The director of FKA twigs’s “Cellophane” video on the long, painful journey to excellence

Andrew Thomas Huang speaks on working with twigs to create their sensational new music video.

April 29, 2019

Defying gravity is the oldest human fantasy. How do we become like birds when our feet remain rooted in the cold soil? The new FKA twigs video for "Cellophane" articulates this desire with vivid style and precision. The clip opens with a pole dancing routine — a masterful and entrancing display from FKA twigs, who learned the art specifically for the video and practiced for six months before filming. What follows is a dreamlike ascent embodied by a CGI sphinx, a hellish collapse into the ether, and an interplanetary restoration. “Cellophane” comes after FKA twigs’s struggles with fibroid tumors and a very public separation from ex-boyfriend Robert Pattinson, and she’s soared above it all into one of the best music videos of the year.

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Director Andrew Thomas Huang graduated from studying Fine Art and Animation at the University of Southern California, and his short film Doll Face went viral in 2007. His career took off, leading to a meeting with J.J. Abrams and music videos for artists like Sigur Rós and Thom Yorke — but a sharpened voice emerged in 2017: there was the body-splitting music video for "The Gate" from Bjork’s Utopia, the harlequin romance for Perfume Genius’ “Slip Away” clip, and Kelela’s “LMK,” a claustrophobic Matrix-meets-NSYNC mash which is still number one on TRL in the alternate dimension where TRL still exists.

When we spoke over the phone, Huang was recovering from the premiere of his new short film Kiss Of The Rabbit God at the Tribeca Film Festival. Before he makes his move into feature filmmaking, Huang took The FADER behind-the-scenes to describe what it’s like to make yet another career-defining work.

In the behind-the-scenes doc for the “Mutual Core” video, you mention that, for your visual effects workflow, everything has to be planned out.

You have to allocate where and when you want to dump your resources. Do you want to dump it all at the end, so that you really craft it afterwards? Or do you want to put in all that work before and then, so that when you get there you can be spontaneous? The work has to be planned either way. The "Cellophane" video was a rare instance in which both applied, because it's so performance-heavy. I hung out in the studio with her and the choreographer, and the choreographer had their own vocabulary for all the different positions, but we'd be like, "Okay, there's going to be a creature up here at the end of the pole, so what if you do that? At this line, you crumple to the floor, you surrender here, and then you see that it syncs up."

I did a hand-drawn storyboard and CG pre-visualization and showed it to FKA twigs. While she was rehearsing, we'd look at it and be like, "Oh, maybe that moment could connect here," and then I'd go back and revise it. It was a back-and-forth conversation. Once she knew the routines by heart, she could give an emotional performance and we could also do some spontaneous stuff. There are also discoveries that happen when you shoot. She does this crazy contortionist pose on the pole where the camera turns upside down. I didn't know we would do that until I saw the mirrored floor in person, and I was like, "Holy fuck. That's such a beautiful floor. How cool would it be if we see this creature through the reflection?" All the planning helps us discover those things.

FKA twigs has a very vivid and spectacular visual identity. As a visual artist, what's it like working with a musician where that’s centered in everything she does?

It’s a dream. These are the people I want to be working with. A long time ago, I did a pitch for U2, and I was like, "What is U2's aesthetic?" [Laughs] It's pretty much bold typeface. I could distill what I do into world creation. If I know that the artist wants to do that, we're already speaking the same language. Also, FKA twigs [has directed her] videos, so that kept me on my toes while giving us the same mutual trust. We're speaking the same language. It really felt like a true collaboration. It's rare when I'm working with an artist and we’re finishing each other's sentences.

Your videos give me the same feeling as watching Chris Cunningham’s Director’s Label DVD as a teenager.

He was a huge inspiration. Chris's work is more than just sci-fi — it's a contained universe. [The “All Is Full Of Love” video] is certainly sci-fi with two robots making out, but there's something mythic about the way it's staged.

The "Cellophane" video is definitely your meatiest narrative yet. Was that a conscious decision?

Kind of, yeah. Her story was so clear, too. She told me what happened to her for the past few years, and it sounded devastating. She went through a surgery that was pretty intense, as well as the separation with Robert Pattinson and receiving a lot of scrutiny. Artists are operating in a realm of such scarcity that it's easy for them to be, frankly, hateful or envious when someone else does really well. And you know what? It's not their fault. It's the fault of the ecosystem, the industry, their record labels, capitalism. When she was at the height of her success, she faced a lot of bullshit from a lot of people, and it didn't help when her body became ill and she went through the separation. This story that we just did is about someone trying to achieve excellence.The story is quite archetypal. We've all been hit by that truck in some way or another, and that's why people relate to it.

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In many of your music videos you have artists interacting with nature of some sort.

When I do fantasy, I naturally kind of turn to nature as the first form of inspiration. For the cave [in the “Cellophane” video], we were looking at cave pearls as an inspiration. We're in the job of inventing things, and I go back to nature as a starting place. I just knew it had to be a really earthy cave, so I looked for references in nature that felt kind of goopy.

It’s such a stirring image when FKA twigs lands in the cave at the video’s end.

Our production designer was Fiona Crombie — she was Oscar-nominated for her work on The Favourite. She's so humble, but she just brought such high-level game to the set building. It was this gigantic crater, and we were rolling little clay balls and making little rivets, and then we dumped mud in it, and it was cold. It was stressful because it was the last thing we shot, and we were over schedule and FKA twigs was bruised and exhausted from doing pole dance all day.

You can hear her shivering at the end.

She was actually shivering! We definitely had to do some ADR to get the additional sound, but that physicality was all real. Having worked with a lot of dancers, they're athletes that give all of their best work when they first start [the day]. It's so demanding to do what they do. They can't just repeat it all day, and so by the end of the day she was just exhausted. And it frankly worked for our story. Here she is, authentic, broken, and vulnerable, and just her naked.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity

The director of FKA twigs’s “Cellophane” video on the long, painful journey to excellence