Ricky Baba has come a long way since his first animation gig, sculpting stop-motion characters.
Today, the animator has traded in his clay and sculpting tools, opting to play in the innovative world of augmented and virtual reality as the creative director of Los Angeles-based RYOT — the immersive content arm of telecom giant Verizon Media.
At RYOT, Baba is using the classical storytelling skills he honed at Sheridan alongside immersive media and emerging technology. Most recently, Baba and the RYOT team were tasked with a project of an epic scale: creating the music video for Earth — a song written by rapper and comedian Lil Dicky (David Burd), aimed at drawing attention to climate change. The accompanying animated video shows Lil Dicky soaring across the planet, encountering various animals. At more than seven minutes, the song and video feature a roster of nearly 30 celebs, including Justin Bieber, Ariana Grande, Shawn Mendes, Miley Cyrus and Ed Sheeran, all making appearances as various animated animals and characters. In addition, Lil Dicky collaborated with Academy-Award winner and environmental activist Leonardo DiCaprio — who also makes a cameo — and The Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation on the video’s development.
Baba worked as an art director for the Earth video, which was greenlit in the summer of 2018. Collaborating with co-director Nigel Tierney, RYOT’s head of content and a former Dreamworks colleague, Baba worked with Verizon, RYOT’s executive team, Lil Dicky, Lil Dicky’s management team, and the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation to ensure everyone’s vision was incorporated in the video. Baba had to manage what the environments would look like in the video, based on rough storyboards supplied to him. All the while, Lil Dicky would recruit artists to the project, with the final performer joining just a month before the video was completed.
“Making animated movies and shows is a journey — the story would change, and I had to adapt to the changing narratives along the way,” Baba says. “When you’re making animated content, all characters and objects have to be designed. When I look at those loose drawings, I have to fill in the blanks.”
Baba says that while he would stay in touch with Lil Dicky and his team to get feedback, for the most part, he was allowed to run with the fun concept.
Earth debuted on April 18, 2019, earning more than 50-million views on YouTube in the first week of its release. The website welovetheearth.org, meanwhile, received over one-million hits.
Baba says the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation has also been very vocal about the number of signups it received from the campaign. “When you take into account all the user-generated content that’s come as a result of the video, the quantifiable impact is hard to judge,” Baba explains. “Online, you can find thousands of remixes, reaction videos and clips — it gives the video legs way beyond what we planned.”
“After I graduated, I felt like I had to move to L.A. to show that I was a world-class artist. But that was a different time. Now, the dynamic has shifted and the talent within Canada is having a moment. Sheridan grads can get the most opportunities right in their backyard.”
Whether it be a viral music video, a digital campaign, or an animated feature, Baba says he tends to aim for similar benchmarks of success. “Each project has its own challenges, but the common thread is that I want to make sure that in every instance, the end consumer is engaging with a high-quality project,” he explains. “That all comes back to the basic fundamentals of art that I learned back in the day — composition, form, perspective, anatomy and value. Those elements factor into every project I take on, whether it be a TV show, movie, game or app.”
Baba has been at the fore of innovative storytelling since graduation from Sheridan’s Classical Animation program in 2003, albeit with a bit more of a traditional medium. He began his career as a sculptor with Toronto-based Cuppa Coffee, moving on to Starz Animation, working on popular series such as Veggie Tales and Happy Elf. Tapped by Dreamworks Animation, Baba moved to Los Angeles to work on feature animated films such as Bee Movie (2007), Kung Fu Panda 2 (2011), Monsters vs. Aliens (2009) and Shrek 4 (2010).
Baba is continuing to tell stories in compelling ways at RYOT. The company, which credits itself as a leader in the VR/AR storytelling space, has created VR films for outlets such as HuffPost, Associated Press and The New York Times. Baba was instrumental in RYOT’s launch of augmented reality banner ads through Yahoo Mail, partnering with retailers such as Home Depot and Pottery Barn. The effort earned Baba and his team a 2018 Lumiere Technology Award for Innovation in Augmented Reality Advertising.
Using his animation skills for entertainment, education and now, activism, Baba encourages other animators to try as many avenues as possible to showcase their art. What’s more, he says Sheridan grads shouldn’t feel limited by their location.
“After I graduated, I felt like I had to move to L.A. to show that I was a world-class artist,” he says. “But that was a different time. Now, the dynamic has shifted and the talent within Canada is having a moment. Sheridan grads can get the most opportunities right in their backyard.”
Similarly, Baba’s professional trajectory is a testament to the fact that there are ways animators can measure their success beyond contributing to big-budget animated features. With Earth, for example, Baba was able to apply his skills towards a project intended to have a meaningful, long-lasting impact. Alongside its vibrant animation, supported by a comedic song and a host of stars, Earth carries with it a serious message about the responsibility humans have to the protect the planet.
While Earth Day has passed, Baba says RYOT will continue the moment with additional social media content, including behind-the-scenes footage and a documentary-style edit. “We’re shining a light on topics such as global warming and climate change in an easily digestible way,” Baba says. “The idea is that the video is a funnel for people to get further information and education to leave the world a better place for future generations.”
Images courtesy of Ricky Baba and RYOT