Catching Up With Music Video Director Nzingha Stewart

Music Video Director Nzingha Stewart (Bilal, Erykah Badu, Common, 50 Cent) spoke with mvwire to talk about her extensive body of work, including the videos for Joss Stone’s “Fell In Love With A Boy,” Dashboard Confessional’s “Handsdown,” and Eve’s “Satisfaction.” Her video “Sunshine” for Twista was named Pick of the Week on MTV in June 2004.

MVWire: So it’s been a couple of years since you moved to DNA, how has the transition been for you?

Nzingha Stewart: I absolutely love everyone at DNA. Working there has been a growing process for me. When I was at Propaganda I was just surrounded by so many extraordinary and creative people, like Mark Romanek, Michel Gondry. I felt everything I did while I was there had to be super artsy and innovative. I’m very proud of the work I did there. Some of my favorite videos came while I was at Propaganda Films. But at that time I didn’t really understand that it wasn’t about one upping everyone. It’s mainly about being commissioned to help sell an artist, not to do things that are different just for the sake of being different. DNA has really driven that home for me, it’s more like a commercial rather than an art piece. It’s taken me a while to realize that I can make art and market the artist at the same time.

MVWire: It’s interesting to see the variety of artist you have directed.

NS: I still get excited about my work and the genres don’t limit me. And I think you can see if someone’s not interested in what they’re doing through the work. I’ve just been lucky in having worked with bands I’m a huge fan of.

MVWire: The Joss Stone video really looks great, how was it working with her?

NS: It was fantastic! Her being only 16 years old brought up teenage jitters and lots of insecurities like “Am I doing this right?” or “How am I going to look?” But as the day progressed she fell into stride and her confidence kicked in. She was so exciting once she fell into the music. And she was super nice, there were no high demands for things to be super flossy. She wanted the darkness and edgy feel, which was very exciting, and different from anything else you’d see on MTV from a teenage artist.

MVWire: Yeah, it was refreshing to see something new! The scenes were real raw, where did you shoot it?

NS: We shot for a day in Brooklyn, NY at a little club in Redhook.

MVWire: Were there any specifics you had in mind to shoot that day?

NS: I wanted a little bit of a retro feel, like an old Janis Joplin concert footage look with that style of stage lighting. And when we did the transfer we added a monochromatic effect with all yellow. The effect only made the final edit in two shots but just that, with all the back lighting gave me the look I wanted.

MVWire: You can see the influence of fashion photography, especially when you are shooting the female figure.

NS: I’ve always been attracted to fashion photography. I used to collect photos and at 14 years old I knew who all the big fashion photographers were. So I think that has something to do with it. And being a woman, I see myself in every single shot that I do. I ask myself if it were my music video what would I want people to see? Or if it’s a video for a guy, I ask what kind of woman would they want to be with. Then I try to bring that out.

MVWire: What was your approach with the Eve video?

NS: Mostly as a fan. Since she has been shown as a fashion diva in her prior work I wanted to show her on her day off. I wanted a sense of how she is just hanging out in her neighborhood and plays a basketball game, maybe goes to a party. And after all that, the next day she’s back out on the block. So I went for something more relaxed and didn’t have anything to do with “money.” Just a great vibe and no huge fashion pieces or cars. She has such unbelievable drive that she would do one more take to get it right. Most artists I’ve worked with (especially those with no staying power) would have just stayed in their trailer.

But it was still an incredibly hard job. I underestimated how famous she is. Without the two days to shoot we would have been killed, because when she came out of her trailer it was like the Beatles. The block was just packed, people were being crushed, and the police had to shut us down at one point. We were literally pressed from all sides. It was so crazy I wanted to leave. There were at least 1000 people on one corner, and we only had four security guards.

MVWire: Before you directed the Dashboard Confessional “Handsdown” video, were you a fan of their music?

NS: After that job I became a huge fan. I had never heard of them prior to that, but once I heard the music I just fell in love with them. They are the only group I have gone out and bought their album after I working on their video. No label freebees, I wanted to actually support the band.

MVWire: Could you tell us the process of how the video was made?

NS: They wanted something different and more performance driven. And I wanted to have the feeling that you were inside the music with lines and colors coming to life, which would enhance the music you were listening to. To build it like it was part of a memory, sort of like déja vu where you remember something for a second then you aren’t sure where it came from, but a certain place or smell triggered that particular memory. And you feel like you’ ve been there before.

I wanted flashes that would trigger those kinds of memories. He says things in the video that trigger this and things that give you a visual reaction to the song like, ” I will always remember the scent of your hair” or ” that time on the clock.” We created a lot of the graphics from those images. And I gave him references to the colors we were going to use. Other parts would feel like a 70’s laser show and other areas would seem like Fantasia and yet others would be like Jeremy Blake’s artwork in Punchdrunk Love. It’s a weird treatment so that’s why I gave him so many references. Exactly how does being inside the music look? [ Laughing ]

MVWire: The video has a unique graphic sense, how did you work with the post production facility?

NS: The facility we used was Brand New School and they were fantastic with it all. Throughout the editing process I would check in every now and then and give minor tweaks, but they were so off and running from the references they didn’t need much help. If anything I had to protect it from the record label because they don’t always understand what the video’s going to be so they might make changes too early based on not knowing enough. So I would run interference and say here’s what they’re going to do and please be patient with the process. We shot the band in green screen and did everything else in post. Then there was a tiny bit more where I just grabbed a camera and shot outside my Jetta while driving over the Staten Island Bridge. It was all streetlights and beach shots, like one I did was of a girl’s hair blowing.

NS: It helps when you have a great artist, it would’ve been so much harder if they couldn’t perform. But Chris is such a natural and he got it every single time. Without that I could have never done this video. Only the graphics would have stood out and the person would have looked horrible. So with only graphics and performance and no big story, you have to have great performers.

MVWire: Were there any specific reasons for the color combinations you chose?

NS: I wanted it to have a punk edge and to me punk is fuchsia and black like an old Blondie or the Clash poster, just that neon and black tone. Like Sex Pistol posters always have Sid and Johnny in black and white with colors all around them, so we did that with Dashboard where the band is never in color in the video.

MVWire: For up and coming directors, what suggestions do you have on how to pursue this career?

NS: Send the work or demo to every single production company or label you can think of, especially the labels that do the lower budget jobs. I would try as much as possible to get in at one of those places. Go to the shows of your favorite artists, take your reel with you or your card and promote yourself. Practice and get better, you never know who’s going to see your stuff or where it’ll take you. That’s kind of what happened to me, just shooting jobs for $1000 or $2000 and people finding out what I was doing, building a reel, then sending it out to reps and then eventually one of them signed me.

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