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16th June 2022
VFX skills are Pha-Real deal
Title of film: Pharrell Williams ft. 21 Savage and Tyler the Creator, Cash in Cash Out
Director: François Rousselet
Production Company: DIVISION / ETC
Not since the days of Morph and his pals on 1980s TV art show Hartbeat have we seen such shocking behaviour from a gang of clay stop-motion scallywags. Based on the concept of the classic Zoetrope projector, this innovative vision from François Rousselet follows Pharrell Williams and co. on a phantasmagoric journey through the whirlwind world of the celebrity rapper. Nightmare or dream, it’s wild and brilliant, and the animators are the stars of the show. Jon Purton from ETC told us what it was like to work on it...

 

How are things in the land of ETC today?

Things are good. We’ve got the best group of people and a nice new studio in East London. Covid is a thing of the past and all we have to worry about now is monkeypox. 

Cash in Cash Out is a great piece of work – how much of a challenge was it? 

 It was a huge challenge, both on a technical and creative level. But this was one of those special projects where there was never a doubt over whether it would be amazing, from the moment we read the idea right through to the final render. Francois was incredibly collaborative from the start so this challenge was a no-brainer for us. 

Do you think the boundaries are being pushed in music videos at the moment?   

Music videos are a fundamental part of Electric’s makeup. We’ve worked on some seminal pieces, from Beyonce’s Formation video, Massive Attack’s Voodoo in my blood video, Adele Oh My God, Lil Nas Old Town Road, Skrillex Butterflies  and now Cash in Cash Out. (Shameless plugs).

 We’re fortunate as we get to work on some huge commercial and long form projects, but there’s always been something that feels a bit punk to work on music videos. Like films & TV, they can really bend and imprint on culture and become the sort of thing you chat to your mates about down the boozer. 

 The paradigm within music videos is that complexity and scale rarely translates through to budget. So for independent studios like us, it’s all about finding the right one and making sure it’s a piece of work that is fun for our team to work on and creatively brilliant. The boundaries are definitely pushed in music videos, but perhaps not as much as the glory days. Which means that when you find the good one, you know it’s going to resonate. 

 We’re able to do a lot with less these days though and Cash in Cash out was an example of that. The key is always time. Giving these big ideas enough time to be done with care and attention allows VFX teams to produce special results. 

 

 

Should we see this as a positive or negative commentary on the merry-go-round of the celebrity lifestyle? Did it make you want to jump on, or the opposite?

We love a hidden meaning dissection as much as the next punter. Some of the reaction videos on YouTube are funny and for every 5 great reactions, you find a gem. Someone that’s looking to scrape beneath the surface of the money, the cars, the wrist watches.. 

To find the deeper meaning: https://youtu.be/d8xyfQsIfNM

But in answer to your question, this merry-go-round is sick. We’d jump on. 

How would you describe the vision behind the piece and how much is ETC involved in that? 

The initial vision came from Francois & Division. They had an idea to use the zoetrope as a vehicle to lean into the repetition within the song. But to take a rap twist on a format that’s traditionally quite classical. 

Our first chats with Francois and Division were really centered around a set of performance ideas, rather than an edit or storyboards, which was quite a unique way of working (and a nightmare to quote). It meant that the whole process was really collaborative. 

It was our job to take this vision and translate each motion idea into a set of animations auditioning for the part. As this may (or may not have been)  a *cough* full CG project, you’re in blank page territory from the off. We started by working with Francois on finding GIFs that work to the looping rules, but eventually, we had to bring them to life in previs and begin to audition them much the same way as in a real life production. 

The Electric team would throw out ideas for character loops and we’d try them in previs or jump on an awkward Zoom call where we’d mimic the action in real life.  So many ideas didn’t make it onto the zoetrope, but because we had time to riff with Francois, the whole thing became an open forum to find the best set of chosen loops. 

All of the cinematography is originally created. Francois had a really strong set of references for the lighting and look of each scene which we worked pretty closely to. But this part of the project was pretty rewarding. The palettes were really strong and Francois was keen to try blending ideas so our lighting team had the freedom to balance stylisation with real-world lighting. 

 

 

How did it feel reducing these major artists into figurines on a spinning toy, with no chance of escape? 

https://youtu.be/LE5UktH4iYY?t=10

They look pretty good as figurines on a spinning toy, with no chance of escape. “Honey, I shrunk the rap star”.

What was the physical process of making the piece – did you use actual clay figures, and other real objects?

There’s a lot of conflict on the comments thread about how we made this. We’ve got to choose our words carefully as it’s quite funny watching some of the back and forth. But we can neither confirm nor deny that this whole thing was made by magical computers. You could say that virtual clay was used during the process. 

There’s a lot going on in the video, reflecting the chaos of the ‘cash in cash out’ life – did the process of making it turn anyone crazy? 

As the old adage that’s plastered on every car salesman’s mug goes – you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps. 

Without sounding smultzy, everyone that worked on this loved it. In fact, we actually had most of our studio request a chance to work on it. It was a mammoth project with more objects, animations, shots and renders not making it into the film than did. This was a creative project in the truest sense and because we had the time to really make something special, without an unrealistic deadline.. The process was a joy. 

 

 

How did the creative process work with Francois Rousselet?

Francois is a genius. Every change he made, every new request, just kept on pushing the project forward and making it better. As a collaborator, we were really lucky. He and Jules (EP at Division) made us part of the team and it never felt like a hierarchical relationship. GIFs and references were our best friends and Francois has this uncanny ability to produce a relevant GIF for the most abstract of performance briefs. There were some pretty strict rules around the mechanics of what’s possible on the zoetrope (believe it or not) but Francois’s brain is both technical and conceptual, which made working within the rules a breeze. 

 Was it a 24/7 work flow?

Only in as much as we started this project in the heady days of lockdown and so had artists in different locations and some on different timezones. Whilst the team worked super hard, it was really for the love of it more than the looming specter of a deadline. The timeline that we were given allowed us to avoid round-the-clock work and that really shows in the result. No one is really that good at animating a hula-hooping-woman-tyler-the-creator-hybrid at 1am in the morning, let’s be honest. 

You’ve got three big names working together, was there pressure to get the balance right between the three, and make them look equally great? 

This is where Francois & Jules really guided us. The artists were all super humble and there were no diva moments. They came up with some epic ideas and didn’t really veto anything that we put in front of them. But bringing about a balance to the edit was no mean feat, when you’re dealing with a zoetrope that has so much going on. Francois & Nico (editor) did an amazing job as making sure we had good pacing, good balance and even reveals like – 

https://youtu.be/VLF8-IoI6Qw 

She is kinda bad, tho. 

In terms of the characters, we think they each hold their own. We have personal favourites, of course.. But they all hold up by themselves. 

 

 

At one point we see an ETC branded train carriage – are you thinking of branching out into larger infrastructure projects? What would the train service be like under ETC?  

We moved our studio to Whitechapel recently and up until earlier this month, Sadiq Khan was taking too long with the Lizzie line. We were thinking of taking matters into our own hands. 

Glad you spotted the easter egg though..

Are there any other little hidden gems and/or signatures to look out for? 

We may or may not have hidden this week’s winning Euromillions numbers in this video. 

I like the disembodied hands walking along an endless piano… What’s your favourite bit and why?

It’s a cop-out, but we’re proud of it all. The best thing about a project like this is that the appreciation transcends the need to understand the technical process. From all of the feedback we’ve had and on the comments threads, you don’t need to be a VFX artist to appreciate the complexity and detail that went into this project. 

 

 

Should we be worried kids will be encouraged to live their lives as figurines on a toy merry-go-round, or even to “hit the beach wearing a furry hat?”

I’d be more concerned about the babysitter. 

One of the lads in the video states his bodyguard looks like a horse? That seems pretty far-fetched. Is there any truth in it? 

These cats are crazy. But they do have a shit load of cash, so maybe the Findus generation have grown up now and taken up vocation in personal security. 

 

Interview by Chris Hunter

INFO:

ETC website

DIVISION  website

@electric.theatre.collective

@francois_rousselet

@division.global

Credits

Pharrell Williams feat. 21 Savage & Tyler the Creator, Cash In Cash Out 

Grade – Connor Coolbear @ Electric Theatre Collective

Director – François Rousselet

Production – Division

EP – Jules De Chateleux

VFX / CG / ANIMATION – Electric Theatre Collective

CD / VFX Supervisors: Greg McKneally, Iain Murray

EP – Jon Purton

Edit – Nicolas Larrouquere

Label – Columbia Records