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Interview: ‘Happy Seoul’ breathes new life into the Pharrell video phenomenon

happy-seoul-ma-group-shot
(photo: Johan Ahn)

Few songs have caused as much of an international pop culture sensation as Pharrell’s 2013 hit single “Happy,” which quickly became one of the best-selling singles of all time, is a resounding commercial and critical success, and has already inspired numerous cover versions. But perhaps the most remarkable quality of the song is the way that it has spawned a trail of videos from different regions and cities around the globe, creating a sense of the world being united by the infectious joy of dancing and clapping along to a single song.

Enter fall of 2014 and the “Happy” phenomenon shows no signs of letting up. Roll the Dice Pictures, a film production company run by a collective of expatriate filmmakers based in Seoul, Korea, has just released what seeks to be the definitive “Happy” video from this spot on the map, “Happy Seoul.” From its opening shots this video makes it clear that it isn’t interested in being just your ordinary, garden variety “Happy” video. It’s aiming to be one of the best out there period.

I had a chance to do an interview with the director of “Happy Seoul,” Raoul Dyssell, who also happens to be one of the co-directors of Amiss, a film that we’ve reviewed here on this site previously.


PM: Given that there were already a lot of “Happy” videos out there, what made you want do another one?

RD: Music is a lifesaver. This year’s been tough for me, especially after starting my own company. At one point I wanted to give up. Then I saw Pharrell’s performance of “Happy” at the Oscars which was so inspiring. I’ve been a fan of his since Clones. Anyway, the song saved my life in that it inspired me not to give up. Then I discovered 24hoursofhappy.com, and I was f**king blown away. This was a damn brilliant and beautiful thing. And then he invited the world to make videos, and it was truly amazing. What makes the song so universal is not just its message; it’s the music itself, in that it makes anything look awesome. A sh**ty quality vid of a guy dancing with a plant shot shakily on an iPhone looks great when it’s cut to the song.  I watched so many of the videos, but it was only after “Happy Cape Town” that I thought about making my own video. Just by the quality of it, you’d think Pharrell himself commissioned it. It’s so good. And it happens to be the city where I was born. And my good friends Nicki and Shamiel made it. So I really wanted to make something on the same level, or close to it, and then after Nicki and I were Skyping one evening, he officially challenged me to make a video for Seoul.

Ultimately, it was the Sewol tragedy that really compelled me to do it in the end. So many innocent people, so many children, were lost that day and it broke my heart.  I really wanted to inject some happy energy into the city so I decided I was going to do it. But I couldn’t at the time, because, one, it was still quite chilly and if I was going to make a Happy video, it was going have to capture a summer vibe, and two, I was fu**king broke. I knew that to do it the way I wanted to, I needed a team, I needed a decent camera and a Gimbal, and I needed permits from the city, because there were places I wanted to shoot in that you just couldn’t shoot in without a permit. So I waited, and saved. Closer to the time of shooting, I approached the city and asked them if they would support my project by helping me to obtain permits and sponsor equipment. Surprisingly enough, they did it. It was awesome! I really couldn’t have done this without their support. The next step was getting an awesome team together.

happy-seoul-production-team
(photo: Johan Ahn)

PM: Were there any particular qualities about the city of Seoul that you tried to convey in this video?

RD: Seoul is global. That was the message going in. We were going to capture a global Seoul, the way it really is. People not living here would never guess that there is such diversity in Korea’s capital city. Seoul isn’t just “Gangnam Style.” It’s that plus a million other things. It’s Asian, black, white, latino, Arabic… heck, it’s everything. It’s not just high rise buildings and neon lights, it’s graffitied parks and mountains. I’ve lived here for three years. My wife is Korean. I feel I have a pretty good grasp on the culture here, and the sub-cultures that exist alongside it. The #HappySeoul team was also made up of a group of individuals from all over the place. I, for one, am South African. Allan, my lead producer, is Korean American, while Daniel,  the director of photography, is from Chicago. Ma Abena, the choreographer, is African American with roots in Ghana, and one of the other co-producers is ethnically Korean but Zimbabwean by nationality. We didn’t deliberately plan it that way. That’s just the way it happened. And thank goodness for that.

 PM: I understand a lot of people stepped up to help with this project. Would you like to send some shout-outs to them?

RD: Yes, absolutely. There’s no “I” in team and #HappySeoul is no exception. This video came together because of the individual players involved. When it was just an idea in my head, I honestly had no idea how I was going to pull it off. I mean no one got paid to do this. It was a total labor of love. We shot the video in seven days over the course of a month, but on the days we weren’t shooting, we were hustling people together to come and clap, dance and sing along for the video.

I especially have to thank my fellow lead producer, Allan Choi, who was my backbone for the entire project. Usually people like to give credit to the directors, but it’s the producers who really make things happen so that the director can do his or her job with ease. Joohee Shim, Woonjong Jeon, Bo Kyoung Choi and Esther Jie were just amazing co-producers who helped share the load with Allan and I. Then, I have to take my hat off to two other people, my loyal director of photography, Daniel Smukalla, who breathes life into all my crazy ideas, and Ma Abena, our choreographer, who was responsible for so much of the energy and dance moves you see in the video. And all that pop art graphic design work that we used to get people excited about the project on Facebook and other social media? That was Nick Neon, passionately taking #HappySeoul and giving it an online feel. This video would still just be an idea without these folks.

happy-seoul-group
(photo: Johan Ahn)

PM: Aside from all the people you had on your production crew, how did you get so many people to participate in front of the camera?

RD: Two words: social media. And therein, two more words: Facebook and Instagram. We created a Facebook group and invited a few people at the beginning. We used the group to advertise the shooting days and where the #HappySeoul team would be filming at certain times on those days. And, to our surprise, it worked. More and more people joined the group, and on the days we filmed we had many people  waiting for us at the locations. Sometimes random people would just join us – sometimes five, sometimes as many as fifty. In the shot in Hongdae Park, we had about 150 people show up! We couldn’t believe the love the people of Seoul, both local and foreign, showed us.

Anyway, on the shooting days people would take photos and post them on Instagram with the hashtag we created, #HappySeoul, and as a result, more and more people joined the Facebook group via Instagram and eventually took part. The other thing we did was create #HappySeoul cards. They were like business cards, with #HappySeoul written on them and a barcode scan for the Facebook group.

 PM: One of the dancers that you worked with, a member of the Korean b-boy crew Last For One by the name of B-boy Spunky, died in a car accident very shortly after you wrapped up production. Was that shocking? How did it make you feel?

RD: It’s an incident that came as such a shock to me during the Chuseok (Korean thanksgiving) holidays. I was with my wife at a bar watching a live show, and I got the news, and all the happiness sunk out of me. You know, I didn’t know him very long, but when you’re an artist working with another artist, in those moments of collaboration and creation, you feel like you’ve known them forever. I can’t begin to describe how saddened I am by his death, and what a loss this must be for the Last For One crew. At least we were lucky enough to capture a moment of him in his element, living his dream, in the #HappySeoul video.

happy-seoul-raoul-dyssell
(photo: Johan Ahn)

 PM: What was the hardest shot to pull off and why?

RD: The last shot I just mentioned, the one in Hongdae Park. The long take, featuring the super talented Sydney Langford from Dancing Nine who carries that scene from beginning to end. When we showed up at the park, we just were not expecting so many people. I had to think quickly, because we were running behind schedule due to malfunctioning equipment. Anyway, I decided that we were going to film everyone in one long, moving take. It would start with Sydney, move with her through the crowd, and then end with her and a large group of dancers doing one synchronized dance move. We coordinated it so that Ma Abena would improvise the choreography and teach the group, the DP and I would figure out the movement of the shot with Sydney, and the other producers would gather and position people where I asked. And it didn’t take that long. Because everyone brought their A-game to that shot. We did one rehearsal and three takes and in twenty minutes we were done. It was unbelievable and I nearly cried afterwards.

 PM: Was making “Happy Seoul” an emotional experience for you?

RD: Yes, absolutely. It wasn’t a paid gig or anything official but it was very personal to me. You don’t invest yourself into a passion project of this size and not become both physically and emotionally drained afterwards. And especially for someone who has bipolar like me, the highs and lows were all over the place during the month we were in production. I am therefore so thankful to my amazing team who kept the project’s spirits high when, at times, I was drained of energy. My wife was also a solid rock for me during this project. She kept telling me, day after day, how amazing it was going to be when it was over. And I think it is. I think it’s really going to make people who watch it happy. And that’s all I want this video to do, really.

happy-seoul-silhouette
(photo: Johan Ahn)

 PM: What do you hope that people – both local Koreans and the international community at large – will feel as they watch this video?

RD: That there is hope, even after tragedy strikes. That life must be celebrated. That even when it seems like the world is against you, you clap and dance and smile like you don’t care. Just like the lyrics of the song. They’re powerful. And they’re so true. You know, when I was location scouting for the project, I’d come home late each night. I live next to Gyeongbok Palace, so every night I’d walk home from the bus stop across Gwanghwamun Square and see the families of the victims of the Sewol tragedy occupying it, sleeping there, many of them hunger striking. And each and every time my eyes welled up. The final two shots of the video —the family and the writing of “Happy Seoul” on the pregnant woman’s belly by her husband—were inspired by my empathy for these heartbroken souls. I believe that pain, suffering and melancholy, as never-ending as they may seem, can be overcome by the message of this song.

 PM: Would you ever like to work with Pharrell Williams on one of his future music videos?

RD: Well, now that would be a dream come true. I do hope he sees the video and likes it. He’s done such a great thing, putting this song out there for the world to embrace. He’s brought happiness to my life and the lives of so many others. I hope people continue making videos and that the happy-mania never stops. In a world rife with war, crime, loss and tragedy, “Happy” is a silver lining.

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About The Pop Mythologist

The Pop Mythologist
The Pop Mythologist is the founder and editor of PopMythology.com. He has been a staff writer for the nationally distributed magazine KoreAm , the online journal of pop culture criticism Pop Matters and has written freelance for various other publications and websites.