Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to Vox.com, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.
If you’ve watched a music video sometime over the past 18 months, odds are you've stumbled across the work of Hannah Lux Davis. Lil Wayne’s clip for "Bitches Love Me" featuring Drake, Future, and an underwater bedroom? Yep, she did that one. All those sultry moments between The Weeknd and Ariana Grande in "Love Me Harder"? She’s responsible for that, too. She even directed "Bang Bang", a video starring three pop heavyweights that was so big, it doubled as a Beats commercial.Her videos have garnered billions—billions—of views, but it's the industry's weirdly best-kept secret that the David LaChapelle of the internet generation is a 28-year-old former makeup artist who favors nail art and Givenchy bags.
Leaving Seattle for Los Angeles at the age of 18, Hannah knew she wanted to be immersed in the film world, but was unsure exactly where she would fit in. After a year at a film academy—an experience that helped her learn how to direct actors—she found herself wanting to step it up a notch and enrolled in the Los Angeles Film School.
It was there that she began dabbling in production design, and when it came time to put together her final project, she decided to make a music video instead of a standard short film.
"As soon as I did it, I was like, ‘Well, that was an obvious choice!’" she tells me over coffee in Los Angeles's Venice neighborhood, where we meet during a busy day of location scouting. Even as teenager, she was a total hustler: She culled artists from PureVolume and MySpace—"That’s all there was back then!"—and paid to make their videos, using the final cuts as her calling card.
And thus began the sort-of miseducation of Hannah Lux Davis: a winding, piecemeal, but ultimately necessary path that is quickly making her the go-to girl for Nicki Minaj and friends.
"I remember feeling so young and so stupid. I had no idea what was going to happen."
With two years of classes under her belt, she set out to meet as many people as possible. She worked as a PA on any set she could, logging hours on everything from commercials to The Unit, a late-aughts military drama starring Scott Foley. "I remember feeling so young and so stupid," she says about that time. "I had no idea what was going to happen."
She takes a breath. "I don’t want to sound like I’ve made it, because I’m really still struggling to book jobs, but it’s funny how one thing has led to another." It's a sentiment she'll rephrase and repeat several times over the course of our meeting.
The next twist in her story came about when she met an effects assistant who introduced her to a makeup artist friend after seeing that Hannah's resume listed beauty skills. She began assisting on shoots, which led her to attend makeup school for four months.
Her priorities hadn’t shifted though—she was just flexing some Mensa-level networking power. "I knew I was never going to be a lifer makeup artist," Hannah explains. "I always saw it as a way to get on set and meet people without having to be a PA. I took it as an opportunity to be around conversations and see some of the creative process."
For the years that followed, she paid her rent by assisting makeup artists and meeting fellow up-and-comers, while she honed her skills directing small music videos on the side. Those gigs gave way to bigger ones and then bigger ones and "before you know it, the right kind of people see your work, and then I have a rep."
If you’ve never directed a music video, here’s a crash course: First, you write treatments. (You write so many treatments.) You either dream up something completely original based on the song, or follow parameters set by the artist and record label. You have to outline the entire music video just to toss your hat into the ring; after that, your treatment—and those of the other directors in contention—get evaluated.
Hannah doesn't focus on what might go viral, or even what might be the best choice for her behind the camera. "What does this artist need? That’s what I love figuring out," she says. "What’s going to take them to the next level or take them somewhere they haven’t been?"
Her song-by-song approach means she rarely recycles ideas, making her treatments creative and sought-after, but also labor intensive. Add to that a late-discovered learning disability and "every treatment is like running a marathon."
It wasn't until the end of high school that Hannah was diagnosed with exophoria, an eye condition that impaired her ability to read all her life. "When I was 17, they were like, ‘Oh, you have this and you need to be in eye therapy,’" she recalls. "After the SATs, mind you! I didn’t read growing up, I didn’t write. I was horrible in school. I didn’t go to college—I went to trade school!"
"It’s a tricky world and its very, very, very competitive."
She has since worked hard to make up for lost time by studying the basics of writing, but still finds it challenging: "If somebody would have told me when I was in high school that I’d be writing every day, I never would have believed them."
It’s no surprise then that Hannah’s secret weapon are the photos she sources to set the mood and tone of each video. Tumblr, Pinterest, and Instagram are her standbys—architecture, fashion, and travel images are her favorite—but she’s tightlipped about where exactly she gets what. "I don’t really like talking about where I find things, because as a director, it is a little sacred," she explains. "It’s a tricky world and its very, very, very competitive. There aren't many music videos, but there are a lot of directors."
Now back to this how-to: Once you write a treatment and actually land a job, curveballs like product placement can compromise your original vision. Sometimes it requires an artist to simply interact with a phone; other times, a branded product must move the entire story forward. "You have to do it, you have to be flexible," Hannah says of these often-last-minute challenges. "I pride myself on being someone who is fun and easy to work with in that sense."
Of course, one of the most important parts of directing, Hannah tells me, is surrounding yourself with other talented pros. "A director’s job is to hire the right people," she explains. "It’s not a one-man show by any means. It's juggling and balancing all the different aspects of the project and keeping that vision in line. I love art and production design, but it’s not like I know how to problem solve every situation."
Then there's the other talent: all those musicians on the other side of the camera. "When you yell ‘Cut!' on 'Bang Bang' and you have three artists on your stage, that’s crazy!" she says. "Who do I talk to first? Who do I give notes to first? Who do I give the love to first?"
But it's clear that Hannah is a master when it comes to working with in-demand celebrities (and their huge teams) on grueling 18-hour shoots. "I feel like I’m being seen now as someone who works well with female pop artists and getting good personality out of them," she says. "I’m really excited about that."
Ciara, Miley, Lea Michele—she's worked with them all. It shouldn't be surprising to see a woman get hired to collaborate with other women on these kinds of projects, but in the male-dominated world of music video directing, Hannah is a welcome anomaly.
"I know that I just got the invite to this party, and I’m really thankful," she says. "It could all go away. I feel like I might be trendy right now, I don’t know, but my goal is to have my work not be trendy. It has to go with the flow and change and grow. It can’t be the hot thing. It needs to transcend to different genres of work."
As for now, the jobs keep on coming. A few weeks after we meet up in LA (where Hannah told me 2015 was very much a blank slate), she emails me from New York. She's extended her trip to the East Coast in order to shoot a mind-boggling third consecutive video in five days.
"I’m really, really lucky to be where I’m at," she says, with her signature humility. Luck may have something to do with it, but her world-class hustle counts for a whole lot more.