Luke Norris

Behind the Lens With BRTHR

Luke Norris
Behind the Lens With BRTHR

There’s an iconic scene in The Matrix in which Neo, after his eyes convulse for a few seconds, learns the entire discipline of kung fu. Can you imagine the thrill of absorbing that much information—not a mere concept, but its infinite subtleties—instantaneously? Well, that’s what it’s like watching a music video by BRTHR. “If you were to stop one of our videos at any time,” Kyle Wightman explains, “there would still be a composed frame.” Wightman is one half of the Brooklyn-based directorial duo, the other half being Alex Lee.  

BRTHR unofficially formed in 2010, when Lee and Wightman met in the film program at New York City’s School of Visual Arts. But it isn’t a school project gone right. In many ways, the institution catalyzed a rebellion: the duo dropped out after two years. Then, they tell me, the good stuff really started. And that stuff—the music videos in India, trashing LA hotels with rappers, commissions for Facebook—is the sum of independent study and YouTube tutorials. Their highly technical, elaborately glitchy style is among the most-imitated in pop culture today. Yet, as Wightman confesses: “Program-wise, I didn’t learn anything in film school.” Fate, it seems, is not without a sense of irony. 

Now 25 and 26, respectively, Lee and Wightman are riding the high of an incredibly productive 2017. They’ve just finished their first campaign for adidas Originals, which features Playboi Carti, Young Thug and 21 Savage. They recently published a commercial spot for Yves Saint Laurent. And perhaps most impressively, they have much more in store. Sitting in Lee’s Williamsburg condo in Brooklyn, we discussed their distinctive style, staying a step ahead of imitators, and what the future of directing is—when everyone has a camera. 

Please tell me about the early days of BRTHR. How did you guys get your start? 

AL: In 2011, I went back to Japan for the summer and made a video called “Tokyo Slo-Mode.” This was during the DSLR movement—I ended up getting a Canon Rebel T3i. I think “Tokyo Slo-Mode” has like a million views on Vimeo now. After that, I started editing a lot during my second year of school. Then, I got a music video offer in Atlanta, and Kyle came on board. We shot a video for Bei Major called “Pillz.” 

KW: We shot “Pillz” on a Weisscam. It’s super high-speed, but it’s the most impractical camera ever. It weighs like, 80 pounds. 

AL: We were naive on that, but it showed our style and what we can do. The jobs just kept growing from that video. 

KW: When we first started, we reached out to artists whose music we like— 
as opposed to just getting pitched. Starting out like that is really important. Even now, if we hear something we really like, we’re not opposed to reaching out. We’re blessed to be in that space. 

AL: And we really did pay our dues. We didn’t make any money for the first two or three years—we lived with Kyle’s parents and saved money. Our first big break was a Facebook job—the whole budget was about $3 million. We were pitching against some of the biggest directors in the world, and somehow we got it. 

KW: We had no commercial experience, and somehow got this deal. 

AL: That’s when we started to realize that you can make real money. Now we’re trying to make money and do “cooler” stuff. That’s what we’re starting to do with jobs for, say, Yves Saint Laurent, or adidas. That kind of stuff leads to bigger gigs. We’re kind of hustling again, but in the ad world. 

Your style of editing is very distinctive. How has it evolved over time? 

AL: When “Tokyo Slo-Mode” or “Pillz” came out, I didn’t really know there was a style to that. 

KW: It’s almost like we were in an experimentation phase, just trying out various effects and pushing the envelope. 

AL: People started telling us that we had a style. When we did Ben Kahn’s “Youth,” that’s some of our best work. That video epitomizes what we started and our style. Color is very important to us. We do a lot of sound design.  

KW: We also work on seamlessly integrating the VFX. We like to have everything very mapped out, but at the same time kind of feel vibrant. 

AL: There’s a lot of symbolism. It’s just about detail. I think being from Japan, I’m quite detail-oriented. Kyle’s always been the same way. 

KW: If you were to stop one of our videos at any time, it would still feel purposeful and there would be a nicely composed frame. We don’t add filler. 

The mixed-medium format—combining high-quality and mobile footage, for instance—is popular now. Do you have a particular stance on that coming from a film background? 

AL: We’ve been mixing those mediums for a long time, and it’s always been purposeful. We’ll start with something cinematic and surreal, then cut to VHS, because it gives it some sort of realism. 

KW: It’s interesting to see these artists through that VHS lens. It’s raw, it’s gritty. It’s become kind of trendy now, but we make sure it serves a purpose. 

AL: We’re trying to back away from it a little bit. Lately, we’ve been shooting a lot on film—which is also getting kind of trendy. 

KW: It’s expensive too. But we always run a few cameras to get an abundance of footage. 

AL: We have some new ideas that you’ll probably see in our next video. We also use night vision. 

Please introduce yourselves: who are you, and where are you originally from? 

Alex: My name is Alex Lee. I’m 25, and from Yokohama, Japan. It’s about 30 minutes south of Tokyo. It’s a big city—very populated, but it’s more laid back. I moved to New York City in 2010.  

Kyle: My name is Kyle Wightman, I’m 26, and I grew up in Riverhead, Long Island. 

Alex: We went to SVA for about two years—we were just in the same classes in the major. 
Kyle acted in one of my films—it’s not even really anything to talk about. It was like The Office—it was a mockumentary called The Autobiography of Jean Phillippe.  

Kyle: We spent a lot of time on it and got to know each other. It kicked off from there.  

What artists did you grow up watching that influence you today? 

AL: My favorite movie is The Matrix. It’s just so crazy what the Wachowski Brothers did for that time.  

KW: I watched a lot of Chris Cunningham music videos growing up. He did those “Rubber Johnny” music videos with Aphex Twin. I feel like you could watch them today and they’d still be next-level.  

"We really did pay our dues. We didn’t make any money for the first two or three years."

"It’s hard to become a big director in this generation. The film industry favors experienced directors. There’s still ageism, but it’s changing."

"At film school, too many kids went easy on themselves. But quality control is all about being critical of your own work."

With videography being more accessible now, how do you stay ahead of the trend? 

KW: We watch a lot of content, to see what’s going on. But we consume it to try to do what people haven’t done. 

AL: We’ve literally had people take sounds from our videos that we manipulated ourselves. Or they’ll rip actual scenes and shots.  

KW: Not even for no-name artists. For mainstream, big artists. 

 AL: Our fans will tag us. It seems like we’ve got some eyes now; we always find out. It’s kinda frustrating. We don’t want to claim a style, but if people can identify our signature, that’s what’s flattering to us. 

KW: It also comes down to our selection process. We choose videos if we feel like we can add a different perspective to it. We can’t just take on a project just because it’s a big artist. 

On that point, how do you share responsibility? 

AL: When there’s a new project, we have a powwow and write a treatment. On set, we have multiple cameras rolling—Kyle will roll one, and then we have a director of photography and a VHS person. I take the editing responsibility mostly—I end up going to sleep at 6 a.m. and miss the whole workday. So the duo thing works out really well. It’s very productive. 

KW: At any given moment during the day, one of us is responding to emails.  

AL: On this new adidas project, I did the base edits. Obviously the client comes back with notes, but you don’t really want to hand that off to another editor—it gets ruined. So Kyle took over the client edits, and while he’s editing that, I’ll work on the next project. 

KW: What tends to happen is that the agency will get involved and have their editor do whatever they want. But we’re the only ones that truly understand the footage. 

AL: Some editors will complete a music video in a week. But then, there’s no detail. I hate rough cuts, like what’s the point? I’ll color grade while I’m editing sometimes. 

KW: When there are so many elements, it’s hard to convey what the final product is going to look like. Some companies want to change things that aren’t even finished yet. 

But then again, if there weren’t a timeframe—you could continually tweak the work. How do you know when it’s done? 

AL: I’m really self-critical. I rarely think something I did is actually cool. But at film school, too many kids went easy on themselves. But quality control is all about being critical of your own work. 

You’ve worked with a lot of big name artists already: The Weeknd, Travis Scott, Charli XCX. How does that work, and which one was best? 

KW: For music videos, we pretty much come up with all of our concepts start to finish. That’s the ideal way to work for us, because we can shape it to what we want it to be. It’s cool that we’ve gotten to a place where artists trust us like that. 

AL: For example, an artist will say something like “I want it to be vibrant.” They’ll give us themes and imagery ideas. I think The Weeknd was the coolest to work with. He’s not a diva, he’s super collaborative and let us do our thing. 

KW: Same here. For an artist who’s at such a superstar level. He’s the most receptive to collaboration, has good ideas, and is just a down-to-earth guy—which is rare in this industry. 

AL: Travis too—his style is on-point, he has good taste. So overall, it was pretty easy working with him. Young Thug was an hour early for our adidas shoot. 

KW: Everyone was super panicked because of the “Wyclef Jean” music video—that was a huge talking point. But he ended up coming before everyone else. It’d be cool to do a music video for him. 

AL: We’re planning on working with Kali Uchis—we haven’t worked with a female artist in a long time. We’re going to have more of a narrative than before. 

Can we talk about the blurry line between branded content and music videos? 

AL: One of our best videos was a Converse collaboration with Keith Ape. Just like, a Beats Pill speaker front and center isn’t interesting. Our adidas video promotes a shoe. We try to integrate any product seamlessly, so it’s not in your face.  

KW: Those aren’t necessarily traditional ads, either. We were able to work with the agency in a way where it came out cool. 

AL: Rappers are rock stars now, and brands are catching up—even sports brands are catching on. The mentality is completely different. But we kind of knew this would happen. Even now with pitches, labels know how to interact with rappers and make them look good. All that will bleed into ads—so it’s actually better for us. 

Do you get the sense that even artists behind the lens are getting promoted similarly now? 

AL: Recently a brief came in where we were going to be featured. We’re not opposed to it. Not many directors are named as a collective. We are building a brand in a way. It’s not Alex and Kyle—it’s BRTHR. 

KW: That was pretty intentional early on. We wanted to have the mentality of a band. That’s why we came up with an identity as opposed to using our own names.  

AL: It’s hard to become a big director in this generation. The film industry favors experienced directors. There’s still ageism, but it’s changing. There aren’t that many directors that have a large social following now. We’re trying to create a new path.  

Where do you see your trajectory going in five years? 

KW: For us, we want our progression to feel natural. Right now, we’ll keep pushing the creativity in music videos, while elevating our commercial work.  

 AL: We want people to care about our movie when it comes out. Let’s say Petra Collins released a movie. People are going to watch it, because she has her own fans. We want it to be like that—where it’s not just the rapper’s fans that like the video, it’s BRTHR fans that want to watch the movie. 

LIke a Wes Anderson-style cult following, for instance? 

AL: That’s the goal. It has to be anticipated if we do our first movie. I think we can get to a point where people want to watch one in two years. But it’s all timing—that’s important and we’re not trying to rush it.