'Breathin' Director Hannah Lux Davis on the 'Wild West' of Music Videos and Working With Ariana Grande: 'I'm in Awe of Her'

Ariana Grande, "breathin"
Courtesy Photo

Ariana Grande, "breathin"

When the video for Ariana Grande’s “Breathin’” dropped last week, it was a welcoming sigh of relief after a particularly tumultuous past few months for the singer.

Along with the single “thank u, next,” in which Ari expresses gratitude towards her past relationships, “Breathin’” is about finding inner strength within a chaotic world, and its video reflects that perfectly; Grande sits alone in a train station as blurred figures of people zoom past her, and she finds peace and happiness by swinging through an ethereal landscape of clouds.

Hannah Lux Davis, the video’s director, has worked with Grande on numerous projects, including the spin-bike-innuendo-filled “Side to Side” and the bright, bombastic “Into You.” But collaborating on a more subdued, introspective video wasn’t any less fulfilling – Davis says a huge part of her job is to create a visual that fits what the artist needs in their career.

“If an artist is doing all these crazy effects videos, you really can’t get a feeling for them,” says Davis. “Maybe they need to strip that back and do something more performance-based, and really get to see them honestly.” Besides, “Breathin’” is still impressive in its visuals – according to Davis, every shot in “Breathin’” is an effects shot, either in the form of CGI clouds or the blurred people speeding by Ari while she moves at normal speed.

In addition to her videos with Grande, the 32-year-old director has worked with numerous big names in pop such as Halsey, Demi Lovato, Nicki Minaj, Hailee Steinfeld, Fifth Harmony, and many more. She’s even dipped her toes into the country music scene by directing Kacey Musgraves’ “High Horse.” But what really makes Davis stand out, like all talented directors, is her style: her videos are colorful and candy-coated without being garish (her background as a makeup designer and stylist helps), and her meticulous precision towards editing and movement makes all of her projects, whether they’re dance videos or not, feel highly kinetic and alive, in a way that’s reminiscent of K-pop videos.

Davis sat down with Billboard to discuss “Breathin’,” the technical and style wizardry that goes into her work, and why music videos are still “the Wild West” within the film industry.

How did you get your start in filmmaking?  Did you always plan on making music videos?

The interest grew when I was in high school. I didn’t really know what it was, just knew that I was into “cinematography.” But I didn’t really know the different roles, the director, producer, all that. I was drawn to making things, shooting something and cutting it together and then showing it to people. And I really was drawn to anything that you could cut to music.

I remember cutting a project to the beat of a song, at the time when iMovie had just come out, and I remember falling in love with editing to music right away. I was sixteen years old, and that’s when I knew that music videos would be something that I would want to do. But before that I had always loved music videos, had always loved to watch TRL. I would look forward to that countdown, like we all would back in the TRL heyday.

I ended up going to film school when I was eighteen. I knew I wanted to make music videos, so I didn’t even bother with writing or sound design. I was all about directing and editing for me, and that was it. From there I would just reach out to bands who weren’t really on labels, and I would ask if I could shoot their videos. I paid for them myself. And then before you know it, they all know other bands, people are reaching out to me, and all of a sudden I have a budget of $500, and then they have other clients who have managers, then all of a sudden we have a $6000 budget, and a $10,000 budget, and then it just sort of grows from there.

You’ve mentioned some early influences for you were the music video directors Floria Sigismondi and Sophie Muller. What drew you to their work?

I was obsessed with them -- still kind of am. Because they were women, they caught my eye, and I was very much drawn to following their careers. I feel like I had invested in watching what they were doing, in terms of their trajectories. And they both have this really unique perspective. There’s a lot of male directors who have their own perspective, but there’s something very unique about a female perspective – you don’t see it as often. Very different, and detailed in different ways: the styling and the hair and the makeup, and the details in the production design, were very unique, especially at the time, too.

Floria’s videos have always stuck out to me because their costumes are so elaborate – she kind of makes the star’s costume seem like its own character.

Yeah, she’s very dark. Floria is very dark and moody, and she definitely finds magic in the shadows, metaphorically speaking.

How do you approach collaboration with artists? When you’re sitting down and you’re discussing what you both want from the video, what do those conversations typically look like?

Every job -- even if it’s with the same artist -- the collaboration process is very different. It always starts with me being inspired by the song. I see what the general tone and vibe is, if there’s any metaphors or song lyrics that jump out, and really try to get behind what the underlying message of the song is, and then kind of work from there. You don’t want to be literally tone-deaf and not have an understanding of what the song is, because then you’re not doing a service to it.

And it all starts with a great song. You can make a really great video, but nobody’s going to care if the song is mediocre. That’s the thing about our industry – you don’t get to choose when the bases are loaded when you go up to bat. That’s something that is so tricky in the industry that we work in, because we only can control so much. I’m lucky enough to where I work with a lot of great artists, and the music is always fairly good, especially with the bigger artists. They’re spending money because the artist is great and the song is a smash, so I’m lucky to be in that ballpark.

But I’ll listen to the song, and I’ll try to figure out a direction I want to go just in a tonal standpoint, whether it’s moody or edgy, or something more ethereal, or playful. Maybe it needs a touch of comic relief, or it needs to be something more straightforward and narrative-based to where the artist isn’t in it as much, we’re really focusing on a story between actors, or maybe it’s a dance-heavy video. And it really depends on what the artist may need in their career at that time –having an awareness of what else they’re putting out, what other people in their lane are putting out, just to make sure that we’re covering ourselves and not doing something that feels repetitive or too trendy.

I just did a video with an artist named Anne-Marie, for a song called “Perfect to Me.” And it’s a really beautiful song, the song lyrics are very honest. She’s basically speaking about what her flaws or insecurities are, and they’re really embedded into the lyrics quite honestly. And so she wanted to make a video that felt like it was a true presentation of a lot of people’s opinions of what the word “perfect” means, because it’s such a subjective concept. And so we would go back and forth, text message, passing references over to each other. It’s a really collaborative conversation about what she wants to get out of the video. We have a really great shorthand because we’ve worked together on so many projects.

Same with Ariana. I’ve done a lot of videos for her – “Bang Bang,” “Love Me Harder,” “Into You,” “Focus,” “Side to Side,” I did a perfume commercial for her, and I did her tour visuals. So I’ve worked with her a ton, in all these different phases of her career, and she’s grown into an incredibly strong woman. I’m in awe of her. She’s one of those artists where you’re like, “Yep, you’re here for a reason, and you’re not going anywhere.” It’s insane, her work ethic and drive – she’s got great ideas, and it’s fun to work with people who have really great ideas and who can think quickly. And her coming from comedy and TV, you can tell that it’s a learned, practiced skill. She’s able to be quick like that.

For “Breathin,’” she texted me, and out of the blue, because we hadn’t worked together on her last three videos. I was not expecting to get a call on this album cycle, because she had been experimenting with other directors. And obviously, to each their own, and she wanted to grow and learn in different ways as well. I fully respect that, but was happily surprised to get a text from her, asking if I’d be down to do this “Breathin’” video.

She really left that to me in terms of the concept for this one. Sometimes, for other videos, she’ll be like, “This is what we’re doing, I wanna do this.” For “Side to Side,” she was like, “We should do spin bikes.” That was the one thing, and everything kind of went from there based on one word.

The spin bikes were her idea?

Yeah. That’s all she gave me. I had this whole other idea that I had sent to her, and looking back on that idea, I don’t even remember what it was. That’s how awful it was. It was so unspecial. And then she writes back, and she’s like, “I’m just thinking… spin bikes.” Something as short and to the point as that. And then from there, I dove in and took her two words, and just kind of ran with it on a visual level. That was how that one came together, and the rest is history.

For “Breathin’” she really let me take the reins for it. The song is obviously about anxiety, and feeling so out-of-touch and out-of-sync and out of alignment with everything in the world around you, and feeling like you’re just not connected. So I had this idea of doing motion control, which I’ve been wanting to do for a long time, and I’m really glad that I ended up doing it on this project. It’s the effect that we did to shoot her in a different frame rate, in a different speed, and other people in the frame that are moving quickly around her. That was through the effect of motion control.

So how we did that, we would shoot her take, which allowed for us to have an understanding of what the shot was going to be. She would dictate the shot. So we would set up a camera move, and shoot her doing that one camera move. And that shot would be at a higher frame rate. So it’s like one quick move, and maybe the shot was 15 seconds long. But then we would have to do all the people. So we would shoot all the people walking around, in all the different directions and making sure they don’t walk right in her path, and that shot would take eight minutes to shoot the same camera move, because the frame rate would be way slower. Imagine her walking, and it takes 15 seconds, and then we shoot the other people.

Did you do the editing yourself on that video?

Yes, I edit 90% of my videos, but I didn’t do the effects. The effects were the compositing of those two shots on top of each other, and roto-ing her out and putting her into that. I did the cuts, the editing between each clip, before the effects were added. And let me tell you, this turnaround was so fast. Shot and delivered in two weeks, which is insane, considering that every single shot was an effects shot, and it’s Ariana Grande, so it has to be perfect. I cut the video literally in a day, sent it to her on her phone, she loved it. The next day, she came over with all her friends to watch it, and we locked it down the cut then.

She obviously loves clouds. I know her brand well enough to know, “Ooh, she’s gonna like this.” So I found all these cloud pictures, and I’m like, “We should do something with clouds,” because she references clouds in the song so many times, and it fits with the concept, that resolution of feeling so out-of-touch and then finally finding your way to the clouds and having that moment of peace. It was really fun to figure out what that would be. We had this cloud swing, which was so cool. And the cloud head, I love the cloud head.

Were any of the images inspired by any particular artists or images?

No artists in particular, but there was this picture of a swing that I saw, and then I knew that I wanted to do something with clouds. And there was something like the two combined that I thought would be really cool. I feel like if anything, I had some really great reference photos for that motion control effect, of everyone else really blurred, and she’s the only thing in focus. I was really drawn to some black-and-white photography that I saw with that effect. There was a man and a woman kissing at this outdoor cafe, and everyone else was a motion blur around them.

As an editor and makeup designer, you’re drawing a lot of style from the movement and facial expressions in your videos. There’s so much choreography and kineticism, even in the videos that don’t necessarily involve dancing. I’m wondering how you collaborate with a choreographer and cinematographer to not only get those movements in time with the song, but also have it all sync up to the camera shots and the editing.

You have a creative call with the choreographer. And for something like “Side to Side,” it was a completely different approach than we would normally have it, because it was on spin bikes. We were working with Brian and Scott [Nicholson], the twins, Ari’s main choreographers, and we were like, “Alright, we gotta make this spin bike thing fire. It has to be this iconic moment on spin bikes.” And it’s hard to set out to do something like, “oooh, let’s be iconic,” but sometimes, there’s just a feeling when something’s going to land in pop culture, and I just had a feeling that this was going to. That bassline on the song, and Ari and Nicki -- it was a huge track, and then this spin bike thing, I had never seen in a video. It was just one of those moments where I was like, “Holy shit.”

And so I talked to Brian and Scott, and the first time I had seen them put it together, it was really cool, but there wasn’t enough of in-sync movement on the bikes. So I brought in a friend of mine who is a spin instructor, I sent her what I was looking for, and she did a mock routine on a spin bike. She did these elbow things and dips, and kind of reiterated that the feet have to be all in-sync, “one-two, one-two.” It was one conversation with her, and then a video that I had taken of her routine that I showed to the guys, and that was what guided us in a way that felt like, “Alright, if we do it like this, this’ll be really effective when they’re all together. Having them all go up and down, and their feet have to be in-sync.” It sounds really simple, like, “ooh yeah, be in-sync, duh” -- but on a spin bike, getting everybody set up and having that timing, how everybody looks on a spin bike, is obviously way different than dancing on their feet.

So we had to bring in the spin bikes to their rehearsal, I think they had a couple days’ rehearsal with it because it was so foreign. And we even had to go over the formation of the spin bikes, how it would feel in this dynamic, because we were doing crane shots and we wanted to make sure that it was good from all angles -- from above it, swooping through it, everyone’s in-sync in every shot while also being really dynamic.

A lot of it really is trial-and-error. I shoot the rehearsal on my iPhone and study it, so that I can show the DP and the DP can be like, “Oh cool, we should definitely get profile angles, I’ll make sure I can set up something over there.” But then, when it comes down to the shoot day, the crane operator has never seen the choreography, never heard the song, and you’re just having to re-teach everything that you and this DP have honed in on, and it’s now all going to this person’s hands to make sure they can shoot it right. You kind of just have to rapid-fire shoot the video, and know what specific angles you need. Sorry if this sounds boring!

No, not at all! It’s nice to hear a director open up about the actual process, because I think for a lot of people music videos are still very mystifying. Nowadays they just kind of appear on the Internet, or at least that’s what it seems like.

It’s a lot of back-and-forth and collaboration. Music videos are the Wild West, still. Even though they’ve been happening for twenty-plus years, they’re still a very fast-paced industry. Shit goes wrong, artists can be late, artists can not show up -- there’s a lot of variables that we’re constantly having to dodge, and I feel like it’s so important to make sure you have people on your team that can go with the flow and create things on the fly, change things on the fly, and be flexible and just be a teammate and partner-in-crime. Because it really is, at the end of the day, a team effort, and you’ve really got to make sure that everybody on the team has a common goal of giving it their all and being flexible. Things will happen and change.