As a young photographer in Chicago, Nabil had heard about this up-and-coming rapper. Sensing an opportunity, he bought Kanye’s namesake domain name. But Nabil wasn’t in it for the cash. When Kanye’s people came calling for the domain, Nabil’s terms were simple: he’d surrender kanyewest.com in return for the chance to be his photographer.
Since that fortuitous moment, Nabil has become one of the most exciting music video directors of his generation, evolving from still to moving images, creating memorable videos for artists such as Frank Ocean, John Legend, Antony and the Johnsons, Bon Iver, The Foals, and The Arctic Monkeys. With a gorgeous cinematic esthetic, a strong narrative voice and more than just a dose of magical realism that binds his work together, his videos never fail to captivate. Most recently, he spun a tale of marital-arts revenge in India for "Higher" from Just Blaze (frequent Jay Z producer) and Baauer (he of Harlem Shake notoriety), and earlier this year helmed Bud Light's suity-suave number featuring Justin Timerblake and shot some iconic stills for Daft Punk’s first album release in eight years.
Currently in the midst of a new video for Toronto-based rising star The Weeknd, and developing feature film ideas in his adoptive hometown Los Angeles, Nabil took some time to walk us through how he regularly achieves music video awesomeness.
I think in a lot of ways I am a perfectionist. I color all my own photos—I just have a thing, I don’t know what it is. I don’t like to shoot and just hand it off. I like to be a part of the whole process. I always make sure I upload it to the right FTP or I take it to the right record label and hand deliver it. I don’t know why. I think it’s just making sure that final step is exactly how I want it to be because there are just so many steps along the way that at the end, it can just change and not be the way I want it.
There a time to collaborate and then there’s a time to just trust yourself. I’m a big fan of collaboration, but for instance, I’ve written two treatments in the last couple of days and both ideas came from me putting the song on repeat and just coming up with something that’s in my imagination. Like, with this one I’m working on for The Weeknd, he mailed me the song and said ‘I think you’d be into this’ and immediately I was. Within an hour of hearing the song I’d written up something. I was driving to the airport and I remember just talking into my phone, then I got to the plane and wrote it up and then sent it when I landed.
Then, with other artists, there’s more back and forth. Like, with Yannis from Foals we went back and forth with the two videos that I did with him and it was a very collaborative. But I’ve been fortunate enough to work with people who trust me and let me do, let me at least come up with the idea how I want to conceive it.
I usually have to really like the song, or at least really, really respect the musician and know that it’s a good song even though I don’t really love it. Without trying to sound cocky, I turn down 90% of what’s sent to me. There are so many things that weigh into it for me. First, it’s can I do what I want to do. Then it’s whether or not the artist is willing to let me do that. If so, then great, and if not, then that’s my first sign that I’m not even going to go there. Then it’s about whether I really like the song and do I respect the musicians.
Then there’s someone like with Frank Ocean where he was contacting me and I had no idea who he was. He hadn’t really put out music and he’s like, let’s work together and I was like "sure." I’d met him with, he was in a studio writing with someone for someone else. And I was like, yeah, just send me some songs and he never actually sent them to me and then one day he actually sent me some songs and I was like, holy crap, they’re amazing.
There are so many factors but it really stems from do I like the song and can I come up with something.
I have lots of experiences and I have a lot of things in my head. I don’t remember my dreams so maybe I write my dreams into videos. Maybe. But I think it just all comes from experiences. I like magical realism and things that are paralleled with real. I don’t like to be too definitive of what something means. I like to let people see their imagination.
I had always wanted to shoot in India and a few months ago I was watching a trailer for a Kung Fu movie and I was like, ‘Man, I wonder if they have martial arts in India?’ I searched that and I saw these kids in India that were doing this ancient form of martial arts and then I looked into it. Really, like, a couple of days later I had gotten a song (Baauer) and I was listening to the beat of the song and I just kind of decided to come up with a little story using these kids in the middle of India. Y’know?
In your head you can come up with as many stories as you want but then you have to figure out a way to actually reach them and see if you can cast the right crew. With "Higher", it was about seeing if they were willing, to make sure if it’s not offensive to their own beliefs. I don’t want to portray them in the wrong way, you know what I mean? So, I had written the idea just from watching from the YouTube videos of them practicing. And then after that I had sent it to my producer who was looking into it. And at the same time—this is just so how the world’s kind of a connection in some way—my old roommate said his friend, who’s from that exact place in India, had just got married, and his wife was still out there. I was like, ‘You’re out of your mind,’ but he those exact people and that exact school I saw on YouTube. And he took my producer out there and got the ball rolling and next thing you know I was shooting in India.
The budgets are terrible. Like, some videos are 20 grand. Some videos are 10 grand. Some videos are 100 grand. And then some of them go way beyond that. Those are not the type of songs and artists I’m trying to work with though. Probably won’t ever reach those dollars. But I don’t really care. I’ll only do something if I can at least make what I need to make with the money. Like, you can spend 15 grand here and rent a studio and some lights or you can go to Iceland and shoot something beautiful. You know, I could’ve used an extra 30 grand for Holocene—I think that budget was like 15 grand, that’s including plane tickets and everything—so that goes really, really quick, but then you just have to come up with a single idea. That’s why I use a lot of natural art direction. It’s all what you do with the money you have.
It’s hard for me to pinpoint my style. My stuff goes from shooting little kids in India running around with a handheld, to real slow and steady camera with locked-off shots of a guy getting his throat cut. And then another one is a one-shot, black-and-white video of guys rapping in a basement. I try to make it visual and beautiful and try to put some trickery in there somehow, some magical realism. But I don’t want anyone to reach out and call me because they want a particular style video or they need a mimic of something I’ve already made. I want them to just be like calling because I’m going to make something awesome. I don’t want to have a particular style. I just want to be known for making cool, interesting, good work.
I watch videos and listen to new music all the time. I’m a Vimeo king. I love Vimeo, it’s created such an amazing platform for all these other young filmmakers to put something out there for it to be seen. It’s really positive and not people writing bad comments, it’s people giving constructive criticism or thoughts. It’s a great way to be inspired. I’m inspired by everything—even a bird flying over head—so I’m definitely inspired by other people’s work.
There are so many clichés. I mean, rim lights in hip-hop, or like over-lighting a shot. I think in hip-hop videos have become like a hip-hop photo in motion with so many beautiful, shiny things in there. Whereas, I think, some of the stuff that probably sticks out the most is when it’s more real and when people walk in the shadows they are dark.
So you can call hot girls in videos a cliché. I can’t call it cliché because it’s just awesome. It’s like, those will never go out of style. Girls will always be the one thing a man strives to have. There’s just women. It’s the other half of Adam.