Erik Rojas on making music videos | PA Gallery
Each number, PA Gallery explores the visual culture of music and sheds light on the stories behind iconic music videos and the inspiration for the most memorable photographs.
For Number 394 with Water parks on the cover we connected with Erik Rojas, a Colombian-American music video director known for visually capturing the essence of a song. After graduating from Boston UniversityRojas moved to Los Angeles and landed a job with the prestigious studio A52/Rock paper scissors. From there, he quickly established himself in the industry, working as a cinematographer, director and creative talent. As a music video director, Rojas has already worked with an impressive list of artists, including American teeth, DE’WAYNE, Water parks, Isaac Dunbar, Halo Boy, Jessie J and more.
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Rojas spoke to alternative press about his career and some of his most interesting projects. He spoke to us about his unique journey in directing and his goal of creating an inviting and social atmosphere on set. Rojas took us behind the scenes of Atlantic Hunt‘s”SKY AND BACK”Water parks”’NOT WARRIORS/CRYBABY” and Halo Boy‘s”notoriety.” He also recalled the time he left Herizen Guardiola spray paints his car to create the perfect visual for “Troublemaker.”
Your journey in cinema is unique. How did you end up working in the industry, and what brought you to music videos in particular?
I grew up in a little downtown type place in Massachusetts called Lowell. My father is a Colombian immigrant and my mother from Massachusetts. I messed around with a MiniDV camera I got for my birthday when I was 16, but never really saw anything creative as a career. My mentality was like, “I have to figure out how to support myself.”
I haven’t really been to Boston [University] with the intention of studying cinema. It wasn’t until the second semester of freshman year that a really good friend of mine that I met at BU, Steph Mirskywas like, “Hey, I’m writing this music blog. I can get you a photo pass to take pictures. Back then, dubstep was really big. Rusko was coming to Boston to play a show, and I was like, “Man, do you think I could get a press pass to go cover the show and just watch it?” We both went to Rusko’s show. I’m like, “Fuck, I don’t know what to do.” He says, “Just put it in automatic mode and go into the pit.” There was something really mystical about that, just look through the viewfinder, capture something and see what it looked like on screen. So I saved a lot of money and ended up buying my own camera within six months.
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[By] in second year, I enrolled in a minor-major in cinema/communication. Every waking moment I had, I was teaching myself. I got Premiere and Photoshop and started taking photos and videos. As soon as I graduated, I was able to move [to Los Angeles]. I worked from 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. for a year and a half. I was able to get in touch with one of the Hughes brothers, who made Society Threat II and the book of eli. Albert Hughes took me on his first solo feature he was directing [Alpha], across Canada and Iceland. It was a coincidence because I was 23 and just beginning to realize that I didn’t want to work in post-production. In fact, I wanted to be a director. So I took a crash course [with] this legendary guy, learned all this cinema, this storytelling ability and all that.
As soon as this film ran its course, I dove deep into the craft of independent filmmaking. It was just when I met DE’WAYNE. We made a few videos together, and that led to the Atlantic Hunt video for “Sets off.” That’s what started the snowball. It was two and a half, three years ago. Working with all these different artists, I started to build a voice and a style. It’s funny how these things feed. More and more people within the music community are seeing that they may or may not want to work with me. And then you constantly have new projects coming up. It’s really cool because at the end of the day, you’re a creative. Even if it’s a job, it doesn’t look like it.
I wanted to ask you about the video you shot for Chase Atlantic’s “HEAVEN AND BACK”. The visual has a really special atmosphere. Can you tell us about this project?
It’s an idea that came to my mind one day while we were chilling in a café. What I realize is that I like dark colors. I like cyber feeling stuff like To drive [and] Blade Runner 2049. The overall aesthetic of deep, rich colors is something I’ve unknowingly done a lot. I heard that a lot about the “HEAVEN AND BACK” video, just like the emphasis on colors [and] specifically purple, of course.
I noticed that in a number of your videos you use bright colors, especially strong single colors that really define a shot. Is this intentional for you?
With music videos you have a bit more [opportunity] go to the extreme. I think [Chase Atlantic] also gravitated towards an overall purple palette. I remember this exact shoot. It was one of the first times I worked with DP Mike [Koziel], who is now one of my best friends and one of my constant collaborators. We had other colors in the frame, like two blue spots.
I was like, ‘It’s still not that moody. Let’s just put some gel on it and get this huge light called SkyPanel. Let’s move it to the side and make it purple and blow up the fog machine. I remember seeing the band and all the extras. I was like, “Whoa, that’s it.” Sometimes these spontaneous decisions to go to extremes end up creating something truly memorable. That moment when all the pieces are in play and you can start rolling the music or directing the actors, when the lighting is set and you’ve created a world, there’s a really magical feeling to that. This overall color wash that I’ve done in other videos, I think as a creative you just do things that you gravitate toward.
I also wanted to ask you about the video you made for Waterparks, “NOT WARRIORS/CRYBABY”. This must be one of your most unique projects. Can you tell us about this one?
This video was a collaborative effort between me [and] a director named Joe [Mischo]. Awsten [Knight] writes the treatment. We received an email, I mean a 12-page word document, [and] it was blow for blow. The thing with music videos, especially these days, it’s not like in the 2000s where it’s like, “Here’s a million dollars. Put Akon in a helicopter [and] fly around the city. Due to the different musical environment that we find ourselves in, you have a certain financial ceiling that you have to get creative with in order to work.
I remember during the treatment it was like, “Burnt car, spray paint ‘ENTERTAINMENT’ upside down, all that kind of stuff. And the car must be yellow. I think the producer found a guy on Craigslist who had an old Camry and was like, “I just need to get rid of it.
Obviously, we didn’t tell this gentleman that we were going to destroy him. So we gave baseball bats to the boys. They broke it, it was real glass. I think co-director Joe cut his finger off on it. I still have the Vans slip-on that has a drop of blood on it. The gas can was just water. Everything was super safe in terms of pyrotechnics. This last shot where he is on fire was created entirely in After Effects. Our decorator lit a fire on the ground around them, then in the computer, I put some all over the car. It’s one of my favorite scenes I’ve worked on simply because it was so wild and fun.
The other photo that really stands out is the image of Awsten framed against the floral background. How did you develop the rest of the video?
The name of the DP on who Matt was [Hoodhood]. The production designer, her name is Skye [Prey]. She found all these tapes and everything. We really went into this video because we wanted to make the production value as high as possible. She went all over town to find VHS tapes. It’s really funny because she painted the car. If you look very closely, it’s his hand going through the pillow in the first half. If you pause you can see that some of the paint is on his hand after painting the car that day.
Then we shot the bathroom scene. It was DE’WAYNE’s shower, and we were like, “Man, you should get in the shower and get in the water.” The story is not necessarily concrete, but in the Waterparks universe, everything makes sense. The wonder of working with different musicians is that for a video, you are part of their creativity. You are part of their world that they created.
Changing gears a bit, I wanted to ask you about your video to Herizen‘s “Troublemaker”. It’s a fun but simple video compared to some of your other projects. How was this project born and what was your goal?
It was just over the Internet. Their manager contacted me and said, “We would love to work with you.” It’s another thing where they have an idea, [and it’s like], “How can we figure out how to do this idea with the budget?” I’m not the type of person who makes these low budget videos all the time. With people I’m friends with or believe in the project, that’s one thing. Because it is very easy to burn out.
[Herizen Guardiola] is an actor at the same time as being a musician. His on-camera presence was amazing, and just in general, he’s a very strong and powerful personality. She knew exactly what she wanted to look like in that video and everything. So basically the “Troublemaker” concept was just doing some punky shit in a pool, just a day hanging out with skateboarders and our homies.
The last video I wanted to tell you about is “Fame” by Halo Boy. It has that great industrial feel back. What was the purpose of this project?
For this video, we did it in 4:3, which is a square format, and it was super 90s inspired. We did something where the song plays at 50%. There are these five-and-a-half-minute takes where he sings in slow motion, but when you do the speed ramp in post, it’s like he’s shaking and going crazy. We did a lot of super high key lighting, [and] we had an egg chair, which is this wild chair that I think was in men in black. Halo Boy has these black sclera contacts. We filmed in night vision, then I took a bunch of photos, and we just had a day in the field.