Tough Times Call for Good Feels

Jon Lutjens breaks down his recent 3D-animated video journey, Good Trip.
By Meleah Maynard

The last time Motion Designer Jon Lutjens collaborated with
Director Anthony Gaddis they were part of the team that made Mac Miller’s posthumous Good News video.

The duo describe their latest work Good Trip, as having a similar vibe in that it was “engineered for good feels,” and takes viewers on an animated journey “to the edge of the imaginable universe” and beyond. Using Cinema 4D, After Effects, Trapcode Particular, Photoshop and Premiere Pro they created the video with the goal of promoting feelings of calm and balance.

We asked Jon Lutjens to tell us about himself and the making of Good Trip, and here’s what he had to say.

Tell us about yourself and the work that you do.
I’ve always gravitated towards the arts and, in some ways, I stumbled into the field of animation/motion graphics. Growing up, I spent a lot of time making music as a guitarist and later a singer. I pursued a Fine Arts degree as an undergrad but didn’t finish.

Toward the end of my time at university, I found an internship that eventually led to my first full-time job as an editor/animator at a local production company. There were some generous creatives there who knew the current animation software and helped me learn the ropes. You don’t need a degree to be an animator.

Jon Lutjens is a motion designer, animator, visual effects artist and editor.

Regarding work, I typically do project work for advertising agencies, brands, the entertainment and music industries, and when there’s time, personal work like Good Trip.

How did you meet Anthony Gaddis?
I joined Core AV in 2005. It was a design, motion graphics and advertising agency located in St Louis and Gaddis was an artist and art director there. We were a small group of very ambitious creatives and Graphis Magazine called us one of the top 10 creative agencies in the world at that time.

That was where I learned my craft and developed my work ethic, as well as my sense of aesthetics and professionalism. Anthony and I immediately had a lot of creative trust and have continued to work together to this day.

Good Trip ends with viewers moving out beyond the imaginable universe.

Good Trip got started because we envisioned working together on a semi-experimental, ongoing project that we could return to when we had free time. We also wanted to make something that expanded on what we’d learned during the making of Mac Miller’s Good News video.

Describe how you came up with the idea.
Lutjens: In short, we wanted to make something that felt “good,” especially during the fear and uncertainty of the COVID 19 lockdowns. We’d been discussing whether much of the content we ingest is actually good for us or not. By “good” I mean positive, direct, happy, playful, beautiful, and pleasant, not esoteric, cool, or cynical.

We learned many things making the Mac Miller Good News video. We put in more time in the R&D phase of that project than any other that I can remember. If you’re familiar with that video, you know it’s one long push forward—one singular, unbroken camera move that is Mac’s journey to Heaven.

Part of their research process included these color references from a 1910 spiritual treatise.

Anthony designed a full-color palette, rife with symbolism. After working on it for over three months, we came to feel that the unbroken edit, along with the bright and full-color spectrum, seemed to increase concentration and happiness. So we decided to follow that same vein.

This film is the first installment of what we intend to be an ongoing series. Each new episode will pick up where the previous one left off and, eventually, the episodes will be connected to make a long-form Good Trip. Through the series, we plan to travel to the outer reaches of the imagination and beyond. Let’s see where this takes us.

What kind of research did you do to create visuals that promote good things?
For starters, Anthony and I revisited the first project we ever worked on together; a 60-minute ambient video called The Forest. Good News Co-Director Eric Tilford asked us to do that when we were working on the Mac Miller video, so we did that again at the beginning of this project. The Forest was somewhat like a moving mural that we made utilizing the new seamless projection technologies of that time.

It was projected onto a 50-foot wall of black glass at a social club in Hollywood about 10 years ago. At that scale, the flashing of edit points was somewhat unnerving to viewers, so we developed a technique that used a single camera push through dense layers of images of flora and fauna that were meticulously composed by Anthony. When we revisited the technique for Good Trip, we settled on the term “flow state” to describe the effect.

Color reference from the Toth tarot deck.

Also, Anthony is very interested in spirituality, meditation and symbolism. He developed the color palette based on the Aleister Crowley Thoth Tarot deck, which was designed by the amazingly talented Lady Frieda Harris.

Walk us through your process for making this from conception to final film.
Anthony started by making some rough drawings and collecting hundreds of elements from stock sites or his personal library. Then, he cut out images, and a lot of green-and-black-screened motion clips, using Photoshop and Premiere Pro. There is a certain randomness to the process whereby I drop elements into shaders that are applied to planes in cloner “architectures” I’ve developed in Cinema 4D.

Gaddis typically draws out rough compositions in a sketchbook in the early stages of their process.

One of the many stock purchases they made for the film.

Lutjens populating the cloner setup with imagery as he explores different options.

Anthony adds and subtracts from the imagery pool for color, content & composition and then I swap out of those shader/cloner setups, staying focused on developing the animation of the architecture until we arrive at a happy place. That means a whole lot of effectors and fields. We run a lot of hardware renders to preview composition and timing/speed, gradually making our test renders higher and higher resolution.

I brought the bird character and other details back into the piece, including some Particular elements in After Effects. Once we make the color and grading adjustments we want, I output the final 4K version.

Is there anything else you’d like to say about the bird in the video?
Put simply, a bird is perhaps the most elemental symbol of transcendence. In this case, it takes the role of a spirit guide, helping the viewer travel deeper and deeper into this mindscape without giving it much thought. In future episodes of Good Trip, we might follow different animals or objects. The white bird was a recurring character in the Mac Miller Good News video, so it was natural to begin there.

How long did this take you two?
This first episode of Good Trip was developed from start to finish within a month. Anthony and I have a process that we’ve developed over many years and, in many ways, it’s unspoken. Working with him entails doing tons of research and development until we see something that is delightful and original.

It’s a much more experimental process than most of the collaborative work I do. It’s more akin to the process of painting than the traditionally mapped-out methodology of production. We often say that we know we’ve hit on something when we spontaneously high-five each other.

What kind of response have you gotten to the film so far?
Well, it hasn’t officially been released yet, but after sharing it with a handful of people, I’d say half of them found it mesmerizing & relaxing. The other half just thought it was an updated music visualizer.

Meleah Maynard is a writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.