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Throwing ‘The Afterparty’: How Chris Miller and Phil Lord Crafted the Animated and Musical Episodes

Dave Franco, Zoe Chao animated in
Apple TV Plus

Apple TV Plus series “The Afterparty” is, by definition, a murder mystery. But it’s also part action-thriller, police procedural, musical, rom-com — oh, and animation.

The series follows escape room designer Aniq (Sam Richardson), who earnestly attends his high school reunion hoping for a second chance at love with his old crush Zoë (Zoë Chao), but instead finds himself the primary suspect in a murder when the afterparty goes terribly wrong. When dweeb-turned-asshole pop star Xavier (Dave Franco) invites his former classmates to his glitzy home and winds up plummeting off a balcony to his death, Detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish) shows up to interview each partygoer about their motives and alibis.

Chris Miller created and wrote the series, executive producing alongside his longtime creative partner Phil Lord. Lord and Miller are the minds behind some of Hollywood’s zaniest projects, such as the wildly popular “21 Jump Street” and “Lego Movie” films, as well as lesser known gems like the soon-to-be-rebooted animated teen satire “Clone High.” However, with “The Afterparty,” the filmmaking duo sought to outdo the creative challenges they’d previously hurdled.

Miller first imagined a murder mystery set at a high school reunion over a decade ago, but he’d originally pictured it as a feature film. When he and Lord began toying with an episodic format instead, they had the idea for a multi-genre project — what they call a “comedic ‘Rashômon’” — where each character gets their own episode, and each episode is expressed using the conventions of a different genre.

“The more different each person’s point of view became, the funnier and more interesting the show became. It was really a show that ended up being about empathy, and how we don’t know what another person is going through,” Miller tells Variety. “If we took the time to see the world through their eyes, we might see them as more than just a two dimensional caricature of a person. So the genre stuff came later in the development. It was like, how do we push this even farther? And the characters’ personalities lent themselves to things like rom-coms and action movies and musicals.”

“It’s also, how do we make this harder on ourselves?’” Lord laughs. “And how can we make a virtue of imagining this as a series, so that it’s not just making it longer — it’s introducing possibilities.”

Aniq’s best friend Yasper (Ben Schwartz) is the protagonist of the third episode, and as an aspiring rapper, his story is told as a musical complete with three original songs: hip-hop track “Two Shots,” spirited pop number “Yeah Sure Whatever” and wistful ballad “Three Dots From Stardom.” The differing styles of the songs first emerged from a conversation about visual plans with cinematographer Carl Herse.

“We had a long discussion about [how] there’s a lot of different types of musicals,” Miller says. “There’s the old show tune-type, there’s ‘Hamilton’-type stuff, there’s ‘High School Musical.’ We decided that each of the songs was a different type of musical.”

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Yasper (Ben Schwartz, middle) performs “Yeah Sure Whatever” with Jennifer #1 (Tiya Sircar, left) and Jennifer #2 (Ayden Mayeri, right). Apple TV Plus

Jack Dolgen was hired to write Episode 3 thanks to his experience on the CW musical comedy series “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” When it came time to actually craft the songs, he wrote lyrics with Lord and Miller. They passed them to their “Lego Movie” collaborator Jon Lajoie, who then incorporated those ideas into his own versions.

Schwartz had never sung or danced professionally, so Lord and Miller arranged the music in a key he could hit. Choreographer Kat Burns, also from “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” had a similar task. Before plotting out steps, she worked with Schwartz to gauge his natural physicality. She ended up shaping the choreography around his “fast footwork” and even threw in a breakdancing move called the “coffee grinder” because “it was impressive and he could do it.”

The choreography also smartly reflects character dynamics. For example, true to his painfully awkward character Walt, Jamie Demetriou wasn’t invited to rehearsals for “Two Shots.” “We thought it would be funny for Walt to be in the background, trying to dance along but not knowing the moves,” Miller says. While Burns describes the song as more “waist down” and “vibey,” she instructed Demetriou to be “bouncy, happy and offbeat.” Hilariously, when Demetriou steps forward to deliver his own rap verse, he’s immediately interrupted by Schwartz.

“The thing that I was really impressed with about Kat on set was that she was super playful in designing fun things, and then quite intense about making sure the silhouettes looked great and people were in sync and it felt like it had the snap of a well-executed musical number,” Lord says. “You can’t just execute a funny send-up of musicals in a sloppy, silly way. You have to actually execute it really carefully. And that’s what I thought all the craft departments did excellently.”

A team of animators led the way on Episode 6, which focuses on Zoë. Written by Lord and Rachel Smith, the episode sees Zoë, a creative teenager-turned-art teacher-turned vice principal, sit down with Detective Danner to explain the events of her night as she recalls them. She becomes a cartoon in her mind’s eye, splitting into multiple versions of herself, including the anxious, strait-laced identity she embodies daily, a secret “fun Zoë” who rarely sees the light of day, a stoner persona, a tiny “rage Zoë” and a literal “mama bear” who emerges when it’s time to protect her young daughter Maggie (Everly Carganilla) from the mistakes of her ex-husband Brett (Ike Barinholtz).

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The five animated versions of Zoë (Zoë Chao) become one. Apple TV Plus

Anna Hollingsworth served as supervising director of animation and worked with Shadowmachine, the company behind “Bojack Horseman” and Lord and Miller’s upcoming “Clone High” reboot. “[We asked,] ‘How long does it take to do an episode of animated TV?’ They were like, ‘I don’t know, between 12 and 18 months?’” Lord says. “We’re like, ‘What if you had six?’”

This accelerated timeline forced Lord and Miller to shoot the live-action episodes at the same time as the animated one, which Miller admits was an “insane, somewhat masochistic” choice.

The first person Lord and Miller called after deciding to make an animated episode was Lindsey Olivares, who served as production designer on “The Mitchells vs. The Machines,” which they produced in 2021. They brought Olivares on as “The Afterparty’s” character designer, and she fleshed out what Zoë, her classmates and her alter egos would look like.

Olivares joined the production early on, before many key visual details about the show had been decided. Each time she found out about a new cast member, she began sketching a caricature of their face; each time a costume design was finalized, she mapped out her interpretation of it.

“Usually, when you’re doing character design, you’re just getting a feel for the character and suggesting what everything should be. Like, ‘Based on the writing, this is a big character, and this is a small character,” Olivares says. “But with this, it’s real people. So there are [steps] that are very unique. I’d find myself googling an actor’s height.”

Another challenge of designing characters based on live-action references was finding a way to make their features cohesive. In a film like “Mitchells vs. the Machines,” characters may all have similar eye shapes in order to help situate them in the same universe, whereas “The Afterparty” required a semi-accurate contrast between, for example, Richardson’s wide eyes and Barinholtz’s small ones. To compensate for such incongruences, Olivares took liberties in making other features bolder. Case in point: The size of Brett’s animated eyes match Barinholtz’s, but it doesn’t clash with the other characters’ thanks to his comically exaggerated grin.

Olivares also achieved cohesion by imagining elements of Zoë’s day-to-day life and incorporating them in her drawing style. “I tried to emulate something like a Sharpie pen, because she’s probably doing art in the middle of her job and having access to office supplies,” she says. “Even Xerox machines, to bring in some texture to it. It kind of has that doodling feeling that you might have if you’re drawing on the side in a meeting at your job.”

Lord emphasizes that the joy of creating “The Afterparty” was the impossibility of boredom.

“The lifecycle of a television cast is, like… Season 1: ‘I’m so grateful! I’m having so much fun!’ Season 2: ‘It’s still great! We’re all lucky!’” Lord says. “But Season 3 is like, ‘I don’t know, you gotta get me out of here.’ So what’s nice about this is we’re never even telling the same story.”

As each character remembers (or misremembers) the night differently, the craft aspects of the show reflect that. For example, costume designer Trayce Gigi Field put the actors in slightly different outfits for each genre. According to Lord, “In a musical, everything is a little bit brighter, more saturated. Aniq is wearing a brighter-colored shirt. Yasper’s jacket is a flashier version, and he’s wearing totally different shoes. Little things like that permeated [the show]. The props are all a little bit more poppy, the centerpieces on the tables were different in every episode. That just reflected the world that we were in. And the concept of the show itself is so ambitious, but it allowed every department to show off their incredible skills.”

Ultimately, “The Afterparty” is a culmination of the work Lord and Miller have been doing throughout their entire careers.

“It’s always like, what’s a new angle of this? What’s a new way to tell a story? What’s a new dimension of this character?” Lord says. “And I’d say that’s the thing that Chris and I are interested in the most. As often as we try to decode different genres, we’re also trying to blow them apart… and create something new in all the stuff that we do.”