Inside The Making Of Pharrell’s “Happy”

Creative director Mimi Valdés on the inspiration that helped turn “Happy” into a global phenomenon, right on down to Derek Zoolander.

Inside The Making Of Pharrell’s “Happy”
[Photo: Celine Grouard for Fast Company]

“The story of Pharrell’s ‘Happy’ is about failure, determination, and authenticity,” Mimi Valdés, creative director and vice president of Pharrell’s multimedia collective and record label i am OTHER, said at Fast Company’s Innovation By Design Conference on Wednesday.

Pharrell Williams’ “Happy,” the “world’s first 24-hour music video,” has 463 million plays on YouTube (and counting). But it wasn’t an instant hit when it was released in July 2013 on the soundtrack of Despicable Me 2. Nor was the song born in an instant–Pharrell struggled with writing it at first. “Creating music for film is difficult,” Valdés says. There are hard deadlines, which can be “the kiss of death for creative people.” Pharrell was tasked with creating a song for the animated movie’s protagonist, Gru, who goes from evil and mean in the first film to happy in the second. “After 9 failed attempts, he was like, ‘I’ve got to rethink this. I have to stop thinking and start feeling–what does happy feel like?’ Almost immediately, the chords came to him.”

Despicable Me 2 was a smash hit, with the biggest July 4 box office weekend ever. Radio stations weren’t as enthusiastic about the gospel-inspired “Happy” as Valdés and her team thought they’d be. “Two or three radio stations played the song. Most station directors told us that it’s not a hit,” Valdés says. “So we thought, ‘maybe we should do a video.’” But they didn’t want to make it a typical feature film-inspired music video, with scenes from the film predictably interspersed with shots of musicians. Instead, Valdés watched the scene where the song plays in Despicable Me 2–it’s simple: Gru, the formerly villainous protagonist, dances down the street toward the camera. Valdés thought Pharrell should just mimic Gru. “Pharrell loves this idea,” she said. “Up until then, people didn’t have a sense of his silliness. It would be a great way to reveal more of his personality.”

Photo: Nicholas Calcott for Fast Company

They approached Yoann Lemoine, aka Woodkid, about directing the video. He wasn’t available, but sent Valdés an idea from the directors We Are From L.A. to break the soundtrack-video mold far more radically. “When I read the proposal, I slam my laptop. I’m shaking, giddy with excitement. I’m like, hyperventilating. I’m like, ‘oh my God, a 24-hour-music video, that’s the craziest thing I’ve ever heard of in my life.’ I don’t even know if it’s logistically possible. It all sounded crazy, but it felt big, disruptive. I’m blown away. Pharrell is really blown away.”

From there, a moodboard video was drawn up, and it collaged scenes from countless classic films in which characters dance-walk sassily toward the camera: Jamie Bell as a young Billy Elliot; Christopher Walken in Fatboy Slim’s “Weapon of Choice,” Ben Stiller as Derek Zoolander on the runway. “Who knew there were so many scenes in movies where there are people dancing and moving towards the camera?” Valdés said. “I thought, ‘If this video looks anything like this moodboard, it will truly bring the song to life.’ The video would be a celebration of happiness told through dance.”

They decided to cast “Kids, older people, dogs, every shade of person under the sun,” so long as it didn’t include anything too racy–they wanted it to be family-friendly. Shooting 24 hours of footage took about 11 days over the course of September, and the crew walked a total of eight miles each day, making it an 88 mile long shoot. Each cast member got only one take. “We gave them the freedom to dance however they wanted, with one request: to keep the energy really, really high, for four minutes of shooting.” Valdés knew this wasn’t easy–she showed a clip of her own scene in the video, in which she’s dressed in a chicken suit, “tired and delirious,” dancing through grocery store aisles at 4 a.m.

Photo: Nicholas Calcott for Fast Company

After a month of editing, launched on November 21, 2013, very quietly, via a single tweet by Pharrell. Valdés got choked up as she described the “Happy” tribute videos that flooded the Internet from around the world after 24 Hours of Happy’s release. “Videos came in from the Philippines after the tsunami to Vatican City,” she said. “People wanted to represent their own cities, schools, and organizations, from all corners of the globe, to show that they’re happy too. I was in such awe.”

Before the 24-hour video came out, “Happy” had sold 100,000 copies. Now, it’s at 11 million and counting. “It’s officially a worldwide global phenomenon, No. 1 on the billboard for 10 weeks. If you count up all the views of video and of 24 Hours of Happy, it’s at least a billion,” Valdés said. “It reminds us that the pursuit of happiness is universal; that happiness isn’t hiding in some fantasy land. It’s just dancing down the street.”

*An earlier version of this article mistakenly said that Pharrell had made 10 failed attempts to write the song. It was 9 failed attempts. It also stated that the 24-hour music video was Lemoine’s idea, and that the crew walked a total of 8 miles–they walked a total of 88 miles. We regret the errors.

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.