It's worth mentioning this isn't the first time Nick Knight has worked with Kanye West. The pair have been working with each other for the last decade or so, influencing each other's vision and creative styles of working. So it's no surprise the music legend asked Knight to direct his latest project; the music video for '24,' a track on West's 10th studio album Donda, named after his late mother.
'24' starts with footage of West ascending from an open stadium - wearing a jacket with his mother's name 'Donda' printed on the back - an ode to his mum, who passed away in 2007. The music video is tinged with a hopeful and spiritual aura, possibly West's most religiously annotated work yet (aside from West's Jesus Is King film, also directed by Knight in 2019). Fuelled with lyrics like 'we're going to be okay' and 'God's work is not done', the short film bears witness to West Ascending through real and animated CGI clouds, dressed head-to-toe in Yeezy. In short, the video is as beautiful as its message. This is about a higher power. Something we can't control but that controls us, and that's okay. '24' is about safety, security and most importantly, love.
Christina Donoghue: This isn't the first time you've worked with Kanye; you've formed quite a strong bond over the years. Do you find that working together becomes easier with time, out of familiarity? Or is each experience completely different from the last?
Nick Knight: Each experience is different. However, there are specific ways to Kanye's working, and I've learnt to expect sudden change. Kanye will change what he likes and dislikes. Sometimes he will indulge in things he doesn't particularly like because he thinks that's an exciting way to create, so it's about embracing the things you wouldn't normally consider. Also, whenever there's a different project, there's a different outcome. On top of that, he's now also a different man. When I first met him, he hadn't even married Kim (Kardashian) yet, and since then, he's had a whole family of his own.
Kanye's always been a very spiritual man, but he became much more spiritual around the time I directed Jesus Is King in 2019, so things do change because people change, and of course, the projects also change. However, there are certain ways - when you create a working relationship with someone - where you then know the more minor details, which helps you figure everything else out. Like the best way to get information to him, or which angles he likes when I'm photographing him. Those sorts of things are due to familiarity and understanding their way of working. Although, Kanye is very good at doing something entirely unsuspected and going against the grain. So, to put it bluntly, it's never really the same.
CD: In terms of this being a collaborative project during a pandemic, how did you find working together overseas?
NK: We started working on 24 before the pandemic. It was one of the last projects I did before the pandemic struck, so much of it was already done before everything shut down. When the world went into lockdown mode, just like everyone else, you find ways to work remotely - either through zoom or Facetime. Another thing is that Kanye tends to be in America, and I, in England, so communications have always been via a platform like Zoom or Facetime.
The pandemic has also given me a lot of time to focus on the CGI aspect of 24, which involved very long conversations on what we wanted to achieve. For this project specifically, for pretty much six months straight, every day was half spent on a Zoom call, working with a fantastic team at Unity Technologies in California - headed up by Habib Zargarpour and Scott Anderson. On my side, I worked closely with filmmaker and editor Britt Lloyd and we'd be starting at 16:00 GMT (which is 8:00 in the morning for them), working for five hours straight. They're long calls to be concentrating on a screen, doing that sort of work, they're very long hours. And, of course, that's on top of everything else. The pandemic definitely affected the culture around working but, luckily, not the actual work itself.
CD: Can you speak of any unique challenges faced with this particular project?
NK: It's always going to be challenging when you want something to be to the highest level. It's never easy, but then again, if it is easy, that's probably not a good sign.
In 24 we are talking about spirituality which is extremely important to him, but 24 is a very personal film to Kanye, put it that way. This is a very spiritual song, in lyrics and in visuals. It deals with memories of people who are no longer with us. It talks about them while also referring to our own mortality as human beings. So it's got an incredibly authentic subject matter that's been articulated in a very beautiful way. Kanye's also managed to convey it in quite a sensitive way, too, without being heavy-handed about it. 24 is undeniably, a lot more gentle in its approach to spirituality.
CD: Was Kanye's vision for 24 a collaborative one, or was there a straightforward narrative from the start?
NK: He's a super interesting being to work with. I have an enormous amount of time and respect for him. He reminds me of - I've said this before - he reminds me of the late Alexander McQueen. He's the closest person I've come to working with who possesses a similarity to McQueen. There's a directness to his vision, and he's incredibly good at knowing exactly what he wants, right from early on in the project. He gives a lot of direction. He never asks for something that's 'a bit like that' or 'a bit like this'; it's always particular and meticulous in style. My job is to give him want he wants, on top of surprising and showing him something that, maybe, he didn't know he wanted. That's the pleasure of working with people like him.
He's very direct in what he wants, and he's very straightforward in his approach; there's no doubt that the man is very, very focused. And to get to that level is a lot of work, a lot of energy, and a lot of collaboration has to happen with a lot of different people. Everyone always wants to do a brilliant job for him. He's one of the most important cultural figures we have, and so everybody wants to do an amazing job, so it's lovely to have a lot of enthusiasm from people who never take the task at hand lightly. Whenever I've worked on a project with Kanye, there's this overwhelming feeling that everyone involved is always giving 110%. People undoubtedly respect his desire to go beyond the curve and understand that the sky really is the limit. He will never think, 'we can't do this because of X,Y,Z', if he wants something, he'll find a way to do it. And I think there's an endlessly fascinating charm to that.
CD: That sounds incredibly inspiring to be around
NK: Yes, I think it is really inspiring to be around, and it's also very rare. He's not like anyone else I've ever worked with at all; he's a very, very unique man. McQueen really is the closest person I can think of.
CD: Are there any standout moments you can recall from the overall process?
NK: Just working with Kanye in itself is absolutely a fantastic experience. There's not one particular moment as all of it is just incredible. Although, when I first sent him the final film and heard that he loved it, that was a very, very high point. Which is obvious, but if you work very hard with somebody to achieve something… when you achieve whatever it is, there's a huge amount of pleasure. Not only that, but I remember it was 2:30 in the morning, and having Kanye really excited and hearing his energy on the phone; that's really uplifting. To describe it, you feel as though you've finally gotten to the top of the mountain, and you can see over it, but until that point, it's all about getting to the top and only when you do, does everything become much more clearer.