UnderWonder's Frank and Ivanna Borin: "We had to roll up our sleeves and hustle."
David Knight - 17th Oct 2023
As the company celebrates its latest haul of nominations at the upcoming UK Music Video Awards, we talk to Frank and Ivanna Borin about how they built UnderWonder Content into a heavyweight in music video production, behind some of the biggest, boldest and most viewed videos today - even while being deeply affected by the war in Ukraine - and their plans to keep growing.
It may be based in Los Angeles, but if UnderWonder Content was a person rather than a production company it would definitely have dual nationality: American and Ukrainian. Those are the nationalities of its founders and owners, Frank Borin and Ivanna Borin. And it also runs through the character of the company, from Frank and Ivanna outwards.
UnderWonder's roster contains directors hailing from the USA and from Ukraine - including Frank and Ivanna - separately, and as co-directors - and Tanu Muino, who hails from Odessa in southern Ukraine, and rose stratospherically to being one of the top directors in music videos anywhere once she had her breakthrough with the company in 2019.
Muino has won the Best Director award at the UKMVAs in the past two years running - and after her videos for Sam Smith, Doja Cat and others, she is nominated for the honour again this year. Not only is the feat unprecedented, Muino has successfully straddled the world of commercial success and critical kudos since she started making videos with UnderWonder: the awards (and not just UKMVAs) have been accompanied by views that can be counted in the billions.
Frank and Ivanna have played a crucial role in that success, through an eye for talent and understanding of the ideal path for the director, drawing upon their own backgrounds as directors. In Frank's case, that amounts to many years of experience as a successful music video director, starting back in the early Noughties. His extensive and eclectic body of work includes promos for Good Charlotte, Little Mix, Hurts, Chainsmokers, 5SOS, Tyga and Jack Harlow - to name a few.
Above (from left): Ivanna, Frank, director Tanu Muino and VFX artist Max Colt at UK Music Video Awards 2022, where Muino won Best Director for the second year running.
This year, UnderWonder has gone to strength to strength, and the UKMVAs nods include Ivanna Borin's video for Paramore's Running Out Of Time, and recent signing Jensen Noen's videos for Bring Me The Horizon and Falling In Reverse, as well as Muino's for Sam Smith and Doja Cat. It's an achievement brought into sharper relief with the knowledge that many people involved on these productions (including Muino's partner and DoP Nikita Kuzmenko) are from a country now at war, desperately resisting invasion from its aggressive neighbour.
We will get to what's been happening in the past year, but when we spoke to Frank and Ivanna Borin recently, it felt that the best way to start was at the beginning...
PROMONEWS/DK: So how and when did you two meet?
IVANNA: We met in Odessa [in Southern Ukraine] in 2012. At the time, I was working in marketing as a brand manager for Dannon. We had a commercial production conference, and Frank came as a guest speaker, being a director. So that’s how we met. After, we kept in touch for several years, and then, in 2015, I came to LA to visit.
FRANK: At that point, Ivanna had quit Dannon. Just before she came, she started directing some commercials and music videos, and she intended to take a month vacation in LA, then go back and direct full-time in Ukraine.
But that didn’t happen. She ended up staying and directing 2nd unit on a bunch of videos I was directing. And on one of them, for Good Charlotte, Ivanna basically directed half of it. So weeks led to months. Months led to years. And we got married, so she decided to stay!
If Frank and I both love a song, we’ll direct it together.
When did UnderWonder come into being? And what was the motivation for starting it?
FRANK: We booked Ivanna her first music video in LA. It was $3,000 and no production company or producer would touch it. Every producer said: '$3,000? No, I’m not going to work for free.' So we had to start it out of necessity to start running Ivanna’s first super low-budget jobs.
IVANNA: That first job went smoothly, so we just continued to produce our own videos. The next one was $10,000. Then $25,000. But we don’t count those as official UnderWonder jobs.
So what was the first proper UnderWonder music video?
IVANNA: It was Bon Jovi’s Labor of Love. Yolande Geralds [commissioner of Def Jam Records at the time] gave us a chance as a company that had just opened up to do three Bon Jovi videos. It was our first proper record label job with a big budget. I remember us at the airport on the way to the shoot, scrambling to get company credit cards and set up accounts with the bank while boarding the plane.
FRANK: About 20 years ago, Yolande was one of the first commissioners who gave me one of my first hip-hop videos. So it was cool to come full circle where she trusted Ivanna and myself to run it as an UnderWonder job. And it helped that Bon Jovi loved Ivanna’s work so much that he gave her two videos. She did three, technically, but those first two videos were back-to-back.
It was so cool to see! I mean, here’s Ivanna, this cute, small Ukrainian girl giving direction to Bon Jovi who, you know, you can’t get any more American, iconic rock n’ roll. He was super kind, receptive, and excited to get direction from Ivanna.
IVANNA: He was so sweet!
FRANK: And the shoot was so fun and smooth. And it was there we realized we can easily do this with our own company.
Above: Ivanna and Frank with Bon Jovi, after the first UnderWonder video shoot for Labor Of Love.
You direct both separately and together, as well as EP other UnderWonder productions. How do you decide when it’s a co-directing job or when you will direct alone?
IVANNA: It’s a very organic process, and I think it has to do with being married and our lives so intertwined. It just comes down to if Frank and I both love a song, we’ll do it together. If he loves a song, and I don’t so much, he’ll do it, or vice versa. Or it’ll come down to scheduling, too. We have a lot of jobs, so one of us will oversee that job for other directors while one of us goes off to direct something.
What’s your favourite video that you’ve directed together?
IVANNA: It was for a band Frank had been collaborating with for years - 5 Seconds of Summer. They had this song Youngblood, and I remember Frank didn’t have a chance to listen to it yet, so I turned it on and was like, “Oh my God.” I went to Frank’s office and told him we had to do it. We did the treatment and went to Japan and shot it in Japan. It’s still our favourite because it’s so special and emotional, even though it wasn’t the biggest budget.
It’s the only video we’ve done where I still get goosebumps watching it.
FRANK: Our wedding anniversary was coming up too and we wanted to go to Tokyo to celebrate. So we decided to write a treatment that takes place there. Years before, I had shot in Japan, and discovered that Tokyo had a thriving Rockabilly scene. So we wrote a treatment inspired by that scene. The band loved the idea, so we booked it and went to Japan within three days of submitting the treatment.
Ivanna and I always felt something was missing from the video and on the flight to Tokyo we watched the 'San Junipero' episode of Black Mirror, and that inspired the idea for the trippy beautiful love story part of it. We’re always asking ourselves how we can make each project different. I don’t think the band even knew about it; we just shot it.
After shooting, we stayed there and edited it, and when we delivered it, the band said they cried and that it was one of the most beautiful stories they’ve ever seen. It’s the only video we’ve done where I still get goosebumps watching it and get teary eyed. The whole experience of shooting on our anniversary in Tokyo was so special. We’ll never forget it.
How and when did you sign Tanu Muino to UnderWonder? Had she only directed in Ukraine at that point?
IVANNA: When we met her, she was working solely in the Ukraine and had only done Ukranian videos. She’d been a director maybe for two or three years. I was living here in the US, but because I’m also from Ukraine, I knew about her work. I watched her portfolio grow and get better and better, and at some point, I thought it would be cool to work together, so I showed her work to Frank.
FRANK: We were in Vietnam directing a commercial when Ivanna showed me Tanu’s videos. I remember the exact moment and the exact hotel room we were in as I was so blown away. Her work was beyond anything I’ve ever seen that a non-US or non-UK director has ever directed. It was jawdropping.
IVANNA: Yeah, it was so special. Like Frank said, we’d never seen anything like that before. So, we reached out to her right then.
FRANK: She thought it was a practical joke because, from her perspective, she was just directing these videos in Ukraine. It was almost like: 'Why would anyone want me to direct music videos in America?'
Labels were saying to Tanu: 'It’s going to be hard for you to break out in America.'
What made Tanu special and gave her an advantage is that you get so much for your money directing in Ukraine. So, at the time before the invasion, you could literally do a video for $70K-$90K, and you would get the quality and grandness of a million-dollar video. Everyone we showed her work to was like, 'Oh my God, how did she get these budgets?' She was in a unique position to be able to skip doing any low or medium-sized budgets and start off doing big ones.
So what was Tanu’s first UnderWonder job?
IVANNA: After we did the whole email exchange, we got on the phone, and a couple of months later, she came to LA, and we did a round of meetings with all the record labels.
FRANK: Certain record labels were totally excited about her work. But then labels were saying, 'Well, it’s going to be really hard for you to break out in America because even though your work is great, you haven’t done any American or English language artists.'
Which was really surprising. It just showed Ivanna and I that we really had to roll up our sleeves and hustle. We were relentless. We were so excited about her work that we knew if other people were to see it, they would be just as excited.
One thing that we didn’t want to do with Tanu was have her do low-budget or medium-budget videos. You could see her work surpassed that. So, we held out to make sure that her first one was for a bigger-budget artist where she could actually show people what she could do.
IVANNA: The first person who gave her a chance in the US was Targa Sahyoun at Capitol Records. She gave her a Katy Perry video for Small Talk. And that was a crazy experience for us. It was a long process of different ideas and treatments. Tanu wrote about 15 treatments and we were worried that if Tanu didn’t get it, she’d never want to write another treatment again. Because in Ukraine everything is a single bid.
I remember when we got the call that we got the job, Frank and I were jumping around the living room because we were just so happy. We knew how important this chance was and how much this would change her career in the future.
When we got the call that we got the job, Frank and I were jumping around the room.
FRANK: Even as a company, it was the best feeling in the world because, at that point, it was our biggest video to date.
We did the video, and it went off smoothly and opened up the door to show people that Tanu could not only do an American or English-speaking artist music video, but she could also do a big-looking American music video.
From that moment on, there was no question about if she could do it. Then, it was like - 'Alright, how do we get this next one?' In fact, it was about six months before she got this next one, and it was Rosalía. This came in from another huge fan of Tanu’s from the very beginning: Saul Levitz at Columbia Records.
IVANNA: Saul Levitz and Bryan Younce at Columbia Records were actually the biggest fans of Tanu from the very first start, even before Katy Perry.
Tanu seems to have gone virtually straight into working with A-list artists in the US. What was the key to make that happen?
FRANK: Well, the Rosalía video [for Juro Que] showed off a different side to Tanu. It wasn’t this big-budget extravaganza, but it was a cool-looking artistic video that was still Pop. At the time, Rosalía was just about breaking into the US. It showed everyone Tanu didn’t just do big videos, she can do edgier more artistic videos for indie artists as well.
IVANNA: And after Rosalía, there was a wave of two videos, which happened at the same time, that just took it to another level. And that was Cardi B’s Up, and Montero from Lil Nas X.
FRANK: There’s another commissioner named Kareem Johnson, who used to be my producer about 20 years ago. He was a big fan of ours, as a company, and was really supportive.
Kareem was the other big fan of Tanu’s and was trying to make something work with her for awhile, but he wanted to hold out and give her something big so she could shine. So he set up a meeting with Cardi and Tanu and everyone, and it was this really great collaborative atmosphere.
The most effective way to get our directors working is to create a brand around each of them.
But like Ivanna was saying, it was like a one-two punch. There was also Saul Levitz - another huge fan of Tanu’s - and he was the commissioner on Rosalía. He set up a meeting with Lil Nas X and Tanu when she was in LA shooting Cardi, and they hit it off.
It’s hard to separate the two videos - Cardi B’s Up and Lil Nas X’s Montero - because they both came out back to back. It’s like, here’s the two of the biggest artists in the world and Tanu, so for anyone who didn’t know Tanu, it was like - 'where’d this director come from? Wow.' And for Lil Nas X, it became the biggest video of that year. It won Tanu the Best Director and Video of the Year at the VMAs and tons of other awards.
It was one of those culturally significant videos that just caused an uproar. As a director, it put Tanu on the map of being one of the edgiest, most provocative directors and has since become once of the most iconic videos of all time.
How has the UnderWonder structure allowed Tanu to develop as a director?
FRANK: We’ve learned that the most effective way to get our directors working is to create a brand around each of them. We’ve worked with Tanu to curate a very specific brand where the only person that can create a Tanu Muino video is Tanu. Others can try, but there really is no way to replicate what she does. That’s why she’s in such high demand by label and agencies.
IVANNA: Collectively with Tanu, we put a lot of thought into what jobs to do and not do and steer her brand and develop her career so it’s always growing. We’re all super-careful to make sure she doesn’t get pigeonholed and consciously mix up the styles videos and commercials she does.
FRANK: That’s the approach with all our directors. That’s the UnderWonder approach.
As well as Tanu, you also signed Andrew Sandler - who directed Machine Gun Kelly's I Think I’m Okay.
FRANK: Which ended up being one of the biggest videos of that year and put him on the map. It was a milestone for Andrew since it was his first big video. That video just broke him and made him in big demand. Andrew is one of our best friends, so to see him succeed and be propelled into being one of the bigger directors in the industry was a great feeling.
IVANNA: It’s still one of my favourite videos, really, and it was kind of a pop-punk anthem of this generation which hasn’t happened in a long time. I also think with this song, MGK’s career started veering in that direction as well. It’s just a great video.
FRANK: And on a personal level, I made my career off of pop-punk videos when I was directing all the big-budget videos back in the day. It was the whole pop punk scene with Good Charlotte, Simple Plan, and Blink 182, and then to see Andrew take that mantle over 15 years later, was really cool to see. It just reminded me of videos in 2003!
I know you shot the Harry Styles’ As It Was video last year as the Russian invasion of Ukraine was starting. How has the ongoing war affected how you operate as a company since then?
IVANNA: Well, Ukraine has obviously been a big part of our company because I’m from Ukraine, and we have many directors from Ukraine, and we’ve shot many times there as well. Because it is really the best place to shoot, and the crews are the best in the world.
When the war started, it was the worst. We were shooting As It Was in London. We flew Tanu and Nikita, the DP [and Tanu's partner], in from Ukraine for those four or five days of the shoot and location scouting. We shot the first day, which was absolutely amazing.
Then, on the second day [on Feb 24th], we got the news that the war had started at 6am when we were waking up. It was the hardest morning for everybody, but we kept shooting. It was kind of a bittersweet experience because all of us really wanted to work with Harry for a long time, and we were having one of the best shoots of our lives, and then the Russian invasion turned our world upside down.
On the second day of the shoot, we got the news that the war had started.
FRANK: On As It Was, about half of the key crew and post were all from Ukraine. It was really a Ukrainian production, in a way. That whole day, Tanu, Nikita, and Ivanna were spending time on their phones, trying to get their families to safety, giving directions on how to bypass roadblocks and traffic to make sure that they got out of the city.
So, you can imagine trying to direct, produce, and shoot a huge music video at the same time as everyone’s crying and talking to family. I’ve never seen anything like it. It was a tough day for all of them.
Harry and Bryan Younce, the commissioner, were all very, very supportive of everything going on that day, and they were being as helpful as they could possibly be. And luckily, we had a great team on it. Despite that second day, it went smoothly. But it was tough.
IVANNA: Ukraine was our favourite places to shoot whenever the budget couldn’t afford to shoot in LA. And that option is out of the picture at the moment.
However, we have brought a couple of jobs to the Ukraine for a couple of directors who live there to shoot without an artist present. We’re trying to support as much as we can. We’ve hired someone from Ukraine to work with us full-time, and we still keep working with all our Ukrainian teams. Pretty much the majority of all our VFX is done by Ukrainian artists.
Getting on to work nominated at this year's UKMVAs: how did Tanu connect with Sam Smith, and what were the big challenges on the production of I’m Not Here To Make Friends?
IVANNA: It was through our UK rep Alexa Haywood and commissioner James Hackett that we found out that Sam Smith was a huge fan of Tanu’s. So we flew Tanu to London to meet Sam in person. They hit it off right away, and started talking ideas from that first meeting.
The biggest challenge that made us a bit nervous was shooting this big of a video with this amount of dancers and choreography at a castle over Chrtistmas in the UK when everything was booked up for Christmas parties. It wasn’t a small footprint either with tons of trucks and a massive crane lifting a helicopter over the castle. So keeping our shoot under wraps was the biggest challenge.
FRANK: We ended up shooting at the Ashridge House, which was once a royal residence to King Henry VIII. But we had to share the location with all the prim Christmas parties going on all around us. It was hilarious when by accident a few stray partygoers in their suits and gowns occasionally walked into the wrong “party” and witnessed our cast of scantily clad dancers in sexy Liberace-inspired Marie Antoinette outfits gyrating around.
Was there a lot of nervousness about some of the risque content of the video?
FRANK: There wasn’t any nervousness, it was all excitement! It’s not often a record label on such a big budget video encourages the artist and director to be as risque as possible. So when a label gives you that opportunity, you take it! The best and most iconic videos ever made are the controversial ones… Madonna. Lil Nas X. Cardi B. Nine Inch Nails. And we got to add Sam Smith onto that list!
The majority of all our VFX is done by Ukrainian artists.
Ivanna directed the excellent Running Out Of Time video for Paramore, with some of the best production design this year. What was the key to getting such a complete vision onto the screen? Is this your biggest video so far?
IVANNA: I think the key is that Paramore let me do what I wanted to do and trusted my vision implicitly. Initially, the band approached me with a completely different brief. But once I heard the song, I saw this surreal world, and each set right away, which took the treatment in a different direction. And luckily, the band loved it!
So many videos these days get watered down by too many cooks in the kitchen, overanalyzing every detail until what made it special and unique is stripped away. So I went into this video telling everyone that it was important to make the video you see in the treatment, or I couldn’t do it. Thankfully, Paramore have the confidence from being a seasoned band and were totally down to take a huge visual chance. So they were all in, and I got to do what I set out to direct. It is definitely my favorite video to date that I’ve done.
Jensen Noen is another major talent from Ukraine, directed a gory video for Bring Me The Horizon. How did that project happen - and when where and how did you shoot it?
FRANK: So much talent has come out of Ukraine! Tanu Muino, Ivanna Borin and now Jensen Noen. He’s among the most talented directors we’ve ever witnessed on set. He’s truly a cinematic genius in how he creates the biggest-looking videos and how savvy he is with VFX. And he’s cornered the market in what’s left in the hard rock world. It’s impossible not to notice and be in awe of Jensen’s work, especially if you’re a rock musician.
Oly Sykes reached out to Jensen a year ago, not knowing Bring Me the Horizon was Jensen’s favorite band. They’ve been chatting and throwing ideas back and forth for that long. So when the time came for BMTH’s new single to shoot in Los Angeles, Jensen and Oly already had a great creative chemistry with Oly even hanging at Jensen’s house working on post together.
Tanu keeps creating great work with the recent video for Doja Cat’s Attention and now reuniting with Cardi B for Bongos. Every frame of the Cardi B video is so incredibly crafted it feels like it had the time and resources of a big commercial. Was it months in the making?
FRANK: Ha ha - we wish! While Tanu and Cardi had been talking about the idea for a while, our timeframe was quickly compressed when Cardi got word that she was performing the song on the MTV VMAs. So we suddenly found ourselves shooting our biggest and most ambitious video ever with only a week and a half to prep, shoot, and deliver the final video.
But we’re dozens of videos deep now with Tanu. We’ve been working with the same crew for the last few years, so it’s a well-oiled machine that works off shorthand at, so we were able to pull it together really fast.
Finally – what’s coming next? And any big plans for the next 12 months?
IVANNA: We have some huge videos for some pretty iconic artists already in the can and awaiting release! They’re sooooo good, and it’s so hard not to tell everyone about them.
FRANK: We’re also doing tons of commercials now and already have a bunch lined up taking us into the next year. It’s really exhilarating to be in that space with its own challenges, and have our directors flex a whole new set of muscles with some good budgets to show off their talent.
Above: Ivanna and Frank at the Grammy Awards earlier this year.
IVANNA: We (Frank and Ivanna) are attached to a feature film, which UnderWonder will be co-producing while we’re developing some other feature projects with our directors.
FRANK: Brick by brick, our dreams of fashioning ourselves after our favourite production company from back in the day, Propaganda Films, is slowly coming true!
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David Knight - 17th Oct 2023
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