Sammy Rawal's journey from making videos for Metric and AlunaGeorge to GIF art

Meet this week's Exhibitionist in Residence, music-video director Sammy Rawal

Keita Juma - Come Over

A still from Keita Juma's video for "Come Over," directed by this week's Exhibitionist in Residence, Sammy Rawal. (Screen capture)



Whether it's because our attention span has shrunk from three minutes to three seconds, or because we prefer wasting time on Tumblr over YouTube, have we reached the point where GIFs could replace the music video?

"He kind of just smiled and all I said was, 'Trust me.'" - Video director Sammy Rawal on how he convinced an artist to let him do his thing

For her new album, Psychic Materials, Casey Mecija  — as in CBC Radio's Casey Mecija — recruited filmmaker Sammy Rawal to create twitchy animated loops for every track, GIFs that will not only be projected during the Art Gallery of Ontario's monthly First Thursday party in Toronto on Feb. 4, they'll also be aired by us on Sunday's episode of Exhibitionists.

A video posted by caseymecija (@caseymecija) on

A video posted by S A M M Y (@sammyrawal) on


"The idea of doing really short-format visuals for her album was really exciting for me," Rawal tells CBC Arts. "With music videos you have to really think about coverage, camera movement, storytelling and editing. GIFs are short and sweet… but just as cinematic."

Raised in Vancouver, and now based in Toronto, Rawal's earned acclaim for his work as a photographer and a DJ. (As one of the party-starters behind Toronto event Yes Yes Y'all, Rawal's been bridging the local hip-hop and queer communities since 2009.) But it's his music videos that have sealed his reputation as an artist to watch. There's been dancing in music videos since before the MTV astronaut first walked on the moon, but there's something special about the way Rawal captures mind-blowing human movement, dropping bombs of colour and creativity along the way. And he remembers the exact moment he decided to become a music video director, an epiphany that's about as CanCon as it comes.

In his youth, Rawal watched a lot of MuchMusic — specifically The New Music and The Wedge, just like the rest of his fellow '90s kids. But then he caught an interview with Toronto director Floria Sigismondi. She made "Little Wonder" for David Bowie and "The Beautiful People" for Marilyn Manson, two of Rawal's faves at the time. "After watching an interview [with her], I remember consciously knowing that directing music videos was what I wanted to do."

Over the last few years, Rawal has made videos for everyone from The New Pornographers to Matthew Progress. CBC Arts asked him to share his top 3 with you.

Keita Juma - Come Over Ft. Brendan Philip


"This video really represents me and my aesthetic — the type of music I would normally listen to and the way I would normally dress," Rawal says, commenting on his dark and otherworldly clip for Mississauga MC Keita Juma.

Shot on a cold November night, Rawal says his objective was simple: "I knew I wanted to create a dance video that didn't feel like a dance video at first look. Instead of choreographed movement, I wanted things to feel really raw and alive. I loved the idea of taking a movement such as moshing and subverting it by placing it against a house/hip hop track."

"KJ really entrusted me with my seemingly weird ideas and never second guessed them. I remember looking over at him at one point during the shoot as I was throwing big boulders into the water and recording the splashes they created," an effect Rawal ultimately synched to the beat of the track. "He kind of just smiled and all I said was 'trust me.'"

AlunaGeorge - You Know You Like It

It was a grand day out — "just kicking it at an abandoned pool, looking great and being youthful" with a UK pop star. Who wouldn't love that assignment, even if the shot list, per Rawal, was unusually intense for a single day of filming? "I drew a lot of inspiration from iconic '90s R&B videos, specifically Aaliyah's 'Try Again' video and Jade's 'Don't Walk Away,' he says of the clip, which was filmed outside London. 

"My favourite moment of the video would have to be the wide coverage of Aluna in her all-white mesh outfit just freestyling in front of camera as it dollies side-to-side.  I love the light hitting her, her movement and her styling. It just feels really fresh to me." 

On set with @alunageorge and some of the most amazing dancers earlier today

A photo posted by S A M M Y (@sammyrawal) on

Metric - Lost Kitten

"I picked this one mainly because it was a magical experience," says Rawal, who shot around Mexico City for two days, filming his friend, dancer Sheldon McIntosh, while exploring the region's ancient canals.

"I took the framework of The Odyssey and made a queer adaptation of it," Rawal explains, and in the video, McIntosh is our hero. At first lost and lonely in the city streets, his quest eventually takes him to the river — which is where the video reaches its climax, a "brilliant vogue performance" on a boat, as the dancer sails toward his mother's arms.

"The biggest challenge while making it was creating the narrative," Rawal says."The concept was already pretty out there and I knew a lot of people wouldn't 'get' it. But it was still important for me to tell the story right...as seemingly odd as some might think it is."

Sneak peek at the new metric video I directed in Mexico City

A photo posted by S A M M Y (@sammyrawal) on

Want more from Sammy Rawal? Visit his website, and watch Exhibitionists online or Sunday at 4:30 (5pm NT) on CBC Television.

Are you our next Exhibitionist in Residence? E-mail CBC Arts and your work could appear on the next episode!

Exhibitionists, where Canadian artists reshape our country's artistic landscape

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