Director Saad Moosajee was last featured on our pages with the music video he made for Thom Yorke. This time, he’s back with another ambitious animated venture for Japanese singer-songwriter Joji’s single 777. Moosajee’s video takes the stylistic imprint of Renaissance art and transforms it into a living fever dream. Created using a single motion captured dancer, the video displays a plethora of dancers breathing life into the historical art style. It’s an impressive and stylistic feat which we absolutely had to learn more about. And so, we invited Moosajee back to DN for a conversation about the technical prowess required in making such a video and how the team adapted to make it under the current global restrictions.

Did you reach out to Joji or was it vice versa?

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

What’s the significance of the number 777?

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 Joji had sent me for the album relating to nature and humanity, which brought me to Renaissance art. I’ve had a long term interest in Renaissance era figure paintings for many reasons, 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.

777 is the antithesis to 666, it is the holy number and has spiritual significance.

Many of these paintings are also known as tableau paintings, which is synonymous with the idea of a living picture, but came about from artists pre-photography trying to paint the human form three dimensionally in 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.

How did Joji feel about your concept and how did you work with him on it?

Working with Joji was very natural. He immediately responded to the Renaissance themes and was excited about incorporating the ‘Nectar’ into different aspects of the production, so that the audience could feel the characters’ interaction with nature.

When I first watched 777 I was convinced that I was watching actual dancers! How did you arrive at the decision to animate everything? Was there ever a time where you were considering real dancers for motion capture?

We knew we wanted to have hundreds of characters in this film, all driven by motion capture, but we also knew that because of quarantine and social distancing we’d never be able to rehearse or shoot with more than one performer. So, the question arose, how do you make a film with hundreds of moving characters that feel human and aware of each other, with only one motion capture performer?

We were able to achieve complex behaviour across groups of dances by layering multiple takes from Maya.

In a typical motion capture pipeline, you’d shoot the motion capture for each character, wait to get the data back, and then assemble the different humans in the scene. With only one performer available, this meant we could never get characters to touch, look, or interact with each other properly in isolated takes. However using a realtime approach through Unreal Engine, Maya could act out the movements of one character, which would be immediately visualised in the 3D scene, and once that character was visual, she would act and dance the next character based on what she’d previously done. I likened this to realtime motion capture onion skinning, where each take represented a character or layer of movement in the scene. Through this approach, we were able to achieve complex behaviour across groups of dances by layering multiple takes from Maya, all while remaining socially distanced during lockdown.

Was it then a case of applying the artistic choices on top of Maya’s performances?

The biggest challenge towards realising the video artistically was capturing the right quality of light across the characters while maintaining the concept of a painting in motion. For me, something special and mesmerising about Renaissance paintings is that their aesthetic contributes to their narrative. I feel the visual and concept are inextricably linked through their quality of holy light. The most direct example of this is Chiaroscuro, which employs high contrast to shape and represent the form of a figure. Chiaroscuro is as much about light as it is about shadow.

How did you apply that technically?

The way typical 3D lighting works, everything is physically based, which makes it difficult to achieve a real chiaroscuro effect because everything gets evened out by bounce light. So, I developed a technique that focused around using many lights with hand tuned 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 dialled lights, tweaking the value and angle of each one individually to mirror an authentic chiaroscuro falloff. So, essentially, it became more like how you actually approach a painting, where it gets built up over time.

The only trade off is that it was very slow, and one thing we didn’t anticipate was that in scenes with a lot of human motion, to preserve the effect the many lights we created would need to be animated. One of the animators Zuheng Yin, ended up individually angling, tuning and animating around 30 of these lights in motion to preserve the effect on the scene where the characters leap and enter into the scene. It was interesting because when the groups of lights were put into motion, the process became more akin to the way stage lights follow characters to keep them illuminated during a theatrical performance.

What’s the future of your filmmaking looking like? Are you animating anything else at the present moment?

In the future, I’ll be creating a short film of some sorts, something cross genre that is pushing new modes of visual storytelling. You can also expect more creative direction work; one specific interest I have is in developing a visual album with a musician.

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