The Restless Yet Unhurried Ambition of Ayinde Anderson

The Los Angeles-based cinematographer talks about growing up in Raleigh, working with Vince Staples, honoring his love of music through film, and the self-imposed pressures that keep him growing.

The Restless Yet Unhurried Ambition of Ayinde Anderson
"Right now I'm in a wave of, 'How do I get to the next level of what I'm doing?'" says Ayinde Anderson, whose most recent work, The Vince Staples Show, debuted on Netflix in February. Illustration by Super Empty © 2024

Like a hungover partygoer slowly re-acclimating after a drunken bacchanal, streaming giants like HBO and Disney+ have in recent years done what once seemed unthinkable: They’ve started canceling tons of shows just like conventional TV networks do. So, when rapper Vince Staples announced last month that his offbeat, semi-autobiographical Netflix series, The Vince Staples Show, had been renewed for a second season, it registered as something of a surprise — even if, artistically speaking, it shouldn’t have been much of one at all. 

The “limited” series’ first season, which premiered in February, was a near-universal triumph. It registered not only with hip-hop fans who prize Staples for his bone-dry humor and stark worldbuilding but also with critics, who called it “visually arresting,” “joyously weird,” and “unpredictably haywire, in the best possible way.” 

Much of that praise was owed to a vivid sense of place and storytelling, clear products of Staples’ childhood hometown of Long Beach, California. But there was also acclaim for the show’s look and feel (or “distinctive cinematography,” as the New York Times put it), elements that, as it turns out, had roots tracing all the way back to North Carolina — courtesy of Ayinde Anderson, the 29-year-old, Raleigh-raised cinematographer who shot three of its five episodes.

Now based in Los Angeles, Anderson’s nonchalant demeanor belies a latent hyperactivity. When I talked to him via Zoom earlier this month, it was one of the first truly free days he’d had in weeks. “This is the only thing I have to do today,” he tells me, with the unmistakable relief of someone without plans. 

Fifteen years ago, when Anderson was a student at Broughton High School, things were simpler. He remembers a laid-back, distinctly North Carolinian lifestyle of aimlessly riding bikes and walking around downtown Raleigh with friends; nothing to do and no specific place to be. Back then, his creative passion wasn’t film, it was music, playing percussion in the school’s marching, symphonic, and jazz bands. 

“That’s what I thought that I was going to do with my life,” he says. “[But] what I found through taking some film classes in high school, and getting to a certain point with music, I realized I just didn't enjoy enough of it to create a career out of it… I did it because I had to do it, but I never was like, ‘This is amazing.’”

Anderson loved music, just not the monotony and isolation that often came with practicing it. Soon, he was indulging that passion in a new, more communal way, making music videos with friends like Ace Henderson, Chubbz and Mikey Sharks, artists whose names many Triangle hip-hop fans would recognize today. It was everything he loved about music, without the things he didn’t.    

“When I would get with my friends and make little dance videos, music videos. [Later on] sitting in front of the computer, [I was] almost reliving that. Even though I was alone, I was still with my friends. Hours were going by, and I didn't feel like I was forcing myself to get something done.”

As those hours turned to months and years, Anderson would first land in Winston-Salem to study film at UNC School of the Arts, then in Los Angeles for an MFA from the American Film Institute. He quickly notched his first major credit, Director of Photography on the Fader-sponsored short film Summer of '17, laying the groundwork for additional shorts, commercials, and more in the years to come.

Anderson had never worked in TV before landing the DP role on The Vince Staples Show, but to call the series his “big break” — given that his work to date includes ad campaigns for Savage x Fenty and Carhartt, music videos for Drake and Tems, and feature films starring Vince Vaughn and Pam Grier — would be a stretch. It's merely the latest in a string of breaks that continue to push the young cinematographer out of his comfort zone, something he not only welcomes but intentionally invites: “I like to be faced with circumstances that only allow me to pass or fail," he says.

You’ve worked on a wide range of projects, from documentaries and features, like North Hollywood with Vince Vaughn, to music videos for artists like Drake, Leon Bridges, and Tems. In what ways was The Vince Staples Show different from what you’d worked on in the past, and what was Vince like as a collaborator?

It was a really unique experience because it was my first time doing anything in TV, which is a different sort of machine and a different pace. You’re trying to capture such a wide range of moments that happen in a more cyclical nature. In a feature when you're filming, for example, the big action sequences — once you accomplish those, it's over, you check that box off, and then you're able to move forward into the more emotional things, the lighthearted things or whatever. TV was very much like, you do some big action sequence or some big comedy scene with a bunch of people, and then the next week, you have to figure out how to do that again — but it’s a different set of people, and you're kind of revisiting similar challenges and situations. Also more uniquely, this season is these very “bottleneck” episodes — the world that exists with the bank robbery scene, for example, doesn't exist or come back in any of the other episodes. So, in a way, it was similar to long-form projects that I had done, but it was also unique in that you're still trying to find some sort of cohesion across episodes that don't quite tie in together thematically or visually.

Vince flees from an unhinged childhood rival in The Vince Staples Show's final episode, "White Boy."

As far as Vince, I feel like he’s one of the most involved artists taking on that role of showrunner, producer, writer, and everything else. He was there on all the scouts, he was rehearsing in those conversations. He was even there when we were doing the color grade sessions — we're there for like a week, sitting down with a colorist for eight hours a day. And he's at least there on a Zoom feed, listening and adding input when there's going to be input. It was really nice to have somebody who is taking that title, but also owning that title, and taking in a lot of education as well. So it wasn't just like, “I know what I want to do, and I just want everybody to do what it is I want to do,” but was really more “I have these ideas, and here's my hope and my aim, but I want to soak in the expertise and knowledge that I’ve surrounded myself with.” It was a really cool combination of elements that I think was a great starting point for me to get into TV.

Vince is also known for that very deadpan persona. I think of things like Curb Your Enthusiasm where someone's playing a version of themselves. In the time working with him on set, or in the work sessions you mentioned, how much did you find him to be like the version of himself on the show?

Honestly, not too far off. I mean, obviously, it's exaggerated, but a lot of the conceptual ideas or even the witty responses and things that might not even be coming from his character in particular, like what some other person might say in response to Vince's character, is something that he thought of. He’s a genius in a way, where you'll be talking about a scene or whatever, and he'll fire off like five things that just seem to come out of his mind. And you're like, “Why is your brain working that way? How are you thinking that way?” That's not a character. I think it’s genuinely a pretty close version to himself.

I was wondering about your influence on these projects, like when and where you’re able to advocate for something or push it a certain way. Are there any particular shots or sequences on this show or on other things recently where you got to do a thing the way you envisioned?

I think ultimately my role, and the way I see a lot of the roles surrounding the director, are advisors and enhancers. I'm looking first for an understanding of “What is this world supposed to feel like?” When you watch Euphoria — anybody can watch that show and go, “Wow, look at the visual potency of the world.” For me, say with The Vince Staples Show, there was a lot of aim from Vince and the rest of the team to figure out, “How do we boost this up visually? How do we add layers, what can we do with the camera that helps add some sort of flavor and character to the world that's not just the dialogue?” And so, you know, the director that I was working with primarily, Ben Younger, and then when I worked with Will S. Smith, we would sort of just block out the scene as it was written and we would look for the most visually interesting way to achieve those goals.

Vince has a calm conversation with a bank robber in Episode 2, "Black Business."

In the bank, for example, the moment when the robbers came in — we always thought that it would be both funny and thrilling if it felt like you were in some big action movie. We dialed up these big crane and Steadicam moves to lead them in, and we're looking at them from high above like this grandiose, over-the-top action thriller. And then we balance it with the moment where the robber becomes the homie, and they start to have this whole funny, “Oh, shit, how’s your mom doing?” conversation. You can see in the background, the other robbers still corralling a lot of the patrons, while the two of them are just having this old-time catch-up, chit-chat thing. 

Moments like that are very conscious conversations that we have when we're just trying to figure out how to contribute to either the humor or the suspense or the surrealness, like when the janitor is up there sweeping in the dark — that was a moment where we looked over and said, “Hey, what do you guys think if when he rounds the corner, it just becomes a sort of ominous, moody, light-flickering, semi-horror film thing that doesn't exist anywhere else in the world?” Because it is weird — like who is this guy giving this monologue and being all eerie? Why don't we just lean into that? So, it happens in every scene, whether the cinematography feels extra flamboyant, or it feels simple, those are all decisions either way.

Yeah, that moment definitely feels like it could be its own movie, like there could be a whole episode about that guy and what's going on with him in a very Jordan Peele-like universe.

Exactly, you’re like, “What the fuck just happened?” But then you just leave it and it’s like, we’ve gotta continue on to the next.

How did growing up in North Carolina, specifically Raleigh, impact your creative career? 

I was born in New York. I lived there till I was eight years old, and a lot of my family are New Yorkers. I was talking to one of my cousins who’s in his 20s now, and he was saying how when he graduated college, he moved to Florida. Being in New York for that long around, especially all his friends, they were never satisfied with anything. It was always, “I need to do more, be more, go to this specific place, be at a specific thing at a specific time.”Just a non-stop pursuit of something. And I don't think that we necessarily have that in North Carolina — not in a non-ambitious way, but in a way that we just value something else.

I think what I'm left with from North Carolina, and in working with close friends of mine who are also from North Carolina… there's a certain comfort and peace with just enjoying your day, or just finding a way to go outside or go for a bike ride, you know? Me and all my friends used to just walk around downtown [Raleigh], nowhere to be, nothing that we were looking to do, just hanging out with each other and enjoying each other's company. Go out and play basketball or just do random stuff that wasn't goal-oriented. I think that's a very intangible mode that has made a huge difference in how I walk on a film set now and the ways in which I balance the pressure on achieving certain scales of projects. There's this balance of saying, “Yes, we want to be excellent, and we want to be the best, we want to try to achieve the highest level of craft and execution possible. But, we also want to enjoy the day and enjoy our free time when there’s nothing to do. That's equally as enjoyable as shooting a cool music video, commercial, or TV show.

You've worked on a lot of different types of projects, but there’s a throughline of music — not just music videos, but music-adjacent, like the short film Summer of ‘17 (including guest appearances from Tyler, The Creator and Aminé), North Hollywood, etc. Did you go into film and cinematography thinking that music was going to play a big role in it, or did that just kind of happen? 

That's interesting you say that maybe not knowing the other backstory to my life, but in third and fourth grade I was a percussionist. I was in all types of bands, and that's actually what I thought I was going to do with my life. It was the reason that I went to Broughton High School, because of their band program at the time — marching band, jazz band, symphonic band. What I found through taking some film classes in high school, and getting to a certain point with music, I realized I just didn't enjoy enough of it to create a career out of it. All of the practicing, the hours that you have to spend memorizing music alone, in a room, tucked away somewhere — I just never enjoyed it. I did it because I had to do it, but I never was like, “This is amazing.” When I would get with my friends, and make little dance videos, music videos — sitting in front of the computer... hours were going by and I didn't feel like I was forcing myself to get something done. What I found eventually was that I could still have music through film. I’ve had the fortune of going to concerts, filming documentaries, and being around certain artists in recording sessions. I did this project for Adidas, for example, that was called “Songs From Scratch.” And they just got two artists together — at that time, it was Brent Faiyaz and DJ Dahi. They had never worked together before, and the whole concept of the commercial was just to film them making music together.

Like [Mass Appeal’s] Rhythm Roulette, but with two people. 

Yeah, exactly. It was two days; I sat there while DJ Dahi was going through beats on his computer, and we were just hearing all these things until Brent’s finally like, “Oh, maybe that one, and maybe we pitch it down, maybe we do that.” It was an amazing ticket into the thing that I love, musically, without having to do all the stuff that I didn't love about music.

Now that you’ve gotten more established, what over the next 10 years or so, motivates you?  Seeking the bigger projects and the bigger budgets, or is it smaller and more indie stuff?

I don't feel like I've ever [thought], “I want to win an Oscar,” or, “I’ll have success once I shoot a superhero movie,” or anything like that. For me, I’ve moved through [my] career similar to how I feel like we moved walking around downtown Raleigh, which was just like, there's not a goal per se, but we know we want to have fun. So, as things pop up in our path, we’ll engage with them and find enjoyment in that.

Right now I'm in a wave of, “How do I get to the next level of what I'm doing?” It's a conversation that I've had with myself, with my agents, my girlfriend, and my friends. [I’m] trying to become better, because the comfort and contentment that I've had previously has worn off. And eventually, once I get to that next level, I’ll hit another point of like, “Ah, this is great! Look at this. This other set of worlds and creative and traveling is happening. I have money in my account that I haven't had before. I've had experiences that I've never had before. This is great! Why would I ask for more?” Eventually, that sort of wears off for me, and I go, “OK, either all this the rest of my life, or I gotta figure out how to become better.” I don't want to become worse, you know?

So that manifests in more responsibility? Bigger budgets? What things mean “next level” to you?

It’s a moving target, for sure. I think at the core of it is the idea of putting myself in circumstances that make me go, “I don't know if I can achieve this,” or “I don't know if I can accomplish this,” or “I don't know if I'm at the caliber of that director or that artist.” But instead of shying away from that moment, it's taking that opportunity. Or it’s putting something on myself. My girlfriend and I, for example, we just bought a house. The money that we're paying to stay in the house is well beyond any money that I've had to pay before. One of the conversations that we had consciously was saying, “Well, once we have this thing, the only outcome for both of our personalities is that it's going to push us to do more and to become more, and to become better at what it is we're doing.” So, for me, I almost force myself to be faced with circumstances that only allow me to pass or fail…that’s the way that I've kept moving upward, thinking about it that way.

On his podcast, Ron Artest [now Metta Sandiford-Artest] was talking about how he had had physical, tough training growing up with his dad and his brother. They would work out in the snow and stuff like that. He would get to these high school or college or NBA practices, and he wouldn't feel like he was being pushed enough, so he would do all his practices with a weighted vest. That's a framework that’s like, "Well, if I want to become more, and I just feel comfortable or content in this environment as it stands, what can I put onto myself? What can I carry on myself that [makes it so] there's no other outcome than to be stronger, because I'm literally weighing myself down?"

Ryan Cocca is the founder/editor of Super Empty, a former furniture entrepreneur, and a rare Durhamite who doesn't have a problem with Raleigh. He (I) can be reached at, or on Instagram at @youaintryan. This piece greatly benefited from edits by Dash Lewis.