Director Hiro Murai Gives Behind-the-Scenes Story on His Surreal Videos for Childish Gambino, St. Vincent & More

Hiro Murai, the 31-year-old music video director, is trying to explain how his imagination works. "I'll listen to a song so much that ideas start to form out of daydreaming. It's as if I'm reverse-scoring the track and building visuals around a specific beat or riff that's grabbed me," he says, releasing a self-deprecating laugh. "Was that the most abstract nonsense you've ever heard?" 

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But Murai's pension for the abstract is precisely what has led artists as diverse as The Shins, David Guetta, St. Vincent, and Earl Sweatshirt to hand over their melodies and let him conjure the surrealist and minimalistic visuals -- an aesthetic that's been shaped by Japanese culture (his family moved from Tokyo to Los Angeles when he nine years old and "knew about three words of English").

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With the exception of Childish Gambino, the USC film school graduate says he always pushes the artists he's working with to "go a little weirder." His reel of five-minute videos, which resembles a rabbit hole of sorts, includes appearances by gigantic frogs, aging teddy bears and -- in the case of Chet Faker's "Gold" -- roller-skating sirens filmed during a grueling 14-hour night shoot. "If the pitch for the video had come from any other director, I would have said no," Faker says. "The experience was weird as hell, but the result is beyond what I had imagined." 

The director runs down some of his most unforgettable videos here:

"HIVE" - EARL SWEATSHIRT (2013)
"This one was rough for Earl," says Murai of this creepy video. "He had just gotten off tour and was in the studio right before we pulled an all-nighter for this. People ask me what we did to make his face look so strung out, but he showed up that way! He caught pneumonia three days later." 

"3005" - CHILDISH GAMBINO (2013)
"Donald [Glover] came to me with the idea for a fixed one-shot video of him on a ferris wheel, which I loved because most artists don't want to do something so minimalistic. We rented out a family-owned ferris wheel in Newport that he, the extras, and the teddy bear -- whose leg we had to cut off so it fit in the seat -- were on for about six to seven hours."

"GOLD" - CHET FAKER (2014)

Murai attributes the beauty of this syncopated, sensual video to "blind luck. It all hinged on the performers. Choreographer Ryan Heffington managed to find a girl with two friends who could dance and skate as well as she could. We shot it in Acton, Calif., at night -- I'm sure it looked terrifying to the people who drove past us."

"NEVER CATCH ME" - FLYING LOTUS Featuring KENDRICK LAMAR (2014)
Two dead children Lindy Hop out of their coffins in this cathartic clip. "The most difficult part of this sequence was making sure the extras didn't tap their feet or nod their heads," says Murai. "It's almost involuntary when you're watching those kids."

"SOBER" - CHILDISH GAMBINO (2015)
"We shot in Zankou Chicken, a Hollywood restaurant with the craziest colors. I'm pretty sure we broke some sort of health code, but the dove Donald [Glover] released in the video was real. A side note: the chicken there is really good!"

"CHEERLEADER" - ST. VINCENT (2012)
This artistic, meta clip belongs in an art museum. "We filmed this in a gallery close to the El Rey in L.A. and kept referencing Ron Mueck, who does gigantic sculptures of vulnerable people who are the biggest things in the room." 

"SHE WOLF (FALLING TO PIECES)" - DAVID GUETTA (2012)
Lots of tech-y effects here, including a wolf that morphs into a woman -- but the real star is Iceland's terrain. "The landscape looked alien -- there were no trees, it was all volcanic rock," Murai says. "We filmed all over southwest Iceland because it was one of the only countries that had snow in August."

An edited version of this story originally appeared in the Feb. 14 issue of Billboard.