Alan Del Rio Ortiz keeps a shotgun shell as a souvenir from one of his first video shoots, the one where a drunken stranger chased his entire film crew away with a gun. One time, he witnessed Billy Corgan walk in on his friend in the bathroom. Another time, he had to call every single cab company in the city of Chicago to track down some “very expensive” lighting equipment he misplaced the night prior only to have a friend tell him he had it—24 hours later. “Someone stuck a cheese fry on my lens when I was in college,” he recalls, “That sucked too. I have seen a lot of weird shit, but honestly nothing that bad or interesting has ever been on me.”
Which is relative to the beholder. As an independent photographer, director, and filmmaker, Alan has worked with artists like Solange, Smith Westerns, and Danny Brown. Most recently, he created an alternative virtual reality for this month’s UO Music Video Series feature with Petite Noir. He’s also gone on multiple tours with St. Vincent, and even directed one of Dev Hynes first music videos as Blood Orange after meeting the avant-garde R&B songwriter at one of his first shows in New York.
Maybe “nothing that bad” has ever been pinned on Alan, but the “interesting” stuff—that’s just part of his gig. We spoke with the recent Los Angeles transplant about the difference between documenting and directing, what it’s like to show artists what their songs look like, and how too much time spent in green rooms has him sworn off of hummus forever.
Photos by Steve Gripp
You mentioned meeting Dev Hynes of Blood Orange at one of his early shows in New York. How did you approach him about making a video?
Well, that was about six years ago. I didn’t know him, but I decided to approach him as a fan and just say, “Hey, I really like your music and I’d like to do a video for you sometime.” He was really sweet and kind of just nodded his head. I didn’t expect to hear from him, but he reached out a couple months later and we made a video together for [his song] “Dinner” on a basketball court.
Okay, so that takes us back six years—but what about before that? Did you always know you’d be directing music videos?
Well, [before that] I was in Chicago working as a director’s assistant. I got into that world, editing, shooting and commercial work. Even though I was working in that department, I didn’t know that making films was a job someone could have. So I was kind of just taking odd jobs, and I think [one day] I woke up and decided I could do it, and I just took a stab at it. Growing up, my plan was just to have a record store and make like 20 thousand dollars a year and die at age 30, so everything that is going on now is really a bonus [laughs]. I feel really lucky, and really happy. I never expected to be doing this, even though it’s all I ever really wanted to do.
How would you explain what you do for work to a stranger?
Oh, that’s the worst. You should hear my mother try to explain to people what I do! I don’t really know how to describe it. I don’t say filmmaker because I’ve never really done anything narrative, and I don’t say artist because I don’t really show in museums or galleries. I usually just say I work in video production, and try to describe it as working in the creative field and making videos for the Internet, for Youtube [laughs].
What’s your favorite part of the job?
Constantly meeting new people and finding out how to work best with them has been really inspiring. [I’ve worked with] a lot of important and intelligent artists, musicians, and camera crews, and it’s been really cool. That’s what I really like about this job: it’s an excuse to hang out with all of these weirdos.
Speaking of creative musicians, tell us more about working with Petite Noir. What was the concept behind the video for “La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful?”
A lot of it was just the song. We got this track and it was really just this beautiful, languid, really interesting music. I hadn’t really heard much of him before and I really just liked the vibe and went with it; I think it meshed really well with some of my styles. He has a really strong aesthetic, as well, like his album art and previous video work all has a very solid theme which means he cares about his look and his views and it ties together with his music.
When you start working with someone, do you reference their older videos?
I do, only because I don’t want to repeat myself or have them repeat themselves, so I try to see what they’ve done and what I can do differently. Sometimes they don’t have anything and you have to start from scratch, which is interesting. I think it’s important to get a sense of where they’ve been and where they’re trying to go in order to make the right video for them.
How do you maintain your own personal style when working with other artists?
I try to work with the artist, to get something out of them that would help them as well as me. I try to use different aesthetics and atmospheres, depending on what people want. Personally, I’m really interested in dreams and the the unconscious, emotive versus plot-driven or performance videos. I like to have surreal themes in my video— think it’s more cinematic, more beautiful, a little bit more romantic.
What's the main difference between working on a documentary and a music video?
With documentary work, it’s not necessarily about influence—it’s about observing and seeing what you catch, because there are so many strange and beautiful moments that happen behind the scenes in anyone’s life. If you try to pick the right moments when you’re editing, you can pull out some really interesting stories. It’s all about watching and knowing when to film and being polite, because if you stick a camera in someone’s face while you’re doing your documentary, well, some people don’t take that really well. Some artists are really private, and some of them are not, so you just have to try to find a way to be invisible so they act natural and you get the best stuff out of it.
What do your videos show about music that the music itself might not be able to?
I feel like there’s a lot of stuff that goes unseen in-between the lines of the music. I don’t like doing music videos where it’s a narrative and you’re just telling the story of the song, because I feel like you’re telling the same story twice. I try to do something that’s thematically aligned, but brings another parallel, emotive vibe that the song is already throwing out there and the video can enrich or compliment. It should never distract, you have to work with it [to make] a nice balance.
Watch the video for "La Vie Est Belle / Life Is Beautiful" below, and peek behind-the-scenes of our shoot here.