By Randi Altman
Filmmaker Konee Rok likes helping to promote the work of artists. Rok, who specializes in making music videos, animation and documentaries featuring athletes, musical artists and dancers, recently created an animated music video for DJ Aktive called The City, featuring Common, Freeway, Bri Steves and DJ Jazzy Jeff.
The video begins with spinning heads of the featured artists transitioning to the spinning of an LP by DJ Aktive. We then see rapper Freeway moving from one upside-down city building to another, like a kid working the handlebars at a playground. The viewer is then taken on a tour of Philadelphia, with locations including the Liberty Bell and animated recreations of the Eagles winning the Super Bowl. Another Philly artist, Bri Steves, raps some more about the City of Brotherly Love, and that transitions to Common in his hometown of Chicago. Finally, there is Jazzy Jeff, spinning the globe like a turntable. It’s all very bright, colorful and cinematic.
Rok completed The City, from start to finish, by himself during a two-month period. He relied heavily on Adobe’s Character Animator and the rest of the Adobe suite. We reached out to him to find out more.
How early on did you get involved in the video? Concept stage?
I was contacted to make the video by Michael McArthur, who manages DJ Aktive, who is an incredible DJ and producer from Philly. He spins for Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys, Nas, Kanye, Common, Puffy and more. Mike sent me Aktive’s album, which is composed of songs he produced with Ivan “Orthodox” Barias and features many artists Aktive has worked with. I chose the song “The City” featuring Common, Freeway, Bri Steves and DJ Jazzy Jeff as a standout. They also wanted me to work on that song. They left it up to me from there. With that, I went ahead and made the video. So, I was involved as early as possible.
Assuming you did previz/storyboards? Can you talk about this part of the process?
I normally listen to a song and storyboard a video as quickly as I can think, almost as if I’m “writing” down pictures instead of words. It’s an organic process, and I think it brings the most truth to a presentation because it’s unfiltered. I generally try to stay as close as I can to the initial ideas unless something is undeniably better or it’s technically necessary to make a change.
Can you walk us through how you created the lipsync, face-tracking and movements? How did you decide this would be the best way to tackle all of that, and how challenging was this?
I designed and drew multiple head positions in Adobe Photoshop for each vocal artist: Common, Freeway and Bri Steves. These were in forward-facing views, three-quarter views and profile views. For each of those views, I drew 14 different mouth positions. That’s a lot of mouths. Then, I brought those into Character Animator and rigged them so they moved how I wanted. After that, I laid down the acapella to the song and recorded the heads moving their mouths to the track using Character Animator’s audible lipsync method.
Because it was rap audio and not normal speech audio, I had to spend some time doing specific tweaks, so the mouth movements matched with the vocals. Once the lipsync was right, I used my Mac’s camera to motion track their head turns and expressions using my own head and face. For different scenes, I performed specific movements and exported them out of Character Animator as Mov video files with an alpha channel. Next, I brought them into Premiere Pro to stitch it together.
I love the section of the video that gives a nod to the game Operation. Can you talk about how that idea came about?
Thanks! Yeah, that was a fun one. My intention was to tell Freeway’s actual story quickly and lightly. In real life, he had kidney failure and received a transplant — a serious thing, no doubt. I thought, what’s the most efficient and appealing way to get this across to the audience? Since the board game Operation is ubiquitous across generations, when you watch the video, you get it right away, and because it’s unexpected, it demands a smile. It’s a great example of a best-case-scenario marriage between information and entertainment.
A funny thing about that scene is that a few days before the video was released, Freeway shared an Instagram video of himself at a kidney health awareness event playing with a life size Operation-style game. Crazy. On top of that, there’s another animated scene wherein Freeway is hammering a bell at the 76ers arena to open an NBA game, a new tradition for Philly natives before each game. That was imagined months before, and then literally the last 76ers game before coronavirus shut down the NBA, Freeway was asked to ring the bell, and he shared it on social media right before the music video release. All coincidence! Life imitates art imitates life.
How closely did you work with DJ Aktive? How often were you showing him scenes? Was that done remotely?
It was entirely remote. I was at home in Chicago, and Aktive was DJing in Las Vegas for Janet Jackson. I sent a few behind the scenes of unfinished animated line art but kept the video mostly a mystery. I made that choice because the way the video is structured; it lends itself to be viewed as a whole for maximum impact instead of spoiling it in bits. Thankfully, he was patient and trusting that I was doing something he would like. It worked out because I was not asked to change anything, and Common, Freeway, Bri Steves and DJ Jazzy Jeff all loved the video.
Had you used Character Animator before, and how did this tool allow you to accomplish this all yourself and in two months’ time? And what about the other Adobe tools?
I used Character Animator sparingly on a documentary we premiered at Cannes called Beyond Driven, directed by Vincent Tran and Riyaana Hartley. This is where I started to become familiar with it. That experience encouraged me to dive in fully and alter my traditional workflow to incorporate it.
Committing to it for this project forced me to learn more, which I always try to do with every project. Motion capture and lipsync automated a lot of the parts that I normally do manually, which made it more efficient in many ways. There’s also a unique quality of performance you get in the characters which I really like.
Premiere is where I structure the presentation. Photoshop is where I drew and developed the ideas for the final visuals. There’s heavy usage of the “animated timeline” in Photoshop and great attention to framing and timing in Premiere Pro. The back and forth between them is a sweet relationship. I would say they are more than friends.
Had you ever created anything like this before?
I wouldn’t say I created anything like The City before, necessarily, because I always want to do something new. It’s definitely a cousin of other projects. Right now, a video I did for Avery Sunshine called I Got Sunshine comes to mind when I think about a project I’ve done that also has continuous movement from start to finish. You can check that out on my site.
You’ve done both live-action and animated projects. How do you decide which way to go and can you talk about what you like about working in both areas?
Since I love both, I do a lot of live-action/animation hybrid videos. What I love about live action is the adventures you have working with other people in a physical environment. It’s very challenging and there is always a story about overcoming struggles.
Whenever I get together with my cinematographer, Jason “Intel” Deuchler, we’re always laughing about crazy situations we’ve been in. I love that. Deciding on live or animation is sometimes about what someone is asking for in a project, or other times it’s simply about logistics. I originally wanted The City to be live action, but it was too difficult to get everyone in one place. Oftentimes, it’s also about sensibility; what does this song feel like it should be visually?
Finally, any words of wisdom for young creators just starting out?
Strive to do what you haven’t seen. Always try something that you don’t know how to do so you force yourself into a corner where you have no choice but to figure it out. Keep working even when it seems like it’s not going well. You can gain a lot of satisfaction if you go by those affirmations. I know I have.
Randi Altman is the founder and editor-in-chief of postPerspective. She has been covering production and post production for more than 20 years.