Magical Realism: Behind-the-Scenes of EarthGang’s Michael Jackson-Inspired “UP” Short Film

Like the directors they employ, artists must understand the world they’re building. EarthGang knows the world they are building.
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The Magical Realism of EarthGang's "UP"

Frank DiLeo didn’t become Michael Jackson’s manager until 1984, but in a 2010 interview with Vanity Fair, the year before his passing at the age of 63, the former head of promotions at Epic Records revealed his pitch to MJ for the icon’s music video for his 1983 single, “Thriller.” “All you’ve got to do is dance, sing, and make it scary,” DiLeo said. 

Not everyone, especially CBS Records chief Walter Yetnikoff, saw potential in a song about monsters. Michael, the breakout star from American pop band The Jackson 5, wasn’t exactly frightening; his brand was smooth criminal, not American Werewolf. That’s the beauty of showbusiness, though. It’s not who you are; it’s who you portray. 

At the height of his adult stardom, Michael Jackson portrayed a man of magic and used visual performances to embody the ways music allows the artist to bend reality. How else do you explain the anti-gravity leans and reverse-motion moonwalks? The shimmering white-glove or his soaring, performance-ending jet-pack? Finding ways to defy the rules of realism is how Jackson became a pop music deity, and “Thriller” stands as his most famous foray into fantasy. 

Hip-hop newcomers WowGR8 and Olu—better known as the hip-hop duo EarthGang—are also from the lineage of artistic reality-benders. In EarthGang’s universe, cheating on your girlfriend has mystic consequences, like in the music video for “Voodoo.” Then there’s “Robots,” a vibrant visual where both rappers are live-action figures. Imagine Toy Story’s Buzz Lightyear but raised in West Atlanta. 

Although early in their music careers, the Dreamville-signed act has found solace in the surreal. They often look super rather than just human; otherworldly instead of identifiable. Whether guesting on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon or filming an episode of COLORS, if there’s a stage to stand upon or a camera to stand before, EarthGang is a sight to see. 

“One thing we love about EarthGang, and their management team, Barry and Zeke of SinceThe80s, is that they always bring us cool concepts they want to execute,” music video director Mac Grant told me over the phone following the recent release of EarthGang’s Grant and Chad Tennies-directed short film for their single “UP.”

“If I remember correctly,” Grant continues, “the base idea was the scene in the bathroom where the kid sees someone in the reflection. That was one of the first images we had. From there, they wanted it to be in a museum with futuristic alien vibes and ‘Thriller’ flavor, but not too hard. These are the elements we jumped off from.”

Tennies, who is also on the line, explains how, after the pair crafted the storyboard and treatments, they had only four weeks of prep time:

“We had two costume designers on the project. Midian Crosby, who was over the dressing and prosthetic makeup for the aliens, and Ashley Skelly, who came in to dress Olu & WowGR8 and made sure they looked awesome. She has a partner in Florida who does a bunch of custom armor pieces that has that futuristic, apocalyptic, wear and tear. So we were able to get these incredible customizable costumes that were all made out of foam, not metal, and was painted really well.”—Chad Tennies

“UP” runs a shade over five minutes, more than a tick under the film’s thematic influences: “Thriller” and Shawn Levy’s Night at the Museum. “We can’t make this too long,” Grant remembers. “Our biggest back and forth was about timing and the intro. Before arriving at the final version [you see in the video], we had five other versions of that intro. That was a good note on their part because it still communicates effectively.”

“There was no loss of information,” Tennies adds. “We communicated everything we wanted just in a more condensed time format. The goal was to make a movie we could [fit] within the scope of the music video.”

For Grant and Tennies, the directorial project presented several challenges—conveying a narrative at a pace that’s both cinematic and shifty isn’t easy. During the post-production process, the pair went frame-by-frame in an attempt to shave off seconds from each scene. With only one night to shoot inside Atlanta’s Fernbank Museum of Natural History—a 6 p.m. to 8 a.m. type of day—a few storyboard scenes were lost, but the overall world-building stayed intact.

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Like the directors they employ, artists must understand the world they’re building. Every video has a chance to inform the audience of your vision. To say EarthGang is pursuing the cinematic legacy of one Michael Jackson would be shortsighted, but with “UP,” specifically, they are following in his footsteps with a fantasy that is fun and effect-heavy. The video will remind viewers of a child’s wonder within our adult society. 

“Everybody we’ve shown [the video] to has said, ‘Wow, I haven’t seen a video like this in a minute,” Tennies remarks of the immediate reception. “It’s a mix of breaking out of reality, telling some good stories, and still entertaining everyone.” 

Unlike previous, reality-breaking music videos, “UP” is EarthGang’s most VFX-heavy production. “Hi From The Future, please shout them out in this article, because they’re an incredible company in New York,” Tennies notes. “Mark [Rubbo] and Elliot [Higgins] were intimately involved from the top end and made these awesome creatures, enhancing the environment. A lot of the vines and all those things you see behind the child were all put in place during post-production, which helped take the visuals to another level.”

Videos are an investment. Michael Jackson once spent $150,000 of his own money to film the video for “Beat It.” During our phone call, the two directors praised EarthGang and their teams’ willingness to invest in seeing their ideas come to life.

“We aimed to go above and beyond with this because just being around artists like EarthGang, that are willing to do something different and cool for us, is the dream. You get people that just don’t want to. They just want to do the same thing as everybody else.”—Mac Grant

Carefully, EarthGang has laid the foundation for their brand of realism: imagination and inventive-thinking. What we hear in their music, and what we see in their visuals, is the work of creatives who refuse to be trapped by the rules of reality. It’s why Olu and WowGR8 feel artistically limitless. They create worlds where anything is possible.

From their stellar debut Mirrorland, released in September 2019, to the short film “UP,” EarthGang continues to captivate. Best of all, they have the formula down pat: dance, sing and make it scary.

By Yoh, aka American Yohwolf, aka @Yoh31

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