Emil Nava Looks Back on His Road From Craft Services to Directing Videos for Ed Sheeran, Calvin Harris & More

Patrick MellerĀ 
Emil Nava

Every time Emil Nava looked into the monitor while directing the video for “Feels,” he had one thought: “Wow, that’s fucking great.” Not only did Nava wrangle some of the biggest stars in music for the day-long shoot for Calvin Harris’ latest hit featuring Katy Perry, Pharrell, and Big Sean, but the entire scope of the shoot itself was a massive undertaking.

“The idea for ‘Feels’ was a real collaboration,” Nava says of the retro-tropical style for the video, the 13th he’s directed for Harris. “The two biggest things about ‘Feels’ was getting everyone together on that one day and to build a set that, for a long time, was in my head. We made it in this 360-degree world where the camera can see anyone and shoot everywhere. If it’s exciting and electric on set, I’m a firm believer in trying to capture a feeling that you can translate to the audience on screen.”

That skill has made Nava one of the most in-demand video directors in popular music today. Besides the litany of Harris songs he’s been behind the camera for, from his 2013 hit with Ellie Goulding “I Need Your Love” to recent smashes including the MTV Video Music Award-nominated “My Way,” Nava is also the visual mastermind behind clips for Ed Sheeran (“Don’t,” “Photograph”), Charlie Puth (“Attention”) and Selena Gomez (“Kill Em With Kindness”). Throughout his filmography, Nava has steadily worked toward a distinct style. “It took a long time for me to really develop my voice as a director,” Nava explains from London, where he spent much of his formative years and still works today. “I never went to film school or was educated in film. For me, it was always very much about how I feel. For a lot of directors, they're known for planning with storyboards and very forward-thinking with how they want to end up. Whereas I like to find the magic in it. I like to make it a journey of discovery, I guess.”

His own personal journey of discovery has its roots when a young Nava, who originally thought he’d be an actor like his thespian parents, left school when he was just 16. “I just didn’t enjoy it,” Nava remembers. “Drama and music were two things that I really did like, though, but I wasn’t very good at them. I wasn’t really outgoing, so I wanted to find something else.” That something else turned out to be cooking and Nava originally set out to be a chef, thinking it’d be a solid fallback career. “Cheffing was great actually! I always say there are a lot of similarities between a chef in the kitchen and a director during a shoot. You don’t have much time to think about anything except what’s right in front of you.”

Nava initially didn’t think much of it when his father got him involved with doing the craft services on some film sets. “I made some tea and coffee on a couple and it kind of just took off from there really. I started doing mainly music videos and I loved it. I was on them every week.”

Eventually, Nava transitioned from making tea to becoming assistant director, with his first major gig assisting on the iconic video for Amy Winehouse’s “Rehab” in 2006. “I knew who she was because I worked on another video of hers and she lived really close to me in London, so we knew the same people,” Nava says of the first of many household names he’d work with. “I remember the day after ‘Rehab’ came out, it was so huge it was unbelievable. What’s so exciting about the music industry is that you can create something, but you never really know if it’s going to be a big video or big song. Sometimes, though, you can feel it, and that was the first time I remember getting excited about being in a world where overnight something can be so huge.”

Instead of being the exception, huge videos have lately become the norm for Nava with the video for “Feels” alone netting over 100 million views after only a month on YouTube. Meanwhile, his video for Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” (one of 11 videos he’s directed for the singer) is closing in on a whopping two billion views since its 2014 posting. “The creative process is different for every video,” he notes, pointing out that record labels will send out music to a number of directors who then pitch their specific vision. “We send in a treatment as to what our idea is, from how we’d achieve it to what it’d look like. The more you do it however, the more connections you build whether through managers or artists.”

For example, Nava’s recent video for the hit Charlie Puth single “Attention” was initiated by Puth’s label, Atlantic Records. “I also spoke to a producer friend of mine who writes with Charlie. It always goes best when you have access to the artist, though. With Charlie, I later met him at his house and we talked about the idea.” For “Attention,” the video’s basic premise was concocted by Puth, and the singer wanted to get a gauge for how Nava would envision his concept of it. “Sometimes you have a complete open slate with an artist, or they’ll have an idea and want to collaborate with you on that idea. It’s almost like working on a big studio movie, where you’d have to show your vision for what you’re about to direct.”

Speaking of big studio movies, Nava would like to do those as well -- television too, while he’s at it. That was the impetus behind launching his own production company dubbed Ammolite Inc, which allows him to singularly explore other projects as well as work with new artists. Don’t expect him to sit down and watch one of his projects after he completes it, though. "I realized I haven’t seen a lot of the videos I’ve made after I finished them,” Nava says, ready to go back to another day of treatment writing and video prep. “Especially within the edit process, I’m so in them. My heart, my brain, my everything is in it for so long that I almost need a breathing period after it's been made. But when I look back on all of them, they’re all so different yet I love them all for different reasons.”