Ones to Watch: Saad Moosajee
As a 26-year-old with Google and Pixar on his resumé, Thom Yorke and Mitski as clients, a course at SVA, and a spot on Forbes’s coveted 30 under 30 list, Saad Moosajee clearly has an eye for design. But it’s his ability to build worlds that makes his work so enthralling. Growing up in Colorado with Pakistani, Sri Lankan, and English roots, Moosajee has always played around with the idea of reality.
As a director and artist based in New York City, he combines his knowledge of cinema, animation, and design to challenge and walk the line of dreams and our waking world. Due to a somewhat bizarre level of complexity and elaborateness, his work holds you. In an effort to tap into the inner workings of his mind, we spoke to Moosajee about magical realism, collaborating with Radiohead’s finest, and the importance of laboriousness.
His work for Mitski’s “A Pearl” is included in SXSW’s official selection for 2020.
Before going to RISD for graphic design, how were you involved in the arts?
I lived in Colorado, and I started doing creative work when I was really young. I wasn’t really the kid who drew in art class or painted or made anything creative. I would buy books or trading cards just to look at the cover images. I think I had fairly good taste for being a young kid who was terrible at drawing. I was super image-focused.
I got really captivated by making things when I was younger. I didn’t really love the culture I grew up in, so making art was kind of like an outlet from that. I think it influenced a lot of the stuff I was trying to do, not the stuff I actually did because I didn’t know how to do it. There were no resources where I was for any of it, but I tried to make a place that was more appealing to me; a lot of the images I made were more based on scenery or world-building, or just trying to construct a place.
I think cinema appealed to me for that reason, but I had no idea how to do any of it. The first time I saw a Wes Anderson movie I found it so beautiful I couldn’t watch it. It was an overwhelming experience for me, and I had to go back and re-watch the movie. I just kept taking screenshots on my laptop and re-watching it.
I didn’t have a camera, and I didn’t know anyone in a cinematic field. So I just used my computer to make my version of it. I did that for a couple of years and then did some freelance work, mainly in advertising. It informed my education a lot, but I was super craft-focused. I went to RISD because I felt that only making pretty pictures wasn’t satisfying to me. I wanted to give it more depth, but I didn’t really know how. So that’s why I went there.
You also taught there. Can you speak to your experience as a teacher?
When I graduated, I submitted a casual proposal to the department head because I thought the school could incorporate more animation technology into the design program. I had been doing a lot of moving image stuff within graphic design, and they were interested in making that more prominent in the curriculum.
I started teaching at the School of Visual Arts in New York, about a year after that, because they do co-teaching there; it’s a little easier for younger people to start teaching. The department head at RISD saw my proposal and that I was teaching at SVA and offered me the position. I only did it for one semester in 2018 because I couldn’t manage the scheduling. I was teaching at both schools and freelancing. No one saw me for like four months.
What did you learn about teaching people that are in a very similar age range to you (and most of the time older)?
Since I went freelance and more of the artistic route, I think you end up spending so much time thinking about yourself and what you’re doing all the time; you’re always thinking about your own artistic interests and pursuits even when you’re collaborating with people. What is your output as an individual, you know?
For me, I think teaching is interesting because it’s less about your artistic output as a final product — the output is you making sure someone understood something. When I first started doing it, I would be so tired afterward because it was so hard for me to look at multiple projects in a period of like four hours and say something that was like A) helpful or B) was actually understood by the students.
When I was a student, I always just thought the best teachers were the smartest people, but it doesn’t really matter how brilliant the thing you say is if the person you’re talking to doesn’t understand what you said. It’s all about human communication. I think it was also nice to do something a little bit different. That’s why I still teach at SVA, but as my schedule becomes busier, it’s hard to maintain sometimes.
In terms of teaching younger people, I don’t know. I think like weirdly, no one ever really noticed. Usually, people think I’m older than I am so they don’t question it.
Now moving into your work experience — you worked at PIXAR, what was that like?
Of all the places I’ve worked, that was the one that changed my process the most. They really go between digital and traditional very fluidly. But the thing that blew me away when I worked there was that they use computers and technology with an unlimited kind of approach. They’ll just make anything they need if it helps them tell the story better. We could make anything that we imagined. And I just didn’t think that was possible until I saw them doing it.
Working with Stefan Sagmeister, what did you learn? He kind of got his start with album covers — which is interesting considering you’re leaning towards the music path as well now…
We really connected on the dedication of work to an artistic pursuit, and on the importance of beauty – whether its a logo, a film, or a sign on the side of the road.
One thing he said that I always really liked was, “You can make something different just by doing something so laborious that no one else would do it.” Something about that, I just found really appealing. I think I already kind of did that to some degree, and his words motivated me to make that a bigger part of my artistic practice.
Speaking of that level of laboriousness, how long did the Mitski video take?
That was about 1,480 stills, so that took four months. But that’s because there were only two of us animating and designing it, I think I’ve gotten faster. There’s a lot of paper.
What was the process like?
So with that project, it’s not really like any other music video process because it wasn’t supposed to be one. It was originally intended to be a short vertical video for Mitski’s Spotify and Instagram. She was on tour so we had limited access to her which influenced the decision to fully animate the video.
I had just done a music video with the same production company, Art Camp, for another artist, Gabriel Garzon-Montano, and that was the first time they’d ever worked with 3D animation, so they were really excited about mixing animation styles.
View this post on Instagram
Our video for Fruitflies is out. Link in bio. Music by @gabrielgarzonmontano. Directed by @santiagocarrasquilla, myself and @tighekellner. Animated by me. . . . Check YouTube for full credits — we had a small but incredibly passionate team that made this project possible.
We listened to “A Pearl” and immediately felt it could be more than just a short vertical video; there was so much potential in the song. We came up with a process to make the music video at the same time as the vertical video. We would work on both videos simultaneously and show everything to Spotify. Part of the reason the video became what it was, was because the client was very trusting of our instincts. Mitski was on tour and was only able to look at progress on a few occasions. We sent her a presentation with gifs of animation tests and she asked: “Can you put the ocean in it?” That was the best client note I’ve ever gotten.
I’m pretty lyrically driven, which I didn’t really realize at the time, but I had been obsessing and trying to build up a world that would resonate with her and would fit her lyrical intention. And she responded really well to some of the early metaphorical stuff in it, like having the character go through a house and following them through this kind of journey.
We had already painted the whole thing by the time we sent them the final, So in our minds, we were like, “We hope you like it because we can’t change anything.” We were so stressed out.
Did she respond quickly?
She responded a few days later, so it was a lot of pacing. She reacted really positively and wanted to sell the prints for charity for victims of sexual abuse. We kept a couple and they sold most of them. They sold out in like two hours.
How would that compare that project to the recent work you did for Thom Yorke?
The video with Thom was more structured, it was awarded as a music video from the beginning. It’s also when I really came to terms with the fact that I tend to treat music videos as art projects, which is interesting when thinking about budgeting.
This video came out after Anima with Paul Thomas Anderson.
Was it always going to be that song [“Last I Heard (…He Was Circling The Drain)]?
Yeah — my understanding was that after Anima, they wanted another video, but wanted to make it very different. The animation is cinematically related to that universe, and he’s really interested in experimental videos. He worked with Andrew Thomas Huang a while ago and did a really cool one for Atoms for Peace.
It was similar to the Mitski project in that it wasn’t a traditional pitch process. They called Art Camp and talked about concepts for the song and video. Part of the brief the label sent over was a really long 11×17 typewriter word poem list. Each line is like a one-line word poem. One of the lines read, “You’re walking one way while a bunch of faceless people are running the other way.” And then the next line, it’ll just be like, “Traffic, traffic, too much traffic. So much traffic.” But then you keep reading and it says, “You’re in the desert in Arabia. There’s a jellyfish.”
I feel like reading that, I would have been like, “Wait is this the most intelligent thing I’ve ever read in my life, or…?”
We scrutinized every part of it. Like, “Oh, he mentions traffic three times here. What is it about traffic?” So then we’d go outside and just watch traffic.
The thing that I really like to do in my work is to take observation and use it to create a place. So what really excited me about this project was that he had this idea of Anima, which was kind of a world, but it was pretty open. The video just had to fit that universe, maybe universes is a better way of thinking about it.
This song was written about having anxiety in London, specifically, but he said, “You should feel like you’re anxious in a city.” A lot of it was about anxiety and isolation in a place that’s filled with people who are going about their day to day lives. So, I think living in New York, I connected with it. I definitely felt like I had a sense of what he was trying to get at. So we kind of started referring to his list as vignettes. He wanted to put cars and why, but rather than asking him, I think part of the fun was looking at traffic and trying to understand what it is about that and seeing the beauty in traffic to some degree.
So once the concept was established, what was the first step? Did you pick up a pen and start drawing on paper?
I think it’s different for every project. For me, I sketch a lot through the computer. I think I’ve always used computers the way people use pencils, which is weird because for a while I felt like that was less artistic somehow…cause I wasn’t putting pen to paper. It’s a really big part of my process.
In the beginning, we were figuring out ways to portray characters, but also trying to get a feel for the camera, visual style, and edit. Even with stuff that’s live-action, my process is still similar where I’ll obsessively pre-vis something with the computer, just so I can have a sense of what’s going to happen.
When you’re working with or for someone else, how do you stay true to your personal voice?
With directing music videos, it’s interesting because you’re kind of working with another artist to some degree. I tend to gravitate towards working with musicians who are passionate about having an artistic voice
And in terms of retaining your own style, I don’t know. I feel like for me at this point, it just kind of comes out. The biggest thing is how feedback is given; with both of those videos, we had great experiences collaborating with the clients. So I think a lot of it was trust. Thom kind of trusted us to go with our instincts. And I think a lot of style is related to instinct.
How do you make sure you’re still telling their story?
I try to internalize what I think they’re trying to visualize. Ultimately, it’s putting a visual to what they’ve done. But I hope to do it in a way that resonates with what I’m seeing.
How do you stay motivated when the projects are so detailed and so drawn out? Do you drink a ton of coffee?
I never drink coffee. Actually, I’ve never had a full cup of coffee in my whole life.
I lose motivation when it begins to feel like work, which I guess is somewhat of a classic answer. When it’s the right type of project, I know because I’ll never need to look for motivation. With the Mitski video, for example, I didn’t see anyone for months. I was just in my studio working: that’s usually how I know. I have images in my head all the time, and I just have to get them out — that’s really what it is.
Are there any overarching themes or ideas that you prefer to explore?
I have always been really interested in the idea of transporting yourself through imagery to a place that is familiar, but also kind of unfamiliar. I think I’ve been trying to do that my entire creative life in different ways.
The thing I love about cinema is that it’s narrative and it’s entertaining; you can really take someone away and forget where you are. I grew up in a place that had a lot of natural beauty to it, but that was never enough for me. I always imagined somewhere else, even if it didn’t exist yet. When I was a kid and I went to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, I was really taken aback by the architecture and the people, and just how different it was from where I was. I just loved that I could like visually connect with another place like that; I could look at a photograph, or a t-shirt, or a textile, and know that it came from a different place.
A lot of my influences are from people whose work deals with magical realism or world-building. I feel that I don’t understand a lot of [Jorge Luis] Borges’s writing, but I love his work because it’s like thought exercises for how things could in other worlds or ways. I like [Haruki] Murakami for the same reason. In looking at things that might not exist or might distort the way current things exist, it changes the way you understand things that already exist.
How else would you like your creativity to expand?
I have the images up here and I know how I want it to feel. I want to find a good way to get other people to see the same things and understand the same things without making it so rigid that you lose the looseness, like the freedom of experimenting.
Also, I don’t know if “culture” is the right word but I’m trying to bring something like that to my work. I am American, but I’m Pakistani and Sri Lankan and also. I want to show people more of the things that amaze me about the countries and background that I’m from. When I was younger and I saw the architecture and art, and even textiles from these places, I just couldn’t get over why those things weren’t celebrated where I grew up in the west. I would go to art museums in the US and wonder why there were no painters from South Asia featured. Many of the big western films I watched that incorporate Asian settings or stories, I felt did so in a way to me that lacked the cultural specificities that I was so captivated by. I felt that very, very young before I had any ability to articulate it. It confused me; it was a representation thing, but it was even more of a, “You guys are missing out.”
It goes back to your concepts of “the world.” Whether, as a young person, you were creating a new world as a form of escapism, or whether you’re questioning what society (specifically the US’s version of “society”) has deemed to be “the world” — it’s something that is very central to your work.
It’s important to me that with every video I make, a viewer can stop playing it at any moment and see something memorable. I think because of my background and how I came into directing, I tend to conceive of my videos more as collections of many, many images that add up to a whole rather than just footage.
To me, every shot is a series of images, and each image is an opportunity. I’ve noticed that naturally, I tend to want every still frame, whether it’s a few hundred or a few thousand, to feel as considered as a painting or photograph (even if it isn’t literally painted or live-action at all). The photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson is a big influence of mine — his idea of the decisive moment really resonates with me and motivated many of my thoughts about the relationship between still and moving image. Hayao Miyazaki, Wes Anderson, Satyajit Ray, and Rene Magritte have also been big influences.
I was never taught animation, I studied graphic design. When you animate stuff on the computer you have to build everything; you start with nothing. If you want a room in a house, you’ve got to make a carpet, and make a fork. There’s something about that as a process that is so painstaking, but I always connected with it so much because I’m like, “Oh, what fork should it be? What should the carpet look like?” That’s the stuff that I feel like I can just do forever.
Images Courtesy of Lucas Vasilko.
Stay tuned to Milk for more Ones to Watch.