Behind the Scenes of Frank Ocean’s Grammys Performance with Director Hiro Murai

Photographer Clara Aranovich
February 12, 2013

Eschewing the pyrotechnics, dance troops and onstage baptisms of the Grammys past, Frank Ocean performed "Forrest Gump" on Sunday while standing in front of a tall video projection and behind a smaller LCD screen featuring a video of his legs, giving him the appearance of running while standing perfectly still. Hiro Murai, the LA-based director of the videos created for the performance, talked to us about putting the piece together on a tight schedule, hitting technical bumps along the way and how Ocean deals with collaboration.

How did you get this gig? I’ve known Frank casually because I’m friends with Nabil, who’s done a couple of his videos. So I’d met him once or twice before. I guess he really liked the ["Chum"] video I did with Earl [Sweatshirt], so we were talking about doing something together, but I hadn’t heard from him in a month or two. Then out of the blue, three weeks ago, he called me and said, “Do you wanna do this thing for me for the Grammys? It’s happening in two and a half weeks.”

Had you done set or stage design work before? Absolutely not. It was a completely new experience. But I like work to be a new experience every time, so that was definitely a plus.

What was Frank's vision for the performance? He told me the basic concept of the setup: There's a big main wall and a small LED wall in front of his piano where his legs would be moving. He wanted to kind of replicate that scene in Forrest Gump where [Tom Hanks] is running, and there’s a mob following him down an open road. The weird thing about this concept is that when you explain it in words, it’s the most confusing thing ever. You don’t know what you’re talking about, whether you’re talking about the real stage-Frank or the video-Frank. We talked for half an hour on the phone, trying to find out what each other were talking about. But the basic thing he wanted was the gimmick of the leg on the front panel. I expanded it from there, went back and forth with him on costuming, color schemes and the general flow of the piece… He’s a great collaborator, because he has good instincts and good taste. But he’s also a perfectionist and he has very specific opinions about everything. That’s not to say he’s not open to suggestions. As long as you care as much as he does, he’s very open to new ideas.

Whose idea was the yellow tuxedo? He was thinking about wearing either the tux or a custom jersey. Later on, I realized he had a verse in [“Astro,”] a song for MellowHype where he said he’s gonna go to the Grammys in a yellow tux. I just thought it was a cool image to see him running down the road in a tux; I didn’t know that line existed until we’d already decided on the tux. Then I realized he’d predicted it in a song years ago.

Who were the people in the mob? Did any of the Odd Future guys make cameos?The whole thing was we wanted it to be a mob of people—we didn’t want to specifically point out anyone. Our original plan was to get a lot of Frank's people and Frank’s buddies in there, but the scheduling didn’t work out. So most of the people are background actors, skateboarders, BMX bikers or cheerleaders. We cast background actors with quote-unquote cheerleading experience. A couple of my friends are in there too.

Where did you shoot?We were in Acton, California, which I’ve never been to before. In the middle of nowhere, an hour outside of LA. I usually work in music videos, where we shoot like 10 to 12 setups and 60 shots or something. For this video, we really needed only two shots. But it took a while because it was such a precise thing. We had to shut down roads, we had 50 people running down a road 100 feet away from us. And then Frank had to be running at the same time, and then there were cars involved. There’s two cars in the video. Frank is very particular about cars and has very specific taste in cars. He was looking for an early ‘90s Chevy Blazer. He sent me a picture of this really beautiful orange Blazer and I’m like, That’s perfect, let’s get that. He was like, ‘It’s Rick Rubin’s, lol.” So apparently it’s Rick Rubin’s car.

After getting precise shots, were you confident everything would sync perfectly onstage? I was super nervous, mainly because I’ve never worked in live TV. The idea that we finish something and still have a bunch of margins for error in front of a live audience was terrifying. There were some technical problems: there was supposed to be a floor panel that showed the road that ended up not working out last-minute. There was a lot of room for human error, Frank’s entrance and exit had to be perfect.

Was Frank nervous? I don’t think so. He rehearsed the hell out of it. Obviously it’s different once you’re in front of a live audience, but he’s not a guy who jumps into something without knowing how it’s gonna go. I’m sure he played it out in his head before he went in there.

After his run in with Chris Brown, Frank wrote on Twitter that he wouldn’t be able to play with both hands at the ceremony. Did you have to modify the performance in any way to accommodate his injury? It definitely did kind of hinder the situation. It’s a sticky area, I shouldn’t say.

Tyler and Earl both joined Frank at the Grammys. What was their mood like during the show? I wasn’t really hanging out on Sunday because I was running around backstage. I do know that those guys are like brothers. They show up at each other’s sets. When we were shooting Earl, Tyler basically crashed our set and came to support him. [At the Grammys] it was sweet to see Tyler sticking his face in the shots and Earl standing up after Frank’s performance. They’re all such different guys but they have genuine mutual respect creatively and more than that, they’re just really tight. Even though they all come from this Odd Future umbrella, they all have very specific taste and want very specific things. I don’t think they’re ever huddled in a circle trying to figure out what each of them should do. They’re all independent and trying to find their own voice, then later on they’ll support each other.

Behind the Scenes of Frank Ocean’s Grammys Performance with Director Hiro Murai