Hiro Murai Steps From the Shadows into the Spotlight
Currently breaking the internet with his new promo for Childish Gambino's This Is America, we take a look back at director Hiro Murai's rise from viral video-maker to music video auteur.
While most directors are concerned with what is placed in the scene, Hiro Murai is fascinated by the ‘mystery of what is not being seen’, of what could be lurking in shadows. Consequently, the work of the Tokyo-born, LA-based director, – who’s won plaudits for his promos for artists such as David Guetta and Queens Of The Stone Age – often leans toward darkness, and not just metaphorically; last year he was flat out with back-to-back night shoots. David Knight asks him to shed a little light on the matter
Hiro Murai can clearly deal with most things that are thrown his way, however, he says there was a point last year when it nearly all became a bit too much. Last summer, he and his production team were on a continuous run of back-to-back music video and commercial projects (“We never thought it was going to end, because things kept cropping up,”) when Steven Ellison, aka electronic musician Flying Lotus, contacted Murai to invite him to script the first video from his new album, You’re Dead.
Even though Flying Lotus is renowned for making highly creative music videos, Murai was exhausted and hesitated. “I just couldn’t wrap my head around another video,” he says. But Ellison persisted: he wanted to ditch the usual music video pitching process and work together with Murai on an idea. “I wrote that one with him standing behind me, basically.”
The resulting promo for Never Catch Me simply bears out why ‘FlyLo’ was determined to work with Murai. It turned out to be a standout moment in a year of high achievement. Poetic and poignant, the director conjures a joyful ending out of pure tragedy: two young African-American victims of gun violence come back to life, and then escape from their own funeral service, dancing past oblivious mourners before making their getaway in a hearse.
“The album is about death, and [Ellison] was very aware of the violence happening in Chicago – happening everywhere,” Murai reveals. “His original idea was a Tom Sawyer situation, with a boy attending his own funeral. With that, something clicked. I expanded on that, and it became a choreographed piece.”
It was a very good year
Together with exceptional videos for the likes of comedian-turned-hip-hop star Childish Gambino, veteran rockers Queens Of The Stone Age, Australian soulster Chet Faker and indie darlings Spoon, the Flying Lotus video sealed Murai’s position as one of the world’s top music video directors. And his triumphant year was crowned by winning the prestigious Best Director prize at the UK Music Video Awards last November.
And there were commercials too: a series of doc-style ads featuring musicians Rodrigo y Gabriela, Kimbra, Steve Jones and Carlos Niño demonstrating the Sonos music system; plus spots for Lincoln Black Label and Google.
“Pretty chaotic” is how Murai himself, on the phone from Los Angeles, summarises 2014. “At the beginning of the year we did two videos back-to-back, which meant four days of night shoots. That seemed ludicrous at the time, but then we quickly topped that.” He says he was bouncing between videos and commercials from then on.
The year clearly involved a lot of night shooting, as Murai’s recent work has highlighted his most distinctive stylistic traits: deadpan humour, unhurried pacing, and darkness. In the first of several videos for Childish Gambino, the minimalist, darkly comic promo for 3005, Murai placed Donald Glover (aka Gambino) on a ferris wheel at night with a loveable teddy bear getting progressively battered by an unseen hand. He then followed up with the video for Gambino’s Sweatpants, with the artist finding himself in a dreamlike loop, repeatedly walking through a diner at night, finding the patrons increasingly replaced by clones of himself.
His video for Queens Of The Stone Age’s Smooth Sailing chronicles a wild night out by a group of sake-blitzed Japanese businessmen and their Anglo colleague – played by band frontman Josh Homme – that ends very badly indeed. And for Chet Faker’s Gold, Murai created a simple, near-one-shot dance sequence with a difference: it’s performed by three girls on rollerskates on a desert highway at night.
“Me and [DP and regular collaborator] Larkin Seiple have shot a lot at night at this point,” Murai agrees. “I think we both have an interest in being able to sculpt what we want to see out of a scene. There’s a sort of mystery in what is not being seen, and that adds atmosphere to what we are seeing.”
That interplay between physical darkness and light is not the only visual motif to be found in Murai’s work. There’s also his subtle use of visual effects, and his darkly humorous take on destruction and disaster – both evident in last year’s video for Spoon’s Do You, where frontman Britt Daniel drives through LA as the city is being destroyed by unknown forces, revealed at the end to be giant toddlers.
But even within his relatively short career, Murai has already managed to undergo a certain degree of reinvention – the result of having become a music video director almost by accident.
An early pioneer of viral videos
Murai was born in Tokyo, but his parents moved to the US when he was a child (despite his longtime American residency he remains a Japanese national). From high school in LA, he went on to study film at the University of Southern California, where he immersed himself in narrative filmmaking. A career in film and TV was the obvious target. But when he graduated, he found himself gravitating towards music videos.
“It was the first job I got paid for doing,” he says, “But the whole scene also felt very exciting to me because I was a little burned out by film school. There was something refreshing and intuitive about music videos, where I felt you really could just play.” Murai describes his first job in promos as “cinematographer in quotation marks – I really didn’t know what I was doing”. And he could also turn his hand to visual effects and drawing storyboards – “anything to stop me from working in an office,” he says.
He soon decided he was better suited to being a director than a DP, and Partizan, where he was doing a lot of work, offered him his first micro-budgeted promos to direct. The quality of his ideas and execution immediately shone through. The 2009 video for The Fray’s cover of Kanye West’s Heartless, combines live action with the 2D animation of a boy’s schoolbook doodles. In the same year, for an Armand Van Helden remix of Bloc Party’s Signs, he grafted recording equipment onto human bodies, and then moved beyond this brand of Chris Cunningham-style body horror – in one audacious, Dali-esque shot. “It was at a time when the word ‘viral’ was getting thrown around a lot – but no one really knew what that meant,” says Murai. After his initial treatment, the label wanted to go more extreme, so he suggested replacing female genitalia with a singing mouth. “I pitched the idea thinking there was no way they would say ‘yes’ to that – but they did.”
He officially signed to Partizan, and was soon scripting on tracks by big-name pop and hip-hop artists, which then translated into videos for the likes of Usher, Enrique Iglesias, Lupe Fiasco and B.o.B. Having not previously considered becoming a music video director, this seemed like the logical career progression, even though he had little interest in making mainstream pop videos before this point. “My main thing was just being able to make things – that was most important to me,” he says. “But part of me did have this morbid curiosity about being in that position. To be making an Usher video felt like a very bizarre, cosmic joke.” This work also proved hugely popular – his video for B.o.B’s Airplanes, for example, accumulated well over 100 million YouTube views by the end of 2010 – but they were also projects where his creative stamp could get lost. “I experienced a lot of things that I didn’t expect,” he reflects. “Not only are you creatively constrained on bigger videos, there’s more politics involved. At a certain point it occurred to me that I wasn’t getting the same sort of joy out of it.”
Murai started making different choices, “I began to pursue artists that I felt I could do something interesting with,” and the breakthrough came at the start of 2012, with his video for alternative artist St. Vincent’s Cheerleader. Set in an art gallery, Annie Clark (aka St. Vincent) appears as the exhibit – a giant among Lilliputian spectators, who crumbles to pieces as she attempts to escape her confinement. “The budget was small, but there’s something very liberating about doing a ten-thousand-dollar video,” he says. “I got to sort of sculpt it as we went, and it was almost too little money for the label to ask for any changes.” And as well as revisiting the relative-size visual motif in several videos since then, relative conceptual simplicity has also increasingly become his hallmark.
While flipping between lower budget conceptual videos for Friends, Scissor Sisters and The Shins, and one bigger-budget narrative video with VFX for David Guetta ft. Sia’s SheWolf (Falling To Pieces), which has racked up nearly 300 million views on YouTube – and moving to a new production company home, Doomsday Entertainment – he made another important connection in late 2012 with rapper and Odd Future collective member Earl Sweatshirt.
In the two ensuing Sweatshirt videos for Chum and Hive, Murai crystallised his current measured style. “The first Earl video definitely felt like something clicked in my head,” he says. “I always struggled because I like slow and deliberate filmmaking, but music videos don’t necessarily support that.” But Earl showed him a one-shot video he liked, for young British artist King Krule. “Barely anything happened in it. So that gave me permission to exploit that side of things.”
Murai agrees that the videos for Chum and Hive – dark, minimal yet subtly surreal – set the scene for when he was introduced to Donald Glover (aka Childish Gambino) at the Grammys in early 2013, where Murai was working on visuals for Frank Ocean’s live performance. A few months later Glover invited Murai to direct a short film he scripted, Clapping For The Wrong Reasons. When the Childish Gambino album Because The Internet was released, Murai started to make the videos, starting with the fairground-shot clip for 3005, which was filmed with a remote-controlled camera on a real ferris wheel.
Octopi and dances in a diner
More Childish Gambino videos have followed, and Murai says: “I think it’s a unique thing working with Donald. Often I don’t even write a treatment, which is pretty rare. For Sweatpants he wanted to do something with repetition, and I wanted to do something with doubles; it became a combination of the two. But it hung around for quite a long time until he called me up and said, ‘Let’s do that diner idea.’”
Later in the year Murai and Glover went to Hawaii to shoot the video for Telegraph Ave, a love story with a twist in which Gambino’s true identity is exposed – under his human skin he is a murderous octopus-like alien. “Donald pretty much had the whole idea ready when he approached me about it – apart from the ending. That video is basically 85 per cent as he presented it and I added that bit at the end.” Most recently, for Glover’s track Sober, made at the end of 2014, and released early in the new year, the pair have returned to an LA diner at night and created a whimsically romantic two-hander, in which an inebriated Gambino pleads with a girl to take him back. If Sober and the dramatic denouement of Telegraph Ave suggest that Murai is edging back towards his first passion for narrative filmmaking, his Queens Of The Stone Age video, which came out of a more conventional music video scripting process, provides further evidence.
“I’d pitched them two different ideas, just because I thought the Japanese businessmen idea was too ridiculous for them.” But Josh Homme loved it. “He just wanted to be right in the middle of it – and it turns out he’s a really great actor, which was an amazing surprise. Most of the time you point a camera at a musician and they don’t know what to do.”
Ryan’s real rollerskating
He confirms that his long-term objective is to work in longform narrative filmmaking, but the shortform will remain his focus for a while longer – especially as he increasingly appears to pick and choose his music video projects. For example, for Chet Faker’s Gold, Murai approached the artist to see if he was interested in making a video for the track, selling the idea for a rollerskate dance routine in the desert at night. Once agreed, he worked on the project with top choreographer Ryan Heffington, who was the choreographer of Sia’s iconic Chandelier video.
“That was the first time we worked with Ryan, which was amazing,” recalls Murai. “It was really interesting to watch him work. During the shoot, we’re on a camera car, and Ryan is on the truck bed, basically, on the megaphone with the girls, doing the count.” And Murai also stresses that this was done for real, on a desert road, not against green screen, as some viewers believe. “I’ve been asked that a lot, and every time I hear that I think of how much work that would be. It wouldn’t make anything easier!” he laughs.
Furthermore, Murai says his productive collaborations with musicians such as Chet Faker, Flying Lotus and Childish Gambino have been about more than mutual trust. It is about their attitude to the end product. Gambino, for example, “likes to make content for the sake of making content,” he says. “Yes, the video is promotional material, but it’s also about understanding that it can be something more special than that – a self-contained piece of work.”