Discussing music videos and diversity in design with Kris Merc

Director Kristian Mercado Figueroa, who also goes by ‘Kris Merc’, has returned with another dynamic, stylish and creatively fun music video for American Hip Hop trio, De La Soul. Kris and his team seamlessly blends crisp, stylized CG with various cell and retro effects to create a music video that brings new life to the 2 Chainz assisted track,’Whoodeeni’.

Merc is also a passionate Puerto Rican who strives to highlight issues affecting minorities while also advocating for more of their representation on film. His music video for Hurray For The Riff Raff’s song, Pa’lante, shows off his nuanced ability to make relatable, engaging visual narratives. Having known Kris for a few years, and also being one of the very few minority creatives I’ve worked with, it was a pleasure having this conversation where he was so candid.

Today I’ll be chatting with Kris, who really opens up and discusses some of the diversity issues affecting the creative industry. We also talk about the process of making his new music video Whoodeeni and the emotional journey of creating the music video for Pa’lante.

Q&A with Kris Merc

You’ve done work for De La Soul in the past. How did you guys develop your working relationship?

Crazy to think about but De La Soul was my first experience in the music video realm. I had Co-directed a music video years ago for them. It was an honor, and the guy who put me on Lenny Bass is a Half Black- Puerto Rican director, so it was one of those rare occasions that I met a fellow Puerto Rican director and I gravitated towards that in a strong way. Up to that point really it had mostly been white male Directors that I’ve met, so meeting Lenny was a special thing, and he introduced me to the world of music videos through De La Soul. So it was a huge leap for me at the time. I was working at a super corporate design spot and the wildness of that De La Soul music video really opened my eyes to a spectrum of possibility in the world of Music Videos.

It was super interesting because when I got the brief it almost felt impossible to accomplish the video, but someone told me, “Dude it’s De La Soul, say yes and figure it out later.” I kind of took that advice to heart and it’s shaped a lot of my philosophy in terms of how I take on work. I’m very open at this point, and just try to think of solutions rather than the barriers. I think if the project is cool or interesting or connects, that motivates me more than just doing things because it’s practical.

Anyway, through the course of the years I became good friends with De La Soul’s manager Brandon Hixon, who is also the Creative Director of the project. When the last album dropped Brandon asked if I wanted to pitch any songs and I really loved Whoodeni so I put a loose deck together, and a few months later found out Apple Music was down to make the video. I freaked out, and boom. Here we are.

What’s the development process like for a music video like this, especially one that’s so 3D heavy? Does the group come to you with ideas, do you pitch your own or a bit of both?

Creatively on this one, we did ping pong a lot. The idea evolved constantly, and I really want to give De Tuco, the studio that was our partner for a lot of the creative a big shout out for being so down with my fluid process of creating. The original idea was centered around vinyl toys and this visual gimmick of having them always on a turntable. I came up with the idea of Whoodeni being this kind of Zoltar inspired character early on, but his role in the video changed a great deal. We ditched the turn table idea.

De La Soul didn’t really love the vinyl toys and wanted to lean into something more narratively driven. So we kind of forged the plot together, and De Tuco would board it out based on our ideas, and overall arch. The idea was really motivated by the feeling of being chased.

Whoodeni eventually kind of became a metaphor of sorts, that feeling of pressure, the feeling of being haunted, or constantly on the run. The concept being that as a marginalized person in life, sometimes you feel this constant pressure, and how it forces you to be clever and move in ways you normally wouldn’t to escape. I think that was at least part of the thought in the narrative without giving it all away. I rather the audience project and create their own read on things like that, but that’s where my mind was at.

A big factor for Brandon and me in this project was having strong visual representation in the animation of black characters. I just have a strong opinion about seeing representation happen in film but also in animation. We really need to start discussing people of color being shown as CG, Cel, and cartoon characters more often in animated spaces. That visual representation is so key. Growing up, characters of color are so rare, I can’t really name too many Puerto Rican characters in cartoons “Miles Morales” Spiderman is one of the few, or finding compelling black characters in animation is a struggle too (Love me some Static Shock). We are growing up watching cartoons looking for ourselves and really it’s super hard to find… I find this to be true in commercial spaces as well.

I once saw a finger puppet commercial that was super cute, hands holding football players and doing their thing, super twee, super contemporary, but I couldn’t help but notice that the black football puppets being held by white hands, and I was just like asking myself are there no black hand puppeteers? I think not enough people ask these questions and in commercial spaces, it becomes really difficult to be the squeaky wheel, but let’s be honest, if things are going to move forward we need more people voicing these issues, and developing creative with diversity and inclusion in mind. Basically more lead creatives of color, with fewer excuses, and more actions to make it a reality.

What’s some of the inspiration that lead you to develop this piece?

Pop culture in large. How mythic De La Soul is, just the raw wild style of our generation. Things change constantly, bright colors, vinyl toys, hip hop culture in large. I like mixing random refs, or styles, or ideas. We even sprinkled a little Akira in there towards the end. Hahah even time travel. I’m obviously a weird dude and constantly thinking about alternate universe or space and time colliding and letting that guide visuals. I think Afro Futurism has always been something I lean into.

The ideas of Sun Ra, Gothic Futurism as outlined by the great late Rammellzee. When I do wild animation stuff I sometimes feel like a spiritual son of Rammellzee, speaking in tongues trying to convey other worldly visuals and psychedelic experiences into the world.

I really did want to push this idea of vinyl toys coming to life, so a lot of the design does take its cues from that world, which I think is a cool way of looking at graffiti culture in three dimensions. Without losing De La Soul’s own identity in the process.

Also, the Thundercats intro. I look at that thing like at least once a week.

How large of a team was involved in the music video?

Roughly a 22 man team spread out a bit. De Tuco was the main team, and then my boy Trung Bao and his team Fustic added some sauce (Cause I def always love sauce). De Tuco really killed it, really providing a lot of polished design and weight to the world I was envisioning. A lot or that came from my recent obsession with neon (which is happening a lot for me in live action stuff I do). The homie David Manzo hooked me up with a glitch edit, he’s the master of that. My dude Michael Reuter who is my main editor and creative collaborator did a finishing edit pass on this one and really brought some of the hits that happen overall in the piece. I think what he did with the 2 Chainz verse with the mouth is brilliant got that working on a higher level over all.

Then I’ve been collaborating with Zach Lydon recently on cel work, he’s responsible for that wild ending, which came out of a lot of conversations about doing a Hip Hip Akira. Originally the idea was that the bomb goes off and they become skeletons but I didn’t like the communication of De La passing on, De La is forever, so we shifted the idea as a time bomb that gives you a glimpse of their youth, and let the audience decide what that means for that instance. I actually comped that shot a bit to give it it’s texture, because I didn’t want it to be too flat.

Tyler Dibiasio who tolerates my wild frantic rants hahaha, hooked me up with some of the FX flourishes, I mean can anyone in the game animate lighting as well as he does? Seriously, I don’t think so.

Then of course, me and Brandon Hixon really lead the creative charge, we really where collaborating narratively, and visually a lot and guiding this the whole way. So I def see Brandon as a partner creatively on this one. Our team was spread out and it really speaks volumes about the shifting nature of creative projects happening on a global scale, remotely. Trung is based out in Vietnam, Brandon and me and Manzo are NYC based. Reuter is Boston based, De Tuco is in Argentina. So it’s definitely a testament to how far De La Soul’s influences reaches. They are a global group in every sense of the word.

How important do you think it is for minorities to have representation in art and film?

Super important. Seeing yourself informs so much about what you aspire for. You watch so many films that it really is how we share culture. Film and visual culture define the world. Like how Uhura from Star Trek directly inspired NASA Astronaut Group 8’s recruitment of 3 black woman, and eventually the first black woman to fly on a Space Shuttle. So we can’t really take for granted how visual culture shapes us. Having minorities on screen in film and in this case animation is so important. It shapes what we believe to be possible. Playing with action figures that represent us, has a deep impact. We definitely just need to diversify. Marvel Studios just dropped Black Panther and that’s great, but we definitely need to be seeing more of that, and more range, they have so many white male heroes that I think they can afford to mix it up.

I think this concept really extends to something deeper which means, having the lead creatives also be diverse. It’s rare to see CD’s of color or directors of color, and it’s troubling. I cringe sometimes because Hip Hop is the dominant culture, but we’re constantly seeing white male creatives leading those campaigns, determining what the culture is, which is mostly being created by minorities, yet we rarely get a seat on the table. So diversity is key, but more important is inclusion. Being able to guide a vision, and tell the stories we want to tell but on a larger platform and with respect towards what we have to say. I feel the idea of creative genius is so subconsciously tied to whiteness, and we will treat white creatives with a sense of awe, but diminish what Black or Latino creatives have to say. Maybe it’s a British voice on a conference call, or just the expectations of whiteness as “safe”. Frankly I believe that time is over, and we need to open the gates, and allow black, latino, asian, woman geniuses to shine bright.  We have important opinions and thoughts and visuals we can share with the world and it’s def time the industry at large start hiring us as leads for campaigns, as directors for films, as designers for ads. I don’t really want to hear excuses anymore.

I admired all the passion you brought to Pa’lante. I’d assume that it must of been a very emotional experience. Can you discuss how capturing this story in Puerto Rico affected you personally?

Oh man. Yea that was the hardest thing I’ve ever done as a creative. I’m proud of that piece and it was difficult. I lost my grandfather in the hurricane, he passed away as a result of the lack of resources and electricity. It boggles the mind, and it was a jarring traumatic thing. I’m still emotionally recovering, and I do think it opened something in me. I’m more open about depression, about emotions, about what I’m living. I’m candid about pain, candid about what it means to me to create things, and I’m stronger for it. But these are dark times, the government is literally allowing black and brown people to suffer and die, literally. It’s been such a complicated time and filling those voids is challenging.

The experience was spiritual in a sense. I shot in Puerto Rico with limited resources, basically telling the story of Puerto Ricans in a very condense emotional way. I was also just telling a simple story of an estranged family in the aftermath of the Hurricane, the hurricane playing more as a backdrop rather than the focus.

It plays a bit as a tribute to my grandfather who was a Korean War vet. I remember when we wrapped shooting Pa’lante, my aunt and I (who acted as a producer on it) went to the graves of the Puerto Ricans who have been dying (where my grandfather’s body was). It was just a row of white cement boxes laid out on a field. Things have been so crazy that they haven’t been able to properly bury the dead yet, and it was jarring because they were all numbered, and it almost felt like not the most organized process to find my grandfathers grave. That was basically the last day of production, we left flowers and I think everyone involved in that production left a bit touched  by how intimate it was. There was always a constant feeling of awe, and surprise in that production.

We would drive to my home in the mountains, and I remember the crew was in awe. There was a very sudden and real, realization of how amazing my own story is, or Puerto Ricans in general. My family comes from the mountains, and we’re people of the earth. We moved to New York, and there is something about that transition or connection that made me feel more powerful. I never recognized how unique my upbringing is until I saw the crew and cast reaction to the locations and experience.  I would catch people randomly looking into the vista, and sometimes shoot that, you could tell they were moved, they were experiencing something real. I remember a family friend lent us a house to shoot in, and it was torn apart by the hurricane, all his stuff was destroyed in the backyard. Kareem, the lead actor in Pa’lante, looked at it all and just kind of put his arm on my shoulder and told me how special it is for me to be sharing this with them all. There were a lot of tears on set constantly honestly. I think it’s likely the most special shoot experience I’ve ever had. Pa’lante is doing well in the film circuit so you guys will be hearing more about Pa’lante and hopefully that will lead to some new opportunities to tell bigger more powerful stories.

Growing up on the small island of Tobago, many of the scenes in the Pa’lante video really resonated with me. How do you think your Puerto Rican background may help you capture some of these moments.

Oh yea island life bro. It’s a wave. The caribbean is so connected. The Arawaks, Tainos, and Yoruba binds us all. I think I just remembered a lot of how easy life feels out there, you are happy regardless of tragic circumstances.

I think Pa’lante is a philosophical state of mind that drives my life even. Pa’lante means move forward in Spanish slang, and it really is a state of mind. I mean I definitely was influenced by my background and tried to make it a point to celebrate my heritage. I feel it’s important to be loud and vocal about our history. Things that somehow empower us or make us who we are are key to me. I want to show the world that Puerto Ricans matter, that we are part of a larger historic American context, that our stories carry weight and that most people should be educated at the toll we’ve taken for the country.

My heritage is always a part of my story and culture, and something I carry with me boldly.

Being black in the Motion Design industry, I’m usually part of a handful, if not the only black creative in many studios I work with. I’m interested in hearing your perspective on why it’s important to have more minorities involved in digital art fields.

One of the best CG artist I know is a black man, and I remember watching him come to work and have the receptionist think he was the UPS guy. That’s the vibe. That is the problem. To me there is a black tax, and we need to be super vocal and serious about putting that on blast, being forward thinking and let people know that yea, in this industry we are facing a massive problem in diversity. We aren’t encouraging black or latino creatives to excel or putting them into positions of leadership. F that. My feeling, and this will be controversial to say in a public forum, is if your studio doesn’t have a lead creative of color, you better start rethinking what you are doing. Change, move, motivate. Don’t generically throw out empty platitudes about diversity, actually do it. That young creative who is demonstrating insane talent, put them on.

But don’t just put them on and not hear them. Hear them. Ask them. Have them lead creative. I want more creatives of colors in leadership roles. We need representation and our perspective celebrated. Our cultural lens dominates music and media, we are constantly celebrated yet, we somehow aren’t controlling the images put out. We are relegated to secondary or minor positions in visuals or stories that are our own. I see it in Design, I see it in Directing, I see it Motion Design. We are undervalued and not given the love. The truth is, we are coming. We are coming and we gonna take it, regardless.

So my feeling is that we are gonna be put on, we are gonna lead, and if you aren’t part of that wave. Fuck you, move to the side. We are the future.

Kris, I really appreciate all the honestly in this interview. Your, story, train of thought and overall commitment to improving is inspiring to say the least. I know there will be a lot of people that will resonate with this interview, myself included. Coming where I’m from, just being able to work at this level of Motion Design is incredibly rare, so I’m always grateful to have made it this far but also hoping when young people of color see artist like us, they can believe they can do it to. Thanks again for taking the time to discuss your projects and thoughts.

No problem, it was a pleasure, hope it inspires more artist of color to come out and tell their stories and take active roles in studios and in directing to change things and empower us to create more images we need in the world now more than ever.

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About the author

Sekani Solomon

/ www.sekanimotiondesign.com
Sekani Solomon is a freelance Senior Cinema 4D Generalist/Designer based in New York City whose work has earned numerous awards including a Primetime Emmy Award. Hailing from the twin island republic of Trinidad and Tobago, Sekani's diverse skillset in Design, Animation and Compositing allows him to work at any stage of the production pipeline with a high level of proficiency. When he's not pushing pixels, he's probably hitting drums, drinking beer or both.