I Don't Wanna Play: Nicole Ginelli on Making Sufjan Stevens' Video Game

I Don't Wanna Play: Nicole Ginelli on Making Sufjan Stevens' Video Game

To celebrate the release of Sufjan Stevens’ new album The Ascension, Ella Kemp speaks to one of the women who built a video-game world to bring the music to life. Filmmaker Nicole Ginelli tells all.

Where have you been for the past six months? This isn’t a space to panic about your newfound hobbies or achievements in isolation, rather one to find comfort in the promise that there is so much to sink your teeth into without leaving the house. One of those things is a brand new album by Sufjan Stevens – the musicians’s first solo record since his seminal 2015 album Carrie and Lowell.

The Ascension marks a major departure for the artist. Here, he favours introspection, minimalism and electronica. No less soul-searching, just seen through a different lens. It’s why our chosen entry point also moves differently into the new era, looking at Sufjan’s visual battlecry and the women who brought it to life: enter Nicole Ginelli.

The Brooklyn-based music video director spent her lockdown in a “self-imposed Video Game cave”, remotely directing an Atlanta-based green screen shoot with an all-female crew on one of Sufjan’s first new singles. The track is excellent, the video even more so.

Viral TikTok dancer Jalaiah Harmon takes centre stage, choreographing a virtual world in which Sufjan’s music and Nicole’s singular styles come to life. Talking us through the symbiosis that brought Video Game its visuals, Nicole talks us through interactive art, Tetris, the joy and pain of performance, and more.

The video has such a playful concept. How did those initial conversations begin? 

Sufjan and his team were wonderfully open, and the only initial creative notes were that it be digital and game-like, with Jalaiah Harmon as the lead. I sent them two very different pitches, and they told me to pick my favorite. Of course, I chose the more technically challenging one! After the concept was approved, the next hurdle was: How the heck do I pull this off during quarantine and remotely? It took quite a few days of calls to green screen studios and crew in Jalaiah's hometown of Atlanta. 

Concept-wise, I was responding to the track’s lyrical themes, dealing with the joy and pain of creating a performance. How the sharing of one’s art releases a powerful force that becomes bigger than the work itself. Jalaiah already has experience with this sort of artistic dichotomy, and it was fascinating to contemplate alignments between two performers at such different stages in their careers. Our goal was to show a performer’s strength and joy, to reclaim power in fantasy. I wanted Jalaiah’s dancing to play a large part in signaling the changes in the universe, to show her awakening the space and bringing it to life. Sufjan's feedback was always succinct and thoughtful, I really valued his comments helping to shape the concept early on. 

Jalaiah is a revelation. Was she the driving force as an individual, or were you conscious of the impact of a viral TikTok dancer more broadly? 

She really is! Jalaiah was cast by Sufjan before I came on board. I researched her, and then wrote the concept centered around her style and energy. It was such a treat to work with a dancer! I'm so accustomed to animating everything entirely myself that it felt so new and exciting to incorporate an actor and footage. Diving into Jalaiah's work I was immediately struck by what a multifaceted dancer she is, she's been training under multiple styles her whole life. I think that's something people may gloss over if they're only aware of Renegade's success. She really brings such a powerful and specific energy to performing, it’s infectious. For me, the video is very insular and an almost private world with Jalaiah at the center. I was thinking more about the ways performance affects us internally, rather than anything specific to external cultural forces. 

How much of the choreography came from her? What did you most admire about her process? 

The choreography was 100 Jalaiah's hard work. I sent her and her mom the concept for the video so they got a feel for the overall arc. We talked about her character awakening in this strange liminal game space and her powers growing over time, morphing into a dance superhero. I love her style, and believe in letting artists go into their work zone and emerge when ready. I encouraged her to be true to herself and left her to it. I wanted to stay nimble on my end and let her dancing set its own tone, responding and tailoring my animations to whatever she sent my way. As soon as I saw the choreography I started crying – I knew it was a perfect fit. It still blows my mind that a 15-year-old is not only filled with so much talent, but also the ability to execute it. 

On my end I planned out the postures and simple gestures (pointing, kneeling etc). I knew I had to come up with a way to communicate those, so I filmed myself doing the gestures in my apartment in front of a green screen. I then made those into gifs and put them into a large Google Slides project for Jalaiah and the DP to reference on set. 

How familiar were you with Sufjan’s work beforehand? I adore his music and this feels so different, both sonically and visually. What were you hoping to convey in terms of a new direction for his work? 

I wasn't a huge Sufjan head beforehand! I just hadn't had the phase yet. When the initial email came in, I did a lot of research and pretty much became a Sufjan convert over the course of a weekend. Once I understood what a departure this album was, that informed my visual sense of what to do. I saw some similarities in tone to Age of Adz, so that planted a small seed in the back of my thought process. When I was researching I also ingested his output visually, his stage shows, as well as the intricate and colorful Ascension album art that Sufjan drew. I wanted to do something that was equal parts Sufjan, Jalaiah, and me. I came up with a sort of sporty, soft and electric minimalism as a common thread.   

You mentioned there was an all-female crew on this shoot. Was that a conscious decision? What did you particularly enjoy about it? 

Yes! Since this was Jalaiah's first music video shoot, I wanted the set to be comfortable and welcoming for her. We had an amazing DP, Angelica Perez-Castro, out of Atlanta and I asked her if it would be possible to get an all-female local crew. She put in the calls, and made it happen! Since I directed remotely from my home in Brooklyn, quarantine style, Angelica and I worked really closely together. I knew when I was hiring the DP that trust would be key. I also wanted the team to be sensitive to working with a young dancer. We had a short shoot day, so I made sure to communicate that despite the stress that will inevitably arise, to keep it calm and loose on set. My direction to Jalaiah was very minimal, mostly where to look and a general feeling for each scene, words like "strong" or "joyful". The primary direction I gave was "be yourself and trust your instincts." 


It’s such an enormous achievement to have made something so inventive and complex remotely. Had you done this kind of isolated work before? Talk me through the process and challenges in that space, on your own at home. 

First time for everything! It was a bit nerve-racking sitting at home by my phone on the day of the shoot. Angela and I were texting and calling back and forth, making calls on all the last minute decisions. I was careful not to hover since they had so much to cover quickly. I did my best to give over to the unknown, reminding myself that I was in good hands. I hadn't seen Jalaiah act before outside of her dancing videos, and I was blown away when I saw the footage. She is such a natural actress, I felt so blessed to get that performance from her. One nice part about directing remotely is that it forces you to get your ducks in a row in a really precise way. I did a lot more heavy planning and communication, covering all the on-set contingencies beforehand.

I then did all the 3D, animation, editing, and compositing on my trusty laptop at home. I also had the assistance of a wonderful motion and VFX artist, Will Rahilly, on some key scenes. It was great to work together in person and to get out of my self-imposed Video Game cave. To have another set of eyes helping with details is crucial. While I often work solo on projects, it's always a treat to work with creative pros. The collaborative fruits of this project is definitely something I'll take forward with me. 

What is your relationship with video games? There’s so many playful influences in the video, could you talk me through the different reference points? 

I interpret the lyrics to be hinting at social media and video communication in that sense. The more I worked within it, it also started to feel very meta, some sort of dialogue with the making of a music v i d e o. I definitely lost myself in that world for about a month. By the end of the project I started to think of it as more of an interface for Sufjan and Jalaiah to combine visions, to sync power.

The biggest reference point is a video art piece by Ericka Beckman called "Hiatus". There's a female character who is in a proto-VR world, and she's building a digital garden. It's monochromatic and just gorgeous, a few of the 3D scenes reference this piece directly. The disco floor near the end of the video is a recreation of Mondrian's "Checkerboard, Dark Colors (1919)". It looked so Tetris-like, and I enjoyed that dialogue with modernism. I was also heavily inspired by the "Can You Feel It" music video by the Jackson Five, and specifically its VFX. It was so ahead of its time and was directed by Robert Abel, an early CG animation pioneer. All of Abel & Associates animation work from the early 80s is amazing as well, and I always look to it – so you can see a lot of their influence throughout the video.  

When the email came my way with the song title, I had a real moment of simpatico. I felt like all the avenues of my practice were syncing up. I'm currently in grad school for interactive art, and so much of my research and thought process goes back to these zen-like loose narrative computer games I grew up playing. Games like Myst, Spelunx, Tetris, and anything made by Lucas Arts in the 90s. Their meditative pacing and artwork is really ingrained in me, and I often consider how impactful and confidence-building they were for me as a child. I find games to be really important in building our ethics. They can be powerful frameworks for questioning how we engage with rules, and how we respond to particular environments. Funnily enough, I dropped off gaming right when video games were taking over – I remember Duck Hunt and some Western-style game with bright colors that I loved...

Ella Kemp (@ella_kemp) is a film critic and editor based in London. She is the Contributing Editor for READ ME and the Film Editor for the Quietus. She writes for NME, Empire, Letterboxd and more. Her favourite word is “verklempt” because it’s what she often is.

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