The clip is a black-and-white, dramatic, well-crafted one. It’s a blend of sad, hopeful and jarring images. It’s also one that begs us to ask many questions: What’s that new song K. Dot premieres in the intro? Why does the TDE MC get shot? Why does he smile after he gets gunned down? What do all these symbols represent? It’ll certainly need to be viewed over and over again for a thorough understanding.
So, in order to help with that, we spoke with the video’s director, Colin Tilley. He’s worked with everyone from Nicki Minaj and Lil Wayne to Justin Bieber and Diddy. Here’s a look at what Tilley – who co-directed “Alright” with The Little Homies – said about collaborating with Kendrick, the video’s symbolism and some of the behind-the-scenes magic that helped make this such a striking clip.
MTV: Let’s talk about how you began the process. How did the treatment come about?
Colin Tilley:One day, I got a call from Dave Free, Kendrick’s manager. He was like, “Kendrick and I really want you to do this video.” Obviously I’d heard the album and it was one of my favorite songs off the album so I was super stoked about that.
He was like, “We want to see what you can come up with. One thing we’re thinking about is we keep seeing this image of Kendrick floating.” Then he sent me a couple of picture references or whatever. I just kind of took it from there and created this treatment revolving around Kendrick floating through the city.
But I wanted to have this m.A.A.d. city concept in there first. It basically shows the state of everything that’s going on in the world right now. It’s also showing how one man can basically spread positivity through all of the madness that’s going on and how everything is gonna be alright.
As the concept continued to develop, I had a lot of great conversations with Kendrick and Dave. We just kept hammering the concept home to really keep digging deeper and deeper. I’ve never actually worked with an artist like Kendrick that wants to keep pushing the creative to a whole ‘nother world. Every little detail matters to him. So, it was really fun to continue to mold the concept from where we started.
MTV: What were the details that Kendrick specifically tried to fine-tune on this one?
Tilley: Well, you know what’s crazy? The intro where Kendrick, Schoolboy, Ab-Soul and Jay Rock are all in the car and we make that big reveal where the cops are holding up the car. We were talking about this specific image with everything that’s going on right now with the police and we kind of got to that point where we were sitting down with each other and we were talking about this big reveal with Kendrick and the guys being held up by cops like a carriage or something.
But the crazy part is, when we’re sitting there, all of a sudden, Kendrick was like, “Hold on, man. I’m totally hearing something completely different for this right now.” He’s like, “I’m gonna write this song and we’ll send it to you tonight. But we’ll do this song as a segment before the video even starts.” So, they sent me the song like two days later and we continued to build on it.
Once you get an image that strong, everything builds from there. It was like these vignettes that we created in the intro that explain the m.A.A.d. city. It’s not in your face like, “F—k this. F—k that.” It’s more like, this is what’s real and what’s going on in the world right now.
It was taken from all the energy. It wasn’t one specific thing. It was kind of all the energy that’s been going on and I wanted to capture it like that. I didn’t want to dive into one certain event or make it about one thing. It’s about everything that’s going on.
MTV: There’s a lot of symbolism in the video, which makes for a great sit-down viewing of it. What was the reason for using the children in the video? What was the thought process behind that?
Tilley: For me, it comes back to the hero. The whole world we created is like a fantasy, a dream world. When Kendrick’s floating through the city, that’s him being like a superhero to these kids, him being something these kids can aspire towards. So, when they look up, it’s almost like it’s Superman, but it’s this world we created.
So, I wanted to get these kids’ reactions so we can feel the impact Kendrick’s creating on the streets around him.
MTV: Let’s talk about the locations. You went from the Bay to L.A. which is really cool. What was the reason for that?
Tilley: Well, I’m from the Bay area so when we were talking about that atmosphere we wanted to capture, I pitched shooting in the Bay area. I’ve been wanting to shoot there for a long time. That’s where I started making videos. And Kendrick was like, “I love the Bay. I love the energy. I love the people. That’s a great idea.” But I didn’t want to just make it about one city, because it’s a whole world thing. So, I wanted to make sure I shot in L.A. as well and also in places that didn’t feel like any of those landmarks. I wanted to make sure that it was a worldly concept.
MTV: You can feel that energy you’re talking about. You talked about shooting in L.A. When you shot on the street, that was huge news when it happened – just the filming of it. What was that experience like?
Tilley: It was cool, man. When we were filming that scene of Kendrick in front of the Staples Center, when he was standing on top of the light pole, before Kendrick got to the set, he was like, “Dude, I drove by set thinking it was a movie. I was like, ’What f–kin’ movie are they filming?'” But really, it was his video. It was just crazy. Everywhere we shot, people were so supportive. People just love Kendrick.
MTV: It’s got some dark subject matter obviously – you know, we see Kendrick get shot – but aside from that, there’s also so much joy in the video. Talk to us about why you all decided to include the dancers throughout.
Tilley: The dancers were a huge part of this. We really wanted to make sure that there is a positive message behind all this. It’s taking something negative and putting a positive spin on everything that’s going on. It’s giving hope. When you see people dancing, that’s an act of celebration. That’s expressing yourself in a certain way. That expression is so key to this whole video. It’s letting everybody know that there is a positive behind all this.
MTV: At the start of the video, we see somebody – who’s not Kendrick – getting shot by a police officer. At the end of the video, we see Kendrick, who’s been floating in the sky like a superhero, get shot by a police officer. Can you talk about what that symbol represents, to see someone who’s successful, and obviously someone who’s a hero to a lot of people, get shot at the end of the video?
Tilley: It shows that, at the end of the day, we’re all human and that nobody’s untouchable.
MTV: How difficult was it to shoot that scene in particular? And I don’t necessarily mean logistically, but more so emotionally.
Tilley: Right, of course. Whenever anyone’s life is being played with – whether it’s on camera or in real life – it’s a touchy subject. So, that’s why we chose to make it more of a fantasy and make it more like a dream – not necessarily a good dream or a bad dream. In that particular scene, it’s definitely a bad dream. So, we didn’t want to use a real gun. I felt like the police with his fingers as a gun was much more powerful.
MTV: In what sense?
Tilley: I mean, it’s kind of like, that effect pretty much was able to bring him down.
MTV: Just the wave of a finger.
MTV: Then, we see Kendrick smile at the very end. It’s a somber feeling to see Kendrick – who’s obviously so beloved – fall to the ground after he’s been shot by a police officer, even if it was just [the officer’s] finger. But then he smiles. What was that symbolic of?
Tilley: Well, you know, it’s all a dream world. So, he’s really saying, “Everything is still gonna be alright.” At the end, really, when he smiled, we were all playing around with the fact that we should just have the chorus come back like, “We gon’ be alright!” But then it would have just kept going. But like I said, it’s really all about the positivity. The video starts off so dark and it just progresses and gets lighter and lighter as it goes.
MTV: Were there any video references you guys used for this clip?
Tilley: Nah, man. It was just all imagination and just having fun with it.
MTV: You mentioned earlier, how Kendrick changed the song for the intro to the video. Was there any other portion where Kendrick suggested tweaks or was like, “Let’s do it like this?”
Tilley: That was definitely a big thing. Obviously, we were going back and forth about him getting shot at the end of the video. That was a big thing we had to talk about several times. But I feel like the way that we did it and the way we all chose to show it, story-wise, in the video, was something we had to have several discussions about because it’s a pretty powerful visual. You know?
MTV: For sure. What was his take on that?
Tilley: He was definitely down with it. It was something that needed to be told. I think for him, it showed that nobody’s invincible, no matter what you do or who you are, it could happen to anybody.
MTV: What was Kendrick’s first impression when he finally saw the finished product?
Tilley: They were so excited. He was like, “Man, this is awesome.” That was exactly what we talked about making and then we created it. I think he was super happy with it. For all of us, it was such a good, collaborative experience. We had so much fun making this together.
I’ve never worked with an artist who was so down to earth and so excited about making something that’s gonna change the game. That’s always kind of the goal. So, it was super fun to work with somebody who could turn these dreams and imaginations into reality.
MTV: Now that it’s out, what’s the statement that you hope this music video makes?
Tilley: I think that there are so many symbols and so many different ways you can look at this video, I hope everybody can take something from it that’s different. I don’t even wanna put a statement out there of me saying what I hope people get from it.
MTV: But what did it mean for you personally?
Tilley: Personally, with all the videos that I’m working on right now, I’m really trying to take a heavy narrative approach to tell some type of story. For this particular video, I really wanted to tell this story of Kendrick bringing positivity to the world that we created, the m.A.A.d. city we created. I felt like that’s what we did.
Find out more about Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly below.