How Hiro Murai Became One Of The Most Important Directors in Pop Culture

Matt McMahon takes a look at the evolution of Hiro Murai.
By    May 29, 2018

Matt McMahon heard that the earth is flat.

Hiro Murai is the biggest breakout music video director of the past decade. Starting about ten years ago as a VFX freelancer and director of photography, the L.A.-based director provided coverage for stereotypically stylized videos (think cardboard sets, clashing patterns, and perspective manipulating transitions through picture frames and windows) for indie and emo groups like Make Believe, Aqueduct, and (sorry for the reminder about the inescapable “Cobrastyle”) Teddybears. As a result, the path to Teddy Perkins, “This Is America,” and an exclusive production deal with FX Productions may not appear as a straight line. So how did he go from being the DP on charming, if slight, mid-aughts indie rock music videos and directing the generic B.o.B.’s “Airplanes” to helming the most talked about music video and some of the most ambitious televisions episodes of the year? A trip through ten pivotal music video directorial efforts from his filmography can help us understand.


Bloc Party– “Signs (Armand Van Helden Remix)”


Murai’s solo music video directorial debut came in the way of Armand Van Helden’s house remix of Bloc Party’s “Signs,” and man is it some debut. Veering from the twee trappings of his DP projects, “Signs” is a sexually grotesque and uncanny depiction of bodies in the vein of music video pioneer Chris Cunningham’s collaborations with Aphex Twin. Murai bounces between close-up images of flesh and bones crudely merged with sound equipment as Van Helden’s grimy oscillating bassline tracks the action. Working with sounds diverging from his prior collaborations afforded the fresh director a chance to explore more appropriately dark concepts. And the direction outright supersedes the track, with Human Centipede-esque homemade human-machine experiments and a couple electrical-socket faces making out far surpassing any creativity in a rather one-note remix.


Busdriver– “Me-Time (With the Pulmonary Palimpsest)”


Soon after “Signs,” Murai provided direction for Busdriver’s second best rap over a beat flipping a classical composition (“Imaginary Places” is still his crown jewel in that category). In it, Busdriver gains sentience as a fortune teller puppet at an arcade and terrorizes a kid’s birthday party while lamenting about our corrupt democratic system without ever stopping to breathe. The whole scene is pretty twisted, as the puppet quickly malfunctions and overheats in step with Busdriver’s spitfire delivery, but hilariously portrays just how tormenting the rapper’s overactive mind would be if exposed to a party of children. This video feels significant to Murai’s arc because it showcases his sense of humor, while its lack of a central thesis points to his later growth as an artist. With the song’s focus on inequality in politics, I would love to see how he might tackle the same material now with the experience he’s gained in the ten years since it came out.


Lupe Fiasco– “The Show Goes On”


After a few creative endeavors, Murai quickly graduated to the main stage of music video direction in 2010, commissioned for three top-ten hits in B.o.B.’s “Airplanes,” Usher’s “DJ Got Us Fallin’ In Love,” and Lupe Fiasco’s “The Show Goes On.” However, with this career leap, he seemed to have to sacrifice the individuality and collaborative spirit that got him there. The three, although most emblematic in the rather shallow video for “The Show Goes On,” hint at a sliding doors moment in his career path where he could have become a studio stable director, shooting videos focused on staged concert footage and one or two basic effect flourishes each. If this section doesn’t have a lot in the way of describing the actual music videos, it’s because there’s not much there to get into.

Reflecting on this run in a Q&A with MTV in 2016, Murai shared, “I thought there was a way of marrying what I wanted to do with filmmaking with pop videos, which I found out through a couple projects just wasn’t possible…If you’re making an Usher video, you’re making an Usher video, not a film with an Usher song in it.” He clarifies the remark isn’t a knock against any artist, but he’s been working with those who include him as a close artistic partner since.


The Shins– “It’s Only Life”


Murai’s lone visual for The Shins feels especially like a passion project given the tonal connections it bears to the band’s oeuvre and the director’s own influences. Indebted to Spike Jonze’s imaginative adaptation of Where the Wild Things Are and Hayao Miyizaki’s animated films with Studio Ghibli, the video’s tug-of-war depiction of suburbia’s appeals and horrors expertly interprets frontman James Mercer’s career-long nostalgia for childhood innocence and sincerity in an anxious adult world. For Murai, it represents an ex post facto turning point to his career, in which he got away from the pop garbage of the prior two years and returned to thoughtful artistic statements.


Earl Sweatshirt– “Chum”


The next stage of Murai’s filmography is defined by two equally expressive yet completely unique videos that signified not only the development of his voice but also a return to his autonomy and interest in pursuing more artistic creative partnerships. The first is for maybe one of the five best songs from this decade, Earl Sweatshirts’ opus “Chum.”

In the video, he lights Earl like he’s in a sinister ’50s noir—Murai has cited Orson Welles’s Touch of Evil as a source of influence for the shoot—and builds an upside-down world out of an empty parking lot and some Odd Future imagery. At the center, Earl drifts through unaffectedly, as if on a conveyor, a tactile metaphor for his monotonous delivery of lines about his estranged father and the media-strained relationship between he and his mom. By choosing just a few focal points, Murai steps back and allows the song to breath, a mark of his budding maturation and connection with his subjects.


St. Vincent– “Cheerleader”


The other side of this two-pronged course correction is the high concept visual for St Vincent’s “Cheerleader.” Inspired by the artwork and photography of Australian sculptor Ron Mueck’s massive, hyperrealistic sculptures, the video imagines Annie Clark as a sentient piece of Mueck’s art attempting to break free from the exhibit she’s been put on display in. As attendees look on, approximating the voyeurism to Clark’s literally larger-than-life celebrity, she fights the harnesses holding her in place. Although the sculpture ends up broken, she’s visibly freed from the prison of spectatorship in which she’d been forced into participating.

Using a rich concept and his familiarity with forced perspective shots from his time as Director of Photography on videos for Death Cab for Cutie and The Submarines, Murai succinctly represents Clark’s relationship with stardom and the reclusive anonymity she strives for in her personal life.


Childish Gambino– “Sober”


 

Murai really cut his teeth working with Donald Glover on his Clapping For the Wrong Reasons.  The atmospheric short film companion piece to Glover’s Because the Internet proves a Rosetta Stone for Murai’s direction from that point on; not just in his future music video work, but also his approach to television, treating his subsequent collaboration with Glover—and first foray into TV, Atlanta—with the same sensibilities. After getting to know each other through Clapping, Murai and Glover did a string of colorful music videos for Glover’s Childish Gambino act culminating in 2015’s “Sober.”

A reimagination of Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel,” much like Key & Peele’s modernized spin of “Baby It’s Cold Outside,” Murai’s version views Glover’s nagging suitor more transparently predatory than its romanticized predecessors. His four videos for Childish Gambino, meant to be loosely related, also showcase his prowess for shooting mundane locales like a take-out joint with a cinematic yet realistic eye that would prove a hallmark in characterizing the city of Atlanta a year later.


Chet Faker– “Gold”


The ambitious single take music video for Chet Faker’s simmering “Gold” is a personal favorite of mine. Between the midnight roller-skating concept, pitch perfect choreography, and technical skill on display from all involved parties, as well as that cheekily mysterious ending, Murai put together a solid accompaniment worth highlighting.


Flying Lotus– “Never Catch Me (Feat. Kendrick Lamar)”


Part of the appeal of music videos for Murai comes from their unique opportunity to convey a feeling through the abstract or surreal; in many cases—much like the structure of many episodes of Atlanta—his are more atmospheric vignettes than tight or cohesive narratives. Often times, too, he seeks to generate this feeling, moreso than taking a position on what he’s covering. And in his best work, it’s a feeling he shares with the rest of his crew, noting to Hypebeast “the only way that I can get anything good made is connecting with the musician.”

With Flying Lotus’s “Never Catch Me” video, the pair translates the complex emotions tied to the joys of youth and the disproportionate systemic violence against black children in America into an arrestingly bittersweet piece of visual art. There’s a real shared sense of anger and grief and hopefulness between Flying Lotus and Hiro Murai that comes through in the scenes of two children dancing in the aisles of the church at their own funerals, simultaneously mourned by their community and divorced from any violence.


Childish Gambino– “This is America”


When the video for “This Is America” dropped alongside Donald Glover’s appearance on Saturday Night Live as both host and musical guest, the internet reaction was immediate, with sects of commentators anointing Glover to the post recently vacated by Kanye West as Hip-Hop’s patron saint while others questioned his motives and potential levity in equal measure. Glover and Murai have stated that they did not expect such a swift, sweeping reaction to their most recent, incendiary video, but their creation seems to be a perfect mix of forces that would incite such a response.

In a way, “This Is America” feels like the more detached, objectively lensed spiritual successor to “Never Catch Me.” Its alternating afro-pop and trap instrumentals signifying a wavering between a fantasy version of the country and our reality, respectively, in the same vein as the dancing kids and mourning adults in “Never Catch Me.” Once again, Murai prefers to shoot the action from a removed distance, conveying rather than directly commenting. In the manically twisting video, whose structure plays out like the viewer is scrolling through social media, bursts of ultra-stark gun violence perpetrated by Glover flank kids making viral dance videos and staged photoshoots of your friend’s new hot rod. Spaces of solace and healing (a cookout where your uncle’s noodling on a guitar or the choir on the rafter of your church) become indistinguishable with places of violence and mourning.

Hiro Murai has described the video as having a sort of “Looney Tunes logic,” and without jumping down too much of a rabbit (pardon the pun) hole, it does have the tone of an exploitative performance akin to an old Bugs Bunny routine. Fully embedded with allusions to Jim Crow as a pistol-wielding gangster that conflate historical racist ideology with modern, Glover’s exaggerated physical performance invokes that of a minstrel show not only meant to spark introspection in his audience, but rotely staged to give the country a fix for what it’s been conditioned to fiend for on daily basis for entertainment.

The video has brought about debates around authenticity and authority in storytelling, specifically Glover’s, and Murai’s objective lens plays a big part in that response. Whether explicitly intended as one or not, the video feels as though it were a direct reply to the valid, primarily black criticism often levied at Donald Glover over his art. This criticism questions the authenticity of his rise from sketch comedian who made rape jokes and problematic standup routines to a popular storyteller defining black narratives on a mainstream scale. In response, “This Is America” seems to ask those questions back, wondering what the narratives are that Glover should—or can—explore based on what our story as a nation is right now and what its people appear to want and expect from someone like him.

If all this sounds like a far cry from playful expressions of stop-motion editing and guys who perform in teddy bear masks, it’s because it absolutely is. However, since his graduation from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, Hiro Murai has seemingly always had these grander ideas looming in his directorial work. And now that he’s broken out into mainstream television, his ingenuity has never been more in the spotlight.

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