As an angsty teen growing up in a “really f–king boring” suburb of Vancouver, Sammy Rawal was obsessed with music videos. “It was the late ’90s and I was watching a lot of MuchMusic and shows like The Wedge and New Music Hour,” says the now 34-year-old video artist. At the time, he wasn’t thinking of music as anything more than a fun distraction—until he watched an interview with Floria Sigismondi, a Toronto-based director who’d worked on many of his favourite videos including Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People” and “Tourniquet.” “I remember hearing her talk about her process and immediately deciding that after high school I was going to go to Toronto, somehow meet her and just start making music videos,” he laughs. “In retrospect it was very naive and immature.”
That’s exactly what he did. In 2002, Rawal moved to Toronto to study photography at Ryerson University (“I wanted to learn the fundamentals of framing and composition”) and eventually landed a summer internship at Revolver Films, the production company that worked with Sigismondi (“Yes, I was still in that zone”). “I was a total office bitch, but so stoked to be in that world,” he says. He did everything from picking up smoothies to assisting on set for 14 hours at a time, but during that three-month period he had the opportunity to learn and observe the behind-the-scenes of the industry he loved.
Not long after his internship ended, Rawal got the chance to direct his first music video through some Vancouver friends who had started a group called Fritz Helder and the Phantoms. It was enough to impress one of the executive producers he’d met at Revolver and she signed him on the spot. “I wanted to scream and run around,” says Rawal. “I was like ‘Oh my god, I have achieved my dream!’”
Hyper-stylized and often bordering on the surreal, Rawal’s work deep dives into the relationship between music and how sounds, beats and rhythms can be represented visually. Which might explain his obsession with dance. “I consider myself to be a really terrible dancer so I love living vicariously through watching people dance and move,” he says. His side gig as a DJ (his queer-friendly Toronto hip-hop party “Yes, Yes Y’all” draws 800 people every month) provides him ample opportunity to do this. “I’m really into beat and BPM and how any sort of body articulation can mimic or reflect little nuances in music.”
His obsession with body movement is all over the music videos he directs for the likes of Metric, AlunaGeorge and Dragonette. They feel like cotton candy-hued raves, with multiple dancers or very often clones of a single figure, swaying hypnotically to the beat. Meanwhile, his commercial work with active and athletic wear brands like Converse, Reebok and MEC let him flex that same understanding of physicality in an entirely new context. Lately, his personal work has focused on short remixed clips of disassembled and reassembled dance footage to create a trippy mash-up of chopped-and-screwed movement. “I like to think of it as me re-choreographing organic dance into this very synthetic type of movement that in my mind visually reflects the music on a whole other level,” he says.
In addition to dance and body movement, colour is a crucial way that Rawal explores music visually. “They’re so heavily intertwined in my brain,” he says. “Music has a certain mood, a certain vibe, a certain tempo. Colours, for me, have the same thing.” In fact, when Rawal hears a song, he sees specific colours, and vice versa. “For example, yellow is exciting, high tempo, high energy,” he says. “Grey is more like moody trip-hop.” His natural inclination however is to use more vibrant, crazy, out-of-this world hues. “It goes back to this idea of creating hyper-stylized worlds,” he says. “I’m drawn to these really inorganic colour combinations that might not exist naturally.”
One of Rawal’s biggest influences is a 1997 Belgian film by Alain Berliner called Ma Vie En Rose. “It’s about this little queer boy who, when he’s sad, travels to this magical land where everything’s pink and all his Barbies come to life,” he says. “It’s his escape from reality and growing up as a little queer kid, I had a magical land that I would go to when I was in trouble. I guess I’m still kind of doing the same thing. It’s my way of throwing reality out the window and being able to live in this magical world that I’ve created, where everything is technicolour and there are no rules.” Where do we sign up?