Andrew Thomas Huang on How Art School Grads Can Navigate the Industry

The artist and film director discusses working with Björk, and his best advice for art school students graduating from college during an unprecedented year.

A nine-part collage with screenshot from films by Andrew Thomas Huang
Stills from the works of director Andrew Thomas Huang, collage by W magazine.

Welcome to Ways of Seeing, an interview series that highlights outstanding talent in photography and film—the people behind the camera whose work you should be watching. In this week’s edition, senior content editor Michael Beckert chats with Andrew Thomas Huang, who has made music videos for Björk, FKA Twigs, Kelela, and more.

I saw during quarantine that you released a portrait series in collaboration with Google Creator Labs. Can you tell me more about that?

I’ve been working on some projects that involve heritage exploration and I’ve also been working on a feature film in a similar vein. The first piece I did with Google’s Creator Labs was a proof of concept for that film. Google came back around earlier this year and wanted to work on something else, but this time just still photographs. I was thinking of ideas for the portrait series, and last year I made a film that explored queer Asian sexuality, which is a really broad demographic to talk about. For this project, I was thinking that there are a lot of queer women and non-binary trans folks whom I’d like to pay homage to and portraitize in an interesting way. I decided to specifically focus on queer people of Chinese American descent and picked these three models—it became a very DIY portrait project. We ended up shooting it a week before the lockdown here in Los Angeles. I just finished the photographs in April and then I just sort of sat on them for a while because there was one crisis after another. I think it’s difficult for a lot of artists to navigate when it’s appropriate to release what and when right now, especially because social media is sort of our income source and portfolio, and it’s also a social activist tool.

Photographs by Andrew Thomas Huang, created in partnership with Google’s Creators Lab. All images shot using a Google Pixel.

When you’re posting work, it can feel like you’re shining a light on yourself, but you’re also shining a light on your collaborators, and whatever it is that your work discusses.

I remember being young and in art school and feeling like sharing work was bragging. It felt awkward publicizing my work because it felt self-ingratiating. But you’re right, we make art in order to share it and sharing it is also an act of generosity.

Going back to your Google project, it was really interesting to see you working with still photography for this. I know you have a background in drawing and painting, but then you moved into visual effects and of course directing films, which you’re best known for. What is your relationship to the idea of medium? Have you ever felt pressured to just be really good at one thing?

That’s a great question. I did an animation internship at Sony image works the summer of my sophomore year of college. They were making the Spiderman movies at the time, and I was learning how to work in an animation pipeline at a large company. Honestly that was where some of my best animation training came from. At the same time, I was making my first film and it was mixed media, so it was like I shot it, and it had some live-action elements, but I was also doing all of the visual effects for it. One day at Sony this HR person looked at the project and was like “… so what do you want to do? Like, do you want to be a rigger and animator or lighter or a renderer or a modeler? Like tell me, cause you gotta pick one.” I was really kind of miffed by that cause I was like, “I don’t, I enjoy doing, I enjoy dabbling. I enjoy being part of a holistic process.” Looking back, he was basically saying, Where am I going to plug you into my system? That was his job, so there wasn’t anything wrong with that. But I think by asking me that question, he forced me to recognize that I do enjoy working on a more indie level because when you work on a smaller level, you are in charge of the whole project. Whereas when you work at a large company, things become regimented. I decided early on that I didn’t want to be restricted.

There can be a downside to that too, though. I think the more you take on the more responsibility you have. We live in this age of the polymath. Everyone is kind of everything. But I do think that spreading yourself thin is a real thing. If we’re going to talk strictly in terms of the business of your career, as an artist, people like to know what you are. Are you a musician? Are you a filmmaker? I don’t think anyone as an artist should limit themselves as a brand, but you have to pick your battles because let’s definitely not underestimate what it takes to form a fashion line or to form a pop career.

Even your story about interning at Sony as an art student, with a corporation trying to put you in one spot, demonstrates the realities of capitalism. They didn’t do anything wrong, it’s just that the system isn’t designed for you to be great at everything. For most younger artists, it’s probably best to specialize in one medium and become great at it.

I guess I should speak for myself. I think I had two moments of clear decision-making when I was like 13, when I had already started dabbling in virtual effects. I spoke to an HR woman at an effects house. At the time she was like “Look, if you want to get into this, then you really need to learn how to draw the human figure. Learn to do it really well. The technology is always going to change, so that skill is crucial.” And at that time I already liked drawing and painting, but I hadn’t taken those courses. So at a certain point I was just like, “I want to draw like Michelangelo.” I wanted to learn to draw the human figure that well.

I set out to master something specific and I got to the point where I was like, “I understand how this works now, and if I really want to pursue it, I could either keep pursuing it or I could use these skills toward other things.” So at that point I did, like you said, commit myself to a specific discipline and saw it through to the end of the line before I started branching out. I do advise people to pick something and master a discipline, because what we do is ultimately craft-driven. Once you learn that discipline, you can apply the discipline to anything and experiment.

The second decision I made was what creative direction I wanted to take. That was after directing for a period of time. I was just looking back at other filmmakers who I admired—the ones who didn’t fit into a particular category.

When you’re diving into something new like narrative for the first time, I wonder if fear ever plays into your process? Does it hold you back or motivate you?

I’m constantly terrified. At a certain point as an artist you face the fear of failing publicly. The truth is that, as artists, most of the work we make is bad. I’ve made more music videos than I share—I’ve actually done quite a lot that I buried intentionally or took my name off of. When you look at any artist’s career, you’ll see that they’ve done a lot of things you wouldn’t know about. We all have to fail in order to learn and then pick the successes. Either way you’re learning from the bad projects and the good ones. In the case of Kiss of the Rabbit God, I was afraid of delving into some really personal material about confronting my racial identity, my ethnic identity, working with Asian actors and writing a narrative. It just so happened that I released that video just after the FKA Twigs video. it was this really fortuitous moment of releasing these two films at the same time, but it was also very scary. I knew that the FKA Twigs video would be well-received because it was a magic moment when Twigs and I gelled really well. It totally worked. With Kiss of the Rabbit God, it was just more of a risk. Every artist is afraid. The difference is that there are artists that are persistent and keep doing it, and those who don’t. As artists you generally have to get comfortable with sitting in discomfort.

Tell me a bit more about your collaborators. You worked with the cinematographer Rina Yang on Kiss of the Rabbit God. What was that like?

My first collaboration with her was a music video for Kelela. We did that in London. I’ve always known Rina’s work, and I was always a fan, but working with her that first time was just incredible. She has the best demeanor. It’s really effortless leadership. She also has this really intuitive color sense.

I knew I wanted to work with her on this film because she’s so fantastic and such a good collaborator. I had seen so many immigrant-coming-of-age films, and they always feel more like realism—but I wanted this to look glossy, really thick and rich. With Rina’s background as a commercial music video DP I knew she’d be able to make each shot look so delicious.

There’s this scene in Kiss of the Rabbit God, at the very end, where the main character is cutting himself. It’s this really sensual scene, but emotionally, it felt like the main character was bearing the burden of the Rabbit God. The cutting seemed to symbolize their shared existence as gay men. It was particularly bloody, but somehow so innocent, too.

I am actually really squeamish about blood. I hate violence in movies. I also definitely do not advocate for self-harm and it was not meant to be about that at all. Nowness approached me to make a film about sex, because they were doing this series called Defined Sex. I come from a very Puritan, Christian household. I mean, I’m not religious anymore, but I guess based on my race and my upbringing, I just tend to be very buttoned up about that kind of thing. And so I was like, what do I shoot? How do I portray sex in a way that I find interesting? That ending scene you’re talking about was one of the first ones that came to mind. One of my other ideas was actually of this scene with two guys and their pubes were braided together. I just knew that there had to be this intertwining of some sort, and I knew that I wanted that scene to be the sex scene. But I wanted to show a sex scene in a symbolic way.

Scene from Andrew Thomas Huang’s film, Kiss of the Rabbit God.

I guess this is a very personal, but I’ve always had my own hangups around sex and feeling truly embodied in that moment of connecting with someone—and here’s a character who feels disembodied, he’s a slave to his work. Asian guys are hyposexualized, and the effect that has had on me personally is that I feel like a ghost sometimes. How do I portray a character suddenly feeling embodied for the first time? In order to reclaim his flesh, he has to transgress it, and so to transgress it is to cut it open. There is this reclaiming of heritage there.

I don’t speak my parents’ language—my parents didn’t want me to. It’s a shame and it’s a total loss. I think that is probably the single most disappointing thing that I’ve lost from my culture. The only thing I have is my flesh and blood. And here’s a character who is claiming just that. The symbol on his pelvis is the double happiness symbol, which typically is a symbol for love.

Scene from Andrew Thomas Huang’s film, Kiss of the Rabbit God.

I wanted to hear more about your relationship to music, since that’s your foundation, in music videos. The one that stands out the most to me, actually, is the LMK video for Kelela, because it was the first where you didn’t use VFX.

I’m glad you caught that. Not relying on VFX was a very conscious goal. I learned a lot from Kelela in my conversations with her. She and I would talk for a long time about costume and how styling is really the video. When you look at icons like Janet Jackson and Missy Elliott, there are no tricks in their videos. It’s just looks they’re wearing are so iconic that people will remember them.

There’s also the box you built for this video, which feels very Missy Elliott and installation art-inspired.

Yeah Hype Williams, who did all of her videos—this was very much an homage to him. He’s really a genius and a pioneer. I also tried to make sure that there still was a progression. There’s a theme, which is her with these different guises and wigs. If I hadn’t done that video with Kelela, I couldn’t have done Rabbit God. Working with Kelela taught me a lot about performance as it relates to musicians. It was just another lesson in protecting performance and protecting that which made her feel comfortable.

I was wondering if visually you relate to this idea of apotheosis, because I see it in almost all of your work, and definitely in this Kelela video, particularly at the end when everyone’s wearing white.

Honestly, I just Googled what apotheosis was, but I think you hit something that I really appreciate because maybe I am a bit of a traditionalist in that I really believe in a beginning, middle, and an end. I believe that things should have three acts. We all live for that third act where everything sort of culminates. There’s some art that’s especially subversive art—it always challenges that idea that there’s a payoff. Even though you might call my work experimental at times, I feel like I still believe in a certain degree of accessibility because I really believe, especially now, while the world burns, making images is so expensive, it’s very resource-intensive. So if you’re going to make something, you better make someone laugh or cry or feel good. There’s gotta be a pay off, otherwise. When I come up with an idea, I think of what effect I want, or what emotion I want to elicit. Then I try to reverse-engineer the whole thing to get to that point, similar to The Rabbit God. I had that ending in mind from the start. So how do I get there in a way that earns it?

I think a lot about how just painful and technical and unsatisfying it is to capture and create that thing you wanted to make. There’s that feeling you have when you’re so inspired, and then you sit down to make it, and it’s just crap. The whole reason we make art though is to sort of earn that feeling of apotheosis. Art just isn’t always cathartic though, even if you want it to be or think it should be.

Still from Kelela’s music video for LMK, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang.

Backtracking a bit, I know you went to USC to study art. There are a lot of art majors who just graduated into a difficult and unprecedented economy. What did the first couple years of post-grad life look like for you?

My heart goes out to everyone graduating; I honestly feel bad for anyone who’s young right now. I had a weird experience, because I released my first short film when I was a junior in college. I sent it to festivals, and then I released it online on YouTube, but this was back when YouTube only featured five videos a week. So the video went viral, and then when I got out of school my first phone call was from J.J. Abrams’s office. I was terrified. I don’t think I left a great impression, honestly—I didn’t really know how to handle myself in those situations back then. Nothing but encouragement really came out of that, but that was really valuable at the time. I also was approached by a lot of these agencies and production companies, but really I didn’t know what any of these things were. I didn’t understand what a production company really was. All I knew was that I could start and finish a five minute short film. I wanted to do features, that was always the goal, but I wasn’t a writer. At the time I wasn’t really capable, and quite frankly, had not lived enough to write. I was very impressionable and took everyone’s advice—and that advice was to do anything and everything.

It was a tough time because it was the recession, and I didn’t really have a reel. I ended up directing baby food commercials and some really bad regional car commercials. Really forgettable work—but it taught me how to be prolific and how to handle clients. I do think there is some value to just working to work, but I do think you will reach a turning point when you’ll really evaluate. At that point you’ll know how to pay your bills, but you’ll wonder, what do I really want to do? My best advice is that when you come out of college, be patient. You likely will not land your dream job, especially now. Being able to pay your own bills and survive is its own accomplishment—that’s a big deal. There will come a point, though, when you realize that the things you say no to are just as important as the things you say yes to. You have to decide how you want to spend your time. It’s an everyday choice to touch your art, and to touch your work. It’s an everyday choice to ignore your work as well.

I remember reading once that if you have something you really care about, like a passion project, it’ll always be the least urgent thing in your life. The most urgent thing in your life will always be the pay-the-bills stuff, which requires your attention right away. So you should try to do the most important things in your life in the morning, for thirty minutes, before you do anything else, because at least your work is progressing in some way.

What are you most proud of at this point in your career?

I’m just grateful I can do this. Sometimes I still pinch myself. I feel so privileged to even do this at all. I do think that for me, Rabbit God, I’m most proud of on a personal level. Cellophane I’m most proud of on a technical level.

Still from FKA Twigs music video for Cellophane, directed by Andrew Thomas Huang.

I guess I’m just grateful that I can even have the privilege of having a voice. As artists we all want to be recognized, but it just doesn’t happen for most people. The majority of artists die feeling unseen. I’m so grateful for the opportunities that have come to me, and to have had the chance to learn about art as a young person.

How do you stay energized and focused through all of this?

I think my focus really comes from my mom. Something about my mom’s side of the family…we’re all a little crazy. Honestly, I’m a workaholic, and it can be really toxic, actually. I’ve burnt myself out so many times and treated my body really poorly in this big pursuit of art, especially in my 20s. Now that I’m older, I’ve gotten better at not taking everything so seriously, but earlier on, each project felt like life or death. I’d also say that I just have to do this—because it’s a type of survival. I need to make this work to live. Looking at my family and looking at where I come from, and my identity, I think that keeps me going. Realizing that I’m doing this for something much greater than myself.

Related: How CANADA’s Nicolás Méndez Makes Art With Music Videos