corporate video production

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

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.

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.

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.

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.