Ikem Smith is quite the genius. The visual artist and animator was born in Kingston, Jamaica and is a graduate of Edna Manley School of the Performing Arts. His unique approach to visual arts and limitless, wildly innovative and refreshingly original ideas help to set him apart not only in the Caribbean creative scene but in the industry overall.
The man himself is a bit of an enigma. With glimpses into his psyche here and there with his obscure, quirky and comical tongue-in-cheek tweets, we get the sense that he’s figuring things out for his own amusement and enjoyment first, public consumption second.
Ikem creates, therefore he is.
Take a further peek behind the curtain, and you’ll find a creative who is very much interactive and transparent with his work, from his YouTube shorts and podcasts to his IG Live series, “People I Made Up”, which found the illustrator live drawing concepts on an impeccable interface and admirably consistent basis, with on-the-spot prompts from his viewers. He also took some time out to contribute some memorable visuals for Protoje‘s GRAMMY-nominated album, A Matter of Time and the accompanying tour.
Ikem, along with fellow Jamaican pioneers like Taj Francis and Matthew McCarthy, is not only blazing his own trail but clearing a path for the new generation of creatives who are more loyal to their own imaginations than traditions or instruction. They’re also the 3 kings of ducking off to whatever magical lairs we imagine geniuses to reside in and only popping up when absolutely necessary, inspired or in the rare mood to mass socialize.
My first encounter with Ikem was at an art fundraiser for fellow artist, illustrator and animator, Djet Layne on the rooftop at Listen Mi creative agency in Kingston’s Half Way Tree. He was the last person I spoke to that night and also one of the last ones working on his live painting, in his own world, creating a masterpiece – again, for his enjoyment first. Our exchange was brief, but he continued to have an impact on me from his art and animations, to his film work and Mikey Tumbleweed music projects.
I caught up with Ikem recently for our first truly in-depth conversation — a look inside his creative process for one of the most innovative music videos to come out of Jamaica in a long time – the highly praised “Style & Pattern” visual for reggae lyricist Royal Blu, which debuted earlier this year.
Take a look (and a second, and a third) at the inspiring visual before we take a walk through the creative process and mastermind of Mr. Smith – a journey of self-aware lows, humble highs and ultimately – artistic victory.
The Creative Process
You have a super creative mind. What were you like as a child and how did childhood impact you?
I watched a lot of TV (maybe too much). Was one of those really energetic kids and I liked to make up stories and act like characters on TV, so my parents got me into a Drama group at church.
There were a few summers when I had to stay at my grandmother’s house and we weren’t allowed to watch TV all the time, so my cousin and I would read from these boxes of books my uncle would leave us. Classic Literature and Science stuff. Then we’d come up with these projects and experiments.
I think all these things developed a very strange and active inner life that persists to this day.
How did you get into filmmaking and animation?
It actually wasn’t a natural progression from watching TV, which logically it probably should have. My favourite classes in high school were Literature and Art, but when it came time to choose subjects for CXC and move towards a career I decided I was going to be a doctor. I was a pretty good student before that, but a bit unfocused.
But long story short, I got really depressed around fourth form. Basically failed every class except Art and Literature and I had to drop chemistry because I fell out of what they called the “fast stream” at Wolmer’s (there’s a subject number limit if you’re not in the fast stream). One night before school I was really low and I couldn’t sleep and I actually thought about ending it, then I watched this movie called Stranger Than Fiction and it kinda saved my life in a way. After that, I thought, “THIS is what I want to do”. I want to make movies.
Animation was kinda just a buckups at Edna Manley.
What’s it like working with Blu and how did you link up?
Blu is always pretty chill to work with. For this [particular] project, I contacted him to find out if he had any projects coming up I could help with, but I’ve known him for a couple of years now. We probably met through his brother Taj Francis.
What was your first reaction when you heard the song?
I actually have some voice notes and messages that answer that!
Wow. So, walk us through the treatment. How did you pitch such an off-the-wall and unique idea?
What inspired the concept for the visual?
I had a lot of images coming to mind that I didn’t share when I first heard the song. Including like a dystopian future, without sunlight, and a weird factory where Blu would be distilling his music through a machine in order to create a new star. But stemming from the weird IKEA thing from the artwork, we started to settle around this idea of the throne and Blu building it being a centre piece.
Game Of Thrones was coming back and I had been anticipating it, and even though I wanted to do the multi-genre thing, a period piece like Game Of Thrones would be a bit too expensive to pull off properly, so I thought Tony Stark building the first Iron Man suit in the cave.
Then from there the other parts of the story started to fall in place, and I drew for references I thought we could convincingly pull off, like a talent show like American Idol, or those smooth slow motion shots from the opening of Watchmen.
There is a lot of special effects in the video. How much was actually shot in person and how did you go about creating in post-production?
I think about 50% is shot, maybe a little less because I stitched a lot of pieces together. This was the first sizable thing I’ve had creative freedom on in a while and would have done a few things more efficiently for sure if I had another go, but a good learning experience I think.
Post was mostly Blender and After Effects. There were some practical elements we created like the crown and a stand-in throne, but the throne didn’t work out on-set so I just added it in afterwards.
The message at the end of the video stood out the most. What’s the story behind that? What challenges did you face and what kept you going?
Not going lie, at the start of the process it felt like I definitely wasn’t up for it. I felt like I had been failing at a lot of things for the past three or four years and I had projects even before that, where I bit off more than I could chew. So asking for people to help wasn’t something I felt comfortable doing, just in case it didn’t work out.
I had made a short thing on my Instagram for an ongoing project called The Universe I Made Up and some of my friends Krusha, Jermaine, Burge and Spenz told me it was inspiring them to work on their own personal projects and asked me to let them in on anything I was working on. They insisted, so I did. Then I asked others.
After I did a rough cut, spent two weeks correcting a mistake I made on set and made the intro of the video, Jenille Brown was the first to submit her piece and that gave me a bit of encouragement. Then after completing the first 3D elements, I thought “This isn’t too bad. I can do this“. So I basically felt lost for the first four weeks after we shot, then it got better.
So I was pretty grateful when it was done
Tell us more about the creatives you involved.
Jenille Brown: @_roxxeanne_– Character Designer and Animator. Mixes fantasy, folklore and Jamaican culture well. Very passionate about animation and Jamaica/The Caribbean. Has a good moral compass
Camille Elizabeth: @godzgold – Illustrator and Motion Designer. She did the vfx for the floating in the clouds scene and some of the welding ( and she’s new!) She also killed acting with no-one to play off of. She’s one of those really humble people with hidden talents. Really excited to see what she does in the future.
Jonathan Nelson: @mandelmic– Character Designer, Illustrator and Graphic Designer. One of the most consistent and prolific people I know.
Ajus Burge: @ajusburge – Illustrator, Graphic Designer, Motion Designer, Animator, Dancer and Actor. Burge was the more charismatic of the bandits and also helped direct near the end of the night when everyone was faded from fatigue.
Taj Francis: @tajfrancis – The LEGEND himself. Illustrator, Animator, Motion Designer. Dunno if I even need to say anything. Google dude.
Randy Richards: @randyrandeh – Director and Photographer, responsible for the “Riddim Killer” Segment. Very charismatic and talented dude. Came through in the clutch when a couple people dropped out and delivered one of the best parts of the video. Also big his crew Mark Samuels, Darryl Roberts, Gianni Jahziel and Shane Patterson.
Krusha: @krushdemzn – Photographer and Cinematographer. He encouraged me the most to ask for help, and was also the main producer for this video. We shot at his house and used mostly his equipment. He’s also responsible for the “Old Vibes” segment and enlisted the talents of the talented Musician and Actor Nailah Henry.
Jermaine Wellington @jsw_rd – Director, Editor, Illustrator, VFX and Motion Graphics Artist. Talented and supportive person. Jermaine was also a producer on the video and acted as one of the judges.
Stamma: @thestamma – DJ, Producer. Responsible for Bae Vibes and The Listening Party amongst other things. He played the third judge and helped out on set too. Was my first time meeting and pleasure working with him.
Dru Spenz: @druspenz- Record Producer, Singer and Songwriter. Spenz helped out on set for most of the day. Go check out his music.
You did some acting in the video, and you also do music as well. What other hidden talents do you have and how do they all play into your art?
I really enjoy writing as well and that’s something I plan to do more of in the future. I think exploring my limits with things had allowed me a lot of freedom to execute ideas I have.
What inspires your work overall?
I still go through a lot (maybe too much) media, but I think I’ve been drifting towards the darker side of Science Fiction and Fantasy over the last couple years. My saved posts on Instagram are pretty cool, but also disturbing. That and Mel Brookes comedies.
What is your dream project?
Making a feature-length sci-fi/horror/comedy set in middle-class Jamaica, or a Mel Brookes style comedy about postcolonialism.
This video seems to have had a huge impact on Caribbean creatives and the local industry overall. What do you hope to see in the future from visual arts out of Jamaica?
Is it huge? We’ve been getting some positive feedback for sure.
I just want to see more weird stuff. I know for a fact there are a lot more weird Jamaicans than the breadth of our creative output would suggest and there’s never been a more practical time to be weird.
Lookout for the ‘Hype’ video, which debuts soon, also directed by Ikem!
Editor’s Note: Ikem was very engaging and enthusiastic toward this piece and we were excited to put it together. Right as we were wrapping up, I got hit with a creative block and a slew of personal challenges. I kept emailing and DM’ing Ikem telling him the post was coming, until finally I opened up and got super transparent about the issues I was facing. He was super understanding and his advice to me was simple “Take care of yourself, first.” I did just that and it was one of the most endearing things to hear as a writer and creative. Publishing this comes with a different type of joy, as it’s a testimony to both of us creating through the struggle (and an entire final season of Game of Thrones). It is the highest honour to share the work and thoughts of this humble and amazing artist with you all. Be sure to hype him up! He deserves. And bless up Grace-Ann for the constant push! Bless – R
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