Has a golden age of music videos returned? You might think so, looking just at the last four months in the output of director Andrew Donoho, who’s helped singer Bella Poarch graduate from TikTok star to flat-out star-star with the captivating video for “Build a Bitch” in June and, just this weekend, its equally audacious follow-up, “Inferno.”
It’s not just fledgling social media superstars that Donoho is giving a high-concept boost to; July saw the release of a video he did for an older influencer, Paul McCartney, accompanying Beck’s remix of “Find My Way,” that used dazzling special effects to bring the seventysomething McCartney and his twentysomething counterpart into the same surreal universe. The Macca clip makes use of the same developing “deep fake” technology that Donoho — a former visual effects supervisor — used last year for an arresting video of the Strokes’ “Bad Decisions.”
He’s also been Twenty One Pilots’ go-to guy for no fewer than seven videos, and done work with artists as diverse as Janelle Monae (he directed her full-length “Dirty Computer” video album), 21 Savage & Metro Boomin (“Glock in My Lap”), Run the Jewels, Khalid, Carly Rae Jepsen and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. But however long his career in music videos lasts (he’s looking to do feature films shortly), it could end up being best known for his role in further raising the profile of the Filipino-American star Poarch, 24, whose “Build a Bitch” feels like a career marker that won’t easily be forgotten. “Inferno” racked up close to 10 million YouTube views in its first day and a half, making it appear as if she’s already built a career, without an album out.
On the eve of “Inferno’s” release, Donoho talked with Variety about the meaning of the video, which takes a “Promising Young Woman”-type scenario to supernatural proportions as Poarch, in an elevator with two men who think they’ve successfully slipped her a date-rape drug, inflicting a series of comic but unnerving tortures upon them, with the help of producer/duet partner Sub Urban. He also talked about matters as practical as the video’s practical fire effects, and how he took 60 years off McCarney’s age for “Find Your Way.”
VARIETY: Your first video with Bella Poarch has more than 25 million YouTube views…
DONOHO: [Quietly.] 250.
Sorry — 250 million. That is a very significant zero to leave off. (As of this writing, the count is edging up on 271.8 million.) “Build a Bitch” looks like it had a sizable budget, so there had to be a lot of faith going into it that it’d attract a sizable audience. But even given that expectation, is a number like that surprising to you?
Very. We knew that her core following would definitely watch it, and we hoped at least that this video would be a stepping stone to build bigger and bigger projects. But it ended up breaking three or four major records, including being the biggest artist debut video on YouTube of all time in the first month. That totally shattered everything we expected. We’re hoping this one (“Inferno”) carries that torch further.
It has to be hard to figure how TikTok success will translate into traditional music business success — it’s not a predictable transition.
We knew from the start that there’s a lot of other TikTokkers making music and music videos, and the fatal flaw of all of them is that everything from the song production to the press release to the video feels like it’s all TikTok forward… like a TikTokker that’s kind of just half-assing something. Bella’s team and the label (Warner Records) and I all knew that she actually had the passion and the talent and the motivation to really push it. So from the get-go, it was just looking at every other kind of TikTok changeover and the mistakes that are made, and wanting to give her a video with a vision and a world that she could exist in. We wanted her press rollout just to be as big and great as Ariana Grande or Nicki Minaj or another artist of the same caliber, because this is someone at that level. And a lot of that was led by her, because she doesn’t see herself as a one-trick pony or flash in the pan. She is talented and wants to push this all the way, not just for acclaim, but because she’s super passionate about music and storytelling within her videos.
Empowerment is a strong theme through both “Build a Bitch” and “Inferno” — as expressed through fantastical scenarios filled with special effects. That’s something that’s working for her and you, to have these somewhat humorous videos that have some serious and grounded ideas at the core.
Yeah, both videos have very much been rooted in both Bella and Sub Urban’s notions of what they want to present to the world. Sub Urban is the other artist on the track “Inferno”; he’s also Bella’s producer and creative director.
When we were going into “Inferno,” we wanted this big, interesting world, but we also wanted it to connect to the lyrics and kind of what Bella felt. If you look on Bella’s socials, you’ll actually see that this whole video was conceived as a bit of a fantasy about a real-life situation that actually happened to her — if it had gone the way it would in her dreams, as opposed to it being a very dark time for her. So even though the video you’re going to see for “Inferno” is very light-hearted and has a lot of fun, kind of slapstick elements, it’s still definitely rooted in something very serious for Bella that we want to communicate to everybody. [Poarch wrote: “As a victim of sexual assault, this song and video mean a lot to me… I decided to express myself by creating a song and video with Sub Urban based on how I wished my experience went. It’s a fantasy I wish was true.”]
You came up with what seems like a series of plagues for these two guys stuck with her in this elevator.
There’s a lot of Dante’s “Inferno” here. The impetus of the idea was the song itself, and then Bella’s experience. It’s about justice being served, and we wanted to do that in a magical, playful, interesting and not R-rated but still violent way. Our original idea had 10 levels that were all direct mirrors of the levels of hell in Dante’s “Inferno,” but where we landed kind of took the best of that world and some of our favorite Judeo-Christian myths and merged it all into this sort of feast of mythology and modern trends with a little bit of a 1950s timeless flair.
You’ve got the guys freezing, on fire, and attacked by locusts or some kind of bugs. Was there anything that was hardest to visualize?
Coming from the VFX world, I actually really love practical effects and using those as much as possible, and Bella and Sub Urban felt the same way about this one. So the hardest gag ended up being the dudes on fire, because none of that is digital, except for Bella’s wardrobe change. These are two stuntmen that are actually lit on fire. That was the most stressful moment of the whole shoot. We were in overtime. Our elevator that they were in was actually built outdoors to accommodate all these practical, physical gags, and the sun was rising as our stuntmen are prepping their suits to be lit on fire. Their lives are at risk. But the moment that sun crests over the building and the light shines in this elevator, it’s not going to match at all the other stuff we shot. So that was the moment of the shoot where there was a split-second of, “Maybe this won’t work, and maybe we’re lighting these guys on fire for no reason. This is terrifying.” But we actually got the shot off on our first take, and 10 minutes after that take was finished, the sun was fully blasting down into the elevator and it wouldn’t have been usable at all. So, a very trepidatious moment, knowing that if something does go wrong, it can hurt these guys, which makes the stress and the intensity even more insane.
It’s fun how, with “Inferno,” you could have just ended on an explosive note, but you have an extended comical coda where you deal with what people don’t usually deal with in these sort of situations, which is the cleanup after the mayhem.
Sub Urban’s role in the video is a lot of fun, because he played this role of… I don’t know if you’d call it the officer or the butler or the manager, but this person that was making whatever Bella wanted to happen happen. At the end, we were left with these two guys that were frozen and burnt and bit in this elevator, and it just made sense that someone has to clean that up. So it was a fun little cheeky moment to have Bella go out and be the life of the party, and then in Sub Urban’s moment of peace, the only break he got after this long day of torturing these two guys, he still has to be the one to go and clean it all up.
With you having had a closeup view on what is appealing to people about Bella, what would you say it is?
I think in the big picture, she actually is super passionate and motivated and thoughtful about everything she does. You’ll see a TikTok video of her where it’s just her moving her face, but it’s something that she’s planned and thought of. And then there is something about her that she’s very endearing, everything from her face to her voice to her shyness and her demeanor. She’s humble. She’s confident without being in your face. And that to me is something that I think is lost among a lot of influencers and social media personalities …
[She and Sub Urban] want to involve other people and make it a communal thing, as opposed to being front and center focus all the time. Part of that, I think, is that she was in the military for years [in the U.S. Navy]. On set, we talked about it a few times — that she really gels with the community vibe, where she wants the counsel and everyone around her to be a part of every decision, because she knows that’s the best way to work. And that lack of ego and that desire to make things as good as they can be I think sets her apart. And I think the next five, 10, 15 years will literally separate her from what people see as a TikTok personality and make her something that feels more like a true artist.
Let’s talk about Paul McCartney and “Find My Way.” He just posted a behind-the-scenes making-of video that shows him and Beck visiting your set. Beck has a cameo in it, but we wouldn’t necessarily have known from just watching the video that Paul was on-set, too.
Paul actually had a cameo, too. We wanted to make it super subtle. But if you watch the video, in that second hallway, there’s a guy that walks backward in the backgrounds, and that was Paul. It was supposed to be that simple, but he actually brought a bouquet of flowers to the set, because he wanted to give his five-second cameo a background story. He was an absolute gem to work with.
How did the concept for the McCartney video come about?
I had done a video for the Strokes that was experimenting with deep fake. And then a friend of mine that works at Capitol, Byron Atienza, and I were talking about the (“McCartney III Imagined”) campaign and how he wished there was a way to really inject a lot of the youthful, modern vibe into a Paul video, but still have it be distinctly Paul McCartney. We had a late-night conversation and he had the idea of, “I would just love it if we could see like the Beatles or Paul McCartney dancing.” And I was like, “Well, we can.” Long story short, we spent a couple weeks writing treatments, and I built the idea of this hallway to be this timeless space that Paul could exist in. And we found a deep fake artist — we worked with a company called Hyperreal that does 3D avatars — and we kind of put all the pieces together. Paul loved it and we scanned him in 3D, and then we did a single day shooting the entire thing out, and about eight weeks of post.
When you say, “Yeah, we can do that,” that’s a simple, easy statement for you to make and know you can deliver?
Yeah, I was a VFX supervisor for years. The last show I did before directing full-time was season one of “Atlanta” with Donald Glover. So I do have a background in that stuff and I know what’s possible. And music videos for me are all about pushing what the boundaries are and trying new things creatively. So the deep fake experiment with the Strokes was enough for me to know that there was a way to use this technology in a new way, and with Paul McCartney and that legacy, we can get people behind it that are the most talented artists in their field. I just felt confident early on that there was a way to do this and do it right that would take the best of both worlds and make something a little bit creepy, a little bit fun, a little bit weird and a little bit psychedelic.
You used the word “creepy,” so you don’t mind if there’s that kind of that cognitive dissonance when people are trying to wrap their heads around what they’re seeing with young Paul singing older Paul?
Yeah. I mean, for me, with any kind of facial placement, even if it’s 100% flawless, there is going to be an uncanny valley. Firstly, because you’re seeing a Beatle in his 20s — now — so automatically you’re in this head space where you know that this video is a slant on reality. And then on top of that, deep fake isn’t perfect, and there’s imperfections that you just can’t get rid of, and elements that are just always going to be a little bit strange. So we try to double down on that. We wanted this to feel like he was going through this time-traveling hallway that was taking him to wormholes and through different dimensions, and we wanted it to feel almost like this was like an alternate bizarro version of Paul. And we knew it was going to be a little bit creepy, so we tried to play that up. We even tried to call attention to it at the end, with the pull-off of this bizarre rubber mask, as a little bit of a gag about what this deep fake could have been if it was a physical thing. So yeah, we know there’s going to be a level of discomfort anyway, so we tried to lean into that instead of running from it.
And deep fake is the term?
Yeah. So, there’s a couple of technologies going on in this video. Deep fake is the newest one, which is actually using machine-learning AI to replace the face. But we also partnered with called Hyperreal, who built a 3D model of Paul’s face. So you see the hyperreal model in a few places. That’s like when he takes the mask off, — that piece is fully 3D. Most of the video is the deep fake where an AI machine-learning technology replaces the face. And then we had a traditional visual effects team that just had to do a bunch of cleanup and face-shaping to make it all match.
How much did Paul have to do for it?
Paul had one day where we did a three- or four-hour scan with him. We had this big apparatus where there were hundreds of cameras in a dome that he sat in, and he would basically give dozens and dozens of his own expressions while Hyperreal did a 3D scan of him. And then on set, he was there for four or five hours. He came for his cameo, but he was really enjoying his time there and liked to see the process, so he stuck around for many hours after that, too. It was just a two-day commitment from Paul, but for me it was pretty magical to have him there. And just like the atmosphere he brings when he walks into a room — you know, the whole crew is on their best behavior and everyone was in a good mood. … Paul McCartney is like pizza. Everyone likes pizza and knows what it is. So just to have him there just kind of created this very, very positive atmosphere that was really wonderful to work in. It was so, so wonderful to have him on set both of those days.
With both of these Bella videos and the McCartney video and some of your others, you’re carving out a good niche for yourself that is reminiscent of the golden age of MTV, when videos were events and full of special effects and looked spectacular, but had clever, fleshed-out narrative ideas to go along with the spectacle.
Yeah. It’s a really nice time to work in music videos. It is very much a second renaissance. I think in the last two or three years, how videos play within an artist’s career have finally stabilized again. Now that we understand that YouTube is the platform, and we understand that a lot of these artists live in a digital world most of the time, instead of the tour world, and a lot of artists are connecting their videos to the world-building that they do on their albums… And for me personally, I’ve always been drawn to storytelling. I want to go into movies; I want to go into TV. And I try to take a lot of those sentiments and sensibilities into my music video work. There are a lot of great videos that are just concept-based or dance-based, but for me, I am exhilarated at the idea of telling a larger story and creating a moment where people are begging for more, instead of just watching it as a self-contained nugget.
Is there a video that you consider your breakthrough in making your name for yourself?
I think what took me out of the effects world and started me directing full time was my first video for Twenty One Pilots. It was also my first VMA win — “Heathens.” That did open up a whole lot of doors and showed me another side of the industry, and since then, it’s just been small stepping stones throughout. This last year with Bella and with Paul McCartney and the last few videos I’ve done for Twenty One Pilots, it’s felt like the first true bridge leading into narrative storytelling in long form.
So I’m ramping up for a movie we’re prepping to try to shoot in the spring of 2022, as well as writing a script right now I’m very proud of. So it’s all very connected and all very incremental and it feels like a really nice time to be doing music videos, and hopefully a very nice time to do movies too. You know, feature films are very fragile, but hopefully in the next four or five months, you’ll be hearing from me with news on some of these things.