The double-edged sword of making something your audience loves is that eventually you have to follow it up. When K/DA blew up in 2018 (and became the biggest Youtube debut for any KPop group in history...seriously) planning began for what was simply referred to as "MusicBeat19", a campaign that became the launch of True Damage. Like the year before we had a ton of game content to promote, a solid song demo with artists attached, the development of a virtual group, and the ask to create a music video to serve as the marquee asset. This time though, while we still wanted to hit the same level of quality as "Pop/Stars" we would be entering into an entirely different genre: modern hip hop.
To get the ball rolling I created a series of mood boards for the creative brief that not only explored the look and feel of the piece overall, but also how each individual character's key traits could be visualized (shown below). It's not always the case, but many of these ideas ended up being reflected in the final video. It's important to note that the location of the 2019 World Finals -Paris- where a live performance would reveal the track to players, also played a big part. Hip hop, street wear, and bold design are all embraced by the city and were a great starting point to make sure my explorations were starting in an authentic place.
Ekko's function in True Damage was to represent a youthful, brash energy. He is well known among players for his ability to rewind time, leaving behind a "past Ekko" so his board focuses on saturated colors, gritty texture, street art motifs, and manipulation of time and space.
Yasuo would be our seasoned producer, a nod to his core IP role as a samurai master of wind. To that end I explored how we could play with surface tension, more organic patterns, and flow.
The final board shown was actually meant for Lee Sin, a blind monk who was cut from the lineup later (the "oh shit" moment that became Ekko's neon sequence was originally pitched for Lee). I played around with synesthesia, sonar, sound waves and how visual energy could paint the space.
some of my early mood boards: Ekko (left), Yasuo (center), and Lee (right)
The Starting Line
As much as I was starting to see the concept, nothing materializes until you find the right partner. The Line Animation was a bit of an underdog in the RFP process and they pitched against some heavy hitting studios but won us over with not only a deep understanding of modern culture, but their incredible 2D animation work. They produced a gritty tracking shot demo featuring an animated TD Ekko comped onto a live action rooftop in Paris and I was sold.
For most of the early storyboarding, and later animatics, The Line worked off of rough demos to nail down the video's structure. We would deliver a new pass with each milestone, working in tandem with our own Riot Music Group folks and using the boards above I directed the creation of unique set pieces for each section. As the weeks passed it all slowly began to tighten up. You'll notice in the very first animatic pass below that most vocals are works in progress, some bars and sections repeat, and the overall emphasis is on structure and timing.
animatic pass v0001
The Visual Story
One element that I believe makes our videos even more fun to work on and well received by a large, hardcore fanbase, is the creative ways we incorporate core character/world truths into this entirely new space.
As an example, GIANTS was set to feature the return of Senna, a character long know by Riot fans. Known for being dead. Which is problematic. For five years her spirit had been locked away in a demon's lantern. Luckly (well, strategically) another cinematic was in the works that would detail her return but I still faced the challenge of figuring out how to nod to that story in a modern, urban environment.
I quickly honed in on the concept of being trapped. Of walls closing in. Of reflections that appear to be open spaces but in reality form invisible walls. Her mood board showed refracted faces, underwater photography, and banded light bars. Working with The Line, we concepted out an abandoned subterranean depot. This allowed us to do a few things: we could highlight the art deco designs that cover Senna's weapons in the surrounding architecture, create a strong sense of light from high above (as if she is being called to rise), and even dampen the air and tint much of the world to hint at the green lights of the demon lantern.
The concept art below was one of my favorite pieces created during production.
exploring Senna's environment
exploring Ekko's "ghost" effect
Now that the basic structure was coming together, I started to focus more on color. The demo track gave each artist their own unique moments and our sets would carry that through as well. It only made sense to use color to further reinforce that story.
Because we're working with products in development, I was able to keep in close contact with team leads to match and adjust our palette as needed. To their credit, some vfx and textures were actually updated based on our video (which can be difficult given the fact that they are typically further along) and our incredible art team (including Jason Chan and Max Zhang) even created concept designs for Qiyana and Senna's wardrobe that were rolled back into the game as well.
Our opening frame shows a diverse city skyline with architecture that could be found in Shanghai as well as Berlin and New York City. From there we hit the darker neutral tones of Ekko's city steps, pop into the luxurious reds of Qiyana's shimmering social club, dive into the thick shadows of Senna's lost monument, admire the blue/green neon of Yasuo's turbine, cut through the shadows in Akali's subway, and eventually shift into our own reality on the grounds of Paris at night.
Oh, and somewhere in there we get sucked into psychedelic blast of color and abstract shape as Ekko tosses us around.
The goal for me was a surgical use of color that would guide our audience visually through the evolving song structure. Each unique section needed to stand on its own. If you compare the working color script that The Line provided below to our final shots you can see we sometimes had to push even further to accomplish this.
select color script
Working in traditional 2D requires some compromise. It seemed a little mean, for example, to ask The Line to animate the word "True Damage" on Qiyana's pants while she spun around on a blade hoop even though it exists on the product. I don't know, maybe I'm just getting soft.
The first character challenge I hit was immediate: Qiyana and Senna were new champions. That meant I didn't have a lot to reference as we developed their looks. There wasn't even a clear answer to "what does Senna's face look like?" Once again, communication with product was the key. Any changes to design, color, abilities, in game vfx, etc had to be sent to the team and we often worked together to bring these characters to fruition.
Likenesses were a also bit of a struggle. And to be honest, they usually are. When millions of people around the world have followed your characters for years, our creative partners are put in a difficult spot. Even the slightest mishape to a chin or a few inches off their height can make our work feel generic or, much worse, crafted without care.
I found the same loose, fluid house style that Wes and The Line use to create dynamic animation was sometimes difficult to react to. I wanted to make sure and respect this new relationship, giving specific notes without completely squashing their creative freedom. I often would ask our internal artists (Jason and Max to the rescue again!) to take a few passes themselves. It was here that The Line really proved themselves as a partner. Zero ego, zero pushback, lots of great ideas. They seemed to understand that those tiny, frame-by-frame details really matter for our audience.
*I also don't want to miss the chance to credit Dan Norton (who headed up the visual development efforts internally) and Patrick Morales (the campaign creative lead). As is true with most things, we were in the trenches together and they deserve a huge amount of credit!
a snapshot of character and scene progress
From the beginning we played around with various ways to ground True Damage in the real world. At one point we were exploring digital projections onto the Eiffel Tower (which is surprisingly easy to get approval for, just so you know). We ended up sending a few team members to Paris to film the live action plates we then asked The Line to animate to. The footage below shows the rough comp.
Another key to pulling off believable performances was in nailing the lip sync. Hip hop is lyrically heavy and driven, and animating traditionally for four minutes is a pretty big job, especially when the lyrics and timings continue to shift. This work was done towards the end of production and once again we were blessed with industry leading talent (Becky G, Keke Palmer, SOYEON, DUCKWRTH, Thutmose) who provided multi-angle coverage so our animators could reference their distinct performance style and articulation.
In other ways, the real world itself began to influence us as well. Right at the end of our production the civil unrest in China began to grow as protestors hit the streets and filled the subways. In response, we made a few last minute edits and removed a gas mask from Akali's trip down the escalator, removed "tagging" graffiti from our subway, and even shifted the color of Yasuo's mask in both video and game product.
live plates shot on location in Paris
I mentioned it earlier, but when we start planning any big music piece there is always talk about the "oh shit" moment that should be memorable and unique. For the K/DA piece, Akali dropped into a freestyle verse surrounded by black light graffiti. Visually it's just...cool. And musically it played extremely well. She was cool, powerful, and dynamic.
This time around we landed on Ekko's "megalizer" sequence. A moment in the track where the melody completely drops, the tempo shifts, and DUCKWRTH features over heavy bass hits. Visually it is completely unique in the piece and I'm proud to say I had almost nothing to do with it.
Yes, I know I should probably be touting my own expertise (I mean, this is my site after all) but I also want to use this space to share lessons I have learned. Finding passionate and talented partners, finding moments they are excited about, and simply letting them run wild, is one of them. I didn't see much of this sequence until most of the film was close to completion, but I believed in The Line and their vision. We were driving hard and this creative freedom helped energize them in those critical final days.
I made sure we adjusted their palette to match Ekko's in game vfx, gave the usual feedback on timing and character likeness, etc but at the end of the day, this was just the product of a solid partnership.
look dev for the "Magalizer" sequence from The Line
It's always a little bitter sweet to finish these things up but for these large campaigns there is also a lot still left to do. Serving as campaign art director as well, I oversaw the creation of social graphics, album cover art, game client experiences, and a series of marketing assets for our partner products featuring Louis Vuitton. All of this culminated in a live performance at the 2019 Finals where GIANTS was revealed to the world. Our friends at The Line were even able to hop the train to Paris from their offices in London to experience the debut of all their hard work in person.
A year later the video has been viewed here in the states more than 120 million times on Youtube alone and The Line again created the finals marquee "Take Over" for 2020, continuing to push the bar even higher.
social assets teasing the debut
live performance at Worlds 2019
To all the talented folks who leapt into the turbine with me.
Lindsay Zamplas Producer
Tianna Cisowski Production Coordinator
Patrick Morales Campaign Creative Lead
Laura Dietrich Campaign Brand Lead
Dan Norton Visual Development Lead
Jason Chan Visual Development Artist
Max Zhang Visual Development Artist
The Line Animation Hanae, Wes, Tim, James, Max
True Damage Becky G, Keke Palmer, SOYEON, DUCKWRTH, Thutmose
Riot Music Group Toa, Kerianne