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Mystery Meat Media Unpacks ‘I’m A Virgo’ Animation and ‘Meta-Understanding Audiences’

Studio co-founders Ri Crawford and David Lauer talk about creating a fictional cartoon, ‘Parking Tickets,’ set within Boots Riley’s dark comedy series about a 13-foot-tall young Black man, hidden away, who grew up on a diet of comic books and TV before escaping to experience the beauty and contradictions of the real world; now streaming on Prime Video.

13 feet tall and ready for adventure, the character Cootie (Jharrel Jerome) is the star of Boots Riley’s darkly comedic fantastical coming-of-age joyride, I’m A Virgo. Co-produced by Amazon Studios and Media Res Studio, the show follows an impossibly tall young Black man in Oakland, California. Having grown up hidden away, passing time on a diet of comic books and TV shows, Cootie escapes to experience the beauty and contradictions of the real world.

True to his astro sign, Cootie forms tight friendships, finds love at a fast-food counter, navigates awkward situations with a little bit of grace and a lot of wheel-burnin’ flare, and embarks fearlessly on an adventure that leads him to encounter his idol, a real-life superhero unoriginally named The Hero (Walton Goggins).

American rapper Riley and Tze Chun (Gremlins: Secrets of the Mogwai) co-showrun and executive produce the series, alongside Michael Ellenberg and Lindsey Springer for Media Res Studio (Pachinko, The Morning Show), Jerome, and Rebecca Rivo. The series, now available to stream on Prime Video, features original music and score by art-pop duo Tune-Yards.

As a whole, the show is a mythical odyssey that questions the purpose of the mythical odyssey in a society woven together by Saturday morning cartoons. Having worked with the Oakland-based stop-motion studio Mystery Meat Media (MMM) on the 2018 American surrealist Black comedy film Sorry to Bother You, Riley reached out to the studio’s co-founders Ri Crawford and David Lauer to bring to life his vision of a 2D fictional cartoon called Parking Tickets within I’m a Virgo’s world.

Known for their work on stop-motion productions like Phil Tippett’s Mad God, the folks at MMM had their work cut out for them creating a 2D cartoon for a live-action show that would provide the backbone to this series’ culture and social antics. Crawford and Lauer also brought to life Cootie’s best friend Jones’ Psychic Theaters, which are animated visual representations of her larger-than-life community speeches.

Victoria Davis: Tell me about how Mystery Meat got involved with I’m a Virgo. Was it via your connection with Boots Riley through Sorry to Bother You? What was it about the show – or these individual animated sequences in particular – that attracted you to work on the series?

Ri Crawford: I’m a huge fan of Boots’ writing, filmmaking, and music. I’m there for whatever he wants to make. And, since we collaborated with Boots on STBY, he calls me about animation ideas all the time (and there are many to come)! The Parking Tickets component of Virgo was one we talked about not long after the film came out. His idea was for a 2D animated family sitcom like The Simpsons or Family Guy. MMM is a stop-motion studio and I certainly wasn’t going to tell Boots we couldn’t do it, but I had no idea how we’d pull it off.

David and I put our heads together and decided to pitch Boots on a paper cut-out idea. I’d rehearsed the pitch and, sure enough, Boots immediately bought it, thanks to a similar place in the zeitgeist occupied by South Park. Suddenly, our stop-motion brains were conceptually unleashed to figure out how we’d do it.

David Lauer: Working with Boots is a unique experience when it comes to working for a client. It’s closer to creating a personal work rather than a big commission. He’s passionate about his creations, charismatic with his presentations, and as an artist himself, he’s collaborative and accepting of everyone’s voice he invites onto his projects. So, when he asked us to make a pitch for Parking Tickets, we knew that this wasn’t going to be a standard bit of sitcom genre animation.          

VD: Before we go into the “how,” I should definitely ask about the “why.” In your own words, explain the Parking Tickets cartoon and its significance in the story and why it was necessary to animate it rather than use live-action like the show’s primary storytelling medium?

DL: Parking Tickets is a long-running show inside the I’m a Virgo universe. It’s a monologue-heavy, moralistic cartoon where every character is undergoing some sort of emotional turmoil. No one is okay or getting by. In some ways, the live-action world of I’m a Virgo is similarly afflicted. While Parking Tickets is somewhat of a moral compass of the show, its cartoon nature is inherently simpler than the real world Cootie lives in, similar to how Cootie’s isolated childhood imparted a simpler, naive, understanding of the world as well.

RC: Boots uses media in his filmmaking similarly to Paul Verhoven in how experiencing what the characters watch, in a collective watch, reveals much about those characters and their society. Cootie’s universe is one in which folks have been desensitized to the point that a delivery man who continues to deliver despite some massively traumatic experience resulting in some absurdly cartoony violence, is funny. Of course that, as a whole, is hilarious!

VD: So, how did you pull off this animation? And how did you balance your expertise in stop-motion with that initial design concept of 2D in a way that served the story?

RC: Boots and I had a number of very early conversations, when I still thought I was humoring him discussing a 2D animation, but the idea he had early on was that there should be something familiar enough about the look of Parking Tickets to suggest to people a Simpsons-adjacent feel, as if to lure everyone towards a comfort zone, before an emotional switcharoo.

We commissioned a couple of preliminary character designs and I did a screen test with the first draft of the weatherman character, which also helped us explain to the rest of the producers what we were talking about.

DL: Once we were the animation studio of choice for the production, we became part of Boot’s tool belt for solving difficult production problems. Whether it was the 90’s style Saturday morning cartoon, a security commercial, or floating buildings and dollhouse dioramas, we were there as an option to pull it together. We were given an outrageous amount of creative freedom. Essentially, we pitched what we were passionate about and if Boots heard the enthusiasm, he was down to talk it over.

Over the course of the production, other animated sequences evolved and Boot’s insistence on practical effects and mixed media pushed us to expand the number of techniques we were employing.

VD: Speaking of other animated sequences, what about Jones’ Psychic Theaters? How did these add to the community-oriented character’s development in the show?

RC: Animation and comedy often make interesting bedfellows, where uncomfortable and difficult ideas are “permitted” sometimes when presented behind the veneer of either. Or perhaps it's the spoonful of sugar with the medicine. Jones is the ultimate activist, able to conjure these powers of supreme convincing, rhetorically devastating her opponents. The animations here are illustrating some pretty high-concept ideas that a lot of people may not actually be that familiar with.

The elegant simplicity that animation affords helps clarify the concepts. It’s as though Jones’ superpower is to summon gorgeous PowerPoint presentations out of the aether. Can’t eff with that. 

DL: Jones’ oratory has a power beyond the written word. Not only is her delivery impassioned and heartfelt, her empathy goes beyond our ears, and right into the visual parts of our brains.

VD: What were the design goals for this animation as opposed to the Parking Tickets cartoon?

DL: Boots always had the idea for some sort of board game with tokens to illustrate the Crisis of Capitalism. Pawns so to speak. Gold buildings that would open up with a blinding flash. HO models allowed us to provide a balance of boardgame simplicity while still giving architectural detail. Too much detail would derail the fast pace of information download required during Jones’ speech.

VD: What were the biggest challenges in seeing this one to fruition?

RC: The Crisis of Capitalism’s Psychic Theater took a number of iterations before we’d gotten it right. Conceptually, I think I was stuck on the idea of an “infographic” presentation, handling the information in that kind of familiar way. Finally Boots described the whole physical space that Jones and the party crowd are in, and the concept that these animations were tied to the same physical world, not like an overlay. Suddenly, everything clicked!

DL: One of the challenges with the Psychic Theaters were the VFX considerations. Much of the animation we provided to the production stood alone, or would be comped onto television monitors, but the Crisis of Capitalism needed us to match, exaggerate or compliment the live-action camera moves. Motion control was absolutely vital in order for the VFX compositors to be able to digest and zest up the animation we provided. Some of these camera moves needed to imply movement through a void. The distances and angles of approach needed to be dynamic and impactful, and we went through many iterations trying to get the HO models to feel enormous.

VD: How did these animations challenge Mystery Meat in new ways? How did it deviate from other animated projects you’d done in the past?

RC: There were two major creative challenges we’d set out to explore with Parking Tickets. One was the idea of expressing some squash and stretch, more typical of 2D styles, with stop-motion paper cut outs, like making the IBS delivery guy’s lungs inflate, for example. We came up with a fairly industrial process to cut out replacement series for these using a die cutter we named ZORB. It was also important to reserve a lot of the puppets' characters for the animator.

The other was how to extend the classic 2.5D approach to something like 2.78D, which is just us stop-motion animators cheating to make our physical frame-by-frame world look like a high production value 2D animation.

And, as David mentioned, this was the first time we’d worked so closely with a VFX department, delivering elements that are getting comped directly into footage of the actors. It’s one of the oldest stop-motion techniques for moviemakers and here we are doing similar things, almost 100 years after The Lost World.

DL: Parking Tickets was about 10 minutes of full finished footage, but it had to feel like windows into a multi-season show. We only animated what would amount to half an episode of run time. We didn’t get to build up the institutional knowledge of working with characters and developing gestures and personalities for them that we could fall back on.

On the other hand, while we were faking making an entire show, we didn’t waste resources building out the look book a TV show would need. Many characters existed in one angle only, or only had one emotional moment, so we scrapped doing turnarounds or full expression sheets. We didn’t have to be economical with our angles, because we would never have the chance to reuse them anyway. Each scene could be approached as a standalone short.

VD: Your work on I’M A VIRGO actually reminded me a lot of the animated sequence in The Boys’ third season with Black Noir and how he revisits old trauma through these cartoon characters. We’re at a point in time where animation and live-action are playing a lot more together than they used to. Why do you think that is? How do you think these two together add more “meat” (pun intended) to a story?

DL: I think we are living in an increasingly animated world. VFX makes up a greater and greater part of our visual media universe. And audiences and creators alike are recognizing that we’re all getting savvy to how the sausage gets made. “Movie Magic” as a term doesn’t really come up anymore, even though technical accomplishments are happening at a staggering pace. So we don’t have to worry about fooling audiences and seamlessly blending animation into the live action.

Rather, we can embrace the mixed media nature of our time and revel in the coexistence of all these techniques. We’re in a strange era of meta-understanding audiences, intersecting genres, and boatloads of nostalgia.

VD: What has been the most enjoyable part of this creative experience and how has it affected what projects you cook up next?

DL: We’re an Oakland California studio and I’m stoked that we got to contribute to an Oakland-based show, with the vast majority made with local folks. The Bay Area has an enormous number of incredible artists, and getting to bring them together for this wild ride has been an absolute career highlight for me.

RC: We had a lot of time to brainstorm and fantasize about a more expansive Parking Tickets world while making the excerpts for Virgo. We named a lot of the incidental characters and got to know them. We’ve got an entire episode outlined out for the Possum character, which I’m going to have to pitch Boots on next time I see him. 

Victoria Davis's picture

Victoria Davis is a full-time, freelance journalist and part-time Otaku with an affinity for all things anime. She's reported on numerous stories from activist news to entertainment. Find more about her work at