Take an Adrenaline-Fuelled Acid Trip with BRTHR
shots delves into the neon-hued world of directing duo Alex Lee and Kyle Wightman: hallucinatory promos that hover somewhere between dreams and nightmares.
Alex Lee and Kyle Wightman – aka BRTHR (pronounced Brother) – have such a distinctive directing style, recognising their work is easy. But trying to explain what happens in their music videos is a challenge. Mere words hardly do them justice.
Take their recent video for YouTuber-turned-pop star Joji’s track, Window. It’s a hallucinatory, violent, captivating mini-movie, where Joji spends most of his time in chains underwater (but still smoking) while his girlfriend engages in stylised battles with various villains around Tokyo. It has a dazzling array of visual motifs and extraordinary colour-saturated transitions – like a bonkers psychedelic superhero movie.
In last year’s video for Travis Scott’s Butterfly Effect, BRTHR transform hip-hop video conventions with a combination of restless camerawork, and raw video effects, as Scott hangs from his speeding Lamborghini in the Hollywood hills, and CGI butterflies flutter out of girls’ mouths.
And like a psychedelic Sin City, BRTHR’s video for The Weeknd’s In The Night sees the singer lusting after his favourite showgirl (model Bella Hadid) while she and her fellow dancers murder vicious Yakuza gangsters in a glowing blood-red downpour. But again, you really have to see it.
Watching BRTHR’s work is like getting the adrenaline rush of a top action movie during an acid trip. Their visual domain is somewhere between cinematic reality and a surreal netherworld – exciting, unpredictable, and as immersive as a videogame.
When your Goosebumps get grabbed
With the inventiveness of their camerawork, editing, visual effects, use of colour, and sound design, it’s a signature that would be very hard to emulate – so you would think. But as their work has become more high profile, Lee and Wightman have noticed signs that they are increasingly being ‘referenced’ by the next generation of filmmakers. They say their other Travis Scott video, for the horror-influenced Goosebumps, has been directly copied. “Some younger videographers and directors, nowadays, they have no artistic integrity – they will just straight up rip shit off,” says Lee. “This one kid started ripping some sound effects from our videos and using them in his videos – and they get a lot of views.”
With his talk of “younger directors” and “kids”, Lee makes BRTHR sound like grizzled veterans. In fact, they are only in their mid-20s themselves. But they have been making commissioned music videos since they were barely out of their teens, and in the past year they have added some heavy-hitting commercials to their name.
They were recruited by adidas Originals to helm an edgy campaign with rappers Young Thug, Playboi Carti and 21 Savage. They then directed their first fragrance ad, a commercial for Yves Saint Laurent perfume Black Opium, which revealed that the BRTHR signature style had survived the leap from music to advertising, something that they were clear was their goal: “We like to take on projects where we can do that,” says Wightman, “and we were able to really retain our visual style for those spots.” Although the YSL ad that went to air might have lacked their usual edge, the director’s cut version features that distinctive distressed imagery and irrepressible momentum, as Edie Campbell, the face of Black Opium, and her buddies head out into the steamy Bangkok night.
For Crazy Isn’t Humble, their adidas Originals spot last year, three hip-hop stars goof around their luxury hotel suites, demonstrating that, as Lee says, “rappers are the new rock stars now.” The use of different formats, including portrait-shaped, gives parts of the film that raw, social-media style phone footage feel. For the second film, Young Thug, Playboi Carti and 21 Savage leave the comfort of their hotel suites and, according to Lee, “things get even crazier. A lot of clients come to us for our music video aesthetic now, which has been cool,” he goes on. “The second adidas campaign also continues that Crazy Isn’t Humble sort of style that we have been building with [ad agency] Johannes Leonardo.”
Wightman adds: “Each one of the [films featuring the rappers] almost feel like scenes that could exist within one of our videos. We just had a bit more freedom to build the sets.”
The duo realise that it is not just their style that attracts the agencies. Their experience of working with major hip-hop artists is a benefit on jobs where youth-orientated brands are buying into the unmatchable cool and credibility of ‘bad boy’ rappers – some of whom are not renowned for being easy collaborators. “Sometimes they are very hard to work with,” reflects Lee with a chuckle. “We know how to handle these guys.”
Apart from always employing a really strong 1st AD to run the set with military precision (“that’s crucial,” says Lee), one tactic to minimise any issues with artists appears to be the sheer level of activity going on during their shoots. “We brainstorm and come up with an overabundance of ideas, and then we try to put them all in the video,” explains Wightman, “So our shoots can be really hectic. Typically we’re running multiple cameras. We just try to really capture as much as we can and get as many vignettes and put as many ideas in there as possible.”
For any artist coming onto their set for the first time, Lee says it will be unlike any previous video they have done. “I’d say working with us is a very boutique experience. We’re very hands on – Kyle runs the cameras on the B-cam [secondary camera] a lot. Then I do all the editing. For the cut, honestly, I’m using maybe 50 per cent of what the DP shot, 25 per cent of what Kyle or someone else shot, and 25 per cent of what our other friend from film school shot.”
Editing is of equal importance to the shoot, so, not surprisingly, they rarely hand over editing and grading duties to outside sources. Lee prefers to handle everything, working on ageing Final Cut Pro 7 software to hone the trademark weatherbeaten VFX aesthetic. And for their videos BRTHR do not supply rough cuts for bands or labels to comment on either – with good reason, they say. “There are so many elements that have to come together in the edit that you can’t possibly understand what it’s going to feel and look like until it’s pretty much done,” explains Wightman.
"Throughout the video it’s kind of crazy, but then the climax is even crazier.”
Lee and Wightman met at the School of Visual Arts in New York and started working together while still studying. Lee, who was born and raised in Japan, and New Yorker Wightman then dropped out of college together in 2013 to start BRTHR.
By that point, Lee had made Tokyo Slo-Mode, a ‘school project’ shot on a return trip to Japan. It is an observational montage of Toyko street life employing slow-motion, frame-cutting and other techniques, and Lee describes it as “a life-changer”. When it gained a prized Vimeo Staff Pick, the film’s resemblance to music video led to promo commissions and the pair have never looked back.
Their early videos, for rising acts like Maejor, MS MR and Ben Kahn quickly got them spotted by production community StrangeLove, to which they signed. Not much later, they were shooting a big budget video in India for female rapper Iggy Azalea. “It was literally like jumping in the deep end,” says Lee. “We’d never run a big set. It was intimidating, but we handled it.”
It may not have been entirely successful, but the Azalea video highlighted the importance of their retaining control of the creative process. From that moment on they worked hard on developing their signature style. Many would describe it as being dramatically dark, although BRTHR don’t wholeheartedly agree with that summary. “There was a lot of experimentation involved in the first few years of working, culminating in this style that you see,” Wightman says. “I’d say we have based it on a particular aesthetic and a mood, but there are playful moments that we try to incorporate. On the Goosebumps video there are 3D anime girls dancing at one point.” “Another thing we’ve been exploring is a crazy climax,” Lee interjects. “Throughout the video it’s kind of crazy, but then the climax is even crazier.” That’s borne out in BRTHR’s more recent videos. In Joji’s Window, the heroine ends her adventures by blasting off into space, followed shortly afterwards by Joji.
Lee thinks that the best example of their work to date is Travis Scott’s Butterfly Effect. “It was a really unique visual universe that we had been trying to accomplish for a long time. It was super-complex to shoot, very challenging and we pulled it off.” He adds that “someone ripped it off, like, a month later.” But despite their concerns about inferior copied versions of their videos lurking online, it is hard to imagine that BRTHR’s forward momentum will be deflected by their imitators. Such is the quality and prolific level of their creativity, they look assured to continue to rise, and ultimately take the commercials world by storm. And it could happen this year. “For us, 2018 is about segueing fully into commercials, and doing jobs that we really believe in,” says Wightman, while his partner acknowledges that they are still young themselves, with time on their side.
“Sometimes we lose jobs purely based [on the fact that we are] young and [because we don’t] have many commercials on our reel yet,” says Lee. “Hopefully, with YSL and adidas, and stuff like that, we’ll get there.” We imagine they will.
WHAT INSPIRES... BRTHR
What’s your favourite ever ad?
Alex Lee That Guy Ritchie Nike football one [To the Next Level] is a classic.
Kyle Wightman adidas Tubular, directed by David Lynch (1993).
What product could you not live without?
AL Lately, Coke Zero Sugar.
KW Polar Seltzer.
What are your thoughts on social media?
AL It’s here to stay. Use it to your advantage.
KW Less is more.
How do you relieve stress during a shoot?
AL Drink copious amounts of Red Bull, soda and coffee. Literally up to 11 cans and cups sometimes.
KW Coffee and Red Bull.
What’s the last film you watched and was it any good?
AL Disaster Artist was a very interesting story and character profile of [the eccentric filmmaker] Tommy Wiseau.
KW Fantastic Mr. Fox. Classic.
What’s your favourite piece of tech?
AL One of my faves is a coloured light bulb system you can control with your phone. My entire apartment has impeccable lighting.
KW Samsung Galaxy Note.
What film do you think everyone should have seen?
AL The Matrix, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Fallen Angels, Rushmore, Pulp Fiction.
KW Blood Simple.
What fictitious character do you most relate to?
AL Emo Kid; Spiderman.
KW George Costanza [from sitcom Seinfeld].
If you weren’t doing the job you do now, what would you like to be?
AL Musician; 100 per cent.
KW In the restaurant biz.
Tell us one thing about yourself that most people won’t know…
AL I love Friends and just acquired a poster with all the cast’s autographs.
KW I’m obsessed with bass.