Nine times out of ten, people in the spotlight get all the glory while the people behind the scenes that make it all happen rarely get a “job well done” from the public. Luckily the lack of praises never stopped Taj Stansberry from pursuing his desire to bring his vision to viewers. Determination defines Taj through and through considering he’s pretty much a self taught director with only a few training sessions in with expert director Anthony Mandler.
As a matter of fact, right before Taj left the house on his first day of college—backpack and all—he received a call from Boxfresh pictures telling him that they decided to sign him and the rest...isn’t Taj’s history, but his future. To date, Taj has given us videos like Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music,” Nas’ “Hero,” Musiq Soulchild’s “So Beautiful,” and Yung Berg’s “Do That There” to name a few. Recently signing on to direct Fabolous’ “Loso’s Way” and currently working on his first feature film, Grateful, through his production company The Popular Kids, Taj is proving that he’s more than a director, he’s also a business man.
You’ve gone from being inspired by some of the greatest filmmakers ever known to being an inspiration. How does it feel to come so full circle?
It feels really good. I came from Oakland, CA and I always knew I wanted to be in the entertainment field; I just didn’t know what I wanted to do. Everything happened for me by the grace of God; things just fell in place. I got an opportunity and I felt like I could see things. Sometimes the things I saw looked differently and I knew I could make them come to life. So I got an opportunity and I did…A couple of people that are higher in power and have been in the game a lot longer saw what I had. I ran with it.
You were saying you were given a gift and feel like you can see things differently. Can you describe that gift to me?
Well, you know, I’m into architecture. I’m a people watcher and I just look at everything. I’ve always been into lights, times of day, reflections, composition and aesthetics. I love the way things are built; the way one building differs across the street from another and the shapes that it makes. I’ve always seen shapes and things that I thought would photograph well. I was always into textures and color palettes.
I’m always out. I’m never home and everywhere I go, I keep a camera with me in my pocket. I take photos for reference. I have thousands and thousands of photos that might look random to one person, but to me, they’re ideas. That’s pretty much all I meant by “see things.” I hope it doesn’t sound strange!
You were talking about receiving an opportunity to work with people. Were you talking about your time working with Anthony Mandler? How did you get this opportunity?
I worked on some sets with Anthony. I was just a PA (Production Assistant). I was getting water, coffee, anything they asked of me. I did that because I felt like it was the way for me to get on set and I can be there all the time. I wasn’t in the way—I was a part of the process—even if it’s a minor part of the process. It was a team setting, so it was ok to ask questions. I always wanted to be the PA closest to the camera so that I could see. I didn’t have the money to go to school so I figured the best way was to be close to someone who knew what they were doing and was talented and that happened to be Anthony. He inspired me so much that I went home and tried to do it myself.
What was your first step in doing it yourself?
At the time, I hardly had any money and my mom was selling the house. She gave me $1500 as like a parting gift to do whatever with. Fifteen hundred dollars to do a video - to me - was a lot of money, so I approached this group. I was like, “hey, I don’t have a lot of money and I know you haven’t seen my work before because I haven’t done anything. You guys [would be] my first video, but I think I can make a dope video for this song.” It was called “Patron” and it was this local group called The Team, in the Bay area. It was a ripple effect; you know when you drop a pebble in a river and the ripples get bigger and bigger. I dropped that in the water and another band - The A’s - wanted me to do their video and that went to TV. From there another person saw that video and then I had three videos under my belt.
How did life change after you were officially signed?
After I was signed, I started networking and meeting new people. I had a director’s rep that introduced me to a lot of people. I was able to shadow Anthony without working as a PA. I would be there while he was tucked in a corner and I would just watch him. I took photography more seriously and starting getting into my craft. I never took opportunities for granted and I worked harder than I did when I wasn’t signed.
You seemed to have gotten that training with Anthony pretty early in your career. Did you ever have any other formal training in directing?
Nah. As a matter of fact, I only shadowed Anthony on set three or four times. I didn’t have any training. I picked up the camera and was like, “This is how I think it should look.” If I didn’t know something about the equipment, I would just call somebody and ask questions. I made my own school. I was just like, “Ok, the person that holds the camera is who?” I looked online. I was always resourceful. I would look [up] Bay Area Directors of Photography (D.P.) and it sent me straight to Academy of Arts San Francisco and ironically they went by first names instead of last names. I didn’t know any of those people; they all seemed as if they were as good as the next, so I just picked the first name. The D.P. that I worked with was named Alejandro Linde. I’ve been working with him ever since my second music video and to date we’ve shot Nas’ “Hero,” LL Cool J’s “Rockin’ With the G.O.A.T.,” a commercial for Ne-Yo, NIKE commercials. We’ve just done a lot of stuff together. God has a plan. I just put it in His hands and do my work and keep pushing.
The public never gets to see much of a director, other than that person that just sits in the chair, watching everything. We don’t know much about what directors do, so enlighten us. What duties do you fulfill as a director?
I think the most important duty is to bring the song to life—match the visuals to the song. You have to follow the lyrics, not literally word for word, but every song has a certain emotion. Your job is to bring that emotion to life, visually. So, that’s the goal—to touch people. If it’s a part of the song that’s rocking and you feel the wealth of the song and it feels like a certain type of environment, you have to create it. What does that environment look like? What does that feeling look like? You know what a song is saying, but how does it look? The job is to give people eyes.
When you’re working with an artist, is there collaboration between you or do they come in with ideas?
I love working with artists that have a direct interest in how to portray how they look. I’ve been very fortunate to work with artists that have ideas. I love the back and forth of, “Let’s do this, let’s do that.” They may not understand things aesthetically or composition of light, so sometimes they may jump around a little bit. You compromise and at the end of the day they just want to be portrayed in the right way and look good on camera. I like working with people that are creative and they care. Even if you leave it up to me—I care—but if you care too, that’s great.
How about dealing with bad celebrity attitudes? Have you ever had anyone ruin the mood of the set?
No, they can’t destroy the mood. I set a certain mood. I pray before every shoot. I am all about the science of the mind and empowerment. Words have power, so I talk to myself and everyone around making sure the mood is good. I usually have my iPod there—no disrespect to the artist. Depending on who it is, sometimes I play different music on the set. We were at a Musiq Soulchild set and we put on John Coltrane to set the mood we wanted. It was calm and cool. You’d be surprised at what it does for a set. You have to create the environment. Those are really the things that our company—The Popular Kids—is all about. We’re all about making it happen with an enjoyable and different experience.
I didn’t know you had your own company. Can you tell me more about The Popular Kids?
It’s a production company. Me and my partner, Kareem Couch, pulled it together. We’ve had this for about a year and four months. We’re a boutique entertainment company. We do a lot of things—consulting, imaging, marketing, branding, product placement, music videos, film, photography, web design; we do a lot of outsourcing. Anything that you need, we put our stamp on it and if we don’t have it…we have a database of people that we work with that we know are all about artistic integrity and [will] understand what it is that we’re looking for. If we put our name on it and you’re working with us, it has to be done timely, right and the client has to be happy at the end of the day and wants to come back. If you can’t deliver that, then we don’t work with you.
You seem like a well-rounded person. How are you able to keep balance with such a busy life?
That’s the one thing I’m working on right now. We all [have] something to work on. I’m trying to make more time for my family and myself. Playing football is one of those things that gives me balance. I can get up, go and focus on that. When I’m playing, it’s such an intense sport that I don’t think about anything else. It lets your mind clear up and flushes everything out. If we play on the weekends it resets us for the next week.
In regards to your videos, I know you’ve done a lot of R&B and hip-hop. Are you looking to cross genres?
I just did. I did some work with two alternative artists whose songs are in Spanish. Two Mexican artists—Carlo Antonio and the other is Nexiah. I wanted to get into that market. It’s something about that culture that is just great to work with. They support their artists, so I was like, “I’ll do a video for them.” I was thinking about it business-wise too, “If I do a video for them, it’s going to get out.” They have a very good support system within their culture and believe in pushing an artist and making sure the artist is out there with the respect that they need too. Which is why when you’re a successful artist within that culture, you’re successful for a while. It was great working with them.
Any desire to do anything on the other side of the camera?
I actually did a couple commercials. I did an Intel commercial. I’m getting my acting reel going. I’ve done something else recently, but I only have two things on my reel now. It shouldn’t be this hard to think of it!
Do you feel acting benefits your directing?
It’s good training for directors. If you act, you can study yourself and it allows you to work with other actors…. It also teaches you how to deal with actors; how to calm them down when they’re frustrated. It teaches you how to get them to own the character and make the character them, you know? I’ve been working on it. It’s good to take direction too because you learn a lot. I can learn something from the hugest directors and also from the ones underneath. You learn different things at different times. So something a young director may have learned, I haven’t learned yet, so I pay attention to what everyone is doing, no matter who the director is.
What video have you done that you’re most proud of?
Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music.” It got like 90 million views on YouTube. I think it’s the 3rd or 4th most viewed video of all times. I won an award for that and Rihanna was great, obviously. I’m really proud of this last Musiq Soulchild video, “So Beautiful.” He’s a great guy to work with and the song is amazing. There are songs….that you know can be classics. That song can be the next, “Let’s Get It On.” To be a part of that is like being a part of history because the song is so good you can play it on repeat and never get tired of it—at least I don’t. Nas’ “Hero;” I really liked that video. [There are] a couple [of other] videos I really like that I’ve done. It’s hard because…I like everything for different reasons… Plus when I watch my own work, I can remember how I was holding the camera and how it looked over here. I’m over-critical on all my work, so I look at it as a recipe. I know what’s going to happen before, so there is no element of surprise. It’s like I’ve already seen it before I see it.
How do you intend on making powerful connections with your viewers?
I like doing things that are tangible, that’s when it feels real to people. The best feeling in my mind is when someone says, “I felt like I was there. It felt so real. Or, that was so intimate, organic.” These words mean you touch people and you can relate. When people feel like they’ve been there before and know how it feels, that’s what I try. I love starting videos with a narrative. I love seeing videos with narratives. It’s kinda my thing.
So you’ve been working a lot lately and [thinking of] acting, but what else are you currently working on?
Right now, working on our first feature film. It’s about a young man from the hood that wakes up one day and discovers that he has this uncanny talent that God has given him. He struggles to find his way through life, having this gift and being alienated from everything that he used to know. That’s the story, it’s been approved and we’re shooting it. It’s a beautiful story. You’ll be the first to know more about it. I’m a man of my word.
What do you have coming up next; other than this big movie that you won’t tell me anything else about?
*he laughs* [I’m working with] Willy Northpole and BOB. Right now we’re in talks with Street Family and Def Jam about doing stuff for Fabolous. We’ll see what comes of that.