DP Larkin Seiple on “This Is America”

Director of photography Larkin Seiple during an interview at the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood. (Photo by Charlie Lieberman, ASC.)
Online Exclusive: The cinematographer breaks down the viral music video and explains why no one is going to tell you what it means.  

In a bright warehouse, a man strums a guitar while another dances toward him, delicately pulls out a gun from his back pocket, points it at the guitarist and blows his brains out, declaring: “This is America.”

Since its debut on May 5, “This Is America” — the latest video released by Childish Gambino (Donald Glover’s hip-hop alter ego) — has garnered more than 362 million views (and counting) and has been the subject of numerous articles attempting to decode its symbolism and discern its meaning. But if you’ve come here looking for answers, you’re not going to find any. Because, as director of photography Larkin Seiple says, the video wants to provoke questions, but it has no interest in answering them.

“It’s that balance of holding those cards, but not letting anyone see them,” Seiple says, sitting down for an interview at the ASC Clubhouse in Hollywood.  

For Seiple, whose credits include the viral music video for DJ Snake’s “Turn Down for What” (which has more than 790 million views) and the comedic indie feature Swiss Army Man, the public’s reaction to “This Is America” has been “a lot bigger” than he, director Hiro Murai and Glover were expecting. “I don’t think anyone could expect that to happen — no one guesses when a video is going to have that much of an impact on social media. We knew we were making something interesting, but we didn’t think it was going to have that kind of response.”

That response, in part, has been dissecting each of Seiple’s carefully crafted images and trying to assign meaning. In six total shots, the video follows Glover joyously dancing across a warehouse — sometimes accompanied by a group of young dancers clad in school uniforms — as violence and chaos erupt behind them. Many have argued that visuals in the piece have distinct references to Jim Crow, minstrel show propaganda, the Charleston church shooting, the death of Stephon Clark and the Parkland school shooting, among many others, but those who worked closest on the project have remained tight-lipped on any purposeful meaning. “The interesting thing about the video is that it’s a collection of images that are surreal and don’t have a rhyme or reason, necessarily, but it’s easy to put one behind it,” Seiple says. “Hiro and Donald, I think, intentionally didn’t want to give answers. It’s meant — like all forms of art — to let the audience make their own choices and make their own path.”

“This Is America” is the fifth collaboration between Seiple, Murai and Glover — the other projects include videos for the Childish Gambino tracks “Sweatpants”, “Telegraph Ave” and “Yaphet Kotto” as well as the short film Clapping for the Wrong Reasons — and for the latest effort, Seiple shot on 35mm film. “I remember [Glover] talking with Hiro and saying, ‘The next thing we do we’re doing on 35mm,’ which is great because I love when the artist makes the mandate,” Seiple says. “It’s kind of like setting the bar — setting the rules. It helps define their influence on the image, even when they’re the one in front of the camera.”

Seiple used an Arricam Studio with Zeiss Super Speeds and an Angénieux Type EZ-1 Zoom lens, and the project utilized a single unit. “We only had 45 minutes of film [stock],” Seiple explains, “so I couldn’t roll multiple cameras or we would run out quickly.” Seiple used Kodak Vision3 5219 film and developed at FotoKem. The project was edited by Ernie Gilbert, post/editorial was completed at MPC and final color correction was done by Seiple, Murai and Ricky Gausis. 

Seiple on set. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

Once the decision was made to shoot film, the discussion turned to black-and-white versus color. Seiple advocated for color, especially given the medium. “I think film renders color far better than any digital camera out there,” he says. “With film cameras, even if you underexpose, you still get a rich skin tone. There’s still information in the shadows to pull from. And with digital, it starts to fall off and become a patina, and the skin looks kind of corpse-like…. Donald’s skin looks great in the video, and there’s all these windows around which create lots of reflections, so we weren’t worried about highlights or overexposing. In fact, we tried to overexpose the image a bit more to make the grain tighter when we [brought] it down.”

Film also felt appropriate, Seiple explains, given what he calls the “accidental tableau” of the video and his effort to “frame an image among chaos,” which was partially inspired by photographer Alex Webb’s body of work. “[Webb] basically finds these filmic framings — or almost tableaus — in real life. But he’s also using pedestrian locations, and he’s usually contrasting people in silhouette versus people in front light. He kind of explores the harsher and more realistic parts of life you wouldn’t think are as filmic and uses them to his advantage. Hiro and I both loved the idea of this accidental tableau. With Donald and with all these other people in the background, we kept trying to find these unique images that popped out of chaos but then would quickly dissolve back into chaos, and that’s where that [approach] came from.”

In order to best achieve this tableau, Seiple and Murai needed the right location that provided enough natural light and was able to most effectively execute the scale of the video concept. “We spent a day just going to different spaces trying to figure out what the video was, because the treatment was a series of images and actions with Donald moving through the space. And the space was somewhat ambiguous,” Seiple says. They settled on the Firestone Building and Warehouse in South Gate, California, which is a four-story urban concrete space with a cellar, two additional buildings and more than 50,000 square feet. “When we found Firestone, we were attracted to the enigma of that space and that it’s empty and this giant void, but there’s all these colors, and there’s that weird wall with the door in it. It’s a surreal area that kind of matched with the visuals of the idea that you weren’t quite sure what to expect from around the corner.”

The prep for the shoot was short — one week — and the video dropped a week after filming wrapped. During that week of prep time, Seiple says, “We spent a day [at Firestone] and walked out the light as it went across the building so that we could figure out when to shoot what sequence and find what set piece to go for what.” This creative process would continue throughout the duration of the shoot as Seiple explains that a lot of the video’s images were crafted organically on the day. “Each scene would start with Hiro and me having an idea of where we’d want to shoot the sequence, and then we would work with Donald and the dancers and [choreographer] Sherrie [Silver], and we would block it out with the Steadicam. We would keep tweaking it and tweaking it, trying to figure out what was the best angle and what worked for time of day, and we would figure out what rhythm we liked and then where it begins and ends. Once we did that, Hiro started adding in the background elements. He would add piece by piece, and we would build it big, and then we would then strip it back down.

Director Hiro Murai (right) with Donald Glover (left) on the set of "This Is America". (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

“For me, it was more working with Hiro to figure out how to maximize the location and the lighting. [For example], the big middle piece where we find Donald from behind and we wrap around took a long time to choreograph because we didn’t know how to use the space appropriately. Initially, we were going to have Donald and the dancers moving in a giant circle throughout the area, and after we tried that for an hour, we realized the camera should really be moving [instead] so the audience can focus on the spectacle and the dance, letting the surreal elements drift in and out of frame. It’s more about the audience finding each piece. 

This sequence is also Seiple’s personal favorite because, as he attests, “it was the hardest to pull off.” He calls the sequence “a group effort,” and explains that he worked the zoom while operator Brian Freesh controlled the camera and Murai followed Freesh in a circle cueing the horses and flames. “The movement of the camera is hypnotic, and throughout that whole sequence is a subtle zoom, which is this surreal way of viewing the scene as opposed to having a locked point of view. It felt much more detached. I think it’s the most interesting of the sequences, as opposed to, say, the prettiest.”

As much as people are attempting to decode Seiple’s images and wrangle something definitive out of them, the cinematographer says that the camera’s movement is fairly subtle throughout the piece, and that its purpose in terms of the story is to serve as its witness. “The initial idea was just to let the scenes evolve naturally and to not be that showy with the camera. For the first majority of it, the camera is just slowly tracking backward, getting out of the way and letting things happen, not trying to suggest or doing anything in particular, but just letting Donald and the dancers do their thing. And then slowly but surely, you’re picking up things in the background. 

“[The camera] watches everything unfold with the audience. That way, when things happen, the audience is more shocked because the camera is not pointing it out. It’s gentle and flowing. And then there’s these moments in the song — like when the chorale group kicks in — you have this whip pan. The camera bursts past all the members [of the chorale group] and pulls back to a frame that’s frozen and becomes more of a tableau. 

Then you have Donald come out and unleash a burst of violence on them. The camera then tracks with him in profile and then whip pans to him and the location.

“It’s meant to create a juxtaposition — these joyous moments mixed with dark moments. The movement ultimately is to help the transition between scenes, to keep the audience guessing or keep them in the dark.”

Those jarring tonal shifts — when Glover disrupts the serenity of the scene with a gunshot — are what Seiple considers the most effective images in the video, and a lot of that, he says, was achieved through lighting. “I’m always intrigued by the first shot [when Glover pulls out a pistol] because it’s such a juxtaposition and surreal moment. It’s lit in an ethereal manner — the [actors] are literally top lit through these windows with the sun beating down on them through dirty and fogged factory glass. The gun is very surprising. The frame of Donald mid-firing on the guitarist feels, to me, timeless in a very disturbing way, and it was something that we found on the day. We were taken aback by the simplicity of it, and we were like, ‘Wow, this turned into a surreal image for just two guys standing and sitting in a factory.’

“[Similarly] with the chorale group, it’s this static image with a joyous vibe and brightly lit. It’s a safe image. And then this gun comes out of nowhere — in a very Looney Tunes manner — and then the camera pivots hard with Donald, past a cop car and rioters. The final result actually took a while to finesse. We wanted to create a contrast between exuberance and violence, but we didn’t want to celebrate or glorify something so dark, so we worked on making the transition fast and ruthless. If you blink, you’ll miss it.”

As the video progresses, Seiple notes, it becomes increasingly darker. It starts out in a bright, inviting light, and ends in a disturbing shadow. “It was just about going from simple to complex and back to simple,” he says. “For the most part, we were naturally lit — we timed it with the sun. And then as it evolves, you start seeing flames flickering in the background and [police lights] glowing against the rioters. It builds up into this huge moment in the third shot, and then again it goes back to a single [light] source by the end of it, where [Glover] is just lit by top light.”

Though the video primarily utilized natural lighting, Seiple also employed Digital Sputnik LED units. “We basically used them as beams, which is about 18 of them per beam. We used them for daylight, and then they also mimicked cop lights, and they could also mimic firelight. We would just move them around the room, and the color matched well. We were a little nervous about using them on film, because LEDs and film don’t always work together, but we didn’t do too much with it. We were just trying to embellish what was already there.” 

The set of “This Is America” lit by Digital Sputnik LED units. (Photo courtesy of the cinematographer.)

The final sequence transitions away from a bright image with Glover dancing on top of a parked car as the camera pulls back farther and farther until, Seiple notes, “we disappear into darkness and then find him in the cellar running for his life.” He adds, “We wanted to end with an image that was a bit more harrowing.  

“My favorite part of the shot is that we started the closeup early [before Glover ran into the light], so we were able to light just [his] reflections. My ambient meter was reading “E” for the first part [of the shot], but the spot meter showed signs of life, so we embraced the darkness. When you first see him coming out of the darkness, it’s just this texture on skin running. And then he’s exposed, and you realize that he’s running from something, which is ultimately the goal of it. We wanted to keep it dark so that it’s a reveal that he’s running from this faceless hoard.”

The ending was at shot at 60 fps, which was why Seiple chose the Arricam Studio. “We were initially going to use the [Arricam] Lite because it’s much lighter and we were doing Steadicam. But we switched to Studio because we needed to do 60 fps, and our operator, Brian, did a great job of taking the weight.” 

Though that sequence was shot at both 24 and 60 fps, Seiple says that 60 felt more appropriate for the tone of the song. Also, he adds, “being able to slow down the scene allows you to read a little more into his expression and feel more of the frenzy of the run, seeing it slowed down. [You get] the idea that he’s sprinting. He’s not just jogging — he’s going for it. We wanted to end on something you could think about as opposed to something you just see.”

“This Is America” gains around 1 million views per day, and it’s a video that invites — and almost requests — repeat viewings. With continued analysis and viewers determined to mine out the “official” meaning, the conversation sparked by the video is ongoing. It is a project that rewards those who explore its minutiae, which is exactly what Seiple and his collaborators wanted. Reflecting upon the team’s choice of mediums, Seiple offers, “Shoot film if you can. I think it generally makes people better filmmakers because it forces you to focus on the small details as opposed to the obvious ones.”

And in terms of how one should watch the video, Seiple suggests that “This Is America” shares some similarities with one of the trio’s earlier projects, “Sweatpants.”

“It’s a similar idea in a way of trying to keep the audience distracted until they realize, ‘Oh, wait. Something in the background is different. I need to figure out what I’m watching. Or maybe I should watch it again.’”

Seiple’s upcoming projects include the features Kin, which is slated for release at the end of August, and Luce   

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