Animating to Memorable Music Videos

Joe Strike ventures out to survey the music video scene to see whos animating memorable work.

Jonas Odell of Swedens Film Tecknarna is an innovator in animated music videos as evident in these shots from the latest Goldfrapp track. Courtesy of Film Tecknarna.

Few folks remember the one-hit wonders of the music world or their here today, gone tomorrow videos. However, when their performance is showcased in an animated video, its memorability quotient jumps up a notch or three. Its been quite a few years since a-ha was a hot group, but people still remember the rotoscoped, comic book come to life animation of their Take on Me video (including Seth MacFarlane, who spoofed it in a recent Family Guy episode). And once youve seen the video of Peter Gabriels Sledgehammer, its impossible to ever hear the song again without thinking of the videos amazing stop motion animation, early work from Aardman Animations.

Standout animated videos are usually built around the visual equivalent of a musical hook an unforgettable image or on-screen style, the visual equivalent of humming a catchy tune. Californication, Red Hot Chili Peppers 2001 video turned the band into videogame characters navigating a maze of Golden State landmarks.

The project was directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, and animated by now defunct studio Pixel Envy. The band members were motion captured for the game animation, and filmed in performance for additional reference footage that was incorporated into the finished piece playing on a screen within the videogame. According to Bart Lipton, the videos producer, the animation started out crude, and Jonathan and Valerie were concerned about how videogame technology was advancing every year or two theres a huge leap in the quality of the graphics. To keep the videos ersatz game from looking instantly out of date, the creators procured a grey market PlayStation 2 from Japan and a Crazy Taxi game disc that became the inspiration for the onscreen action. We approached actual game designers, but they didnt have 40 people to spare to throw at a project like this. They were all busy working on long-range projects for actual games.

The definition of an animated video can be as elastic as the imagery they contain. Many directors consider live action footage of the band, of performers acting out the songs narrative another graphic element to composite into the final product. Jonas Odell of Film Tecknarna in Stockholm, Sweden (http://www.filmtecknarna.se) is responsible for a slew of videos that immerse musicians in whirling environments of color, iconic animating loops and endless perspectives of digitally replicated people and objects.

Odell uses After Effects, Photoshop and Illustrator to build his graphics and will shoot on video, film or DV as his budgets dictates. He cites painters like Ernst, DeChirico and Magritte as sources of inspiration, as well as filmmakers Tarkovsky, Kubrick and Truffaut. (And though his style would be at home in a James Bond credit sequence he discounts 007 as an influence on his work.) Normally you see images and motion when you hear a piece of music the first time, he explained. Then you evaluate these ideas to see whether they fit into the world of the artist as you perceive it. I felt there were several music styles coming together in the Goldfrapp track with quite a hypnotic feeling to it, so I tried to reflect that by using a collage style with kaleidoscope effects.

In Commons Go, live-action and animation are combined to create the overall pixel spreading vibe of the video. Courtesy of Convert/MK12/Kanye West.

It took two directorial collectives MK12 and Convert and Grammy-winning producer Kanye West to create an animation-enhanced video for hip-hop artist Common 2005. Go takes place in a stylish high-rise apartment where Common is tempted by women both real and imaginary. (The video can be seen at www.theebelinggroup.com) Apartment backgrounds and onscreen titles appear, disappear and reform to the musics sultry rhythm, while at key moments images mutate into traveling streaks of color that transition into the videos next scene.

Its an effects technique we developed called Pixel Spreading, said MK12s Matt Fraction. We take a still frame from the live action into Photoshop and visually deconstruct it, then animate those pieces to make it look like the image is spreading. Its kind of a complex process it takes a lot of work to make it look really cool instead of random.

The idea for the video came from West, who had seen MK12s 4D Softcore Sweater Porn, a decidedly non-pornographic in-house promo piece using similar techniques. (Viewable at http://media2.mk12.com/mk12_version_five.html) The experience was a first time collaboration for Matt Fraction and Matt Tragesser, Converts creative director. We did everything together, Trag explained, but Frac mostly directed the actors, I was by the playback screen. Both our companies are relatively new. We dont draw that much distinction between animation, live action and graphics for us, its all cool things moving on the screen.

When the band Jet approached Robert Hales to do a second video for them, it was an opportunity for the director to explore a Disney-inspired idea hed had for a long time. Theres the staple scene where the main character walks into a forest and breaks into song, only to be joined by an audience of cute, furry creatures that appear from the trees to listen. I thought it would be funny to do it with a band. When Look What Youve Done came up, it seemed like the right project. There was something very innocent and sweet about the song but lyrically its pretty dark stuff, so the idea seemed to fit.

In place of the typical Disney heroine, Jet performs for the forests friendly animal audience and for an ominous, never seen red-eyed creature stalking them. Hales saw his biggest challenge as giving the videos cute critters that authentic Disney look without infringing any copyrights. With Disney, its all in the way they do eyes, so we did a lot of work getting them right and because the song is called Look What Youve Done, eyes are a recurring theme.

Blinds work on Jets Look What Youve Done is an irreverent take on the classic Disney style. Courtesy of Blind.

Hales praises the work of Blind, the Santa Monica-based outfit that designed and animated the critters via Illustrator and After Effects. (The video can be viewed on their site at http://www.blind.com/base.php) As well as being super creative, they bring a fantastic level of attention to detail in all their work. It really made the difference with this video. My only regret is that we couldnt make it more gruesome and dark at the end. Originally it was supposed to be much more graphic and f***ed-up, but MTV balked at the violence.

Financial or time constraints, a different conceptual approach or a bottomless enthusiasm for the band often lead to 100% animated videos. Tom Neely is a cartoonist, designer and self-taught animator currently working on the upcoming Nickelodeon series, The Xs. Its only his third cartoon, but his Flash-animated video for The Muffs Dont Pick on Me (online at www.the-muffs.com) is a perfectly realized, black and white re-creation of a bouncy old-time Fleischer effort.

Neelys very first cartoon, Brother Can You Spare a Job? was a finalist in moveon.orgs Bush in 30 Seconds contest last year. Ive been friends with the band for a few years, he explained. When they saw Brother, they asked if Id do a video for them. Of course I jumped at the idea. The cartoon practically wrote itself. From the opening chords, I saw the villain character, and the beat conjured up a train bopping down the track; the rest just fell into place.

The project was a learning experience for Neely, who animated the entire cartoon on his own. I never lip-synced animation before. I dont know how to make a timing sheet so I did it all by ear; Flash is an imperfect medium for syncing rhythms so it was really difficult. I used my drawings as a guideline and re-drew everything in Freehand or Flash to maintain a very clean line. The final product is all Flash, but the process starts with traditional animation.

The videos entire budget: nothing, except for a lot of missing sleep and a neglected personal life. I really wanted to do it, so I worked on it in my free time between paying jobs.

Then there are mates Adam Phillips and Bernard Derriman, one-time co-workers at Disneys Australian animation studio. Phillips is responsible for Weens Transdermal Celebration, while Derriman created Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me for the Aussie band TISM.

The Ween video (http://www.biteycastle.com/bitey/ween.htm) is an unnerving sci-fi fantasy, as seemingly whimsical star creatures drop from the sky and wipe out human civilization by the simple process of turning everyone in sight into trees. As Phillips recalls, When I saw on Weens website that they were looking for ideas for a video of the song, I leapt at the chance. It was one of my favorite tracks on the album, so I knew what the song was basically about being alone at the end of the world before I started.

Bernard Derrimans TISM video for Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me is a remarkable example of animating in Flash, bringing the perfect tone to the quirky song. © Bernard Derriman.

My proposal was rejected, but I told them Id do it for free if they could promise me itd be used. They did, so I took two weeks holiday from my day job and almost killed myself getting it done. Turning the video around in that amount of time called for more than a few conceptual compromises. The first storyboard had fully animated branches coiling out in all directions and people taking root and thrashing about trying to free themselves. Of course those ideas lasted about 20 seconds. I realized Id need to make some sacrifices, so the limited style of animation, character design and color were a direct result.

Financially and creatively, the effort paid off: the band made Phillips piece the songs official video and paid him for his labors. Its the best two weeks pay Ive ever earned. I was so blown away that something I did on my home computer made it to MTV. I heard later that Aaron [Freeman aka Gene Ween] told some friends that I had captured the song perfectly. Thats the best thing Ive ever heard for my favorite band to like my video that much is just a dream come true.

Bernard Derrimans TISM video was the winning entry in a contest the eccentric band (their name stands for This Is Serious Mum and its anonymous members perform wearing hoods) conducted via its website (http://www.madman.com.au/tism/comp.html). His prize: 50 DVDs and a $2,000 gift certificate. Everyone Else Has Had More Sex Than Me stars a despondent, love-starved bunny, bemoaning his fate against an empty white backdrop. Its deceptively minimal animation and character design conveys the rabbits emotions via the slightest glances and facial tics, combined with dramatic poses and tight framing. Why a rabbit? With their reputation I just thought of all animals it would be funny to have a rabbit that hasnt had any.

Derriman, a supervising animator on Disneys Cinderella sequel (the down under studios final effort before it closes its doors) Flash-animated the video solo in approximately 70 hours spread over three weeks time. It was great fun, he reflects, but the only reason I did it was because I had always wanted to do a clip and had never had the opportunity. I would normally charge a sh**load more than a bunch of DVDs and a voucher!

Whats left when you create an animated video without any performers live or animated whatsoever? For groups dealing in techno and trance music (where the final results are generated more in studio post-production than on-stage performance) the answer is graphics, all by themselves.

United Cutlerys Pemmikan video brings a vibrantly colored animated world to life. Courtesy of Nakd.

The group, United Cutlery, is actually John Black, a composer and sound designer, and Nakd, the director of his Pemmikan video is represented for the purpose of this story by creative director Stephen Crowhurst. Its not a standard music video, says Crowhurst. Its more like a f*** you to fancy videos. In the brief video (named for a mountain climbing energy bar), dancing orange, blue and white bars shoot upwards in rhythm to a busy techno track while the camera flies over the shifting landscape. At the end of the piece the camera pulls back and the bars resolve into an unexpected final image. We took the wave form from the audio file and expanded it so we could see each beat in the audio track, then key framed the animation to that. Each cube you see onscreen is extruded from a pixel on a photograph. The idea was to make a landscape from an image.

The video was animated in After Effects and Cinema 4D.

On the other end of the energy scale, the trance track CaretStik from the group Plaid is visualized in a hypnotic, continuing tracking shot across a CGI chain link fence that begins undergoing weird mutations weirder still when viewed through the red and blue 3D glasses that are included with the DVD. The track was very even, according to Gelman, the videos director, and I wanted to respond to it by coming up with something even and continuous; the fence seemed like a good metaphor. Working with Charlexs CGI animators Gelman created the video in 3D, a technique that adds an extra layer to the video. Its more psychedelic without the glasses, though. You can watch it either way.

Joe Strike is a NYC-based writer/producer with a background in TV promotion and a lifelong interest in animation. He is writing a childrens novel.

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