Art Directing a Renaissance-Inspired CG Music Video for Joji

Art Directing a Renaissance-Inspired CG Music Video for Joji

Saad Moosajee shared a behind-the-scenes look at the music video for Joji's track «777», discussing its concept, visual style, camera work, and animation workflow.

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Introduction

My name is Saad Moosajee, I’m an artist and director exploring new intersections of art and animation in contemporary culture. I’ve created videos for artists like Thom Yorke and Mitski, among others. My work pushes the boundaries of visual storytelling through distinct art direction and experimental techniques.

Career

I’m a self-taught director and animator. I studied graphic design and fine art at the Rhode Island School of Design before interning briefly at Pixar and working in the Google Creative Lab. I then went on to work independently as an artist, and formed a style that was the culmination of these different experiences, often using short films and videos to test my ideas.

I never received any training in cinematography, but have always been interested in lighting and art direction. While training at Pixar as an intern, I focused most of my attention towards studying lighting in CG. 

CG Music Video vs. Short Film

Working on music videos in CG is similar to a short film in terms of workflow and coordination. These projects are often low budget, and due to the experimental nature of the videos I usually make, traditional studio pipelines don’t always work.

Music Video for Joji's «777»: Inspiration

I received a brief for the album (titled “Nectar”) which focused on themes of nature, collective behavior, and sources that drive humanity. I received the track «777» and was invited to pitch a concept and treatment for what the video could be. 

777 is the antithesis to 666, it is the holy number and has spiritual significance. I was thinking about spirituality and holiness, while also looking at the themes the artist Joji had sent, which brought me to Renaissance art. I’ve had a long-term interest in the Renaissance era figure paintings for many reasons, but in this instance, I came to them because their dark, fleshy aesthetic to me feels holy and godlike even when all you see is a simple human figure represented. 

Many of these paintings are also known as tableau paintings, which is synonymous with the idea of a living picture but came about from pre-photography artists trying to paint the human form three-dimensionally on a two-dimensional canvas. So there was a bit of a technical idea also, of using animation technology to create moving 3D figures that felt like tableau paintings. 

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Visual Style

The art direction of the video centered around making each scene feel like a living painting. I tried to make all the decisions of the visual style in reference to this idea, that each moment would feel like a painting that was alive. In terms of reference and inspiration, as mentioned, I drew from Renaissance paintings but also from theatrical performances and operas. 

To execute the visual style, I created a new way of lighting figures in 3D that emulated a moving Chiaroscuro effect. Chiaroscuro is a painting technique that employs high contrast to shape and represent the form of a figure. Chiaroscuro is as much about light as it is about shadow.  

In typical 3D lighting, everything is physically based, which makes it difficult to achieve authentic chiaroscuro because everything gets evened out by bounce light. 

My approach focused around using many lights with configured values and essentially “faking” the light by eye, rather than relying on the physically-based output of the renderer. We would begin each scene in darkness, and then gradually add tons of dialed lights, tweaking the value and angle of each one individually to mirror an authentic Chiaroscuro falloff. The process of it became similar to how you actually approach a painting, where the layers built up over time. 

Animation Workflow

To achieve a smooth animation, we based our workflow around highly choreographed motion capture by our performer.

 There were moments of custom animation, like the wing animations and fluid simulations; these were created in response to the moves we established in the motion capture.

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After the motion capture data was choreographed, shot with Unreal Engine, it was brought into Maya. Maya was used to retarget the data onto the different digital humans in the film, which we then baked out to alembic and fbx for finishing in Cinema 4D and Houdini. We chose this workflow because it allowed us to take advantage of Maya’s skin clustering and mass preservation when possible through alembic for hero character animation, whereas in Houdini the fbx's would retain rig skeleton information to offer more control and freedom in procedural crowd simulations.
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Camera Work

We tried to ground the camera in two different styles. The first was something that felt physically held as if it would exist in stop motion. The second was a more impossible, fast-moving camera that would track the characters and spin on a dolly, this is seen most prevalently when the main character has his solo dance scene. 

Challenges and Future Plans

The biggest challenge on the project was managing the interplay of musically timed choreography, motion capture, and digital animation. In some scenes, we had multiple characters, each with different motion capture choreography, props, and simulations. Given that the entire film was made by only 4 CG artists, managing that complexity across multiple shots and timing it to the music was difficult, especially during the quarantine. Ultimately we overcame the challenges through careful planning, brute force, and clear direction. 

I think my next project will also be a short film, but hopefully, something that pushes the aesthetic and possibilities of CGI even further.

Saad Moosajee, Artist and Art Director

Interview conducted by Ellie Harisova

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