When shooting Miguel‘s candlelit video for “Remember Me,” on the soundtrack of the new animated feature “Coco,” Disney knew just the director to work with: music video expert Aya Tanimura.
Aya’s vision seamlessly weaves together the animated and live-action worlds, melding the aesthetics of the two into a dreamy final product. No stranger to work that hybridizes cartoon and reality, Aya’s touch helps to create an intimate and heartfelt (yet still playful) video.
Aya Tanimura (London Alley) is a director whose work captivates no matter the genre. A self-described chameleon, Tanimura’s passions are eclectic. She’s an animal advocate, an abstract painter and a member of Mensa. An Angelino since 2004, she was born in Hong Kong, and raised in Switzerland, Japan and Australia. Tanimura has directed music videos for Katy Perry, LunchMoney Lewis, Bea Miller, Rozzi Crane, The Heydaze, Pitbull and Ferras, and commercials for Staples, Pepsi Max and Sprint.
We got to chat with Aya about re-organizing Russell Brand‘s house, hiding family heirlooms in her work, and being the first female Boy Scout in Australia (really!), among many other things.
Your latest music video for Miguel (ft. Natalia Lafourcade) was created to accompany Disney’s Coco. Can you tell us about the process of creating it – from your initial steps through to the finished product?
I have worked with Disney a lot since I started directing – they took a chance on me when I had nothing on my reel and have been extremely supportive of me ever since. I did the official music video for Moana with Alessia Cara, so when the Coco video came about the commissioner, Craig Cox, called me and single-bid me for the job. He told me what the studio was looking for and screened the movie for me.
Given the budget, timeline (an INSANE turnaround) and artists’ schedules, I came up with a very simple concept that would work well being intercut with the animated footage. The concept then went through rounds of notes from various department heads and, most importantly, the cultural liaison, who was hired specifically to make sure we were being sensitive to Mexican culture and heritage. It was then a matter of finding the right crew, shooting it in your typical insane music video schedule and then turning it around in a week in post!
What was it like to work with Miguel? Was this the first time you have gotten to work with him?
I had never worked with Miguel before, but he was actually on my list of artists I wanted to work with. He is one of those rare people that show up with no ego, entourage or attitude – a consummate professional and collaborator. I hope that we get to work together again!
What elements of this project felt especially “Aya”?
I do this thing in most of my videos where I put in little Easter eggs for my family. For this particular video, all the artwork used for set dressing were created by my sister, brother and nephew. The notecard that is on the mirror where Natalia sits is a letter my mother wrote to me when I first started directing full-time and was scared out of my mind about my financial situation. In the note my mother reassures me that it is all going to be okay. There is also a French bulldog made out of eggs that my ex made me for Easter a few years ago, a crocheted blanket that my great-grandmother made, as well as a few things that I created for the set.
Were there any unique challenges or joys of working on this particular video?
I recently changed production companies – I moved from RSA over to London Alley. So this was my first project with London Alley, and every single crew member was brand new too. I usually work with the same people all the time, so I was a little nervous not to be with my familiar faces, but they were all amazing (phew!)
Also, when you work with a studio, two big artists and a record label, then throw in a cultural liaison, there are a lot of people you have to answer to. Normally dealing with an artist, management, label and commissioner is crazy enough, but on these movie tie-in videos it takes crazy to a whole new level. But it also makes it all the more satisfying when you can get everyone on the same page and loving what you are creating.
You’re a music video pro – you’ve shot videos for Alessia Cara, Charlie Puth, and multiple videos for Katy Perry. How did you initially begin making music videos? Is it something you were always interested in?
Never in my life did music videos enter my mind as something I would be doing. I studied film in college and was always making movies growing up, but they were all narrative pieces with dialogue. I really stumbled into music videos.
I had just finished making a doc with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on the US public education system and was BROKE (as in a-few-days-away-from-being-homeless broke!) A friend was Russell Brand’s assistant at the time, and Russ had just moved into a house with his then-girlfriend Katy Perry (stay with me…this story does lead somewhere!) My friend hooked me up with two weeks of work, which consisted of organizing their new house. I am Type A, anal retentive, and my house is organized like a museum, so this was right up my alley. I did the job, which enabled me to pay my rent and in the process become friends with Katy Perry. A year or so later, Katy was just finishing her Prism album and had watched my short films, so when it was time to launch her first single she asked me if I would like to do the lyric video for it. I had no idea what a lyric video was but said yes (then googled what a lyric video was) and pitched her creating one that was all made out of emojis, which she thought was great.
Capitol Records gave me a budget of $2K (all of which I spent paying an animator) and I made that video, which went viral. I was then asked to do the lyric video for her next single, Unconditionally, as well as Birthday. It was off the success of those videos that got signed to RSA, and that’s how my career in music videos started.
What are your personal career highlights, either pieces of work or moments?
I think I’m still waiting for a highlight moment, to be honest! I feel like I’m just starting and have a long way to go in terms of my directing career, but am excited for what the future holds.
Are there any artists who you’d love to have the opportunity to work with?
My list is so long! St. Vincent, Kanye West, HAIM, Missy Elliott, Rich Chigga, Maggie Rogers, Björk, M83, Pharrell Williams, Dua Lipa, Rihanna, Carly Rae Jepsen, Selena Gomez, Kendrick Lamar, Lorde, Tyler, The Creator, MIA, Grimes… I could go on and on!
Would you say that you have personal hallmarks to your work, or is your approach more adaptive from project to project?
I think I am a bit of a chameleon. If you look at my reel it ranges from slapstick comedy all the way to editorial/beauty, but I think there is a controlled aesthetic that runs through it all that makes it very me.
Have you had the opportunity to work with other amazing women throughout your career? Are there badass women in behind the scenes roles that you’d like to give a shoutout to?
When I first moved to LA I was assisting producers on features, and was always surrounded by men. The only exception was when I worked on Inception. Emma Thomas was producing, and it was so amazing having her on set. Watch the way she juggled being the boss, dealing with gruelling set hours and raising a family of four at the same time was awe-inspiring. She was and remains to this day someone I really look up to.
Once I started directing I worked a lot with two female DPs, Polly Morgan and Quyen Tran, who are both BADASSES (in capital letters!) Both of them are so damn talented that they were snatched up very quickly by the feature world, so these days it’s hard for me to pin them down for music videos. But I love them, both as humans and as extremely talented DPs, and when it comes time to make my first feature I hope that one of them will be alongside me!
Do you find any major differences between working on music video and commercial jobs? Can you take us through your experience of the hiring process for each?
I think the music video world is light years ahead of the commercial world in terms of hiring female directors. I like to think that it really does come down to whoever has the best concept – although I have had a few experiences in the music video world where I have won a job, only to lose it once the artist found out I was a woman. I guess a lot of people don’t know that Aya is a woman’s name and just assume I’m a man. I had one instance where a manager told me they wanted to purchase my concept but not have me direct because the artist felt uncomfortable being told what to do by a woman! But I digress.
I think in the commercial world, there is a lot more money on the line and people get scared to take risks. A director needs to have been tried and tested before the client will even take a look at them, and sadly, because it has been a male-dominated industry for so many years, a lot of female directors don’t have the reels needed to even be considered to bid on a job and are therefore out of the running before they even have the opportunity to write. I think things are slowly changing, but it’s a lot more difficult to land a job in the commercial world with a limited reel than it is in music videos.
That said, once the job is awarded the process of shooting is pretty similar. The major difference is that commercials have a lot more money, which means more time to shoot, a more robust crew and nicer catering!
What are some long term goals for you? Do you ever see yourself branching out into feature-length narrative or documentary film?
YES! I set out to make features and got sidetracked along the way, but I’m so hungry to shoot a narrative piece. I am also interested in getting into episodic and will be shadowing a director on a few episodes in the coming months so that I know the process from start to finish.
Free The Bid is committed to advocating for diverse perspectives and points of view. What do you think are some of the benefits to diverse representation on both sides of the camera lens?
Growing up, all my on-screen heroes, all the people I wanted to be, were men – from Bastian in The NeverEnding Story to Maverick in Top Gun. This didn’t seem strange to me, as my world was filled with men. (Side note: I was the first female Boy Scout in Australia in the late ’80s.) It never even occurred to me that seeing someone like me onscreen was an option, and therefore my worldview was that I could never be the badass characters I loved so dearly. This is a fucked-up way to grow up!
So much of what we think as children and young adults is constructed by the media we consume. If those media consist only of white male protagonists and you are not a white man, then you subconsciously start thinking you cannot become certain things – or, even worse, that you don’t matter. I don’t want any marginalized group of people growing up thinking they don’t matter. I want Asian boys to know they can be a leading man and a love interest; I want African-American girls to know they can be lead lawyers; I want LGBTQ kids to know they can be president; I want Latina girls to know they can be superheroes. And the only way to shift this paradigm is to be more inclusive with who is creating content.
Any final words for our Free The Bid family? Advice for aspiring women directors?
I am so glad that Free The Bid exists and that people are fighting the good fight for diversity and equality. There is strength in numbers, and I get so excited to see how many people want to help, support, encourage, mentor and aid women in getting their foot in the door.
When I look back at my journey, with each stride I have made there has been someone who has enabled me to take that step. You need someone to vouch for you, to believe in you, to give you that opportunity, to show what you can do. Without that person, you often stay stagnant, and I think Free The Bid is going to open a lot of doors for a lot of women who would normally have been shut out.
For all aspiring women directors out there, my advice would be to keep creating and keep honing your craft! I really hate the saying “Fake it ’til you make it.” I’ve never understood it. Don’t fake it! Learn your craft, love your craft, be the best at it, and that’s how you’ll make it (along with a little help from your friends at Free The Bid!)