Shomi Patwary has been directing music videos since 2007 under the umbrella of his Illusive Media company. Born in Bangladesh, he grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia, where he met Pharrell and got a foot into the music industry. To me, his most impressive video is Pusha T’s “If You Know You Know,” which takes the reality of police harassment of African-Americans and illustrates it by turning an ordinary stop into a nightmarish scenario, with superimpositions, distorted colors, video glitches and a dog that isn’t just menacing but has glowing red eyes. On the other hand, his most widely seen video, Offset and Metro Boomin’s “Ric Flair Drip,” turns hip-hop — and wrestling — flexing in a lighthearted direction. The video for Ava Max’s current top 40 hit “Sweet But Psycho” suggests a more modest version of Lady Gaga’s elaborate roleplay. Patwary’s work often has a psychedelic sensibility, with stylized colors and editing. Studio Daily talked to him from his home in New Jersey.
Steve Erickson: Your video for Ava Max’s “Sweet But Psycho” has a very artificial look, with saturated colors. You went in a fantasy-oriented direction.
Shomi Patwary: The whole thing is supposed to be a dream. We didn’t want to make it a realistic thing. It’s very open-ended. We wanted to make it artificial, because it’s a pop record. If it was realistic, it would look too violent. It’s twisted ideas in her head. We don’t know what’s real or not. In the original version, she wakes up from a dream, but I cut that out because I didn’t like the take.
Erickson: There are a lot of lens flares in it. Did you use an anamorphic lens?
Patwary: That is something I regret. I wish I didn’t. I like shooting on anamorphic, but it wasn’t the right lens for this video. I used the Lomo [anamorphic lenses manufactured in the Soviet Union], and they’re not my favorite. They’re vintage lenses, and they have a really soft quality. I wasn’t a fan of that. I don’t like super-sharp lenses either, but I spent a lot of time rotoscoping the video and adding a sharpening filter on certain places. But if you do that on the whole thing, it looks weird.
Erickson: Your video for Maxo Kream’s “Roaches” has a stylized flow but the lyrics consist of him reminiscing about very grim experiences.
Patwary: Exactly. That’s his life. In hip-hop, a lot of guys glorify these things without living it. The news clips at the end are real. He grew up in that area. He’s talking about his family. He’s really a great storyteller. A lot of times, I make videos that aren’t literal, but in this case it felt right. The song is catchy, but that can make you forget what the artist’s saying, Making a video that illustrated the lyrics helped you focused on what it’s saying. I shot on Cooke S4s, which are not a typical go-to lens. They have enough character without making you do too much filtration.
Erickson: Also, it’s edited to make scenes look like they were one take, although obviously they weren’t.
Patwary: With the budget limitations, we couldn’t light up every single room and set-up. The idea wasn’t to make a one-take video to begin with. The reason we made it look like that goes back to what I said — to make you pay attention to what he’s saying. If you just cut shot after shot after shot, you miss the punchline. The way it flows now, he’ll mention something and it comes on screen. It was pre-planned out. We had to time all the shots out. It’s harder to make a video like that.
Erickson: I think Clipse’s “Doorman” is one of your earliest videos.
Patwary: I did that when I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be a director. I had a company which did multimedia. We were involved on everything: social media back when MySpace was a thing, graphic design, web design. I always loved music videos and film. At that time, I was still discovering myself. Do I want to be a creative in general? I didn’t have any formal training in filmmaking. Watching hip-hop videos and indie movies inspired me. Most directors don’t get in a position where their earliest work is with well-known artists. I got in that situation because Clipse — Pusha T and No Malice — were Pharrell’s artists and I was working with them in college, doing graphic design. I started out as an intern, doing web design and then filming behind-the-scenes [BTS] videos. I followed them to New York to do BTS for a record they made with Kanye West. They enjoyed the BTS more than the official video.
The “Doorman” video was literally no budget. The cars were from friends of theirs. Everyone came through. A friend of mine from middle school had a Panasonic HVX200 camera lying around. We were just experimenting and having fun with that video. The Clipse guys said, “We really enjoyed working with you on that video. What if we buy you a camera to make your next video?” So I said “That would be amazing.” I was gearing up into the director mindset. I was looking up cameras, and shot their next video “Freedom” on a [Canon EOS] 7D. Doing that video opened up more doors. It got the attention of my friend Kenna, who was also a Pharrell artist. He spoke to Mike Shinoda of Linkin Park. Lupe Fiasco said “Hey, my buddy can do this other video for us.” I enjoyed directing, but I didn’t know if it would be my career.
Erickson: There’s an interesting tension between the images of the group partying at a club and the news clips of their manager and friends getting busted for drug dealing.
Patwary: Exactly. I enjoy working with artists that give you both side of the story. A lot of people only tell you there’s glory in the streets. There’s fame and opulence that comes with having money, but in this case that was all real. This was their actual manager who was in that life. We had real junkies who were out in the streets in that video. It was a very grimy video. Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, was one of the first people who picked up on it and posted the link on Twitter.
Erickson: You’ve kept working with them even after they broke up and did [Pusha T’s] “If You Know You Know” last year. The camera sometimes adopts the cop’s point of view, but makes it look like the killer in a slasher movie.
Patwary: We wanted to create a horror movie, but about something people go through in their daily struggle. It wasn’t just a race thing, like “Hey, you’re a minority getting pulled over.” A lot of people can relate to the frustration of dealing with police. It is tied to police brutality. The cops turn demonic at the end, so the intent is to turn into a horror show to give you this uncomfortable feeling.
Erickson: I also like the way it starts out with a minute or so of Pusha T driving in the sun. Then he gets pulled over and you see lightning and smoke.
Patwary: It turns into a nightmare. You can be a wealthy man driving a luxury sports car and in the eyes of the law, it doesn’t matter.
Erickson: Were you thinking about how that interacted with the lyrics, where he’s looking back on his past as a drug dealer and how that built to his current success?
Patwary: The thing with Pusha T is that he’s one of the few who raps about what he lived. He’s showing you his trials and tribulations. Pusha and I thought about what seemed relevant to him. He’s been working on criminal justice reform. That’s one reason why he wanted to help Hillary Clinton at one point. He wanted to see what he could bring to a political party, with his perspective.
Erickson: Is Illusive Media a fashion line as well?
Patwary: Illusive Media started out as a thing between me and my best friend Philip Ly in middle school. It was always just a vehicle for us, a name people knew back then in Virginia. It was never anything we took too seriously until it became part of my career. It was originally Illusive Records. That was back in high school. The word illusive used the meaning of the word elusive but, being a hip-hop label, we wanted to incorporate the word ill into it somehow. That’s the origin of the name. It’s always been a very loose collective of friends, with me spearheading the company right now. Philip went the 9-to-5 route, although he helped me deal with the production angle for years. But he got married and settled down. I’m married too, but my wife works as an executive producer on my videos. We both studied computer science, and he’s a programmer full-time. It’s a very loose thing. Clothing and merchandise are just an outlet to have fun, like “Let’s put a T-shirt out and have fun with it.” Ultimately, everyone you see in the credits are friends of mine who work together, some who became friends from repeat collaborations and some who’ve been with us from day one. It’s still kind of a mystery from day one. It’s working as sort of boutique agency right now.
Erickson: The video for “Ric Flair Drip” takes excess almost to the point of parody, with outlandish clothes and Metro Boomin playing a grand piano outside a mansion.
Patwary: We wanted to purposely parody how outlandish rap videos are. [Retired pro wrestler] Ric Flair is the guy who originally embodied that. We couldn’t put him in a video and have him do something else. He’s the blueprint. We just wanted to have fun with it. So many rappers reference Ric Flair. He had the bravado and ego. The song had already sold a million records by the time the video got made, a year after release. The label was still wondering if we should shoot it or not. It was a viral success, and we sold two more million records. So now it’s three times platinum, and I think the video helped. You’ve got this white guy hanging out with all these rappers, but he’s just a guy that everyone loves watching. My dad didn’t watch much TV, but he loved him when we watched wrestling together when I was growing up. It tapped into nostalgia. It connected to people.
Erickson: Did you rent a mansion for the shoot?
Patwary: I could’ve easily shot it at Offset’s mansion. If anything, it’s bigger, but I didn’t want to fill it up with equipment and invade his privacy for the shoot. He told me “I’ve got to be able to smoke weed in the house.” Finding one where he could do that was a challenge in itself. That was small but significant. We found one that said “You can smoke, but you can’t smoke outside.” At the end, we said “F— it, we’ll pay the fee.”
Erickson: The video for A$AP Mob’s “Yamborghini High” is one of the most colorful that I’ve seen, but the colors are completely distorted from start to finish. People on YouTube frequently comment under Travis Scott videos, “Director: What effects would you like? Travis: Everything.” That’s a similar-looking video. How long did the effects and color work take?
Patwary: I was influenced to do the datamoshing that way. I didn’t do it myself. I hired Unkle Luc and one of my frequent collaborators, Robbie from Airship NYC. Uncle Luc did all the crazy, trippy datamoshing effects. Robbie did the color-correction and clean-up. They worked together to finish it. When we first edited it, it was very simple, but we knew what we wanted to do with the effects. It’s funny to say with digital art, but it was very organic. We ran it through a program that spits out these weird avi files that replicate what you see when you have problems with your computer. It looks like paintings dripping and coming to life. It’s all by chance, a happy accident. We did it multiple times and used the best one. It was challenging for color-correction. The files were .avi, so they lose a lot of color data, but we luckily styled the video to change the color of the grass and sky to have fun with them. Even though we didn’t have much data left, it was set up to be very colorful regardless.
Erickson: You started out producing beats. Did you ever want to be a rapper yourself?
Patwary: Growing up and seeing rappers like Eminem and Canibus, who to me were people you wouldn’t expect to be rappers … Canibus was this nerdy science guy and Eminem was from the trailer park. To me, growing up in Virginia, I thought, “Hip-hop is crazy.” I was exposed to all sorts of music, from The Cure to the Pet Shop Boys to The Prodigy to the Wu-Tang Clan. The rap fantasy only lasted a year. I was joking around doing rap battles with family and friends. Then I thought I could make beats, but it seemed unrealistic. I saw so many of my friends do that and struggle to get them placed. Then, Magoo, who rapped with Timbaland and was from Virginia, told me one day, “You should use your creativity to do graphic design and web design. Those are services people need all the time.” That made me rethink what I could do in the music industry. But my brother got to take advantage of what was going with me. By the time he got to the age where he was making music in college, he soaked in all my knowledge of working with rappers and other musicians and learned how to approach artists. He’s produced for A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg and Santigold. It’s interesting that he was able to actually do it, and he’s still doing it.
Erickson: Do you approach commercials or fashion videos a different way than music videos?
Patwary: The biggest difference is the budgets. The average music video budget will range from $30 to 60,000. “Yamborghini High” was $100,000. So was Mark Ronson’s. I’m not big enough to get projects like that every day. To younger directors, they probably feel like $30,000 is their entire world. How many times can you work with your friends and not pay them? If you do the numbers and want to pay everybody, $30,000 still isn’t that much. With commercials, the budgets do open up. The Gentle Monster project wasn’t one of the craziest ones, but I had $300,000 to make 10 short movies that connect and become one larger short. The budgets that allow us to make storyboards and prep are available. It’s a lot stress-free because I don’t have to take on as many producing responsibilities. I produce music videos with my wife, so not only am I in a director’s mindset but I also have to figure out how to execute them within the budget. With commercials, that’s less of a headache, so I can focus more on the creative side. With music videos, everything’s super-fast-paced. It’s like making an entire movie trailer in a day. An independent movie can take 40-50 days to shoot. You’re doing tons of set-ups in one day. With a fashion film, like the Gentle Monster one, it took us four days to put those together, so we did four set-ups a day.
Erickson: Was the 17-minute length of the Wu-Tang documentary “For the Children” your choice?
Patwary: No. It should have been at least 30 minutes. The problem is that they had another documentary coming out. They thought 30 minutes was too long. I now think they were wrong about that. They wanted to promote the 25th anniversary of their album [Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)] and were wondering what younger audiences would get out of it. It was called “For the Children” after all, so we wanted them to discover the album. There were a lot of logistical factors that went into it, but I have so much footage left over. I was also under a lot of time constraints. It was unrealistic to make a longer film because it would’ve taken more time to mix and do color-correction and I wouldn’t have been able to meet the deadline. We dropped it on the 25th anniversary of the album’s release. We also wondered how much we could show, because there’s a Showtime documentary called Of Mics and Men that showed a few things we weren’t allowed to. There were a few conflicts that we had to be aware of.
Erickson: The detail about the snare sound on “Bring Da Ruckus” really being a paint bucket is fascinating, but I can see why Sony wouldn’t expect production history to attract teenagers.
Patwary: There are fans that would watch that, but the masses wouldn’t. And we would need more time to make it visually interesting. Certain commercial projects take a month to edit. I dealt with sound mixing and looking through seven days of shooting in only two weeks of editing, with me and one other editor.
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