Riley Gunderson: Hello! Thank you for taking this time to talk with me, I am a huge fan of your work. Could you start by introducing yourself and talking a little bit about the creative work that you do?
Shomi Patwary: My name is Shomi Patwary. I am a Bangledeshi born director based out of New Jersey, we mostly film in New York City. I grew up in Virginia Beach, Virginia. I started out originally doing web design. I got lucky and I started out with Star Trak Entertainment which was Pharrell’s now defunct label. We went from web design, graphic design, and then we started becoming more of a production company for films. Now we do music videos, commercials, documentaries, and we just did two short films. We did videos for A$AP Rocky, A$AP Ferg, The Weeknd, Mark Ronson, and a lot of folks in the music scene.
R: Is there a meaning behind the name “Illusive Media”?
S: It’s funny, Illusive Media started out as sort of a joke. It was just me and my best friend since sixth grade, we started Illusive Media together. Initially, it was Illusive Records because we were trying to create a record label. We were big hip hop heads and were making and producing music for fun. We wanted the word “ill” in it, that’s why it is spelled the way it is. That was such a common term when describing music at the time, in the early 2000s. We were also lowkey so the word elusive just made sense for us. We always wanted to be in the background because we were producers at the time. We ran our business that way, very unassuming and would just pop up at places and people would say to us “oh shit, you guys made those beats?”
I realised early on that music wasn’t going to be my path so we turned it into a media company. We both studied computer science, both of our parents were very traditional. My best friend, Phillip, his parents were Chinese, my parents are Bengali immigrants. We didn’t have the luxury at the time to ask if we could go to film school, into graphic design, or anything like that. Somehow, we managed to figure out how to tie it all in. Computer science gave us a lot of knowledge about web design and from that we opened up Photoshop and all these other programs early on. We were designing our own covers for our mixtapes and we made our own websites.
What’s funny is, Magoo from Timbaland & Magoo was managing us early as producers but one day he noticed all of the album artwork and the websites. He said, “I want to be real with you guys, the music is cool but I’ve been in this industry forever, I think you guys are doing something unique with web design.” Now, it doesn’t sound that special, but this was 2003, around then most kids weren’t able to just make their own websites. He was really impressed and told us we had talent for sure but to focus it on the media. Most hip hip kids don’t have the access to that sort of skill set. We thought about it and it made sense. We didn’t take it as some sort of diss, because he did like our music. He told us that we are around all of these talented artists so we should start doing things for them. We were fortunate enough to have a lot of talented guys that made a huge impact on bigger artists. We were around them doing graphic design and it caught the attention of Pharrell’s label early on.
We were such huge Pharrell, N.E.R.D, and The Neptunes fans because they were from our hometown and that was the closest to anybody making it big from Virginia Beach. Virginia Beach culture has always been driven by skate, surf, and hip hop so we grew up doing all of that. It was just a different type of vibe out there, it really impacted our style in how we dressed and everything. Seeing Pharrell who represented us out in the mainstream was amazing. To see this dude that was wearing gold chains but rocking independent skate tees and trucker hats was so different for everybody else, but was so true to VA style, especially the local skater kids. It gave us new energy. We were all excited and proud of our hometown. We didn’t have a huge music industry or entertainment industry so it gave us a lot of hope to see someone like him working with so many massive artists.
I felt really lucky getting to meet Fam-Lay, who was one of the first artists that he signed, and through them meeting The Clipse, which was Pusha T and No Malice. Once I did work for Fam, Pusha took notice and got me to do their first mixtape cover, which was crazy since I was still in college. It opened so many doors just being around those guys, it definitely changed my life. I always considered myself a late bloomer too, looking at kids now who are fifteen and editing videos. I was still in college and just getting started with trying to figure out what to do with my life.
That's always been the thing, I’m still trying to figure it out. I like to do so many things. I still love to design, I just don’t do it professionally, I do it for myself. I’ve always loved all the skate fashion coming out of Virginia. The streetwear in Virginia was different but definitely played a role for the rest of the world. I do a lot, and I love doing a lot. I love to have my hands in everything and be creative. I’ve always been like that, I’m not the type of guy who just directs a video and moves onto the next thing, most of the artists I work with I have a relationship with. I’d say ninety-five percent of my work is because I am friends with the artist.
R: Did you learn filmmaking just by being on sets and throwing yourself into it?
S: At first it was just a hobby because we were always filming our friends skating or doing street races. Going from that to then being in the studio, I would still have my camera around so I would film them for fun and put it on their websites, but I never looked at myself as a filmmaker. I always loved filmmaking but didn’t think it could be a viable option for me as a career. This was still the MTV era where everyone was getting like $600,000 to $1 million budgets and I was just some kid from Virginia Beach. It sounded so impossible. I really got my first real shot through The Clipse, who offered to buy me a camera. It made it much more possible to be an independent filmmaker.
R: Do you think that your work has evolved since you have become more comfortable with these different technologies?
S: For sure, I kind of did it backwards because I wasn’t given the best tools. I really focused on editing and effects early on. Even when I was filming with home video cameras, I was really into after effects and learning how to color correct. I didn’t have any formal training so I learned by curiosity. I figured out that there was a process called color grading just by looking at the difference between why my footage looked different from what I was seeing on tv. Back then there was no YouTube so I really had to go digging through the internet to figure out what software was being used and what was accessible. We couldn’t even afford to buy any software at the time because we were just a bunch of broke college kids so we had to figure out how to bootleg it. Everything was very DIY. We were very guerilla style and some of that still comes across in our work. I think when I do some of my best work, it is often the guerilla stuff that I do. I’ve gotten some major budgets from A$AP Rocky but when I did “Multiply”, we were still shooting very guerilla style and that happened to be one of my favorite projects that I’ve done.
R: I’m sure that working in that way of “coming into it backwards” allowed you to be more experimental with what you were doing.
S: Totally. Everything I learned was almost by mistake and trial and error. It was a slow process for me. I would mess around with different things and would accidentally stumble upon something and it became a part of my style. We were guys just learning things, not having any film school background. We developed our own style based on what was working for us and what was possible. I think that is why early on we relied on so many vfx (visual effects) in our videos because they were things we were doing on our own: learning in After Effects, learning animation, and all that by ourselves. We knew if we couldn’t afford big budget videos, that would make it unique. It was more sweat and labor versus a bunch of money. When Lupe Fiasco came to us to do one of his videos, he wasn’t happy with his label so he funded a super low-budget video with us called, “I’m Beamin.” That video is all cardboard cutouts and a greenscreen. It is always surprising that people look back at those really low-budget videos and say that it is some of their favorite works from me. We developed a unique style for ourselves that became what people love. Things that are really normalized now in film editing were things that we did almost 15 years ago with our videos, just by experimenting and trying to figure things out.
R: You work a lot in music videos and your commercial content is also very pop culture and music driven. Now that you are working in short films, movies, and documentaries, are you keeping that same hip hop energy to it?
S: Yes, definitely. The first short film I did was more fashion-based. The full short hasn’t come out yet, it came out in segments for a campaign with the company Gentle Monster. We made this super dystopian sci-fi film. That one is more inspired by Black Mirror and Chris Cunningham’s music videos for Aphex Twin. Growing up in the 90’s has influenced me a lot and is coming back into the movie stuff we are doing. When we did the Gentle Monster short film, a lot of the music videos that we had seen by Chris Cunningham and Mark Romanek played a role in the style. I did another movie, which is still in the works in post production right now, for Lil Tjay who is an artist on Columbia Records. For his movie, we were more inspired by the lighting choices you see in “Belly.” Super gritty, heavy-gelled colors that are hyper-real and heavy on blue and green tones. It’s not natural lighting, it’s more abstract, it is visually very dark, gritty, and hyper-real.
R: You mentioned that you like working in lots of different creative modes, are you planning on trying anything specific in the future that is outside of filmmaking?
S: I want to get involved with creating VR (Virtual Reality) worlds. I can’t afford to do that currently but hopefully in the future we can create video games. That was honestly my passion as a kid. To me, movies and video games were the things that brought the best of art into one thing. There’s music, fashion, and everything when you look at a video game or movie, it involves all those things which I love. It’s funny, I don’t dress like a very fashionable dude. I am very plain Americana Ralph Lauren, but I love looking at Japanese brands and would eventually love to create a clothing line as well. A lot of people dream about having a brick and mortar store but, personally, I would like to create a VR store online, still using all of my skills that I have in filmmaking but taking it to the next level to give it an immersive feel. I would also love to make VR movies. I think that is going to be the next wave, 360 VR films. That is the paradigm shift that I think is needed to bring back fun in the film industry. We have so many options now with Netflix, Disney Plus, and HBO Max but all of those experiences aren’t that immersive, especially since people aren’t going to theaters. I think that as novel as VR feels right now, once other companies start bringing it more into the mainstream and more affordable, there will be a huge shift in how we experience entertainment.
R: Do you have a favorite project that you have worked on?
S: I briefly mentioned it earlier, but it is “Multiply” for A$AP Rocky. It came at a time when Rocky was trying to make a comeback. He had all these successful singles and went super mainstream, but he wasn’t happy with some of those singles because he didn’t feel it was really him. Rocky is a really cool guy, there’s a lot of hanging out before even the brainstorm session. Most of his collaborators are just his friends. When we did “Multiply,” we loved to just sit down and get inspired and decided to just say “fuck it” and shoot it without waiting on the record label. I love when either the record label doesn’t get involved creatively and just lets us do what we want, or when they don’t even know about the project and we finish it and send it to them and they think it’s amazing. That was the process for “Multiply.” He wanted to go back to the process of how he started, street level. One of the great things about working with Rocky is that he has so many fans that we really got a lot of hookups. It’s really cool working with him because everyone that comes on board has a lot of passion behind what they’re doing. Even though it’s a low-budget project, people don’t care and will work extra hours just to make something cool. He funded that video himself so we just did what we loved. Running around the Bronx, running around SoHo, working without any permits. It was fun. Anything that seemed like a problem was easily solved because he is a really charming guy who is super smart and fun to be with. He knows how to bring people together so it’s easy when you’re trying to do something creative and ambitious with him.
Another favorite was when I did “Work” for A$AP Ferg. Ferg is pretty similar to Rocky but they have different influences. Ferg loves old school bad-boy era music videos from the 90s and things like that. Ferg really connects to me on that end because we are both huge 90s heads so I can easily understand what he’s referencing. “Work” was also a video we had no budget for. We broke into some school that was abandoned and we shot that video for no money and it was the video that got him the deal with RCA Records. It is always fun reminiscing back to those days.
It’s always funny after doing a $1 million video and then going back to your roots. For me it is an easy shift because I still very much remember how I did that stuff but I know for some directors it is really hard to go back and do things for no budget again. I mean, it is a challenge for sure, people aren’t going to do you the same favors that they did in the beginning after they see your portfolio. But passion projects can be the most fun, care-free ones.
R: You talked a little about your creative process. Is that usually how it goes for you, hanging out with artists and drawing inspiration from lots of different sources?
S: It is that or a random idea will come to me or I’ll see something on the streets. My creative process for filmmaking is so much different than my music video process. The music video process is very visually driven, I don’t usually take much from my personal life. My music video process is based on visual nostalgia that I consumed from other works. I’ll look at clothing, art, backdrops. My filmmaking is based on real experiences so I’ll draw on real life scenarios and things that I’ve gone through. In a music video you really just have three minutes to tell a story. In a film which is 30 or 90 mins long, I draw inspiration from music videos and things that I love but there is much more of a philosophy behind it. I mean music videos are filmmaking too, but anything scripted or narrative-driven comes from a personal place.
R: You seem very prolific and to be juggling lots of different mediums and projects, some of which are passion-driven and others are commercial. Is it hard to balance so many different ways of creative making and thinking?
S: Yeah it is. Two years ago, 2019, I had to take a break from music videos. I think I only did two music videos in 2019, it was all commercials. I had been doing music videos, working to death to make any kind of money. That year, I went strictly the commercial route and I was able to make millions of dollars doing that. Before when I was doing music videos, I was working my ass off doing fifty projects in a year just to make a living. Whereas, 2018-2019, those two years I was doing a lot more commercial projects. They pay well and I needed that because it put me in a position, where I am now, where I am able to invest properly into other things outside of this business. I have been able to invest in ways where I can sit back and follow passion projects. At the same time, I realized that relevancy goes away fast if you're not putting out. Nobody looks at a commercial, no matter how beautiful it is, everybody hits the skip button. So for those two years, in the music video world, my name started fading away. Now I am having to make moves again in that world to make a name again. It was a reality check.
R: Is there anything you are working on now that you want to talk about?
S: The two short movies that I am working on are probably going to come out in March. I am also working on music videos right now. I will say, it is interesting going back to my roots again after taking a two year break from music videos. I am working with artists that are exciting. We are doing visuals for Young Rog, we are working with another artist based out of Chicago named Calboy. I am excited to be working with fresh, new talent. A lot of the time, I worked with artists before they were big. That has always been my thing, finding new talent and approaching them. I’m never afraid to take those risks, even with a small budget.