Open on: Ed Sheeran superimposed over a stuffy party. Cut to: Sheeran, on a couch, dressed as panda. Then: Sheeran, on stage sporting a bathrobe in front of a pink cityscape as floating eyeballs hover around him.
No, this isn't a wild hallucination, but rather the inventive video for Sheeran and Justin Bieber's Billboard Hot 100 No. 2 hit "I Don't Care," the lead single from Sheeran's upcomingNo.6 Collaborations Project album. Spearheaded by the director Emil Nava, it all stemmed from an idea Sheeran had to put together a quirky video where he dressed in costume throughout. The finished product, which instantly went viral on YouTube, was -- as Nava refers to it -- "an amazing disaster."
"It came to me completely out of the blue," says Nava from his Los Angeles office. For the prolific director, the mind behind a host of smash videos for boldfaced names ranging from Calvin Harris ("One Kiss," "My Way," "Promises") to Post Malone ("Rockstar"), "I Don't Care" marks the latest in a long line of collaborations between the director and Sheeran. "We've been working together for a long time," says Nava of his personal history with the English singer-songwriter, which kicked off with "Lego House" (the third single from Sheeran's 2011 debut album +), and later evolved into directing the videos for Sheeran staples such as "Give Me Love," "Don't," and, most recently, 2014's guitar-driven romantic ballad "Thinking Out Loud."
"We'd do long stints of projects and then have long breaks, then come back together again. We just have an amazing relationship. So when I heard he was doing something incredibly top secret, I hopped on the phone with him while he was on tour. He definitely had an idea of what he wanted to do with 'I Don't Care,' with a goal in mind to go absolutely wild with the idea of dressing up."
During a shoot that spanned both North America and Asia, the duo's main goal was to simultaneously make the video appear clunky and homemade while not looking too amateurish. "The challenge for us was for it to feel authentic and like it just popped up out of nowhere and be created by anyone, but at the same time it couldn't simply be bad," Nava says with a laugh. It was a delicate line the director navigated throughout its production and editing process, adding an element of scale to complement the lo-fi aspects. "I knew we wanted to use green screens and stock footage, but the video couldn't be totally made up of that," explains Nava of his approach. "So what we did was shoot some scenes for real, like in the dining room, at the swimming pool and the tennis court. Then we put green shapes of Ed and Justin within the scenes, so we knew where to plug them in."
The result is a globetrotting jaunt that features plenty of outlandish imagery and cartoonish aspects. "One minute you're in Egypt and you're sure it's fake, but then we cut to a wedding and people are dancing to a song and that looks real. The idea was for the viewer to be lost as to where they were." To meet the demands of the respective stars' hectic schedules, Bieber's portions were shot in Los Angeles while Sheeran, on tour in Japan at the time, was shot in Osaka. According to Nava, the fact that the production followed Ed instead of the other way around added a unique aspect. "It's always nice to shoot where the artists are because then it feels like you are entering their world rather than dragging them to some shoot."
As time ticked down to their intended release date, the editing process took three short weeks and included a variety of different cuts and ideas, with Nava keeping in mind that the final product had to include a proper balance between both being polished and handmade. "There was this madness that needed to be there, but if it looked really good then it'd lose the magic." says Nava, who worked with the editor Sean Fazende. "It was about striking the right chord and playing with the footage as if we were beginners again. We had to strip back the usual thoughts of: How do we make it cleaner, how do we make it slicker? The more refined it is, the less magical it becomes."
Once the final cut was completed and on the verge of being released worldwide, the team figured it'd make a splash. "When I think back to Ed's first video, he was on the bubble and was only really a part of the underground urban scene," remembers Nava. "He hadn't yet had a radio hit. With 'I Don't Care,' I'm not one to sit and wait and watch, but for this one I was intrigued (how it'd be received) since we have two such monumental artists coming together on one song."
When it was released on May 17, Nava kept an eye on its trending status. "I was having my coffee in the morning and my girlfriend came in and said she was reading all the reactions and I was like, 'Oh god, it's begun.'" Still, Nava says he's found a way to emotionally distance himself from a project he'd previously been intimately involved in. "Whether we're tweaking the post-production, camera, the color or whatever, it always feels like ours when we're making it. Then the moment it drops, I always joke and say that it's not ours anymore. It's there's, it's the world's. It's a relief."
With "I Don't Care" out and the latest chapter of Sheeran and Nava's creative legacy written, Nava next shifts his attention to a bigger project. He's currently putting the finishing touches on a feature film debut which he'll only describes as "a genuine film for the youth of today" that includes "some big music collaborations." And of course, he'll be on the hunt for his next music video. "One thing I've always stood by is that I love to create stuff," says Nava. "Every time I do a project I learn so much; whether it's other things that excite me or something I want to try and grow at. I'm not one to say 'no' to protect my image or brand, but I definitely consider what I can offer. Can I bring 100 percent? It's more about what I can elevate, and how I can bring my best."