Last Friday, we had the opportunity to interview Taj Stansberry, the director of Jennifer Lopez’s “On The Floor” video! The video has been a huge hit! Not only did 26.6 million viewers see it on American Idol (it was the most watched Thursday on any network in four years) but over 13 million viewers have watched the video on Vevo since Thursday’s premiere!
He had a lot to tell us about the process and the video itself. He shared so many great details that we couldn’t edit it down. So, here is our interview in its entirety. We hope you all enjoy it!
BBJLO: We are freaking out!
TAJ: Why, what’s wrong? I don’t want you to freak out.
Nothing wrong, everything is right… did u hear? On The Floor… Itunes…#1…U.S.!
Yeah, it’s #1. Right! It’s a great thing… It’s a VERY great thing.
How do you feel about ‘On The Floor’s’ debut?
I feel great. I feel great! We worked really, really hard on it, everybody [did]. Jennifer was really involved in it. She came in, and she stayed in there like a trooper. She was like a part of our team. We created something that we felt was necessary for her, and [would] bring her back with a bang, without trying to do what everybody else is trying to do. It was a great balance. Obviously, she’s beautiful, [so] there’s a great balance of glamour, a great balance of ‘Jenny from the block’. A great balance of ‘the star’ and ‘America’s Sweetheart’. It was a great balance of all of these things put together in one. We’re just all very happy, everyone!
We [all] talked on the phone, yesterday. She’s really excited. And I’m really excited for her. It’s really funny, cause Jennifer is a really, really down to earth woman, and she’s just a delightful person to be around. When she’s happy, you can genuinely hear happiness in her voice, [and] see it on her face when you are with her in person. [It] just makes you feel good because, she’s a mega-star, a huge international mega-star, but she’s still this girl next-door.
A thing to her that is very, very endearing… it’s just very tangible, you just feel like, she’s just happy. She’s like a happy little girl. I think that’s just a beautiful thing. For an artist of her caliber to be around this long and to still have that ‘Kool-aid’ smile on her face, and she can’t hide it, it’s great.
Was it nerve-wracking working with Jennifer and then premiering the video on ‘American Idol’?
(Laughs) Yeah, at first it was! [Working with her] was like a ‘go, now’ type of thing. I received this phone call that [Jennifer's team] thought I was the person for that job, and they were like, “Can you come and meet with her, now?” So, I said, “ok, sure!’ I put on some clothes, I run over there. [But] before I [meet with her] the label wants me to hear [On The Floor]. I listen to the song twice, and then I walk in to the office.
We started talking about [the video] and we started bouncing ideas off of each other, and it came together. We were on the same page with what she wanted and the style that I have developed over time in my career. I was really into it, but we had to bring it together quickly. [Jennifer] wanted to shoot the video a week and a half from when we initially talked about it. So, it was a ‘hurry up and go’ thing.
Jennifer is no slacker. She’s all about perfection. She wants what she wants and she comes and gets what she wants. You can’t slack around her. You can’t miss a beat. So, [talking to his team] it was a thing like, “Yo! We cannot miss a beat with her.” Everything we said we were going to do, we [had] to do, and we had to do it right away! (Laughs) And, it had to be amazing. As nice and as sweet as she is, she also doesn’t play. She’ll let you know right away, “No, that’s not right.” But, she was great to work with. It was a great experience for me. And, I absolutely learned a lot. It was a great experience.
Having heard ‘On The Floor’ for the first time before meeting with Jennifer, did you come with a pre-conceived idea of what the video could be? Or did it all change after throwing the ideas around?
I was briefed on what she was thinking. It was basically just, ‘buzz’ words like “ominous”, “new world”, “freedom”. When we look at the video, there are all these different people, [from] different walks of life. There’s a woman painted in black paint, with gold glitter all over her. There’s a different assortment of people; People from all over the world. What we wanted to create overall was a world that was free of judgment and it was all about energy- kinetic energy.
When [Jennifer’s character] is walking through the crowd to the center of the dance floor, it was like they were all one; one source of energy. That’s what we wanted to create, a world that was about being free, that was about dancing. It wasn’t about being cool in the club. It was about letting go. It’s underground, where you are free of all the pressures of the world up top. [In contrast to the real world], where if you look different than the next person, and if they point at you and judge you, [in this] world you could be whoever you want to be. Come as is, listen to the music, feel the vibe, enjoy it, indulge in it, live in it…
Tell us about the characters Jennifer plays in the video:
Jennifer plays two characters. There is, (laughs) we don’t know if we’ve named her yet, we would call her all types of things… We would call her ‘The Queen’. We used to call her ‘The Overseer’. We called her so many different things. But we’ll just stick with ‘The Queen’ right now…
That’s what we call her!
Ok, ‘The Queen’. Let’s stamp it, ‘The Queen’. ‘The Queen’ was like, the master of this place. She was the overseer of this place. You get the sense that she’d been there for a while… up top. You see her eyes scan and pan across the dance floor as if she was always looking for the next ‘One’. Because, you know, no matter how great you are, there’s always the one that is coming, that’s going to take your place.
So, the other ‘Jennifer’, the other ‘JLo’ that comes in plays, what we call ‘The Diamond’. Everyone [in the club] looks at her like she is ‘The One’. She immediately grabs the attention of ‘The Queen’ and Pitbull, who’s on the other side of the room, and who’s second in command to The Queen. You see how they look at [‘The Diamond’] as she walks in, they notice that the whole entire club melts to her, and is in awe by her, by her beauty and her presence. Then when the first chorus comes in, the “La la la la laa”, the club explodes, that’s when there’s the confirmation that she is ‘The One’.
I really loved the way Jennifer played The Queen, because she absolutely nailed it! We had talked about that too, The Queen wasn’t jealous of The Diamond, [she] was actually looking and had seen something in this ‘JLo’, that she once saw in herself that was special… That is just absolutely being able to take control of her environment and being able to master all that she surveys. When she sees that in The Diamond, The Queen has this smirk on her face in some of these shots, where the pressure is off, and she’s found, ‘The One’.
How did the idea about fans choosing the ending come about?
What happened was, in our original concept, we planned on shooting people walking up walls and dancing on the ceiling. We shot that on a different day and when we were putting the green screen effect together and putting the people in, it was a whole separate process. We started editing without the special effect and we discovered that we had already captured the energy without the dancing on the ceiling. We wanted to make sure that we didn’t go too far; That we kept it about Jennifer and not about heavy special effects.
When the post-house finished the special effects, we thought it was great! We were like, “this looks good“, you know? But we already had a video that we were comfortable with, we were happy with, we thought Jennifer looked amazing and we thought we had captured the energy of the song. It goes without saying that if it’s not broke, don’t fix it. But we were still tossing back and forth – what to do with this alternate ending, this dancing and people climbing up the walls.
We got a phone call from JLo’s manager the next morning that said, “Hey, what do you think about taking these alternate endings, since it’s hard for us to choose and we’re all sitting in this post-house deliberating, why don’t we let the world choose?” So I thought that was a good idea. The world loves JLo, she has fans all over the world and we should give them a chance. They have a say so. They are important. They are very important and so that’s how that came about. So we were like, “okay, that’s what we’re going to do. We’re going to give them 3 different endings and we are going to let them choose.” And they chose!
#1 was our favorite. Was that the original video?
Yeah, #1 was the original.
So you’re right, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it!
Yeah, when you feel really strong about something, really confident and you do something artistically that gives you those chills and you know that it’s right and everyone feels it at one time…chances are that everyone else is going to feel the same way. That’s when you are completely honest and you are really critical of your work and you say, “this is the one because it makes me feel a certain way, I feel like this is the one”, or “I feel like we captured everything that we needed to capture.”
Jennifer hadn’t filmed a music video in a while so beginning on that beauty shot of her…it’s not that she is beautiful, but she is striking. She was powerful and it was captivating and gorgeous at the same time. You could almost feel the evolution of Jennifer Lopez. That was JLo. That was who she is, who she’s become. That is the movie star, the pop star, the wonderful person, the business woman. It’s everything at one time. We just felt like, to end it on that, it said so many things without actually having to say it. It’s like a picture can hold a million words, well that one held like a billion words.
We felt like people would feel that. If they couldn’t explain it, they would feel it and sure enough, you saw what premiered.
The biography on your website says talks about your approach to shooting a music video, in which you say how important it is to capture the real person and their true character, and the shots say so much. What does it take to do that? What kind of inspiration do you draw from when you are shooting the artist? Did you watch Jennifer’s old videos to prepare? How were you able to capture the real her?
I looked at a lot of her print work and thousands and thousands of lighting references. Seeing things that I had backlogged in my archives. I have probably a million references and photos. I was just at home countless nights looking at photos, thinking ‘this is where we’re going with the coloring. [For example] the gold backdrop. I didn’t know if it was going to be too jarring because of how big and how wide it was going to be on TV. I went through all of these different references.
When you are around a person a lot, and as much as I was around her for the entire process of bringing it together, you really get a sense of who that person is. They kind of rub off on you a little bit. She is such a presence. Like I said, she is so easy to talk to and so artistic. Very opinionated, but at the same time she can crack a joke in the middle of a super serious moment. She was just a delightful person to be around. I really connected with her as a person, who she was. They say that the eyes are the windows to a person’s soul. When you are around that person and you get so used to looking at them, seeing them laugh and frown and tired and vibrant and awake. When it’s time to put a camera on them, you feel like you know where to put the camera. You can’t really explain it, but you know where to put the camera on them and what’s going to happen. So when it came to [do] these slow motion shots like the one at the end, I just kind of knew where to put the camera because I had been looking at her for almost a week and a half, almost every day, and talking to her, and looking at references.
I’m taller than [she is] so I was getting a difference perspective on her when I was next to her. I looked at some of her videos and when she got in front of the camera- you’ll notice that we shot some things straight on and some things where the camera is slightly tilted above – because she has very strong, captivating eyes. So I didn’t know where exactly I was going to put the camera but it was a matter of putting her in front of the camera and adjusting it until it felt right and I felt like we would be able to capture her strengths and her beauty and her power. It was one of those things, just moving the camera around [and directing her by saying,] “ah, right there, a little more, up a little bit, ok down, tilt, Jennifer look at me, okay perfect!” you know? So that’s kinda what happened.
This whole entire process was like that. It wasn’t like a robotic thing where we’re going to shoot it like this and like that from this angle or that angle. It was more feeling her, because if you put a camera on her, she is going to make it work. She is going to do her thing, but you have to complement her. So it was more of a feeling. You can’t just put a camera on her and keep it there. You have to go with her. You have to feel her out and anticipate what she is going to do next. It’s one of those vibe things. It’s one of the only videos where I can’t describe why I put the camera here or why I chose this angle or why I shot it like this. We went in and I knew generally what we were going to do and as we went on throughout the day and as things started to develop and energy starting spreading throughout the room, you kind of just go with it and trust your instincts. And she lets you know what works.
It definitely worked because she looks stunning in pretty much every shot, definitely to your credit. You accomplished that. Now, about the product placement, we’ll just say it out like that because it is very obvious.
(Laughs) What you talking about!!? I don’t know what you are talking about?
Don’t want it to come across as a diss though, but we have had a recent video, “Britney Spears” for example, it’s VERY obvious in that video. So, is that a thing now?
In this business, you never want to make it obvious. But, in today’s business, you work with different companies to make things happen and there’s things for the video that we want to do. We have contributors [sponsors] and they are a part of the production. As much as they take interest in the wonderful JLo, they also take a great interest in their brand. As part of a [company’s] brand, like JLO is a brand, is how we see the product.
I’ve always believed there is a fine line between being obvious and being artistic at the same time. But at the same time, brands want their brands to be seen. So, it’s very hard to not show the label, for a certain amount of time without being obvious. It’s kind of like a gift and a curse with having product placement. At the end of the day, [products and brands] bring so much to the production without standing in the way. And I’m just still very appreciative of all the companies that contributed to JLo’s video.
At the same time, it’s like, “Ahh, I don’t want to see that right there, it’s kinda obvious,” but at the same time [it's a] give and a take, so there’s a balance. It’s compromise.
As a director, and a creative mind, I watch those shots thinking, “I can’t wait to get out of it!”, you know? But it is what it is. At the end of the day, they contribute [and] earn their time as well.
Well, as much as they are obvious, we also think they are symbolic, were they meant to be?
I think they are symbolic to JLo’s taste. She has impeccable taste, as we all know. So, we didn’t put any products that were not a representation of ‘Jennifer’. We worked with companies, that weren’t [necessarily] symbolic of ‘Jennifer’, but [it] was something that she would do.
Swarovski is a wonderful company that has beautiful jewelry and chandeliers. They exude pride and beauty, as does JLo, so that made sense.
BMW, is arguably, one of the best cars to ever be made. So, it was about quality. [Then] you have JLo. You have to match the quality, the beauty. I love BMW. I don’t think anyone would complain if they were given a BMW. If someone was going to buy a car, BMW would probably be in their top three, top five, or in their one selection.
So, that’s the way we feel about JLo. We definitely were very particular on what product placement we wanted to pick because it had to make sense for an artist of JLo’s caliber.
How long was the shoot?
15 hours, 16 hours?
And still looking that gorgeous!
She never missed a beat. That’s the thing, you can’t tell! In the fourteenth hour, she was as much on beat as she was on the first hour! She was ready to go. She’s just such a professional. I think at one point she was like, “Taj, come on! It’s right here, right here. I’m ready, here we go!”
She’s just, on-point, ready to go, all the time. You just couldn’t tell. She was the same at 2 am , as she was at 8 am. Or 2 am, she was the same at 7 pm, let’s put it that way.
Did anything surprise you about Jennifer, as far as her personality?
I would say yes, but not based on the things I’ve ‘heard’ about Jennifer. Actually, I’m never really in tune with what’s going on with gossip. I’m in a coffee shop and I don’t know who I’m standing next to. Someone asked me, “you know who that is?”, and I’m like “no, I don’t know”. I’m just so busy working. I don’t know who does what or why. I’m not one to judge anybody. I’m not an angel. So, I’ve never been in tune to what people have been saying about her.
But, what I was surprised about is, just based on information of who I thought she was and based on how huge of a star she is, is how humble she was. She was just such a humble person. She’s just a hard worker, willing to get her hands dirty and go in, herself, to make things right. She was just so particular about the details, very articulate about the details.
It was very easy to understand what she wanted. It was just like she said what she wanted and why she wanted it. She knows why she wants to do things. But at the same time, she respected and allowed my opinion to give her a great product.
She allowed me to be artistic and she gave me my space to do what I wanted to do. She is just really good at collaborating, never stepped on my toes or anything. Everything between me and her was just very, “well, what do you think?,” “I don’t know”, “okay that’s great!”, “yeah, let’s go with that!”
It was a very collaborative effort and very honest at the same time. It wasn’t like I was expecting her to be. She knew why she brought me to the table. And whatever she saw in me, she wanted me to deliver that and to give her that. But, at the same time, she wanted what she wanted, too. She was a very good collaborator, very respectful.
Was there any time where Jennifer was like, “No Taj! No way!”, I will NOT do that…
No, nothing. We never had one of those moments. We were always, pretty much, on the same page. If we were not on the same page, we were always in each other’s vicinity where we could [and] it was easy to come to an agreement.
That’s got to be a good day, where you can both come in and be creatively challenged…
It was definitely a challenge! She’d be like, “hey, let’s meet!” I’d get a phone call and I’d be in bed, knocked out. It’d be a long, long night of post, or even before we shot it, prepping, then there would be a call, “Taj, this is JLo’s assistant, can you meet at 10 o’clock?”, I’d look at my clock and it was 8:45! So, I’m like, ‘yeah, sure!’ I’d bounce up, take a shower real quick, throw some clothes on and speed through traffic and get there. I mean, that’s what you do, it’s Jennifer Lopez. So, what you going to say, “oh, no, I’ll have to reschedule”, or “can you give me an hour?,” No! You get there! You do what you have to do to get there, because it’s an amazing opportunity.
I’m young. A lot of people in the beginning were like, “he’s so young”, and were skeptical, [saying] “he hasn’t been around long enough”, “[Jennifer Lopez] works with “these” people and works with “those” people”, and he’s so young… (Laughs).
I thanked her. I told her when everything was done, “Hey, I don’t know if I ever got the chance to thank you, but I really appreciate you for trusting me, and not looking at me like a kid, (laughs), and just trusting me.” Her answer was, “I knew it all along!” She was happy, and it was just good.
So, I’m just here. I’m very appreciative of Jennifer and her entire team, Def Jam, her record label, Mildred, who was the commissioner that brought my name up and trusted me as well. I’m just grateful.
I’m grateful for my team too! My team is absolutely amazing in helping me see the entire project through.
[Thanks to] the production company that I work with, Happy Place. My producer Tara, My Agent Jamie, they were all very, very supportive. The entire team, my production company, my agency, the crew… even prepping [the video] the art director took a few days off and didn’t take on a couple of jobs because of this [project]. I told him, “hey, this is important! This is a really important job!” Everyone [on the team] sacrificed something to make [the video] what it is.
Waiting for the ‘On The Floor’ premiere on American Idol…
Yesterday [March 3], was a very surreal day. A lot of the day, I was by myself, at home in bed, as you can hear I’m sniffling, was kind of sick, trying to get over it, but, it was a surreal moment, because I knew what was going to happen that night.
It was like waiting for it… waiting for… like the turn of the Millenium, and as it got closer and closer to the time [of the premiere], that was when my phone started ringing a lot! I forgot that the East Coast was going to see it first!
I was thrown off when people on my Twitter (@Taj_TPK), were posting all exclamation points, “TAJ!!!!!!!!!”. My phone went crazy! At one point, I was pressing the refresh button on my Twitter and my phone froze up, so I had to take the battery out! People were going crazy!
Oh My God! moment…
When it was happening, I was standing in the middle of the street, in the Los Angeles Wilshire area, and I’m standing there, by myself, I was like “Oh My God! This is crazy!” Then I finally made it back to a television set, and the video came on.
The ‘On The Floor’ American Idol Premiere…
At that moment when I felt that the [the video] was coming on, I swear I had these flashbacks!
The American Idol judges started deliberating, and [Ryan Seacrest] says, “the world premiere of Jennifer’s On The Floor video” then everyone starts clapping… then, I see this look on [Jennifer’s] face. It wasn’t this ‘TV’ “Oh, I have to look happy!” It was the same look that I saw in the post house, when it was just us and we finished the first video edit. Before we went to the coloring of the video or the extra things that we do in post, you know? It was just her! That person on TV is the real person. That is exactly who she is, day in, and day out, on camera or off camera.
When the video was playing, I just kept having these flashbacks of the post-house at four in the morning, just as the video was playing, but I’d seen it so many times, all I could think about was all the meetings that I had. The first meeting that I showed up to with her; I was actually at a friend’s house, so I had like this ‘little’ t-shirt on when I first met her; it was really embarrassing! (Laughs) I had all these flashbacks as this video was playing. And it was just a great moment, I was extremely happy.
I told some of my friends that I was around [with] at the moment, “Hey, this is a really good moment for me right now. I’m really happy.” His friends agreed!
We actually just saw the ratings, and 26.6 million people watched the last half hour of American Idol.
26.6 million people were watching that video. At that moment, knowing that, 26.6 million were watching something that I was a part of, that I created, was just jaw-dropping to me.
I remember getting up sometimes at six or seven in the morning to go over references so I could get prepared for our meetings, because I’d have to go in, come up with different ideas, come up with moving boards and reference boards. I work much better early in the morning than I do really late at night when I’m super sleepy, so I’d rather get up while I’m sleepy, throw some water on my face and work! So, I remember some of these mornings, cutting stuff from magazines and grabbing references off-line and having one pencil in my hair, one in my mouth and just doing all this different work; I was just glad I didn’t go back to bed!
So, going back to Twitter, we know there are some harsh comments to deal with sometimes from ‘fans’, we just hope you see that they are not representative of all of us…
I don’t take them to heart. I know they come from a place of love and a need to protect. Just as if JLo was my sister, and someone was [attacking] her, I’d say something, I’d want to defend her and protect her. I’ve learned to embrace [the comments].
We want to thank you for the time and truly believe you have created something very special for us. Get ready for your Twitter to keep blowing up!
Thank you guys! [Yes], we think we’ve created something very special with the On The Floor video. I’m happy that you are happy.
For more about Taj, follow him on Twitter and visit his website and blog.