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Director Colin Tilley & His Boy in the Castle Team Break Down Recent Videos For Justin Bieber, Cardi B & More

Colin Tilley
Elias Talbot

Colin Tilley

Before Colin Tilley founded his Boy in the Castle production company, the acclaimed music video director was a little boy building imaginary castles and “creating stories from tree branches” at his Berkeley, California, home. He wasn’t allowed to watch television, but that never fazed him because he was more interested in his tangible surroundings -- and how they inspired intangible creative pursuits. 

While a now-32-year-old Tilley “watches films every day as homework,” he is mostly still and will forever remain that little boy. “Boy in the Castle essentially represents the idea of keeping that little-kid imagination cap on,” he tells Billboard by phone, during a drive back to the Bay Area from Los Angeles.

It was in Berkeley all those years ago that Tilley, David Singer-Vine and Jonathan Singer-Vine, twin brothers and two of Tilley’s best friends, first latched onto the concept. David wrote a song called “Boy in the Castle,” and Jonathan directed and wrote the 2013 film Licks, an unofficial Boy in the Castle production that Tilley executively produced. Tilley truly began directing music videos at 19 years old, after dropping out of college, when another friend, Niles Hollowell-Dhar, asked him to make one for him with a borrowed Handycam. “I naturally grabbed onto it as just a pure passion,” he explains.

“It was a revamp for me, and I got so much more excited about the work I was doing and the team I had created around me,” Tilley says. “That’s really what has addicted me as a director: the aspect of working with so many great people. And then comes telling stories. I love being able to tell stories and draw emotion and create an experience for the audience. When all those things come together, it’s the best feeling in the world.”

Boy in the Castle has pumped out seven music videos so far in 2021, including several for Justin Bieber’s recently chart-topping Justice album, with several more projects in the works. Below, Tilley takes time out to reflect and walk Billboard through five scintillating videos that already delivered that euphoric feeling to him, his team and fans everywhere.

Anderson .Paak feat. Kendrick Lamar, "Tints" (2018)

“Tints” was pivotal for Tilley. Yes, the finished product earned two nominations at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards, for best cinematography and best editing. More importantly, however, it was the creative process that Tilley pegs as “one of the more memorable experiences of my career.”

Tilley had previously worked with Kendrick three times -- including on 2015’s acclaimed “Alright,” nominated for best music video at the 58th Grammy Awards -- but never .Paak. He was thrown into the deep end with even deeper material. The first thing viewers see is a quote from Edgar Allan Poe (“Believe none of what you hear, and only half of what you see”), teeing up a metaphorical investigation into who people are versus the versions they present to the world. If not for Dr. Dre, though, viewers would have seen something more literal. 

“The first time I met up with Anderson, he was at Dr. Dre’s studio,” Tilley recalls, noting this was after he had written a treatment that was all but approved. “Dre said something really important. He was like, ‘Don’t take any of these lyrics and make a music video from them. Make the video off the feeling and what the backstory of this song is, and let that be the thing that guides you. That will be the thing that makes this video live on.’”

The rap legend subsequently sparked a brainstorm around “what the truth is behind closed doors,” or in this case, “what’s behind those tinted windows.” Dre invited Tilley over for three-straight days to act out different scenes.
The finished piece casts .Paak in several different roles, Eddie Murphy-style, but never pretends to know the answers, and making the video reminded Tilley to approach everything like an open-ended question. “I realized, ‘This is how you stay inspired forever,’” he says.

Halsey, "Without Me" 

The beginning of Tilley’s working relationship with Halsey is the epitome of setting the bar high. “Without Me” placed the 26-year-old atop the Hot 100 for the first time as a solo artist, peaking in January 2019 and spending 52 total weeks charting -- but preceding all of that was Halsey simply wanting to portray heartbreak narratively in a resonant way. Of course, she sought out Tilley.

“I just thought that song was so beautiful,” he says. “It’s clearly a break-up song, so I sat with that and a concept came really quickly. I just sent a Word document with a brief of the story.” 

A week after Tilley sent Halsey his treatment, the video was filmed in one day -- simultaneous with the single dropping Oct. 4, 2018. There wasn’t time to waste because “Without Me” wasn’t part of a larger album rollout. The video uploaded Oct. 29, one day after “Tints” was unveiled. In it, an emboldened, pink-haired Halsey recounts her failed relationship, including a flashback to a bar fight, and sings in the shower.

“It was a really cool experience for both of us because it was a lot of improv, and just us going for it,” Tilley continues. “I had a general aesthetic I was going for: loose and more grounded in filmmaking, rather than trying to create these elaborate set-ups. It was more about tugging on the emotion.”

J Balvin, "Rojo" (2020)

Tilley and J Balvin met on the set for DJ Snake’s June 2019 single “Loco Contingo,” and a tight friendship formed. Balvin trusted Tilley so much that he tapped Boy in the Castle to produce his 10-track Colores visual album.

“To be able to collaborate with somebody on that level -- where we do 10 videos for one album, to have them all color-coordinated -- it was a really, really fun challenge to do with somebody that you like a lot,” Tilley says. “We got to take each one of these videos, and not just make them color-coordinated -- [but to] take them and say, ‘What does that color represent to you? What does it make you feel?’” 

The answer to how red made Balvin feel came to him, as do most of the Colombian pop star’s ideas, during his daily early-morning jog on the treadmill. They were in New York City to shoot the video for “Morado,” and when Balvin arrived, he told Tilley about his vision for the “Rojo” video: he would die in a car crash on the way to be by his wife’s side for his first child’s birth, then remain present as a ghost that only his daughter could sense -- driving home that “love lives on.”

By the time “Morado” wrapped, “Rojo” was written. Tilley labels “Rojo” as one of his favorite videos he’s done with Balvin -- which says something, considering they’ve squeezed in 20 in less together than two years.

The “Rojo” video, nominated for best short form music video among a record-breaking 13 nods for Balvin at the 2020 Latin Grammy Awards, is unexpectedly more relevant than ever 14 months later. Balvin and his girlfriend, Valentina Ferrer, announced Thursday (April 15) they’re expecting their first child.

Cardi B feat. Megan Thee Stallion, "WAP" (2020)

Before “WAP” became Cardi B’s fourth Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single -- “Up” became No. 5 in March -- as well a defining moment in pop culture fueling conversation around women’s sexuality and empowerment, its accompanying music video marked the first production across the industry since COVID-19 had shut everything down four months earlier. Jamee Ranta, Boy in the Castle’s executive producer who has overseen 100-plus projects since helping form the company, led the research to make it possible. In part, she participated in medical trial studies for three consecutive weekends and spoke to the city's department of health and union officials.

“We were the experiment,” she says. “We were very calculated, very organized. We did on-set drive-thru testing, where everybody stayed in their cars until they got results. We all agreed to quarantine together for the week prior, and then we ended up having a wonderful shoot.”

Dance rehearsals began July 3 in L.A. with the star-studded two-day shoot set in motion five days before California Governor Gavin Newsom reintroduced indoor restrictions across 19 counties, including Los Angeles County. Days earlier, Tilley received the song from Cardi and thought it was “nuts, in all the best ways.” The two hopped on a call, and the certified-Diamond rapper had a distinct vision for bright imagery.

“I remember the main specific thing was doing a leopard-print room,” he says of the scene now associated with Kylie Jenner, “and that sparked my imagination. I went to her house and had 20 different setups, and we narrowed it down. I really just wanted to take the lyrics and make sure that everything felt over-exaggerated.”

Mark Mayr, Tilley’s assistant and post-producer, remembers an intense choreographed scene in freezing water at 4 a.m. Everybody was exhausted but alert enough to recognize the significance of what they were documenting. “We knew it was gonna be big,” he says, “but I don’t think anyone could have predicted how big it got.”
Adds Ranta: “Women’s empowerment is something special for me as a female working for a company called Boy in the Castle. It’s really amazing that Colin is so collaborative and respects that female perspective.”

Cardi was adamant about featuring “powerful female figures” other than herself and Megan Thee Stallion. The already eye-popping visuals were taken to yet another level with cameos by Jenner, Normani, Mulatto, Rubi Rose, Rosalia and Sukihana. Hot Girl Meg especially stood out to Tilley, as she had already locked Boy in the Castle in for “Don’t Stop” featuring Young Thug, and her performance on “WAP” informed how he directed “Body,” breakout single from the reigning best new artist Grammy winner’s recent Good News set.

“I realized what kind of force she is in front of the camera -- it really inspired me to continue to push her visuals in a really graphic direction,” he explains. “Some artists can’t take those types of lenses in their face, and she’s able to. She really knows how to move in front of the camera. (“Body”) felt minimal, but it felt massive at the same time. When you can put both of those things together, and put the female body itself on a pedestal, it’s a beautiful thing.”

Justin Bieber, "Hold On" (2021)

Justin Bieber’s “Hold On” music video doubles as a five-minute John Green novel (see: The Fault in Our Stars), and there’s an authentic reason for that. “My grandma had really bad cancer, and it was something that was really affecting me,” Tilley says. “Being able to use these stories as therapy is so important.”

Boy in the Castle has been the visual hub for the singles “Holy,“Anyone,” “Hold On” and “Peaches,” buoying Bieber’s resurgent Justice era. “Peaches” debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but “Hold On” was one of the most cinematically ambitious Boy in the Castle shoots to date -- even side-by-side with “Holy,” where Bieber slogs as an oil rig worker, and “Anyone,” where Bieber fights in the name of love as a Rocky-esque boxer. In “Hold On,” the 27-year-old wunderkind stars opposite Christine Ko (Dave) and becomes so desperate to provide for her in her cancer fight that he robs a bank with a toy gun.

Tilley wasn’t comfortable talking about his grandma’s diagnosis yet, so he presented the concept more vaguely, knowing, at its core, a cancer-centic love story is a universally relatable scenario.

“When I work with Justin on these concepts, it really comes from a lot of conversation,” Tilley says. “When it clicks for Justin in his head, he’s like, ‘Cool, I’m all on board.’ When we talked through this story, it made sense to him. It was something that he felt he could really channel.”

The video was shot over a three-day period in Long Beach, California, with Bieber present for the first two and the third reserved for stunts. “When we did the bank robbery scene, and the stunt double goes flying out the window with the glass breaking, my cinematographer, Elias Talbot, was following him out the window and slipped on some glass and cut his leg open,” Tilley says. “So when you watch that take, and it gets blurry at the end of the sequence when Justin lands on the ground, you’re like, ‘Oh, snap! How did that look so real?’ Well, it was.”

Mayr considers it of key importance on a video shoot that the cast maintains a healthy mindset when portraying heavy scenes. “Justin is such a sweetheart,” he rhapsodizes, “and he always takes the time to make sure everybody is giving positive energy to each other. It really is like a family environment on these sets.”