What Heartbreak Looks Like

Jan Sladecko on the making of the 3D animated music video for J Balvin’s “Azul.”
By Bryant Frazer

When COVID-19 shut down live-action production last year, unforeseen opportunities opened up for many 3D artists, including Los Angeles-based motion designer Jan Sladecko. Producer Dan Karp, who had seen Sladecko’s C4D presentation at SIGGRAPH in 2019, wrote to ask for help with a problem. Karp had been working with director Colin Tilley on a music video for reggaeton artist J Balvin’s track “Azul,” but the shoot was scrapped due to the pandemic. Could Sladecko build a team and translate the live-action concept into 3D animated music video on a tight deadline?

The timing couldn’t have been better for Sladecko. He’d been freelancing for a while after leaving his full-time position The Mill, and he was longing for a project that would give him more creative freedom. So he agreed to take on the job as creative director, which included setting up a pipeline for a team that would use C4D as a hub for design and character animation.

All of that nuts-and-bolts setup work inspired Sladecko to go ahead and launch his own creative studio, Zenframes, with “Azul” being the new studio’s first project. “After more than 10 years of full-time and freelance work, I felt this could be a great opportunity to start something new and be able to choose who I want to work with,” he explains.

Coordinating a Global Team
Sladecko’s collaboration with Tilley began when he received the script, which tells the story of a lonely protagonist, modeled on Balvin himself, who is pining for his ex-girlfriend, so he orders a life-size blowup doll for companionship. Despite being an experienced designer, Sladecko found aspects of the project challenging from the start.

“It was just a two-month timeframe and there were nearly 70 shots of character animation,” he recalls, explaining that he and his friends are primarily motion designers. But he made a lot of phone calls and found motion-capture animators and designers to complete the team, which was spread out around the work in Korea, the Czech Republic, Germany, New Zealand and Los Angeles.

Everyone collaborated via a Slack channel, and Sladecko kept a world map open so he could keep track of all of the different time zones. He also adopted a split-pipeline approach to streamline the creative process for everyone involved. A basic Cinema 4D pipeline was used for previz, environments, camera moves and rendering.

Character models were exported from C4D, so that the character animators could also use tools like Maya and MotionBuilder and Marvelous Designer. Alembic data from those tools was eventually imported back into C4D, and all of the shots were eventually rendered with Redshift and composited in After Effects.

To establish the creative tone, Sladecko prepared a mood board and used C4D to prepare basic versions of every scene and animation. He also imported rigs from Mixamo to augment and modify the animations further. Materials from Megascans and textures from Quixel were used to treat some assets that he could use interchangeably in C4D.

“All of that prep work came in really handy because everyone knew exactly what we were going for, and I didn’t need to micromanage people,” Sladecko recalls. “If they had questions, they could just check the previz or the shot list.” Rough layouts were passed on to the three designers who were charged with creating environments.

Tackling Character Design
When it came to character designs, Sladecko made sure the team kept the project’s limitations in mind. “We did not have the budget or time to do hyper-real 3D, so we knew stylization would be our friend,” he says. Appropriately whimsical, cartoonish characters lend a sense of fun to the story, while the stylized environments signal that everything is more fantastical than real.

Light plays a starring role in a subtle way, too, with the protagonist’s scenes being blue-hued in a melancholy way while the more fanciful world he inhabits with his girlfriend is warmer and filled with color. “We had a spreadsheet listing every shot along with the character’s mood, and that’s how we figured out the lighting for each shot,” Sladecko says.

The characters’ performances were driven by a day-long motion-capture session with professional dancers from America’s Got Talent. Both wore Xsens motion capture suits and Faceware head-mounted cameras for facial capture. The dancers’ movements translated perfectly for the animated scenes but getting their facial expressions right was challenging.

In the end, the team opted to use facial capture data as a basis for their work and ended up blending different pre-made poses to essentially animate the characters’ faces by hand. “If I could do this over again, I would find a few good character animators from the start and have them do the facial animations,” Sladecko says. “That would make the entire piece a level higher, and we would have had fewer headaches.”

The most technically difficult shot comes near the end of the video, when the two main characters dance together as the room falls away around them. Sladecko wanted realistic lighting, but the spinning camera necessitated a complex approach that called for many lights in the scene. Some lights were traveling with the camera, so he had to parent them to the camera to keep constant lighting on the characters. Others were fixed with the background, so he had to animate them in and out as the camera turns. “It was a ballet of the lights,” he says.

Learning Important Lessons
Most projects offer up some kind of lesson or two, and Sladecko says that the most important thing he learned from “Azul” was what it was like to be in the role of the client. As he offered feedback and notes to the creative crew, he tried hard to be clear and ensure that they understood that the goal was always to make the project better. He used the PureRef app to compare screenshots from each scene, making sure the color palettes, visual style, and tone would match from moment to moment in the finished piece.

The app played a key role in keeping all of the designers on the same page throughout production, and it helped him give his team the most intelligent and efficient creative feedback possible. “If you can see the bigger picture by looking at all of the shots next to each other, you can see what works and what doesn’t,” Sladecko explains. “You don’t want to be the bad creative director who is lost and doesn’t know what he wants.”

Bryant Frazer – Writer, Colorado