Featured Artist #04 – Director and Photographer Ray Kay – Interview

In: Artist Interviews

12 Jul 2006

In 2004, Ray Kay arrived in the States as a music video director determined to make a notch on the bedpost of American pop culture. The Norwegian-born artist had come well-prepared. A large portion of his youth was spent following in the footsteps of a camera-wielding father, mastering the art of taking and developing still images before delving into the world of motion pictures in adulthood.

A year and a half in Norway’s military video department paved the way for a lengthy career in television, where Kay honed his craft by working on everything from entertainment programs to documentaries. Eventually, he parlayed that experience into passion when he began shooting music videos. The shoestring budgets of his early directing days often required Kay to became an on-set everyman, filling the roles of a full crew either single-handedly or with the help of a few close friends. It was through this obligatory additional labor that his distinct, European style was born.

After two years spent earning a reputation as a premier talent in Scandinavia, he joined forces with America’s Robin Frank Management and Rockhard Films. The partnerships proved successful.

To date Ray Kay has managed to infiltrate the tightly woven Hip-Hop and R & B circles, helming on-screen projects for artists like Trick Daddy, Destiny’s Child, Christina Milian, and Frankie J. His most recent conquests include Cassie’s Me & U and Nick Lachey’s What’s Left of Me – each a smash hit video that embodies the cinematic slickness that is Kay’s distinguishing mark. We caught up with him just as the former was being released and learned that, although the details of his upcoming works are still privileged, they are sure to be a testament to his keen eye for stunning visuals and his love of the craft.


video still from Destiny’s Child “Soldier”

What do you feel are the major differences between the musical culture in America and that of your native Norway?

Norway and the rest of Scandinavia is a highly “Americanized” culture. I didn’t think it was going to be a big move when I decided to pack my bags and make America my new home, but I was wrong. It’s very different from Norway. The musical culture is very different, and in the music video scene, the clips definitely reflect the culture, so it seems American videos are often big and colourful – while European videos are often low key and artistic. Being from Europe and working in the US has actually been an advantage for me, since I have an understanding of both cultures – and you can see that duality in my videos. I started out doing colourful videos, but I have lately created a more sophisticated style. I’m taking my art to the next level right now.


stills photo of Cassie for Rap-Up Magazine

Now that you deal in motion pictures, how much do you take still photographs?

Still photography is my background, and it will always be an inspiration for me, therefore my videos are always highly photographic. Lately, I’ve shot some cinematic and dark pieces instead of the colourful videos I was known for earlier in my career. This new artistic approach has lead to a renewed interest in photography and I have lately started shooting stills again. I am building a new career as a photographer on the side of directing. It’s very exciting.


stills photo of video models for FHM Magazine

How did you make the transition from military recruitment films to TV and documentaries? How did you segue into music videos from there?

No one came with job offers for me. They won’t – unless you’ve already proved yourself. I created all the opportunities myself by coming up with ideas and presenting them to various bands that I could get in touch with. I’ve always known that I have both a unique talent and a strong willpower to succeed, so I like to push edges. I always go further than what’s expected of me. It’s the challenges that drive me, and I want to go far…

What was the very first music video that you shot?

The first video I directed on my own was Equicez “Live From Pass-It” in Norway, which was quite an experience. I did everything myself to make it happen – from producing and production managing, to picking up the film at Kodak in Oslo and getting my friend’s uncle’s RV as a motor home. We had a super low budget, and my A.D. was also throwing pizza’s in the oven between takes, to feed the crew. We were shooting in a high-end apartment filled with girls, drugs, celebrities, and a big hip-hop crew that didn’t want to let us do our job. I worked 24/7 for a week to pull it off. It was a total craziness from day 1, and it only got crazier…


video still from Mario “Here I Go Again”

What was your first video shoot in the States?

It was for Shifty (ex CrazyTown). When I arrived at the set in Malibu, I thought I had come to the wrong set. It was huge. Trailer after trailer with equipment, limos, stars etc.. I loved it. I knew I was doing something right at that point. I knew that the craziness I had seen and loved at home in Norway, would continue here; like directing Nick Lachey while paparazzi fly in choppers over the set, showing Ghostface Killah how to fight in front of the camera, shutting down Miami’s South Beach and downtown LA to shoot a video, or having mister “Return of the Mack” himself – Mark Morrison – buy me luxury tickets back and forth across the world to shoot his video. I love doing what I do. But don’t get me wrong – working with this is extremely hard, and there are thousands of people in line waiting to take over my job.


video still from Christina Milian ft Young Jeezy “Say I”

You have on-set experience outside of directing. Despite that, do you ever feel challenged or wonder how you’re going to pull something off when you’re on a shoot?

Directing isn’t a job for me, it’s a lifestyle. And that lifestyle is a constant challenge. Every day when I wake up, I think of ideas. When I go to bed I think of ideas. My mind is constantly working, never relaxing. I’m constantly challenged. Nothing is ever easy. If it was easy, I would be doing something wrong. I have to push the envelope. Everything is a challenge at a shoot. We never have enough time or money to do what I want to do, so I have to find ways around it. But sometimes I get unexpected help, like when I was shooting a video in Harlem and Jay-Z came walking up to the set with total madness going on around him. It seemed like all of NY had come to check this out and the streets were full of people. The police told us we couldn’t use music playback, because they were afraid the crowd would get out of control. However, without playback my scene would be ruined, so Jay-Z told me “Let me see what I can do”. He went over to the cops, smiled and talked for a minute, returned and smiled: “It’s a GO on the music”…


video still from Trick Daddy ft. Lil Kim & Cee-Lo “Suga”

Tell me about this “distinct European touch” you bring to your music videos.

All my videos are highly visual. I’m not sure if it’s a typical European touch per se, but more of a personal style for me. My European background defines me and my style. Some times it’s an advantage to be from another part of the world, because I can see things differently. When we were shooting in Miami’s Liberty City, a very rough hood area, I saw the beauty in this place – the soul in the streets, buildings and people. It was interesting to me, because I’m not used to that back home. When I saw the beauty of these rough textures, others would pick up on it as well. This video was for Trick Daddy, Lil’ Kim and Cee-Lo, and when I watched the Access Granted ‘making of’ program on BET, I saw Trick Daddy saying “That’s the director back there. He’s not from my way, not from your way – he’s from Norway”.


video still from Coree “I don’t give a damn”

Music videos tend to look the same based on the genre. How do you combat that when you shoot?

I agree with you. I hate it when videos come out typical. I always try to come up with something unique, be it a concept, shooting style, color pallet, fashion style, editing, design etc. I have many innovative ideas, but most times you can’t pitch truly unique ideas to clients. Videos are like Mexican food – it’s all the same content, just mixed up differently. That’s what my clients often want too. It has to be something they can recognize and that has been successful in that genre before – only put together differently than other videos.


video still from Duchess “Come Check My Style”

How much say do you have when it comes to artistic direction and storyline in your videos? Do you work with directly with the artist or is there often a liaison?

It’s different from project to project. Some times they love my initial idea and that’s what we shoot. Other times I have to write 15 revisions or rewrites before the artist and label find what they’re looking for. Some times I speak to the label, other times they put me in direct contact with the artist. They usually have a rough brief for what kind of video they want to do, and then I come up with the rest. Some artists like to vibe out the concepts or details together with me – and I love creating ideas with them. Some artists even want to be involved in choosing talent and extras as well; so we narrow the submitted talent pool down from thousands and into the best few, and then we pick the final ones together.


video still from Christina Milian ft Joe Budden “Whatever You Want”

Your list of videos is full of chart-toppers in the hip-hop and R&B market. Have you worked with any artists so far that made you feel star-struck?

No, but I’ve worked with some artists that were star struck when they met me. (laughs)On a serious note, I’ve learnt a lot from working with some of the best selling artists in the world. Understanding their mindset is powerful. They wouldn’t get to where they are without an incredible philosophy on how this art and business works.


video still from the Cassie “Me & U” video

Word on the street is that you shot Cassie’s “Me & U” video.

That’s right. I’ve actually worked with her once before. When I shot Mario’s “Here I go again” video last year, we had the hardest time finding the right lead girl, and we looked at thousands of girls, multiple casting sessions, and had girls flying in from other cities to audition for the role. Finally, we found Cassie – and she did an amazing job in front of the camera. So I already knew she was special. She has that full package that a star needs, and her manager, Tommy Mottola, knows that. Diddy and Mottola, the man behind Mariah Carey, Celine Dion and Jennifer Lopez etc, wanted to create an iconic video. They were telling me about Cassie’s audition tape. It was just her in a dance studio, playing around with some dance moves. But it was really interesting to watch – she had a charisma that shined into the camera. So I told them – why don’t we do a whole video like that? And that’s what we ended up doing. The video shows a day in the life of Cassie as she’s rehearsing her dance moves. It was a hard shoot to do, with all the power players looking over my shoulder, but it went great. In fact, we set up an iSight camera by the monitors, so Diddy could follow the shoot live in NY (the actual shoot was in LA), and at the end of the shoot, I could hear him screaming of joy from the computer. He was really happy with the shoot. I hope this clip will be perceived as iconic as my Destiny’s Child “Soldier” video once some time has passed.


video still from Nick Lachey “What’s Left Of Me”

What are some of your upcoming projects?

My next video is for Nick Lachey – I’m going to create an iconic piece again, a real classic. Unfortunately, I can’t say anything about the project yet, because I’ve signed contracts prohibiting me to talk about this.


video still from Mashonda “Blackout”

Describe your artistic process – from pre-production to executing the actual shots.

-The pre-production is an organic process for me. While the producer gets everything going and the scout looks for potential locations, I start out planning shots, style, lighting, storyline details, fashion etc. When more and more pieces of the production come together, I can finalize the details of my plan. I like to have as much as possible planned out, and I’ve also learned to make backup plans in case the shoot goes wrong. When I’m shooting, I’m very technically involved. I’ll have visual lighting references for the DP (Director of Photography) and I’ll roughly choose the angles and lenses we’ll use. For every shot I tell the artist what we’re doing, and then the 1st AD organizes the extras.

Someone wants to shoot music videos for a living. Give them advice.

No one is going to throw the big jobs at you. To get started, you have to do everything yourself. You’ll learn as you go, and that’s the beauty of film production.


video still from Frankie J “How To Deal”

Do you shoot on video or film? Which do you prefer?

I only shoot 35mm film. For the right project I would consider the newest digital cameras – but it would have to fit the concept.

Name two things that you feel you must accomplish in your career.

Shoot a big US video in Norway. Shoot a big Hollywood movie.


Christina Milian stills photo for DefJam Records, album art work and publicity

Name two things that you feel you must accomplish in your lifetime.

Travel around the world and just be happy.

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Visit Ray Kay’s: Official Site

View Ray Kay’s Videos Over At: R O C K H A R D F I L M S

Check Out Ray Kay on: MySpace

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Interview By Bridget Deenihan

Thank You For Your Support – Amon Focus

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1 Response to Featured Artist #04 – Director and Photographer Ray Kay – Interview

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Richard Murphy

September 14th, 2007 at 1:27 pm

tell artists christina milian and cassie they runnin the shorty dpt. right now.

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Curious Artist aims to find and share the coolest art, most dynamic designs and best resources available to artists on and offline. Artists are encouraged to provide helpful tips on both important aspects of design as well as the business of art in the 21st century. Interviews with artists from around the world and comments inspired by the daily features contribute well to the steadily growing Curious Artist community...Read More.

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