A surreal journey through a nightmarish and fantastical dreamland sets the backdrop for the late artist Mac Miller’s “Colors and Shapes” music video, released in September 2021, produced by Hornet Inc., and directed by Sam Mason. During a recent interview, Mason discussed his inspiration for the project and use of Bifrost to manage complex scenes with a tight-knit team.
Where did the concept for the music video come from?
Miller’s estate and the record label approached me to create a music video for “Colors and Shapes” after seeing my short film “Little Things,” which I co-directed with Mario Hugo. They asked me to develop an idea for the music video, and I derived inspiration from 80s and 90s cartoons, like “Little Nemo,” an animated feature about a young boy who has adventures while flying around in his bed in Slumberland. I based the narrative on a story that I’d heard about Miller’s dog Ralph, who ran away in Malibu and was never found. The concept for the video came together organically – very free flowing and stream of consciousness – and I decided to explore the adventures of where Ralph went after he ran away.
Did technology impact your vision for the project?
The overall concept for the film was integrated with the different types of technology available and accessible to my team. Everything from massive scatters for environments, heavy cloth simulations, smoke, and all of that data added a sense of scale and complexity to the project, and the concept of the film depended on these effects. For instance, since the story was about dreams and the world of the subconscious, the project relied on a kind of unfixed background that was always transforming and offering new surprises. There were questions about how this could be executed, in terms of our resources. We opted to move forward under the provision that I would handle any aspects of the project that I wrote into the film and didn’t have resources for, entirely by myself. In the first few weeks, I started exploring Bifrost and through testing the tool, I gained confidence that what I’d brainstormed would be doable on some level. It all came down to how Maya and Arnold would be handling massive amounts of data, and Bifrost actually made that incredibly simple.
How large was your team?
I had a small team working primarily in Maya, and our two departments focused on character animation and look development. The core team for all of the visual aspects of production, including effects, lighting, comp, shading, and rendering, was myself and artist Nicole Noelle. Our pipeline and character TD George Smaragdis set up the entire job and helped model, rig and look dev Ralph, the main character. The animation team was lead by Daniel Callaby, Clement Pierre and Jim Bierton, with an incredible previz and blocking phase animated by Meg Oswalt and Monica Stevenson.
Why did you choose Bifrost for this project?
Bifrost ended up being really pivotal to the entire project, because it’s not only a tool to create effects from scratch; it’s also a way to get data from any effects pipeline into Maya.
Up to this point, I’ve primarily worked as a 3ds Max and Houdini artist. This was a transitional project, where I wanted to shift to Maya to be able to work with a bigger team and a character pipeline. I’d previously been working in tyFlow in 3ds Max, and I was trying to figure out the best way to transition to Maya. The scale of the project, including clouds, cloth sims, and massic rigid body simulations, required me to figure out a way to import all of that data into Maya. Someone on the team suggested Bifrost, and I got started on learning it. For heavy simulations, Bifrost turned out to be this incredible conduit to assemble everything.
Please discuss your pipeline in greater detail.
Bifrost was essential and used on almost every shot, either as a scattering tool or as a method to natively bring in massive simulations from tyFlow or Houdini into Maya. Rather than having to render every shot outside of our pipeline, on this project, we were able to render everything in Arnold with Maya. I don’t think this would have been achievable without Bifrost.
The majority of effects, including the cloth and giant characters consisting of rigid body simulations, were created in 3ds Max with tyFlow. Then, instead of exporting the actual objects or geometry, I would just export the particle data – a point for each component that made up each effect. Bifrost would rebuild the scattering system and render it, and you could play effects like the massive giants back in real-time, which was pretty impressive to our team. Those scenes were very light in Maya, because Bifrost is incredibly good at handling instancing and scattering.
Was it challenging to get up-and-running on Bifrost?
I’m not that technical of an artist, so I heavily relied on the Bifrost Slack group to find help from the community. I didn’t know the first thing about Bifrost starting out, but once I understood the tool’s power and logic, it took only a week or two of problem solving to figure out how to bring in the data from 3ds Max. Once that made sense, it was an intuitive process, and I found Bifrost’s scattering tools to be really artistic and easy to use.
How long did the project take you to complete?
The preproduction and concepting stages took the longest amount of time. We started the film in April, and then the main production took about 12 weeks to complete.
Did the pandemic impact your workflow at all?
In the year leading up to the project, our team had already adjusted to working remotely. Part of what made this doable was our small team size, making communication very easy. Artists had a lot of tasks each, so they often didn’t have to wait for approval to publish changes. We were all just creating assets as quickly as possible and building it up. Because our workflow used particle data instead of geometry, I was able to work very fast. I used Slack to update caches, because some of the largest simulations (like the giants) were only a few megabytes, so it was really light data.
Can you discuss more about your background?
I’ve been working as a digital artist for about a decade. I previously worked exclusively in 3ds Max, and as I started collaborating with larger teams, I began using Maya more and more. I’m a real fan of choosing different tools to manage different aspects of production, then finding ways to combine them. For instance, 3ds Max is a tool for me to design in, and now it’s become an important step to collaborate by bringing data into Maya.
How did you get started in the industry?
Early on, I started dabbling in animation and created a short film called “Wild Robot”. That led me to an internship with Passion Pictures, where I worked with my mentor and a great director, Pete Candeland. I always used 3D to design and sketch. Where in the old days it was pen and paper, I’m from a generation who uses 3D to communicate and now, as a director, I use 3D to pitch, concept, and iterate on my ideas. It’s becoming more and more of a viable method to work in 3D, as tools become more intuitive and no longer require an engineering degree to get started. It was a lifelong dream to create animated projects. Growing up watching Terry Gilliam movies and cartoons, I always wanted to do something visual.
Where do you typically find your inspiration for projects?
I work in CG, but I’m inspired by 2D animation or live action films. One of the things I find interesting is using CG as a paintbrush, and a lot of that relies on effects work. On larger productions, effects work is typically the hardest and most complicated part, but I’ve been developing ways to create effects with smaller teams – like with Bifrost. Sometimes that relies on new and unusual software and being exploratory with emerging technologies.
Do you have any advice for someone looking to get started in the industry?
If you’re interested in becoming a filmmaker, but don’t have the resources to shoot a project, you can create your own film by yourself on a computer. 3D is making the creative process super accessible if you’ve got that focus and obsession.