“I Was a Fiend on the Emails”: Hip-Hop Animator Tristan Zammit Breaks Down His Come Up

“A lot of them don’t work out, but for the one-percent that do, that’s how you make a living.”
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Inspired by '90s rap music videos and Samurai Champloo, animator Tristan Zammit has reimagined everyone from Noname and Dreezy to 6LACK and Denzel Curry in his edgy and hard-line drawing style. At 21, he’s worked with some of his favorite artists and managed to make a career out of a passion that began with a Wacom tablet and fooling around with Adobe Flash.

“Over the course of [2012], I basically flirted with Flash enough that come summer 2012, I was able to release my first cartoon on my YouTube channel,” Tristan tells me over the phone.

His tone is somewhat measured, but excitement peeks through his words as he thinks about his back catalog. His first video, “Making Mad,” was a parody of the popular series Breaking Bad. Though not a music video, this first portfolio piece gave Tristan’s soon-to-be burgeoning career two legs to stand on.

For Tristan, there was never a transition into music videos; he was always drawn to the medium. “I just think they’re a really powerful art form,” he explains. “I always loved watching the Busta Rhymes music videos as a kid, way before I was into making videos myself.”

Thus began his deep dive into SoundCloud artists. The goal was simple: find an artist with a clear aesthetic, animate them, and walk away with another portfolio piece and business relationship.

First up was Quiet Luke, a New York artist shrouded in mystery. Tristan spent six months in 2014 working for free and animating Luke’s song, “Otherworld.” The result is a video steeped in the absurd and guided by the same strings Quiet Luke glides over.

Despite the overwhelming sense of accomplishment, Tristan attests that his success following the video was far from overnight. “I released [“Otherworld”] on my YouTube channel, and it got a small amount of views relative to what I do now, but I think it was a really important video,” he reconciles. “It set a precedent for my videos in the future and what I wanted to do.”

Tristan admits initially feeling a sense of defeat following the video's release, having poured his time, energy and money into the video, with not much longterm benefit, but he knows that the video’s performance is what ultimately drove him to work even harder. “I basically went around, trying to hit up rappers and other artists on their [laughs] Facebook pages, because I didn’t really know any other way to contact them.”

Traditionally, creatives have found this approach to be unsuccessful, but eventually, Tristan received some replies. One of his first paid gigs came from a cold call to Joey Bada$$’ manager. While the video may not be out yet, achieving a paid job for an artist he deeply respects was a major milestone.

“Then it started snowballing,” he says. “I met Denzel Curry through Joey at a show in Philly. I did some visuals with him, and I kept reaching out to people. I was a fiend on the emails. A lot of them don’t work out, but for the one-percent that do, that’s how you make a living.”

Before that first paid job, Tristan had to work for free, however, he understands that most of his creative counterparts aren't earning a lot of money themselves. “You just have to have respect for yourself,” Tristan says, “but also have an understanding of the position of the client you’re contacting.”

While working for free would not make sense for someone in his position, with bills to pay and a life to lead, Tristan believes a balance must be struck between paying your dues and being able to survive.

“You should, at some point, probably be working for free or at least developing your own projects on your own time that you can show people,” he reasons. “Otherwise, you don’t really have a way to prove yourself. Probably the best investment of time I ever made was in my MF DOOM video, which was also an unhired video.”

Now with accolades and notoriety in tow, Tristan faces the task of not pricing himself out of the industry. “If I find that someone may not be able to find a compromise with my price, or I’m not able to compromise, I usually try not to push it,” he explains. Yet, his work, as with most creatives, is time and labor intensive. He’s aware that there may be people who will never see the value of his work, monetarily or otherwise, but doesn’t let that deter him.

At this stage, why should it? Tristan has seemingly worked with and animated for damn near everybody: Lil Yachty, Tory Lanez, Method Man and more. Keeping it democratic, he tells me that he’s a big fan of everybody he’s worked with, but says Denzel Curry stands out the most because of his longtime fandom of the Floridian rapper.

Tristan's most-recent release is for Dreezy’s “Spar,” featuring 6LACK and Kodak Black, which he says follows the same process he employed for his work on theMIND’s “Animated Ambition.”

“There were two male figures and one female, so there was a similar approach,” he explains. “I made [“Animated Ambition”] in a very short period of time, and when I do that, I sometimes will enlist the help of other animators. I enlisted the help of my one friend Jaime Rodriguez, who is a brilliant animator. Also, the animator and background artist Rodrigo Silveira.”

If it were up to Tristan, and if time weren’t a factor, he would craft complicated posse cut videos all the time. More than anything, though, Tristan just wants to make a name for himself in the industry. To that end, he tells me the one piece of advice he wishes he hadn’t initially ignored: “Study before you throw yourself into an art form.”

In addition to studying, he also stresses the importance of honesty and self-awareness as two keys to long-term success. “You don’t have to feel destroyed by the comments or criticisms of other people,” he says with an optimistic tone.

“I always try to be unafraid to make mistakes, and I think that’s why I’ve survived as long as I have.”

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