The making of the dream-like CG music video to Mac Miller’s ‘Colors and Shapes’

How Hornet crafted the video for the song by Mac Miller, who died in 2018.

American rapper Mac Miller died at an early age in 2018. He is honored in the music video for his song ‘Colors and Shapes’, commissioned by his family and brought to life by Hornet. The CG video follows Miller’s dog Ralphie in a journey that feels both abstract and real at the same time.

Among several other awards, ‘Colors and Shapes’ has been accepted into SIGGRAPH 2022’s SIGGRAPH Computer Animation Festival’s Electronic Theater. Here, Hornet director Sam Mason and managing director / executive producer Hana Shimizu tell befores & afters how the music video came to be.

b&a: How did you get started on this project, Sam?

Sam Mason: I was getting ready to go take a break from the computer. I had done a music video for Future Islands which was entirely animated. It was about two lonely rental cars after an apocalypse that fall in love and chase each other through this world that people no longer inhabit. After that, I was ready to go and be out in nature and take a break from the computer.

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Then I think Hana sent me an email saying Mac Miller has a video. And I thought, well, that’s interesting. I had no idea where it was coming from. I heard very quickly it was his mother and brother who were commissioning it. I was hesitant until I spoke to them–we really clicked. The whole thing just felt so genuine and the song really struck me. It’s really out of character for him in some ways, but it felt really cinematic and very emotional.

The first thing I thought of was ‘Little Nemo in Slumberland’. They made a film of Little Nemo from the old cartoon in the 40s. Moebius had done some of the character designs. It was a really cool flop that came out I think in the early 90s. It had this weird childhood animation vibe, Terry Gilliam-like. All that stuff was my absolute favorite as a kid.

I’d been exploring that world of dreamy objects and the point of view of a young child who doesn’t quite know the difference between objects and real people. I’d directed a film with Mario Hugo, and I think they had seen this before contacting us.

Early concept.

b&a: Was there a brief presented to you?

Sam Mason: There was a totally open brief. I interpreted the song as being about the struggles of being a sensitive artistic kid. It was something I could get into. I wrote a script. A lot of the work I’d done before in music videos didn’t really have a central character. I was desperate to do that and bring it into something more narrative.

So we wanted to find the perfect character. At first I thought, maybe it’s a toy or a stuffed animal. And then we heard that Mac Miller had this dog named Ralphie in Malibu and Ralphie ran away while they were recording this record. So then we thought, well, we’re not going to put someone in who represents Mac Miller in this video. It’s a little too weird or it feels wrong somehow, instead, let’s make it be the story of where Ralphie went when he ran away.

I roughly put that idea into a couple of segments, where a kid might invent different stories or games or drawing pictures as it goes along. Then we showed that world getting a little scarier at some point where frightening things start to grow and expand. It’s about the triumph over your own demons as a sensitive kid, I guess.

b&a: In your early conversations, did you end up having any kind of discussion about how this will be brought to life. As in, were you thinking, oh, we might do 2D animation or we might try stop-motion or we might shoot some live action?

Sam Mason: We never discussed filming anything or going to stop-motion. As untechnical as I am, I’m most comfortable working in straight CG, just because it’s what I’ve spent the most time doing. Still, we found ways to not have to do a proper liquid simulation or ways to get a whole bunch of cloth simulation inexpensively. For example, we used the plugin TyFlow for 3ds Max. It may not be as fine tune-able, but it’s incredible and so fast. We did use cheats, for sure.

b&a: Hana, how did you assemble the team?

Hana Shimizu: Well, there’s obviously very standard traditional post-house methods of assembling a crew like that. But in understanding Sam’s work, it really does require an understanding of who he is as a director. His approach is to deconstruct the barriers of technology. He uses the word ‘cheat’, but the way that I look at it is really to work with what is available and what is very accessible.

We have to trust Sam’s vision and where he’s going to get to is really what that has to be and try to apply just enough structure to it so that we don’t really interfere with that process. He approaches everything like a film director: it’s story first, it’s cinematic vision first. In the commercials world, sometimes, certain artists are trained to work and execute at a certain level or work in an overly animated way when we work in animation. Sam’s first instinct is to really reject all of that. He says, ‘Let’s move away from that. How can we find other artists who will bring something else?’ He’s really the glue that knows how to connect it all.

Character designs.

b&a: Sam there’s such a range of iconographic imagery in this that feels like it’s from one of my dreams 10 years ago. But I’m curious about how you laid this out. Is it boards, is it key art? Is it concept art? Did you jump into any kind of early animatics or previous?

Sam Mason: We had an amazing combination of storyboard artists, Camillo Clauser, and concept artist, Chiara Benedetti. It was the first time I had worked with both of them and it was like magic from the beginning.

I did chicken scratch storyboards, which I like to do to build it out and then Camillo really worked off of that. I think he had such a keen eye for the storytelling and for refocusing. I tend to frame things up so wide all the time, because I’m so obsessed with backgrounds that I forget the point of the story that I wrote. A few different artists in this project helped balance that out with me in a way that I’ve never had the chance to do before.

One thing that came out in the concept art was the whole thing of falling off to black. It’s a combination of PlayStation games like Final Fantasy, or even Super Mario RPG. Those old RPGs would have this dream space things existed in. That stuff is so deeply embedded in my whole creative being.

After the boards were drawn and we had some concepts, I would go and do a really crude previs. I work in 3ds Max, which is really archaic and the files are hard to even edit, but that step was really important. That’s where all of the weirdness comes out.

We also had a great blocking animation team who really carved the story out of that previs alongside the boards and brought more of a traditional sensibility to it that helped the storytelling.

b&a: What was the next step?

Sam Mason: Then we went into this really refined stage, which had a crew of animators who were from the cinematic kind of narrative, longer form world. Our lead animator was animation lead Daniel Callaby.

We were having arguments about things in how to make the storytelling work, how to go through shots. One of the animators was sitting there reboarding sections, saying, ‘This doesn’t work!’ But I really welcomed it.

One of the nice things about our run and gun, guerilla-style pipeline was that we could have an animator finish a shot and I would bring it in and update the cache and sim and then render it that night within a few hours. We would see the render the next day. Hornet generously kept letting me use the render farm.

A final frame from the music video.

b&a: Hana, how long was the production at Hornet on this?

Hana Shimizu: Originally it was eight weeks. I would say we added at least another six weeks to that. We couldn’t just keep everybody going for six extra weeks so we had to work out how to scale down. In the end, that deadline was becoming less and less about a hard date. So we felt better about pivoting into working with a really small crew and Sam. It was a very ambitious project.

Sam Mason: I mean, I don’t think we had a single shot of the giants even rendered until the last two weeks. We actually found a way to do the giants so they were super light. You could just copy and paste the setup.

We also used every program possible. There was 3ds Max, there was Maya. We were using Houdini for some of the cloth and water. We used TyFlow for the giants and some of the cloth, the particles were all Houdini. The dog fur was all Maya. There were little ways we made it work, like using point caches instead of full geo caches. I think because of tools that had come out in the last year, like the latest version of Bifrost in Maya, made it much easier.

b&a: The dog, as you mentioned, is stylized, but it also has such realistic fur and nice backlighting so you can see the fur. And harsh lighting, too, which feels real rather than too manicured.

Sam Mason: Oh yeah. I got into CG as the easiest way to make stuff, as un-intuitive as that sound. But I never liked the look of it, especially not when I started out. I think one of the things that always bugs me is when you see a CG render and it’s lit like a really commercial photo shoot–perfectly lit, perfect three point lighting every time and way too much fill.

I got into the habit a long time ago of always lighting things differently. Personally it’s inspired by older, 1940s lighting, where you had to just blast it. You didn’t care about double shadows, you had much harder sources. I just always loved that look. I even think that look was around in the 80s, look at Gremlins or Poltergeist. They were really a lot more extreme with lighting.

We’ve been moving into this type of lighting where everything’s giant soft sources everywhere, making everything very pleasing. And with the move to digital, which is much more sensitive than film, you didn’t need quite as much brightness. Also, with digital, people think harsh lights can look bad. So you soften it to balance it out. A lot of CG, I think, feels like it was really inspired or influenced by all that stuff.

I have just found that if you light a scene with a bunch of hard light sources in a little bit of an older way, it looks more realistic. Here, it was all about these really blown out smaller sources of light that were quite hard.

The other trick that we found was that you could just composite with smoke simulations. There were two or three smoke simulations that we did that I just would move around in the shots to diffuse everything a little bit. They even became fill lights within the shots. It was a little bit like thinking about all this as miniatures or a stop-motion shoot.

b&a: Hana, what has been the reaction to this music video?

Hana Shimizu: I think people were just in awe at the magnitude of what came out. And that was positive for us. I think Sam’s really gained a lot of opening conversations into the world of film, which I think was also part of what we intended it to do.

And our goal here was always, how do we pay a tribute to Mac Miller? I think it got a really great emotional reaction. Everyone was in awe and were very happy with the awards and recognition. I’m sure that there will be many lives that this lives.

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