The era of million dollar music videos filled with jet ski chases, blockbuster special effects, and shiny suits galore is firmly in the past. But although everything isn’t gilded anymore, the medium itself has entered a new golden age nonetheless, with Beyoncé and JAY-Z shutting down the Louvre, DaBaby staging Broadway-inspired rap musicals, and Dua Lipa shooting disaster movie scenes with well-crafted special effects.
In particular, Spanish-speaking artists like Bad Bunny, Rosalía, and J. Balvin have put an emphasis on their visuals, subverting the conservative norms of their genres—Bad Bunny was made up as several different female characters in the clip for “Yo Perreo Sola”—using real film for richer textures, and creating stunning shots with blockbuster levels of coordination, like Rosalía walking cooly through a sea of running children in “TKN.”
Cliqua, the Los Angeles-based, Mexican-American video directing duo of Pasqual Guttierez and Raul “RJ” Sanchez, has played a key role in crafting these aesthetics. They’ve worked on videos like J. Balvin’s “Reggaeton,” Rosalía and Ozuna’s “Yo x Ti, Tu x Mi,” and several of Bad Bunny’s 2020 hits, including “La Difícil,” “Vete,” and “Ignorantes,” all of which have view counts well into nine figures. Cliqua’s grittier look helps ground the clips, giving them a sense of tangibility that many overly slick U.S. pop videos lack. The “Reggaeton” video has an on-the-run quality, featuring New York street shots that make a global entertainer like Balvin look as cool and collected as a young Brooklyn drill star. Bad Bunny’s “Vete” is moody and shadow-cloaked, with corkscrewing shots of the singer dancing in a single beam of light or standing like an action hero in front of a burning car.
Initially, they planned to primarily work on Latin music only, but over time artists from across the genre spectrum have been drawn to the duo and their ability to build immersive worlds in the span of a few minutes. Their latest project, a gleefully demented, blood-soaked clip for The Weeknd’s “Too Late,” recalls acclaimed horror flicks like Goodnight Mommy and Braid, with icily shot mansions serving as the site of grizzly violence. It highlights many of the best qualities of Cliqua’s work: the performances are droll and self-aware–a dazed, tripping Cuco performs for an uninterested crowd in “Keeping Tabs,” a bloodied Oliver Tree contorts his face cartoonishly in “All That & Alien Boy”–the camera’s always on the move, and there’s a sense of calculated restraint even in the most over the top moments.
Beyond striking visuals, Cliqua is committed to injecting some meaningful narrative into their surreal scenes. The video for Juice WRLD’s “Black and White” begins with interviews of the clip’s young cast about how they each define “the perfect high.” Kevin Gates’ “Great Man” opens with a stirring montage about the transformational power of fatherhood, narrated by men whose kids changed their lives.Their recent work with Bad Bunny on “La Difícil” builds out the story of the song’s lyrics, depicting the real-life highs and lows of a music video actress, a role which historically has been flattened and objectified.
GQ spoke to the directing duo about helping craft the look of the recent reggaeton and Latin trap explosion, what working with superstars from The Weeknd to Bad Bunny is like, and making music videos that actually say something.
GQ: You’ve been actively shooting and releasing videos this year. How has working through the COVID-19 situation differed from years past?
Pasqual Guttierez: Obviously, the pandemic changed everything. Something different about music videos is it’s such a microwave of an industry where it’s like, “Go go go go go.” You shoot something and it comes out right away. Shoot days are not nearly as long as they’d be for a television series or something like that.
We noticed a bit of a bottleneck. Everything that’s released is dictated by the pandemic in terms of production, at least here in L.A., but there were so many conversations going on where different states had different regulations. For example, production was still going on in Georgia, so all of a sudden everything was happening in Atlanta. Then Atlanta goes back to [more restrictions] and everyone stops shooting there and goes back to L.A. [laughs]
With the Weeknd thing [which was shot in Los Angeles ] we kept that in mind. We were like, “Okay, this is the creative box that we’ve been put in. What do we want to do with it?” We knew we had to work within the constraints of COVID, but we were trying to make sure that it didn’t feel like a COVID video.
How did you two first come together and decide to form Cliqua?
PG: We just met and hit it off. At that time, I was doing more work in the commercial world and Raul was doing more work in the music video world, but we had a lot of similar interests and tastes. We started writing together on concepts for music videos because we liked the same type of music. We pitched on a few things and they didn’t get off the ground, but ultimately, we did this video for J. Balvin’s “Reggaeton.” That was a unicorn project, it was the right place and the right time. Reggaeton had this really tired and tropey aesthetic to it that was stuck in the 2000s. We were like, “We’re gonna totally flip that on its head and make it feel contemporary, make it feel more international and more American appealing.” I know that was a big thing for a lot of these reggaetoneros. They wanted to break into other territories, but they weren’t quite yet at that time in 2017.
RJ Sanchez: Moving forward after that, we said, “If we get Latin American stuff, we’ll do it together.” As time went on, we just kept working in that space and we wanted to expand to other stuff too.
It felt like the “Reggaeton” video came out right at that point where people realized that the biggest Spanish-language musicians were global superstars, full stop.
RS: It was cool making those videos in that moment. Obviously, it’s still going, but it felt like then the media was like, “There’s this big Latin music crossover happening and it’s becoming mainstream to be a Bad Bunny fan.”
Were you both raised on Latin music and reggaeton when you were younger?
RS: I grew up in Gardena, CA, which is South L.A. Growing up, I kind of rebelled against that type of stuff. I wanted to partake in American culture more so than my own culture, and I think that’s a common thing for kids. You’re just trying to fit in. But as I’ve gotten older I have definitely come to appreciate and love this music more and reconnect with who I am and where I’m from. We’re both Mexican-American.
PG: When I was a kid, “Gasolina” was sick. [laughs] That song was so tight, but that was it. And I remember when “Lean Like a Cholo” came out. It was like, “Whoa, there’s this Mexican guy. He’s doing it.” It was a lot smaller, and also I think being Mexican-American, like Raul said, there are a lot of stigmas about not wanting to partake in that culture all the way and wanting to rebel and be more mainstream. I always appreciated my heritage, but in terms of reggaeton in the community, it was not the cool thing. That music is a lot more Puerto Rican and Colombian and influenced by those parts of Latin America. We made it like a mission statement in the beginning of Cliqua: “We’re gonna be a part of this Latin wave and we’re gonna make this cool because we want to see that happen here.” When we were kids, it wasn’t cool. But now everybody loves it.
You two have worked across genres and with vastly different artists from Cuco to NAV to Rosalía. How much does the ideation process differ for a “Keeping Tabs” vs. a “Beibs in the Trap?”
PG: Raul always says that we’re like chameleons. What’s interesting is I think a lot of filmmakers in the short-form world are hired because they have a specific voice. We have that, but we also do really like the creative challenges of figuring out what is gonna be best served to fit this song and this energy.
RJ: One thing we try and do for every video is write specifically to that song. A lot of the time, there’s this temptation when you’re writing on so much stuff and you’ll have an idea from before and be like, “Maybe I’ll just take this idea and reappropriate it to fit this video.” Every one of the Cliqua videos has been its own idea from the beginning to end.
Some artists already have a specific thing that they’re looking for or a narrative. Abel is someone like that. He has a whole story that he’s constructing. There are three other videos that he is doing simultaneously and they all tie into one another. He gives us a tie-in point and we help to fill in the rest. We’d never made a horror thing until “Too Late.” But we watched so many creepy movies for reference. We find it fulfilling, and it also really shows that we’re cinephiles and we actually appreciate the film medium.
You have a knack for sneaking narratives into your videos. In “Great Man” by Kevin Gates there are interviews about the transformative power of fatherhood. The same thing happens in Juice WRLD’s “Black and White,” where the actors are interviewed about their thoughts and experiences on drugs.
PG: Someone told me once that music videos are the last bastion of experimental filmmaking— they’re something that people really watch and get invested in. It’s because you’re working with artists that have so much pull, because labels are pushing it, and because it’s usually [a few] minutes of your time. People will sit and watch. You can make an arthouse music video, but get millions of eyes on it. That’s something that Raul and I have been trying to do a lot more, which is world building within our videos. “Great Man,” that was something I did before Cliqua, but that was the idea. There’s this premise, there’s this thesis to what you’re about to watch and you want to set it up and get everybody invested in it. Then, when the video happens, it just plays out. But you have so much deeper of an understanding of what’s happening on screen.
It really happens in the Bad Bunny video for “La Difícil.” It’s about the plight of a video vixen. That whole video itself is kind of a commentary on music videos a bit. You always have this perception of what a video vixen is and you have these preconceived notions of what they’re like and what their family is like, and what they go through. We were trying to show a different side to that.
That “La Difícil” video got a lot of attention for its visual homages to 2000s boy bands and those old Missy Elliott and Bad Boy era clips. Was that connected to this video vixen concept you were exploring?
PG: I think a lot of people would say that the 2000s were the golden era of music videos. The budgets were huge and the timelines were super extensive and the access was nuts. It was maximalist to the extreme. I really feel like that was the height of the “video vixen.” Bad Bunny loves the 2000s era. We said, “Let’s just go all the way with it and do a full-blown homage.” We even committed to shooting it on 35mm and building sets, styling it, angling it [all like a video from that era].
RS: If we were just trying to recreate one of those videos, we would fall short. We don’t have millions of dollars to put into these sets, so we really made it more about the plight of this video vixen. To Bad Bunny’s credit, he was down. He’s a very subversive artist himself. A month later, he did the “Yo Perreo Sola” video and is dressing like a woman as a male reggaeton star, which is crazy. You’ve never seen that before, especially in that genre.
What’s your dynamic like with Bad Bunny? How did you start working with him?
PG: His personal photographer, [Stillz], who is now also a director, reached out to us on Instagram and was like, “I saw your work. I think I can get you guys a Bad video, if you want.” He was the one pushing it forward and Benito trusted [him]. I think we met for the first time in the trailer on the set of a movie, and you know how it is in music videos, the closer you know someone, the more you’re gonna be able to push the medium farther. We were just running around in Bad Bunny’s world for a while.
RS: It was like, half a year of Bad Bunny stuff. He’s an artist with such a strong voice, that if he wants something he’s not afraid to go for it. After we worked together for the first time on the “Vete” video, he loved how it came out and was like, “Alright, we’re doing another one,” and it went like that. Then we got into his world and met some of his people and were flying all over the place. Flying to Miami, flying back to L.A., flying to Tokyo, flying to New York.
New York was crazy, because we went there just to listen to music. They were so secretive. Obviously, shit gets leaked all the time, so they don’t like sending stuff out, which we totally respect. But then to put us on a plane to New York just to listen to music in a hotel room for an hour and then go back the next day. We were just trying to remember it, because then you have to write the idea. We would be writing timecodes with little melodies just to try and make sure that we could mete out enough scenes that fit the length of the song.
PG: And we were working in the same tone that we were excited about with “Reggaeton.” Something we like to do is shoot on film. I think it’s becoming kind of a trend now, so it’s not as special as it once was. But when we did “Reggaeton,” that was like the first time I’d ever seen a major Latin American artist try to have this gritty vibe that only film can get you.
When you’re working on a music video set, you have to be super resourceful and quick on your feet. In the Cliqua videos, are there any on-set moments that really stick out to you as memorable for pulling something off miraculous?
PG: The first one was for “Reggaeton.” We had 24 hours to shoot the video, literally. The video got awarded when I was on the plane coming back from a commercial. I got off the plane, had 20 missed calls like, “Hey, we got Balvin.” I got back on the plane, went back over to New York and then we just couldn't figure out how to start the video. We didn’t even have time to make a treatment. We just did this thing where we said, “We’re gonna push in, we’re gonna throw everybody in, and then we’re gonna push out and everybody’s gonna be there.” That was very on the fly but it worked.
Then with Cuco for “Keeping Tabs,” that was a much smaller budget. We were at the Rose Garden and we just didn’t know what to do. We had this vision of wanting to do these Lotería characters that were playing cards and dancing. It was this hallucinogenic experience where these Lotería cards from earlier in the video are coming to life, but then we could only get the devil [laughs]. We were talking to our DP and he was like, “Alright guys, we’re gonna do the Spike Lee shot.” And he puts Cuco on the dolly and did this whole thing where he put Cuco on the dolly and then we put all the heavenly foos [of the popular user-driven Instagram account Foos Gone Wild] in all white on the other one and Lil Mr. E shows up in the middle. All that shit was super off the fly. I remember Raul being like, “Oh, it’s working!”
RS: Even on the pre-pro for “Too Late,” I kept talking to Pasqual like, “I feel like we’re a cat with nine lives, but we’ve gone through eight of them. Yet we continually, somehow, we get over the hump.” The cool thing about music videos, they’re so quick, the expectation isn’t always set so high with them just because of the improvisational nature. But when you’re able to overcome that stuff and still deliver something great that really blows people away, that’s really fulfilling.
What was the pitch for the “Too Late” video? How much of that idea did The Weeknd already have when his team reached out to you?
RS: Abel is this mastermind dude who is putting all these videos together. I would say he had really the whole premise of the idea already, and he presented it to us. And then, in terms of the gore, in terms of the raunchiness, the killings, those kinds of things, that was stuff that we were riffing off of with him. We pitched the idea about the stripper getting killed and were a little nervous sending it to him, like, “What will he think about this?” And then he loved it [laughs]. I think it’s just a testament of when an artist really is an artist. They respect the vision and they collaborate and they’re not afraid to push things. That’s when you get those unexpected pieces. We could have never made something like “Too Late” with anybody else.
PG: I’m not getting into too much of the nitty gritty about it, but I will say with Abel specifically, he’s a cinephile in his own right. He has a very clear vision on his image and what he wants to do and specifically this narrative of canon that he’s created for this character in After Hours. He’s one of those rare artists and when he reached out to us, we couldn’t believe it.
Originally Appeared on GQ