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Around the World in a Music Video

By Dustin Driver

Ping pong balls adrift in a sea of pink kinetic sand, crumpled pages of Sanskrit, Jesus eating popcorn, and Hulk Hogan playing guitar. A laughing Ryan Gosling, a slice of pizza, and a grandmother grooving in her kitchen. This is the wild, dancing world of “Ar Don Go,” a music video crafted by Joey Foster Ellis for Sierra Leonean musician Moinina Sengeh. It’s a stop-motion extravaganza made over the course of three months in three different locations.

Joey Foster Ellis crafts vibrant stop-motion films that pulse with handmade art, vintage photographs, and curios collected from around the globe. They’re amalgams of the artist’s diverse cultural and artistic influences. One of his latest projects is the music video for “Ar Don Go,” a project that was funded in part by grants from the Council for the Arts at MIT.

Ellis grew up in upstate New York and attended a progressive boarding school in Vermont. There, he fell in love with cooking but also discovered a talent for ceramics. “I really wanted to be a chef, but then I got into making the things you eat off of rather than what you eat,” he says.

Accepted by the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Ellis became the first American to graduate from the school, in 2009. Later, he worked on commissioned projects for Greenpeace, Bank of America, Chevron, and Manulife. In 2010, he was awarded a TED Global Fellowship; in 2012, his work was exhibited at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Then the polymath moved to Qatar to study conservation and materials science at University College London. That’s when he got into motion graphics.

He made a series of short stop-motion films using a collection of mementos from his world travels. Later, he produced a film that won him tickets to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. A year or so after that, he was asked to create the “Ar Don Go” video.  

“Ar Don Go” translates to “I have gone” in the Sierra Leonean Krio language but colloquially means “watch me go.” The song addresses themes of progress, upward mobility, youthfulness, and global travel. It’s in part autobiographical and expresses Sengeh’s desire to bring home the knowledge he’s gained while away.

Joey Foster Ellis worked on the concept for “Ar Don Go” and the video itself in several countries: Qatar, Turkey, Mexico, india, Nepal, and China. And the materials he used in his multiple-layered images came from all over the world (and the Internet).

Ellis, a self-proclaimed “professional foreigner,” related to these ideas. He created the video’s storyboards while in Qatar, Turkey, Mexico, and India. “I spent a lot of time just listening to the music, reflecting on what it meant to me,” he says. “I ended up with a very literal and personal interpretation. Everything in the video means something to me directly.”

He made “Ar Don Go” one scene at a time, shooting stills and making scans during the daylight hours and editing at night. Most of the film was made in a small studio in Nepal, using natural light; the rest was shot in India and China at various locations. He employed traditional stop-motion techniques, snapping one shot at a time. He imported photos from each day’s shoot into Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, labeling them as he went. Every frame in the film contains multiple shots layered together, so Ellis shot several sets for each one.

“Ar Don Go” also features animated GIFs. Ellis used high-quality source material when possible, remaking the GIFs from high-definition video footage. Then he used Adobe Photoshop to erase distracting backgrounds from those GIFs, one frame at a time. He merged everything—GIF frames, photos, and scans—into massive Photoshop files, many with hundreds of layers. Finally, Ellis erased and adjusted layers before fusing them into the final frames. Those final frames for each scene were dumped into a document, put in order, timed using Photoshop’s Timeline window, and exported as movie files. “I take a sculptural approach to it,” he says. “I’m throwing things together. It’s messy and there’s clay on the edges, but I like it that way. I like having a handmade element.”

Ellis synced the footage with the music in After Effects. He tried to stick to a standard 24 frames per second, but in some instances he was forced to either stretch or compress the footage to match the music. This gives the video its unique syncopated feel.

Now Ellis is producing several more stop-motion music videos from his small apartment in a ceramics factory in Jingdezhen, China. He has a more advanced setup with proper lights, stands, and dedicated space for editing. Still, most of his gear will fit into a few suitcases if the urge to travel strikes him. “This work feels perfect for me,” he says. “I can make it anywhere, and it takes everything I’ve learned. I’ve done sculpture, music, acting—it call comes together in stop-motion films.”

Click to watch the “Ar Don Go” music video.