faster. Their consumption is at an all-time high, and the quality level is at an all-time high, so the work you do in order to cut through that saturation also has to be at an all-time high.
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Here’s a hard question. How do you define Pop Culture?
I think there are phases we go through in terms of what is of the moment and what is the zeitgeist in the world. Pop culture reflects that moment, whatever it is. Which is why, as a creator, I'm always trying to create a pop culture moment. It doesn’t matter the form of the content, whether it’s a Super Bowl commercial or a music video or an award show, the goal is to create something that transcends boundaries and becomes the thing everyone is talking about.
Whatever the goal, the piece has to be about recognizing what the identity, brand, or voice was before, and creating a road map for where it’s going next.
To do this authentically, you have to be in touch with the root of the moment. It’s about knowing where you come from and what you want to say and making it a genuine response to what is happening, with a heart and soul that is rooted in authenticity. Anything less feels exploitative.
How do you feel music videos create new trends and versions of pop culture?
There are always people who do stuff first. The biggest music moments have been when an artist makes a song that feels new, fresh, forward-thinking, and perfect for the moment. It’s the same for music videos. You're always trying to find the next pop culture moment. To me, the music videos that are iconic have been one step ahead, and perceive a pop culture moment before it happens.
An example of this is the videos I’ve made with Ed Sheeran over the years. When we first started working together, we wanted to create something unique for Ed, that truly reflected who he was as an artist. But he didn’t want to actually be in the videos, so we were making massive pop videos with no artist. Before that, music videos with no artist were a bit art-house. Pop videos were glossy and the artist was usually featured. So, when we created videoes with Ed’s character portrayed as a puppet, or with a young man performing the lyrics in sign language, we were able to challenge what a pop video could be. It ended up feeling very genuine, reflecting his uniqueness as an artist.
Creating visuals in the branded content world is always about the message.
Another example was when I was working with Eminem. Approaching him I was thinking, “what hasn’t he done?” He has such a wealth of great videos, so the challenge was to create something that felt new. I’m always trying to be unique and fresh and create something that will become a new culture moment and the new reference that everyone’s talking about.
When crafting collaborative stories with brands what elements are always there?
You always start by looking at what they’ve done before and try to elevate that by moving, growing, or changing the message. Whatever the goal is, the piece has to be about recognizing what the identity, brand, or voice was before, and creating a road map for where it’s going next. I like to think about what I don’t want to do before I think about what I do want to do. Then I hone in on something specific to that artist, brand, or idea. Music is, of course, a huge inspiration when making music videos. It’s the essence of everything.
What I’ve seen not work in a music video is when a director makes something for themselves as a director instead of focusing on the artist.
What is the difference between a branded name (like Calvin Harris) and that person, especially in a world where social media exists?
We all slightly curate what's out there about us, whether you’re a massive artist or a normal person on social media. There’s an element of what we portray to the world that is internal, as well as an external image. To define the difference, you work with the space between those two things. Sometimes you look at the image around a brand or an artist and you really lean into it. Other times you may focus more on an emotionally-led piece, or another dimension.
There’s a thing in cinema where they say that there’s only seven stories or something, but I don’t believe that.
When working in music videos, the song helps create that distinction. For a personal ballad, like an intimate love song instead of a big club record, you do get to expose a deeper version of the artist. You have to think, ‘what are they trying to say?’ That’s how I get into creating. Which dimension are they leaning into? Or are they defying some aspect of it? It’s about where they are in their out-facing lifetime and how the visual you’re creating interacts with that moment.
How do you connect with the younger generations? How do you invite Gen Z to a seat at the table?
That’s something I spend a lot of my time doing. I have a creative collective, Ammolite Inc, full of diverse and youth-led voices. I stand wholeheartedly for giving voices to new and unheard talent. With everything I make, I want to be informed, so I’ll speak to my nieces and younger members of the collective. It’s about genuinely listening to the youth and focusing on what they’re watching, thinking, and consuming. The youth are the future.
Their consumption is at an all-time high, and the quality level is at an all-time high, so the work you do in order to cut through that saturation also has to be at an all-time high.
There was a pivotal moment in my career when technology was advancing and everyone was suddenly able to do anything, where I thought I either could embrace the new wave or fight it. There was no question but to embrace it. I feel lucky to have done so much creatively in this new phase that is about listening to the world and amplifying new voices. I love creating with people and helping them grow as I grow too. This industry has always had such a hierarchy closed-door feel to it. With Ammolite, I am focusing on opening those doors and embracing new talent while learning together.
How do you work with a group in order to craft a piece that feels like it contains elements of all people involved?
That’s one thing I pride myself on doing. It’s one of the strongest elements of the creative process. I love listening to where the core of things comes from and building on that. Collaborating with artists and brands is about hearing their original vision, then working together to pull the best thing out of it. Working at Ammolite, as a collective, we do this by each giving our best thoughts and growing the idea collaboratively. That’s the real goal when you're working on a project for someone else.
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What’s your favorite storytelling technique?
I was never professionally trained at a film school, so for me, I always go off my own feelings or emotions, and then figure out how to conjure that for someone else. Storytelling is all about feeling and emotion. I have recently been working on a movie and longer-form pieces where I have been thinking about how the work needs to be influenced by real stories in order to feel real. A fictional story with fictional people and fictional ideas is not nearly as strong without a connection to something real, capturing a feeling and portraying it through a piece.
It’s about genuinely listening to the youth and focusing on what they’re watching, thinking, and consuming. The youth are the future. What story hasn’t been told?
There are a lot of stories that haven’t been told. There’s a thing in cinema where they say that there’s only seven stories or something, but I don’t believe that. The biggest problem is when people’s voices are dampened, and stories are changed and manipulated for mass consumption. Like in music, in order to have a hit, you have to get on the radio. For cinema, it's the same, you have to fit into a certain box.
It’s about genuinely listening to the youth and focusing on what they’re watching, thinking, and consuming. The youth are the future.
My hope is that more unique voices and perspectives will bring a more unique cinema. I feel like I’ve seen every movie numerous times, just in different colors and with different endings. I’m excited to see stories told in different ways by new people with different points of view. I think the industry is fearful and feeds constantly on things that have worked before. I hope there is some fearlessness that comes in new waves of cinema and I believe that wave has started. I can see the beginning of it.