Grammy nominated director Colin Tilley, honored this year at the EnergaCamerimage International Film Festival of cinematography for outstanding achievement in music videos, is a multi-award winning American who has created a remarkable range of work – and more than 200 videos – for artists and companies from Justin Bieber to Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion.
His company, Boy in the Castle Productions, has also rendered impressive worlds for Reebok, Rolls Royce and L’Oréal.
Tilley, who grew up in Northern California and began his career with videos for rap artists more than a decade ago when he was 19, says he wanted to create a specific look for his subjects. It’s a hardboiled, urban cinema verite ethos that’s been described as “a powerful image that stays in the viewer’s mind.”
An early sensation was his work with Kendrick Lamar on “Alright,” filmed in stark black and white, focusing on a seemingly peaceful city day with kids playing in the streets that soon erupts into a battlefield between a housing project community and the police, ending with a symbolic gunshot. Fired from a cop’s hand as if by magic, it brings down Lamar, who has been gliding over the urban sprawl.
The video, shot by Rob Witt and Corey Jennings, screened at Camerimage in 2015, winning the music video competition, but Tilley himself is making his first appearance at the fest this year (and serving on the music video jury).
His work has come a long way from the location shoots of his early days, he says, now entailing big-budget effects, huge sets, camera moves, choreography, costumes and the occasional snow leopard or cheetah.
“I pride myself on being able to work in any genre,” Tilley says, adding that the embrace of going big is something that came as a natural evolution.
But he also values changing up the artistic vision regularly. “Every four years it’s kind of shifted and I’m like, ‘Okay, cool, I’m gonna rock with him for the next couple of years and just go super hard.’”
Tilley cites the work of the Coen brothers as an early key influence – “Really love the tonality. It’s very, very precise with them” – but also confesses he loves action films. “I really want to be able to put my spin on action films,” he says, hinting at a handful of feature projects he’s developing.
Music videos have served as a useful boot camp for longer-form films, Tilley says, and he’s also learned how to communicate with both DPs and music artists about what they envision on the screen.
“It’s such a collaborative experience and you have to be able to create this language that you can have on and off set,” he says. “You start almost reading each others’ minds. So obviously I end up really close and becoming good friends with those DPs as well.”
The challenge of conveying a narrative in music videos, “often with no dialogue, just physical acting,” is something Tilley relishes, he says. But he feels more confident than ever in embracing “stories I have to tell in three minutes and actually making story resonate.”
Along the way, working closely with DPs has been crucial to his success, Tilley says. “Over the years I’ve always created a really close bond with whoever I’m working with. I have several DPs that I work very closely with.”
Bringing talent together is clearly another forte of Tilley’s.
One recent project, “If I Can’t Have Love, I Want Power,” a 53-minute concept feature film, “about the joys and horrors of pregnancy and childbirth,” starring singer-songwriter Halsey, was filmed this summer in Prague and scored by Oscar and Grammy winners Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, with costumes by Vivienne Westwood.
With production design by David Baxa, the project drew visual influences from “Game of Thrones” and the 2006 film “Marie Antoinette,” signifying a collaboration with impressive results.
But getting a feature film into production is far more challenging than launching a music video shoot, Tilley acknowledges, and he confesses he has a handful of film ideas still in the development stage. “It’s very different from music videos where someone calls me and says, ‘Hey, I want to shoot this in a week.’”