Is it stop motion or 19th-century zoetrope animation? Inside the Pharrell, Tyler the Creator and 21 Savage music video

Electric Theatre Collective has us looking out for Buzz and Woody in the Pixar-inspired video, featuring rappers-cum-action figures complete with model Hot Wheels.

Date
14 June 2022

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Have you ever seen a zoetrope? Invented in 1834, the pre-film device – resembling a large cylindrical spinning top lined with sequential images that appear to move when spun – was one of the earliest forms of animation. Over the years, Ghibli and even Pixar have created their own zoetrope carousels from lines of model figures. And now, the 19th-century technique has cropped up once more in Pharrell's new music video, featuring 21 Savage and Tyler the Creator. The brainchild of London-based visual effects company Electric Theatre Collective (ETC), production company Division and director François Rousselet, Cash In Cash Out takes viewers on an oddly familiar trip through childhood toy territory. Partly, because the whole thing is set on an incredible looping carousel. It will also leave you wondering, quite justifiably, ‘How on earth was this made?’ long after its four-minute-running time.

Aided by the Toy Story-esque themes behind Cash In Cash Out, the video initially resembles stop motion puppetry. But, this is all merely a part of the zoetrope simulation. “One thing you notice [in zoetrope animation] is the 12-frame per second ´stop-motion’ feel and the way it wasn’t 100 per cent perfect,” director François tells It’s Nice That. To give the impression of a moving zoetrope or carousel, ETC recreated an organic “jitter” within the motion of characters in Cash In Cash Out, but the video was actually created using VFX and CG.

This concept of a zoetrope underpinned much of the work; for François, the idea of “creating movement from a line up of characters,” which, “as you spin the carousel it suddenly all comes alive”, fitted well into Pharrell’s interest in collectable toys and art-pop. Plus, ETC adds: “Who doesn’t want to bring the worlds of rap & 19th Century mechanical artistry together!” Alongside simulating this stop motion “jitter”, François wanted the characters within the video – including Pharrell, 21 and Tyler – to look plastic, “like out of a 3D printed machine” featuring low res detail at close range. Plus, the director adds, “the cars should look like Hot Wheels diecast model cars.”

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Electric Theatre Collective: Cash In Cash Out (Copyright © Pharrell Williams / Columbia Records, 2022)

To pull this off, ETC had to work almost counterintuitively: they had to add imperfections within the work. Fingerprints were worked into the models and their clay-like clothing to simulate the feel of being handled, and scuffing was introduced to the zoetrope – all while imperfections in movement add to the “slightly staccato motion you see on real zoetropes”, says ETC. “Underscoring everything was that we wanted the audience to question whether we went out and built this thing for real.” This also meant adding tiny dust particles to the film and making everything look like it was shot on miniature cameras.

This all required extensive prep work. Incredibly, for every character and object on the zoetrope, ETC created a CG model to be made at miniature scale. But when animating each musician, they also had to tightrope walking between “recognisability and miniaturisation” – essentially making sure things weren’t too detailed to seem large-scale. This meant the creative team had to emulate the performance style – including mouth movements and mannerisms – of each singer at miniature. “This part of the process was important,” says François. “21 Savage, for instance, has a less animated and pronounced mouth movement when he’s rapping. Tyler, on the other hand, performs with quite exaggerated mouth shapes. Mimicking these and playing with the level of characterisation made the lip sync process incredibly fun, but labour intensive.”

That’s not to forget, in the final work, each of these considerations comes together to reveal a show-stopping looping carousel of moving parts. Watch Cash In Cash Out and you’ll spot rotating floors made of cash, model train tracks and face-swap scenes of a hula hooping Tyler plucked straight from the uncanny valley. For ETC, these layers of detail all came down to a key currency in animation and film creation: time. “Creatively, this project was a joy”, concludes ETC. “More than ever, we’re seeing VFX schedules that are too short on time. This project is a testament to the principle that if you give something enough time, you get the best results.”

GalleryElectric Theatre Collective: Cash In Cash Out (Copyright © Pharrell Williams / Columbia Records, 2022)

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Electric Theatre Collective: Cash In Cash Out (Copyright © Pharrell Williams / Columbia Records, 2022)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.

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