This week, Billboard is celebrating the music video with a week’s worth of content that looks at the past, present and future of the video, at a time when it seems to be as relevant as ever. Here, we talk to 10 up-and-coming music video directors who are defining the form as we currently know it, and pushing it to new and unpredictable places.
A great music video doesn’t just bring a song to life — often, it lends the song a new one. For the new vanguard of music video directors behind many of the most buzzed-about and shared clips of the last few years, that has meant everything from giving a Dua Lipa bop an empowering, GIF-friendly twist to bathing Janelle Monáe in milk to communicate self-love and leveraging a Drake jam for charity — spurring plentiful meme-making in the process.
Below, 10 of the brightest new talents leading the industry from behind the lens look back on their fumbling first encounters with a camcorder, teensiest — and grandest — video budgets ever, favorite on-set moments with stars from Troye Sivan to Lil Yachty, and what’s still on their filmmaking bucket lists.
Zia Anger never intended to go into music videos. In fact, the Upstate New York-based filmmaker “wasn’t allowed” to watch much television growing up, and developed a lighthearted “disdain” for music video-themed projects while studying film in college. But after befriending a group of musicians, she found her niche for music video directing in the indie realm, linking up with artists like Jenny Hval, a friend who she’s also toured with as a performer, Mitski, who she worked with recently on the gloomy, beachside visual for “Geyser,” and Maggie Rogers, who tapped the filmmaker for her desert-centric “Fallingwater” video earlier this spring.
Her visuals center on “pushing our experience to limits that maybe are uncomfortable, but are a good challenge,” Anger explains. “You can tell that Mitski was in a total downpour [in ‘Geyser’], or that Maggie was in 106-degree weather [in ‘Fallingwater’].” Outside the music world, she’s known for her striking narrative films that often meditate on womanhood, which have been screened at AFI Fest, New York Film Fest and Denver Film Festival, among many others. The expressive hand and body gestures that often accompany her videos are somewhat of a family vestige: “One of my moms is a mime and the other is a folk artist — it’s something I always come back to.”
Professional motto: “Whatever I’m going to make the artist do, I try to do it first. There’s the Zola Jesus video [for ‘Siphon’] where it rains a lot on her, and I made sure that I experienced that before she did. It was cathartic. The Mitski video [for ‘Gesyer’], I made sure I did all the moves on the beach and rolled down through the sand.”
“I like working with people who I have fun on set with, because I want to build memories,” says 22-year-old filmmaker Cole Bennett. What’s fun for him? “Crazy, out-of-the-box stuff,” like shrinking Lil Xan into an action figure (“Deceived”), pairing Mac Miller with puppies and pizza (Carnage’s “Learn How to Watch”) and filming the nostalgic, 112-million-views-and-counting video for Lil Skies’ “Nowadays” at his old high school in Plano, Ill. All this has happened in the nearly five years since Bennett started hip-hop music blog Lyrical Lemonade, launching himself headfirst into the “really fun mess” of becoming one of DIY rap’s most sought-after directors.
A hip-hop head since childhood whose first CD was 50 Cent’s Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Bennett “fell in love” with the nearby Chicago music scene as a teenager and began shooting goofy, partly-animated visuals for local acts, learning techniques through YouTube tutorials. He broke big with the wildly energetic clip for Famous Dex’s “Hit Em Wit It” in 2016, which he shot over 40 minutes in Dex’s basement in Englewood, and which has since logged 18.2 million views. Meanwhile, Lyrical Lemonade just announced its first-ever Summer Smash musical festival, and Bennett even plans to spin off the name into a real beverage company. The whirlwind success isn’t lost on the young director, who says he’s “dropped a tear” or two thinking over the last five years. “Last November, [someone] asked ‘What are your three dream artists to work with?’ and I said Mac Miller, Wiz Khalifa and Chance the Rapper,” Bennett remembers. “Now I’ve done a video for all three of them.”
On not having a plan: “I feel like too many people now are trying to only work with [big artists] who are gonna get them to that point. If you focus too much on money, it’s cliché, but it will slow you down. I just did what I liked, and it happened to blow up. If I find something and I feel like it has a catchiness, and it’s something that I enjoy, I’ll do [the video for] it. There was no strategy behind it or game plan.”
Filmmakers Alex Lee and Kyle Wightman grew up on opposite ends of the world: Japan and Long Island, respectively. So it feels somewhat predestined that the two met studying film at New York City’s School of Visual Arts, joining forces to become directorial duo BRTHR circa 2010. “It’s been quite the journey,” Lee says with a laugh, remembering their early days shooting mind-bending, brightly hued videos for artists like Bei Maejor and Ben Khan, often without a crew and within a $500 budget — on a good day. “We did this video of a guy who fights a sandbag, and we had to book Kyle’s old karate dojo for three hours and shoot,” he adds. “But I think that kind of hustle is what got us where we are.”
Now based in New York and aged 26 and 27, respectively, Lee and Wightman are bringing their signature Matrix-esque, glitchy style to acts like The Weeknd, for whom they directed “Party Monster” and “In the Night” (which featured Abel Tesfaye’s then-girlfriend Bella Hadid), and Joji, one of BRTHR’s may 88rising collaborators, who tapped the duo for his trippy, warbled “Window” video. But BRTHR are most proud of a shifting, deeply-saturated pair of visuals for Travis Scott’s “Goosebumps” and “Butterfly Effect.” “He oozes cool,” says Wightman of the rapper. “On-camera, it’s very easy to get what you want.”
Next, they hope to follow the path of directorial hero Hiro Murai and make their mark on television and movies — they’ve got ideas for a detective series and a coming-of-age film. “We just want to do so much,” Lee says. “We try to dip our hands into everything.”
Calling card: “Vibrant colors, and the fast-paced editing style is our distinctive thing. It may seem random, but every shot that comes after another — there’s always a reason why.” (Lee)
Lacey Duke watched Missy Elliott’s funky music video for 1997 hit “The Rain” while growing up in Toronto and saw her future: “I knew I either wanted to live in a world like that, or create worlds like that,” she says. She has since dedicated her life to the latter, building imaginative universes for D.R.A.M.’s “Cash Machine,” where the rapper shoots rainbow bills out of a money gun in the suburbs, and The Internet’s “Dontcha,” a black-and-white study of movement that exemplifies Duke’s aim to “captur[e] black beauty in all its facets.” After meeting Janelle Monáe at one of the R&B star’s concerts, Duke directed her recent Dirty Computer standout “I Like That” — a playful clip involving peacocks and a milk bath. “[Monáe] gave me, early on, that boost of confidence I needed,” she explains.
Lately, Duke has turned her attention toward simplicity and minimalism: “I force the viewer to focus on my subject and evoke some sort of emotion,” she says. She brought that approach recently to “A Great Day in Hollywood,” a minute-long spot for Netflix unveiled during last month’s BET Awards that tributes Art Kane’s original 1958 portrait “A Great Day in Harlem” and celebrates 47 black actors and directors from Spike Lee to Lena Waithe. “[12 Years a Slave actress] Alfre Woodard even lead everyone in an epic rendition of ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing’ before we started shooting,” she remembers. “It felt like a reunion.”
Filmmaking in 2018 is exciting because: “How easy it is to access great talent. A lot of my opportunities come through Instagram conversations or Twitter [direct messages]. I love how connected we all are, and how we don’t have to necessarily depend on labels and middlemen to work on cool projects.”
Growing up in Toronto, Karena Evans was the kid who would put on plays for her family — and charge them $1 to get in. “If I could tell my young self that [I] would be doing this in 10 years and making money off of it, telling stories, I don’t think I would believe it,” she says. Her career kicked off when she befriended veteran producer Boi-1da while in film school, who passed along the cell number for legendary filmmaker Director X. She rose through the ranks at X’s production company Popp Rok, where she’s now known as the team’s “first lady.” “I started working on pitches for music videos with X, and I was just growing and expanding at a pace that was faster than film school. So I dropped out,” she remembers. “[It was] another moment of ‘Okay, let me take this risk. Let me take a jump.’”
The 22-year-old has since directed for SZA (the Adam and Eve-alluding “Garden,” filmed in Hawaii and featuring a cameo from Donald Glover), SiR (the vintage-styled, tropical “D’Evils”) and of course, Drake, who hand-picked the fellow Canadian to direct videos for “God’s Plan” (720M YouTube views) — where the rapper gives away his entire $1 million video budget in various charity acts — and “Nice For What” (210M), which spotlights powerful women from Tracee Ellis Ross to Emma Roberts. “Drake is so brilliant and creative. It starts from an idea from him, and we build that together,” she says. “Every woman involved [in ‘Nice For What’] was empowered in making it, and that was really beautiful.” In February, she made history as the first female recipient of the Prism Prize’s Lipsett Award for music video artistry, one of Canada’s highest honors in the field — while the “God’s Plan” video earned five nominations at this August’s upcoming MTV Video Music Awards, including video of the year and best direction.
Biggest inspiration: “Melina Matsoukas [the Grammy-winning director of Beyoncé’s “Formation” and Lady Gaga’s “Just Dance”] is my hero. It’s women like her who have made it easier for me to have a foot into this world. If I’m ever stumped with an idea, or a concept, I’ll watch anything Melina, and then I’m instantly inspired.”
Glassface will hesitate to tell you his age or exact hometown; he only recently began sharing publicly his real name, Josh Goldenberg. “[Anonymity] is something that’s allowed me to be a little more creative,” says the self-described digital media artist, who first starting toying with directing in fifth grade, shooting fake movie trailers in his backyard. These days, he’s graduated to real-world hits: He gained viral fame for his famously low-budget, frenzied video for OG Maco’s “U Guessed It” in 2014 (62M views), and when fellow Quality Control rapper Lil Yachty caught wind of the project, he reached out to Goldenberg on Twitter to direct the meme-filled video for his “1 NIGHT” two years later (120M).
Last month, he linked up with Yachty again to direct the psychedelic visual for the rapper’s “BOOM!” featuring Ugly God, which transforms the hip-hop stars into ‘90s-style cartoon characters. He also edited the official trailer for Migos’ recent James Bond-esque “Narcos” — which may or may not have been filmed outside Madonna’s house — and created the neon, video game-like lyric video for “Motorsport,” the rap trio’s collab with Nicki Minaj and Cardi B. And if you’re caught off-guard by Goldenberg’s mashed-up, frenetic editing style, that only means his method is working: “Sensory overload is a way to grab people’s attention, shake them out of whatever state they’re in and get them completely focused on what they’re looking at,” he explains. “A music video can really be any format you can think of, especially right now.”
Favorite on-set memory: “We were shooting promotion around his projects, and Lil Yachty and his friends showed up with an XBOX and immediately started playing Fortnite. It was hilarious — we had to be like, ‘Yo guys, can you quiet down? We’re recording sound right now.’”
Many music video directors begin with aspirations of being artists themselves. Mexico-born, Miami-raised filmmaker Fernando Lugo is one of them: “I started rapping when I was 15, 16,” he says. “Then I saw myself [rapping in a video] and was like, ‘Nah dude, it’s not for me.’” He’s found greater success behind the lens, leaving film school at just 19 because his schedule was already too packed with jobs. Now 28, Lugo has a knack for predicting which artists will break big, like Bad Bunny, whose 2016 “Soy Peor” video he directed well before Bunny was making waves on the Hot 100: “I was trying not to do it because it was Christmas, but I heard the song and I started feeling something like, ‘This is going to be a hit.’”
Though his visuals often lean toward tropical settings and performance swaggery, no concept is ever off the table. “I like to do abstract, weird videos,” he adds, recalling his clip for Nicky Jam, Bad Bunny and Farruko’s “Si Tu Lo Dejas,” which tells the doomed love story of an astronaut and alien, or Farruko and Bad Bunny’s “Krippy Kush,” which dreams up a diner serving marijuana atop syrupy pancake stacks. Also on his lengthy resume? Latin supercollab megahit “Te Bote,” for which he created a neon-lit, smoky fantasy. Next, he hopes to go into feature films: “Being on set is just magical for me.”
“Pinch me” moment: “[Directing] Enrique Iglesias with Pitbull, ‘Move to Miami.’ It was the first time I worked with Enrique — I grew up listening to his music. And I was excited because it’s where I’m from. I knew the whole vibe of Miami.”
It only takes Henry Scholfield a moment to remember what sparked his interest in music videos: JAY-Z’s 2004 hit “99 Problems.” “When I was about 12 years old, I sat in front of MTV for seven hours straight waiting for every time it came back on,” he says. His dedication has yet to wane. The self-taught, London-based director got his start shooting visuals for up-and-coming U.K. grime rappers “borrowing Handycams off people, and shooting stuff wherever we didn’t get arrested,” hitting his big break when one of his subjects — British rapper Professor Green — got signed to The Streets rapper Mike Skinner’s then-label The Beats in 2006.
This year, he cracked the “alchemy” of “motion, emotion and magic” with the neon-splashed, tightly choreographed visual for Dua Lipa’s “New Rules,” a concept dreamt up after hours discussing female empowerment over tea in Lipa’s home. In February, the clip made Lipa the youngest female artist to hit one billion views on a YouTube music video. The dream team returned for Lipa’s monochromatic “IDGAF” video earlier this year (346M views), and this month, Scholfield released a haunting, dance-focused video for Billie Eilish’s “Hostage.” “I listen [to the song] and on a scrap of paper start writing down random words or thoughts or images,” Scholfield says of his creative process. “That could be falling off the top of a tall building, or the only guy left on the metro line in the middle of the night. I would hope that people watching say, ‘This visual makes me feel something.’”
Word of advice: “Everything’s a fight. To get it as good as it can be, you’ve got to push so hard. If you remember that, you won’t be daunted by how difficult it is.”
If you’ve paid any attention to pop music over the past two years, you’re already more familiar with Grant Singer than you think. The Los Angeles-based director is a favorite of Lorde (“Green Light,” “Perfect Places”), Troye Sivan (“My My My!”) and Taylor Swift (Fifty Shades Darker contribution “I Don’t Wanna Live Forever” with Zayn), leaning toward suspenseful plotlines and rich, cinematic landscapes. He’s also responsible for six moody videos for longtime collaborator The Weeknd, including “The Hills,” “Starboy” featuring Daft Punk and “Can’t Feel My Face,” the (literally) fiery visual for which was shot in just one day. “I remember how taken I was by his performance,” Singer says of the singer’s open mic night-inspired stunt in the latter video. “It was truly amazing to witness.” In April, he added the star’s My Dear Melancholy track “Call Out My Name” to his resume, too.
Singer has also dipped his toes in indie rock (Ariel Pink, “Another Weekend”), hip-hop (Future, “Wicked”) and even dub-step (Skrillex, “Red Lips”). “I work with people who are first and foremost passionate about whatever it is that we’re making,” he says. “I feel that passion goes a long way.”
A great music video is: “Something that’s indelible. It stays with you.”
Miley Cyrus’ “Malibu” dubbed over a video of a pole-dancing stripper. A Kim Kardashian makeup tutorial warped into a mini horror film. Bardia Zeinali’s equally hysterical, nostalgic and dark mashup videos — which the filmmaker and former Vogue visual content creator posts to nearly 60 thousand Instagram followers — are full of contradictions. It’s a style embraced by Zeinali, who was born into a Muslim family in Canada but grew up attending Catholic schools across Asia due to his father’s career as a commercial pilot. “It was a clusterfuck,” says Zeinali, laughing, “but there’s a kind of beauty in the nonsense.”
His efforts paid off this year when, after earning a new Instagram follower in Troye Sivan, the queer pop star invited Zeinali (at this year’s Met gala, no less) to direct the Leigh Bowery-inspired visual for his bold, sexually forward “Bloom.” The “serendipitous” encounter became Zeinali’s directorial debut, one he followed up this month with the video for Sivan’s simmering new single with Ariana Grande, “Dance to This,” which turns the track’s soothing chorus into an anthem for anyone who’s ever felt like an outcast. The duo of videos are a “dream” for Zeinali, who says that growing up, he “felt like I would never make it as an artist because there’s no place for a person like me.” Now, he’s revisiting his childhood dream of becoming a singer himself: “I’m still like, ‘I’m gonna make a fuckin’ pop record one day.’”
Earliest memory of filming: “I had cameras my dad would get me abroad, and I have three older sisters, so I always had models. I’d recreate Britney Spears videos in my bedroom — I made my room into a studio, and slept in my sister’s room.”