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Interview: Jesse Vartanian (JVARTA) on Animating The Ron Artest Story
Guest Interviewer Meleah Maynard Talks to JVARTA Founder and Director Jesse Vartanian about His Work on Showtime Documentary Quiet Storm
Since opening his award-winning design and motion studio, JVARTA, Jesse Vartanian has worked with an impressive list of clients, including Nickelodeon, Major League Baseball, Under Armour, Bleacher Report, NBC and the National Hockey League.
Clients seek JVARTA's services for the studio's hands-on approach and focus on storytelling, as well as Jesse's renowned passion for experimentation and high-end work, leveraging the latests software.
Among JVARTA's recent projects is Quiet Storm: The Ron Artest Story, a 2019 Bleacher Report/Showtime documentary about Queens, NY, native Ron Artest (now known as Metta World Peace), a former NBA All Star and Defensive Player of the Year perhaps best known for his role in the career-derailing 'Malice at the Palace' melee.
Before retiring, Artest re-found his footing, eventually winning an NBA Championship with the Los Angeles Lakers. He would openly speak of his inner struggles, even thanking his psychiatrist on national television after the Lakers captured the title.
Not only is Artest a quiet storm, himself, the documentary borrows its name from its theme song, "Quiet Storm," the work of fellow Queensbridge representatives and Artest childhood friends Havoc and the late Prodigy of rap duo Mobb Deep.
The documentary, directed and produced by Johnny Sweet, tells the story of Artest's turbulent journey — from living amid gun violence in New York's Queensbridge housing projects to his start in basketball; and from his most infamous moment as a professional basketball player to his return to the game and eventual retirement as an accomplished and celebrated hard-nosed NBA veteran.
In this interview, SOM guest blogger Meleah Maynard speaks with Jesse Vartanian — who founded LA-based studio JVARTA in 2014 and oversaw his studio's compelling work for Quiet Storm — about JVARTA's contributions to the documentary, which began with a simple request for a single animation.
1. How did JVARTA land this project? Had you worked with Johnny Sweet before?
Bleacher Report, one of our long-term clients, recommended us for this. At first, they just wanted one animation of Queensbridge. It was just supposed to be eye candy, showing where Ron and some of the other people speaking in the documentary grew up.
But I saw it as an opportunity to break more into film, so I wanted to make sure we nailed it. Instead of the simple animation they were anticipating, we took the design to a much higher level and showed them what we are capable of.
I think that’s what led to us doing the main title sequence, as well as all of the marketing and promotional materials.
2. Impressive, not everyone would have seen that as an opportunity. Tell me about yourself and JVARTA.
We are a smaller, more boutique motion studio — and everything is more of a personal experience.
I think art has always been my path, and I feel lucky that I’ve always known that. I was about 10 when my family encouraged me to draw a picture of one of my favorite baseball players for a Sports Illustrated contest for kids.
I remember the phone ringing, and they told me they were going to feature my drawing in the magazine. That showed me just how powerful art can be — a priceless lesson at a very young age.
I always thought I would one day start my own company, and I still enjoy doing as much of the work as I can.
3. So your hands are all over the Quiet Storm project! How'd you produce the Queensbridge animation?
Their team shot a lot of footage on the street, and using drones. We referenced that and Google Maps to make sure we had all of the buildings in the right place. The Queensbridge housing projects are in a very concentrated area in New York, and the buildings look the same.
To get the stylized look we wanted, we used Cinema 4D to make the buildings from scratch. We made three versions of the buildings, and we cloned them and rotated them correctly. Having three main pieces and instancing 30 other buildings definitely helped our workflow.
We also used Cinema’s 4D’s content browser for objects like the trees.
We also used Cineware in After Effects to properly track in the text graphics, which allowed for greater flexibility when the client needed changes.
The camera move was intense. We started from an aerial perspective and zoomed into this tight shot, so there was a lot of finessing in C4D to make sure that was smooth.
I thought an establishing shot was the best way to show how Queensbridge is laid out, and then we fly down the street to show where Ron lived.
We also show the boyhood homes of Ron’s childhood friends, like Nas, and Havoc from Mobb Deep.
4. It came out incredibly well. How did you work with the director to develop the look for the titles?
I worked really closely with the Bleacher Report team on the titles. I wanted the kind of look you see when HBO or Netflix is telling a dramatic story, and it was very important for keywords, like anxiety and depression, to be visualized in the design and animation.
We would concept different ideas and build out the designs to send to Johnny and his team.
Concepts for the titles varied greatly, and they ultimately chose the moody look.
I love the concept with the dramatic red overlay, where Ron’s eyes and face are mixed with a kind of grungy visual of Queensbridge.
The design with the peephole is actually the peephole from Ron’s childhood apartment, 2F. It’s all very abstract and based on how he has a lot of memories of that apartment; many about his parents fighting.
The paper cutout look was more visually beautiful — kind of an explosion of his memories.
For the Queensbridge subway scene in the opening titles, we used Cinema 4D’s Instance tools, along with volumetric lighting for the headlights and rain-streaked windows.
Our client ultimately picked the last one we did.
It goes well with the song "Quiet Storm" by Mobb Deep, who grew up right across the street from Ron in Queensbridge. This concept visualizes him metaphorically drowning in a rainy, stormy environment meant to symbolize his mental health issues. Memories are passing by and you see elements of his childhood.
The only constant in the scene is Ron, which we all loved.
All the work is really indicative of how dramatic symbolism can be achieved in motion design. Thank you for breaking it down for us... What are you working on now?
We are always working on exciting things, sometimes vastly different from one another. We just wrapped up another project with Bleacher Report: a social media post of an animated Kevin Durant that quickly went viral.
To watch the Quiet Storm documentary, stream it on Showtime.
For more on JVARTA, visit the studio website.
To learn more about Maxon Cinema 4D and Adobe After Effects, the apps JVARTA used to animate and design for Quiet Storm, enroll in one of our courses today!
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