You know you’ve found good partners when you start a conversation with, “I don’t know if this will even work, but …,” and you hear excitement on the other end. That’s what I had in Moth Studio and in the illustrators who created this season’s art. All were game for an experiment.
We knew the art was going to be a challenge, since we weren’t covering one person’s story as we had in previous seasons. We planned to tackle multiple cases, involving many people, in several different locations. I considered a number of visual approaches (at one point, I was even Googling what tarot cards looked like for inspiration). Finally, I turned my attention to our main character — Cleveland.
When Sarah and Emmanuel described the Justice Center to me, I knew I wanted to include the place in some way. But showing a bunch of government buildings was going to get old pretty fast. Colleen Redmond, who works at Studio Rodrigo, our web design team, is from Cleveland, and she mentioned that there were murals in different neighborhoods there. Her comment sent me down a rabbit hole, looking at photos of street art in Cleveland and then in other major cities. All of a sudden, I started noticing that kind of art everywhere — during my commute, in print ads, on the television.
We were all drawn to how a powerful mural could embody the energy of its neighborhood. But could it evoke the feelings of our story? I wanted to try. To get started, we had to decide on the settings. Staying true to Cleveland was important to us. I pulled descriptions from taped interviews, looked at evidence from cases, and reviewed tons of photos and satellite imagery. That’s how we picked the locations and found the details that would make the animations interesting.
Moth Studio is a London-based animation team that I have long admired. They usually do longer format work, but were game to try something new. And they understood that there was opportunity in some of the restrictions we posed.
“The challenge was an unusual one, trying to keep these locations, well … normal. With animation, you can customize things to your heart’s desire, so it was an interesting process. We had to be strict with ourselves in what details we added and why,” Moth Studio said. “On one hand, they had to be an accurate description, yet they also had to carry a sense of narrative to reflect the emotion of each episode.” And did I mention that each animation could only last about 15 seconds?
First, Moth Studio used 3D imaging to create the settings relatively to scale.
Once we had the movement down, they then focused on the lighting and texturing.
Doing an animation, as opposed to shooting video on location, allowed us some important freedoms. We could change the time of day or even what season we were in, for example. Also, we could adjust the lighting, which played a large role in making the animation look realistic. Where the animators placed the source — the sun, say, or a street light — was important. At one point, the swan illustration from episode four wasn’t as vibrant on the building as Jess X. Snow had intended. We threw around several ideas for fixes, and then the next day I got a new version with the message, “We have moved the sun for you.”
Take a look at what the lighting adds in these scenes. See the shimmer in the metal fence or how the swan art pops off of the building.
See the reflection in the puddles along the bus route.
And the way the light shades the courthouse in episode nine:
Once I knew the 3D models were going to work, I had to make sure the illustrations we were going to put in those settings would, too. Again, I turned to Cleveland. The city has many great artists, and I had a long conversation with Amy Callahan, the executive director of Waterloo Arts, about the local art scene and specific artists. I spent a lot of time looking at artists who travel the world creating large-scale murals. I also talked with editorial illustrators I worked with in the past. That’s how we came up with our group of muralists.
After reading scripts or descriptions of the stories, I talked through ideas with each artist. For the illustrations, we were looking for a connection to the feelings in each episode, but also some of the drama and flourish of a mural, a piece of art that might actually be on the side of a building.
Each artist brought a different perspective to the work. Jess X. Snow had done several large-scale murals in different cities, so we were excited to have her contribute. Melody Newcomb and Adam Maida are pros at getting to the essence of a story in their illustrations. The Cleveland artists, Martinez E-B and Darius Steward, knew their city and the issues we explored. Darius, who has murals up in Cleveland, was familiar with the apartment building where Erimius lived, for example. Martinez, who did the illustrations for episodes seven and eight, connected with Jesse from the episode: “I know that guy. I know that moment of talking shit. I know that fear of being targeted. I know what it is like to show smile but feel fear.”
First, we explored ideas in 2D. Here’s one of Martinez’s initial sketches.
And one from Adam Maida for episode two.
And Darius’s from episode three:
But ultimately, it had to work in 3D, superimposed in its setting. This is when Moth Studio came back in.
“Relinquishing control is always difficult with animation as its essentially a control freak’s dream job so we can be a little nervous when working with illustrators and designers outside of our control,” Moth Studio said. “However, we were always charmed when we received the artwork. There was always that magical moment when you see it sit dimensionally within a space.”
As a bonus, here’s an extra animation we worked on for the season. In this, we reflect more broadly on the criminal justice system. Jess X. Snow returned to the idea of the swan from episode four. It’s flying ahead as people go about their business, unaware, below. The animation ends on the Cleveland skyline and Lake Erie.