Last December, Beyoncé fans were treated to a sudden surprise: the unannounced release of the star's self-titled visual album, featuring 14 new songs and 17 new music videos.
"I see music. It's more than just what I hear," Beyoncé said in "Self-Titled," a short documentary on her YouTube channel about the making of the visual album.
At the Los Angeles Film Festival this weekend, about 100 people experienced Beyonce's vision on a movie screen at Regal Cinemas L.A. Live. It was followed by a panel discussion with Jim Sabey, head of worldwide marketing for Beyonce's entertainment company, and three video directors who worked with her on the album: Jake Nava, Jonas Akerlund and Melanie Matsoukas.
After a crowd-pleasing showing — which included shouts of "surfbort" during "Drunk in Love," cheers for Beyonce's sister, Solange Knowles, when she appeared in the video "Blow" and dance solos in the aisles during "Grown Woman" — the directors delved into what it's like to work with Beyoncé on a video, a mutual process of trying to push her as an artist and themselves as directors.
"I think anytime you work with Beyoncé you're trying to challenge yourself and do something that she hasn't done," said Matsoukas, who directed the pageant world video for "Pretty Hurts."
Matsoukas said Beyoncé brought the song "Pretty Hurts" to her with the concept of portraying life in the pageant world. The end result: a dark look at the struggle to conform to unrealistic standards of beauty.
"I remember being on set and she wanted to go darker and do the kind of things like throwing up and taking pills and stuff," Matsoukas said. "It kind of developed more on set."
The making of the music and videos for the album happened simultaneously, with Beyoncé and her team reaching out to directors and playing tracks for them. Sabey recalled flying to Sweden to play songs for director Jonas Akerlund — who previously worked with Beyoncé in Lady Gaga's "Telephone" video.
"We threw the doors wide open and started talking to a lot of people Beyoncé has worked with in the past, people she felt would challenge her visually, do things she's never done before," Sabey said. "Everything that she does comes from a place of wanting to challenge herself artistically. So we really did look for directors who had ideas, who were looking to collaborate, who would listen to songs and come up with new ways of presenting them."
That included how Beyoncé showcased her sexuality. Nava – who directed "***Flawless," "Grown Woman" and the sexy "Partition" – said he's seen Beyonce's approach to sexuality evolve since working with her on 2003's "Crazy in Love" video. In "Partition" particularly, she takes to the stage at Crazy Horse Cabaret club in Paris, dancing seductively and wearing little.
"I would say it's true that on this album she was more ready to be overt," the British Nava said. "… She was feeling like making it clear that becoming a mum doesn't mean you're less hot … She's been through this process of taking increasing control over her own career and identity, so I think in a way it was also like, 'I'm a grown woman, I can do whatever I like.'"
Nava and Matsoukas also shared behind-the-scenes tidbits from their shoots. On the set of "Pretty Hurts," Matsoukas said her crew quit when shooting began to run over the schedule, leaving her with a limited team to finish the project.
Nava also felt a time crunch when shooting the intimate car scene between Beyoncé and Jay-Z in "Partition," which he said took place in an alley next to Crazy Horse.
"It was exciting to think that there was going to be this romantic vibe between them because they're not that often seen together ," Nava said. "In the end we did that scene in very few minutes, maybe 10 or 15, and then Jay was trying to get out to get into his car. By then there was a police escort waiting to take him to the heliport in Paris to get him across to his own concert that night … He really had to go, and it was really quite funny to watch her pushing him because she wanted him to stay and make her video better but he had to go."
The directors told the L.A. Live crowd they knew that Beyoncé was working on other videos, but they weren't fully aware of the scale of the project and the intended release strategy.
Nava said in music today, there's been a "renaissance of interest" in producing music videos, which he said lulled when "MTV became less important" and revived with the Internet serving as a new platform. In terms of other artists producing visual albums, however, Nava said no one could replicate the scale of "Beyoncé."
"I don't think there are many other artists that have got the budgets or the ambition or the energy to do what she did. Or the talent."