Bella Poarch’s Video Director, Andrew Donoho, on Building a Better ‘Inferno’… and De-Aging a Dancing Paul McCartney

Has a golden age of music videos returned? You might think so, looking just at the last four months in the output of director Andrew Donoho, who’s helped singer Bella Poarch graduate from TikTok star to flat-out star-star with the captivating video for “Build a Bitch” in June and, just this weekend, its equally audacious follow-up, “Inferno.”

It’s not just fledgling social media superstars that Donoho is giving a high-concept boost to; July saw the release of a video he did for an older influencer, Paul McCartney, accompanying Beck’s remix of “Find My Way,” that used dazzling special effects to bring the seventysomething McCartney and his twentysomething counterpart into the same surreal universe. The Macca clip makes use of the same developing “deep fake” technology that Donoho — a former visual effects supervisor — used last year for an arresting video of the Strokes’ “Bad Decisions.”

He’s also been Twenty One Pilots’ go-to guy for no fewer than seven videos, and done work with artists as diverse as Janelle Monae (he directed her full-length “Dirty Computer” video album), 21 Savage & Metro Boomin (“Glock in My Lap”), Run the Jewels, Khalid, Carly Rae Jepsen and Radiohead’s Ed O’Brien. But however long his career in music videos lasts (he’s looking to do feature films shortly), it could end up being best known for his role in further raising the profile of the Filipino-American star Poarch, 24, whose “Build a Bitch” feels like a career marker that won’t easily be forgotten. “Inferno” racked up close to 10 million YouTube views in its first day and a half, making it appear as if she’s already built a career, without an album out.

On the eve of “Inferno’s” release, Donoho talked with Variety about the meaning of the video, which takes a “Promising Young Woman”-type scenario to supernatural proportions as Poarch, in an elevator with two men who think they’ve successfully slipped her a date-rape drug, inflicting a series of comic but unnerving tortures upon them, with the help of producer/duet partner Sub Urban. He also talked about matters as practical as the video’s practical fire effects, and how he took 60 years off McCarney’s age for “Find Your Way.”

VARIETY: Your first video with Bella Poarch has more than 25 million YouTube views…

DONOHO: [Quietly.] 250.

Sorry — 250 million. That is a very significant zero to leave off. (As of this writing, the count is edging up on 271.8 million.) “Build a Bitch” looks like it had a sizable budget, so there had to be a lot of faith going into it that it’d attract a sizable audience. But even given that expectation, is a number like that surprising to you?

Very. We knew that her core following would definitely watch it, and we hoped at least that this video would be a stepping stone to build bigger and bigger projects. But it ended up breaking three or four major records, including being the biggest artist debut video on YouTube of all time in the first month. That totally shattered everything we expected. We’re hoping this one (“Inferno”) carries that torch further.

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It has to be hard to figure how TikTok success will translate into traditional music business success — it’s not a predictable transition.

We knew from the start that there’s a lot of other TikTokkers making music and music videos, and the fatal flaw of all of them is that everything from the song production to the press release to the video feels like it’s all TikTok forward… like a TikTokker that’s kind of just half-assing something. Bella’s team and the label (Warner Records) and I all knew that she actually had the passion and the talent and the motivation to really push it. So from the get-go, it was just looking at every other kind of TikTok changeover and the mistakes that are made, and wanting to give her a video with a vision and a world that she could exist in. We wanted her press rollout just to be as big and great as Ariana Grande or Nicki Minaj or another artist of the same caliber, because this is someone at that level. And a lot of that was led by her, because she doesn’t see herself as a one-trick pony or flash in the pan. She is talented and wants to push this all the way, not just for acclaim, but because she’s super passionate about music and storytelling within her videos.

Empowerment is a strong theme through both “Build a Bitch” and “Inferno” — as expressed through fantastical scenarios filled with special effects. That’s something that’s working for her and you, to have these somewhat humorous videos that have some serious and grounded ideas at the core.

Yeah, both videos have very much been rooted in both Bella and Sub Urban’s notions of what they want to present to the world. Sub Urban is the other artist on the track “Inferno”; he’s also Bella’s producer and creative director.

When we were going into “Inferno,” we wanted this big, interesting world, but we also wanted it to connect to the lyrics and kind of what Bella felt. If you look on Bella’s socials, you’ll actually see that this whole video was conceived as a bit of a fantasy about a real-life situation that actually happened to her — if it had gone the way it would in her dreams, as opposed to it being a very dark time for her. So even though the video you’re going to see for “Inferno” is very light-hearted and has a lot of fun, kind of slapstick elements, it’s still definitely rooted in something very serious for Bella that we want to communicate to everybody. [Poarch wrote: “As a victim of sexual assault, this song and video mean a lot to me… I decided to express myself by creating a song and video with Sub Urban based on how I wished my experience went. It’s a fantasy I wish was true.”]

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Bella Poarch in “Inferno” music video

You came up with what seems like a series of plagues for these two guys stuck with her in this elevator.

There’s a lot of Dante’s “Inferno” here. The impetus of the idea was the song itself, and then Bella’s experience. It’s about justice being served, and we wanted to do that in a magical, playful, interesting and not R-rated but still violent way. Our original idea had 10 levels that were all direct mirrors of the levels of hell in Dante’s “Inferno,” but where we landed kind of took the best of that world and some of our favorite Judeo-Christian myths and merged it all into this sort of feast of mythology and modern trends with a little bit of a 1950s timeless flair.

You’ve got the guys freezing, on fire, and attacked by locusts or some kind of bugs. Was there anything that was hardest to visualize?

Coming from the VFX world, I actually really love practical effects and using those as much as possible, and Bella and Sub Urban felt the same way about this one. So the hardest gag ended up being the dudes on fire, because none of that is digital, except for Bella’s wardrobe change. These are two stuntmen that are actually lit on fire. That was the most stressful moment of the whole shoot. We were in overtime. Our elevator that they were in was actually built outdoors to accommodate all these practical, physical gags, and the sun was rising as our stuntmen are prepping their suits to be lit on fire. Their lives are at risk. But the moment that sun crests over the building and the light shines in this elevator, it’s not going to match at all the other stuff we shot. So that was the moment of the shoot where there was a split-second of, “Maybe this won’t work, and maybe we’re lighting these guys on fire for no reason. This is terrifying.” But we actually got the shot off on our first take, and 10 minutes after that take was finished, the sun was fully blasting down into the elevator and it wouldn’t have been usable at all. So, a very trepidatious moment, knowing that if something does go wrong, it can hurt these guys, which makes the stress and the intensity even more insane.

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Bella Poarch and friends in “Inferno” music video

It’s fun how, with “Inferno,” you could have just ended on an explosive note, but you have an extended comical coda where you deal with what people don’t usually deal with in these sort of situations, which is the cleanup after the mayhem.

Sub Urban’s role in the video is a lot of fun, because he played this role of… I don’t know if you’d call it the officer or the butler or the manager, but this person that was making whatever Bella wanted to happen happen. At the end, we were left with these two guys that were frozen and burnt and bit in this elevator, and it just made sense that someone has to clean that up. So it was a fun little cheeky moment to have Bella go out and be the life of the party, and then in Sub Urban’s moment of peace, the only break he got after this long day of torturing these two guys, he still has to be the one to go and clean it all up.

With you having had a closeup view on what is appealing to people about Bella, what would you say it is?

I think in the big picture, she actually is super passionate and motivated and thoughtful about everything she does. You’ll see a TikTok video of her where it’s just her moving her face, but it’s something that she’s planned and thought of. And then there is something about her that she’s very endearing, everything from her face to her voice to her shyness and her demeanor. She’s humble. She’s confident without being in your face. And that to me is something that I think is lost among a lot of influencers and social media personalities …

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