Vulture Talks to the Director of Kanye’s ‘Power’

Premiering tonight after a brand-new Jersey Shore (yay!) is Kanye West’s much-anticipated music video for “Power.” Only, according to Kanye, it’s “not a video … it’s a painting.” Confused as to what the hell that means, we got the creator, Marco Brambilla, on the phone this afternoon to discuss the process and inspiration behind the piece. Brambilla is a multimedia artist whom you may recognize from his trippy Civilization installation at the Standard Hotel (that’s how Kanye found out about him) or for his less-trippy, but no less awesome piece Demolition Man (no, seriously, he directed Demolition Man). For more, be on the lookout for Brambilla’s 2011 retrospective at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and check out his gallery, Christopher Grimes. Do that after you read our interview, though.

So what exactly is the piece?
Well, it’s a video portrait of Kanye. It starts with a very tight shot introducing him that’s kind of a reinvention of a neoclassical painting. It pulls back from the shot, without any cuts, and we reveal the video canvas, populated by all these characters who are depicted in various stages of undress and decadence. The iconography comes from Roman iconography, Renaissance iconography, and it connects to the sexuality of the music as well. As we reveal the setting for it, there’s a feeling of a moment of transition for him. A fall from grace, if you will. It visualizes power, and him as the icon as power, and then at the end of the piece it challenges the power that I set up at the beginning. It’s an elliptical piece of storytelling.

How did you guys end up using that kind of imagery?
He approached me via my gallery and he wanted to do something that wasn’t a music video. He wanted a video work that would accompany the music. I said, “That’s great, because I don’t do music videos.” I wanted to give it an epic feeling. The song feels very personal, but the orchestration and the production of the track is epic and I wanted to give it something hypersensational and exaggerated.

Kanye had laid low after the Taylor Swift incident, and I think people expected him to come back a bit humbled. Were you surprised that he wanted to do something this over-the-top?
That’s exactly what I like about his music. It’s the anti–Tiger Woods moment, you know? This piece is really about that. The new album is very personal, too, and the various tracks on the album suggest things that have happened to him. This is the most epic track. It was a really great opportunity to show a moment of defiance and a moment of self-awareness. It’s that combination that he has as an artist that’s very peculiar.

When did the actual production take place?
We started about a month ago on the photography. It took quite a long time in postproduction to put together. All the multi-layered imagery was very complicated. We used everything from 3-D graphics programs to this thing called “The Flame” that’s used for feature films. It’s basically a compassing tool; it’s very much like how Photoshop works for stills. In fact, I put the images together in Photoshop first and we translated that to motion footage. We used every conceivable leading-edge tool that’s at an artists’ disposal.

How much input did Kanye have?
In preproduction, we had a lot of brainstorming sessions. Once we started production it became about how to execute it, so it was mostly in my studio and working with my postproduction people.

So what’s Kanye like in real life?
He has a charisma to him which is really compelling. Creatively, he really wants to take chances. He let me go as far as I wanted to go. It wasn’t like working with a music act or a video commissioned from a record label. He really thinks like an artist: The conversations were based on visual references, music references, and very little to do with the business side, the marketing side. As a musician, he expresses himself as an artist.

Have you been following his Twitter?
I heard he just started, recently. I heard it’s really gotten an amazing following. What’s it like?

He tweets about Persian rugs with cherub imagery and stuff like that.
Oh yeah, he told me about that one. That’s very much how he is. He has a very kind of hyperactive thirst for things.

The piece is premiering tonight after Jersey Shore. Any thoughts on the association between the two?
I didn’t know what Jersey Shore was until they told me. I guess whatever gets people to look at it. It’s not like a gallery show; once I made it, I don’t have control.

You’ve said you’re expecting a bit of controversy from the piece. Are you gearing yourself up to defend it?
Look, I think it’s a very honest piece. It’s definitely larger-than-life and it’s definitely a strong kind of statement, and it ties into his persona and it ties into his reputation and everything else that will be commented on will be commented on through the filter of how people perceive his persona … he’s brash, and uncensored, but it has a self-awareness. And it’s not just constructed. A lot of very popular mainstream artists are products of record companies and marketing companies, and any time anyone can stand outside of that, that’s interesting. He’s one of the few people left that’s making work that he believes in.

Do you have anything else planned with Kanye?
We’re talking about it. We’re talking about doing more projects.

And I understand you’ve heard that Dark Twisted Fantasy is the name of the album?
I’ve heard that’s the latest name. I would say not locked-in, and it would probably not get locked until closer to the time of the album release.

Lastly, you directed Demolition Man. That is a great movie! What do you think about it now?
My personal vision isn’t really represented by a big Hollywood movie like that, but technically I was able to learn a lot making more commercial work. A movie like Demolition Man, we broke a lot of ground at the time. Since, my focus kind of easily shifted to doing artwork.

Vulture Talks to the Director of Kanye’s ‘Power’