***This article originally appeared in the Sept./Oct. ’22 issue of Animation Magazine (No. 323)***
For the last decade in entertainment, studios and creators have made numerous attempts to line their coffers by speaking the language of Millennials and Gen Z to varying levels of success. Although certain films and series may comprehend the behaviors and colloquialisms of both generations, their content often proves too formal to feign familiarity. Through his new Netflix show, Entergalactic, director Fletcher Moules and his team aimed to craft an animated event that was not only hip to youth lingo but embedded in the culture enough to converse with its natives.
“That’s the language of it. That’s what we’re actually aiming for,” says Moules, speaking of Entergalactic‘s frequent, yet subtle, touches of hip hop and the fashion-centric “hypebeast” culture that permeate the show. Entergalactic — the brainchild of hip hop visionary Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi, black-ish creator Kenya Barris and Ian Edelman — was conceived as an exercise in seamlessly fusing music and narrative while speaking authentically about contemporary romance. Consequently, it was of paramount importance that the project accurately reflect the zeitgeist. “That’s something that Cudi and Kenya said right from the start. [Entergalactic] is hitting that hypebeast community, hitting that connection to New Yorkers.”
Entergalactic follows Jabari, a street artist turned comic book professional (voiced by Mescudi), as he moves into an opulent Manhattan apartment while grappling with feelings of disillusionment begat by his success. Opposite Cudi’s Jabari, both in billing and geographically, is his neighbor and love interest Meadow, a photographer voiced by Jessica Williams. The budding connection between Jabari and Meadow sends both artists on a journey of maturation, allowing them to find professional inspiration and poignant personal epiphanies. The all-star cast also boasts Timothée Chalamet, Ty Dolla $ign, Keith David and Vannessa Hudgens.
Fans of Kid Cudi might feel like they’re seeing double while looking at the title, as Entergalactic is both a classic song and an upcoming album in the rapper’s discography. “[Cudi] wanted to write an album of love songs,” says Moules, “and that song ‘Entergalactic’ off his first album was such a huge, loving moment for him, about a new relationship, that he took that one song and wanted to make a whole album based on that.”
“The main inspiration was … a new way to release music,” Moules continues. “We’ve seen Lemonade with Beyoncé, and thinking back to Purple Rain [about how] you could use narrative to really help release an album in a new way.”
One Small Step, One Giant Leap
The project’s ethos crystallized for Moules when Cudi allowed him to listen to tracks from the Entergalactic album. “I sat down with Cudi in the studio back in mid-2019,” says Moules. “He played ‘Willing to Trust’ and I, like, slapped him on the thigh and was like, ‘What the hell was that?’ I hadn’t heard a song like that. I was so overtaken by the warmth and the love.'”
The experience proved wildly influential for Entergalactic‘s thematic and visual direction. “All that stuff, Black culture, modern dating, love and optimism … that all came from the songs,” says the director. Luckily for Moules, the themes of Entergalactic were consistent with his approach to working in the medium of animation. “The animation I’ve always made is sort of fun, very colorful,” he says.
Moules and company decided to use painted CGI to embody the “analog love story in an increasingly digital world” that Entergalactic endeavors to portray. “This is a piece of art. Music is a piece of art that you have a visceral reaction to,” says Moules. “Entergalactic visually needs to live in that same world. You need to see the artist’s hand on every frame.”
After a lengthy search for the perfect aesthetic, Moules found the right artist for the job. “I was working with Mike Moon, the exec at Netflix, and we found our art director, Michal Sawtyruk, in Poland,” recounts Moules. “His paintings are so brushstroke heavy and very loose, supersaturated,” he says, “and so he was the first guy I brought on because I could see New York in that way.”
Despite the growing ubiquity of painted CGI, such as in Netflix’s Arcane from Fortiche productions, Moules feels that Entergalactic takes the style in a fresh direction. “Obviously, there’s the great work Fortiche are doing. [They were] an inspiration,” he says. “We thought, ‘Okay, what’s our version of that?'”
To further solidify Sawtyruk’s design sensibilities, Moules developed some ground rules for his crew. “So what I said to the animation team was, ‘this whole thing, it needs to feel like it’s handmade,” he says. “So, no spline animation, no in-betweens, no mo-capping; none of that. Everything has to be on step,” Moules insisted. “Every pose needs to be hand positioned by every animator. And I don’t care if it actually ends up more choppy because what’s more important to me is that every expression, every movement has to be a choice.”
Preparing For Liftoff
Like the entire entertainment industry in 2020, Moules and the animation team at DNEG had to contend with COVID restrictions while constructing Entergalactic. “In January 2020, we locked the cast,” says Moules, “and I was like, ‘With such great actors, I want to record them in a room together.'” However, quarantine drastically stalled the process. “We couldn’t record the actual actors until, like, super late … like mid-2021,” he says.
“We boarded the whole film in Scratch, and actually locked boards and locked the story reel, and had the whole edit approved by Netflix,” says Moules. “So, that was the biggest challenge: Then [having] to record our actors, and then having to go back and put that in.”
Although the process was taxing, having a global team of 350 people across 18 countries helped keep the production on track. “We’d start our day in Russia with our fashion designer working with Virgil Abloh,” says Moules. “We’d work across Eastern Europe through Ukraine, into London, and then go across to the U.S. and end all our days in Korea.”
The stunning quality of Entergalactic‘s animation showcases the fantastic talent of Moules and his team, as they relied on standard industry tools to create magic. “All the matte paintings and textures, we designed them in Photoshop with our Netflix team,” recounts Moules, “and then it all just ran through Maya and Nuke.”
In addition to painted CGI, Entergalactic often infuses segments of 2D animation, produced by Titmouse, for the POV of supporting characters. “Entergalactic is a show of contrasts,” says Moules, “When Ky (Ty Dolla $ign) is telling his story, or we have Karina (Vanessa Hudgens) telling her story, I really wanted to highlight the fact that those moments were different.”
By allowing each character a unique perspective, Moules was able to distill Entergalactic‘s macro thesis of diversity on a micro level. “Cudi and Kenya wanted to hire a Black director,” admits Moules, “but there wasn’t enough availability. So we worked really hard on our show team … to hire as many African Americans as we could to help the animation industry. [So] that Entergalactic could be a beacon to help that in our whole community.”
Entergalactic premieres September 30 on Netflix. The project was produced by DNEG Studios, Mad Solar, Netflix Studios and Khalabo Ink Society. Check out the recently released making-of featurette here.