Creating Animations for a Music Video in Houdini & 3ds Max

Director Sam Mason shared his workflow behind Mac Miller's Colors and Shapes music video, told us how the main character was created, and revealed the challenges and perks of the project.


My name is Sam Mason. I studied illustration at Central Saint Martins in London. My first job was working as an assistant to Pete Candeland (director of the Gorillaz music videos). Pete mentored me and gave me my first opportunity to direct. As a director working mostly in animation I was always trying to learn from different challenges in design and how to work from a brief, but I also missed the exploration and possibilities of doing work that might be a bit too esoteric for the advertising world.

I went back to making my own films and started working in music videos where the briefs were more open-ended. Now I’m working with several production companies including Hornet Inc. who produced this project for Mac Miller as well as my own little independent studio of folks around the world. 

These days I tend to be heavily involved in the production of my projects. I like to obsessively play with every new piece of software that comes out to see how I can exploit it for my strange purposes and imagine images I could make with these tools. Emerging tech is an inspiration for me where I see the possibilities with what unexpected uses might come out of it.

Mac Miller's Video

Mac Miller’s family reached out to me in April of 2020 as they had seen some of my personal work and felt a strong connection to it, like this short Little Things.

The family sent me a dropbox folder of images that inspired the story including the objects and characters from Malcolm's (Mac Miller's) childhood, the studio in Malibu where he recorded Faces, and an image of his dog Ralph who ran away. When I saw the images what I had in mind was a kind of journey through the imagination of a creative child. Someone who had a lot of curiosity and propensity to daydream. I needed a central character and imagined the rustic tactile quality of a little dog with scraggly hair. Ralphie could be both a surrogate for Mac Miller and also a character of his own. A scruffy thing that was innocent but had the kinetic energy to move through this dreamworld full of danger and magic.

The Dog Character

The dog had started out as a much simpler character than it turned out to be. The initial schedule was 10 weeks during which we were trying to come up with something that could be animated simply. We created a first iteration that was much more like a plush toy. But it didn’t feel like it could carry the film, we couldn’t really see the soul of the character yet, so we started making it into a larger scale and more complex character. 

This was probably the beginning of the project going off into unknown territory. With a relatively tiny budget, no time, and our ambitions to make something with heft, like a little film that would fit on a cinema screen, I think we were all sort of panicking, but also there was a big dream and we knew we had to do it. 

It took a bit of time, the incredible TD George Smaragdis developed Ralphie, working in Maya and using XGen Interactive Groom Editor in collaboration with our groomer Giovani Kososki. We finally found the character when not a lot of time left to actually make the film.

Fortunately, for everyone, we got more time from the client, and though we were short on money everyone put in a very passionate and heartfelt effort and we were able to finish.

Water and Fabrics

There was no effects budget for the film, so I decided to take those over myself. As a director, I thought that somehow it makes sense to be in control of the effects. I felt like Georges Méliès blowing a wind machine over his set.

I used a two-way split of the magical tyFlow in 3ds Max and impossibly robust Houdini for all the effects in the film. For the water, we used a "cheat" – a Houdini Ripple Solver, no FLIP sims were used. I mixed the Ripple Solver with procedural noises. Most of the fabrics were done by using tyFlow as with its orders of magnitude it was faster than any other method. But for more controlled cloth sims like the Captain characters gloves, I used Vellum in Houdini.

The Dump Sequence

The dump sequence was actually the hardest to technically solve at first, but later it became incredibly lightweight and fast to work with once the system was in place. In tyFlow, I created massive RBD sims that would be influenced by character animation. All of that was simulated in a few seconds per frame because of tyFlow's optimization. The problem was that the sim would never be exportable as geometry. So, I had to learn about coordinate systems and find a way to export an alembic particle cache that would contain piece attributes as well as scale and rotation from 3ds Max’s Z-up, into Maya's Y-up. I did that through a Houdini setup. This was a completely insane way to do it but it worked.

Everything was ingested through the incredible Bifrost in Maya. Bifrost was how I did all of the background scatterings as well. It’s only about 20 objects making up all of the sets in the back half of the film. The renders were nice and quick because it’s all instances.

Skies and Clouds

Almost all the clouds and smoke were based on a few simulations: one was from EmberGen, a more small-scale vapor, while the others were advected clouds based on John Kunz tutorials in Houdini. I used these few VDB sequences basically in every shot.

There really wasn't any compositing, everything was rendered in one layer. I just used a bit of a film emulation and lensing effects in Nuke. By rendering the volumes of the character and the background – all in one pass – I saved on compositing and rendering time and I was able to light the scene using volumes. The volumes would cast shadows or bounce light in beautiful ways.

The Workflow

The animation was a big step for me as I’d never done such intricate character work before. I was lucky enough to work with the most incredible team of animators both in New York and in Paris. Previz was done by Meg Oswalt, Monica Stevenson, and myself. The final animations were done by Daniel Callaby, Clement Pierre, Jim Bierton. The four of us were basically on rotating sleep schedules getting it all done for the final 3-4 weeks before delivery. 

Favorite Parts

There was something miraculous in all the ways the production and the family worked together. We had an incredible amount of freedom but also a sense of weight and importance in what we were doing. Needing to honor the music and legacy of what Mac Miller had done. The challenges are always kind of forgotten though I’m sure they were immense. But when you feel like you’re making something only for a good reason it’s easy to keep going. My favorite part is seeing a team of artists making something together for the reason. It’s not always an easy thing to do in the modern world. Each artist who worked on the film put a real stamp on it and that’s something I’ll be always proud of.

Sam Mason, Visual Artist and Director

Interview conducted by Arti Sergeev

Join discussion

Comments 0

    You might also like

    We need your consent

    We use cookies on this website to make your browsing experience better. By using the site you agree to our use of cookies.Learn more