August 1st, 2017
The Mill worked with JAY-Z, Roc Nation and Director Mark Romanek to create the animated music video for ‘The Story of O.J.’ from JAY-Z’s hotly anticipated visual album, 4:44.

JAY-Z’s concept for the piece draws on the stylistic conventions of theatrical cartoons from the 1930s-40s and highlights the many prejudices and stereotypes of the era. The Mill’s artists realized JAY-Z’s vision using a combination of hand-drawn cel animation, computer graphics and painted backgrounds, collaborating with Titmouse to animate the original characters.

We sat down with The Mill’s Lisha Tan and Tim Devlin (Creative Director and Art Director, respectively) to learn more about thecraft behind the project.

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What was the project brief?

TD: The project definitely evolved. It all starts with JAY-Z’s new track, ‘The Story of OJ’. He and Mark brainstormed an idea for this film where the track would play over visuals derived from old, racist cartoons from the 1930s-40s. It was a very powerful concept to them. Mark came to us a couple days after meeting with JAY-Z and we began developing a way to use the conventions of that style of animation to portray these terrible stereotypes, delivering a message through JAY-Z’s voice.

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What were the main creative challenges of the project?

TD: We knew it would be a challenge replicating these incredibly controversial cartoons from the past in an authentic way – authenticity being the key – within such a short time frame. While the old animated shorts we referenced would take around 9 months to create, we had six weeks from the initial call to delivery.

LT: Because of the accelerated timeframe, we had to rethink the traditional design process. It ran almost like a Flame session; our team would work with Mark in the suite in real-time and we’d make revisions on the go. 

TD: Making storyline and character choices proved difficult from a conceptual standpoint too. The 1930s-40s cartoons feature very rubbery, happy characters, but this piece speaks to serious subject matter. A lot of implications rested on every decision, especially as we were sticking to the specific aesthetic. That’s why, in the end, we ended up breaking away from a some of the animation language of the time. For example, the main character whom we follow throughout the song, carries himself in a more modern, laid-back manner than you might see back in the day.

LT: It’s as if our lead is looking back in time and commenting on those issues in retrospect. 

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What were the main technical challenges of the project?

TD: We used a mixture of animation techniques involving a lot of people, so when it came to execution, communication between everyone on the team was key. We used a combination of hand-painted backgrounds and CG backgrounds rendered as 2D, cel animations, along with other CG assets.

LT: It was kind of cool! It was a mixed media project: CG, hand-painted environments, cel animation.  With all of the hand-drawn character animation involved, it would’ve been impossible for us to complete the project in time on our own. We ended up creating all of the characters here at The Mill, along with a design bible for every character, and then sent it all to Titmouse who animated each character based on the standards provided. Our partnership was essential to finishing the project. 

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What hardware and software were used?

LT: Photoshop, Illustrator, Cinema 4D, AfterEffects, Adobe Animate, Flame, and, most importantly, paper and pencil.

Are there any other details you would like to share?

LT: Even given the challenges, we had faith in the talent of the teams involved. In the end, we knew, it was simply going to happen. We were going to finish it, and it was going to perfectly represent JAY-Z’s vision.

Watch 'The Story of O.J.' below: