Two midwestern animators from the animation studio Sunshine Mall come together to direct the standout scene from SZA’s newest video.
With the release of SZA’s album “SOS,” she released her music video for the second track on the album, “Kill Bill.” Now at 18 million views, the music video has gained a lot of attention over the past couple of weeks, and the song is at the top of the charts. Featured in the video is an animated sequence, and behind this is a DePaul MFA student, Sarah Schmidt, and her partner, Ian Ballantyne, co-founders of the animation studio Sunshine Mall.
“Well, I gotta tell you right where my head goes,” said Schmidt, next to her partner, Ballantyne. “I hope they finally changed the (YouTube) description, because it says Sunshine Mail … like a mailbox,” they both laughed. This was their response when I asked the two midwestern animators how they felt about the music video they worked on reaching millions of views, in less than a month. Ballantyne opens a tab to check YouTube as he types “Kill Bill SZA” in the search bar.
If you have seen the “Kill Bill” music video, at the peak of the video there is a sudden switch to a ‘90s anime style that depicts SZA finding her ex and, in a moment of embrace, ripping his heart out. The animation used was not something that was planned, but instead came out of necessity.
“They [SZA and her team] didn’t like the climax of this music video, it just didn’t feel right. So, they asked the animators they knew,” Schmidt explained.
Towards the end of December, their friend Nathan Love contacted Schmidt and Ballantyne. Studios were on a break over the holidays and were in a pinch. They needed an animator, and quickly. The studio had previously worked with Love in a time crunch and brought him on for the project. Love contacted Sunshine Mall to help direct. The expected turnaround time: seven days.
A project like this would normally take around three weeks, but they were able to finish it in nine days – a type of fast-paced work they don’t typically advocate, but considering it was a shorter clip and the two of them were working on the project, it was manageable.
Before moving to Chicago, Schmidt and Ballantyne lived six hours away in Columbus. They met during their first year at Columbus College of Art and Design in an Ohio classroom.
“During our first illustration class, we both were like, maybe we should change what we are doing … For me, as a music fan, I kind of changed into animation from illustration, because I was more interested in making visuals for the music than I was making an album cover,” said Schmidt.
Animation has recently become more popular, especially being incorporated in music videos. A recent example is Billie Eilish’s video for her song “my future” (which Sunshine Mall worked on alongside ten other animators). “There has been a cool rise in more independent, animation-looking music videos. There’s a little bit more light on animation that’s not just for Disney or Pixar,” said Schmidt.
The pair are used to hearing their work be compared to popular animations like Adventure Time. With the SZA video, the comments weren’t comparative but celebrated the animation itself. The overall reception was very positive.
“The SZA fans are very happy, respectful people in the chat. They’re very nice,” said Ballantyne.
Traveling to animation conferences was something both Schmidt and Ballantyne saved towards. A moment of clarity occurred for the both of them at a New York conference called Pictoplasma.
“We go to this conference, and it’s a lot of animation people who do this kind of thing for a living. I think it really helped it click together that maybe we could start a business,” Schmidt said.
The pair explained that there is a sense of competitiveness in the animation field and that animators tend to move to Los Angeles or New York City to pursue it. For Schmidt and Ballantyne, Chicago was a kind of middle ground, away from the typical expected route for animators.
“Pictoplasma opened up this entire idea of independent animators and independent directors having a practice that allows you to navigate on your own without being involved in a larger studio. A lot more control and being able to choose what you work with,” said Ballantyne.
Animating brought the two of them together, and their experience with collaborating inspired their own collaborative efforts. The pair hosts an animation screening event called Malt Adult. Schmdit, a DePaul student, held a student show on the Loop Campus on January 20, and then a regular show in Wicker Park the following day. The next show will be in May.
Malt Adult events are typically about an hour long and admission is free. Schmidt and Ballantyne host the screening event for others to show their work and share it with other animators. Along with a free show, free zines are promised as well.
For Sunshine Mall, collaboration is not just about having someone to lean on, but having another creative person to work with and bounce ideas off and share an experience with.
Collaborating on the SZA project is the aspect that Ballantyne enjoys most. “It’s fantastic, I mean, it’s the best part about animating. That’s why we made it,” Ballantyne says.
They knew how big a deal the SZA video was, but the most fulfilling aspect is working alongside other creators, and with each other.
And, yes, the YouTube description still says “Sunshine Mail,” but as Schmidt assured me, I know who it was, and that’s what matters.
Header Illustration by Julia Hester