Music Video Director Colin Tilley Tells The Stories Behind “Anaconda,” “Senile” And More
You know about Colin Tilley’s work. The 26-year-old video director has written and directed visuals for some of the best hip-hop artists in the game, including Lil Wayne, Drake, Nicki Minaj, Chris Brown and many more. Widely considered as one of the hottest directors around, Tilley’s grind is the reason why he’s here today. Much like any success story, Tilley started from the bottom, taking on any opportunity that was presented to him to build up his reputation.
Born and raised in Berkeley, Calif., Tilley’s first big assignment was directing a video for hip-hop duo The Cataracs when he was 19. With no prior experience, the self-taught director borrowed a friend’s camcorder and shot the video for “Murder She Wrote.” The industry was impressed by his director’s eye and skills, which he quickly honed through YouTube tutorials as well as an organic curiosity for reinventing what is expected. "We put out the video, people started to gravitate towards it," Tilley says. "And everybody started calling me, Colin Tilley, director. I was like, ‘Alright, I can rock with that.’ From there, I just started directing a bunch of Bay, hood videos. Just by myself. Going out to the streets and just shooting and just try and make things look next level.”
During that time, Taj Stansberry, the director behind videos such as Jennifer Lopez’s “On The Floor” and Ludacris’ “My Chick Bad,” encouraged Tilley to work with him. Under Stansberry’s guidance, Tilley edited the majority of his videos, picking up techniques through the experience. Stansberry also taught him the logistics of the rap game, and stressed hard work would bring bigger and better gigs. “It was pretty cool for him to take me in like that,” Tilley recalls. “‘Yo, this is the game. Nothing is handed to you on a plate.’ But you get put in the right situations and you network and you do it right. That’s kind of how I did it.”
Tilley eventually parted ways from Stansberry and started to direct on his own. From there, he linked up with Tyga early on in his career and continued to establish relationships with L.A.-based artists. More recently, Tilley’s been the go-to guy for YMCMB, where he was behind the lens for “Senile,” Krazy,” and, of course, Nicki Minaj's record-breaking “Anaconda.” XXL wanted to find out more about the music director quickly on the come up. Last week, we spoke with Colin Tilley on the phone to break down the 10 most popular videos of his career so far. —Eric Diep
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Chris Brown featuring Lil Wayne And Busta Rhymes, “Look At Me Now” (2011)
Colin Tilley: I remember I was in Hawaii when I got sent that song. I just heard it and I was like, “Oh my God. This is about to be a monster hit.” And I never worked with Weezy before or nothing like that yet, so I was stoked. I had to make this one really, really big. I remember when Chris sent it over, he was like, “Yo, I kind of want to do something a little bit retro with it.” I was like, “Alright cool.” Literally, I just came up with this whole concept of this fun underworld where people are wearing throwback jerseys and switch dance routines, wearing graffiti all over. This sick underground environment where you look at it from an outside perspective and you want to be there.
At that point too, I was really obsessed with taking these gritty environments, like an old warehouse or something like that, and turning it into a special, magical world. It was about bringing in this old school DeLorean there. And have Wayne rapping in front of it, but there’s also a metal gymnasium right next to him. Wheels flying by. There’s people with skateboards and bikes. It’s all the stuff I love. I grew up skateboarding. I grew up around extreme shit, so it was something that I wanted to be able to portray in a video. To me, this is like the dopest song ever right now. I want to bring everything that inspires me through this video.
In the place that we were shooting, actually, I found these old hospital beds. There’s this big magnifying glass on one of the hospital beds and I took it and I started looking through it. I’m like, “Yo, it would be crazy if Busta raps into one of these.” I'd never really met Busta yet either. So I’m kinda nervous like, “Hey, man. Take this and start rapping through it.” He took it and he loved the idea of it and he killed it.
To me, that beat just had so much crazy energy. Obviously, I'm going to have the camera flying around and I want to do these huge techno moves. But also within that frame, I want to have so much going on. All this movement. We have people running up and down the stairs. Funny formations. It’s the type of thing where you always want to be looking and, "Lets find something else that’s moving." Whatever it is; motorcycles spinning out or people doing headspins or whatever it is. But every frame had to be crammed full of energy in order to portray that feel.
Nicki Minaj featuring Cassie, “The Boys” (2012)
Colin Tilley: It’s crazy. I just love creating these worlds. I wanted to create this ultra slick, poppy world that’s just filled with colors. And I wanted to make something that was girlie. Especially at that time, Nicki’s whole thing was pink and she had this pink stuff going on. I wanted to create pink sidewalks. I wanted all the outfits to be so outrageous and colorful and make it feel like something out of a Dr. Seuss book. So that was a huge inspiration behind that. Like, really going all out with the set builds. We spent like two days before we even shot, just building the set for the sound stage and lighting them a specific way. That was a really fun opportunity to just play around with. I love building sets from scratch and just being able to create custom worlds. You can’t recreate that.
I was able to paint these pictures in my head, what each of these places was going to look like. I was able to meet with my set designer, who was able to take my ideas, which would be like the huge polka dot balls in a polka dot room. Let’s do a force perspective, so everything feels bigger than it really is. “Alright, cool. We can do this, this and this.” This is actually logical without breaking your budget. You know, we just basically create the digital mock-up of what the sets are supposed to look like and then we took it to a bunch of construction people and built something. That’s always super fun to me; I love creating sets. Obviously, the energy between Cassie and Nicki is really dope. They are both so beautiful and having them in the frame together was pretty cool to see.
J. Cole featuring Missy Elliott, “Nobody’s Perfect” (2012)
Colin Tilley: I never worked with J. Cole before, so that was super exciting because I was definitely a fan. It was another one of those videos where I really just wanted to create this voyeuristic feel around him. He’s in this weird apartment. I always just thought of this cool transition of just the camera going through the walls and they can almost just hear each other. Missy and J. Cole going back and forth.
I definitely did a lot of references to Aaliyah to what he was talking about. I felt like it was such an intimate song, I wanted to basically line this whole apartment. You see the regular one, and you go to this super surreal version of it. The same layout, but everything drops off into this black void and there are all these cameras surrounding him and watching him. The cameras actually have eyes, so I put lizard eyes and all types of animal eyes and regular eyes from their perspective. So when you're going around in that circle, you can kind of get that feel.
And obviously working with Missy, she is such a sweetheart. She is such a cool girl to work with. We just had super good vibes and she was definitely a huge fan of the song. It was a really good experience all around. It was crazy, I didn’t even talk to Missy until the day of the shoot, just 'cause it was J. Cole’s project. That was definitely something that was huge for me. A lot of Missy’s videos have been big inspirations for me along the way as far as how creative they get with it. For me, I just wanted to make a cool, abstract piece that’s photographic and make them look amazing. I had to make sure it had that Missy stamp of approval.
DJ Khaled featuring Lil Wayne, Rick Ross And Drake “No New Friends” (2013)
Colin Tilley: That shit was so fun. Obviously, I loved the song. I'd never worked with Drake either so that was really cool. Overall, I actually went out there with a completely different idea to Miami. And I got to Miami and like two days before the shoot, Drake calls me. He was like, “Yo, man. So I’m thinking about it. I think we should do something completely different than what you have here.” [I was like], “Alright, what are you thinking?” [He said], “I just feel like we should do something [like] we're in a classic '90s video. Like, Biggie with Ross and go classic Wayne with Wayne.” He wanted to go classic Nas. And just like go there with it. So it's like, “Alright.” So we started throwing around ideas, using older beta cams and playing with those older handy cams. Just trying to get this weird feel to it.
So I had to literally scramble, but I actually liked that idea. Something about it. “Yo, we gotta do that.” It’s gonna be what people send to their friends like, “Holy shit, Wayne looking like his original Hot Boys.” We found this big ass mansion in Miami and went there and threw a party. Just saw it with a beta cam and I actually did both beta cams and grain, just so I could have a cool effect from being able to switch to that reality.
My favorite scene is literally where they had this yellow helicopter in the field and we had everybody out there. I remember Wayne hadn’t come out of his trailer yet. We started shooting before he came out. It’s fucking Baby, it’s Drake. Ross. Khaled. Everybody is dressed from head to toe in the sickest fits. I remember Wayne walked out mid-take right before his verse came on. Everybody was kind of just like, “Oh, shit!” He had the XXL tall tee. He just really went all the way in with it. It was just one of those moments where it was just so much fun to capture. It was a real fun video.
Pusha T featuring Chris Brown, “Sweet Serenade” (2013)
Colin Tilley: My good friend Capricorn Clark hit me. She was working with Pusha. I'd never worked with Pusha before. And she was just like, “Yo, we gotta do this.” She sent me just one image from one of my favorite movies, City Of God, where they are on beach and their backs are to the camera and they are looking towards the camera. She just sent me that image. “Just live with that for a second.” I was like, “Ooh!”
So literally, I was just listening to this song. It’s got this really dark, stark feel to it. I was just like, “Damn, we gotta do some really artistic photography to the beats.” And really just go wild with it. I really wanted to use a lot of black lights, so we had a lot of condors out there. We just loaded it up with a shitload of black lights. Black lights, when you just use them on their own, they don’t really light up a lot. You actually have to use a shitload of them in order to really get good exposure out of it. So that was lots of fun to work with.
Pusha was a great guy to work with. It was about creating this feel, creating this lifestyle feel for that. That was a fun video. Chris came through and killed it. That was cool.
Rick Ross featuring Future, “No Games” (2013)
Colin Tilley: I remember I was in Italy and Khaled called me like, “Man, we got the song right now. We gotta do this.” I was like, “Alright, cool. I love Rick Ross so let’s do this shit.” So I came up with this idea. Just the word "mastermind" inspired the hell out of me, so I just wanted to create what would Rick Ross’ mastermind world would be if he was the 2014 version of Scarface or something. But in a mad, mad style world. It was this futuristic concept I came up with where cars are exploding. There’s this crazy race going on with bullets shooting out. I just wanted to make it feel super action-packed and that’s what I got from the song. The song had this super aggressive feel and I wanted to get that across.
You would go into an underground fight and it's Rick Ross and Future in the middle with this huge fucking MMG sign on fire. All these padded floors and they're tearing down the fences around them and this crazy action fight in the middle. Some sick stuff. Choreography. I think the original image that I came up in my mind was actually an all-white room, with the all-white guns on the wall. And these girls in latex, kind of futuristic outfits and the white guns. That kind of really set it off for me and from there I was like, “Alright, if he was controlling this world, what would all the destruction be? What would it consist of?” I just came up from a couple of crazy scenes from there and they were like, “Alright, let’s rock.”
Tyga featuring Wiz Khalifa, Mally Mall And Cedric Gervais “Molly” (2013)
Colin Tilley: I just heard that beat and I heard that girl at the beginning, “Hi, I’m trying to find Molly.” Okay, alright. So, we're going to submit this world, we're going to have sexy ass female robots, asking for Molly. We're gonna create this crazy, futuristic world. I just love creating these crazy, underground clubs. When you can add this cool, futuristic twist to it. For me, that’s what excites me. I love making shit feel like other worlds.
We made it with just crazy black lights and I definitely whipped out all the really crazy lights on that one. And I really gave it that feel when you play around with Molls, you know? I had to go live it a couple times and then come back. And be like, “Wow, this is how it's done.”
Young Money featuring Tyga, Nicki Minaj, Lil Wayne, “Senile” (2014)
Colin Tilley: Tyga has been a great friend all these years. So Tyga hit me up and was like, “Hey, [I] got this ‘Senile’ track.” I listened to it and I was like, "Whoa, this is sick. I love the style of it." He was like, “Yeah, I’d think it’d be sick to do some really weird shit. We’d love to get some black lights and do some cool shit with this. And I’d like to get the Jabbawockeez in there.” I was like, “Alright, dope.”
So then I really started sitting down and I really started thinking about it. I don’t know what I was inspired by at the time. But I have this book on my coffee table—I'm looking at it right now, actually. The Most Awkward Family Photos. I don’t know if you've ever seen these, but they’re so funny. Literally, there’ll be a family dressed in all jeans from head to toe. Just like the funniest looking family photos. I was sitting there and I was listening to Wayne’s verse and Wayne just killed his shit. It would be so funny to put Wayne in one of these family photos, but have him just completely contrast the family 'cause it's Wayne. And it’s this super quirky white family. But have them all color-coordinated as far as what they are wearing and shit.
So I just got super hyped off the image. I Photoshopped that image just to see what it looked like. And I actually put that in the treatment to really see the whole vision of it. I feel like if you tried to explain that fully over the phone, it’s not really going to work. That was the first image that I came up with. I was actually working on another video with Wayne at the time and I showed him the image for it. He was like, “Oh my God. That’s amazing. We gotta do that.” I was like, “This is where we're gonna take it.”
So Nicki, I wanted to have her dressed like a chola and put her in this weird ass playground with other gangbangers and shit. But I want to have them in awkward settings. Let’s have him jump roping. You just put them in these situations where naturally it's something funny or something super awkward is gonna happen.
I think the video overall is cool. I was experimenting with a certain style of photography. I laid everything really flat. I barely moved the camera 'cause I was just experimenting with these awkward frames and these awkward scenarios. Trying to make it like a weird TV show. Like, a weird Wes Anderson movie or something. I’m always experimenting with a different style. Overall, I’m just happy with how it came out as far as what I was going for. That’s the thing—every video I try and go for a different technique. Just to keep it exciting for me but to keep everybody else on their toes. So people are excited to still see my videos.
Lil Wayne, “Krazy” (2014)
Colin Tilley: So what happened was they recorded this song. It was called “Krazy.” I feel like anyone else would have gone to some deep, dark hole and shot it and made super dark, which you would imagine with a song called “Krazy.” I wanted to do something different, and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest is one of my favorite movies. “You know what? Fuck that.”
Basically, just giving [Lil Wayne] a character to play. “No Worries” made him Johnny Depp from Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. And this one, let’s go Fear And Loathing all the way with it. I threw him into a mental hospital and Wayne is really good at that stuff. You put him in these scenarios and put him with all these crazy extras. He’s able to really thrive off of it and gets excited about it. Whenever he gets in front of the camera, he turns it on a million percent. That one was really fun for me. It was another cool approach. Definitely has a nostalgic feel to it.
Every time we work, it's just so seamless. It’s just really good vibes. When we did that final scene, when he’s in the electric chair, and the people are around him. The doctor that I cast for it, I didn’t know this, but he’s actually a preacher too. When we were putting it together, “Yo, that’d be crazy if I had you do some type of weird, witchery speaking to him.” “Well, I’m actually a preacher, so if you want, I can go through my different [prayers] during the thing.” I was like, “That was amazing.”
Wayne got in the chair and we turned on the music for that third verse. The dude started going through all his preaches. He was actually [going] twice as long as the actual music playing. We were down in the basement at that point for that scene. It was like end of the night; it was actually kind of scary, hearing this haunting voice going over the music. And Wayne is just like rapping so hard. I remember after the scene, literally everybody was scared as hell. They had the chills and shit. I just looked at Wayne and I could see that he was so pumped. He was like, “Alright, let’s do it again.” We ended that shoot on the best note ever. It was just one of those experiences where you were like, “Damn, I wish people could hear what was happening in this moment.”
Nicki Minaj, “Anaconda” (2014)
Colin Tilley: A lot went into that video. Nicki sent me that song two months before we even shot the video, and it was actually something completely different. I was living with that song. I would go to her house, we would talk about ideas. She’d talk about the way she wanted to look. All this stuff. Then a month and a half went by. “Damn, I guess I'm not doing this video, I'm not really sure what's going on.” Then she hit me back and she’s like, “Yo, we just redid the song. I want you to check it out.” So I went through to the studio. She was in there with Da Internz and what not. And the song had just gone to a whole 'nother level. I was like, “Oh, shit.” Any ideas I had before that, I threw out the window. Just 'cause it sounded so different. On some whole other shit.
I had a specific way I wanted to shoot Nicki for this. It was definitely all about female empowerment and making sure we capture the right dancers to surround her. As far as the world that I wanted to create with that video, I kept hearing all these crazy animal noises and all this shit. And I kind of got this jungle-y vibe.
I wanted this to be Gilligan’s Island meets the original “Baby Got Back” video. I wanted to still pay homage to the original “Baby Got Back” video with just the quirkiness and the way that they danced. I wanted to add the 2014 Nicki Minaj to it. I put the Gilligan’s Island twist to it, which I think really set it off. Since we shot that jungle setup, Nicki freaked out. “This is so sick.” Everybody was like, “This is definitely the tone we're going for.” We shot for two days. We shot on a sound stage. We built all the sets. It was just about creating that lifestyle. The “Anaconda” lifestyle. The best dancing. Amazing shots of Nicki looking awesome.
They shot that cover image on set. I remember Nicki showing it to me and I was like, “Yo, that’s definitely the one.” And literally that night they put it out and obviously that went viral real fast. All this shit we shot the last two days, when we put this thing together, this thing is gonna go viral so fast. It’s ridiculous. While I was editing, I was like, “Oh my God, it’s about to go crazy.” Of course, when we released it, it broke the 24 hour record.
One of the sets we shot didn’t make the cut. Some crazy shots didn’t make the cut. But I think it all happened for a reason. I think that the way the end came out, I think it worked perfect for the general audience of the world. I think it got the point across perfectly. It almost would have been too much. It would have been too much for people to handle. Heads would have actually exploded.